I am so pleased to welcome Barbara Davis to my author interview this week. I attended my first writer’s conference in 2014, and had the pleasure of sitting next to Barbara on the plane. I made a fool of myself when I asked her if she was going to pitch (to literary agents) at the conference, and she tactfully explained that she was attending to do a signing. Since then, she has published fabulous book after fabulous book. Happy Sunday, dear ones.
How old were you when you decided to become a writer?
I think I must have been about six or seven. I know that sounds crazy, but as a kid I used to take in my surroundings in prose rather than in pictures. I could literally hear how all the details of a place would read on a page. My first recollection of this was while I was on a walk with my grandfather, looking up at the trees, and all of a sudden my head was full of words, as if I was reading the details instead of just seeing them. That was in. I have been in love with words ever since.
Did you study creative writing in school?
In high school I took every literature and writing class offered, including a science fiction class, which was definitely not my thing. But if it had to do with words I wanted in, and I was blessed to have some amazing teachers. Later, in college, I studied both creative writing and screenwriting, and while I did learn a lot, I feel like my real writing education was the result of zealous self-study, reading and dissecting great books, and writing, writing, writing.
Tell us about your decision to write that first book, even if it wasn’t published.
Before publishing my first book, The Secrets She Carried, I was an executive with a national jewelry chain. One day my husband and I were out for a ride and I spotted a single grave by the side of the road. All of a sudden my head was full of questions. And within about twenty minutes I knew who was in the grave, how she got there, and why. The whole story was there—poof! Unfortunately, my job left little time for creative pursuits and the book idea went on the back burner. Then, at the end of 2009, as the recession ramped up, my company downsized and I was laid off. I was devastated, and terrified about where I’d find another job when everyone was laying off like crazy. That’s when my husband suggested that instead of calling a headhunter, I should stay home and write the book that had been in my head for four years. Lucky for me, I took his advice. Two years later, the book was finished and sold to Penguin.
Discuss your path to publication. Do you have an agent? Do you self-pub?
Mine is kind of a Cinderella story, and one I love to share because it’s a reminder that there’s still magic in the world. I was forty-eight when I started writing, and so keenly aware that I was coming a bit late to the party. I dreaded the time lag I knew I would have to endure—and with absolutely no guarantee of success on the other end. But I believed in my dream and started writing. About eighteen chapters in I decided it was time to get some feedback so I joined a local writers group, and with wobbly knees, submitted my first chapter for critique, convinced I was about to be directed to the nearest Taco Bell for a job application. Instead, a miracle happened. At the end of that critique session I was approached by a woman claiming to be a literary agent scouting new talent. She told me she liked what she’d seen so far and wondered if I’d let her read the rest with an eye to representing me. Well, I was sure I was being punked. I mean, writers don’t get discovered in the café of a Border’s Books. But two weeks later, I signed a contract with Spencerhill Literary Agency. Six months after that later I signed my first two-book deal with Penguin—on my 50th birthday!—proving that when you’re willing to work hard, follow your dream, and put yourself out there, even when you’re scared to death, the Universe comes through.
Do you hire an editor or do you edit your own work?
I am a pretty heavy self-editor, sometimes to my detriment, but when I complete my first draft it tends to be pretty clean. I also get feedback from my critique group members, who are invaluable in helping me craft a tight story. I usually make about three passes on my own. After that, the manuscript is off to my publisher, where my lovely and talented editor picks it apart and makes suggestions. Then I massage some more. Most readers don’t realize how many eyes go into making a book the best it can be, or just how valuable those fresh eyes can be. A good editor is pure gold. What genre do you write in and why? My books tend to be a bit of a mash-up. They’re generally dual timeline, containing both a contemporary and historical element, and include a bit of history and a bit of mystery, with a healthy dash of romance. Technically, they fit the women’s fiction niche, which focuses on a women’s emotional journey as she navigates a major life challenge like divorce, betrayal, or death of a spouse. I love this genre because I think women are such amazing and resilient creatures, and I think the subject matter can be relevant for a lot of us. I love helping my characters overcome unfathomable obstacles, and learning from them as they come out the other side, stronger and more whole.
Describe your favorite writing space.
I have a gorgeous office. The walls are painted a soft, buttery yellow and hung with large cover posters from my novels. There’s a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf stocked with my favorite authors, a nice cushy reading chair, and a desk roughly the size of an old Spanish galleon. But the truth is, I do most of my writing sitting cross-legged on my bed. Basically, as long as I have my laptop I can write anywhere, a beach, a coffee shop, a restaurant or bar. And I frequently do.
Any particular music you listen to while you write?
Music is in my blood. I’ve sung and danced most of my life. But I absolutely cannot write with music playing. If it’s on, I’m singing. And if I’m singing the words tend to bleed out onto the page. Oddly enough, I also cannot write in silence. I need that background noise. I generally have an old movie playing in the background, one I’ve seen a million times, like You’ve Got Mail or Pride and Prejudice, or a favorite British comedy like Doc Marten or The Vicar of Dibley. I know them all by heart so they fill up the silence without distracting.
Tell us about your most recent book.
My most recent book, Love, Alice, is a dual timeline novel set in present day Charleston and the Magdalene homes in the UK during the 1960s. The sorry is about a woman named Dovie who is consumed by grief after the suicide of her fiancé two weeks before their wedding. One day while visiting her fiancé’s grave Dovie sees a grief stricken old woman leave a letter on a nearby grave. Against the urgings of her conscience she does the unthinkable. She reads the letter—a tearful plea for forgiveness for some unnamed wrong committed decades ago—and soon finds herself embroiled in the long buried secrets of one of the oldest families in Charleston.
How much time do you spend researching?
I learned with my first book just how easy it is to go down a rabbit whole when it comes to research. I read almost a dozen books on winemaking and running a vineyard, interviewed several vineyard owners, and visited countless wineries. (okay, so that part wasn’t a complete waste of time) The result: I now know everything there is to know about wine, most of which never made it into the book. Not to mention, all that unused research is a huge time suck. Which is why I’ve become very stingy now when it comes to research. I make a list of every things I absolutely need to know for my current project, and I research those things and only those things. When you’re writing to contract there’s always a deadline looming, which means you have to prioritize your time. Readers would much rather have a great story than know the ideal residual sugar content for an oaky chardonnay.
Tell us about your process? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Total plotter. Maniacal plotter, actually. I like a roadmap when I sit down to write, to know what I’m going to be working on today, tomorrow, and the day after that. If you plot, how detailed are your notes and outlines? After taking two and a half years to write my first book I realized I was never going to make the one-year deadline for my second if I didn’t figure out some way to streamline the process. That’s when I discovered Karen Wiesner’s wonderful book, First Draft in 30 Days. It gave me a step-by-step process to develop characters, settings, story arcs and plot twists, all before I write a single word of the actual novel. By the end of this “first draft” process, I have dozens of completed worksheets and a scene-by-scene outline, which usually runs between 150-180 pages. The result: I now complete a clean full draft (approx.110,000 words) in eight to ten month. The best part for me is that when I sit down to write I always know what I’ll be working on. Is it a lot of work on the front end? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely! And yes, the jars in my spice cabinet are alphabetized.
Any advice for new writers?
- Read great books. (tons of them!)
- Solicit honest feedback.
- Listen to that feedback.
- Be willing to write total crap before you write the brilliant stuff.
- Never EVER give up.
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/love-alice-barbara-davis/1123526715?ean=9780451474810