This series of author interviews allows me to encounter so many people, some of whom I’d love to catch up with in real life. Author Barbara Newman is one of those people. She contacted me last fall after reading Keema Waterfield’s interview, and her slot has finally arrived! And I’m so glad it did because I want to share her work and perspective with the world. Barbara’s debut eco-fantasy, The Dreamcatcher Codes, launched in July 2021, and it’s been affecting readers and reviewers ever since. Clare Dubois, Founder of TreeSisters.org, said of the novel, “This book is a work of art. It is . . . a homecoming, it is medicine for the soul and it is frankly glorious. Savor it, share it, be touched deeply by it,” and reviewer Grace Agnew called it “the Wrinkle in Time for a new generation.” What a comparison! Barbara’s been making an impact for years, though. In another life, she “took [her] tenacious can-do spirit to Madison Avenue” and “left an indelible mark on popular brand culture.” (Well that’s a story for another day, isn’t it?) She’s also an award-winning documentary filmmaker. But most importantly, Barbara Newman is a kind and generous soul, one who cares for other people and stands up for social justice issues. We need more people like Barbara in the world, and I’m so thankful she made the time to answer my questions.
Christina: Congratulations on the publication of The Dreamcatcher Codes. Readers are loving it, and one called it “part adventure story, part luminous fable.” How would you categorize it? What makes the book unique?
Barbara: Thank you this and for pulling that beautiful description! While The Dreamcatcher Codes is an epic fantasy, the story is also being recognized in the categories of visionary fiction, eco-fiction, and multicultural fiction.
There are a few things that make this book unique: It illuminates the climate crisis, but it isn’t dystopian, which is a fresh take considering the gravity of the subject. While the story has magic and mysticism, it is also rooted in the real. It was heavily researched. It’s got lot of science—but reads like adventure.
Also unique is the earth wisdom that’s in this story. I haven’t seen this in many young adult books. Maybe that’s why it crosses over. There are messages from nature, the plant and animal kingdoms, the winds, the waters, the cosmos. I write about the sacred geometry of a zinnia, the thirteen “moons” on a turtle’s shell, the way the pufferfish creates a perfect mandala in the sand—a safe nest for the female’s eggs. I also write about plastic in the oceans, coral being bleached, glaciers calving. And the shapeshifting clouds that represent human greed, which lead to raging storms and a climate that threatens life. That said, it is a hopeful and inspiring story.
Also unique is the diversity, from ecological to human. I wanted to build cultural bridges. My four girl characters come from very different backgrounds. One girl is biracial and Jewish, another is Indigenous. (The book has been blessed by recognized elders in these communities.) They have conversations about their ancestors, tribal genocide, the Holocaust, and intergenerational trauma. Through this, they come to understand their common threads of connection. All four girls become a circle, a sisterhood. They are stronger together, braided like sweetgrass, with a shared purpose. I think stronger together is an important message.
Christina: In the book, those four young girls must go on a journey to find the sacred codes of Nature and save the Earth. Where did the idea for this book originate? What drew you to writing fantasy? What’s one thing you can tell us about climate change that we may not know?
Barbara: My initial inspiration came in a lucid dream. I was standing in the desert, animal skin on my back, mountains in the distance. The setting sun painted a sherbet sky of pinks, purples, and oranges. My feet were planted in the sand, inside a mandala that was the logo/brand of the of cowgirls documentary. The funding had just been put on hold. A rush of wind lifted the mandala, and it came down in another form—in the shape of a book. I said, “Hmm, this is a message.” It was detachment, of course, the letting go of one project to make room for another. I knew I didn’t want to write a book about cowgirls. And then, in an awakened state, images came to me: horses, crystals, ravens, rivers, and four girls coming together from the four directions. They were flying on horses with feathered manes. I felt they were here on an environmental mission, what it was, I didn’t know. I began to build the world by pulling photographs and illustrations. My entire office was a giant vision board. I also spent a great deal of time observing nature. I traveled to remote places. If I was to write about the land, I needed to know her on a deeper level. I faced my fears, went out of my comfort zone, and slept in the high desert without a tent. I wanted to hear the wild soundscape and be so close to the stars that I could practically taste the milky way. I went bouldering—I went on solo hikes to places where I got messages from the winds, the animals, the stones.
I also had many conversations with Native American friends and historians. Their teachings and guidance were invaluable. This book could not have been written without their support.
As for your question about what can I tell you about climate change that you don’t already know? I don’t think I can add to the conversation, the science is all there. It’s an emergency. I believe that Mother Earth knows how to restore herself. She will evolve. We will not, unless government takes a stand, and all companies put life over profit.
My hope is that readers will see the natural world through new and wondrous eyes, and be so inspired, that they’re called to become stewards of our precious planet.
Christina: Authors love to hear about another author’s journey to publication. Can you tell us a little about yours?
Barbara: I won a national competition through When Words Count. It was intense, I felt like I was in bootcamp. The judges were comprised of LA literary agents, publicists, marketing pros and the publisher. There were five categories: manuscript, marketing, author behind the book, cover design/copy, and a public reading of a passage. I went in thinking “I don’t care if I win, I just want to finish my book.” Then my coach reminded me what was at stake. So, I put on my New York City advertising executive hat (past life) and became fierce. I owe my coach so much, and now I coach other writers.
Christina: Without meaning to, I read the book’s first section—which begins with “We join this story in the moment that the world’s first painting of a horse meets its destiny”—like the narrator of a film might. Was this placing of the reader in this way intentional, or did the story simply arise like this? Do you think your background in film production had an influence in how you wrote the story?
Barbara: It was important to invite the reader into an imaginal place, which was served well by the narration style. It wasn’t intentional until it was . . . I realized I needed to begin with an origin story to establish the horse, and how the Crystal Horseshoe came to be. I wanted it to have an ancient quality, something mystical that was also based on a historical fact—the cave paintings in France were the inspiration.
As a filmmaker, I see things in pictures. It informs my writing. The Dreamcatcher Codes is cinematic, and I’m in talks about it being adapted for the screen. It’s a longshot, but so was getting a book published!
Christina: You’ve been involved as a producer and story editor for multiple documentaries for several well-known channels. What similarities and differences do you see between stories written for the screen and those written as books? Does one type of writing call to you more than another?
Barbara: As a documentary filmmaker, I would say that the editor is as much a writer as the director. There is no set “script” for a documentary. You don’t know where you’ll find the surprises, where things will lead you. There’s a beauty in that. Writing the narration becomes the thread and is often done in collaboration with the film editor. Writing a book is a more solitary experience. I love both mediums.
I’ve also written a number of non-fiction essays, but lyrical fiction seems to be my new love.
Christina: Your website states that you are “a storyteller, writer, filmmaker, Earth protector, and mom.” Which of those roles is the easiest? The most difficult? The most rewarding? Which role do you think has taught you the greatest lesson?
Barbara: The most rewarding role is being a mother and watching my children thrive in the world. It is also the most difficult, and at times, the easiest too. My parents were great teachers. As are my children. In growing them, I grew myself. Mother nature has also been a great teacher. Observation has taught me about the cycles of life/death, how to be fully present, how to live with gratitude, and what it means to live a more conscious life.
I’ve always been a storyteller. While much of writing and filmmaking are intuitive, they also require skills that I’ve developed over time. It’s hard work. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen and had to stand up, dust myself off, and start again.
Christina: Another role you play is that of “girls leadership advocate.” How did you get involved in that? What do you hope to achieve? How can we help serve as advocates too?
Barbara: Two months ago, I would have answered this question very differently. I would have told the story about a creative director in the ad world (me) who traded high heels for cowgirl boots after hearing an NPR story on the American cowgirl. I was inspired by the bold and courageous women who helped shape the history of our country. During that interview, I heard a sound bite that changed my life. “Saddle your own horse.” It’s what 101-year-old Texas cowgirl Connie Douglas Reeves told the four generations of women and girls she taught how to ride. Her words spoke to me; they meant independence, standing on your own two feet, being resourceful, getting the job done. At the time, my daughter was sixteen. I wanted her to saddle her own horse, I wanted her friends to saddle theirs, and I wanted to saddle mine, whether we rode a horse or not. Two months after hearing that NPR interview I journeyed out West with a vision and a film crew. During that time, I also created a leadership program around the principles of cowgirl spirit, to help women and girls find their strength and live more courageously and authentically in the world.
Now, my mind is on women losing their rights, and how human greed is destroying the environment.
We all know that Roe vs. Wade was recently overturned. Bills being submitted to congress in service to the environment are not being passed. It is proven, time and again, that women and girls suffer more, but that is another conversation.
How can you help advocate for girls?
Be a mentor. Support them in their dreams. Help them find their voices. Stand with them. Hear them. Inspire them. We must all tap into our cowgirl spirit and be an ally for the earth. We must fight for our environment and for our rights as women. And we must vote. The very first woman to vote in our country was a cowgirl from Wyoming. I consider them the first feminists. I also believe that art brings us together. Write. Sing. Plant trees. Walk in nature. Be love. These things provide hope.
Barbara can be found in multiple places!
Thanks to Barbara 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.