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  • Writer's pictureCatherine White

Joanna Higgins: Living the Writer's Life

Local Author's Latest Novel Explores Moral Courage

Joanna Higgins is a writer, originally from Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, who’s traveled the globe teaching and writing, eventually settling in Vestal, NY with her husband to raise a family.

She grew up at a time when not every household, including theirs, had a television set, and Michigan could be a desolate place, especially in the winter. However, Joanna came from a family of storytellers, who’d share one story after another, often in their native Polish, along with lots of laughter, when they’d visit.

“My aunts and uncles loved recounting past events, things that had happened, for instance, when my grandfather owned a grocery store during the Great Depression,” the author recounts in her recent editorial for Southern Tier Life.

“They usually put a humorous spin on whatever the narrative. My father had that knack, as well. Subconsciously, I must have soaked in the power of ‘story’.”

As she grew older, Joanna read voraciously, drawn even further into the art of storytelling. She attended the University of Michigan, where she received an MA in Literature; later, she met her husband who'd been working as an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer in Michigan at the time.

Once married, the couple spent time living and teaching abroad in England first, where Joanna taught college-level writing to American soldiers stationed at a base near Oxford at the end of the Vietnam War. Later, they moved to Hawaii, where Joanna again taught English writing classes. While on the island, the urge to write became undeniable and, inspired by true life tales her mother had told her as a child, Joanna put pencil to paper, creating a short story that would set her on the path to life as a writer.

The timing was fateful. As she was making the conscious decision to devote her efforts to writing, she was teaching and using the works of American author John Gardner, whose books she admired and whom, she’d discovered, was teaching a graduate writing seminar at SUNY Binghamton at the same time.

Photos provided by Joanna Higgins. Top left to right: Author Joanna Higgins poses on the riverbanks of the French Azilum at Susquehanna River; the author with her daughter, husband and son; Joanna's mentor, American author John Gardner; book cover for Joanna's fourth historical novel In The Fall They Leave; and the author at an overlook at the French Azilum at Susquehanna River.

After talking to her husband, expressing her desire to pursue writing professionally, they left their tropical Hawaiian paradise and returned to the Mainland to a small farmhouse in northern Pennsylvania that they’d purchased after marrying.

“He understood that. He was a good guy,” she says. “And he was able to transfer his work here. People thought we were crazy, but we came back … and he worked and supported me. I really couldn’t have done it without him.”

With her partner’s support, and bolstered by the courage of youth, she reached out to John Gardner, sending him the short story she’d written in Hawaii and asking to audit his seminar.

“You have to be very young to take a chance like that,” she laughs. “And very naive.”

However, her courage paid off and Gardner agreed to let Joanna audit his class, mentoring her for about three years, during which time he relied on her to give the essays and manuscripts he received a first-read-through.

While her husband supported the family, Joanna did what she could to contribute, picking up a part-time teaching gig at SUNY Binghamton, and other odd jobs, to help her family make ends meet as she pursued her passion to become a professional writer.

“I was doing these little odd jobs, you know. Anything to bring a little money in,” Joanna said. “Binghamton was doing some Imagination Celebrations at the time and I wrote a couple of these “Quest” stories for young children to do with their parents. They could go all over the city, exploring and searching for clues from the stories.”

It was also during this time that Joanna and her husband began thinking about growing their family. They adopted a daughter first, from China, followed a few years later by a son from a different province in China.

“All the while, I kept writing,” she says, using her side jobs and experiences as a mother to enrich the stories she was creating.

“Ideas for stories can come from anywhere, whether historical or contemporary,” she explains. “I actually don’t see myself as a purely historical fiction writer because I mix it up with other stories at times.”

“It’s just that when you’re hit with an idea – like, if you read something, as I did for this new book – I read an article about this nurse in Brussels, and I was blown away by the story. I wanted to explore it more,” she says, explaining how she finds inspiration for her novels.

“One afternoon while we were living at the farmhouse, my husband returned from work with the financial newspaper he sometimes brought home – he worked in the financial field. This newspaper often featured an article about some figure that would inspire leaders and managers. In that particular issue was an article about Edith Cavell, a British nurse, who gave her life to save Allied soldiers during World War I. I had never heard of Edith Cavell but after reading the article, I was completely blown away by her heroism.”

The author was so intrigued by the WW I heroine that she began voraciously researching the nurse’s life.

“She’s known in Britain, Australia and Canada – There’s a mountain named after her! There are streets and clinics and schools named after her! I had no idea!”

Joanna discovered that the courageous nurse’s life had also been written about extensively, including several theatrical works dramatizing her impact on world history. So, while she wasn’t sure there was anything new that she could add about Cavell’s story, Joanna was so inspired by her life and patriotism that it sparked the idea for In The Fall They Leave, Joanna’s fourth historical novel, which is set to be released Tuesday, Feb. 21 by Regal House Publishing.

In The Fall They Leave tells the story of a young student nurse in WWI German-occupied Brussels, who faces complex emotional and moral dilemmas that could lead to her imprisonment, and even death. The result of an inspiring news article and years of careful research and development.

“A lot of note-taking, a lot of trying to sink into the period, the language and medical matters then,” Joanna says. “And the political events in Belgium, and the war around Belgium … that took a few years to research.”

The actual writing of her latest novel took several years as she explored telling the story from different perspectives, in a variety of writing styles, all while continuing to draw from her own life as a mother, wife and writer.

“You go through a lot of stages of rewriting. That took at least four years.”

She had learned the art of patience from her mentor.

“‘All writing is rewriting,’ he would tell us,” she recalled.

“Young writers want to publish more than anything … They’re too impatient to get what John called ‘there’.”

The author recounted how Gardner taught his students to recognize the “hot spots” where something in their story is working so that they could then replicate it throughout the story.

Joanna also learned that she needed to step away from a story to gain clarity.

“You have to get distance. You have to set it aside … that’s part of the time frame,” she explains. “That’s why I get away from it – Work on something else. You have to do your writer part, and then later bring in the critical eye. You have to learn to be both writer and critic. But not at the same time. You have to learn to balance the creative writer with the judgemental critic.”

Learn more about Joanna Higgins and her other works at You can also see the author in person, as she has several book signing and speaking events planned throughout the region.

News to Know:

Joanna Higgins is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, as well as other honors, including nominations of her novel, A Soldier’s Book—A Novel of the Civil War, for a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

You can see the author at the following scheduled events:

February 26:

Book signing with In The Fall They Leave author Joanna Higgins, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26 at Buffalo Street Books, 215 N. Cayuga St. in Ithaca.

February 27:

Talk with In The Fall They Leave author Joanna Higgins, Writing Historical Fiction, 6-7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27 at George F. Johnson Memorial Library in Endicott, NY.

February 28:

Talk with In The Fall They Leave author Joanna Higgins, Writing Historical Fiction, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28 at Coburn Free Library in Owego, NY.


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