Interview With Author Barbara Claypole White

# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

I was born in rural England and grew up with dreams of becoming a novelist, which doesn’t explain why I studied medieval history at university or ended up as a publicist for the London fashion industry. But after I married an American professor, his support allowed me to spend twenty years writing in the cracks of my life.

When we moved to the North Carolina forest, I became a stay-at-home mom and took evening classes / attended conferences to learn the business of publishing. One terrible manuscript later, I snagged my first pub deal—right before turning fifty.

Inspired by our son, an award-winning, published poet who manages a chronic, easily-hidden illness—obsessive-compulsive disorder—I write fiction about the impact of mental illness on families. (I’m also a mental health advocate for a nonprofit.)

I’m passionate about creating characters—of all ages and sex—who battle invisible disabilities such as anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, etc. Some first appear as antiheroes, but I throw them into crises and see how they rise to the top to find community, courage, and love. I’m especially drawn to messed-up men who’ve struggled with tragedy in isolation and shame.

All this inspires emotionally-charged, hopeful book club fiction. And because I have an off-beat sense of humor, I work in the occasional crazy critter.

Setting also plays its role. I lean toward southern fiction, but occasionally hop the pond to rural southern England. As a woodland gardener, my favorite writing image is light through the trees.

The Unfinished Garden, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, won the Golden Quill for Best First Book, and introduced my beloved James Nealy. James is sexy and brilliant and empathetic, and locked in a silent war with irrational, intrusive, unwanted, obsessive thoughts (OCD).

My second novel, The In-Between Hour, a story of two broken families coming together to heal in a quiet corner of rural North Carolina, was a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Okra Pick. I then wrote my bestselling father/son story, The Perfect Son, which was a Goodreads Choice Awards Semifinalist for Best Fiction.

Echoes of Family, a WFWA Star Award Finalist, shines a light on bipolar disorder in women; and The Promise Between Us, with a heroine who once battled the horrors of undiagnosed postpartum OCD, asks: Can you be a good mother if you abandon your baby? It was a Nautilus Award Winner for books that foster and inspire change, and an American Fiction Awards Finalist.

I’m currently working on novel six, The Gin Club, which bounces back to my love of exploring father-son relationships and how guys process surviving trauma. And introduces three kickass women and a groundhog with a taste for artisan gin.

# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

Everything I write returns to my passion for chipping away at stereotypes of mental illness or neurological disorders such as Tourette’s. My goal is to create characters who live by the mantra I am not my disorder and display extraordinary courage as they navigate daily life.

To find those characters, I conduct one-on-one interviews with people living the experiences I want to excavate. My characters are fictionalized, but their stories are composites of challenges real people have faced.

Marianne, the heroine of Echoes of Family, runs a successful recording studio and a nonprofit for teen girls, plus she’s a suicide survivor with bipolar 1. Finding her voice and honoring that voice, even after she quits her meds and her moods cycle fast, involved interviewing many funny, impressive women who live with varying degrees of the illness.

Writing also helps me focus on the positive. When mental illness holds your family hostage, it’s important to remember that effective treatments and medication shifts take time to work. But one day you will glimpse a light of hope, even if it’s only the faintest slither. I write toward that slither of light.

# What inspires/inspired your creativity?

My sister is an artist, and we grew up creating, illustrating, and acting out stories, but I was always happiest alone in my room with my books and my imagination. These days my main source of creativity is reading, reviewing books, interviewing other authors, and attending craft workshops. The journey to improve my craft never ends. And I garden. Garden is thinking time that allows me to work through plot problems.

# How do you deal with creative block?

I think writers’ block manifests differently in everyone. Here’s my version: I have many bad writing days and a horrible time digging down to find the true heart of the story. Each of my novels has evolved out of what began as a different manuscript.

My answer to those bad days is to give myself permission to write unedited crap, because stream of consciousness often leads to pure gold.

Always let more writing be the cure, that’s my mantra.

# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

The biggest mistake is to make mistakes! Every novel publishes with errors readers catch, but you can limit those errors with thorough research and careful editing. Don’t rush to publication.

For example, I need time to polish my characters’ voices and make them distinct. To achieve that, I edit aloud, by character. Which brings me back to being slooow.

# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I find three-star reviews helpful, because they tend to explore strengths and weaknesses in an objective way. Often those weaknesses are holes I haven’t clocked. I also have three beta readers—the power of three!—and if two of them focus on the same problem, even if they present different solutions, I know that something needs fixing.

One- and two-star reviews can become shattershots of hate, which means they’re not helpful. I compensate by reading bashings of books I’ve loved. Sometimes I come up with little rewards, such as a glass of the good gin, simply to celebrate the fact that my work is out in the world.

Other times I roll my eyes, as I did with the French writer who accused me of not understanding how English men speak (excuse me?). And sometimes I laugh: about the poor woman who thought The Unfinished Garden was a Harlequin romance and was outraged to discover no sex.

Certain reviews, however, can kick me in the gut. When that happens, I vent to someone I trust, because I feel I’ve earned the right to my anger. And I can’t engage publicly! My first negative review came from a teacher who lambasted my portrayal of James’ OCD. Her comments included the line, “I don’t know anything about OCD, but clearly this author doesn’t either.” She then encouraged other readers to weigh in on her belief, and the ensuing thread pulsed with negativity. This on the day my son’s OCD was so bad that he curled up on the floor, telling me he couldn’t go on. Hours later, I asked for an extension on my second novel.

The reviewer couldn’t have known any of this, but had she bothered to read the bio in the book she announced she’d downloaded for free, she would have known that OCD frames my world. That small step could have stopped her from tightening the screws on one of the worst days of my life.

Ninety percent of my negative reviews cover one topic, and I made peace with that years ago. My characters occasionally use the f-bomb, and some readers—who send me emails ranting about that fact—call it lazy writing. Here’s the truth: I write my characters as I hear them, and if they need to swear, they swear. Even before they appear on the page, I know what terms of endearment they use and which cuss words they favor if they cuss. The hero of The Gin Club, Luca, doesn’t swear, but in the climax, an f-bomb slips into his thoughts in the perfect sentence for his character arc in that moment. Every time I read it, I cheer, “Go, Luca!”

# How has your creation process improved over time?

My actual process hasn’t essentially changed. I’m slower than a tortoise, I follow ever detour, and I can’t plot. But I continue to learn from workshops and the writing of authors I admire. And after two novels, I adopted screenwriting techniques to cut down on the meandering. Save the Cat, the gold standard for screenwriters, taught me to write to turning points called movie beats. Knowing those beats before I start writing—even if they change—makes a new manuscript less scary.

# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I once tripped over Johnny Rotten; as a student I ended up on stage with the Boomtown Rats and Sir Bob Geldof pinched my bottom; and during my time in the fashion industry, I hobnobbed with the famous and the royal. But the best story of all? I met my husband of thirty-three years at JFK Airport.