We are so excited to welcome Barbara Ridley to the Debutante Ball this week! Barbara was born in England but has lived in California for more than 35 years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, which included publication of academic articles in peer-reviewed journals, she is now focused on creative writing. Her work has appeared in journals such as Writers Workshop Review, ArsMedica, The Copperfield Review, Blood and Thunder and Stoneboat. WHEN IT’S OVER, her debut novel, is set in Europe during WWII, and is based on her mother’s story as a refugee from the Holocaust. It has been recognized as a Finalist in six awards, including the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award, the Next Generation Indie Award, and the Sarton Women’s Book Award
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WHEN IT’S OVER: a literary novel set in Europe during World War II. Coming of age in Prague in the turbulent 1930’s, Lena Kulkova meets Otto, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, and follows him to Paris to work for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. As the war in Spain ends and a far greater war engulfs the continent, Lena gets stuck in Paris with no news from her Jewish family, including her beloved baby sister, left behind in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Otto, meanwhile, has fled to England, and urges Lena to join him, but she cannot obtain visa. When they are finally reunited, they face anti-refugee sentiment and wartime deprivations, while Lena is desperate for news from her mother and sister.
“In extraordinary times, a single decision can mean the difference between life and death…WHEN IT’S OVER brings the forces of history to a very human level.”—Booklist
Devi : The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
Barbara: I never imagined that I would write a novel. But after the death of my mother in 2002, a friend of mine, a woman I had known for over 30 years, asked me how it was exactly that my mother had ended up in England, and when I started to tell her, she said: that is an amazing story! It sounds like a novel. And I realized, yes it does. I had done very little creative writing before—just occasional poems or stories over the years—but I had published several academic articles, so I knew how to string words together on the page. So I mulled it over, but I didn’t start writing until 3 years later.
I am often asked why I chose to write my mother’s story as fiction and not as a memoir. One answer is that I prefer to read fiction. But also, there was so much I didn’t know. I knew only the outline of the story; many details were missing, and certainly my mother never really talked about the emotional aspects of what she went through. So I had to make a lot of it up.
I’d read a lot of novels, but I had never taken any creative writing classes and knew nothing about how to write fiction. So my first drafts of the early chapters were pretty terrible: overloaded with backstory and flowery language! But I was also given encouragement to continue by my very early readers, and I started taking writing classes and attending workshops, and receiving feedback and criticism from my writing teachers and classmates, and little by little I improved. In the process, I discovered the joy of writing as a creative endeavor—as well as the hard work.
It took me six years to complete the novel, and then I took a class in how to query agents. I pitched to dozens of very carefully-researched agents over the course of an 18-month period, and initially received a lot of interest: eight agents requested the complete manuscript, and many were enthusiastic. But in the end, they all gave me some variation of: sorry, not quite right for us at this time. Some had given me feedback that the opening was too slow, or the chapters too long. So I went back and did major revisions, had it reviewed by a developmental editor who gave me more very useful feedback, and then tried to pitch it again. This time I got nothing, zero bites. I was about to give up, when two friends, separately, asked to read it and both said: you have to get this out in the world! So I started to explore other options, and that’s how I found my way to She Writes Press, a hybrid, curated, feminist press. And finally, after twelve years, my novel was published.
Devi: When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
Barbara: I certainly never imagined I would be a writer! For many years as a teenager, I was convinced I would be an elementary school teacher. But then I dropped that notion, and after graduating from university with a pretty useless degree in sociology, I eventually stumbled into working in a hospital and then decided to train as a nurse. This lead to a 40-year career in nursing, including ten years as a nurse educator, and many years of lecturing as a nurse practitioner expert in my field. So I guess I ended up doing a different kind of teaching.
Devi: Talk about one thing that’s making you happy right now.
Barbara: I am pretty excited because I just completed my first ever NaNoWriMo this past November. I had been very, very slowly plodding away at my second novel over the past two years. I am typically such a slow writer; I plan and plot and procrastinate and research, and endlessly edit what I had written the last time I opened the document. So although I had heard about NaNoWriMo for years, I thought there was absolutely no way I could write 50,000 words in a month. I also didn’t want to start a new project, which is what you are supposed to do; I wanted to continue working on what I already had. But then I learned that you can be a “NaNoWriMo rebel” –which means you can do your own thing. So I decided I would try to add 30,000 words to the 30,000 I already had during the month, committing to 1000 words a day. This felt like a huge stretch for me. I did some prep work during October, reading over my earlier chapters and my notes, doing some of Lisa Cron’s exercises in Story Genius and listening to Brooke Warner and Grant Faulkner’s Write-Minded podcast, but I still had only a vague idea of where the novel was going. And then something magical happened. At 4am on November 1st, I woke up with a sudden inspiration about one of my characters and where the story need to go, and I started writing. And I wrote every day, reaching over 40,000 by the end of the month, to add to the 30,000 I already had—so pretty much a complete, albeit very rough, first draft. It was so liberating to just write without the pressure of trying to make it perfect, to write scenes out of order, as they came to me, and to just insert [√] at places where I would need to return later to research an item. And I re-discovered the joy of creating something out of nothing, making it somehow come together.
Devi: What’s your next big thing?
Barbara: This novel that I have been working on is completely different from WHEN IT’S OVER. Sorry: it’s not a sequel, as some readers have requested, and it is not historical fiction. It’s set in California in the early 2000’s, and is based on my years of clinical experience in rehabilitation, working with patients with neurological injuries. It’s a story of the rehabilitation of a young woman paralyzed in a car accident, and her close bond with the dedicated physical therapist who tries to rescue her, leading to problems in her own life, threatening her relationship and even her job.
Devi: Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
Barbara: Only one? Wow—that’s hard. I guess a prime candidate would be The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. I read it in my twenties, and at the time I thought it had changed my life. It empowered me to think about what I really wanted to do and where I was going, to leave a relationship that was stifling, and to understand the connections between the personal and political. The odd thing is that when I re-read it thirty-five years later, I had a completely different response; it seemed dull and tedious in places, and full of curiously stereotypical, traditional female behavior in relationships with men who were jerks. I think this just goes to show how subjective literature is; not only will different readers respond in such varied ways, but this may change for an individual reader over time. Other novels that I admire so much are White Teeth by Zadie Smith, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Glass Room by Simon Mawer. I can’t presume to say I was trying to emulate these works in my novel, but I do love the blending of a great story with a fascinating political and historical context. I also love to sink into big novels, which these all are—door-stoppers, you could call them. Long novels are supposedly very out of fashion these days, no one has the attention span apparently, and my publisher insisted that I cut almost 30,000 words from WHEN IT’S OVER, but personally, I love a big book.
GIVEAWAY DETAILS! Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter and SHARE the interview for a chance to win WHEN IT’S OVER! For extra entries, comment on this post by Friday, Jan. 18. We’ll choose and contact the winner shortly afterwards.
WHEN IT’S OVER honored as Finalist in Six Different Awards!
“Romantic without triteness and intelligent without laboriousness, seeing When It’s Over appear as a BBC miniseries … wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a sweet read, with thoughtful, touching storytelling to provide balm and resonance for our most human selves.”—Foreword Clarion Review.
“Barbara Ridley has the rare ability to take the life of a real person—her mother, a Czech Jew who fled Prague for Paris and finally England—fictionalize it, and end up with a character so fully realized that we care not only about the bigger backdrop of history but about her daily life and the lives of those who surround her. Compelling and complex, with a strong female protagonist, When It’s Over adds a much-needed fresh perspective to the canon of World War II literature. A first-rate first novel that makes you look forward to Ridley’s second.”
—Lori Ostlund, author of After the Parade and The Bigness of the World, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award and the California Book Award.
“This fraught love story brings to life passionate, personal, and political struggles in the face of paranoia and prejudice in wartime England, struggles too easily forgotten in the received generalizations that often airbrush out the role of flesh and blood individuals in the broad sweep of history. It’s a story that resonates with the tensions and blindness all too apparent in the twenty-first century.”
—Desmond Barry, author of The Chivalry of Crime.
“With rich, sensuous details, Barbara Ridley captures the tumultuous 1940s in England, transporting you with a captivating story about love, loss and war.”
—Nina Schuyler, author of The Translator.