Author Brunonia Barry ~ Interviewed

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. While still an undergraduate at UNH, Barry spent a year living in Dublin and auditing Trinity College classes on James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Barry’s love of theater led to a first job in Chicago where she ran promotional campaigns for Second City, Ivanhoe, and Studebaker theaters. After a brief stint in Manhattan, where she studied screenwriting at NYU, Barry relocated to California because she had landed an agent and had an original script optioned. Working on a variety of projects for several studios, she continued to study screenwriting and story structure with Hollywood icon Robert McKee, becoming one of the nine writers in his Development Group.

Brunonia’s love for writing and storytelling has taken her all across the country but after nearly a decade in Hollywood, Barry returned to Massachusetts where, along with her husband, she co-founded an innovative company that creates award-winning word, visual and logic puzzles. In recent years, she has written books for the Beacon Street Girls, a fictional series for ‘tweens. Happily married, Barry lives with her husband and her only child that just happens to be a 12-year-old Golden Retriever named Byzantium. The Lace Reader is her first original novel.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

I have just finished my second book, The Map of True Places, which will come out some time in May. It’s a story about finding one’s place in the world. Like The Lace Reader, it is set in Salem, Massachusetts, and is a contemporary story with embedded history. The protagonist is a psychotherapist who believes she may have caused the death of a patient.

We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

When I began The Lace Reader, I set out to write a heroic journey for a woman. In the story, the protagonist has to go back in order to move forward in her life. Looking back, I think that my path to publication may have had a similar theme. When I was twenty-six and living in Manhattan, I took a screenwriting course at NYU which got me my first agent. Then, I sold my first screenplay. Or at least that’s what I believed at the time. Actually, my script was optioned a total of four times over the next several years, but it was never produced. But that bit of good fortune took me out to Los Angeles. At the time, it was easier and certainly cheaper to be a struggling artist in LA than it was in New York. My first apartment there was late 50’s retro, it looked like something out of an Elvis movie. I think it cost two hundred dollars a month and had a pool I could swim in year round. I was in heaven. I lived on option money for almost two years before I had to get a real job. Then I worked on soundstages in Hollywood, renting space for rock videos (Madonna, Michael Jackson) and Indie films (Nightmare on Elm Street). It was a surreal Hollywood experience. I’m certain that there is a book there somewhere, and, someday, I will probably write it.

I was also lucky to be picked by screenwriting guru Bob McKee for his development group. It was challenging, and I learned a lot. We met every Monday night and critiqued each other’s scripts. The writers in the class were wonderful, and I felt honored to be part of the group. But in the three years I spent in the writing group, I never finished another screenplay. I’ve thought about this many times and wondered why. Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason I couldn’t finish that script was that I am ultimately a novelist and not a screenwriter. This may be revisionist history, but I’m sticking with that explanation. I didn’t finish that script in Los Angeles, and I didn’t finish any other piece of writing either in the fifteen years I spent there. I did meet my future husband, and I had a great time, but I wasn’t writing.

After fifteen years, we moved back to New England. My first night back, I had the dream that inspired The Lace Reader. Although it took a long time and many rewrites to finish it, I had finally found not only my voice but my medium.

Share the biggest difference between being an author with a house and being a self-published author. What did you do to overcome the negatives?

My husband and I had a small software publishing company, and, being quite entrepreneurial, we thought it would be an easy leap from publishing software to starting an Indie press. We like to say that were emboldened by our ignorance. Our original intention was not to self publish, but to start a press that would publish local fiction. Since we had done something similar with our software, our goal was to prove the success of a specific title in a local market, and then, if we thought we could scale it up, to find a larger distributor. It was more challenging than we had imagined. Initially, we were turned down by several distributors because we only had one book on our list, the one I had written. In the end, we got an introduction to a distributor on the personal recommendation of our PR company. We felt very lucky when they fell in love with the book and accepted us. Then The Lace Reader received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. So we were on our way. The other problem we ran into was that, even with distribution, while the stores may order the book, as a general rule they will only order one or two copies, which they place, spine out, on the shelves. With few exceptions, the larger front-of-store displays are paid for by the major publishers, which gives them a much stronger marketing presence.

The other down side is the expense. We had enough money to launch The Lace Reader to a limited market but would have lacked the marketing budget to really keep the buzz going had a larger publisher not picked up the book.

The down side of being with a house has been negligible. The only thing I could point to is a lack of control over each aspect of the publishing process. As an entrepreneur, I was accustomed to having my hand in everything and deciding where and when funds should be spent for promotion, etc.. That said, I have been incredibly lucky and have been included in many decisions. William Morrow and Harper Collins have been extremely good to me, and have done much more than I would have expected to promote the book. And the teams of people there have an expertise we could never hope to duplicate as a small press.

In your opinion, what does a self-published successful author look like?

We are definitely entrepreneurial and probably control freaks. To self-publish, I think you have to be comfortable with uncertainty and fairly confident in your abilities to both sell and promote not only your product but yourself. That sounds rather egotistical, and I think there has to be a bit of that personality trait in the self-published author. After all, they used to call it vanity publishing. But, self-published or not, I think there is an element of ego in the act of writing itself.

Share your opinion of the stigma attached to self-publishing. (If you need a jumping board — that the writing is inferior…)

I think the biggest stigma I’ve encountered is the preconception that a self-published book is somehow inferior, either in writing or in subject matter. I am so accustomed to being entrepreneurial that this concept didn’t occur to me until after I was with a house and The Lace Reader had become both well reviewed and successful. I’m glad I didn’t think about the way it might be perceived, because I might not have done it, and then, of course none of this would have happened. In both the entertainment industry and the software industry, being an indie much more acceptable. Most actors I know have their own production companies, most bands start out by doing their own production, software and internet companies start small then get gobbled up by the majors. Those industries seem a bit more progressive than publishing. I think and hope that this is changing. In this economy, it would certainly make sense for a larger publishing house to want some proof of success before buying a book.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

One of the reasons I write is to overcome my general angst, so the process is therapeutic for me. I think insecurity and self-doubt are part of the creative process and exist in tandem with (and in contradiction to) the ego issues I mentioned above. With The Lace Reader, my biggest fear was that I would not be able to finish the book. I hadn’t had much luck with finishing writing projects. Now, of course, it’s the question I hear from well-meaning but judgmentally challenged message-passers: “Can she do it again?” I think there will always be something, and I don’t think, as writers, that we can dwell on any of those things for very long. I keep a quote from Goethe nailed on the wall above my desk: “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business.

I didn’t get to the point of actively seeking publication, though, very early on, I did send some query letters (and then pages) to agents who told me to send it back when it was finished. Instead of doing that, we went directly to self-publication. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it had to do with the timeliness of the book and the long response time from agents. Within two weeks of our self-published edition, the book went to auction and landed with William Morrow.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

Right now it’s Salem, Massachusetts, which is where I live. The city is a character in my novels, and that character changes and arcs. There is so much history here. And, of course, the city’s economy depends on promoting a dark chapter of our history that most of us wish we could forget. You can go for a short walk in Salem and come back with a story

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

The first time I spoke in public, I was terrified. It was at the Georgetown, MA Library speaking to a very large group of women. I was the warm-up act for the writer everyone had really come to see, André Dubus III. Rather early in my presentation, I made the mistake of announcing that my characters spoke to me. The room grew very quiet. You have to understand that The Lace Reader is about a woman who has been hospitalized and has had electroshock therapy. Readers always want to know how much of any book is autobiographical. So the minute I said that my characters spoke to me, I knew I was in trouble. I looked around the room for André whom I hadn’t yet met, but who, as the only man in the room except for my husband, was not hard to spot. “Help me out here,” I said to him. “Do your characters talk to you?” He grinned and answered, “I think there’s a medication you can take for that,” and everyone just started laughing. It broke the ice, and I finally relaxed. When it was André’s turn to speak, he admitted that his characters had a way of speaking to him as well.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

I would tell them to write something that they would like to read and not to be attached to the results.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

I think coming home to New England was the thing that changed me. I left at eighteen and didn’t come back until I was forty-five. I had mixed emotions about returning to the place where I had started. But, like my main character in The Lace Reader, I had to go back to go forward. My husband and I moved back east to take care of ailing parents. Though it was a difficult and sometimes sad task, there was a certain opening of the heart that happened that allowed me to write and to understand my characters in a new way.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

Not really. It has been very good to me so far.

Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.

I’d like to keep writing novels for a long time.

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?

Meeting a reader who really identifies with my story. The Lace Reader is about abuse and domestic violence. Along the way, I have met a few readers who told me that I got it right, that they felt as if someone understood what they had gone through. To me, writing is all about making that connection, and when it happens, it’s the best thing in the world.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot.

We bought a house in Salem that once belonged to two artists. They lived here for thirty- seven years. The room I write in was their son’s bedroom, and they had decorated it with old National Geographic maps. It has four huge windows and a great view of some of Salem’s prettiest Federal style houses. In addition to the desk, the room is home to several items I have collected as inspiration for my new story. Here’s an inventory that I took one day when I was having a hard time writing: All things Hawthorne and Melville. A carved wooden moose on skis that I brought back from Maine on last summer’s book tour. Two Revolutionary War soldiers that were once in my parents’ house and now stand facing each other from both sides of the fireplace. Three ships’ models. Several books about pirates. A map of famous New England shipwrecks. Six volumes of romantic poetry. Three envelopes full of Gibraltar candies from Ye Olde Pepper Company. A photo of my maternal grandmother in her wedding gown. A piece of lace carved from an eggshell. Two quartz singing bowls tuned to different chakras. Several books on meditation. A ceramic tree my mother in law sent with Celtic crosses and leprechauns hanging from its branches. A seagull that flies upside down like a distress flag and cannot be up-righted. Several cups of coffee in various stages of consumption, decaf for writing, full octane for the editing process.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

I think the most difficult part is knowing when a book is finished, when to let it go. There is always something I’d like to change, and I certainly do a lot of rewriting, which is the part of the process that I enjoy the most. But I do think you can write the life out of a story. Being under contract and having deadlines is a big help for me, though I would like to have a bit more time than I usually get.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

The first thing I do is panic. After that, I just write for a while and try to find my characters. I’ve heard some writers call this “clearing your throat.” I write about fifty pages, sometimes more, discovering the characters as I go and putting them into whatever situation I have envisioned and watching what they do. When I finally feel as if I know them, I put those pages aside and begin the real story.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I usually like to take a stab at an entire chapter each time I sit down. That said, a first draft of a chapter can be as brief as a few sentences. If I get stuck, I leave gaps to be filled in later. If I get really stuck, I will move past the chapter and then come back to it. I do a very brief synopsis at the beginning of each chapter, explaining what should happen. Eventually, I step back and string those together creating an outline. Then I step back to look at the entire story, the pacing, etc. This is a loose outline, it will change as I go. The characters always determine the outcome.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

For me, it is the order of events. I always have to keep in mind what a character wants and what’s keeping her from getting it. This is true for each character, and I have to make sure I’m stepping up their efforts to achieve things realistically. Generally, I believe that people will do as little as possible to get what they want. We are lazy by nature, I think. If it doesn’t work, we try something bigger. And so it goes. I have to make sure those actions build and are in the right places.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.

The Lace Reader recently won the International Women’s Fiction Festival’s Baccante award for the Best Book of 2009. It was special for two reasons: because I was the first American writer to win the award, and because the award is given to a book that takes on women’s issues, in this case, domestic violence. I went to Italy to receive the award and met women writers from all over the world. It was a thrill.

Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?

What has worked best for me has been connecting with book clubs. If they like your book, they pass the word to other clubs, and it happens rather quickly. I love going to book club meetings. I try to attend one or two of them per week.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

Nope. I’m done. Thanks. It has been fun.