A Different Shape: Interview with Barbara Joan Scott


There are a million things we, as writers, need to think about when writing a novel. With so much to focus on, it can be difficult to actually get any work done. 

It’s push and pull—is there too much of this, too little of that? Where does this belong, if it belongs at all? 

Is this what I’m supposed to do? 

No writer has all the answers. But we can get insight from those in our writing community who are willing to share their experience. 

Today, Barbara Joan Scott shares the answers she found while writing her novel, The Taste of Hunger.

Listen to learn...

  • How to incorporate historical research in your writing
  • Why cutting parts of your writing doesn’t mean deleting 
  • The importance of sharing work for editing 
  • The truth of “finding” your voice 

Even these topics are just the tip (haha, get it?) of the iceberg that is this episode. 

Here’s a sneak peek of this week's episode:

[04:36] And I thought, it was no longer just my secret. It was sort of a, kind of a Canadian secret, if you like…

[07:24] What I love about you having said that, is I think you need to leave a little bit of room for the reader. 

[13:12] So you get stubborn. And sometimes the stubborn part is good, and sometimes it's not. 

[17:58] But I also, I have a writing journal where I just write down things like that, that I—that I have no clue why I'm fascinated by it, but I am fascinated by it. 

[22:47] But then when I did that, I fell more in love with the character, I fell more in love with the story, and it was such a satisfying experience… 

[31:13] I try to get to the computer at about eight o'clock, and then I stay there until noon. But I'm not writing the whole time.

[35:51] So for me, I think it's—you have to earn it. You have to put the time in with the characters…

[38:06] … and the other thing is, we are, we're trying so much in—yeah, I think in all fiction—to tell the truth in a very real way.

Links from this episode:

The Writer’s Flow Studio



Intro: Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. Because—let's face it—the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt in chair getting those words on the page. This podcast is for writers who love books, and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft, and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books, and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them, writers who wanna spend more time in that flow state, writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call “the writing life.” We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome, writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show. 

Rhonda Douglas: Okay, hi. We are here with Barbara Joan Scott. Thanks for being here, Barbara. I'll just do a little intro and then we can chat. Um, so Barbara Joan Scott has had the great good fortune to be able to devote most of her adult working life to creative writing, as an author, editor, and teaching—teacher. Her first book, The Quick, won the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize, and the Writer's Guild of Alberta Howard O'Hagan Award for Best Collection of Short Fiction. And it was also shortlisted for the WGA Henry Kreisel Award for Best First Book. And in 2015, she received the Lowest Hole Award for Editorial Excellence. And in 2021, her essay, Black Diamond, won the WGA’s John White Award. The Taste of Hunger is her first novel. In his review for the Mirachi—Miramichi reader, Ian Coleford says, “Barbara Joan Scott tells a story filled with fierce passion, wayward desire, and thwarted dreams. A story that skirts the edges of melodrama without making the plunge. The Taste of Hunger also provides a compulsive read and leaves us pondering the darkness that resides in every human heart.” Welcome, Barbara. 

Barbara Joan Scott: Hi. Thank you so much.

Rhonda: So, that was a lovely quote. I wanna come back to it a little bit later. So, um, I wanted just to start off by asking you to tell us a little bit about, uh, about The Taste for Hung, uh, of Hunger. I keep saying “for,” but it's The Taste of Hunger. This to me, was a novel that was all wrapped up in the power of secrets, among other things. But how did it, where did it come from for you? Like, where did it start? 

Barbara: Well, when I—about a year before she died, my grandmother, um, sat me down and told me that she had never wanted to be married to my grandfather, uh, that she was married, <laugh>. I know. So that started with, and I—

Rhonda: Whoa, grandma! 

Barbara: Uh, yeah, <laugh> and also, I mean, so that's a big secret that I had no idea. I mean, they'd been divorced. They divorced when my mother got married, so I never knew them as a couple. Um, but I had always assumed that they just, had fallen in love and then grown apart, and that was that. But, um, so she was 15 years old and he was 29, and they were—her family was very poor, so there weren't a, a lot of choices. And I probably would've left it there, as it, it kind of rocked my world, but it didn't have that universal reach until I heard a CBC Radio, uh, program. And they were interviewing, I don't know, half-dozen women who had the same story. And the thing that had really struck me—

Rhonda: Really?

Barbara: Yes. And the thing that really struck me was that they had the same—when my grandmother told me, she had been living with a man that she loved for 45 years by the time she died. So way longer than she'd been married to my grandfather. But she had been very bitter and very angry when she told me, you could just tell it had never gone away. And the same thing was in the voices of these women, that, that being robbed of that choice, uh, the bitterness of that never did go away. And so that was the starting point. And I thought, it was no longer just my secret. It was sort of a, kind of a Canadian secret, if you like, that, that all these people from different cultures who were living very, very hard lives at the turn of the century—a lot of the women were forced into terrible marriages. And my grandmother was actually lucky because he was only twice her age. But some of these women, they were married off to 50 year olds. And yeah, it was really kind of creepy <laugh>.

Rhonda: Wow <laugh>. And were they all Ukrainian? Like, uh, you know, cause this is— 

Barbara: No. 

Rhonda: No? Okay. 

Barbara: No. I mean, a lot of them were, um, and that was actually more—it was more conventional at the time in Ukrainian culture to have arranged marriages. That is true. And the same thing, but it was other Slavic peoples. Um, I think even Germans, I mean, some of the people on the—yeah. So.

Rhonda: So, we've, we've got a strong history of secrets on the Canadian prairies. Wow. 

Barbara: Yes. Yeah. 

Rhonda: Didn't know that. So good. So, and, and, in your novel, you're, you're dealing with, um, generations in different, you know, things unfolding in different timelines. 

Barbara: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. 

Rhonda: So, you know, as a reader, it's really great to, like, I—I love that kind of book. Um, and, you know, you can see, like, the impact of actions through generations, but how was it as a writer? Like, what are the challenges of writing across time like that? 

Barbara: Oh, <laugh>, well, I, I made a vow. I will never, ever, ever do it again, because I didn't know very much <laugh>. I didn't know very much about the time periods. And so I had mountains of research, boxes and boxes. And then of course, you have to try to forget most of it so that you're not shoehorning all the research into the—that you keep the narrative thrust going <laugh>. 

Rhonda: Right, “look at this fascinating bit I just learned.” Yeah, yeah yeah.

Barbara: That I, and I worked so hard to figure this all out. So it was—that was quite a challenge, actually. Um, and then the thing that really struck me though, was I thought when I read, so if I read a 19th century novel, they're not really super strong on detail. Like, you know, when we get up in the morning, we don't think, oh, and I put on my, um, oh, I dunno, my Louis Vuitton red dress with my matching—like, we don't do all of those details. 

Rhonda: Right, right. That's true. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. 

Barbara: So when you're writing historical, at least what I figured in writing historical fic—fiction, you really want to get rid of as much of the historical detail as possible. Keep those, keep the things that are, that spark, um, but really approach it more as though you're living in the timeframe. So, that was the challenge. 

Rhonda: Okay. That's fascinating to me because, uh, so many writers, I think, go way down the research rabbit hole. 

Barbara: Yeah. 

Rhonda: And, and you get a lot of detail. And I, I can—I've had conversations with folks in First Book Finish about, um, you know, exactly—we spent a lot of time talking about research. Um, and so it's, it—I, what I love about you having said that, is I think you need to leave a little bit of room for the reader. 

Barbara: Yes. 

Rhonda: Right? So the minute you say this particular kind of red dress, that—that's it, it's defined. 

Barbara: Yeah. 

Rhonda: But if you say red dress, then I can—I'm imagining a different red dress than you. And, you know, I think there's more room for the reader. So it's really interesting you said that, cuz I think a lot of writers maybe wanna go the other direction with the research Yeah. And get in all the details. 

Barbara: Well, and the other thing that happens too is that then if you, if you're using the details sparely, then, I mean, I've —I found out at one point totally by accident that the, that there was a color during the war, during the second World War, of lipstick that was called Victory Red. And I thought, “oh, brilliant.” So I brought it in and, and then it became really important, actually, in the development of the story, but, um,but it also sparks because it's one of the few pinned down details in the, in the book, so, yeah. 

Rhonda: Hmm. Interesting. So tell me a little bit about your research process then, and, you know, when are you doing what kinds of research in, in the whole process of, of getting from an idea to a finished version of the book? 

Barbara: Hmm. Well, to begin with, I did a lot of res—of research. Uh, the book was in a different shape, before, but, um, so I initially started with the research of the homesteaders, the people who came to Canada from Ukraine. And there were two main waves. One was the late 1800s , and the other was the early 1900s. So there's actually quite a lot of information and it's firsthand information, which was brilliant. Um, so these are people's memories and, and so, so it's very, it's very alive. So I did that, um, and, and I, and then I wrote quite a bit in—out of that timeframe. Um, but at a certain point I thought, “I have to stop doing this.” Because at a certain point, research becomes the thing you do instead of writing your book. 

Rhonda: Yes. <laugh> And you feel so—so good about it, you feel so <laugh> self righteous <laugh>. Look at me, all the work I'm doing. Not a word on the page. Not a word.

Barbara: And that's right. So then I started doing, I, I can't remember, I might have been, I don't know if it was Margaret Atwood, but somebody said—I thought this is really smart. So you, you're writing, you're in the middle of a scene and you think, “oh,”—I don't know whether this is totally made up, but—”I don't know if they would've had pockets on their aprons back then.” So then I would just put in brackets, little square brackets, “find out more about the aprons,” or… 

Rhonda: Right. That's right. 

Barbara: So, that’s not actually anything to do with the book, and I didn't, but—but the idea is there—

Rhonda: Mm-hmm. <affirmative> 

Barbara: —that you, you make a note to yourself and say, I can look that up later. Like, I have enough, research under my belt now that I can, I can run with it. Um, and not to start running off and spending five hours looking up aprons in the 1920s <laugh>, so.

Rhonda: Yes.

Barbara: So it was kind of— 

Rhonda: I love the bracket thing. 

Barbara: Yeah. 

Rhonda: Yeah. I love that. I—so, so helpful because you don't get bogged down. 

Barbara: Yes. And you don't distract yourself. I mean, I find, uh, that I—I'm one of those writers. It takes a—a lot to get me to the page. I have to have, um, certain rituals that, uh, that I go through. And, um, so for me to go and spend five hours researching would interrupt that flow just way too terribly. So, yeah. 

Rhonda: Mm. Yeah. So you said the book was in a different shape? What do you mean?

Barbara: Well, it had—so right now it starts in 1926 and it ends in about 1949. And, and that was the main storyline. Um, but I had two others over top of it. One that ran in the ‘50s and another one that ran in the 1980s. And, uh, and really it was, it was too cluttered and, and what people kept saying—and I just kept thinking, I just had to make the other lines more interesting. But people kept saying, oh, they loved Olena and Taras, the main, uh, characters, and June. But they were not as warm to the 1950s characters or the 1980s characters. And I just kept thinking, “well, I have to make them stronger.” And then finally, someone said to me, um, “this reads like—these other two storylines feel like the frame story that you had to tell yourself in order to get to the real story, which is what you find in The Taste of Hunger.” 

Rhonda: Did you—that seems like one of those moments where like, you hate that, and you love that. 

Barbara: Actually—yes.

Rhonda: Like, it’s both. 

Barbara: It was—it was, um, more love it, because people had been trying to tell it to me, and, and I just couldn't—they, they hadn't used the right words, and that was—those were the right words. And then I thought, once I’m—I mean, I really like the rewrite stage of a book, and so once I know that something doesn't belong there, I can get rid of it without any paying, like, just <whoosh> off. Although I did—I didn't delete it, I just, I put it on—off in its own file. So I think there might be another novel lurking around in there someplace. But, um, but yeah, I was—it was the best news ever because I, I could give myself the freedom to not try to write a different book that I'd had in my mind. So, which—I'd had it in my mind for quite a long time. 

Barbara: So you get stubborn. And sometimes the stubborn part is good, uh, and sometimes it's not. So the stubborn part of trying to keep those storylines was not very good. But there were other parts of the book that I, that people had said, “well, I don't know. It's, it's nicely written, but I don't, how does it work here? Why does it belong here?” And I didn't have the answer to that, but my instincts were to keep it. And then in the end, it ended up—like the baba yaga story that goes throughout is very important. And for the longest time—I had no idea why—but I knew, somehow. Um, so it didn't have the same “thunk” when someone said it wasn't working well. I thought, well that I just have to make work better. 

Rhonda: Right. And you knew that.

Barbara: Yeah. Yeah, your instincts, I think, are very important. 

Rhonda: Yeah. But as you say, like, sometimes someone will say something to you and you think, “I've worked so hard on that <laugh>, it took me forever, it's like, you know, 15,000 words, if I take it out, I've lost like a third of my novel, what am I gonna do?” You know? 

Barbara: Yeah. 

Rhonda: And you get stubborn because you've invested so much time. So, I love the bravery of that. Nope. Not working. Cut. 

Barbara: Yeah. 

Rhonda: Gotta go. Yeah. 

Barbara: Well, I used to do that even in short stories where I would. But, but the thing is, I never threw it out. So what I did with stories, actually, was I would, I would take out a chunk and I would just put it at the end. And so that I always knew that if I regretted it, I could get it back. But most of the time I just did not. And, but it was a, like a psychological booster, you know, <laugh>, it's like, yeah, it's not gone forever. You can, you can get it back. So, and as I say, I've got, um, I don't know, 150 pages of the discards that I think I can now turn into something that is utterly its own that wasn't working because it was getting shoehorned into the stronger storyline. And now it can be—

Rhonda: Okay, so now you're gonna make it its own story.

Barbara: Yes. It will be utterly its own. Yep. So, which is also kind of fun. Yeah. 

Rhonda: Yeah. I mean, I think that shows the value of the—what I think of as the “darlings file.” You know, for the kill Your darlings, you know, but don't kill them, exactly. Just put them in another file and maybe there's something there you can use later.

Barbara: Yes. And, and if you're in love with them, I think for me, um, the, the most important thing I thought in that the 1950s storyline—I don't care enough about the people there—but the 1980s one, I have some characters there I just love, and I feel like I should not abandon them. Um, so—but now they get to be their own people, which would be— 

Rhonda: Right. 

Barbara: Yeah. 

Rhonda: Right. They're not at the mercy of this other storyline. 

Barbara: Yes. Yeah. 

Rhonda: Yeah. Yeah. Love that. So Barbara, one of the things I love about your writing, in your short stories but also in this book, is you, you, you have such a gift for—I, I don't know if I'm gonna express it properly, but I think of it as like, these little moments of tenderness. 

Barbara: Oh. 

Rhonda: So it's like how people look at each other, how they reach for each other, touch each other. It's very fresh, and it's very tender. And especially as you get, like, more—as you get more and more invested in the, in the characters, and then you'll have like this economical little moment. And, and it's just, ugh, it's delicious. So I, I wanted to ask you about, you know, sometimes we hear writers, um, have this practice of like going out and observing. Like do you, do you have any kind of practice that would help you? I, I'm just curious about how you get to the freshness of—cuz I'm someone who writes, “she raised her eyebrows,” and then I've gotta go through my manuscript and find all the times they raise their eyebrows <laugh> and you don't seem to have that. You have, like, these really fresh, wonderful, tender moments. And is there anything that you have in your practice that sort of helps you inventory those or capture those? 

Barbara: Well, I'm very—about, about the, um, raising the eyebrows. I'm very fond of search and replace on the computer <laugh>. It's the best thing about computers ever. 

Rhonda: That's true, that's true. 

Barbara: Sometimes I think it—we—it, it's not always the most creative way to, you know, it, it's so fast. And, uh, but that—I'm very fond of that. And that, those moments, I think what happens is, um, I just have the kind of brain that files away little moments that—things that I see, that are independent of anything I'm actually doing, um, working on. So my husband used to joke that I don't have an eye for detail because, really, I don't. If I could—I can walk into a room and miss three quarters of what's there. But, I might notice the way that these two people just come and touch each other briefly and move on. 

Rhonda: Right. 

Barbara: And I think I just—and then somehow when I'm working, that will pop up and then I know it—it helps me figure out the characters. So it's not a deliberate thing. But I also, I have a writing journal that, where I just write down things like that, that I—that I have no clue why I'm fascinated by it, but I am fascinated by it. 

Rhonda: Right. 

Barbara: And I think that tenderness too is I—just love them so much. 

Barbara: You know, I, um, I gave the book to an early reader, uh, well, actually, before it went to copy edits. And she's somebody who, um, she's a very, very good reader, not a writer. And I thought, I really need to show the book, because there are certain aspects of the mystery that I thought, well, I need to know that's not, uh, given away on page 52. Um, but what she said, and I thought, um—she said she could not, she could not like these characters, but she could not stop reading about these characters. So she—it was—they were doing things that—and I, and I thought, that's right. But, but I love them all and I <laugh>. And I think that's, I think that's the writer's job. You know, you, you, you love them, so you understand them. So, so those moments are, um, and actually, especially because so many really sad things happened to a lot of these characters that it just felt so important to give them those moments, you know, where they—little moments of happiness, or... 

Rhonda: Yeah. Hmm. Yeah. Yeah. Um, gosh, what was the difference for you in moving from the short form? The short story, right? Sort of doesn't take us long, get it out in a, in a week and then come back to it and work on it in a longer time, versus a long form. Is—was there anything that happened for you in your writing practice, or how you thought of yourself as a writer, or anything as you shifted forms? 

Barbara: I think I was always intended to be a novelist. And the reason I say that is that I used to write songs and then—uh, this is decades ago. And, and then I found I needed more space. So then I started writing short stories, and then I found I needed more space. Um, and one of the—actually one of the negative reviews of The Quick—which I thought was such a positive thing—but anyway, the, the reviewer <laugh> seemed quite upset because he said, uh, “each story in this book has enough content for a novel.” And I thought, “oh, that's lovely. That's just lovely.” 

Rhonda: Right. That's a nice, rich short story. Yeah. Yeah. 

Barbara: But he was not crazy about that. But I thought, “oh, that's”—and so I think that's it, is that when I got into the novel form, it's, it's scary. Um, especially in the rough draft stage where, um, and I, I did what I did with short stories, which I think is not a good strategy. I will change that strategy this time. And one of the things that I do is—goes back to the, those sharp moments. I write scenes. I just write scenes or, or things that really move me. And it took me a long time to figure out that in a novel, you really, really, really have to figure out the chronology of these. So if you—if scene A does in fact precede, uh, scene B, then scene B has to be informed. And so that, uh—this time I much, much earlier on, I'm gonna work out a chronological order. So I can just have a bit of control of the material. But I love, but I love that. 

Rhonda: So you’re gonna do structural work early on.

Barbara: A lot. And so I—but not at the beginning. I, I couldn't ever do it at the beginning cuz I just don't know enough about what's there. But I think, certainly, once I get to a certain amount of rough draft material then I will work out a chronology. Which is not the same thing as the structure. So, um, The Taste of Hunger moves back and forth, um, so there's a part that comes back that's from 1940. And, um, but the chronology really, really, I—I, I didn't realize that because often in a short story, the chronology is, is so easy to follow. It's not—but in a novel <laugh> suddenly becomes this big thing. Yeah. 

Rhonda: Yeah. Yeah. So, um, you worked for a long time as an editor. And full disclosure, you worked with me as an editor on my short story collection Welcome to the Circus. And, you are a brilliant editor. 

Barbara: Oh, thank  you. 

Rhonda: Like, that editing experience with you is one of the highlights of my writing life. 

Barbara: Oh, thank you! Just—

Rhonda: I just, you know, ugh, because—

Barbara: I had such a good time with your book <laugh>.

Rhonda: But I had this experience of you, um, loving the characters. Just when you, just, what you were talking about your own work, of like—and, and I can remember, cuz by the time you, you submit a, a book for publication, you're so—it was my, my first short story collection. And so, I'm so thrilled that I finished the sucker, you know? 

Barbara: Yes. 

Rhonda: Like, I'm, <laugh> and so I have this sense of being finished. And then, there was one story in particular where you're like, “oh, no, I want more on this character and more on this.” And, and I—at the time, at first I thought, “Oh. <laugh> More?” 

Barbara: Yes. 

Rhonda: But then when I did that, I fell more in love with the character, I fell more in love with the story, and it was such a satisfying experience… and I just wanted to know, do you miss it at all? That kind of back and forth with writers.

Barbara: Actually, because I did it for so many years, uh, I don't really mi—and also I do have, uh, friends w—with whom I exchange manuscripts. 

Rhonda: Okay. 

Barbara: So I'm not completely out of the loop. But, what I discovered was, um, it takes the same creative energy. Or it does for me. Um—

Rhonda: It does. 

Barbara: And so, I just, for me, thought “it's one of those things I'm putting in between me and my work.” And so I had—so then I did have one friend whose book I was kind of involved with at a very early stage, and she asked if I would have a look at it. So I did. And I was very happy I did. And it wasn't a complete editing job, <cough> like what I had with you. Um, but it was, it—I was very deeply involved in her book, and I thought, “I'm waking up at three o'clock in the morning, with her book in my head,” and I thought, “you know, I can't, I, I—if I wanna get another book out—which I would like to do before I die, and it takes me a long time to write. So I thought, “no, I, I really have to.” But I, I did, uh, so I don't really miss it, but I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it. Um, and because it is so creative and it is so lovely, especially to work with first time published people. It's just, um, it's just delightful. So.

Rhonda: Mm-hmm. <affirmative> mm-hmm. Yeah.

Barbara: And it taught me a lot, too. <Rhonda starts speaking>

Rhonda: Sorry. 

Barbara: It taught me a lot, too. 

Rhonda: And what book is that with? It taught you a lot. Tell—so, that was another question I had for you actually, is, what, what did you learn and what kind of— what were the most common mistakes or, or near misses or, you know, that you would say you saw writers make? 

Barbara: Well, I think, um… and we've talked about this a little bit briefly before, but really, for me, it's that you—it's taking sides with your protagonist. That the writer, um, at a, at an early stage, decides, “this is the person I love the most.” And so other people get—short shrift. Um, they don't get the best lines, they get—they don't get as much sympathy. And, so, one of the things it really taught me was you have to—because a reader goes in there, looking at everybody. And I know a reader will take sides with th—the protagonist as well. But I really love when the minor characters are fully fleshed out, because they show enormous things about that main character that then—they take the pressure off the author to try to show everything through the character. And so, the minor characters are, are marvelous that way. 

Barbara: So, that—it did teach me a lot about that. Um, and I, I think that would be, yeah, probably the most— 

Rhonda: That's the biggest thing. 

Barbara: —important thing. Yeah. And when, uh, Debbie Willis edited this book for me, and, uh, and she—it was the same kind of a thing. There was a character there, I—that I—May, who I love. And, um, but I just, I didn't realize that I hadn't put enough in there to make everybody else love her. So, there was a, um—and I'm so glad she pointed it out because it ended up develop—it ended up showing a great deal more about June, who is a, a much more major character, so... But I had that same moment where I thought, “oh, <laugh>, I don't want to do this.” Yeah. 

Rhonda: Yeah. “Oh, I'm finished.” Yeah. But, there's something, though, about that writer-editor relationship that is pure joy. Because, when do you ever get to talk to somebody else who cares about your book as much as you do, but who can see through, you know, in a way that you can't, because you're just so—you've been in the weeds for so long, right? Yeah.

Barbara: Yeah. 

Rhonda: So I—I just, I love that whole relationship and I think, um, you know, I've, I've spoken and worked with now enough emerging writers who are really nervous to share, um, for the purposes of editing. And I just think it's the best darn thing you can do.

Barbara: Yeah, I agree. I—but I have worked with people, uh, who did not agree <laugh>, um, not very many, but, but there are some people who think that the editor is trying to… make it into the book they would've written. Um, but so it—so—

Rhonda: But a good editor doesn't do that. 

Barbara: No. A good editor says, “this is what the book wants to be.” And you and I both want the book to be the best it can be. And I think, I think you learned pretty quickly, uh, through your relationship with your editor. Like I had actually, um, when I signed on with Freehand, they were in the middle of, um, changing owners. And I thought, well, I knew Joanne McCabe's commitment to good editing. Um, but I wasn't—I didn't know of the new owner, so I had no way of knowing. And I actually had that put in my contract, that if I was not happy with the editing, I could get a different editor. Because I thought, well, if I get someone who doesn't understand literary fiction—anyway, as it turns out, Greg Rolands, who's the new owner of Freehand, is wonderful, adores literature. Um, so, and, and has absolutely the same commitment. And so—and I had Debbie Willis, who was one of the best editors, so— 

Rhonda: Oh, yeah. I love her writing.

Barbara: It all worked out really well—oh, yes she's brilliant. 

Rhonda: Mm-hmm. 

Barbara: So, but that's important—

Rhonda: I wanted just to—to talk a little bit about Freehand as well, because—so they're a literary press. 

Barbara: Yes. 

Rhonda: A small, you know, small, mid-size, whatever. I don't even—does it matter anymore? I don't think it matters. 

Barbara: Yeah. <laugh>. 

Rhonda: Um, but they're a literary press and, and—um, they do such gorgeous work. Like, are—you must be delighted with this cover, are you? 

Barbara: I am so happy with that. 

Rhonda: Cause look how gorgeous it is. I’m pulling it up in the video. Yeah, yeah.

Barbara: Yeah. It's just stunning. 

Rhonda: And it, it's got this kind of matte texture to it, and the color is gorgeous. And, um… they, they do a—a wonderful job, uh, with the book as object, which I think for, for—you know, if you're a book nerd, you just appreciate that so much. 

Barbara: Yes, yes. And also there are those little, um, the little things inside where you see some of the—

Rhonda: Yes! 

Barbara: Oh no, I—oh yeah. 

Rhonda: Isn't that great? 

Barbara: So where, where, where you see that little, um. 

Rhonda: Yes. 

Barbara: The swords kind of coming up. 

Rhonda: The little swords icon. I love it. 

Barbara: Yeah. 

Rhonda: Yeah. 

Barbara: So that's Natalie Olson at Kiss Cut Designs, and she designs all of Freehand's books. And I think—and what really matters is she reads the books, and so when she designs the cover, it's out of what she's absorbed about the imagery. And every time I look at that cover, I think, “oh, it's relevant in this way, it's relevant in this way.” And, um, and it's, it's a pretty sprawling book. So to catch—to have a cover that captures the ethos of the book, I think is just genius. So yeah. I was delighted.

Rhonda: I, I love a good book cover. And, and, uh, for those who aren't watching the video, um, Joan is referring to—on the, on the pages that, um, the pages that open a chapter, uh, the, the, the iconography from the cover of the thorns is like, coming up from the bottom of the page. 

Barbara: Yeah. It's like creeping up. Yeah. 

Rhonda: <laugh> Delicious. It's delicious. Um, yeah. Highly recommend, uh, Freehand as a press, gosh, they're just so lovely. And they do, they do a really nice job of supporting their authors with marketing and so on as well. So. Okay, so I wanted to ask you a little bit about your writing practice, um, Barbara, because I feel like we, um, we just—other writers, it's the thing we talk about, you know? We just love to hear—somehow we believe that there's a writer that's figured out the magic writing practice <laugh>. And you referred earlier to like, rituals to—that get you to the page. So what's, what, what is, what does all that look like for you? 

Barbara: Well, at the moment I'm just kind of jangled with the book coming out. But when I'm back to my regular practice, I get up in the morning, I have a cup of tea, I read the paper. Uh, sometimes if I'm really deeply in my work, I don't even do that. But I allow myself to wake up. I try to get to the computer at about eight o'clock, and then I stay there until noon. But I'm not writing the whole time. Mostly I—I'm, I'm just trying to get myself calmed down enough, um, because it's a, it's, it's a fraught thing to face a blank page, even if you've done all the tricks of leave yourself an open sentence or a paragraph that needs completing or, um—none of that ever really works for me. So, um, I have tons of books about the writing process, about, uh—essays written by people about why they write what they write. 

Barbara: Um, I have tons of books that offer little writing exercises. Uh, sometimes the most helpful ones are poetry, because I'm not a poet. Um. I, I would never think of trying to write pub poetry for publication. Uh, but I love to—it, it's, it enters a, a lovely space, uh, in the mind. So, so that's—so I have this long <laugh> entry into the deeper parts of myself and, uh, and I'll journal and then, um, something will pop into my head. And so my writing—actual writing time might be only an hour, but it takes me that long to do it. And I am—very, it's very luxurious that I have the time to do it. But even when I was teaching, um, I made sure that I taught the afternoon and evening courses so that I still could have—those morning hours were mine. Maybe not from eight until noon, cuz I still had to prep for classes and stuff. But I could—and I, I am not a good early-early morning. I know some people who get up at five o'clock in the morning and I think, “well,” <laugh> it would—it wouldn't work for me because I—I, I can't think, you know, I can't, it—it just wouldn't work. So.

Rhonda: So you're doing a little bit of reading and a little, you know, finding inspiration and a little bit of journaling and whatever it takes to kind of get to that space where you think, okay, now I can work on the thing I'm here to, to work on today.

Barbara: And, and they're all really—almost tricks to keep me at the computer. Um. So, and you know, this is, um—I took, uh, the Royal Conservatory Piano Performance Diploma year—again, decades ago. And there—this is the same thing with people who are spending long hours practicing on the piano or whatever their instrument is. They say, “if you can get 45 minutes sitting at the piano, you can stay there the rest of the day.” But the trouble is getting that 45 minutes in, because you start—you sit down and think, “oh no, I need a cup of coffee” and it goes, “oh no, I need to <laugh>,” so it’s—

Rhonda: “I just gotta respond to this one email.”

Barbara: <laugh>. Yeah, that's exactly—

Rhonda: “I just gotta check this one thing on Facebook.”

Barbara: Yeah, that's right. And, and so it is that—it's tricking yourself to spend that first 45 minutes. And, um…

Rhonda: For me it's, it's—I've gotta get over the 10 minute mark. If I can write for 10 minutes, I can write for as long as it takes. But if, if I, <laugh> if I let myself stop at eight—

Barbara: Oy <laugh>. Yeah. 

Rhonda: It can be days before I get back again, you know? 

Barbara: Yeah, yeah. 

Rhonda: So, Barbara, I wanted to ask you about this quote. So, um, this is the Ian Coleford quote, um, in the review of your book. Um, he says, it's— “the book skirts the edges of melodrama without taking the plunge.” <laugh> Um, and there's a part of me that thinks, “oh gosh, what's so wrong about melodrama anyway?” Like, there's a little bit of that. But I wanted to ask you, as a writer, how do you skirt the edge without plunging into, you know, excessive sentimentality or, or melodrama? What, what, what kind of techniques are you using to, to pull back and be on the other side?

Barbara: I'm not sure it's… a technique. I, I think what melodrama means to me, is that you haven't earned it. You haven't earned that dramatic moment. Um, so it all goes back to character. I, I think if you have developed that character, then, when dreadful things happen to that character, you are—you're not thinking about whether it's dramatic or whether you're just going, “oh, no.” Or “oh, don't.” I mean, with Taras, there are so many moments you say, “don't do it. Just don't do it.” <laugh>, And then he does it, right. 

Rhonda: Yes. 

Barbara: So, yeah. <laugh>

Rhonda: Which is delicious as a reader, you know, cuz you get both, you get the “don't, don't, don't.” And then you get the, the release of him doing it. That's great. Yeah. 

Barbara: Yeah. So for me, I think it's—you have to earn it. You have to put the time in with the characters, and then you can do pretty much whatever you want. And I'm a, I'm a lover of narrative, so I—I love narrative arc and, and, uh—and I'm not very fond of irony. I think, uh, you know, uh, the ironic stage of, uh, modern writing is—doesn't appeal to me very much. So I, I love, um, being really deeply involved with characters. And I think when you are, then it's drama. You know, if you think about Shakespeare and the horrific things that can happen in this place. But, um, so anyway, I love that comment of skirting it because you, you sort of flirt with it. And actually with The Quick, one of my early rejections on The Quick said, “it was melodramatic,” which absolutely just gutted me. But luckily I was working with, um, D.M. Thomas at the time, and he wrote back and said, “don't pay any attention to that.” And then the first review I got after The Quick was published was exactly that. “This is not melodramatic.” This is, it deals with, you know, dramatic events in people's lives, but it's not. And I was, “yes!” So I wanted to send it to the —<laugh>. 

Rhonda: I mean, reviews are always such fraught things because gosh, I, I mean, I think about a, a friend of mine who's always being reviewed as writing dark—you know, her work is dark, things are dark, and, and, it's delicious. It's wonderful, it's rich, it's great, you know, and—are these hard things at times? Yes. You know? So I, you know, sometimes things get tossed off rather flippantly in reviews, I think, yeah.  

Barbara: Mm. Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. 

Rhonda: But writers and reviews—we’ll never be happy, will we? 

Barbara: Well, I get—yes, I think that's true. But I think also—it's, oh, there was a term when I was at university studying English, and it's “chairoscuro,” and that means the darkness and the light. So you have—in order to, in order for those moments of light to really pop, you have to have the contrast. You have to have that darkness. So, um, yeah. I, and actually, it, it kind of—I did not realize I had written a, a kind of a dark novel myself, <laugh>. I just, I was just so deeply involved with it. It didn't occur to me to make that kind of… so, when he said that about, you know, “it's dwelling on the darkness that dwells in all of us,” I think, “oh, <laugh>, I had no idea.” 

Rhonda: Yeah. But that to me sounds like a good read. Do you know what I mean? Like, that's— 

Barbara: Oh, yes. 

Rhonda: Yeah, yeah. I, and, and, and the other thing is, we are, we're trying so much in—yeah, I think in all fiction—to tell the truth in a very real way. Even in fantasy and sci-fi, right? And so, and sometimes the truth is dark. 

Barbara: Yes. 

Rhonda: The history is dark, you know? 

Barbara: Yeah. Yes. And, and so June, when she goes to the Sa—Fort San, that's based on my mother's life. My mother lost seven years of her life to a tuberculosis sanatorium. 

Rhonda: Oh, wow. 

Barbara: So it—and then when she left, she had had three quarters of a functioning lung, so—no. She built, um, a really wonderful life. She was a very stubborn person, um, and so, when they said, “don't have children,” she thought, “well, I don't think I need to pay attention to that.” So she had two. And so she—but she still, all her life, struggled with ill health. And, um—so it's—terrible things do happen to people. And, and they deal with those things in varying ways. So—which I think is just endlessly fascinating. And that, that's what I think is at the heart of all fiction, right?

Rhonda: And makes for a good story, makes for that good reading. 

Barbara: Yes. Yeah. 

Rhonda: So, um, you're coming into the Writer's Flow studio as a visiting writer. And, uh, we were talking about your workshop topic, and we're gonna be talking about, uh, the narcissistic protagonist.

 Barbara: Yes. 

Rhonda: Now, this is related to what you were talking about earlier, right? Can you, can you just say a little bit about what you mean about the narcissistic protagonist? 

Barbara: Um, okay, so there are two levels. One is the narcissistic protagonist and the other is the narcissistic narrator, because the narrator is partly the author. So that—and the—with— we touched on that a little bit, with the idea that the author should not be picking sides. Even if, even if you have one very clear main protagonist. But the narcissistic protagonist—I think, especially this happens with, um, uh, first person narratives. It's, um, “I did this, I did that. I saw this, I felt that, I heard this.” And so you had this “I, I, I, I,” and after a while you just feel like you've been trapped at a cocktail party with somebody who will not stop talking about themselves, <laugh>. And so…

Rhonda: Right. 

Barbara: So it's, uh, and I—it's—and, you cannot get around it by changing to third person, because then it's just “she did, she saw, she.” And so it, it still ends up being. So, um—and I think that's when we were talking about, uh, common mistakes in, in first novels or first books, uh, that's a big one. Because you, uh—and then you can even try and alter the sentence structure. So, “after entering the room, I saw,” but it's still—so, I think the way to counter that is to have a protagonist who is interested in the world around them. So, they start looking at things like, um, the sunlight. So it's not, “I saw the sun breaking through the clouds.” It's like, “the sun broke through the clouds.” And so you just take that narrator out of the subject sentence position right now. And then, you get all kinds of variety, but also, it tells you a lot more about what moves the narrator, right? Uh, or the, uh, or the protagonist, so. 

Rhonda: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah, yeah. Wow. Well, I'm looking forward to that. That's gonna be fun. And I'm, um, uh, yeah. I'm keen on, on that topic. It was the first I've, first time I'd heard the phrase and I thought, “ooh, that's a really lovely, lovely framing.” So I wanted to ask you, um, for some advice for, you know, newer writers. Maybe writers who, who haven't yet put out a first book and are still learning the craft. One of the things that, that often concerns writers early in their writing journey is, “how do I find my voice?” Um…

Barbara: That is such a good question. 

Rhonda: Like, what do you—what do you think is at the heart of that, of finding your voice as a writer? 

Barbara: Well, okay, I actually—I don't think you need to find it. I think you need to stop thinking about what other people have done with their voice to be successful. Um, I—I had a friend who had this beautiful—oh, her writing style is stunning and very original. Um, and very—but poetic with lots of tension, right within the heart of the sentence. Anyway, she decided that books that were getting sold were much more narratively driven. And, uh, so she decided she was just going to change her voice. And she went to a writing retreat and showed this hundred pages where she had changed her voice to something she thought was much more successful. And the instructor said, “you know, I know your work, and this seems a little flat” <laugh>. And I thought, “that's because she just—she's—she needs to work with it with her own voice.”

Barbara: And those are the things—so I just think you follow your—you follow your compulsions, um, you follow what moves you, you just don't care what happens to be popular. When I was taking, um, my first creative writing courses, uh, spending a lot of time on narrative structure, and the, the whole thing was about genre busting, and busting up structure, and I happen to love structure and I love character, and it was very unfashionable. And I thought, “well, I cannot write this other stuff because it doesn't interest me.” 

Barbara: “It's not me.”

Barbara: No. So I think it's a matter of trust. There's a lovely, um—phrase from, uh, well, I came across it in Socrates first, but I gather it's much older than that. And it's “know thy self.” And I think that is at the heart of finding your voice. It is at the heart of finding your writing practice. 

Barbara: Um, you, you have to know yourself and trust yourself. That if you, if you follow your desires—so my writing and, and my writing practice, changes as well, um, from life experience to life experience. So I do think that is, um… But the voice, just write what you love to write, and don't let anybody tell you that it's not fashionable, or not the right way to go about things. Or—I had a, another experience with a friend. I edited her book, and, uh, she was appalled, actually, when I told her, “oh my God, you have the makings of a fantastic romance here.” And she just—she was so disappointed, but I thought, “well, the world needs some really good romance writers,” like <laugh>—and it's—this is—and, and it was—everything  was there and it was, was well written. But I think she didn't want it to be in that genre because there is a bias against that genre. 

Rhonda: There is. 

Barbara: Well, I don't have any biases. I think that good writing is good writing and <laugh>, and, and people who love to read romances deserve to have the best writers writing them. So if, if that's what you've got…

Rhonda: Yeah. Absolutely. Wow. Well, Barbara, this has been such a rich conversation. Thank you so much. I'm so glad we managed to connect and do this. And, um, best of luck with The Taste of Hunger. I'm just gonna—

Barbara: Thank you. 

Rhonda: —for the video. I'm just gonna hold it up again cuz it's so pretty <laugh>. Um, and you can go to barbarajoanscott.com and find out more about Barbara. Um, and I will put, uh, links to get the books in the shownotes as well. So, thanks so much, Barbara, and we'll see you in the Writer's Flow Studio. 

Barbara: Thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure. 

Outro: Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes. Your ratings and reviews tell the podcast algorithm gods that “yes, this is a great show. Definitely recommend it to other writers.” And that will help us reach new listeners who might need a boost in their writing lives today as well. So please take a moment and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it, and I promise to read every single one. Thank you so much.


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