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A conversation with Brunonia Barry, part 3

May is characterization month here at WU, and I think this interview with Brunonia Barry [1] has been a perfect accompaniment. Have you noticed all of the great tips Brunonia has imparted? You can review part one of our conversation HERE [2] and part two HERE [3].

In this final installation, Brunonia speaks of her experiments with method acting and characterization, writing with an unreliable narrator, what’s happening with the film version of The Lace Reader, what’s next for her and more. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Paul Fireman of Fireman Creative [4], head of the design company that produced Brunonia’s amazing book trailer, for his help in arranging this interview. Haven’t seen the trailer? Why not watch now? Enjoy.

Part 3: Interview with Brunonia Barry

TW: Is it true that you took a screenwriting class with the great Robert McKee?

BB: Bob had his normal classes, and I took one of those, and then he had workshops where he worked with 8-10 people generally. You had to submit a script or a work in progress, and he’d decide if he wanted to work with you. I was in one of his groups. Eventually, he was so busy that he decided to meet with one group that he wanted to develop—his development group. There were nine of us, and we met for a couple years. So I not only got to work on my script and story structure and work with him, but I got to work with a wonderful group of writers and read and comment on their works. It was a great experience, and it led me to getting jobs as a reader in Hollywood.

TW: How did this influence your work, if it did?

BB: I learned a lot about structure and a lot about character. Even though he analyzes structures that work, he delved into character quite a bit. What the character wants and what prevents the character from getting what he wants has to be supported by the structure. So a character doesn’t give the most dramatic action to achieve their goal in the first act, because then where will you have to go?

TW: So envisioning your arc before you start and starting in the right place.

BB: Yes, exactly. I usually start a story at its beginning, and then in the end realize I should’ve picked the story up more in the middle; the beginning becomes backstory. Bob had a way of teaching things. I happened to have had the first script I wrote optioned, so I went in that direction for a while, but I think the reason I never finished anything is that I needed to be a novelist. But I learned a lot studying a different genre, screenwriting, and story is story. And that’s what his book is titled, Story.

TW: I think his book can be used by novelists as well as screenwriters, don’t you?

BB: I think so. The character arcs and story structures are classic. I think the book could be very helpful for novelists.

TW: Speaking of the big screen, I read somewhere that you’d tried method acting to get more deeply into the skin of your characters. Can you explain the exercise and what happened?

BB: Yes, I tried to become the character and act as they would for a day or two, and in Towner’s case for about a week. You know, knowing what they know and walking around Salem with that knowledge. I could walk around as Towner anywhere, including the grocery store. Towner would hate to go to the grocery store, because she didn’t like being out in public. To be that character would give you a certain amount of anxiety. You wouldn’t want to be looked at, you wouldn’t want to have any interaction with anyone. May and Eva were interesting. Eva was based on my mother and grandmother, so that was easy; I didn’t have to inhabit that character, I knew her. I could just visit my mother in a sense and speak to her. I could just walk around my house, because I live in a house that’s very similar to my grandmother’s house and filled with some of my grandmother’s things. I think that in becoming a different character you have to step away from yourself, and that’s a good thing to do. As Lindley, I might’ve wanted to pocket something, but of course I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it. It just comes to you how you could do it.

TW: So the exercise helps to inform the boundaries of the character.

BB: I think it does, and then when they don’t have those boundaries it’s a little frightening to be in those characters.

TW: Did you hit any challenges?

BB: I couldn’t stay with Cal for very long. He was in such pain, and I didn’t want to go there—drinking a lot of wine and singing Amazing Grace. That wouldn’t be a good place.

TW: Do you think it’s important, especially when you have an unreliable narrator, to have characters that can be those touchstones for you?

BB: I think so. That’s a good question. My unreliable narrator is so different, because with a normal one, the reader would know before the narrator knows what’s really going on, but with this story it’s so different that the reader can’t really know everything until the end—although they may have figured it out. So I think it does become very important to have a few characters who are understandable and grounded and healthy. Even Ann Chase is grounded and healthy, and she’s a witch. She’s funny, too, and I think you need a little humor even in a dark story. Some readers have commented on the humor in The Lace Reader. One reader said, “It’s ha-ha pow.”

TW: Each of your characters has a rich backstory. How did you decide how much to include in the novel and what to leave out?

BB: I think I wrote as if I had left something out, usually. For example, when Rafferty talks to his ex-wife, he gets into an argument with her but I didn’t understand it. So then I went back and recreated their relationship. I knew certain things about him, like he’d gone to Fordham and dropped out because his girlfriend got pregnant, and he probably would’ve been headed toward law and ended up in criminal justice, and he had a roommate who committed suicide. A lot of the backstory had to do with motivation: Why had he come to Salem, what was he running from? Not only a marriage that didn’t work but the work he was doing. The fact that Rafferty was Jack’s AA sponsor gives Rafferty a little bit of guilt about knowing too much about both Towner and Jack. That sort of thing just makes the characters more complex, I think.

TW: Speaking of complex, let’s get back to your unreliable narrator. Towner, who tells the reader from page one that she’s a liar and crazy and has memory problems thanks to a lot of electroconvulsive therapy and her depression, is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. Overall, what was it like to work with her?

BB: She was tough, honestly. Lindley was a lot easier to work with, because we know who she is—and Towner knows who she is. Since Towner doesn’t know who Towner is, she’s a difficult character. Her major lie isn’t anything in the book; it’s that she knows the end of the story. The other problem is that she has gaps in her memory, and there are things she tells incorrectly. It’s not that she’s lying, it’s that she doesn’t know what’s true. Even at the end, there are things she won’t realize until she’s in therapy for a few years, and then she’ll see where things couldn’t have been as she remembered because they conflict. There are things she’s combined that happened at different times. I love Towner, but she’s not necessarily likable to everyone. You wonder why she’s so angry at her mother, it doesn’t seem fair. People may not like May, either, and wonder over her.

TW: But everything comes together so beautifully in the end and you understand why May seemed—aloof, maybe?

BB: Right!

TW: But we won’t talk about why. Isn’t it frustrating sometimes for you not to be able to discuss the parts of the book that make it truly special—because it would give everything away? It’s like having that high-concept book but it’s shrouded in a secret, like The Crying Game. I have a similar issue with my book.

BB: Yes, that’s exactly it, and it can be frustrating.

TW: Has the controversial ending been hard for you in any way? Did you expect such conversation to come from this ending?

BB: By the time the book came out, I was committed to the ending, obviously. Going on tour becomes two different things. I was on a six-month tour, and sometimes people had read the book and something they hadn’t. And that was interesting, because there were two ways of talking about it. For those who had read the book I’d say, “Stay after class and we’ll talk!” You have to be very careful what you say. Sometimes, because of the ending, it becomes “Did you get the ending?” And that’s the part I don’t like so much, because for me, I wrote it as if the reader was as important in determining the ending as I was, and I wrote it as if two different endings work. So if you think you know the ending, then you do, for you, but there’s another way to look at it as well. In life, I don’t think you can tie anything up, so it’s hard for me to talk about a definitive ending to the book. This book is in one sense a huge logic puzzle, and I want the reader to solve the puzzle, but I also want them to realize that a solution is a solution for them and not necessarily for the next reader.

TW: Right. The book isn’t really finished until it’s read and interpreted. The reader is a big part of the formula for solution in this book.

BB: Yes, that’s so huge. And I’m not sure they know sometimes that they’re such a key. I think the difference I found in touring the US and then going to Italy was that I don’t think the Italians had as much trouble with the duality of the ending, maybe because they live in a less cut-and-dried world than we’re trying to make ours.

TW: Magical realism is interesting in the States, isn’t it? Not as commonly seen.

BB: Exactly. In Italy, there’s the very real issue of abuse and then there’s the surreal issue of what’s really happening and a kind of magic. They can exist simultaneously there, but less so here. They certainly can in some areas; in fact, people in New Orleans got the book immediately. There was a group in Omaha that just absolutely got it. You don’t necessarily understand who’s going to get it and in what way.

TW: Interesting, how people can process the same set of circumstances completely differently. It must be strange for you. You’ve done a lot of book club chats now and probably learned from the different interpretations of your work.

BB: It’s true. Book clubs always start with the ending and often argue about it, so that’s fun. This is a good discussion book for book clubs. Rafferty says that two people looking at the same thing never see the same thing. That’s a very police-oriented point of view, but it’s very true of this book.

TW: I have that sentence right here in my notes, in bold: Two people looking at something with two sets of eyes rarely see the same thing. That’s like a synopsis of your book, right there.

BB: It is! That’s what the book is about. It’s about perception. And because of the ending, sometimes I think that’s lost. It really isn’t, because your perception is what’s giving you an ending.

TW: Did you start out thinking that this would be a book about perception?

BB: No, not at all. But I think because it was lace reading, it has to be. Anytime you’re doing a reading, you’re perceiving something. I took some courses on intuition and did this exercise: write a question about something that is very important to you, then hand the paper to a stranger, closed, and have them meditate on the paper. Then they would offer images, thoughts, feelings, sensations that came to mind. It’s an exercise that works, almost every time. That’s kind of what I based the lace reading on. If you’re reading a piece of lace, you’re reading it for someone else, but what you’re seeing are their images. So it’s not up to you to interpret, it’s just up to you to see the images.

TW: What do you think makes a novel book club friendly?

BB: Someone said recently that books that are controversial, that we can’t all agree that we like, make the best books for clubs. You know, someone loves it, someone hates it, someone’s not sure—that’s when they get into great discussions. I think because of this book’s ending, there were a lot of things to talk about. It left a lot up for debate, which is great for book clubs.

TW: Have the book club experiences influenced how you’re writing the second book?

BB: I don’t think so. I think my second book might be less book-club friendly than the first. I don’t think I have a surprise ending with this one, but you never know! But I think trying to second-guess what you’re doing is a really bad idea.

TW: It’s interesting, I have a friend who’s writing her next novel now and she realizes that she’s letting comments from book clubs over her previous work influence this one. It’s a little like accepting critique, in a sense, and letting it simmer in you a while, and then deciding what you’re going to take from it and what you’ll leave.

BB: Well, in that sense, there are things I wouldn’t do again that I’ve learned from book clubs. I probably wouldn’t try to play to them, though.

TW: What sort of things might you do differently?

BB: I’m not sure I’d have a surprise ending!

TW: Really?

BB: No, that’s not true.

TW: That’s what got everyone talking!

BB: I don’t think I’d use a narrator as unreliable as Towner again, truthfully. I wouldn’t mix the present and past tenses again; I think that confused people more than it needed to. I will be doing different points of view, though there’ve been complaints about that as well—some people loved it and some people hated it. Changing from first person present tense to third person past tense is probably a little confusing and not necessary. I happen to like it, but I think it’s really ambitious, and I think maybe that’s not for a first novel. The next novel will be a lot more accessible in that respect. Accessibility is what I’d work to achieve. And the narrator in The Lace Reader was not sympathetic or empathetic. I think I need to let the reader in more, so I’m working to do that. It may be in my nature that I don’t want to do that, but I’m working on my nature.

TW: As you were speaking, I was remembering what my blog partner Barbara Samuel always says about writing, and that is, “Serve the work.”

BB: Oh, that’s great.

TW: What you did was serve the work. You did what you needed to do for the book.

BB: Thank you. And hopefully what I’m doing for the second book will serve the work, too—just differently.

TW: Is it difficult to help book club members feel comfortable with your presence as they’re discussing your work? How do you fit into that process?

BB: I think you have to say, and you have to do it over and over, that it’s okay for them to talk about what they didn’t like. Having the writer there probably does change the dynamic a bit. But I think saying to them, “I need you to help me and help the next book by telling me what didn’t work for you.” I always invite them to be brutal. They rarely are, but they’ll be more frank if you tell them that you want them to tell you everything. Convince the book group that you are also a work in progress, and that in order to become the writer you want to be, you have to hear what they really thought. The alternative to that is explaining what you meant by something, but every time you do that, you realize where you might need to be clearer the next time around.

TW: You really do need to have a thick skin to open yourself up, let yourself be punched around a little bit by all of that, then digest the experience and decide what you’re going to do with it, what you’re going to change—if anything.

BB: That’s true. And if you don’t do it in a book club setting, it’s going to happen somewhere else. It doesn’t even happen so much with reviewers, but it’s going to happen on Amazon and on the blogs, and you may never know why your book didn’t work for those people. So I think getting in front of people and talking about things early gives you a strong idea of your book, because you’re going to need that extra thick skin later.

TW: How’s it been since everything hit for you? Do you try to stay away from reviews?

BB: The reviews that came out from critics were pretty good and quotable, and accurate in a lot of cases. The New York Times and The Washington Post had exactly opposite views of what they liked and didn’t like, but they both said enough good things to quote. The others were much better than I expected. But when you get down to the reader level stuff, it gets a little dicey, and I’ve stopped reading now, because it can hurt your feelings. When it says what was good and conversely what didn’t work, then it doesn’t hurt your feelings, because you learn. But then there are those who complain that they wasted money on your book, or there was too much hype on your book, and that hurts. Amazon comments can make me crazy, and just make me want to defend my work. I guess the negative comments are bound to happen, though.

TW: The rights to your novel have sold in 26 countries. The film rights sold as well, and the movie is being made. What’s the status?

BB: Well, it’s being produced by Denise Di Novi, who did Nights in Rodanthe. I think it’s a 2010 production, and I don’t think she’s planning on finding a director until the paperback of The Lace Reader comes out. [Note, the paperback version of The Lace Reader will be released 8/18/09 [5].] Also right now, financially, it’s a tough time, so things have been on hold. We’ll see. It may be pushed back. The screenwriter will be Alexandra Seros, who is wonderful

TW: Now, your second book will be set in Salem but will only briefly touch on some of these developed characters, right?

BB: If you’ve read The Lace Reader and then read the second book, you’ll recognize the characters when you see them, but they’re not really important to the book–only Ann Chase, the witch. We’ll learn a lot more about her. She’s the auntie of the main character.

TW: And you’ll go back to Towner’s story in another book?

BB: I think I have to, yeah, for me, to finish the hero’s journey, I have to go back. May’s story is so important; I’d like to explore that and Yellow Dog Island and what really happened there–as was my original intention.

TW: Okay, my last question: Do you have that recipe for “difficult tea”?

BB: I do! I actually went to a brewer. The UK HarperCollins wanted to distribute the tea to booksellers, so I had to come up with it. I knew the ingredients, so I went to the brewer and she worked on the recipe I gave her and then added some other things to it, including chocolate. It made it palatable. As I say in the book, not a lot of people like it—it’s Towner’s personality, and it’s not necessarily something that’s drinkable by anyone else—but the brewer made it drinkable. It has hot peppers and black peppers, and it’s a little chai like with its spiciness.

Thanks so much, Brunonia, for an extraordinary interview!

About Therese Walsh [6]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [7], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [8] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [9], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [10] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [11] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [12]). Learn more on her website [13].