A Serendipitous Life

by Marie Hefley

Monika Schroeder in her garden.

Monika Schroeder in her garden.

George Bernard Shaw created his plays in a small room with only a typewriter, a white desk, a window, and privacy. “People bother me. I came here to hide from them,” he said. E.B. White required only a comfortable desk and chair with a view of the outdoors. Virginia Woolf worked in a converted toolshed overlooking a grassy expanse.

Monika Schroeder, a writer of young adult fiction who lives in the Asheville, North Carolina area, works best when surrounded by the beauty of her enormous garden and the company of her dog, Frankie, a stray from the streets of New Delhi. The garden, which occupies much of her home’s backyard, is a riot of colors and textures and is largely the product of her own planning and physical labor. She finds solace in gardening, and regards it as the yin to the yang of her writing.

Schroeder never planned to be a writer or a gardener. She also never planned to be a teacher or to live in America, yet she’s done all of that. Her life seems to embody the old saying, “Der Mensch denkt und Gott lacht” (Man plans and God laughs); several times she changed direction due to unanticipated opportunities and possibilities.

Born, raised, and educated in Germany, Schroeder pursued degrees in history and political science, areas in which she had intense interest, but her parents encouraged her to get her teaching credentials as well. She did, although she really wasn’t interested in that path. After graduation, she took a job in the German parliament and sought a career outside of teaching. That plan changed when she met her future husband on a vacation in Egypt.

Schroeder’s husband, Todd Church, was an American teacher working in Cairo. She moved to Cairo to teach at the German school there, and began a career of teaching in several countries on several continents, satisfying her wanderlust and developing a deep sense of multiculturalism, a sensibility that permeates her novels. As she taught in the private American schools in Chile, New Delhi, and Oman, where all classes were conducted in English using an American curriculum, Schroeder acquired a profound appreciation for the different cultures her students represented.

In India, for example, where the school had students from about fifty nationalities, over twenty percent of her students were Korean, unfamiliar with American ways, and Schroeder was unfamiliar with Korean customs. “The school provided a ‘cultural translator’ for both the kids and the teachers,” she says. “The boys had a pecking order reflective of their fathers’ positions in their companies. Korean mothers would ask why Americans celebrated Halloween, a pagan holiday. Honestly,” she said, laughing, “I didn’t understand it all either.”

“India was like a different planet from Germany,” she says. While the children she taught in the private school were privileged, the poverty and seemingly pervasive presence of street kids in New Delhi cast a stark contrast to life in her neat and orderly home country.

In Oman, some students were from exile or mixed-marriage communities—a situation she had not encountered before as a teacher. She notes, “Even super-wealthy parents could produce messed-up kids. A young child of a Middle Eastern royal family could relate only to his driver, the only adult he spent significant amounts of time with. Yet these little kids who didn’t speak a word of English—courageous little kids—managed to survive in an English-speaking classroom. I think about how I was terrified to start school in Germany and I spoke German! Just imagine if your own language doesn’t even work!”

Schroeder’s multicultural life has had a profound impact on her. “In many ways,” she says, “living in different countries had made me feel much more European. While I was living a privileged and colonial life, I made observations outside of my mode and made decisions within their culture. Reflecting back on that made me appreciate my Germanness and the things that are stereotypical of Germans, like trains running on time and concern for the environment. In Germany, forests and their preservation are very important. In India, public spaces aren’t considered so much, and the same thing happens here [in the United States] to a certain extent, except for national forests. These are things I wouldn’t see if I had stayed in my own country.”

These experiences, in addition to exposing her to unfamiliar ways of life, also challenged her and enriched her understanding of human behavior as well as her own attitudes and preconceptions.

Living outside of Germany, she sees her home country through different eyes. “I am more convinced of and passionate about the European Union and impressed that countries with their historical drama have decided to make an historical pact. As long as people like me, who grew up in post-war Germany are around, it won’t fall apart. We remember, people will remember.”

Living in America has presented its own challenges. Although her husband was from Michigan, the two of them had no real connections there, so, six years ago, friends in Asheville helped them with their house hunting in Western North Carolina. “I saw my house online and fell in love with the magnolia tree by the porch,” she says. “I wanted to buy this house, and did it without ever being in North Carolina. Our friends took pictures and we hired an inspector to check it out.”

Much as she loves the house, many aspects of living in the area discouraged her. “I didn’t like the lack of public transportation. I wanted to buy energy efficient appliances but couldn’t. Seeing old people bagging groceries and young people without health insurance or dental care makes me very sad. I didn’t know if I could adjust to this.” Over time, she made connections and grew attached to her house and garden, so she has no plans to leave any time soon. “There is no perfect place, anyway,” she muses.

To make her house her home, Schroeder took to replacing the lawn with an extensive garden filled with ferns, edibles, tropical plants, trees, shrubs, and a very impressive variety of annual and perennial flowering plants. As with becoming a writer, her becoming a gardener evolved organically. She sees similarities in her vocation and her avocation. “Gardening is like writing,” she says, “because there are things you think you know but find out you don’t know anything at all. It’s very humbling, because plants die and I have no idea why. Other times plants come up twice as big as they should, and I don’t know why.” She likens this process to writing a book, with its times of ease and times of frustrations.

She appreciates gardening as a good physical balance for writing. Moving around, digging, planting, and tending her plants give her a break from prolonged periods of sitting and writing. Gardening also helps reorient her mind when she’s stuck in her writing or needs to give her creativity a boost.

Although as a child and young woman she didn’t think about being a writer, she loved to read and appreciated the hours of enjoyment reading afforded her. “I was always a reader and as a kid, I thought writers should get a stipend from the government because they were doing amazing stuff and people should just give them money so there would be no problem for them. I don’t know how I picked up that there could be a problem! I thought writers should be a protected class and should be financially protected. I wish that idea had taken hold.”

After a long career as a teacher and librarian, Schroeder came to writing almost by chance. “When I was a librarian, I would invite authors to school. They would have little journals from fourth grade—‘I published my first poem in my local newspaper when I was twelve’,” Schroder says, amused. “In Germany, creative writing isn’t taught in schools, so [to me] writing was something that some people had an amazing gift for.”

It took a while for Schroeder, led by serendipity, to recognize her own gift for writing. While taking a professional development class about teaching writing to upper elementary school students, she submitted only nonfiction based on her observations about advertisements on American television and how they differed from those in Germany or other places. At one point, the instructor asked her for some fictional pieces. Daunted, Schroeder told her husband she couldn’t write a story and thought about leaving the class. He advised her to “just do it.”

Rather than developing a fictional story from whole cloth, she reached back in her family history for a compelling yet painful episode to use as a basis for her rendering. Her father’s family lived on a farm in eastern Germany during the WWII era. After the war, the Russians set up an occupation zone there. The day before the Russians were to occupy her father’s village, he found his grandparents hanging from the rafters in the barn. Beset with fear, they had committed suicide rather than face the wrath of the Russian troops.

Schroeder created a story about a ten-year-old boy who witnessed the horrors of living under the occupation. Her teacher liked the story and encouraged Schroeder to write more, so she submitted three more related stories. With further encouragement from her teacher and her husband, she wrote every weekend. She relied on feedback from her husband (“because I needed training wheels then”) to help her improve her writing. Eventually, she had enough material for a book. She submitted it to an editor and received “a very nice rejection letter of two paragraphs. I had an interesting story, terribly written, or at least not well enough written, so I began working to make it better.” Eventually, that same editor published the revised book, The Dog in the Wood.

To improve her work, Schroder turned to books. “I have about 50 books on craft and on screenwriting. I’m really interested in that and find it fascinating.” In addition, she read extensively, as she advises others to do, in her genre of choice.

Even as her first book was being published, Schroeder had the kernel of her second book, Saraswati’s Way, in mind. She and her husband had lived in New Delhi for eight years, where street kids were an ever-present fact of life. “Street kids genuinely touched me. Even though it’s a very fashionable story line now, it’s an important one. Most current Indian books are about girls, but not many girls make it as street kids, so my making the main character a boy was more authentic. I thought about a street boy with a talent for math, and the story grew.” The novel was named the Best Children’s Book of the Year (2011) by Bank Street.

In choosing a subject for her third novel, Schroder reflected about “the effects of war on children. The subject moves me. I grew up in a divided country that was involved in causing both World Wars, and I will forever by haunted by that.” In 2011, My Brother’s Shadow told the post-WWI story of sixteen-year-old Moritz, whose German family has divided loyalties after the war. He falls in love with a Jewish girl, further complicating the family dynamics. In this coming of age novel, Moritz confronts the dilemma of where his allegiance lies.

Be Light Like a Bird, Schroeder’s fourth novel, is set in Michigan, where she spent many summers at her husband’s family cabin. The main character, Wren, is a twelve-year-old girl grieving the loss of her father and trying to adapt to a life very different from the one she knew in Georgia. “This book has more of a theme,” she says. “It’s about loss and forgiveness. Forgiveness is an important theme, although I don’t think about theme very much when I’m writing. It just develops.”

Schroeder’s current interest is writing mysteries. She is drawn to a type of British mysteries called “cozies,” a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed. The stories take place in a small community setting, often “in bookstores, coffee shops, knitting clubs, and gardens,” as Schroeder notes. The detectives are usually amateurs and often women (like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and the character Jessica Fletcher played by Angela Lansbury in the long-running television series “Murder She Wrote.”) They are likable and able to draw out information, often through gossip, from the suspects, who often all know each other. The emphasis is on solving a puzzle by following a series of clues, not on suspense, horror, or sociopathy.

Schroeder is learning to write mysteries by reading a lot of British cozies. She also likes “the mysteries J.K. Rowling has written under a pseudonym (Robert Galbraith), and Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti novels, and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books.” The Wallander stories have been adapted into a British television series starring Kenneth Branagh, shown on Masterpiece Theater.

Schroeder thinks there probably is an audience for non-violent mysteries in today’s young adult market. However, as she freely admits, “What do I know about the market for mysteries? For adults, though, the trick is to find something that is unique, like the book Girl Waits with Gun. It’s based on a true story of the three Kopp sisters.” As she goes on to explain, these are characters who, when victimized, enlist the aid of the police and the press in exacting justice. The story unfolds within a rich historical context, giving it dimension and substance.

Schroeder’s approach to writing has evolved over the years. “I used to just think about a story and let it flow, but now I’m more of a planner. I think setting is the wrong place to start. I should begin with character—I think it’s a better way to start—but I still start with setting. I think about what it was like to live in Calcutta in 1832 as a Brit, or when you’re sixteen in Germany in 1932 when the Nazis came to power. I use these imaginary situations to think about a story and who is in it, how do these people interact? It’s painful because it doesn’t always flow.”

Schroeder recalls how she used to just start writing, and then seventy pages in, she’d “have a crisis and not know where to go with the story,” so now she plans it out more. “It’s not easier,” she says, “but it works better for me. My brain is very analytical, and I analyze stories I read—too much so, since it can be detrimental to writing to be too analytical about it.”

This isn’t to say all of her stories come to her smoothly and without effort. “You think you can will yourself, or will the story, but the story gives itself to you when it’s ready. I say that so wisely,” she smiles, “but that’s not how I work. I’m sitting there trying to wrestle the story out—I know it’s wrong but I still do it. I garden, I go for a walk, I complain to my husband, I complain to my husband some more, I cry, I cry some more, I cry that I cry,” she says, laughing. “It’s crazy, because it’s a totally imaginary problem. How can you explain to somebody that you have one hundred and twelve pages of a story and you don’t know how it goes on? It’s absolutely crazy!”

Schroeder doesn’t participate in workshops or groups of peer readers. She relies heavily on her husband for feedback and encouragement. “This work takes a lot of patience. My husband reminds me that I’ve been stuck before. He reads my stuff. He’s the best coach and I couldn’t do this without him.” She refers often to her library of craft books as she writes and revises (“First drafts are always hard, but I like to make them better.”). Without any formal training in craft or writing, she finds these resources invaluable to her process.

Over the years, she has experimented with using Scrivener® as a productivity aid. “I think it’s really good and can see what it can do, but it doesn’t fit my thought process. I always start with Scrivener®, then take everything out and put it back in order then get mad at myself, because then I have to go back to using little index cards to shift my scenes around. If I kept it all in Scrivener®, I wouldn’t have this problem now!”

With her interest in writing mysteries, Schroeder contemplates using Scrivener® from the beginning for a new project. “I think it’s quite genius. I can outline something new and start writing. In the past, I’ve done this and have always gone back to the chaos. But with mysteries, I totally see how this is a better way of doing it. I would like to be much better at using Scrivener®, though.”

Schroeder learned how to write through trial, error, perseverance, and tenacity. Her advice for aspiring writers is simple: “Read about twenty of whatever you want to write—memoir, mysteries—read them! Learn from imitation. It always amazes me when I work as a mentor for people who want to publish a book how many think they can write a book but haven’t explored the genre. It’s not possible unless you’re some kind of super-special genius. You have to read what you want to write.”

Beyond reading, Schroeder advises “putting on an analytical cap and see how it’s done. If you read something that’s very good, figure out why. What makes it work? Read and practice, just like everything else.”

As someone who strives for balance in her life, Schroeder also offers a mindset that helps her keep writing in perspective. “Lower your expectations,” she says. “If you don’t write for your own pleasure, not everyone else’s, it’s hard to find pleasure in it. Realize that the business side of publishing is very harsh.”

She continues, “Writing takes patience and tenacity and a certain amount of masochism. It also takes confidence, but I struggle sometimes with that. I have to think that someone wants to read what I write. Even if people write one book that’s never published, they’re still writers!”

Monika Schroeder, author, teacher, and winner of the 2011 Bank Street award for Best Children’s Book of the Year, also won second place in 2001 for her Nectarine Upside-Down Cake at the Ionia, Michigan Free Fair; married her husband on a ferry boat in a ceremony officiated by the captain; and had her first passport by age two. She is also a frequent contributor to Book Links Magazine, a publication designed for teachers, youth librarians, school library media specialists, reading specialists, curriculum coordinators, and others interested in connecting children with high-quality literature based resources. You can read more about her at her web site.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville. She has had several articles published in The Forest Companion magazine. She invites you to read her interviews with Wiley Cash (Issue 9), Megan Shepherd (Issue 12), Denise Kiernan (Issue 13), and Robert Beatty (Issue 14) as well as several other authors, found in the Great Smokies Review Archives.