Interview with Barbara A. Barnett

Barbara BarnettBarbara’s story “A Red One Cannot See” appears in The Clockwork Jungle Book (Issue #11).  Her website is at

Did you ever want to write “just like” someone else?  Who?  Or was there any book that made you say “I can do better than this!”?

I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to write just like any one particular author.  I’m more for the a la carte approach: “Yes, waiter, for this story I’d like a little Connie Willis paired with the Ray Bradbury, medium rare, with some Ursula Le Guin on the side.”

There have been a few books that made me say, “I can do better than this!”  But then I look at my own stuff and think, “Or maybe not.”

Do you have favorite characters?  Any characters, yours or others, are applicable.

I’m fond of so many characters, both other people’s and my own, that it’s tough to pick favorites.  If I had to choose, a character who really stood out for me in someone else’s work was a music critic named Mal in The Three Junes by Julia Glass.  I’m a sucker for snarky-yet-tragic musicians.  Out of my own characters, there’s one in the novel I’m working on whom I absolutely adore–which of course means I torture him horribly.  And now that I think about, he’s got the snark-and-music combo going for him too.

Have you ever been disillusioned by a character or a book?

Definitely.  Some things start out great, but by the time I reach the end, I’m shaking my head and muttering, “But it was so good at first.  What happened?”  And then there’s the fantasy series that I thought was fantastic when I first read it back in high school, but upon revisiting it years later, it joined the ranks of the “I can do better than this!” books.

How do you explain what writing is like?  Is it something that you think about?  Do you ever find yourself debating it with strangers?

I come from a music and theater background, so I often find myself explaining writing in those terms. When you’re learning a song, for example, you have to pick apart all sorts of little things:  pitch, rhythm, phrasing, dynamics, tempo, etc.  But when it comes time for performance, you can’t think about all those things on the same analytical level you did during practice; you mostly just have to open your mouth and hope it all clicks.  For me, writing tends to be the same, except in reverse.  The first draft is when I just write and hope that all of my previous practice clicks, and the revision stage is when things get picked apart.

If you could choose any five literary people — real or imagined, living or not, friends or otherwise — for a tea party… who would they be?  A night on the town, karaoke, whatever suits.

Shakespeare.  Stephen King.  Oscar Wilde.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but as we see them in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead rather than Hamlet.  Though if I could throw a sixth person into the mix (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are rather interchangeable, after all), Hamlet could come along too.

How did writing a theme story work out?   Is it more complicated than not having to adhere to a theme — or less?

A lot of my stories have grown out of exercises where you take a prompt and see what you can crank out in an hour, so writing to a theme wasn’t a big stretch.  Once I got the idea, it was just like writing any other story.  For me, the key is not to feel confined by the theme.  If the story wants to stray and become something else, I’m usually better off if I let it.  Luckily, this one stayed on theme enough for me to still submit it for this issue.

What was the absolute worst piece of advice someone gave you about writing?

Just about anything that includes the words “never” or “always,” one of the exceptions being “never follow a rule off a cliff.”

Have you ever wanted to let your character[s] run your interview?

Good god, no. They’d spend the whole interview harping about how mean I am to them.

Is there something you do that no one ever asks you about?  This can be anything — something unusual you eat, playing poker as a day job, a hobby, whatever you like.

I wouldn’t say no one ever asks me about it, but in writing circles, I don’t always get to talk a lot about the music and theater part of my life.  I was a vocal performance major in college.  I met my husband while doing a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.  For my day job, I’ve worked in various administrative capacities for an orchestra, an opera company, a music conservatory, and now a theater company.  I got to work with polka musicians while interning for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in college.  I’m also a big film score nerd, so one of my job highlights was getting to chat on the phone with John Waxman, who’s a film music historian and the son of composer Franz Waxman.

Particular favorites for books, movies, series, comics, blogs, etc.?

My favorite books are The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.  Theater-wise, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a favorite, and I love just about anything Sondheim.  My favorite movie changes depending on my mood, but to summarize my tastes, let’s just say that Han shot first.  I watch far too much geek-tastic television, particularly of the Joss Whedon oeuvre.  I also love shows like Mythbusters and NOVA scienceNOW–the latter because I have a total geek crush on Neil deGrasse Tyson, the former because I love seeing things blown up in the name of science.

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