Interview with Joan Heartwell

Joan Heartwell is the author of Hamster Island, a memoir published by Twilight Times Books this month. Heartwell, the author of several novels written under another name, is also a freelance writer and editor.

Hamster Island chronicles Heartwell’s heroic (and often hilarious) determination to live an unremarkable life as a member of a very poor, super-dysfunctional family that includes a mostly absent father, a religious fanatic mother, a kleptomaniac grandmother, and two special needs siblings, all residing more or less in the middle of a parking lot. The story moves from Heartwell’s lively coming of age in the sixties to her role as caretaker for both siblings after her parents’ deaths, at which time she must resort to extraordinary measures to locate the midpoint between their needs and her own.

Joan Heartwell is interviewed here by her long-time friend and fellow author, Julie Mars.

JM:     What were the major difficulties you had to overcome in order to write this book?

JH:      The big hurdle was starting. I had always felt shame about the circumstances of my youth, and I almost never talked about it. I must have projected an aura of secrecy because people didn’t ask me about it either. They somehow knew intuitively that it was off limits. But when I got older, a few writer friends, such as yourself, suggested I write a memoir. I sat with that seed for a long time. By then I had had four novels published and I had made a career of writing and editing for other people. It sort of felt like cheating that here I had this unique story about my own life that I was sitting on. So I decided to take the plunge, and once I got going, it was much easier than I thought it would be.

JM:     While you were growing up, did you have the sense that you “got all the luck” in the family, and how did you handle that?

JH:      As a kid, I think the shame I felt overpowered any sense of feeling lucky. When I got older and moved away, I felt lucky, yes, and I often joked that I was the white sheep in the family, but I also felt incredible guilt. Why me? I would ask myself. Why do I get to go away, go to college, pursue my dreams, fall in love, have a beautiful family, a rewarding career… while my brother and sister stay behind, repeating the same behaviors day after day, entirely dependent on my parents for all their needs?

JM:     Was writing the book cathartic in any way?

JH:      Yes. A lot of dark stuff went into the book, but there were also plenty of funny moments, and even some beautiful moments, and I may not have uncovered them if I hadn’t been looking so hard.

JM:     What do you feel is your most important message–to yourself or others–in the book?

I went to an energetic healer once because someone I trusted had hurt me badly and I couldn’t seem to let go of my anger. I wanted to tell the healer all the gruesome details about what happened, but she didn’t want to hear them. Instead she wanted me to turn in a circle so she could better survey my aura. When I asked for an explanation she said she didn’t need to hear my story, because it was just that, my story; it wasn’t really me. I didn’t get that for a long, long time. Now I get it. Writing my memoir helped me to better understand that none of us are our stories. We all have stories, and it’s really good to share them, whether we speak them, write them, sing them, dance them, or paint them. But they are not who we are at the core.

JM:     How do you think your early life experience shaped you as a person and a writer?

JH:      A lot of commotion went on in our house a lot of the time. I escaped it by enveloping myself in fantasy. When I was really small, I was a mermaid in Peter Pan’s lagoon. I would invent conversations with Peter and the other mermaids and we would react to various challenges. I was pretty good at this. As I got older, I left the lagoon and played other roles. If I had been more outgoing, maybe I would have gotten involved with acting. But I was shy, terribly shy. Writing was the perfect outlet for me.

JM:     What insights did you gain as a young person by having two handicapped siblings?

JH:      I once saw a bunch of school boys encircle my brother and tell him to eat rocks. I was just a little kid at the time and I was too shocked by the situation to react to it. I saw it as if I were seeing a movie; it wasn’t real to me. Luckily an adult witnessed the bullying and brought it to a quick end.

Events like that alerted me to my own weaknesses and to the levels of unkindness that other people are capable of, especially when they are in numbers. On the other hand, I have also seen people treat my brother and later my sister (she was several years younger than my brother and me) with incredible compassion, especially evident, again, when those people were in numbers. Having two handicapped siblings made me more observant of people’s behaviors and more interested in their possible motivations. It also made me, as a kid at least, very self conscious. I was so afraid that if I made a mistake—if I answered a question wrong or laughed at the wrong time or tripped on a crack in the sidewalk—people would assume something was wrong with me too. I think I must have been nearly twenty before I caught myself saying something out loud to an acquaintance that I hadn’t first filtered to decide whether or not it was appropriate. What a relief it has been to lose my self consciousness over the years!

JM:     Why did you choose the organizational strategy you use in the book?

JS:       My book is divided into two parts. The first part is a coming of age that reads like a novel and ends when I am in my twenties. The second, shorter part picks up at the point in my life when my parents died and I became caretaker for my siblings. Like the first section, it is a first-person, present tense narration. A few people have asked me why I didn’t just write about the middle years and get my whole life in there. I see the book as a story about myself in relation to my siblings. My siblings’ affairs were not so prominent in my life in the middle years that it would have made sense to write about those years, some of which were downright boring. And where their affairs were prominent, it was easy enough to flash back to them from the latter years. I’ve been a professional writer all my life. I felt I had the skill to pull off this format.

JM:     When (or did) you arrive at a state of inner peace regarding your family, and how did that happen?

I did, and it happened with age. As I mentioned above, I learned, first from an energetic healer but later from other people too, that we are not really our stories. No matter how bad we may behave, that behavior is only the ego doing what it thinks it has to do to survive. My parents gave me a hard time, but they were uneducated, unsophisticated people who were totally overwhelmed by their lot in life. I have forgiven them many times over. I hope they have forgiven me too, because I was no angel either.

JM:     How do you hope readers will react to your book?

JH:      I hope readers will laugh and cry as they read Hamster Island and find it really entertaining. I hope those who happen to be siblings of persons with special needs will come to feel that their conflicted feelings, especially those they had as children, are totally understandable and acceptable. I hope readers who have never given much thought to individuals with special needs will start thinking about them and feel more compassion for them. I hope I start a conversation. I have so many questions, philosophical questions that arise from the mysteries that I came across in my life; I hope readers will help me to answer them. I hope some high-profile politician—one of those guys/gals who on the one hand preaches that everyone must be pro-life, and on the other would love to see food stamps and Medicaid and other social services drastically cut or eradicated from state and fed budgets—will somehow come across my book and read it and have an epiphany and publicly renounce his/her previous convictions and begin to fight for social justice for one and all. That’s a lot to hope for, but then hope wouldn’t be hope if it wasn’t sweeping.

JM:     You spent many years as an advocate for your brother and sister. How does that experience inform the book?

JH:      Well, I guess you could say that my brother and sister inform not only my book but my entire life. I think many of us have central events or circumstances that we can look back at and say, That’s it; that’s the thing that defines me. I am defined by my siblings. They have made me crazy and pushed me to my limits with their constant needs over the years, and they have opened my heart and enriched my life with their unworldiness (sometimes otherworldliness) and their stark innocence.


Julie Mars is the author of the novels Rust, Anybody Any Minute, The Secret Keepers, and the award-winning memoir, A Month of Sundays: Searching for the Spirit and My Sister.