On the first Friday of May 2015, we are having breakfast with author Barbara deMarco-Barrett. Her first book, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within (Harcourt, 2004; 11th printing), made the Los Angeles Times best-seller list and in 2005 was honored with an American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award. Her short story, “Crazy for You,” originally published in Orange County Noir (Akashic, 2010) was anthologized in USA noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series” 2013. In March, 2014, “Message in a Bottle” was published in The Big Click Magazine and in June “Pink Aviary” was published by Radius. She has worked as an auto parts runner, baker, waitress, crisis intervention counselor, semiconductor inspector, and housecleaner. Her essays and articles are included in anthologies such as The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing, Knitting Through It, and in magazines such as The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, The Toronto Sun, Orange Coast Magazine, Westways, The Los Angeles Times, Sunset, and more.
She teaches “Jumpstart Your Writing” for Gotham Writers Workshop and hosts “Writers on Writing,” broadcasting from UC-Irvine and streaming at www.kuci.org and iTunes / college radio. She regularly sits on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Literary Orange, and other writers events. She is founder of the Pen on Fire Speaker Series. Read more about Barbara at penonfire.com.
For this May breakfast, I’m having a hard boiled egg drizzled with lemon-infused olive oil and sprinkled with chia seeds on top of red sail lettuce from the garden. Barbara, what are you having for your virtual breakfast?
I’m having a hunk of almond flour cornbread and a big fruit salad with organic raspberries, mango, blackberries, banana, apple, blueberries, and oranges, with finely chopped almonds on top. Sometimes accompanied by plain yogurt.
That sounds tasty! Tell us about your writing process from concept to draft to revision.
Oh, gee. That’s a complicated question. It depends on the project. An article is going to go through a lot less than an essay or book proposal or novel. Essay drafts may sit for years and gestate (or fester). Let’s talk about my current project, JUST CLOSE YOUR EYES, a novel. It began with a short story, “Message in a Bottle,” that was published in The Big Click last March. I loved the setting (the same as “Crazy for You” that was anthologized in USA noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series (2013)) and wasn’t done with it. Also, I heard a lot of great comments about the story that made me think I wasn’t done with the setting or the character. I wondered if there might be a book there.
At the same time, I became interested in women fugitives. In the news was a story about a woman arrested decades before whom the authorities finally tracked down. The family’s shocked, having no idea that the woman who’d been living with them, a mom and wife, was a fugitive. So I decided to give that background to my main character. What she’d been arrested for changed a few times until it ended up she was an animal activist who’d taken part in an event where there was a fire and a guard died.
Eventually I had a draft. I had readers along the way. I’m not one of those writers who have to write the entire book before they let anyone see it. I need feedback along the way. I don’t need my readers to be writers. One is a friend back east who’s an artist an reader. Another is a former cop (there’s a crime in my book, though I wouldn’t call the book a mystery) and I wanted to make sure the parts were all there, from a legal point of view.
I can hardly remember the revision process, though I will say, I go through a lot of revisions. But I will say this: I look for consensus when I get feedback from readers. I ended up sending the book to a few agents who expressed interest and they pretty much all said the same thing, so when I went back into revision, I very much kept their comments in mind.
Now, a few drafts later, it’s back out with a few agents and we’ll see what they say.
I’ve certainly been known to put projects on the shelf and let them chill for years, if not forever. Pen on Fire is one such project that took 8 years, from beginning to publication.
Thirsty? Let me pour you some water. Tell us about Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within. What inspired you to write it?
I was teaching workshops in the studio behind my house—this was in the late ’90s—and I had one student who was always inspired to write when she came to class but never wrote much at home. One day she said, “I know if you came home with me, I would be inspired to write every day.” I couldn’t do that but I said to her: “I’ll write a book for you.” So Pen on Fire began as a book for Robin, and became a book for all of my students, then for writers I didn’t know and might never meet.
As a tool for writers, especially women, how did you expect it to be used? Any surprises?
I expected it would be used by women with little time—mothers, especially, and full time working women—and that’s whom I mostly hear from. Surprises? Hearing from men who say they didn’t understand the title to mean it was a book only for women (because it wasn’t written as such), but it was my guide, that I was the busy woman. Another young man taking my Gotham class (Jumpstart Your Writing) said he rode the New York subway and read my book and caught some strange glances and didn’t much care.
Tell us about your next project and when it may be published.
Above I talked about Just Close Your Eyes. It’s making the rounds with agents. I’ve started another book, and I have a couple of projects that have been on the shelf that I may take out and see what’s there. I like what Jess Walter said (and others have said as well) when he visited the speaker series when Beautiful Ruins came out. He said he goes to where the heat is. He has a few projects brewing at all times and if he goes to work on one and it’s not happening, he’ll work on the one calling him. With no assurance that what we write will be published (traditionally, anyway), we might as well work on the project that’s the most compelling. I believe in patience. We writers, for the most part, lack patience. But patience can mean the difference between a project making it to the marketplace and languishing on the shelf because you sent it out too soon.
Thank you for visiting with us, Barbara. Let me pour us all a glass of cool water.
Note: I’ve had Barbara’s book Pen on Fire on my nightstand for years. It’s one of my top five tools for addressing writers’ questions and demons. Check it out!
Learn more about Barbara deMarco-Barrett and her books at:
Short Story “Message in a Bottle” in The Big Click