It only takes one moment to shape a destiny. In Brunonia Barry’s latest, readers are catapulted into the haunting world of Salem, Mass., where the sins of miscommunication, mental illness and age break the bonds of family and rebuild the strength of self in The Map of True Places.
Psychotherapist Zee Finch returns home after the loss of one of her patients, expecting to spend a short visit with her aging father and his partner. But when she discovers her father has slipped further into the onset of Parkinson’s, Zee’s course is forever altered. Home again, living with the echoes of secrets past, Zee rips the threads of who she was and begins to form her map of truth and future places. A dynamo of a novel, Barry bewitches in this poignant and surprising labyrinthine.
Barry shares how important her readers are to her, why “The Poison Lady” had a hand in helping her story grow and whether or not creating The Map of True Places allowed her to find her own inner place and truth.
PC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
BB: I always wanted to be a writer. When I was six, my father brought home one of those huge old typewriters from his office and gave it to me. It was one of the best presents I’ve ever received. I typed my first story on it the next day. It was a terrible story, full of wolves and chocolate, a cross between Little Red Riding Hood and Willy Wonka. Of course, they told me it was wonderful.
PC: What makes good story – what elements do you believe are vital to a great novel?
BB: I think characters are the key to a good story, they drive the plot. I write long biographies for each character. When I get stuck, which I always do, I return to those biographies to find the answer.
Beyond that, I think great stories ask important questions. There’s an initial question the story asks, something that places a character in a situation and asks “what if?” In great novels, I think there are deeper questions asked.
PC: Characters are often the heart of a story. They wrap us around their pinky fingers, drawing us in and holding us close as we hover along for their journey. But are all characters in your stories only people? Do your settings, ideas and themes ever become characters as well?
BB: The city of Salem is a character in my first two novels. Strangely, that character is different from book to book, the result of a ten year time shift and many changes to the city. I think of those changes as a character arc. I believe ideas can serve as characters as well. Some of the ideas espoused by America’s Dark Romantic writers, particularly those of Hawthorne and Melville, acted as characters in The Map of True Places.
PC: Are your characters real to you?
BB: My characters are very real. I may create them, but they take on a life of their own. I always tell people that they talk to me, and in a way they do. Since I get to know them better than I know people in the real world, they sometimes seem more alive. For the most part, they don’t leave me when the story is finished. When they do, I miss them terribly.
PC: Dipping inside the pages of one of your books is a thrilling, and sweet, escape. What do you hope your readers take away from your work?
BB: My books are about perspective and how differently people perceive the same experience. This started for me when my brother and I tried to describe a shared family event that happened several years ago. Our different perspectives resulted in wildly different stories. I became fascinated by that idea, and it always seems to find its way into my work. I want readers to bring their own perspectives to my stories. Beyond that, what I’ve always wanted to do is to start a discussion about difficult issues, things people don’t usually talk about in polite company. I love the old AA quote: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
PC: The Map of True Places has many moving parts, and deals with hard hitting topics. But it never feels heavy, or weighted. The prose, dialogue and story flow effortlessly for the reader. As a writer, how easy was it to pull these elements together?
BB: I think it’s easier for me to write this way than to tackle such topics directly. Someone described the pacing of my first novel as “Ha ha ha, pow!” I’ve always liked that description. Seriously though, it’s just my writing style, probably because it’s the way I think. Though I always outline, I tend to discover the story as I go along. I follow the winding path of the narrative until I find out where it leads. And while it’s important to give readers a sense of destination, I believe it’s just as important to make the journey meaningful.
PC: How much research – on Parkinson’s, mental illness and psychology went into the crafting of The Map of True Places?
BB: I spent almost a year researching the subject matter for The Map of True Places. My father had Parkinson’s, and I was one of his caregivers, so that was easier from a research perspective though much more difficult to write from an emotional one, something I didn’t anticipate. Salem’s navigational history was a huge part of my research. I had to learn celestial navigation which was difficult for me. I have a ridiculously obsessive interest in psychology and pharmacology and have good friends and relatives in those fields. If I weren’t a writer, I always say that I would have become a psychologist. One of the most interesting aspects of my research was ethics. Everyone in the book has some kind of ethical decision to make, and the characters do so with varying degrees of success. It was fascinating to look into the ethics of psychology. How and where does one draw the line with a patient? Good psychologists, of course, are pretty clear on this. But, as a writer, it became fascinating to move that line a bit and see what would happen.
PC: Would you share one of your favorite discoveries that emerged from researching and writing this novel?
BB: This is an odd one, but part of my research was about poisons, particularly old ones that would have existed in the late 1700s and are still in use today. After my first book came out, I was invited to attend Crime Bake, a convention of mystery and crime writers in Massachusetts. I learned a lot from them. One of the speakers that weekend was a woman named Lucy Zahray, a toxicologist who has built a reputation as “The Poison Lady.” She works in a hospital, but, on the side, she consults with mystery writers telling them how to poison their victims. She was a fascinating speaker. I bought a set of her tapes and have learned so much from them that one particularly frustrating day I announced to my extended family that they’d better be nice and help me make dinner, because I knew how to poison them six different ways. They have never asked me to cook another meal. I wish I’d known this stuff years ago.
PC: Did writing this novel help you see your own map of true places – the map of Brunonia?
BB: Definitely. I was surprised to see that both of the novels I have written dealt with the idea of a protagonist who has to go back in order to go forward. This has been my life’s journey. I spent years in Los Angeles as an aspiring screen writer, with little success. I couldn’t seem to finish a project. The day I moved back to New England, I had a dream that gave me the premise for The Lace Reader. Over the next several years of writing, I discovered that I was a novelist. So for me, this has been both a literal and a literary journey. I have rediscovered not only my home but myself.
PC: Writers all over are struggling with the future of publishing – to publish the traditional route or to go it alone. Readers will always read, but do you believe one route is more beneficial than the other?
BB: I started alone. My husband and I have a small press where we published brain teaser puzzles. We thought it would be easy to publish my novel ourselves, distribute the book locally, and then sell it to a larger publisher. We were incredibly lucky because it was picked up within the first two weeks of publication. But there was so much luck involved that I wouldn’t recommend this to other writers. It was very expensive, and we didn’t have the kind of relationships with bookstores and online venues that the larger publishers have. And publishing the book is just the beginning. Marketing is a huge part of the process, very necessary and very costly.
Ebooks are a great opportunity for writers, but the same problems remain. With so many books out there, how do you get noticed? I wouldn’t want to start out that way. I think it might be easier with a non-fiction book, but I think it would be difficult with fiction, though I’m hearing a few success stories that suggest otherwise.
PC: How important are your readers to you?
BB: The relationship between writer and reader is such a collaborative one. My writing creates an image, but the reader fills in the details, taking the story to the next level. Ultimately, I rely on my readers to tell me what the story is about. They often see it more clearly than I do.
I am so curious about the lives of my readers. I want to know everything about them. When someone reads a novel I’ve written, and it touches something in them, all the time I’ve spent alone in my writing room makes is worth it. I know that writing is about process, not product, but I truly believe that a book is not complete until someone reads it.
One of my favorite things is to join a book club that is reading one of my books. I Skype with book clubs all the time, but when I’m close enough to attend the meeting, I try to attend.
Visit Brunonia Barry at: http://www.brunoniabarry.com/