In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Emily Croy Barker’s novel, The Thinking Woman’s Guide To Real Magic, is the magical tale of young PhD candidate who wanders off into another world after her boyfriend leaves her for another woman and she encounters problems with her dissertation. She’ll need the help of a cranky wizard and her own smarts to get her back to her own time and place. Here is what Emily had to say about reading, writing, and about her long road to becoming a novelist.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I think it’s Faulkner who said that novelists are writers who start off failing at poetry and then fail at short stories and then finally have to settle for writing novels. That’s certainly been my trajectory. Although I wrote a lot of poetry in high school and college, I had an impressive lack of success in getting any of it published after finishing high school, even in college literary magazines. It was basically the same with short stories: I so admire how Joyce or Cheever or Alice Munroe manage to show so much about their characters and how their lives change in so few pages, but I never got the hang of it myself.
I did better with journalism, though, and loved pretty much everything about working at my college weekly, The Harvard Independent. So after college I went to work at The American Lawyer as a fact-checker—that was when magazines actually had fact-checkers—and became a reporter there. I quickly developed a taste for the in-depth reporting needed for a magazine feature, although my favorite part was figuring out how to tell the story and then sitting down at the computer to pound it out. That’s a great feeling, when you know you’ve nailed the story, and it carries you through to when you have to pick up the phone to make the first call for the next one.
At the same time I hadn’t quite given up on creative writing. When I was in my 20s, after reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and some Robert Penn Warren, I started writing a murder mystery set in North Carolina, where I grew up. I worked on it fairly steadily in my spare time for about a year, finishing about 100 pages. Then I got bogged down, lost interest, stopped writing. Which was a good thing. I found those pages a few years later, packing up for a move, and the thing was awful. Flat characters, over-“literary” writing—it was painful.
Fine, I said to myself, I’m a nonfiction writer, and I guess I’m not meant for fiction. Beginning in 2004, however, I moved into editing full-time, and maybe I still needed an outlet as a writer, because a year or so later I found myself sitting in front of my home computer on weekends, writing what became The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.
I really did for the fun of it. That probably sounds strange, given that my book is a veeerry long novel that took me three and a half years to write—and that was just the first draft. But I had dreamed up some characters, Nora and Aruendiel, who demanded that I tell their story, and I was happy to spend time with them, to figure out their pasts, to learn what kind of world they lived in, to see what they would do next. And I wanted to write it all down in a way that would make them come alive for other people, too.
One big difference, I think, between my first attempt at novel-writing and the second was having characters that I really cared about, and having the sense to listen to them.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I’m lucky to have a day job as a journalist, because it means that I’ve developed the ability to plant my backside in a chair, stare at a blank screen, and start writing without worrying too much about how crappy the first version is going to be. I know from experience that I can rework the result as much as I need to. I’ve also learned that when I really get stuck, that’s the time to step away from the computer, take a walk, and think about something else for a while.
Also, when I was writing The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, I didn’t tell anyone anything about what I was working on. I simply told friends that I was working on some fiction, and you know, most people are just as happy not to have to hear about your novel-in-progress. It took some of the pressure off, since I didn’t have to give updates on how things were going, and it also focused more of my energies into writing instead of telling everyone about my great idea for a novel.
Obviously my cover is blown now….
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
I try to avoid reading novels when I’m writing, although it’s a constant temptation. Lately I’ve made an exception for Kate Atkinson’s novels, especially her Jackson Brodie mysteries. I love how she channels Brodie’s morose, hopeful, ironic voice in her prose. She’s a real master of free indirect style—in which a character’s perceptions are woven into the narrative, without the use of constructions such as “he thought” or “she saw”—so I read her to pick up tips.
I read War and Peace while I was revising The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, and found it very inspiring. Tolstoy is brilliant at sketching characters in just a few strokes. The briefest encounter in his novels is a story in itself.
What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers? Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?
This is a question that actually comes up in my novel to a certain extent. My character Nora takes a copy of Pride and Prejudice with her to Aruendiel’s world, and ends up translating it for him. It starts off as a grammatical exercise but as time goes on, he gets more and more pulled into the story.
I think that if Aruendiel were able to read more widely in our literature, he’d probably gravitate to epic poems like the Iliad, which is probably not dissimilar to some of the epics he has read in Ors. I can also see him really getting into Shakespeare and having very strong opinions about various characters. He’d be very critical of Prospero for giving up his magic, for instance. I doubt he’d care much for fantasy literature in general—just as lawyers complain that most courtroom dramas are completely unrealistic.
If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?
The Count of Monte Cristo, which is a fantastic, gripping story about revenge and justice that not enough people have read.
Wolf Hall. A historical novel that manages to be brilliantly modern.
The Adventures of Augie March. Because it really is The Great American Novel.
All the King’s Men. Raymond Chandler meets Faulkner. Wait, maybe this is The Great American Novel.
Through the Looking Glass. I think this gets overlooked a bit compared to its prequel. Just as hallucinogenic as Alice in Wonderland but with more poignant and interesting characters.