This week’s guest, Seattle novelist Heather Barbieri, has published Snow in July, The Lace Makers of Glenmara, and most recently The Cottage at Glass Beach. Booklist, in a starred review, calls Cottage “[a] wonderful, subtle, transporting story” – which also describes the story of how Heather first got published. Enjoy! – Meg
It was a rainy afternoon in 1971, and my friend Kyle and I, deterred from climbing the 70-foot tree in the backyard by inclement weather, had embarked on a suburban adventure that was something of a departure: We mixed together all the ingredients in my dad’s workshop, trying to make rocks. Several empty jars and canisters later, we’d managed to create a stippled brown solid and were holding the miraculous lump in our hands in wonder, when he came upon us there, standing on the splotched cement floor, his face pale, his voice a hoarse whisper: “Promise me you’ll never do this again.”
He was too scared to ground me—an unprecedented development. In those early years—and yes, sometimes now too—he probably didn’t know quite what to do with me, that child who stayed up all night reading, had a dangerous penchant for exploring construction sites, and wandering too far from home. He’d be the first to tell you that I’ve always had a creative impulse, and that he was relieved when I decided to take up the pen, a tool that was, at least on the surface, a safer, if not exactly well-paying, occupation.
The journey from the 1969 split-level home in which I grew up to the published page didn’t unfold quite as I imagined. Publishing a novel by 30 didn’t happen. What did was a series of odd jobs to pay the bills (temping—great for getting up the typing speed; teaching piano lessons; training to drive tour buses in Alaska—and frightening the heck out of other motorists; because I’m petite and looked 10 years younger, thereby making them think a 12-year-old was at the wheel); working as a writer and editor for regional magazines that no longer exist; going freelance to raise a family—then turning to fiction when it became too difficult to talk on the phone, short stories at first, which won a handful of prizes few people have ever heard of, and were published in small literary magazines. (I did try the New Yorker a couple of times, as so many of us do, receiving encouraging hand-written notes in return, thinking they meant something—when the editor in all likelihood was being polite.) A short story collection eventually garnered me an agent, though not a sale. A novel followed, which also didn’t go anywhere but the bottom of an old file cabinet, now in an inaccessible part of the storage room.
I was in my late 30s by then. This writing career thing wasn’t going according to plan. But life rarely does, does it? “Write what you know,” my agent at the time said. But what the hell did I know anyway? I’d always been a driven achiever (typical firstborn), and where had it gotten me—certainly not quite where I wanted to be. I was watching my kids playing one afternoon, as I’d once played all those years ago. They were making sandcastles at the beach, carefully shaping each section, starting again when the sea washed part of it away, totally focused on the structure, the craft, with such a sense of wonder and discovery—something I realized I’d lost sight of.
From that moment on, I decided to focus on craft and the joy of the process and let go of everything else—the grand ambitions, the frustrations—and just try to write a good story. Eventually, that novel, Snow in July, was accepted for publication by Soho Press just before I turned 40. I’ve had two other novels (The Lace Makers of Glenmara and The Cottage at Glass Beach, both from Harper) published since then.
The official book tour for Cottage has just wrapped up, and in a couple of weeks or so, I’ll be returning to the blank page again, that place where dreams begin, calling on that younger—and in some ways purer—version of myself as I start to write again, navigating that next part in a writer’s journey, from idea, to story, the hoped-for destination of not just publication, but true worthiness. Writing, for me, like life, is an apprenticeship. In the end, I just hope to get better at what I do—to write something that will keep readers up all night reading, awakening the child within them, too. – Heather