Lee Barber is no stranger to persistence. She began her debut novel, Getting to Grace, in 1998, and wrote, rewrote, wrote again, landed an agent, and then a publisher, finally releasing it this past December. She also blogs and writes short stories. I first met Lee in a workshopping class where I was blown away by her writing. It’s beautiful, descriptive, and heartwarming and draws the reader into the world Lee envisions. And her characters! I can’t say enough good things about her characters—memorable and unique—at the very least. Like everyone else, Lee is a busy person, so I’m grateful she took the time to answer a few of my questions.
Christina: On your website, you talk about how long it took for your book, Getting to Grace, to find a home (which is true for many authors). When you started writing, did you have any idea the publication process could take so long? If you had known, do you think you would have done anything differently?
Lee: I did not write with publication in mind. I wrote Getting to Grace to prove to myself that I could write a novel. If I had known that I would be published someday, I would have been far more strategic about how I wrote and with whom I connected. I would have rewritten immediately, many times, before showing the novel to anyone, and then I would have taken the advice of my readers and rewritten again. I did not take myself seriously as a writer. I was my own harshest critic. The timing on publication was irrelevant to me. The inner work I had to do was the critical factor in moving toward publication.
Christina: Questioning helps us understand the world, and you pose some great questions on your site. So I have to ask you to answer two of them: “Why do we tell stories?” and “What makes a good story?”
Lee: I tell stories for the same reason I ask questions: to make sense of the world.
A good story helps me understand the world from a different perspective. A good story raises questions. A good story forces me to look up words I don’t know. Stories that invite me to read them over and over also impact me emotionally. They help me to feel feelings about my own experiences that are reflected in the story. Our culture is fairly emotionally constipated. We need stories to clean the toxins out of our systems: hearts, minds, bodies.
Christina: Revision is a part of your writing process, and you have a small group of writers (Rhonda, Beth, and Michele) who are helping you work through your current work-in-progress. Did you have to overcome any hesitation before you shared your work? What do these folks help you find in your work that you don’t see? Do you think everyone should join a writing group?
Lee: I am hesitant to share my work with people who might be harsher-than-necessary in their criticism. I am hard enough on myself. I need people who see value in my writing. My current writing group is awesome! (Thank you and Words Worth for providing the opportunity to meet them.) My writing group and other readers help me clean up the places where things don’t flow well, where characters are inconsistent. They also help me see typos. Those things are like bedbugs. They’re EVERYWHERE and hard to get rid of. I think every writer who wants to improve should join with others who see value in their work and who are not shy about pointing out ways in which the writer’s work can improve.
Christina: On the back cover of Getting to Grace, you mention that you’re a “Late Bloomer” (many of us are!). What experiences have you collected along your life journey that have made you the writer you are today? Can you identify how your writing might be different now than it was when you were younger?
Lee: I am a late bloomer in many ways, including writing, but if I characterize my entire life as a garden, I’ve been spreading color and beauty since the moment I was conceived. (We all do; each person is precious.) Every life experience informs my writing. Having asthma, cleaning the bathroom floor when I was four years old, learning how to play the cello when I was eleven, walking home from middle school in frigid weather in a mini skirt with bare thighs, watching my mother put my father on a dialysis machine in our home, going to Kenyon College because I wanted to be a writer, quitting Kenyon College because I didn’t want to be THAT kind of writer, cleaning houses to put myself through college, becoming licensed and working as a massage therapist. working in nursing homes, becoming licensed and working as a social worker, being a mother, being married: it all informs my writing.
The biggest difference in my writing now is that I take myself seriously. I think my voice counts. That didn’t happen because I got published. That happened because I engaged in thousands of hours of education, therapy, peer counseling, healthy life choices, risking embarrassment, screwing up, doing the best I could and not giving up. The cool thing about being published is that it connects me with people I never would have met. It also connects me with people I haven’t seen in a very long time.
Christina: Your Facebook author page description is awesome: “Lee Barber, author. Dedicated to happy endings and anti-oppression living.” Will all of your books involve happy endings and anti-oppression living? What is one thing your readers could do in their own lives to help minimize oppression for others?
Lee: Happy endings? Yes, probably, where “happy endings” means a reduction in suffering, at least for the time being.
Anti-oppression living? Yes, certainly. One thing readers could do to minimize oppression for others is to stop their own oppressive behaviors. For instance, if a young person says they want to be a rocket scientist, you can choose to NOT say, “But you’re lousy in math,” and instead say, “Tell me more about that.” We are the perpetrators of oppressive behavior every day. We need to be self aware and catch the ways in which we squash others, especially when the “other” belongs to a group that has historically been oppressed by people like “us,” i.e. the other person is young and you’re an adult, the other person is female and you’re male, the other person is in a wheelchair and you’re temporarily able-bodied, the other person is homeless and your money worries are about how well the stock market is doing. We need to get close to people who are different than us and listen.
Christina: What is your writing kryptonite?
That which weakens my writing, in no particular order:
1. Not writing.
2. Sleep deprivation; funky eating; lack of exercise; relationship discord.
3. Harsh political and social reality; too much news watching or Facebooking.
4. Overworking in general.
5. Dwelling in the past (unless it relates to the story I’m writing).
6. Dwelling in the future (unless it relates to the story I’m writing).
7. Not breathing well (Read Breath by James Nestor . . . wow!).
Thanks to Lee for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.