Wednesday, June 08, 2016

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


It's such a good book. Trust me. (Normandie speaking here.)

Click to Tweet (and perhaps win a copy of The Perfect Son):

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.


Barbara claypole white said...

Thanks for hosting me, Normandie! xox

Normandie Fischer said...

I thank you for coming, Barbara!

DJ Sakata said...

Lovely post!

Barbara claypole white said...

Thanks, DJ. <3