Monday, March 10, 2008

The Inside Scoop on Lee Barwood

Today, I welcome multi-published author Lee Barwood. Lee is just one of the many writers who contributed to Inside Scoop: Articles about Acting and Writing by Hollywood Insiders and Published Authors edited by Marilyn Peake. Many of the articles found in this book were originally published in “The Golden Goblet” Newsletter, voted TOP TEN Finisher in the 2007 Preditors and Editors Readers Poll. Two of Lee’s contributions appear in Inside Scoop: “The Beat of Gaia’s Heart” and “Klassic Koalas: Ancient Aboriginal Tales in New Retellings”. This is just one of the many interviews I will be performing with the writers who contributed to Inside Scoop.

Welcome to The Book Connection, Lee. It’s great to have you with us!

It’s great to be here – thanks for having me!

Let’s get started by finding out a bit about you. Where are you from originally? Do you still live there?

I’m from Jersey City, NJ, and currently live at the Jersey shore. I’ve lived a few other places in the interim, though – such as the Ozarks, where my novel A Dream of Drowned Hollow is set.

How long have you been writing? Are you a full-time novelist? What do you like to do in your spare time?

I started writing stories back in grade school, although I didn’t really start writing seriously till a friend and I wrote a TV script for “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” in eighth grade and sent it off. We were terribly disappointed when they sent it back unread. I began writing seriously for publication, though, in the seventies.

While I’m not a full-time novelist at the moment, I have been from time to time and it’s creatively wonderful, if financially nervewracking. But you can get into a “flow” when you have more time that allows you to be a little freer, a little more creative, than when you’re working on a tight schedule – particularly when you’re also dealing with a day job that demands a lot of your energy and creativity.

So in my spare time I write. I also do a lot of reading, play and compose music – I play harp, and am a hospital-certified harp practitioner (play at the bedside in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices) – and then write more. I also do a lot of research for potential projects and projects that I’m working on. There’s never an end to research, if you want authenticity in your work. Besides, it’s fun – I love learning new things.

You have written books in several genres. Do you prefer one genre over the others?

I like fantasy and mystery, probably, the best; the former for its infinite possibilities and the latter for its intricacy. Anything at all can happen in a fantasy novel, and I think in a lot of ways that’s more reflective of the way things can happen in real life: occasionally events take a totally unexpected turn, people behave in ways that no one would have expected, and the impossible suddenly becomes possible (of course, not as often as it does in fiction).

Mystery novels offer us the chance to figure out complex circumstances in a way that challenges us intellectually; although we’re given more information than one might normally have access to in real life, still one has to put together the occurrences in a way that solves the puzzle, and good novels can make us realize that there are so many more ways to put together the facts than the solution presented to us that we should be cognizant of that fact in everyday life – and remember to think outside the box when we’re confronted with a set of “facts” that may not be as they seem.

Let’s talk about your contributions to Inside Scoop. How did you get involved in this project?

I’d met Marilyn through an online writing group – she’s incredibly generous with her knowledge and talents, by the way, and it was her suggestion that led me to Double Dragon and my first novel being published – and when she was beginning "The Golden Goblet", her online newsletter, of course she let me know about the project. Then later on she invited me to write an article for it, and that’s how I came into the picture. I was thrilled to be invited, and am honored that the end result made it into Inside Scoop.

“The Beat of Gaia’s Heart” is an essay about ecofiction. What is ecofiction? Are certain genres more open to being written and classified as ecofiction than others?

Ecofiction is really a pretty broad term, and I don’t know that it’s restrictive in which types of fiction can fit under its umbrella. If it has to do with the state of the Earth, with the way people feel about it, whether they believe in global warming or not, how they treat its creatures and its land and resources, it’s ecofiction. If it has to do with future survival because of a dearth of food, water, or other things, it’s ecofiction. And if it has to do with how two people react to one another because of how they view the Earth and its creatures, or how they treat people in other nations, or even whether they have a sense of entitlement to “more” and believe that others have a lesser right to the same resources, it can be ecofiction.

My novel A Dream of Drowned Hollow is ecofiction; it pits a young woman with uncanny powers against a man who’s determined to bring prosperity to the poverty-stricken region of the Ozarks he was raised in, no matter who gets in the way. It’s a suspense/thriller. It’s also a fantasy novel, because the Earth itself, and elemental spirits, get involved in the conflict. As ecofiction, it was a little ahead of its time when it was written, and even though it won the late Andre Norton’s Gryphon Award, it was a while before it found a publisher. Double Dragon has published other ecofiction authors, and I was thrilled when A Dream of Drowned Hollow was accepted there.

It arose out of the changes I saw in the local landscape just in the time I lived there. I lived out in the country, and saw nature in a whole different way than I had ever seen it before; when you’ve grown up in a city and suddenly you’re as likely to hear coyotes serenading the moon and the song of the bobwhite as you are to see a squirrel or chipmunk, and you can be at the mercy of flash floods or a freak snowstorm that keeps you from leaving your property for three weeks, it changes your outlook on things pretty drastically. And you learn a lot more about both sides of the issues.

Mystery? A perfect opportunity for a ripped-from-the-headlines tale about the destruction of a housing development, or a car dealership, or even a murder, when the reasons for the deed are linked, or appear to be linked, to environmental causes. What about a company trying to open a new mine in a pristine area? Locals want the jobs; environmentalists know the damage it can cause. Who’s right? Where’s the middle ground? What if someone gets killed, or there’s sabotage?

Romance? Take a woman who believes very strongly that her family’s company should be allowed to build a new plant in an area designated as a wetland; put her up against a local guy who grew up wandering that wetland, became a naturalist, and is determined to protect it. Or set a vegan woman up in a situation in which she has to interact with a man who hunts, fishes, and thinks that that’s the natural order of things even in a changing world. Give them a common cause, so they have to work together, or a source of friction, so that they have to interact on a deeper level – and you have ecofiction.

Country? Pit a factory farm employee or owner against someone struggling to save a small family farm, or a homeowner protesting the spreading of sludge on farm fields nearby. Set someone who advocates for animal welfare against a rodeo rider or a rancher who raises exotic animals for meat. Pit an organic farmer against the building of a world-class golf course, the chemical runoff from which threatens his whole livelihood.

Medical? Take your choice: animal testing, the use of animal organs to replace human organs, the use of animal products to help humans survive on a broad scale. The current case of contaminated heparin from China is a good example of how wide-reaching the theme can be; what happens if an animal-sourced product is suddenly found to be unsafe, as it was with heparin, because of some unknown factor that could be contamination from the way it was prepared – or it could be an illness in the animals from which the product was derived. Bird flu. Pandemics. They all have the potential to be written as ecofiction.

If it involves conflict and the Earth or its animals or resources, it can be classified as ecofiction.

But there’s more to it than that. When a writer really examines a character’s underlying motivations for his or her actions, it becomes clear that no matter what side of the issue they’re on, they’re not the monsters that the other side thinks they are. Many bad actions arise out of misunderstanding, ignorance, belief in something that’s not true, or an incomplete understanding of the facts. When you mix in human error, greed, anger, and other potentials for conflict, you have an “antagonist” who is a whole person, someone who can’t (and shouldn’t) be demonized – unless, of course, you’re writing about actual demons. And even then you can give those characters an extra dimension that will make them linger in the reader’s mind.

Writers can understand human behavior because of their work, and they can then help their readers to do the same thing. This opens the door to conversation, compromise, and progress – something that’s more important every day as many issues overtake us and the world we know.

Tell us about “Klassic Koalas: Ancient Aboriginal Tales in New Retellings”.

Ah, this was a book from the heart. It’s a collection of stories traditionally told by the Aboriginal people of Australia about the Dreamtime, relating how things came to be the way they are – how the koala came to lose his tail, what happened during the Great Flood, how the koala’s ears got so big, how the whale got his blowhole, why the koala’s baby clings to mama’s back – and other beliefs about the koala that most people have never heard of. In Australian Aboriginal legend, the sleepy little koala is actually very powerful, and has magical, even shamanic powers. He can sing the trees into growing and the rain into stopping, and one tale even tells how he used his strong arms to throw a boomerang into the heavens and rain down seeds to grow for the men and beasts of a formerly barren region. The stories are so charming and so wonderful that it was a delight to retell them for today’s children. And it was a labor of love, because I so much love the koala, and always have – and wanted to do something that would help, because its numbers are declining rapidly, and its habitat is disappearing.

During World War II, my father was stationed in Australia. While he was there, he “met” koalas and other indigenous Australian wildlife, and he sent back stuffed koala toys to my sisters, as well as copies of the Durack sisters’ wonderful book The Way of the Whirlwind, which is the story of Australian Aboriginals Nungaree and Jungaree and their quest to recover their baby brother, who has been carried away by the great whirlwind spirit. When I was born some years later, I “inherited” my sisters’ koalas, which I loved; there was literally never a time when I didn’t know what a koala was. And The Way of the Whirlwind probably the first book that made a serious impression on me.

When I met Joanne Ehrich, my publisher at Koala Jo Publishing, we shared a common love of Australian wildlife, and she’d already brought out the incredible Koalas: Moving Portraits of Serenity, one of the most beautiful coffee table books I’ve ever seen – all filled with incredible koala photos taken by photographers around the world. She was doing a whole series of additional koala books, and we discussed the project, and the next thing I knew I was retelling Dreamtime stories about the koala. It was wonderful; it was fun; and it brought me back to my childhood.

The illustrations in Klassic Koalas: Ancient Aboriginal Tales in New Retellings, by the way, were done in part by young art students who were big Steve Irwin fans and wanted to do something meaningful in his memory. Joanne, who is an artist, created the rest of the illustrations, designed the wonderful cover, and pulled everything together with color and format. The pictures really pop – kids love them, as well as the stories.

You are donating your royalties from “Klassic Koalas”. What organization will be the lucky recipient? How long have you been involved with them?

The Australian Wildlife Hospital, which is a major project of Irwin’s Wildlife Warriors, is the beneficiary of the royalties. Joanne and I discussed various organizations that might receive the contributions from the book, and she made the arrangements; the Hospital was planning a new facility – they’d completely outgrown their old building, which used to be an avocado processing shed – and had designed a new, environmentally friendly facility that would tremendously increase their capacity as well as being kind to the surrounding area. They broke ground for it last year, and it’s actually projected to open in late March – so they need funding more than ever, for equipment and supplies. They go out on over 100 wildlife emergency calls each day, and have a koala rehabilitation area where the ones who are seriously injured can relearn climbing trees and the orphaned babies can grow up in safety. At present they have more than 50 koalas being treated, and the numbers grow because of habitat loss, animal attacks, and disease – so they’re fighting to stem a rising tide.

What’s up next for you? Are there future projects you would like to share with us?

Currently I’m working on a paranormal mystery that deals with domestic violence and animal abuse – the two are tied together in real life, with the latter often being a predictor of violent behavior toward humans – and hope to make people more aware of the emotional issues behind these problems, so that they can recognize the signs and take action against them. One of the best ways to fight a problem is to tell a story about it, so that people can see it for what it is and come to care enough about it to want to get involved – so that’s what I’m trying to do.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I’d like to say that if people enjoy reading ecofiction, if they like proactive characters who do something about the circumstances in which they find themselves, they should see if there’s a way they can bring that excitement and satisfaction into their own lives. There are thousands of ways in which people can get involved to better their neighborhoods, their cities, their states, and the conditions under which people and animals live. The information is out there on the Web for anyone who wants to do more, whether it’s just finding organic food for the family table or volunteering at a shelter – human or animal – or starting a neighborhood garden for kids to grow their own plants in the summertime, or volunteering to build a house with Habitat for Humanity or going to a foreign country to help with a water purification project. If you see something that’s wrong, you can help to find a solution and make it right.

I’d also like to thank you for letting me be here. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Thanks for joining us today, Lee. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I wish you great success in all you do.

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