Writing Strong Female Characters Is SJ Schwaidelson’s Genre

Some authors stick to a certain genre: thrillers, historical fiction, sci-fi, fantasy. SJ Schwaidelson has found a different sort of niche as her genre of choice: Strong women.

The Mendota Heights author has published her third novel The Pomegranate, a historical fiction novel centered around Batsheva Hagiz, the spirited daughter of a Jewish rug merchant dynasty in the city of Málaga, Spain, in the 12th century.

“The character of this girl has stayed with me for years,” Schwaidelson said. “I began to write her and flesh her out. And it became The Pomegranate.”

Schwaidelson is having a book reading and signing at Beth Jacob Congregation on Nov. 9, from 7-8:30 p.m. 

Schwaidelson said that the idea of a strong woman leading character in a 12th-century novel was not a stretch for the time period.

“This is the time Eleanor of Aquitaine, who appears in the book, and who was running England, over the advice of everybody else while her son Richard, the Lionheart was in Palestine in the crusade,” she said. “Other women are running duchies. And the women of trading families were the ones who really did the business because men couldn’t go into the harem. They couldn’t go into a serail or seraglio. It’s not uncommon for Jewish women from that period from the trading families to be polyglots, to be able to keep records, to be able to sell, to be able to run the business. They are partners in that time.

“The women behind the curtain are the powers behind life.”

The story is of Batsheva Hagiz going to meet the husband she has picked for herself, with her father’s blessing, and getting snatched on the caravan ride.

“It’s the story of her decision to survive. And then, if that’s not enough, to take on the world, in her terms,” Schwaidelson said. “It’s the arc of a girl becoming a woman. But more importantly, it’s a woman who figures out how to run the world.”

Schwaidelson’s first two books cover vastly different parts of the planet — and elsewhere. Her first novel, Dream Dancer takes place in a remote part of northern Chile, while Lingua Galactic is a science fiction novel that was jokingly dubbed “Jews In Space.”

Writing science fiction was a challenge from her late husband, who was an avid sci-fi reader.

“He had handed me a book and said, the writing is terrible, but the story is really good,” she said. “I read it and I threw it back at him. He gave me the look. And he said, ‘If you are so (freakin’) smart, write your own science fiction book. So I did. Ten days later, I handed him a manuscript.”

Lingua had been a hit amongst their friends, and after her husband passed away, the friends strongly encouraged her to clean it up and get it published. 

“I said no, and they said, ‘No, no, we’re telling you, you are going to clean it up. And we’re going to edit it, and we’re going to do it.’ And we did. And it has sold well.”

Her fourth book, which she said is three-quarters done but is getting heavily edited because it is really complicated.

“It’s about an arts lawyer,” she said. “Chestnut Cambronne is heavily invested in this book because I keep hitting up their lawyers for help.”

Schwaidelson came to novel writing after years as a playwright writing children’s plays for 30 years, and lets the character drive the story. 

“I’ve heard other authors say this, and it is true for me, that my characters live in my head,” she said. “And they have a really nasty habit of sitting on my shoulder when I’m driving. And they say, ‘Have I got a story for you?’ Once the characters start to talk, in many ways, I’m the recording device.”