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John Byrne Barry – Mill Valley Author

Today we finish up our conversation with John Byrne Barry.JB headshot

VAH: John, what does your typical writing day include?

JBB: For more than a decade, when I commuted from Berkeley to a full-time job in San Francisco, I woke up every workday morning at 6 and wrote for at least an hour before making breakfast and catching the bus to work. I wrote in the evening and now and then took time off and cranked all day or all week. But the norm was first thing in the morning, when dreamland hadn’t yet been buried away for the day. I wrote at least half of Bones in the Wash in those early morning sessions.

Now that I’m working at home and no longer commuting to a full-time job, I’m not as disciplined about my morning habit, but as often as I can, I devote my first hour of the day to writing fiction. For some reason, I am able to tap into my imagination better in the morning than any other time. I can edit or design in the evening, and sometimes I will generate new material, but it doesn’t flow like it does in the morning.

I have recently been going on Wednesday afternoon to a meetup writers drop in at the Mill Valley Library where we write for an hour and then share what we read. I’ve only been about five times, and the first few times, I read something I had written before I showed up, but then the past two times, I wrote some new scenes for my upcoming novel and they weren’t bad. When I’m focused, I can sometimes write two or three pages of good solid prose in an hour. I just can’t sustain that over a day or a week. Maybe someday.

VAH: What are your thoughts on the writing community? Are there any writing or author organizations you belong to or online that you frequent for community, online conversing, networking or commiserating? Any favorite online sites?

JBB: I had the very good fortune of being part of a novel writing group that last for ten years, and was extremely helpful. They read and critiqued my first novel and my second, and they were insightful and tough without being discouraging. (Well, sometimes they were.)

They were tough enough that I was at first surprised by the positive responses to my novel from new readers. Because these new readers were looking to enjoy the book, not critique it. Or because I fixed enough of the problems that the book really was a good deal better.

I was part of a theater group in the 1980s — the Plutonium Players, a.k.a. Ladies Against Women — and I wrote or co-wrote a lot of our skits and plays and monologues. We were young and talented and full of ego (present company not excepted) — when others critiqued my work, I felt like I was being put down. It wasn’t “here’s how you can make this better,” it was “you suck, why did you come to us with this crap?” That’s an exaggeration, but let’s just say that the novel writing group of the 21st  Century was better at giving me feedback that would help make my book better without denigrating me.

I have been exploring Meetups and various other critique groups, including one called 16 Eyes that grew out of the Berkeley Writers Club, but I’ve only been a handful of times yet. There’s also a Writers’ Drop In at the Mill Valley Library that I’ve been going to. Usually, there are three or four of us. We write for an hour and then some of us share what we’ve written.

I definitely want and need readers. People talk about a community of readers. I don’t really have one, as much as I have a bunch of friends and readers who are not necessarily part of a community.

I don’t know why I’m not participating more in online communities. Too often, it seems like the only thing people are saying is buy my book.

I love going to Why Are There Words, a monthly reading series in an art gallery in Sausalito.

VAH: What are your thoughts on traditional or independent publishing? Or a little of both? What choices have you made and why did you go the way you have?

JBB: I wrote my first novel, Wasted, a “green noir” murder mystery set in the world of garbage and recycling in Berkeley, and I tried to get it published in the traditional way. I rewrote it a dozen times, and in 2003 and 2004, submitted it to about 60 agents. I got about eight nibbles, two wanted to see the whole manuscript, and one, I was convinced was going to take it. But she didn’t.

Once I was far enough along in my second novel, I decided I needed to self-publish, partly because I was concerned that once again, I wouldn’t find an agent, but also because I had this delusion that the book, which is set during the 2008 presidential election, would be ready in time for the 2012 election. It wasn’t, but by then I had committed myself to self-publishing.

The process was time-consuming, but I ended up with a product I was proud of, and response has been heartening. I have 24 positive reviews and plenty more readers who told me they liked it, but I haven’t been able to get them to write a review. Sales have been disappointing. I know I need to do more marketing, but even when I have done a flurry of it, it hasn’t resulted in many sales. That hasn’t stopped me from writing a new book or reworking Wasted to independently publish this fall.

VAH: Best bit of advice to save another writer some anxiety or heartache?

JBB: If you’re not comfortable with solitude, find something else to do. Or else make sure you build in social connections into your schedule. There are days I have nothing scheduled but writing, and I don’t care for those days. But if I have a walk with a friend as part of the day, or a meeting, then I’m more comfortable with the solitude.

VAH: What’s next for you? Do you have a work in progress you can tell us about? (Include any links related you’d like to share.)

JBB: I am working on two projects. One is publishing Wasted, which is now in the home stretch. I have advance reader copies available in trade paperback and ebook format and I will happily send them to anyone who promises to write an honest review. You can contact me at johnbyrnebarry@gmail.com. You can also find out more on my website.

The other project is a new novel, working title Edgewater, about a man whose father has cancer and dementia and demands his son help him end his life. I’ve written about a third of my first draft and I’ve excited about where it’s going, but I haven’t mapped it all out yet. You can read the first chapter.

VAH: Thank you John for an interesting conversation this month!

Thank you for joining us for another month of author interviews, this month with John Byrne Barry.

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John Byrne Barry Part 3 at Three by Five

Today is part three of the author interview with John Byrne Barry.

VAH: John, what books or authors keep you up at night (because you can’t put them down)?JB at book reading

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.

JB headshot





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.

Introducing John Byrne BarryPart I. Part II.


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Three by Five Presents John Byrne Barry Part 2

VAH: John, when did you know you were a writer and when did you realize you were?John Barry in Weminche Wilderness, Colorado

JBB: I’ve never just been a writer, so I’m not sure I ever came to that realization — I’ve been a graphic designer for almost as long, and for many years at my Sierra Club job, that was my greatest calling, perhaps because there were so many other who fancied themselves writers, but few who were designers.

When I was married for the first time, I put on my marriage certificate that I was a playwright, which I was at the time, but mostly I said that because it was better than saying I was unemployed.

Now that I’ve written and published a novel, I am more comfortable saying I’m a writer, but there’s still a part of me that thinks I’m an imposter.

VAH: I think that’s a process we all go through, that sense of really, truly being a writer and a small sense that questions the validity of claiming that! Which brings me to ask, what is your best advice for emerging writers?

JBB: I’m not the first to say this, but I can vouch for its veracity. Keep doing it. Keep practicing. There’s this concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that you need to put in 10,000 hours to get good at anything that’s difficult, and I have put in the hours. I remember twenty years ago, when I wrote a couple cover stories for the East Bay Express, one on garbage and recycling, another on collectives, how much my early drafts were tangled up like spaghetti because I was trying to weave together so many strands. I pulled out my hair turning those bloated early drafts into a story that was smooth and clear enough to publish. I have an easier time with those kind of structural challenges, and I think I just got better with practice. I only wish I had been more disciplined when I was younger. I wasn’t a bad writer, but I was not as focused as I needed to be, and I didn’t write as much as I do now because it was more like torture. I was lazy.

It’s not that I don’t still struggle. Taming the wild plots of Bones in the Wash was arguably the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it’s more fun now. I have more confidence because I’ve done it. I hope I keep getting better.

VAH: Getting better with practice. What are your thoughts on studying writing?

JBB: I looked into the MFA program at USF and was intrigued, but there are a lot of ways to learn these days. I was part of a novel writing critique group for more than ten years — they read at least two drafts of Bones in the Wash and my first novel, Wasted. I would have had to get five MFAs to equal that level of attention to my work.

VAH: What are you thoughts on writing conferences. Do you have a favorite?

JBB: I’ve only been to one, the San Francisco Writers’ Conference earlier this year, and I quite enjoyed it, especially the craft sessions. There was so much on the publishing and promotion process and I know that’s important, and I need to do more of it, but that part got old fast. It’s not that everyone says the same thing, but it seems that way.

VAH: What about writing full time?

JBB: I have been a writer for decades, but usually more than a writer. Mostly that was because my jobs demanded it. I needed to do design as well, or editing, or training, or leading teams, or managing projects. Mostly, that was a good thing because, even though writing is probably my strongest skill, it’s a solitary venture and that solitude can get old. When I first started writing novels, more than fifteen years ago, while I had a full-time job, I used to joke that if someone said here’s a pot of money, go and write your novel full time, I couldn’t have done it. Wouldn’t have wanted to do it. Now, maybe, but I would prefer to have more variety in my life.

The other thing I learned, by being part of a complicated organization, with thousands of volunteers and hundreds of staff, was that strategic thinking was more valued than writing. It wasn’t enough to write, I had to figure out what needed to be written, and for what audience. For a number of years, I managed other writers and editors, some of whom were pretty good with words, and one thing that happened all too often is that one of them would take a draft that had been handed to us and copy edit it when what needed to be done was to go back to the author and say, what is it you’re trying to do here? If something is ill-conceived in the first place, copy editing is not going to help.

VAH: That seems a good lesson – if the story isn’t well put together, no amount of editing will improve upon the story.

Thanks John! Coming up towards the end for the month – more from John Byrne Barry. Join Three by Five again, on days that end in 3.

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John Byrne Barry

VAH: Welcome Novelist John Byrne Barry to the Three by Five Author and other Interesting People Interview series! The burning first question is always – why do you write?

JBB: I write to answer questions. No, really. Sometimes the question is as simple as “What am I going to do today?” As for why I write novels, well, those questions aren’t that different. More like “What should I do with my life?” “How can I contribute to the world?”

Those are not rhetorical questions. One of the themes that I explore, consciously some of the time, is how to do the right thing. While I wanted “Bones in the Wash” to be a fun fast-paced political thriller and family drama, under all the action, I wanted to answer that question. The protagonist, ambitious Albuquerque Mayor Tomas Zamara, does believe in doing the right thing. But as he says, “politics is like playing football on a muddy field. If you don’t get dirty, you’re not giving your all.”

Does that give you a pass on doing the right thing? No, it doesn’t. It makes it harder.

I’m writing some non-fiction now, a conservation assessment of the Russian Far East, and there too, I’m answering a question. Here we have this vast expanse of pristine ecosystems, home to polar bears, tigers, and six species of Pacific salmon, and there we have a corrupt and undemocratic Russian government. Why should anyone invest time or money to protect these unparalleled natural treasures? (The answer gets more challenging every day that President Putin is in the news for incursions into the Ukraine, even though the Russian Far East is 5,000 miles away.)

I also write to make the world more interesting. Back in 2004, when I first worked on a presidential campaign, going door-to-door and phonebanking for John Kerry in three working-class suburbs south of Milwaukee, I made a commitment to write and post a blog entry every night. The work was tedious. Too many calls. Too many doors. Not enough meaningful interactions. (It was a swing state and so many people were so inundated with ads, mailers, calls, and so on.) But I had to write something every night, so I paid more attention, keeping my eyes and ears peeled for some interesting anecdote or conversation. It added a dimension to what otherwise were long and flat days.

VAH: I’d say that one of the joys of writing is being able to fully explore all the possible answers to the many questions we encounter in our lives.

Do you remember what your first story was about?

JBB: My memory is fuzzy, but I know that sometime in fifth or sixth grade history class, I wrote—probably with others, but I don’t remember—some satirical skits about Betsy Ross and the making of the American flag. At that time, I don’t think I had listened to Stan Freberg, who did comedy records parodying American history, but when I discovered him in college, I realized I had done things in the same vein. I believe the skits were well received, but whether that’s because they were good or because the rest of history class was dull I can’t say.

VAH: What about a favorite literary character?

JBB: One of my favorite books is All the Kings Men, a fictional account of Louisiana’s charismatic governor Huey Long, represented in the book as Willie Stark. He’s a fascinating character, but it is the book’s narrator, his aide Jack Burden, a former newspaper man, who is my favorite character. Perhaps it’s because of what I mentioned above, that the compelling moral question for me, as a reader and a writer, is how to do the right thing. Willy didn’t sweat that question.

Willie knew you never needed to make up lies about opponents. Here’s what he said to Jack as he told him to find dirt on an old family friend, now a judge: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”

Jack found the something. For better and worse, however, Jack had a moral compass, and so he struggled with indecision, with betrayal, with morality. He was the more tortured soul, and thus more interesting.

 VAH: John, imagine you were stranded on a deserted island, what book or series of books would you want with you and why?

JBB: If I think about that long enough, I won’t be able to answer it, so I’ll just blurt out John LeCarre. I’ve read at least 20 of his books, but I think I would enjoy reading them again. I reread The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a few years ago, and it seemed dated, but just as compelling a drama.

VAH: That first thought is usually the most authentic, before you catch yourself with what “should be” a response. Authors that we can return to again and again, those are the true masters worth reading.

What would you say was the biggest influence on your development as a writer?

JBB: I worked for 25 years at the Sierra Club in a variety of positions, mostly in communications, doing writing, editing, design. Because we were often covering wonky environmental issues, like fuel efficiency in cars or water pollution from factory farms, we had to find stories to make those issues come alive. So I learned and mentored others in how to discover and distill the story. When writing fiction, I can make stuff up, but when doing journalism or writing reports, I have to dig to find the gold.

But even when writing fiction, I have a tendency to “tune my piano,” to borrow a phrase from John Barth, and when I’m in rewrite, I need to cut that tuning out and jump directly to the action. Come to think of it, I might want some John Barth with me on that desert island. Though it’s been a long time since I read any of his books. When I was a younger man, I thought Giles Goat Boy was incredibly brilliant. I might find it ponderous today.

Find out more about John Byrne Barry by visiting his social media sites.






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Introducing John Byrne Barry at Three by Five in October

October’s Three by Five author is John Byrne Barry.

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. For more about John, return on days that have a 3 in them! in the mean time – here’s the first page of his current work in progress:


by John Byrne Barry

Chapter 1: Dry Run


Lamar huddled in the janitor’s closet between the fifth and sixth floor for two hours and thirty minutes. The wind howled outside, whipping across Lake Michigan and rattling the small window above the empty gray metal shelving unit on the back wall. The closet reminded him of a jail cell, though he’d only been in one once, to visit a client.

The small room had a pleasant smell of lemon verbena, from some cleaning products, but underneath that was a dank odor of a wet rug rolled up and jammed against a wall.

In the corner was a rolling cart stacked with folding chairs, and when he got tired of standing, he unfolded a chair and sat. A month earlier, when he did his reconnaissance, the closet had been bulging with Christmas decorations. Ornaments for the trees, stockings, wreaths, tree stands, strings of lights. Now they were on display at the nurses’ station, in the bingo room, by the elevators, and in the first floor lobby.

He had picked the lock of the closet. Easy even for an amateur like him. No one would guess that was something he could do.

At 1:30 am, he walked up seventeen steps. Didn’t make a sound. Nudged open the door with his shoulder. Two hours and thirty minutes earlier, he had slipped a folded postcard between the strike plate and the latch bolt. The photo on the card was of the lakefront and the Chicago skyline gleaming in the summer sun.

As he slipped inside the room, he stepped on something that crunched, like a potato chip. He froze. It didn’t appear to disturb anyone. He shuffled past the roommate, then stood in the shadows behind the curtain separating the two beds. Standing ramrod still, he felt the weight of his shoulder bag, heavy with the nitrogen tank. He could see the light of the corridor through the curtain, but knew that no one passing could see him. Not that there were likely to be any passersby in the middle of this cold night.

Robert Rose lay on his back, his hands open and crossing his chest. Peaceful. Lamar aspired to be peaceful, and may have appeared so on the outside. That was not what he was experiencing on the inside.

JB headshot

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