Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Interview with Ruth Barrett, Author of BASE SPIRITS

Tell us who you are.

My name is Ruth Barrett, and I am an actor who’s morphed into a writer. My day job is writing descriptive video scripts for the blind, and my ‘real’ writing is my fiction. I have published a heap of short stories over the years, and ‘Base Spirits’ is my first novel.

When did you start writing and how long was it before you were published?

I’ve always written stories since I was a child. I had dreams of being an author in my late teens, but the acting took over for a few years. In my thirties, I started getting more serious, took a few writing courses, and an anthology published my first short story, ‘Family Secrets’. (I’ve since rewritten and re-launched that story as a stand-alone on Kindle.)

Tell us about your latest book and what inspired it.

Base Spirits’ came about as a result of my acting in a Jacobean play, ‘A Yorkshire Tragedy’. The story is nasty, brutish and short: a nobleman loses his fortune and murders half of his family rather than live in poverty. It was a true story in 1605, and Shakespeare’s acting company cashed in on the scandal and performed the play even before Sir Walter Calverley was pressed to death for his crimes! I was playing his unfortunate wife, and had a chance to visit Leeds in Yorkshire during rehearsals. Calverley Old Hall is still standing in a nearby village. In fact, you can rent one wing as a holiday flat. I met a local historian and had a tour through the place… and of course it has a few ghost legends. Not a surprise, considering the tragic past. I seemed to know more about the story than anyone, and thought it might make a good ghost novel one day… and ‘one day’ actually took quite a few years, on and off!

What genre do you write in, if any? How do you feel about the genre, the future of it, and the authors in it?

Base Spirits’ seems to fall under a classic horror category, although it is a mixed genre piece with a historical core. I tend to write with a dark streak, but not always pure horror per se. The horror gang writing today are a great bunch-- very warm and welcoming, and mutually supportive. The genre seems to be vibrant these days. Certain things ebb and flow in being the ‘sexy’ theme of the day, like vampires and zombies-- as long as it’s well-written, that’s great for all of us. Today’s readers have never had more choice.

What/who do you read for pleasure?

I like a little of everything. I studied English Literature at university in Canada and the U.K., so I do enjoy Dickens, the Brontes and Shakespeare. I love Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley and Sarah Waters to name but a few. My Kindle is stuffed full of all the new Indie authors I’ve discovered, and I need to find more time for my TBR pile! I am not a snob about genres. If it’s well done, I’ll read almost anything. I tend to gravitate toward dark themes… and if a book has a British historical setting, that rocks my imagination.

Is writing pleasure or work for you?

A bit of both. When I’m in ‘The Zone’, it’s like time stands still and I write for hours on end without even noticing I’m forgetting to eat or have a drink. Sometimes when the world is too much with me, it takes a struggle to get in the mood. The ‘day job’ writing sometimes has to take precedent. I kinda need to eat and pay my bills, and the fiction isn’t doing that for me… YET!

If you had to exchange your writing life with another writer, who would that writer be and why?

Stephen Fry seems to have good time! He truly loves words and language, and delights in playing with English with such amazing wit and humour. He is also at that enviable stage in his career where he can act or be a show host or write… he is past all the struggle of having to prove himself and find his audience. That is the sort of freedom I would love to have- you can choose what you want to do next and always know that you are secure.

How do your friends and family cope knowing you have such dark or unusual thoughts?

My family has always thought I was a bit… unusual. I’m the youngest of four siblings and the only girl. It’s likely their fault that I’m bent. My Mom is proud as punch. My friends have been quite supportive overall, but I think I’ve shocked a few along the way. In everyday life, I am very cheerful and funny and so I think they expected that my books will be light and fluffy. As ‘Base Spirits’ opens with an execution and deals with brutal marital abuse and infanticide, I’m sure there are some out there who quietly wonder where my demons come from…

How supportive is your spouse and/or your family?

No spouse to worry about. My boyfriend has been hugely supportive and was one of the main people who pushed me toward the Indie route to publishing. My Mom has been my biggest champion all along. Other family members have been generally quite supportive… and some haven’t said one word about it.

What inspires you? Or triggers a story idea?

I have a wild imagination that seems to run in the background at all times. I’ll see an image or an article that might get me questioning ‘why?’, or have a dream that sparks an idea for a story. The best inspirations are when a random thought catches flame and runs off in my head. A whole novel once appeared in a single afternoon walk.

How do you see the story in your mind as it's created? Is it like making a plan, seeing a mental movie, or do you just write down what the voices in your head tell you?

I don’t plan. The idea usually plays out like a movie scene at first, and then the voices start chattering as the characters present themselves. God-- writers really are a bit nuts, aren’t they?

Now that traditional publishing vs digital publishing has taken really different turns lately, how do you feel about authors going the small press or traditional publishing route over the digital route? Indie or Traditional for you or both and why?

I chased that elusive traditional route for years. I had success in individual stories getting published by anthologies and chapbooks. I won a few contests and was awarded a writing grant. This is a good pedigree to have when you are trying to woo agents and publishers, and I know that it helped me get onto the right desks instead of slush piles sometimes. I have a professional editor who loved the book and started dropping it off to the Big Six publishers on my behalf even BEFORE I started working with her! The feedback from editors and agents was always positive… but never did anyone take me on. It was enormously frustrating. I would go in fits and starts, re-write, and try again… but I found it utterly disheartening and time consuming.

I went Indie after some hesitation. There was such a stigma for so long (and there still is, to some degree) that if you self-publish you must suck. It was only after nearly dying from the flu at New Year’s 2011 that I decided that life was too short, and finally listened to my friend’s gentle suggestions to look into all of this e-publishing stuff. I do like a lot about being Indie, but it is a LOT of hard work trying to get your writing noticed in the flood of new work constantly on offer. There are a number of folks out there who unfortunately are not helping the ‘you must suck’ Indie stigma by putting out sub-standard work. If you aren’t prepared to hone your craft, hire an editor and have a professional-looking cover, then you are doing yourself an injustice and making other Indie writers look like a bad bet for prospective readers.

I see that some publishers are starting to present more ‘writer friendly’ deals, like Scott Nicholson has with Thomas and Mercer. He still owns all the rights and profits for his other work, but has a three-book deal with them. That is good business for both parties. Publishers are going to have to change the way they run if they want to stay in the game. It’s been a case of them being the impenetrable gate-keepers for too long. A deal like that would appeal to me-- it would take a bit of pressure off by letting someone else hire the editor and cover designer, pay for book printing, and do a lot more effective marketing than I can on my own. It would also help sales of my own Indie stuff and free up more time for actual writing. I don’t think authors need to choose one or the other route anymore-- it’s a matter of what makes the most sense at the time.

What's the best book you ever read?

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Who are your influences in literature?

Shakespeare gives a writer great grounding in character development and use of imagery. My theatre and TV background drive my work. I ‘see’ what I write like a stage piece or a film… and all of my actor’s training of getting into a character’s head helps my fictional characters come to life. I mentioned a few other favourite writers earlier on, but I also read heaps of Stephen King, Peter Straub and John Saul as a kid and I’m sure that had a huge influence.

Do you feel traditional publishing may become a niche?

There will always be traditional publishers. Publishing is in a state of evolution and re-invention right now. Whether that results in it becoming a ‘niche’ remains to be seen.

What is your education and job, other than writing?

I have a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English Literature-- I studied at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario and did my third year abroad at the University of Leeds, UK. I returned to England and did my theatre training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in London. I’ve since taken a few creative writing course, notably the Humber School for Writers correspondence course under the enthusiastic mentorship of Booker Prize inner Peter Carey. My day job is working in described video services for the blind and visually impaired. I write special described narrative scripts for TV and film, and sometimes I get to record the narration, which makes the actor in me pretty happy. I love doing voice-over work. I had a special project last year: live-to-air improvised described narrative for the Royal Wedding.

Do you ever, like Truman Capote confessed doing, take from real life, friends, and family situations or characters to use in your fiction? If so, do you tell them or keep it secret?

I once said that I have a mental scrap bag of bits and pieces: the inflection in a voice, or the way someone jingles change in their pocket, or a facial expression… and yes, true-life interactions between real people sometimes find their way into the scrap bag as well. I never base a character exactly on a real person-- I’ll stitch bits together like a crazy-quilt. And as Margaret Atwood said, ‘Sometimes we just make things up’! I’m no fool. I never tell anyone if there’s an aspect of them in a character. If they do notice, I hope they only notice the positive stuff.

Do you think networking on social sites has helped your career and sales?

That is the only way I have any sales! If I didn’t Tweet and lurk around on Facebook, guest blog and do interviews like this, I’d have sold a few books to my friends and that would be about it. I find this to be one of the coolest things about going Indie- I’ve made tons of friends and interacted with readers. I try not to be overly pushy, and just joke about and share ideas on-line. I have no problem with sharing other authors’ news or blog posts, and I hope they return the favour if they feel moved to do so. It’s not a competition, is it? If someone likes to read, they’re going to buy more than one book… and if an Indie author can point the way to other quality Indie writers, everyone wins.

Writing fiction is important to all authors, but how much does it mean to you? If there were no outlets for fiction of any kind, how would that feel? If for some reason you could not write anymore, what would you do instead?

I can’t imagine a world without a fictional outlet. It wouldn’t feel complete or fulfilling. What a horrible thought! If I couldn’t write, I’d have to be acting again- there is a strong need in me to tell stories and explore characters… move people to laughter or tears or a new way of looking at something… or just entertain them.

What three things should our world have that would make it a better place?

If the world had more empathy, generosity and selflessness, we’d be living in an earthly paradise. That would pretty much solve all the major problems like war and terrorism, religious strife, disgusting capitalist greed that destroys nature and human lives for the sake of the almighty buck, and the bizarre right-wing Conservative attempt to take over the world!

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