Saturday, 29 June 2013

Author Interview: Joanie Holzer Schirm

About the Author:

Joanie Schirm is an award-winning writer, photographer, community activist, and retired Orlando, Florida businesswoman. The daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Oswald Holzer, she grew up on a sandy barrier island on the Space Coast of Florida, a place where extraordinary memories are made and pelicans soar. A sought after public speaker, she is internationally known for her highly successful leadership role in Orlando’s hosting of FIFA’s 1994 World Cup USA 1994. She is the proud parent of two adult children, Kelly and Derick, and she lives in Orlando with her husband, Roger Neiswender.

Do you plan everything or just let the story flow?

For my non-fiction book, I had to get 400 WWII letters by 78 writers translated from Czech to English in order to know what the story really was…from then on the story flowed.

Do your characters ever want to take over the story?

As my ‘characters’ are real people and I wanted to put purpose to their words from the letters, I wanted them to take over the story as they put a human face on the history of displaced people during the great war. I sought they are their descendants so they could give me the rest of their true stories as they rebuilt lives across the globe (including in Great Britain)

What is your favourite food?

Chocolate on anything!

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Mostly morning person but I find myself waking up in the night to jot notes on a pad of paper I keep by the bed. Many times I can’t decipher what I wrote but somehow my brain kicks in later in the day to reveal the words which belong in my book.

Where do you dream of travelling to and why?

Always Prague – the city where my stories begin and sometimes end. My father was a Czech army surgeon in 1939 when the Nazis occupied his homeland. As a young Jewish man, he foresaw the danger and ended escaping to China where he lived for 1-1/2 years. He did not know it but 44 relatives would later perish in the Holocaust, including his parents. In China, he worked as a doctor in the deep interior; staving off spotted fever and civil war and the Japanese. In the fall of 1940 he met and fell immediately in love with my red haired mother, born in China of American missionaries. Their love affair lasted 60 years and then the discovery of my dad’s letter collection was made. I chose it as my inheritance. With the translated letters now, I have “met” many Czechs from the past who fled to Great Britain where the Czech government and military were operating in exile. Four letter writers in my first book – Adventurers Against Their Will - lived there; two remained for their lives in Great Britain.

Do distant places feature in your books?

Yes, China, Ecuador, Czech lands, and more.

Do you listen to music while writing?

No, but love Czech composers Smetana and Dvorak sometimes to get in the Czech mood. I live in Orlando, Florida where sunshine rules and music of Jimmy Buffett prevails in our home overlooking a lake.

Could you tell us a bit about your latest release?

Adventurers Against Their Will

Extraordinary World War II Stories of Czech Survival, Escape, and Connection – Unlike Any Other. A book by Joanie Holzer Schirm.

In her non-fiction book Adventurers Against Their Will, Author Joanie Holzer Schirm delivers a human face to history with her story of a group of Prague friends who scatter throughout the world when the Nazi-invade their homeland. While some are trapped behind – all correspond with Schirm’s Czech father in China. South America, and the USA where he sought refuge in summer, 1939. Focusing on seven of seventy-eight letter writers who created 400 letters during the war, Schirm becomes a sleuth, finding two alive at 91. She delivers their letters and uncovers descendants for all seven around the world. Included in the newly recreated heritage tree of her father’s friends are the current Czech Ambassador to Great Britain, professors at MIT, Queens University in Ontario, and Victoria University in New Zealand, and more. The story yields a message beyond WWII. As most people have a family history that includes some type of displacement (war, hate, prejudice, famine), the heart of the story reminds of the importance of examining our past. The consequences of indifference can be great. What we do matters. Through honoring our differences, we can create a more respectful world.

For book information and to view the book trailer:

What have you learned about writing and publishing since you first started?

I was an “amateur” writer during my 35 years in the profession of the business of engineering, the last 18 owning my own company in Orlando, Florida USA. I wrote a lot of articles for community endeavors and business journals but never knew I would write a book! After the discovery of the historic letters and my desire to know what they were telling me, I became compelled to do research and write their stories in a meaningful manner. As a modern day Nancy Drew (or Agatha Christie), I went in search of the writers. What I learned was that writing about your passion becomes the best endeavor of your life. Although I needed much help organizing the story and editors were great help, in the end what matters most is the story you are telling and your own voice. Publishing is the biggest problem. It is a twisted path for all who try to walk it. The good news is there is a revolution going on in publishing. The bad news is there is a revolution going on in publishing. I have distain for the fact that big publishers only wish for celebrity stories or ones that tantalize the masses. I believe many good stories are going by the wayside and I feel sad about that. I yearn to figure out how to get the word about my subject matter because in the end it reminds us all of the importance of protecting human rights and dignity. What we do matters.

Is there anything you would do differently?

I would have pursued an MFA 40 years ago.

Who, or what, if anything has influenced your writing?

Alice Peck, a very talented and good hearted editor from New York City. She ensured my voice remained while we cut and cut and cut interesting but unneccesary stories on to the floor that were taking the tale in to the deep woods.

Anything you would say to those just starting out in the craft?

Write, write, write. You do get better as you go. Ensure that if you are writing non-fiction that you get experts to review your work. It is important to protect the craft and ensure that self-published non-fiction books end up accurate for us all to rely on!

What are three words that describe you?

Tenacious, Dedicated, and Authentic. If I got to add 3 more words it would be: cares about humanity.

What's your favourite book or who is your favourite writer?

Recently: Author Anne Lamont and her book– Bird by Bird. Because it really rang true to me as a writer.

Blurb of your latest release or coming soon book:

Paper can withstand anything.
—Czech proverb

The red Chinese boxes loomed just out of reach throughout my childhood. Those fanciful sword-fighting figures painted in luminous lacquer against a backdrop of lush trees and towering mountains beckoned, but my brother and sister and I paid no attention. The twin boxes were part of our familiar-to-the-point-of-being-invisible landscape, like that big tree outside your window with a botanical name you never learn.

It’s just the big tree, and these were just the Chinese boxes.

One of us might have been tempted to climb the bookshelf to get to those boxes if they’d stood out as much as they might have in most American homes in the 1950s, but our house was packed with art objects from around the world. China was the dominant theme—Chinese paintings, Chinese calligraphy, Chinese sculpture, and books about China were everywhere. When I was small, I used to imagine the Yangtze River flowing past our house, not Florida’s tranquil Indian River Lagoon. We even said a prayer in Chinese before meals.

China was the leitmotif of our family life. It was where my parents—a young Czech doctor and the daughter of American missionaries—met in 1940, fell in love, and married before moving to America, where they died within two days of each other in January 2000. After their memorial service, my brother, sister, and I lovingly sorted through their possessions. Among the many treasures of travel and friends and family was a particular red lacquered Chinese box. Its contents transformed me.

For sixty years, my dad had kept four hundred letters inside that box as well as in other hiding places. They held the voices of seventy-eight writers from World War II who carried on a conversation with him that reached around the world—China, Czechoslovakia, Ecuador, America, France, England—documenting the horrors and hopes of a time and place that most of us can’t even imagine.

I made it my mission to unravel the stories, the truths in the letters. With the fervor of an archeologist, I needed to satisfy my curiosity about my father’s correspondents. For my investigation into their lives, I traveled the globe both virtually and physically. Many leads took me in the wrong direction, but I persisted. Revealing these histories and their meaning became my obsession.

Some of the letters were mundane, plenty were humorous, and several were profound. It took only a few accounts from within a forced labor or concentration camp for my journey to grow emotionally difficult as I encountered intimate descriptions of the pain, loss, and arbitrary cruelty of the Holocaust. But there was joy, too. These were real people living their lives as best they could in extraordinary circumstances. So in the midst of it all—outsmarting the Gestapo, crossing oceans laced with exploding mines, facing armed Japanese soldiers, or enduring disease and hunger—there was humor and love. I learned that the poetry of everyday life endures despite the circumstances.

I hope that you will find these adventurers against their will as interesting and important as I do. This book is a companion volume to My Dear Boy: The Discovery of a Lifetime, which chronicles my father’s journey from Prague to China to America. Adventurers Against Their Will is based on the letters of my father’s close friends and cousins: Karel and Franta Schoenbaum, Karel “Bála” Ballenberger, Hana Winternitz, Pavel Kraus, Rudla Fischer, and Vláda Wagner. These people mattered. And their stories have universal relevance.

List of previous books if any: none to report yet – but coming next is my father’s epic tale as he covered five continents during WWII, seeking safe refuge. My Dear Boy: The Discovery of a Lifetime

Any websites/places readers can find you on the web.

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