Today is part three of the author interview with John Byrne Barry.
JBB: What I love the most is finding a book that races along like, say the Da Vinci Code or the Firm, which both kept my up past my bedtime, but is populated by three-dimensional characters and is reality-based. (They weren’t.) The sweet spot where literary novels and plot-driven beach books overlap. I mentioned John LeCarre as my desert island author, though he can be ponderous. I like Scott Turow for the compelling plots combined with complex characters. Other authors I enjoy are David Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Pat Conroy, Jeffrey Eugenides.
VAH: Are you a finish the book once you’ve started kind of reader or leave it for another if don’t like the book sort of reader?
JBB: I put books down all the time. If it doesn’t grab me, I find another one. Unfortunately that sometimes means that the books I finish are those plot-driven beach-reading best-seller types, which sometimes don’t leave me with much to ponder. And sometimes I won’t finish books that I know are important and profound. Here’s a partial list of books I never finished: Anna Karanena, Gravity’s Rainbow, Poisonwood Bible. And those are only the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Earlier this year, I started Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, but couldn’t get into it. A friend said he loved it. So sometimes I’m too impatient for things to get moving. Hopefully that helps me as a writer get to the heart of things faster.
VAH: The blank page stares back at you, what gets you over writers block?
JBB: I don’t get writer’s block anymore. If I don’t have a clear direction of what I should be writing, I talk to myself. On the page. “OK, I’ve finished a pretty good draft of Chapter 2, and Lamar’s dilemma is clear. So now I have to figure out how to introduce his sister Andrea. The reader is not going to like her at first — she’s surly, self-absorbed, and impatient with everyone else. So how do I get the reader to care about her?”
I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2007 and “won” in the sense that I wrote more than 50,000 words that November. (No prize except that sense of accomplishment.) I wrote the first draft of what I then called Turquoise Trail, and which turned into Bones in the Wash. With a goal of 50,000 words in a month, I didn’t have time to map out where I was going, so I would write a scene or two, then if I didn’t know where I was going, I would talk to myself, essentially making the narrator of the novel, the furiously typing me, part of the novel. I included the talking to myself part. So I’ve gotten used to that. Many days at work, instead of making a list, I would open up a document and start talking to myself until that turned into the equivalent of a list. A game plan for the day, the week, the project. It’s what the author John Barth used to call “tuning his piano.” You don’t just sit down and play. You have to warm up first.
The downside of not having writer’s block is there’s a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat.
My experience, however, has been that once I’m warmed up and I know what I’m doing, I am capable, now and then, of writing a page or two or even three of solid, almost final draft prose. Sometimes the editing is as simple as cutting the first couple paragraphs or pages, the tuning part.
VAH: I’ve done something similar when I’m not sure where to go by asking myself what comes next or what could happen next and then balancing that with is that believable or how would that be possible? Then working through the details of an action the character is doing – almost like storyboarding in my head before it goes on the page.
VAH: How about some brass tacks of the writing life – what do you do in order to keep up with what you send out and results of your submissions?
JBB: I’ve tried all the organizational systems, from index cards to google spreadsheets to those big fat daily calendars. I’m not good at that part of things, but I do make a lot of lists and build in a lot of redundancy, so I do stay on track of the important things.
Probably the most effective system I have is I open a google doc each month for notes. My current one is called September 2014. And sometimes I’ll also have additional ones like Bones September 2014. At the top I make lists, and I try to track them every day or two. And then at the end of the month, I copy that list into the next month, right at the top. When I do accomplish something, I don’t delete it right away. I add a strikethrough to it. More satisfying to see a list of items crossed off than deleted.
VAH: I’ve used a similar system using a highlighter. Bright yellow bands of accomplishment on the to do list. John, tell us, What little known fact about you will amaze and/or amuse Three by Five’s readers?
JBB: I have exercised every day for the past 44 months (as of September 2014). Most days, I walk, but I also bicycle or lift weights. You can read about that on my blog.
VAH: Do you have a favorite, inspiring quote and why it works for you?
JBB: “In the midst of winter, I found within me an invincible summer.” Albert Camus.
I like it because I aspire not only to find that invincible summer, but to seek it. The world we live in is an amazing place, and there are all sorts of horrible things going on every day, so it’s a challenge to look to the light instead of the dark.
VAH: Finally, Three random non-writing related facts about you?
JBB: I once performed on the same stage as the Grateful Dead. At one time, I had two consecutive girlfriends whose previous boyfriend had become a woman. I was an altar boy, a paper boy, and a patrol boy.
VAH: Thank you John Byrne Barry, for participating with Three by Five! We’ll end this month’s interview with a couple bonus questions at the end of the month.
John Byrne Barry wrote his first book length project in fifth grade at Kilmer School in Chicago — a 140-page book on dinosaurs. One dinosaur per page. Lots of white space. He’s been writing ever since — newspaper and magazine stories, plays and skits, reports and tweets. He’s even written “advice columns” — “Question the Authority” about environmental issues, and “Lazy Organic Gardener.”
In, 2013, he published his first novel, Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher. Set in New Mexico during the 2008 presidential campaign, it’s one part political thriller, one part family soap, and one part murder mystery. Coming out later this fall is Wasted, a “green noir” mystery set in the world of garbage and recycling in Berkeley.
He lives in Mill Valley, California with his wife and family.