I have recently gotten to know author Anne Barnhill and I would love for you to get to know her too. Her personal story is as fascinating as her novels and she has stopped by today to share a little bit of both.
- When did you first start writing?
I’ve been interested in writing since I was a child and scribbled poems in all my notebooks. In junior high, I continued this habit, writing really terrible, sappy love poems. I was a great reader early on and have always been intrigued with stories of all kinds. In college, I grew more serious about my writing and began to dream of being a writer.
- What did you do with your earliest efforts? Did anyone read them? Did you still have them?
My grade school efforts are long gone. I still have a couple of things from high school and a few from college. My profs read some of my work and were very encouraging, as were a couple of high school teachers. It has taken me a long time to develop as a writer; life got in the way.
- Your first book was a nonfiction, about your sister. What made you decide to write that book and what effect did writing it have on you.
I always knew I’d write about my sister, Becky, who is autistic. I thought I would write a novel about our childhood, but when I was in graduate school, I took a creative nonfiction class with Paul Wilkes. He wanted us to choose a project that could become a book. Writing about my sister was the last topic I gave him, after spending weeks trying to find one he liked. I didn’t really want to write about it, but he insisted. I’m glad he did because writing the memoir really healed a lot of places within me. My sister and I had some hard times because she was misdiagnosed. Back then, autism was not heard of the way it is now. So, our childhood was spent trying to find the right school, system, magic pill to fix her problems, for which there really was no fix. We were separated for about four years and that held a lot of pain for both of us. There are a lot of tears in that book.
- How did you decide to go on to write fiction afterwards?
I was already writing short stories and even had a couple of novels under my bed (they are still there!) Fiction has always been part of my writing. I still have a very short story from high school, set in Viet Nam. Looking at it now, I can see that even back then, I was intrigued by stories and in love with language.
- What made you choose to write in the genres/time periods you write in?
Oh, I fell in love with Tudor England when I was a teenager and read Norah Loft’s THE CONCUBINE. Then, my grandmother told me we were related to Anne Boleyn through the Sheltons. Later, in college, I took a class in Shakespeare and, as if I needed it, that was the icing on the cake—I loved the colors, the sounds, the smells, the humor, the tragedy of that time. I’ve been reading about it for over 30 years and for a long time, it was my secret obsession. Now the secret is out!
- What do you enjoy most in the writing process? What parts of it do you really dislike?
Oddly, I love revisions. I like to keep reading and re-reading, trying to make the work better. I also love to write when I’m in the ‘zone’ and the words come out easily and almost effortlessly–that doesn’t happen as often now as it did when I was younger, so I really treasure it when it happens.
I dislike promoting the work after it has been published. The onus is really on the author these days to market the book. I feel like I should always be doing something toward that somehow and I really don’t like to feel so pressured–I put the pressure on myself because I want to keep writing and I’m terrified if the first one doesn’t sell well, there won’t be any others.
- You write in multiple genres.How do you make the switch from one to the other? Do you find it a welcome change, crazy-making or a little of both?
I find different genres for different moods. For me, when you are in a deep emotional place, nothing touches the soul like poetry. Nonfiction is fun because I always learn something and fiction is a challenge to get at what I call the ‘true’ story–what is this story really about? Whose story is it? Who is the best narrator for this story? I enjoy being able to switch genres. When one genre is not working for me, I can take a break from it and switch gears–that rests my brain or rewires it somehow. And, in Julia Cameron’s THE ARTISTS WAY, she suggests that if one thing isn’t working for you, try something different. If your novel can’t find a publisher, write a screenplay. Just keep banging on the door.
- Historical fiction takes a lot of research. What is the most memorable or interesting thing you’ve learned along the way?
I’ve learned that my gut is often right about things, even before I look something up. It’s kind of weird, almost like premonitions of the info…or maybe it’s remembering a past life! I’ve always said that if I’d been on earth before, it had to have been during the Tudor years. I’ve also learned it’s almost impossible to know everything and I am fully capable of making a mistake. I try to avoid it, but, since I really didn’t live back then, it’s hard to know everything.
- How do you get your ideas? Where do you look for ideas?
The ideas just come to me. Sometimes, a phrase or an image will be the beginning of a story. Or I’ll read something about a historical figure and my imagination begins to run with it and, before I know it, I’ve concocted an entire novel in my head. I try to tune into the things that interest me on a personal level–for example, in AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, the protagonist must choose between two evils. That’s often the case facing us–I wanted to explore what that meant.
- You mentioned you were comfortable talking about your experiences with cancer. How has that influenced your writing?
I was diagnosed with Stage 3 endometrial cancer about two weeks after my debut novel, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, came out this past January. I had arranged a book tour and blog tour and was planning to market the book like crazy for the first three months at least. Luckily, my surgery couldn’t take place until mid-February, so I was able to complete both tours. But since then, the cancer treatments have been a huge block to my work. I hope to write about the experience at some point–I’ve already got a title, The Year of the Water Dragon, which is this year. I want to explore all the experiences: the fears, the anger, the gratitude for the kindness of strangers, the little creative jumps that sometimes hit me. But I don’t have the strength or endurance to do that right now–nor have I had time to reflect on the whole experience. I’m still going through treatments, so that has slowed me down with everything.
- Tell us a little about your current project.
I’m working on another novel set in Elizabeth I’s court, involving another Shelton cousin, Mary. I hope this book will present a side of Elizabeth I that hasn’t been explored much. But it is based on some actual events as well as fictional. I’ve got it finished but there are some big revisions to do. The chemo messes with my mind and I find it very hard to focus while in treatment. But I hope to go great guns once I’m past it all. I’ve tentatively called it AGAINST THE QUEEN’S COMMAND, but I don’t know if my editor will like that title or not.
- What’s up next for you?
I hope to get the outer garments of my Tudor costume made in the next year. A dear friend, Becky Thacker, is the seamstress and we have the materials. I’m excited about having it. I’ve been doing readings and appearances (prior to the cancer) in the Tudor underwear, so I want to be fully clothed next time out. I have two novels (non-Tudor) I want to write. One is set in West Virginia, where I grew up, and is post-Civil War. I’ve wanted to write that one for a long time. The other is more of a therapeutic novel, one I need to write just for myself. So, I have lots of projects in my mind–I love writing short stories, too. I’ll be happy when I have the energy to get on with these things–I never realized how very much energy creation takes.
Thank you so much for having me on your blog.
COAL, BABY, poetry chapbook, Finishing Line Press, 2012.
WHAT YOU LONG FOR, short story collection, Main Street Rag, 2009.
AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ: AUTISM, MY SISTER AND ME, memoir, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007.
You can find Anne online at: www.anneclinardbarnhill.com