Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s first book, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within (Harcourt, 2004; 11th printing), made the Los Angeles Times best-seller list and was honored with a 2005 American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award. Her short story, “Crazy for You,” was published in the Akashic Books noir anthology, Orange County Noir, in April 2010. A couple years later it was the only story from that collection to be included in USA noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series (Nov. 2013). In 2014, she published short stories in The Big Click and Radius.
Her essays and articles have seen print in various publications including The Author’s Guild Bulletin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Orange Coast Magazine, Westways, The Los Angeles Times, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, The Toronto Sun, and Sunset.
She is also a writing instructor. Throughout the year she teaches “Jumpstart Your Writing” for Gotham Writers Workshop (online), and she teaches two private workshops held at her studio in Corona del Mar, CA. She co-hosts “Writers on Writing” on KUCI-FM, broadcasting from UC-Irvine, which streams live at www.kuci.org and iTunes / college radio. Visit iTunes to subscribe to the show’s podcast and whenever a new show is uploaded (usually a week after airing), it will land in your podcast inbox.
Barbara was recognized with a Distinguished Instructor Award in 2001 at UC-Irvine Extension and awarded with Literary Magnet #1 in Orange Coast Magazine’s Best of Orange County, 2008. She is founder of the Pen on Fire Speakers Writers Salon in Corona del Mar, California and in the summer of 2013, began holding writers retreats in Palm Springs. These retreats take place bi-annually. She was the editor of The ASJA Monthly, the official publication for the American Society of Journalists and Authors, from 2002 to 2014.
She hasn’t always been a writer (who has?). Barbara has worked as an ice cream scooper, Avon lady, auto parts runner, baker, waitress, restaurant manager, crisis intervention counselor, weight counselor, secretary, semiconductor inspector, freelance bookkeeper, voice over actor, actress (Anyplace But Here, a CBS special that aired on Philadelphia affiliates), and more.
Q&A with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett
What was it that made you want to become a writer?
I grew up with an overwhelming need to express myself, but I didn’t have the vocabulary. In our household, my native Sicilian dad (he came from Italy when he was a teen) spoke a stew of English and Italian that my friends could hardly understand—a source of great embarrassment to me in junior high. My mother was forced to quit school in the seventh grade to help out with her eight siblings, so her use of the language also didn’t win any prizes. There wasn’t what you’d call conversation in my house—or books, except for Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. My parents spoke Italian quite a bit, though. It was their secret language, although they didn’t teach me—they wanted me to grow up to be an American girl; the description “Italian-American” did not yet exist in our lexicon. So my desire to write may have stemmed from this primal need to give words to what I felt and thought.
Were there any teachers along the way that provided encouragement?
Thank God for teachers. At North Penn High, in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, Mrs. Sanderson, Mr. Hefner, and Mr. Ribble were teachers who made me feel I had something special. Prior to the 11th grade, I almost quit school; I circled the drain for the longest time. I was 16 when my parents’ relationship fractured in an unhealable way, and for a time things went from bad to worse. These teachers and other mentors–the late Charlotte Dubroff and the late Jimmy DeMatteo– were a Godsend. If only they knew how much of an effect they had on me. That’s one of the main reasons I continue to teach: I know the world-changing effect a teacher can have on a life.
And in college, two instructors in particular—Jeff Weiss and Judith Beth Cohen–gave me much needed encouragement. They believed in me more than I believed in me. Later, with John Dranow (then-husband of poet Louise Gluck) and novelist Kathryn Davis, I came to believe that I was indeed a writer.
I also remember in college wanting to turn away from writing–it was so hard–and getting back into performance art and my advisor Roy Levin said No, we won’t allow it. You’re a writer. So I believed him, figuring he and my other advisers were smarter than me and I should listen to them.
Why did it take you so long to publish your first book?
Pen on Fire may be the first book I published, but it wasn’t the first book I wrote. I wrote two novels prior to Pen on Fire—two unpublished novels. I also wrote 100 pages of a mystery, and a book proposal for a book I ended up not selling. The first novel was a learning experience; now I’m ecstatic it didn’t get published—the reviews would have been disastrous. The second novel was a learning experience, which I began, actually, as a reaction, in a roundabout way, to getting pregnant. Let me explain: I was 100 pages into writing the mystery I mentioned earlier. At page 100, the bad guy had just emerged from the basement where he was hiding, and covered my main character, Fiona’s, mouth, with his hand. That day I learned I was pregnant. I worried that if I kept working on that book, I might scare my baby in utero, so I put it aside and, through freewriting, started writing Starletta’s Kitchen. I tried selling it but a few agents had problems with the main male character, a quite repellent fellow; I based him on a former boyfriend who thought I’d be perfect if only I’d get a boob job. The lesson in this for me was: Don’t write characters based on people you yearn to avenge. I’m working on another novel that I pray is not one more learning experience.
What was the inspiration for Pen on Fire?
When my son was a toddler, I taught a private writing workshop in the studio behind our house. For many beginning writers, it’s common to feel inspired while in workshop, but once you return home, the inspiration dwindles and you’re left scratching around for whatever motivation you can find. One day at the end of class, after a particularly good couple of hours, one student, Robin Barada, said, “Will you move in with me? I know I would get writing done if you lived with me.” I didn’t think my husband and son would like me going to live somewhere else, nor did I want do. Instead, I said, “I will write a book for you.”
What’s a typical day like?
I have no typical days. I’m very much anti-routine, whenever possible, which may be why I’ve had so few actual 9-5 jobs. Some days I get up early and walk, then return home, make coffee, and write. Other mornings I get up early, make a cup of tea, and start writing. Other days it’s not till lunch time or after that I write.
Who are your favorite authors?
That’s like asking, “What’s your favorite food?” I’ve had so many favorites. Some change, some remain the same. I tend to read literary fiction—and mystery writers whose style is more literary—narrative nonfiction, and poetry.
By the way, what is your favorite food?
Depends on my mood! Hot fudge sundaes will always be a favorite, but I’ve probably had one in the last five years. Until ours is a Woody Allen universe in which hot fudge sundaes are considered healthy, I won’t be eating them. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1981, and so is my family. We eat a lot of vegetables, Italian food, tofu, seitan, salads…
What about journals—paper or otherwise?
I subscribe to the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Gotta keep newspapers alive, right? I subscribe to the New Yorker and Audubon magazine. I spend too much time on Facebook and Twitter following links to articles and essays. I love Lithub.com, which is another online site with links to articles, essays, and fiction.
What if you don’t come from a literary background—can you still become a writer?
Earlier I said the books in our house were Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I wasn’t kidding. My father read The New York Daily News and my mother read True Romance and The National Enquirer, which she tried to hide from me. The TV was on most of the time. I never saw my parents reading books and they didn’t read to me. The only time I remember, as a child, going to the library was when I visited my half-sister, Jeanne, in Kansas one summer. She took me to the library where I checked out a pile of books—it was such a thrill. There are more authors than you’d think—some award-winning, too—that came from non-literary backgrounds: poet Stephen Dunn, author Susan Straight. Musicians come from non-musical backgrounds, artists come from non-artistic backgrounds. If it’s in your heart and soul, you will find your way to your art—whatever it is.
How did your radio show come about?
Soon after I began working on Pen on Fire (when my now 21-year-old son was a toddler), I made contact with a New York editor at a major publishing house. I sent him my fledgling book which was in the form of a book proposal—30 or so pages of text with a bio, overview and marketing information. The editors liked it but the marketing department nixed the deal. “Who is she?” they wanted to know. I taught at home, did little freelancing. My name wasn’t out there.
I must have heard what they said because I began looking into enjoyable ways I could form a presence in the literary community. One was teaching at the university, another was writing for national publications. The third was to start a radio show with authors as guests, sort of my own personal MFA program. UCI, where my show broadcasts from, has training sessions every quarter and I took one. I passed the FCC test and was on my way. The show’s been running 17 or 18 years now, and if not for the show, there would be so many authors I would never have met. I tend to be an introvert; I’m not the type to call up an author or e-mail them and convince them to let me take them out to lunch. That’s not me at all. Plus, most authors hardly have time to go out to lunch with their friends, let alone kind, lunch-treating strangers.
What about books about writing—which do you favor (other than your own, of course)?
So many! Here’s a handful: Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing is superb. Every writer should study it. Gotham Writing Workshop’s book on Writing Fiction, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, Flannery O’Conner’s Mysteries and Manners, Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder and Lightning, Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees. And of course Brenda Ueland’s 1938 classic If You Want to Write. New books on writing come out all the time and so many are good. When I was starting out and had a limited amount of money to spend on books, I checked novels out from the library but I bought books on the art and craft and business of writing for my reference library. I still have many of them.
What is the biggest obstacle to beginning writers?
A couple of things: one, the television. You have got to learn to turn it off. But for me, that’s not as much of an obstacle as the internet is. Email and the internet can put your writing life in coma. You’ve got to wrench yourself of the internet, away from email. I used to work in cafes and the library but it was easy to get online. Sometimes I drive to a nearby state park with a view of the ocean and no internet and work in the car.
What advice to you have for beginning writers?
Other than putting off watching TV or playing on the internet until you’ve done your writing for the day? Decide that writing is a priority and make time for it. If you’re in love with someone, you make time for him or her, right? Likewise, you must make time for writing. Instead of going out to lunch, dinner, to the movies, or to a concert, write. So many Sundays when I was working on Pen on Fire, I sat at my desk and kissed my husband and son goodbye as they ambled happily out the door on their way to the beach or the park. I had no idea if my books would ever be published. I was writing because I had to, because I knew that if I didn’t, they would never be finished. Well, as it turned out, one wasn’t published (so far), and one was. Do I regret not going to the beach those days with my family? I do a little. But we had many good, fun days back then, and I believe—I hope—that my working hard and getting a book published will also be good for my son—for all of us—in the long run. Often it’s a matter of balance. While you should not sacrifice your family for your art, you need to get work done, too. It’s your job to figure out how to best do that.