Share This

Bookmark and Share

Monday, September 21, 2009

Interview with Brunonia Barry, The "Original" Lace Reader

Progress on my suspense novel, The Society, from last week – 1244 words written, although my goal was 1750. Still that was 1244 words I wasn’t getting done before, so I am still pleased. I wrote the scene with the significant character that the reader doesn’t know if he is friend or foe and I believe I kept his true motivation hidden. I told it from his viewpoint interacting with my heroine, which had its challenges. But I like the result. This scene accomplished giving my heroine a push to investigate further. Next my heroine, Elizabeth, will take her first tentative step into finding out what happened in the looming mystery while the reader knows she is being closely watched.

For my Musings this week, I wanted to interview Brunonia Barry the author of The Lace Reader, but since this is a new blog and I had a few days only, I found an interview she had already done. The wonderful people at Writer Unboxed ( were gracious and sanctioned me to provide  parts of the interview here.

I felt this was particularly interesting since The Lace Reader was initially self-published before the big New York publishers ever got it. The interview covers story development, how a major concept for the book came from a dream Ms. Barry had and how the setting was more a character than a location.

BB = Brunonia Barry
TW = Therese Walsh of Writer Unboxed
     ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

TW: You worked on your book for seven years.

BB: True.

TW: Once you finished, you decided against sending it to a single publisher or agent and self-published it, but in the back of your mind you’d hoped that a big publisher would hear about your grass-roots success and publish you anyway.

BB: Yes. True.

TW: What’s your process? How much do you know going in about the story arc, about the chararcters, etc…?

BB: I just spent the worst weekend on my next book, not knowing who anybody was! I think that’s the point you get to, when you rethink everything.

TW: It’s interesting, isn’t it? You think you know what you’re doing, but then the characters decide that you’re completely wrong.

BB: Exactly. That’s what happened with the first book, too. I do work from an outline, but then the outline changes because the characters always change.

TW: And the characters have a loud voice when you’re writing, don’t they?

BB: For me they do. They will not shut up. They won’t be directed, either.

TW: They’re driving the car.

BB: Absolutely, they’re driving the car. And the more work I do on their backstory, the stronger they become.

TW: So you have an outline that you revise as you’re writing?

BB: I probably do the first 100 pages without an outline, but I also throw away at least 60 of the first 100 pages. I’m just trying to write about a setting and about a character and see where it goes. And then at that point I decide a little bit of where it’s going, and I probably do a one-page outline. And then as I’m actually writing it, I really try to structure a chapter-by-chapter outline with a step outline—a paragraph for each chapter.

TW: Like beats?

BB: It is the beats, along with any notes that I need to include. Say in The Lace Reader I need a note to myself like, “Eva knew Towner went to Cambridge.” Just a note for myself about who knew what and when, what the characters know, that sort of thing. Moments you want to highlight. They’re beats, too, but they’re more subtle. And it’s like a three to five act structure. For me, it’s easier to structure the outline that way. But then sometimes the outline falls away and I’m left in a nervous state for a while before the outline really comes together. I don’t have the paragraph for each chapter at that point—maybe just a sentence. Then it really starts to kind of fall into the structure that it will be in. Then I can outline chapters more fully. The reason I outline chapters initially with paragraphs is that if I get stuck I can move past it and go back to it. I often have to do that because otherwise I would probably have writer’s block; I think the reason that I don’t have it is because I jump around. But in order to jump around you have to have a bigger outline, even if the outline changes.

For the books I’m writing it’s so important to keep track of details. In the rewrite for The Lace Reader, I got very mixed up for a while. I had index cards all over the walls and the floor, and I would go running crying from the room—“I can’t do it!” And then one day, as if by magic, a pattern emerges as if through the lace. One day it starts to make sense, and generally you’re on your way.

TW: All hail the subconscious mind.

BB: Oh, yes, and I rely on it. I’m in the process of changing the step outline for the second book now because I realize that some things are happening in the wrong places. This seems to happen particularly if there are flashbacks involved. With both of my books so far there’ve been a lot of flashbacks, and I have to really step back and think on it for a while before it comes together.

TW: Flashbacks used throughout a story can be tricky, don’t you think? Deciding when and how to weave them in isn’t always obvious, and reordering scenes can make you crazy.

BB: I agree. I’ve done this for both books. I write them where I think they belong in the book, but… Yesterday, I broke out one of the stories and put it in a separate place thinking I’d figure out where it goes later, because it’s really slowing me down. I don’t quite know who knows what when anymore, and I have to figure that out first. If I break it out, at least I can complete that part of the story, even if it changes. Sometimes when things are segmented through the book, you just have to pull pieces out and see where they fit best later. There’s a lot of structural work that I do once I get to the middle point of the book.

TW: …I know a lot of writers write first thing in the morning to kind of pull some of that dream state into the work.

BB: That’s exactly what I do. Three a.m. is a really good time, too. I tend to wake up at 3:00 a.m. and always have. Since I’m awake then and wanting to go back to sleep, writing is a good thing. Reading is great, too, because you’re moving your eyes and it can be a little hypnotic, but writing’s good, too. You never know until morning just what you’ve come up with, but it’s interesting.

TW: You’ve said that you wrote The Lace Reader as the hero’s journey for women. Can you explain how the journey might be different for men and women?

BB: Well, a hero’s journey for women might be more collaborative than a hero’s journey for men—at least the traditional male hero’s journey we see often, where a lone hero saves the town. There are always helpers, but for a hero’s journey for women, those helpers are different, more important. In The Lace Reader, Towner couldn’t make this journey if people hadn’t come along to help her each step of the way—people who were alive, people who weren’t alive, people from California, people from Massachusetts, relatives, friends, everyone. So I think it becomes very collaborative and the outcome depends on her interacting with these people. Of course she’s very solitary in the beginning, so partly she needs the reflection of other people to understand who she is. I would also say that the hero’s journey as a structural device is not complete because there’s the idea that you have to go back to the world and teach what you’ve learned, and I didn’t quite get there with The Lace Reader.

TW: Did the idea of the hero’s journey inform your outline from the beginning?

BB: Not the very beginning. In this case, The Lace Reader started as a short story, but I always held in mind the idea that I should try to do a hero’s journey from a woman’s point of view; I was reading so many scripts in Hollywood and what was happening to strong female protagonists is that they were either killing them off or marrying them off or getting them pregnant, because they didn’t know how to end the story. I mean, I didn’t know how to end the story either, but I thought that would be very interesting to explore, so very early on this turned into that structurally.

TW: You’ve also said that you wrote the book three times. Can you talk about that? What was going on? How did you get beyond it?

BB: Different things influenced me and that changed the direction of the story. For example, I went to see a demonstration about the history of Ipswich lace making by a woman named Marta Cotterell Raffel who wrote a book called The Laces of Ipswich, and got some great ideas there. Then we moved to Salem, and Salem fit the description of the world of the hero’s journey story, almost to a T—because it’s very surrealistic, it’s a place where the history is so much a part of the town, like the witches who live here.

TW: This idea of a women’s circle is an important idea in your book. Is that something you introduced to explore the idea and the shame of gathering as women?

BB: I did, and I thought it was interesting for the lace makers to call themselves “The Circle.” People already think they’re weird out there on the island. There were a lot of ideas that I wanted to explore that had to do with perception and prejudice.

TW: Let’s talk a little more about Salem. Setting was a major player in the book.

BB: Yes, a character, really.

TW: Do you think the story could’ve been set anywhere else? Would it have been a completely different story?

BB: Well, I do think that the story could’ve happened elsewhere; in fact, it’s unlikely that Salem would have the kind of cult that I described—that might happen somewhere else. But I think the story takes on a certain resonance backed with the history of Salem that it wouldn’t have had elsewhere. For me, setting is the main thing, actually. The islands in this case, that kind of isolation, is interesting and useful, too. I think having that kind of isolation together with a town like Salem, which is anything but isolated and has been about community for forever, creates a kind of opposite feeling, a tension. And of course it’s real.

TW: Let’s go back to the first incarnation of your story. You’ve said that it started not in Towner’s but in May’s point of view, and that you realized partway through that May was not the true protagonist. Do you want to speak to that a bit?

BB: Yes. The story started, and it was a short story about a haircut, inspired by lace reading. I’m not sure how one got to the other, honestly, but it was about May taking her daughter, Towner, for a haircut. And it was a very intense mother-daughter scene where Towner is very angry at May, and she wouldn’t be quiet about it. She was the more interesting character to explore, and I kept coming back to May, but Towner took over every chapter as the story grew. I meant to set the book more on Yellow Dog Island and less in Salem, but as Towner took over the story it became obvious that Salem was a bigger part of the story. May’s story was recessed a bit.

TW: Which came first: The short story or the “lace incident?”

BB: The lace incident.

TW: Tell us about the lace incident.

BB: We had bought a house in Marblehead, and we were renovating it to enlarge the kitchen. One big wall was being knocked out. I didn’t unpack much, but I had our bedroom set up, and I’d unpacked a little piece of lace that my Irish grandmother had given me, which was made by nuns. This was all I’d had from my grandmother. She’d given it to me as a bit of a joke because sometimes I acted up and she would say, “Guess who made this lace? The nuns, and you can do this, too!” I lost my grandmother when I was in my twenties, and so this is all I’d had of hers. I’d had it on my bedside table forever in New York, Chicago, LA, all the places I’d lived.

On this particular night, I unpacked the lace along with a few other things, and went to bed, and dreamed—in the logic of dreams—that I was looking through the lace to see what the kitchen would look like when it was enlarged and finished. It didn’t make sense in the waking hours, but in my dream it made sense. And what I saw, instead of a finished kitchen, was a field of horses. We were on a main street in a town devoid of horses, and so it didn’t make a lot of sense. It was also an anxiety dream for me, because I’m really allergic to horses and all of a sudden I had a field of horses in my kitchen. It woke me up and I couldn’t get back to sleep. The next day, the contractor came in to knock down the wall and put on his mask and started to complain: “I hate this old horsehair plaster. It gets in the air and you can never get it out.”

So that was my first lace reading. I assumed at that time that it was something that was real and that people did, and that I’d just heard about it at some point and stored it away and dreamed about it. But then I was looking for eight years for people who did lace reading and didn’t find anyone. Now they’re popping up, and that was kind of the bet that after the book came out they would. I still don’t know if it was real, but I’d love to know. I’ve talked to people who read all sorts of things, from tarot to the bumps on your head, and they say there’s no reason that people wouldn’t read lace and perhaps they did but they just didn’t hear of it.

TW: I love that you’re the original lace reader.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Thank dear friends for joining me for another edition My Musings.

See you again Thursday for a book review.  Until then I wish you many mysterious moments.
Bookmark and Share


Related Posts with Thumbnails