RITA-award winner Barbara Samuel has an ensorcelling ability to reach inside of you with her writings to tug at heart strings you didn’t know you had. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading her romantic fiction or her expansive women’s fiction, Samuel creates memorable characters who tackle tough obstacles authentically. She’s also a wordsmith of the highest order, able to encapsulate complex ideas in technicolor poetry, as she does in this line from her latest work, Madame Mirabou’s School of Love:
Divorce was making me feel like a worm dug out of the nice, loamy ground and flung out on the sidewalk-I was writhing and wincing and struggling to get back into the earth.
What a gorgeous way to be introduced to this character, to understand what she wants – and it’s par for the course with Samuel. We’re thrilled she took the time out to interview with us and that hers is the first fresh interview we’re bringing you in 2007. Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with Barbara Samuel
Q: Tell us a little bit about your writer’s journey. How have you evolved?
BS: Oh, in so many ways! The mind reels.
I started writing short stories in fifth grade, and started trying novels in high school (all written in colored spiral notebooks with Bic pens). After I graduated, I thought for awhile that I should just apply myself to my art or something, so I spent a couple of years sending short stories out to magazines, because I thought that was what you were supposed to do. I had no idea there was a way to slant your stories to a particular market, so some of my rejections are a little on the bizarre side. I was writing a novel, working as a waitress, taking the bus everywhere because my stupid car had a push-button transmission and would only go forward, not in reverse.
Eventually, my father nagged me into going to college for journalism, which turned out to be an excellent training ground. I learned to write on demand, learned to compose at the keyboard, realized what I wrote while “inspired” was not noticeably better than what I wrote under the gun of a deadline.
But I wanted to write novels and I tried my hand at that before going into newspapers for real. Once I focused on romance, I sold my second attempt and never looked back
I’ve written all sorts of romance and women’s fiction, and continue to play with different forms. I’m better at some than others, but I always really love it.
Q: What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
BS: A bit of both. I have a loose idea of where I’m going, what the the basic thesis of a book is, but once I start writing, I try to just follow the characters and narrative and let it emerge organically. Sometimes that means stopping cold for a few days while a problem works itself out, but it can also mean a lot of hard work if it’s flowing fast and furious.
Q: Do you work every day?
BS: My pattern is about three or four days on, one day off, with one weekend day that’s entirely mine for (mostly) reading and playing. I get irritable and restless if I’m away from a book in progress for more than a week or so–unless I’m traveling, which is all filling the well, and I read tons.
Q: Do you find that it’s harder to get back into the zone once you’ve been away for a long time, and what do you do to force yourself back into the writing habit if that’s a problem?
BS: It’s not usually a problem, because I like writing, so I like getting back to the manuscript. I’ve usually had a lot of ideas and it’s pleasant to go back to a manuscript and see how it really looks. I usually spend a day getting familiar with it (reading and tweaking), then another day writing just a page or two, then the third day, I can get back to regular writing.
Q: How has this industry been kind to you? How has it been harder than you thought it would be?
BS: I’m continually astonished by the support I’ve found among readers and certain editors, and I’m deeply grateful, of course, for all the awards, peer and industry both.
It’s been hard because the market is so fluid and changeable and I’m also a fairly restless kind of writer, so the branding that has worked well for some has not been something I could do. It’s worked in my favor, too, I suppose, when a market of one sort died, I have always been game to try another.
It’s a tough career if you want security. Never going to happen–there are flush years and lean years, no matter where you are on the food chain, and that can be exhausting, especially if you have children or don’t have an outside job or are a single woman (all of which have been part of my path).
Q: What motivates and inspires you, since the career path is so tough with regards to security? What keeps you on the hard road?
BS: Well, security is not my primary motivator. I love adventure and challenge, so I’d rather have the joy of having new things going on every day and the freedom of setting my hours and all the rest than have security.
Q: What’s the riskiest decision you’ve ever made as a writer?
BS: That’s a hard question. I’ve made a few of them, I think, but paid off in the end. The most terrifying was buying back No Place Like Home, which was originally written as a paperback original for another house. My agent read it, loved it, and wanted to see if we could go hardcover with it, which mean buying it back. That was a terrifying few weeks! But we ended up getting the editor–Shauna Summers–and the house and the deal we wanted, so it was great. (And it ended up winning a RITA, too!)
Q: You mentioned No Place Like Home, which is another of your books on my keeper shelf, so I can’t resist a question. The book is a lot about letting go of loved ones–father to daughter, mother to son, friend to friend—while making room for new changes in your life. The book is also dedicated to your son:
This one if for my son Miles, who loves the net of Sunday breakfasts and watermelon cut into chunks in the fridge all summer long and two degrees of separation and friends you’ve had since you were four and playing pool on Saturday afternoons, and who will, when he grows up, cook biscuits for his children and sing along to the music and cut watermelon into chunks and make a home that’s worth living in.
It’s a beautiful dedication, and since it seems to parallel what’s going on in your book I have to ask: how much inspiration do you draw from real life–as you’re living it, in the now?
BS: Oh, a lot, I think. Whatever I’m thinking about and grappling with will eventually find its way into my writing, which is natural. I always think if I’m grappling with–say–letting go of kids who need to fly, other people are dealing with it, too, and we can have a moment of connection over that.
That said, I make up tons of things, too, and play with reality in all kinds of ways. I don’t have issues with my real life father, for example, though we had some when I was a teen. But when NPLH was published, a lot of local readers asked my father why he was so mean to me and made me move far away. It was hilarious.
Click below for Part Two of our interview with Barbara Samuel, when we’ll chat all about her books and some of their unique challenges!