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Friday, April 10, 2009

Author Interview ~ Barbara Hall

Not confining her talents to the written page, Hall is an accomplished musician, vocalist and founding member of the alternative country rock band Patsy Crime, a guitar/bass/trumpet/vocal trio that performs at her book readings. She is also a founding member of folk rock band The Enablers. Barbara Hall lives in Pacific Palisades, California with her daughter Faith.

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

The Music Teacher is about Pearl Swain, a 40 year-old violin teacher who works in a quaint music shop. She has given up on her dreams as a musician and has found the chance to pass that lost ambition onto a promising student, a troubled fourteen year-old girl named Hallie. Pearl has been disappointed in marriage as well, and for a long time she has used music as a substitute for human connecti
on. Her isolation is wearing on her and imprinting her personality and experience. It is through her willingness to invest in Hallie that she learns to open herself up to other relationships. The novel explores the issues of callings, music, physics, and personal relationships.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?

I moved to Los Angeles from Virginia two days after graduating from college. I was the star of the English department in college and had won awards, been published in small journals, etc. But in L.A., I was just another person roaming around calling myself a writer. I couldn't stand that so I locked myself in the house and wrote a novel in a matter of months. Then I started sending the manuscript out to publishers by myself. It got a surprising amount of attention for unsolicited material but it was all rejection. Nice rejections and personal ones, which does matter, but it was still rejection. I started writing television and put the book on a shelf but I made a promise to it and to myself that I would get it published. Four years passed but eventually I found a literary agent and within a month of having it, she found the right editor.

I kept writing the whole time. I had written four or five novels before I was published. That's a story I like to tell people who finish a manuscript and just sit and wait to be discovered. Writing makes you a better writer so keep going.

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.

Yes. Writing is scary, lonely work. Except when it's going well, which is only about half the time and even then you can't help wondering who will care about all these thoughts banging around in your head. I have written twice the number of books that I have published. I don't believe that anything you write is wasted. The process makes you better and anyway, a writer is someone who writes.

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 spent a lot of years submitting my own manuscripts to publishers. It made me face a lot more rejection than I needed to. Nothing happened for me until I found an agent who got me, could guide me, and knew what editors would respond to my work.

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?

Worst advice is strictly trying to navigate what the public wants. Align yourself with marketing wisdom and you may or may not succeed, but you will leave behind the stories that are deep in your heart. Never treat the audience like "the other." The audience is you.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

I like to marry the disparate compartments of my head. The greatest stories come from trying to make your own contradictions meet and get along. And then all you need to do is observe your own environment or recall your past. It was Faulkner, wasn't it, who said all you need to be a writer is a good memory and a bad childhood.

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.

A writer has to deeply immerse herself in whatever world she wants to write about. The reason my life looks so crazy to others is that I find the passions (or "fits") first and then I write about them. So I have these sudden obsessions which are actually research but I don't realize that at the time. I spent two years devouring physics books without realizing I was going to write something metaphysical. (Which was "Joan of Arcadia."). I spent another two years learning how to surf before I realized I wanted to write a surfing story. Then there was starting a band and taking violin lessons (The Music Teacher). I use all of it but my friends seem a little worried about me.

Then there's eavesdropping. You have to learn how not to get caught. Once, in a restaurant, someone asked me if I'd like to pull up a chair so I could hear better.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?

Not yet.

If you can quit writing, you should. If you can't, here's the advice I give to all writers: Just put words on paper. The way I wrote my first novel was I decided my only goal was to finish. Even if the story made no sense along the way. I knew I could go back and rewrite. But if a story doesn't end, it doesn't matter how it begins.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

"Joan of Arcadia" was the show I always wanted to create. The Music Teacher was the novel I always wanted to write. Hmm, maybe I will quit.

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

Not sure we want to pull that string. But if we did, I suppose it would look like this: art comes from artists. It doesn't come from committee.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I want to write an historical novel and I want to write a non-fiction book.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

Being a writer just feels like what I am, almost as if I don't have a choice about it. So I guess my favorite thing is that I didn't deny that calling. That would have made me miserable. My least favorite thing is that I'm just a nerd to the ground and it's exhausting trying to hide that.

How has your unique life journey prepared you to be an author? What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

The strange, unique experience of being raised in the South was just about all I needed.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you'd like.

I write the first draft on the bed and the second draft at a desk. First draft writing is like having a dream. Rewriting is more like work. Hence the bed and the desk.

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

The most difficult aspect of writing is that you just have to keep doing it, all the time. You can't take breaks to make sure other people get it or like it. You cannot wait for permission. You cannot wait until you feel like it. And your work will never look like work to other people. They don't get why you can't go to the party now and write later. A job which doesn't have office hours looks like playing around to your peers and you have to be willing to deal with that. I overcame it because I was so determined to be taken seriously. I was the youngest child so no one ever cared about what I had to say. That was the best thing that ever happened to me as an artist. That and living in a small town where there was nothing to do.

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

I write chronologically. I need the first sentence. But that's just the typing part. I write a lot of stuff in my head first--particularly the characters, the tone, the world, and where I think it's all heading.

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?

Bed. Desk. Sometimes I like the TV on in another room so it will feel like I'm in a house full of people. I grew up that way and learned how to block out the noise. Now I'm a little dependent on it.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

Characters. They will create the plot for you.

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?

The characters have to be in great shape before I begin and the plot often reveals itself along the way. I overwrite my prose and I get some things wrong chronologically so I do a lot of work in those areas when I go back. The characters seem to take off on their own and I feel it's important to abandon my obsession with perfect language while I'm keeping up with them. Polishing prose can and should happen later--as many times as necessary.

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

The best responses come from my young adult books. One I never forgot was from a pre-teen boy, who admitted his teacher made him read my book in class. He was surprised he liked it but he did. Then he gave me some advice: "If I were you, I'd get a go-cart and keep it in good condition."

Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.

Dave Marsh, who was one of my writing mentors, gave me a great quote on The Music Teacher. I really felt I could retire after that but I won't.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

I show up for everything. My advice is "show up."

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

Still waiting on the perfect answer to anything.


  1. Thanks so much, Barbara. I loved the eavesdropping moment. : )

  2. Sounds like a great book! Thanks for stopping by Novel Journey.

  3. What an inspirational interview...I loved the choice of words on a lot of answers. I too am just "a nerd to the ground" and I've given up on trying to hide it.

    Thank you for this interview!
    ~ Wendy

  4. I am a big fan of Barbara Hall's writing. I haven't read The Music Teacher yet, but I love The Noah Confessions and, of course, Joan of Arcadia. Does anyone know where I could learn more about how she started writing for television specifically and which shows she was staffed on?

    It seems like her first freelance script was an episode of Family Ties and her first staff job was on Newhart, but it's hard to tell by credits alone... Tonight I was watching an old ER episode and when I saw that the teleplay was by Barbara Hall I got curious. "Is that why I love these early episodes so much? Was Barbara Hall involved?" But if IMDb is to be believed, it looks like she wrote that one episode and didn't write for TV again until Joan.

  5. Barbara, I loved Joan of Arcadia show and as many was devastated when it was canceled. Is it a way that you may continue where it left? Finish the story, if that is even possible? Thanks!


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