I’m thrilled to welcome to the Ball the refreshingly honest and funny author Barbara Claypole White, whose latest book THE PERFECT SON (out July 1st) is the darkly quirky story of a mother fighting for life, a father demanding perfection, and a son struggling with chaos. It’s about women’s health, Tourette syndrome, psycho squirrels, messed-up families…and moonshine. And if that sounds like a whirlwind— wait til you hear about the journey to get it published…
You’ve mentioned the journey to write THE PERFECT SON had been incredible—can you expand on that? How has the experience of writing this book differed from that of your other books?
Pour a fresh cup of coffee, because this could take a while. From day one, THE PERFECT SON was my wild child. I had horrible problems with research, I changed publisher in the middle, and I lost more titles than anyone should ever have to lose (at one point my Facebook followers nicknamed it THE BRIDGE TO GIN). I hit speed bumps from the beginning: I created three characters I loved, launched a torpedo into their world, and had no idea what happened next. My publisher rejected my first synopsis (which was probably closer to my 100th) and only accepted the revised version with reservations. I kept telling myself it would all work out…
The first draft was a nightmare, since the characters and the plot kept changing in ways I couldn’t predict. Don’t get me wrong, I love being surprised by my characters, but this time it was problematic. I didn’t have a handle on the story. So I did something I’ve never done before and took a month out to create a scene-by-scene outline that just about killed me. While doing that, I realized I had the wrong ending. And not just a little wrong, but the complete reverse of what it should have been. I sat with the new ending for a week, wondering if I’d lost my mind. But no, that ending stuck. Fine, I thought, onward, and then I hit horrible problems with my research.
I changed my hero’s job three times because I couldn’t find the resources I needed, and it took seven months to track down a cardiologist. This was a huge deal because (a) I was on deadline and (b) my heroine has a major heart attack in the opening chapter. Her medical journey provides the framework for the story. After a bigwig at UNC Hospitals agreed to help, I found myself madly rewriting the story two months before my due date.
I made my deadline the day before we went on family vacation and headed to the beach pumping my fist with victory. I came home two weeks later prepared to jump back into revisions… and discovered my publisher had canceled my contract. (Yes, they can do that.) But my story does have an HEA, because my amazing agent landed me another contract within two weeks, and now I’m thrilled to announce that THE PERFECT SON has been chosen as a June Kindle First title for Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.au. How’s that for a great comeback? Did I mention that I love my wild child?
When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an author, but I was never encouraged to consider writing as a career. However, I found my own answer in high school: I would become a fashion journalist. Of course, this meant writing for English Vogue and owning the best wardrobe ever. At that time, there was only one course for fashion journalism in England. Did I apply? Nope. For reasons I still don’t understand, I studied history at York University—mainly medieval and women’s history. I loved my degree subject, but it did present a wee detour. Here’s the twist: after graduation I landed a job as a publicist for London fashion designers, and when I failed to snag the magazine job of my dreams, my boss sent me to New York on business…and I met my husband at JFK Airport. His support allowed me to finally turn to writing fiction. I’m a huge believer in “one door closes, another one opens.”
What time of the day do you love best?
That magical time between day and night called the gloaming. (The gloaming was the working title for my second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR.) We live in the North Carolina forest, and in the summer I’m often outside watering plant pots at that time. The shadows in the forest are long, and as the sinking sun hits the treetops they seem to burn gold; the birds are tweeting away—calling each other home to roost—and it’s one of the rare times I actually slow down and just breathe. Omm.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
How honest do you want me to be, says the jaded author? Unpublished writers tell me again and again, “I’m so jealous, you’re living the dream.” And I am living my childhood dream. But remember, dreams aren’t a sign of deep, restful sleep. I love writing, even when it’s hard and bloody. I do, however, find the author life overwhelming, and I juggle constantly. I’m never on top of anything—well, maybe the laundry—and I complain endlessly of exhaustion (just ask my husband).
Two attitudes have helped me survive: I’ve accepted that my dark, quirky style is not to everyone’s taste. Some people will never like my writing, and I’m okay with that. When I get a negative review, I remind myself that reading is subjective and just because I’m passionate about my stories doesn’t mean everyone else has to be. The rejection never ends, people; you must find a way to sit with it.
The other thing is a simple reminder that writing is the cure. I’ve always written in the cracks of life (huge chunks of THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR were written in a parking lot during my son’s Tuesday evening guitar lessons). But as a full-time writer, I still struggle to guard my writing time. The business of being an author—which includes social media—can easily consume your energy and attention. When I feel totally overwhelmed, I remind myself that writing has always been my therapy and my escape, and then I focus on tuning out the world and tuning in to my characters.
Do you have a regular first reader? If so, who is it and why that person?
A big fat yes! My beta reader is my dear friend, gardening soulmate, and Friday afternoon drinking buddy, Leslie Gildersleeve. (Check any of my acknowledgments!) Leslie was my first reader from day one. In fact, she was the only person who read my terrible first manuscript (thankfully unpublished). Leslie isn’t a writer and nor does she want to be, but she’s a voracious reader. (She introduced me to Jodi Picoult, Chris Bohjalian, and one of my favorite books, THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN.) She’s also tough—no namby-pamby, “Oh, I loved it, Barbara.” And her criticism is spot on. There’s a flashback scene in THE PERFECT SON that exists because she said, “You know, Barbara, I think we really need to see X, Y, Z.” And she was right. That scene is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever written. Beta readers rock!
What’s your next big thing?
Novel four, which has a working title of MISSING IN MADNESS. Here’s the pitch: Trying to make sense of personal tragedy with a mind that can’t make sense, a successful record producer returns to the English village of her childhood … for a showdown with manic depression and death. It’s been a real challenge trying to get this one up and running because I couldn’t find my heroine’s voice. I thought I knew what the bipolar mind looked like, but I didn’t have a clue. I have, however, gained new respect for people living with what can be a fatal disease.
GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by Noon (EST) on Friday, June 12th to win a signed copy of THE PERFECT SON (US only). Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
English born and educated, Barbara Claypole White lives in the North Carolina forest with her family. Inspired by her poet/musician son’s courageous battles against obsessive-compulsive disorder, Barbara writes hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. Her debut novel, The Unfinished Garden, won the 2013 Golden Quill Contest for Best First Book, The In-Between Hour was chosen by SIBA (the Southern Independent Booksellers) as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick, and The Perfect Son, which has a release date of July 1, has just been chosen as a Kindle First title for the month of June. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.