Brunonia Barry is the author of The Lace Reader, a book that several friends recommended to me. When I read it, a few months ago, I fell headlong into the story–about a woman who can recognize the truth of the things in patterns of lace, in the spaces they make, but who doesn’t realize that she too is made of complicated patterns and empty spaces. It’s a story about perception and acceptance and a kind of underground of the self. It’s hard to describe, to tell you the truth, but it’s harder to forget. I jumped at the opportunity to interview Brunonia, and when we did get together by phone, we spoke for hours. This interview will run in three parts, and is officially the longest interview we’ve ever posted on Writer Unboxed. Though I’ve abbreviated it a bit, I’ve also tried to retain its fluidity and all of the many gems Brunonia imparted. Read on to hear craft talk about story structure, the hero’s journey for women, the importance of setting (in this case, Salem, MA), and the most spine-tingling tale of storytelling inspiration you’ve ever heard.
Part 1: Interview with Brunonia Barry
TW: I’d like to try something different–a series of true or false questions.
BB: Fun, let’s do it.
TW: True or false: You don’t drink coffee before you write.
BB: True, not unless it’s decaf.
TW: You have singlehandedly created a lace-reading industry in Salem, Massachusetts.
BB: I think so. True.
TW: You have worked with and were encouraged to continue writing by an editor who edited Hemingway’s last book.
TW: You once worked for a book packager and wrote one of the Beacon Street Girls books as Annie Bryant.
BB: Yes, true.
TW: Brunonia is really your middle name.
TW: Your book, The Lace Reader, has been translated into 26 languages.
BB: Yes, that’s true.
TW: You worked on your book for seven years.
TW: Once you finished, you decided against sending it to a single publisher or agent and self-published it, but in the back of your mind you’d hoped that a big publisher would hear about your grass-roots success and publish you anyway.
BB: Yes. True.
TW: How many books are under your bed?
BB: None. But a problem I had in life was finishing things.
TW: What’s your process? How much do you know going in about the story arc, about the chararcters, etc…?
BB: I just spent the worst weekend on my next book, not knowing who anybody was! I think that’s the point you get to, when you rethink everything.
TW: It’s interesting, isn’t it? You think you know what you’re doing, but then the characters decide that you’re completely wrong.
BB: Exactly. That’s what happened with the first book, too. I do work from an outline, but then the outline changes because the characters always change.
TW: And the characters have a loud voice when you’re writing, don’t they?
BB: For me they do. They will not shut up. They won’t be directed, either.
TW: They’re driving the car.
BB: Absolutely, they’re driving the car. And the more work I do on their backstory, the stronger they become.
TW: So you have an outline that you revise as you’re writing?
BB: I probably do the first 100 pages without an outline, but I also throw away at least 60 of the first 100 pages. I’m just trying to write about a setting and about a character and see where it goes. And then at that point I decide a little bit of where it’s going, and I probably do a one-page outline. And then as I’m actually writing it, I really try to structure a chapter-by-chapter outline with a step outline—a paragraph for each chapter.
TW: Like beats?
BB: It is the beats, along with any notes that I need to include. Say in The Lace Reader I need a note to myself like, “Eva knew Towner went to Cambridge.” Just a note for myself about who knew what and when, what the characters know, that sort of thing. Moments you want to highlight. They’re beats, too, but they’re more subtle. And it’s like a three to five act structure. For me, it’s easier to structure the outline that way. But then sometimes the outline falls away and I’m left in a nervous state for a while before the outline really comes together. I don’t have the paragraph for each chapter at that point—maybe just a sentence. Then it really starts to kind of fall into the structure that it will be in. Then I can outline chapters more fully. The reason I outline chapters initially with paragraphs is that if I get stuck I can move past it and go back to it. I often have to do that because otherwise I would probably have writer’s block; I think the reason that I don’t have it is because I jump around. But in order to jump around you have to have a bigger outline, even if the outline changes.
For the books I’m writing it’s so important to keep track of details. In the rewrite for The Lace Reader, I got very mixed up for a while. I had index cards all over the walls and the floor, and I would go running crying from the room—“I can’t do it!” And then one day, as if by magic, a pattern emerges as if through the lace. One day it starts to make sense, and generally you’re on your way.
TW: All hail the subconscious mind.
BB: Oh, yes, and I rely on it. I’m in the process of changing the step outline for the second book now because I realize that some things are happening in the wrong places. This seems to happen particularly if there are flashbacks involved. With both of my books so far there’ve been a lot of flashbacks, and I have to really step back and think on it for a while before it comes together.
TW: Flashbacks used throughout a story can be tricky, don’t you think? Deciding when and how to weave them in isn’t always obvious, and reordering scenes can make you crazy.
BB: I agree. I’ve done this for both books. I write them where I think they belong in the book, but… Yesterday, I broke out one of the stories and put it in a separate place thinking I’d figure out where it goes later, because it’s really slowing me down. I don’t quite know who knows what when anymore, and I have to figure that out first. If I break it out, at least I can complete that part of the story, even if it changes. Sometimes when things are segmented through the book, you just have to pull pieces out and see where they fit best later. There’s a lot of structural work that I do once I get to the middle point of the book.
TW: About how much time do you spend writing new content versus editing?
BB: Well, in the first book I was editing as I went along, so it’s different than my current process. For this second book, it’s probably going to be about one third editing and two thirds creating, but the editing time will be much more productive. It’s easier for me to edit than write—it’s already there on the page. In this second book I’m working on now, I intended not to edit at all, but I got to a certain segment in the book and I just wasn’t sure which way the story was going to go. I know how the story ends, but I’m not sure how I’m going to get there. So I decided to go back and start editing and working on the characters a little more, just to buy me some time. I could edit a book forever, I could go for years, but at some point I think you can edit the life out of it. I don’t know how we know what that point is, either.
TW: It’s hard to switch gears, isn’t it, between the creator and the critic?
BB: Yes, and I think you really do come in as a critic when you’re editing, and maybe you second guess your audience a little bit, which may not be such a good idea. I do have to say, though, that I drink a lot of caffeine while I’m editing. Editing goes better, because I think my brain is a little sharper. And the reason I don’t have any when I’m writing is that I can’t get into that creative space if I do.
TW: Oh, interesting. I know a lot of writers write first thing in the morning to kind of pull some of that dream state into the work.
BB: That’s exactly what I do. Three a.m. is a really good time, too. I tend to wake up at 3:00 a.m. and always have. Since I’m awake then and wanting to go back to sleep, writing is a good thing. Reading is great, too, because you’re moving your eyes and it can be a little hypnotic, but writing’s good, too. You never know until morning just what you’ve come up with, but it’s interesting.
TW: You’ve said that you wrote The Lace Reader as the hero’s journey for women. Can you explain how the journey might be different for men and women?
BB: Well, a hero’s journey for women might be more collaborative than a hero’s journey for men—at least the traditional male hero’s journey we see often, where a lone hero saves the town. There are always helpers, but for a hero’s journey for women, those helpers are different, more important. In The Lace Reader, Towner couldn’t make this journey if people hadn’t come along to help her each step of the way—people who were alive, people who weren’t alive, people from California, people from Massachusetts, relatives, friends, everyone. So I think it becomes very collaborative and the outcome depends on her interacting with these people. Of course she’s very solitary in the beginning, so partly she needs the reflection of other people to understand who she is. I would also say that the hero’s journey as a structural device is not complete because there’s the idea that you have to go back to the world and teach what you’ve learned, and I didn’t quite get there with The Lace Reader.
TW: Did the idea of the hero’s journey inform your outline from the beginning?
BB: Not the very beginning. In this case, The Lace Reader started as a short story, but I always held in mind the idea that I should try to do a hero’s journey from a woman’s point of view; I was reading so many scripts in Hollywood and what was happening to strong female protagonists is that they were either killing them off or marrying them off or getting them pregnant, because they didn’t know how to end the story. I mean, I didn’t know how to end the story either, but I thought that would be very interesting to explore, so very early on this turned into that structurally.
TW: You’ve also said that you wrote the book three times. Can you talk about that? What was going on? How did you get beyond it?
BB: Different things influenced me and that changed the direction of the story. For example, I went to see a demonstration about the history of Ipswich lace making by a woman named Marta Cotterell Raffel who wrote a book called The Laces of Ipswich, and got some great ideas there. Then we moved to Salem, and Salem fit the description of the world of the hero’s journey story, almost to a T—because it’s very surrealistic, it’s a place where the history is so much a part of the town, like the witches who live here.
TW: How did the demonstration inspire you?
BB: It was about making bobbin lace and also the history of this women’s industry that existed for a hundred years and then disappeared. I thought that was fascinating. In Massachusetts even now I think women gathering in circles are a little suspect. People don’t admit they do it. You can do anything you want, of course, and this is a very, very liberal place. But when I was talking to the pastor of the Unitarian church, he said, “Oh, we have three ladies in circles in the church, but no one will admit they’re in them!” And this is my conclusion: When they did a census of the Ipswich lace makers, there were 102 houses in Ipswich at the time and 600 women making lace, and they all said they did it in their own homes. I thought they probably did in fact meet, but it was so close to the witch trials that they might not have thought it was a safe thing to admit to.
TW: This idea of a women’s circle is an important idea in your book. Is that something you introduced to explore the idea and the shame of gathering as women?
BB: I did, and I thought it was interesting for the lace makers to call themselves “The Circle.” People already think they’re weird out there on the island. There were a lot of ideas that I wanted to explore that had to do with perception and prejudice.
TW: Let’s talk a little more about Salem. Setting was a major player in the book.
BB: Yes, a character, really.
TW: Do you think the story could’ve been set anywhere else? Would it have been a completely different story?
BB: Well, I do think that the story could’ve happened elsewhere; in fact, it’s unlikely that Salem would have the kind of cult that I described—that might happen somewhere else. But I think the story takes on a certain resonance backed with the history of Salem that it wouldn’t have had elsewhere. For me, setting is the main thing, actually. The islands in this case, that kind of isolation, is interesting and useful, too. I think having that kind of isolation together with a town like Salem, which is anything but isolated and has been about community for forever, creates a kind of opposite feeling, a tension. And of course it’s real.
TW: I think its authenticity becomes critical to the storytelling itself. It twines in and supports the story.
BB: Yes, and I think that’s important. I made sure with the second story that I can do the same. I could go on forever writing about Salem. There’s quite a bit of history here, and I think it’s really important to make sure you know all of it.
TW: I’m sure you had to do a lot of research.
BB: Yes. Research is critical. I had an interesting incident when the book first came out and the bloggers were reviewing it. A blogger whose work I really like—in fact, I read all of her reviews—thought that I had sent Towner driving north over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the wrong way from what I’d described, and she said, you know, what else has this author gotten wrong? I really had to fight with myself to not go onto her site and comment, “No, no, no!” Just to let it be, you know? I agonized over it for days, because I didn’t get it wrong, really, but I realized it would sound stupid so I didn’t do anything. It’s just interesting how you feel in a story like this, and how you feel about your research. You not only want to get it right, but you want your readers to know that you got it right.
TW: And sometimes writers get it wrong, too.
BB: Yes, and at some point I probably will. There were some things I changed about Salem, and at the end of the book I did mention those things. I moved a house, for example. And my perceptions about Salem may not be someone else’s perceptions; you learn that as you go along.
TW: Let’s go back to the first incarnation of your story. You’ve said that it started not in Towner’s but in May’s point of view, and that you realized partway through that May was not the true protagonist. Do you want to speak to that a bit?
BB: Yes. The story started, and it was a short story about a haircut, inspired by lace reading. I’m not sure how one got to the other, honestly, but it was about May taking her daughter, Towner, for a haircut. And it was a very intense mother-daughter scene where Towner is very angry at May, and she wouldn’t be quiet about it. She was the more interesting character to explore, and I kept coming back to May, but Towner took over every chapter as the story grew. I meant to set the book more on Yellow Dog Island and less in Salem, but as Towner took over the story it became obvious that Salem was a bigger part of the story. May’s story was recessed a bit.
TW: Which came first: The short story or the “lace incident?”
BB: The lace incident.
TW: Tell us about the lace incident.
BB: We had bought a house in Marblehead, and we were renovating it to enlarge the kitchen. One big wall was being knocked out. I didn’t unpack much, but I had our bedroom set up, and I’d unpacked a little piece of lace that my Irish grandmother had given me, which was made by nuns. This was all I’d had from my grandmother. She’d given it to me as a bit of a joke because sometimes I acted up and she would say, “Guess who made this lace? The nuns, and you can do this, too!” I lost my grandmother when I was in my twenties, and so this is all I’d had of hers. I’d had it on my bedside table forever in New York, Chicago, LA, all the places I’d lived.
On this particular night, I unpacked the lace along with a few other things, and went to bed, and dreamed—in the logic of dreams—that I was looking through the lace to see what the kitchen would look like when it was enlarged and finished. It didn’t make sense in the waking hours, but in my dream it made sense. And what I saw, instead of a finished kitchen, was a field of horses. We were on a main street in a town devoid of horses, and so it didn’t make a lot of sense. It was also an anxiety dream for me, because I’m really allergic to horses and all of a sudden I had a field of horses in my kitchen. It woke me up and I couldn’t get back to sleep. The next day, the contractor came in to knock down the wall and put on his mask and started to complain: “I hate this old horsehair plaster. It gets in the air and you can never get it out.”
So that was my first lace reading. I assumed at that time that it was something that was real and that people did, and that I’d just heard about it at some point and stored it away and dreamed about it. But then I was looking for eight years for people who did lace reading and didn’t find anyone. Now they’re popping up, and that was kind of the bet that after the book came out they would. I still don’t know if it was real, but I’d love to know. I’ve talked to people who read all sorts of things, from tarot to the bumps on your head, and they say there’s no reason that people wouldn’t read lace and perhaps they did but they just didn’t hear of it.
TW: I love that you’re the original lace reader.
BB: We think, but we don’t know for sure. The way that translated to the short story I wrote was that the things Towner sees in May’s hair are very much like a lace reading.
TW: I just love that scene. [For reader’s who haven’t yet read the book, this is a scene when Towner is looking at May’s messy hair and sees many wondrous things, seahorses and more, in the strands.] It’s vivid and memorable.
BB: Thank you. I’m glad it came back at the end of the book.
TW: So are you still reading lace?
BB: I meditate with lace. I don’t actually read lace. I think it’s easy to look at a piece of lace and let your eyes kind of blur. I don’t do it to predict the future. I do have dreams though that kind of predict things sometimes. The joke is that if I try to interpret them, I’m always wrong. But things do happen that have happened in some way in a dream. My mother was an amazingly intuitive woman, to the point where it was uncanny. With me, it seems to happen if I’m really tired.
Come back next week for part 2 of my conversation with Brunonia Barry, when we’ll talk about turning points, writing from the male point of view, unreliable narrators, Brunonia’s inspiring first-sale story, and more.