So much of this interview with Barbara O’Neal resonated with me that I was more excited than usual to share it with all of you! The insight Barbara shares comes from a place of both experience and foresight — a great combination!
Please welcome Barbara to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Women’s Fiction Author Barbara O’Neal Says Good Writing Should Be Accessible and That Your Book Should Excite You
ASN: You’ve had a long career writing in multiple genres. How did you transition to writing women’s fiction? Was it a natural progression or was it a conscious career move (I guess it could have been both!)
BO: My idea of what I would write was always what I’m writing now–women’s fiction with a love story (or more than one) woven into the plot, the woman’s journey. When I started writing toward the intent of actually publishing, making writing novels my job, my life’s work, I had to find something that paid, and paid well enough I could make it work. I didn’t need a lot of money, as I was married and living in a working class town where the cost of living was very cheap, but it had to be more than the copies literary magazines paid. I was a journalist, so I knew I could supplement with articles, but the whole purpose of not finding a newspaper job right out of college was to see if I could make it as a FICTION writer. I had always enjoyed reading straight romances along with everything else in the universe, and the market was exploding. I understood, mostly, the beats of what made a romance satisfying, so I gave it a try. It was a very fast turnaround–I sold the second manuscript I wrote, and my career was in motion.
When I shifted toward women’s fiction, it was a slow, long lean. Many of my romances had strong women’s fiction leanings like the domestic violence issue in The Last Chance Ranch, in which a woman has killed her husband and gone to prison for it, and in doing so, lost her only child. When I wrote In The Midnight Rain, my first women’s fiction, it was at first for myself, to write about a world that reflected my mixed raced life–about my children and the African American people I loved, and a big, sad story in the past, to play with time lines and food and music in a way that just isn’t possible in a 70,000 word book–and in the end, they are more satisfying to me now. I have a Gemini mind–once I understand something, I’m generally on to the next challenge.
That’s a super long answer!
ASN: Your books are accessible and readable and also deal with real life issues — not always easy stuff. How do you strike that balance?
BO: Good writing is meant to be accessible, in my opinion. I like to imagine that my reader is someone like me, on a day when she’s just had it with the world. She’s taking my book and a glass of wine into her bathtub, which she’s filling to the top with very hot water, and she is not going to talk to anybody until she is damned good well and ready. My job is to give her beauty, a meaty escape, maybe a good cry, and ultimately, a feeling of hope.
ASN: Can you tell us a little about How To Bake A Perfect Life — and maybe what’s next for you? (if you’re not superstitious!)
BO: How To Bake a Perfect Life is the tale of a baker, Ramona Gallagher, whose special passion is for sourdough, also called “mother dough.” Bread baking, and the special qualities of sourdough starters provide a lush metaphor for the mother/daughter bond. Ramona, whose relationship with her mother was badly wounded when she was pregnant at fifteen, finds herself suddenly caring for a 13-year-old girl who comes into her care. There is a desperately wounded soldier, the reappearance of a lost love, and a truly wonderful dog named Merlin. It’s as much a story about the healing power of work in a woman’s life as it is about any of the other things–passion is a saving grace for many of us.
The new book, THE GARDEN OF HAPPY ENDINGS, is the story of a woman who has lost her faith, a pilgrimage, and a community garden. Dogs and cats, and one of my favorite male characters in a long time. It’s a tougher story than some–opening with terrible murder that sets events in motion. It will be out in mid-April.
ASN: How do you write your first draft and what’s the process like to finished product?
BO: I write my first draft in reluctant fits and starts for a couple of months–a character bio. A snippet of storyline. Some element of magic, or something that feels magical and exciting to me–like a ghost or a beautiful aspect of cooking or a character’s passion. ( In The Garden of Happy Endings, one of the characters loves quilting, and uses quilts to express everything beautiful. Another is in love with Spain.) At this point, I’m sorting through the basket of good that the girls in the basement have handed up to me, all the material we’re going to be working with, but I’m still just playing.
After I’ve procrastinated as long as I possibly can, I sit down and try to pull it all together for a synopsis I can show my agent and editor. When they approve it, I am then forced to get busy and start writing every work day (five days a week, unless I’m near the end). I collage the book at this point, trying to let the girls give me images that will help me stay on task. At first, it’s slow–three pages one day, five pages the next. Then around page 100, it gets a little more clear. I write some version of a detailed outline at this point, usually color coded, on a big Postit that covers half a wall. And I try to just show up, day after day, and see what the book has to say. Around this point, the 100 page mark, I’ll start writing around 6-10 pages a day, depending on the scene, how much I’ve had to rewrite that day, all those things. Finally, toward the end, I fall into the Book World and stay there until the rough draft is down, writing sunup to sundown, rarely doing anything ordinary or talking to people or even remembering to wash my hair. This only lasts a couple of weeks, because I don’t like it, and feel disconnected from everything and not at all like a normal person–but it seems to be the way I finish. I have tried dozens of times to change this process, but even if I don’t have a deadline breathing down my neck, this is how I finish.
Then I go back through and rewrite the entire book. Very methodically, rewriting everything, from character traits to bettering the language to plot threads. All of it. Usually, at this point, I’ll get a read from agent and editor, and then rewrite again at least once, usually twice.
AN: There is so much talk (malarky as well as differences of opinion) out there about what women’s fiction is and what it’s not. What is your definition of women’s fiction?
BO: Women’s fiction is a story of a woman’s journey. It covers such a broad spectrum of stories that I find it hard to generalize too much, honestly. It’s sometimes commercial, but sometimes its literary. Sometimes it’s very romantic, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s contemporary, sometimes its historical. But mainly, we know it when we see it. It’s probably published in trade paperback, and sometimes in hardcover. It focuses on a woman or a group of women. We know it when we see it, don’t we?
ASN: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
BO: Be authentically you and write about what inflames you, what thrills you, what matters to you. There is absolutely no point in writing somebody else’s book. We need YOUR book. Write it.
Barbara O’Neal fell in love with food and restaurants at the age of fifteen, when she landed a job in a Greek café and served baklava for the first time. She sold her first novel in her twenties, and has since won a plethora of awards, including two Colorado Book Awards and six prestigous RITAs, including one for THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS in 2010. Her novels have been published widely in Europe and Australia, and she travels internationally, presenting workshops, hiking hundreds of miles, and of course, eating. She lives with her partner, a British endurance athlete, and their collection of cats and dogs, in Colorado Springs.