An Interview with Barbara Claypole White

Normandie Fischer here, bringing you an interview with a lovely friend and brilliant writer. Barbara hooked me as a reader with her debut novel, The Unfinished Garden, in which she made me fall in love with her hero, James, who just happened to suffer from OCD. 

You read that right. 

Barbara and I became online friends before we met in person last fall at the WFWA Retreat in Albuquerque. She’s one of the most gracious, giving people I know. 

Get to know Barbara as she answers a few questions. (And if you listen closely, you may hear her gorgeous British accent.) 

  • Barbara,
    you write about characters with mental issues, and you do a spectacular job of
    yanking down walls and making these characters heroes we can love. Will you
    tell us a little about your motivation and your experience?

Thank you. It wasn’t a conscious decision to
write what I call hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness.
My novels evolved out of my real life…until one day I realized I was writing
about my passion for chipping away at the stereotypes and stigma of invisible disabilities.
Like many families, mine has a smattering of
insanity going back generations, but we never discussed it openly. The
inference was obvious: a family’s dirty laundry stays hidden. For example, when
my sister and I were children we knew our aunt wasn’t merely ‘fragile’—our
grandmother’s description—and yet she wasn’t diagnosed with schizophrenia until
late in life. And another family member was an alcoholic, which we all covered
up. Pretense quickly becomes exhausting.
When my brilliant young son was diagnosed
with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I didn’t want him to be ashamed of either
his quirky behavior or the fact that he takes medication to balance out his
serotonin levels. Mental illness is no different from long-term physical illness.
It needs to be understood, treated, and managed, otherwise it can turn fatal.
During the middle school years, I guided my
son through daily exposure therapy that changed both our lives. I learned so
much from watching him wrestle his fears into submission. And when he was
interviewed for a magazine story on the brightest high school students in our
area, he told the journalist he had OCD. She dubbed him the Warrior Poet, which
the family loved. (He’s now an award-winning poet-musician and a creative
writing major at Oberlin College.)
Battling mental illness demands incredible
courage, and my son is a warrior of fearless compassion. I want to celebrate those
qualities in my fiction—courage and compassion—and remind readers that a person
is not his or her disorder.
Sounds easy, right? Nope. The path to
publication was treacherous. I entered many competitions for unpublished
authors, and judges found James Nealy, the OCD hero of the manuscript that
would become The Unfinished Garden, baffling.
I remember one judge saying, “Is this dude off his meds?” To which I wanted to
reply, “Why, yes.” (Although technically James never took meds. They made him
hyper.) Another judge asked if he was a werewolf—that one still cracks me up—and
a big agent informed me the story would never find a publishing home because James
was too dark to be a romantic hero. Incidentally, I’m an incredible romantic. While
I don’t write romance, I am drawn to the theme that people who need each other
find each other. (I met my husband nearly thirty years ago at JFK Airport, so
yeah, I’m a fan of fate.)
But then I signed with an agent who
believed in my quirky characters. And thanks to her, I found my own little
niche in mainstream fiction. I’ve also been blessed to work with two publishers
who have given me the leeway to do that: MIRA and Lake Union Publishing.
  • Which
    character is your favorite? Why? I know I fell in love with James, but then
    came Will and Felix and Harry and Max (I have those right, don’t I?)…

Yes, you do! I fall in love with all my male
characters, but James in The Unfinished
Garden
is the love of my writing life. He came from my darkest fear as a
mother: What if, when my young son grew up, no one could see beyond his obsessions
and anxiety to love him for the extraordinary person he is. James is still in
my head, and one day I’ll write more of his story. After creating James, I
wanted to go deeper into a damaged mind, and that desire led to Felix
Fitzwilliam. Felix has undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
and is an anti-hero at the beginning of The
Perfect Son
. I fell for him because I understood his darkness and I loved
the decisions he made in the novel. But I worried he wasn’t likable in the
opening chapters. I had to trust readers would stick with him until the parts
of the manuscript that made me punch the air and scream, “You go, Felix.”
  •  Tell
    us a little about your writing journey. How and when did you begin? Did you
    always want to write fiction?

When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow
up to be a novelist, and yet I never thought of writing as a potential
career.  But I’ve always written—poetry
as a child, journaling as a teenager, and then endless press releases and some
freelance journalism when I worked as a PR agent in the London fashion
industry.
I started my first novel, A Fashionable Life, after I married my American
professor and moved to the Midwest. The problem with writing fiction—as I’m
sure you know, Normandie—is that once you’ve scratched that itch, you can’t
stop. I did finish A Fashionable Life,
but it was nothing more than a learning curve. A very steep one. I abandoned it
the moment I had the idea to write about a young widow and mother called Tilly,
the heroine of The Unfinished Garden.
I started writing regularly once my son entered kindergarten, took evening
classes at the local arts center, joined writing groups, networked, went to
conferences—and basically spent twenty years teaching myself the art and
business of writing. I worked on The Unfinished
Garden
for ten years, but that included putting it aside to focus on being
my son’s mental health coach. I guess Ella in The Perfect Son came from that part of my life. Like Ella, I was
the emotional rock of the family. All that changed once I got my pub deal and
my husband took up the reigns.
  •  What
    about your journey to initial publication?

Like most writers, I started querying too
soon. But I was very, very slow, and would send out a few query letters and
then pull back to do another draft of the manuscript. After the devastating
rejection from the big agent, I developed a British bulldog mentality. I
figured if I wasn’t going to get published, I had nothing to lose. So I
unleashed James. I took readers into his dark corners; I let him talk about the
voice inside his head. I let him be James.
Things fell into place quickly after that. I
did a critique at a conference with an editor from Thomas Dunne, who requested
the full. Her enthusiasm gave me the push I needed to jump back into the querying
fray. When Nalini Akolekar of Spencerhill Associates popped up on Chuck
Sambuccino’s new agent alert, I had a gut feeling that we’d be a good match. I
stalked her online—I mean did my research—and spent two weeks writing a letter just
for her.  Within one week of me hitting
send, she’d offered representation. Did I mention how much I love her? My
husband was recovering from surgery at the time, and since I was a full-time
caregiver, I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening with the
manuscript. I think it took her about three months to land me a two-book deal. Did
I celebrate? Nope. I was too freaked out about writing the second novel to
contrac.
  • I
    know a big shift took you to your present publisher. Do you feel comfortable
    talking about the differences between the two—not only the difference in
    styles, but also the different results you experienced?

I’m one of those people who believe that one
door closes and another opens. Starting out my publishing life with MIRA was
amazing, but I was very much a tadpole in the Harlequin pond. And that was
fine. I worked with incredible editors, I’m self-contained, and I was perfectly
happy. But when Harlequin cancelled my contract, it actually felt like the
right step, if that makes sense.
The moment the acquiring editor at Lake
Union said she was drawn to my “dark quirkiness,” I knew I had found my new
publishing home. I think of my writing as an acquired taste: I break writing
rules to fit characters’ voices, I’m idiosyncratic, I’m writing about
dysfunctional families, and my characters use the f-bomb. All those factors
position me outside some people’s comfort zones, and I’m strangely okay with
that. It’s fantastic to be with a publisher who believes in your voice and doesn’t
want to package you as something you’re not. (MIRA had begun making noises
about pushing me toward romance.)
Going to Amazon Publishing was still a huge
leap. I’m a big indie bookstore girl, and I was filled with doubt. But nothing
has really changed for me. My local indies have continued to be supportive, and
I continue to support them.
The best part of the switch has been to
discover that Amazon is totally author-centric. We get advance notice about
special promotions with our titles, plaques to commemorate milestones and achievements,
and lots of say in the covers and the editing process. It feels more as if I’m
part of a community, not just a worker bee turning out a product. At my old
publisher I had little contact with anyone but my editor; now I have a whole team.
The other major difference is that Amazon really understands promotion. In its
first month, The Perfect Son sold
better then The Unfinished Garden and
The In-Between Hour combined over a
two-year period. And it was chosen as a Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee for
Best Fiction 2015. Regrets? Not one. J
  •    What’s
    next? Tell us a little about your next book.

Echoes of Family, which comes out on September 27 and is currently
available for pre-order on Amazon, is the flip side of The Perfect Son. (Grab it here)  One of the themes of The Perfect Son
is that you can’t escape genetics, but for the new novel I created a family with no blood ties—a group of people who came
together out of need. I think the definition of family is changing, and I wanted
to explore that. I also wanted to write about a character who had done
everything right to manage her mental illness, and still everything had gone wrong.
That’s my experience of life in the trenches with mental illness: the triggers
are always out there, waiting.
Echoes of Family has a faster, more intense pace than is typical of
my work. Part of that comes from the chaos that is Marianne Stokes, my bipolar
heroine, but every story has its own rhythm. And its own insanity. This one’s
about the true meaning of family, regret, secrets, wild teens, English village
life, and the music industry. I think it’s my darkest novel and it’s certainly my
quirkiest. Unlike The Perfect Son, I
don’t have psycho squirrels or moonshine in this one, but there’s a big dollop
of offbeat humor…

  •   Do
    you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Believe in your voice, take nothing personally, and
don’t worry about how everyone else writes. Write like YOU, and follow your
passion. Always.
  •  Is
    there anything you’d have done differently if you’d known then what you know
    now?

I don’t think so. I used to feel that my
writing career was a wall built out of pebbles. But those pebbles created a gloriously
organic structure I love; I wouldn’t change anything that led me to this
moment. And if the next book bombs, I’ll be happy with what I’ve achieved. I
was the little girl who chased dreams and caught them right before her fiftieth
birthday. Sometimes the dreams feel like a never-ending nightmare, and I hate the
stress my deadlines place on family life. But my guys are proud of me, and so
are my mother and sister. And somewhere my father is too. That’s pretty cool.
  •  How’s
    that housekeeper working out?

Ha! The best part of going to Lake Union has
been earning enough royalties to hire a cleaner. I love her. She can’t come
over the summer and already I’m dreading having to clean my own house. But
wait! I have a penniless creative writing major at home…
Extra Info:
June is the perfect time to buy The Perfect Son. Buy it now!
The physical book is a June Literature and Fiction Deal for $6.99
on Amazon, and the Kindle edition is $1.99 in the US, $2.49 in Australia, and £1
in the UK.
A Brit living in North Carolina, Barbara Claypole White writes hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. The Unfinished Garden won the 2013 Golden Quill Contest for Best First Book; The In-Between Hour was chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick; and The Perfect Son was a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Fiction 2015. Her forth novel, Echoes of Family, has a publication date of September 27, 2016. For more information, or to connect with Barbara, visit www.barbaraclaypolewhite.com.
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From Fire into Fire (an Isaac’s House novella) just hit the e-book stores. It’s FREE on Amazon, iTunes, B&N, and almost anywhere you look. 

From the author of Two from Isaac’s House comes the story behind the story. 


Sixteen years after terrorists target Meira, she and her husband face their toughest task yet: telling their boy the truth. 

Tony Rasad has spent most of his young life in Lebanon, the Arab-American son of a university professor. Beirut’s where he ought to be now, running around, playing on the beach with his best friend. Instead, he’s stuck at this lake house in upstate New York, preparing to go to a prep school he’s certain to hate. 

He’s about to learn a secret that will change everything. His parents, the liars, have been living under a cover so deep they never even told their only son who he actually is. 

Exposing their lies could cost them everything, including him.