Interview With Author Michelle Barker

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

Hi. My name is Michelle Barker. I’m an author living in Vancouver, BC, and I have been writing ever since I could hold a pen. I have published short fiction, non-fiction, poetry, a picture book, and several novels. I have an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and I work as a senior editor at a manuscript development company called The Darling Axe.

My last three books have all been set in Germany. My picture book, A Year of Borrowed Men, is based on an experience my mother had growing up in Germany during World War Two. She grew up on a farm and her family was obliged to take in French prisoners of war. German law required them to treat the men as prisoners, but her family found a way to befriend them instead.

The House of One Thousand Eyes is a historical novel for teens set in East Berlin in 1983. Lena is a teenaged girl whose parents died in a factory explosion; she lives with her aunt, a devoted member of the ruling Communist Party. Visits with her beloved Uncle Erich, a best-selling author, are her only respite. But one night, her uncle disappears without a trace. Lena is desperate to know what happened to him, but it’s as if he never existed. Her search for him is dangerous; there are government spies everywhere. But she works in Stasi headquarters as a night janitor; she is perfectly placed to find out more information—as long as she doesn’t get caught.

My Long List of Impossible Things is also a historical novel for teens. The arrival of the Soviet Army in Germany at the end of World War II sends sixteen-year-old Katja and her family into turmoil. The fighting has stopped, but German society is in collapse, resulting in tremendous hardship. With their father gone and few resources available to them, Katja and her sister are forced to flee their home, reassured by their mother that if they can just reach a distant friend in a town far away, things will get better. But their harrowing journey brings danger and violence, and Katja needs to summon all her strength to build a new life, just as she’s questioning everything she thought she knew about her country. Katja’s bravery and defiance help her deal with the emotional and societal upheaval. But how can she stay true to herself and protect the people she loves when each decision has such far-reaching consequences?

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

My most recent work has all been inspired by my mother and her experiences in Germany during and after World War Two. She was a child during the war and then grew up in what became East Germany, so she has a lot of stories.

But I have also done extensive writing on other topics. Usually I am inspired by a question or problem that niggles at me and won’t go away.

How do you deal with creative block?

In my opinion, creative block is caused by the desire to make things come out perfectly the first time. Given that this virtually never happens in writing, the easy solution is to let go of that desire and allow yourself to write crap. This was the motto my novel-writing professor gave us and it took all the pressure off. I have discovered that, more often than not, when you give yourself permission to write without worrying about how good it is, it usually comes out better than you expected.

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

Haha, how much time do you have? I could make a long list. Maybe the biggest ones are: telling rather than showing; not giving your protagonist a strong enough goal; not making your plot points causally connected, which causes a lack of forward momentum; and not including enough conflict.

But that is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

Thankfully I am not responsible for my covers, as I would have a very hard time choosing them. My creative ability does not extend to visual art.

I have no trouble choosing titles, however. Sometimes I even have the title before I’ve written the book (as with The House of One Thousand Eyes). I don’t have any great suggestions for how to go about this. Titles generally suggest themselves to me during the course of the writing. I find it important to have some idea of the title as I’m writing the novel, as it helps me to anchor the story in place.

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

Bad reviews and negative feedback are two very different things.

When I get negative feedback, it’s usually on a work in progress. In that case, I’m grateful. It means I can fix the problem before anyone else sees it. I rely on a few key writer-friends to provide honest feedback on my work, and I would never send anything out without them.

Bad reviews, however, come after the work is complete, and there is nothing I can do about those. They hurt. I try not to read them if I can help it. It’s easy to say that not everyone is going to like your writing and not everyone will get it. But it’s still hard when you get a review that slams your work.

How has your creation process improved over time?

I believe four things are responsible for the improvement of my creation process:

  1. Getting my MFA: I would never say that a writer must have an MFA. But I will say that it made a huge difference to my writing. It taught me about the craft in ways I’ve never gotten anywhere else.
  2. Being an editor: Editing other people’s manuscripts tends to sharpen my skills in terms of what works and what doesn’t. This is part of why the MFA program was so helpful, because it involved a lot of critiquing of other people’s writing.
  3. Practice: You can’t become a better writer unless you write—a lot.
  4. Reading: As above. You won’t improve as a writer unless you read extensively.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

I believe that if you aim for personal satisfaction, you will end by serving your readers. I don’t think this is a question of balance. I think one necessarily leads to the other. I write what I want to read. And I would never hand over a manuscript to a publisher unless I was completely satisfied with it.

Do you have any creativity tricks?

I am a strong believer in the value of writing prompts for sparking creativity. I also believe in the value of belonging to a writing group. There is something about writing in the presence of others that contributes to creativity; it’s like a group energy that feeds off all the participants and produces something greater than what you could do alone.

Writing longhand as opposed to on the computer is another way to get the creative juices flowing. And copying out parts of a novel you love (not your own) is also a great way to get things moving.

If I’m in the middle of a first draft, I tend to leave notes for myself for the following day, so that I don’t have to start cold. I also tend to leave off in the middle of something, so that it’s easy to pick up the next day. Hemingway used to stop in the middle of a sentence. It’s a good practice.

What are your plans for future books?

Right now, I am working on a dystopian thriller for adults called The Ministry of Sleep. As soon as it is done (hopefully by the summer), I will begin work on another German novel, this one set in pre-war Germany. I was hoping to travel to Germany to do research, but with the pandemic that probably won’t be possible for a while.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

In my spare time, I am an endurance athlete.
I have zero sense of direction and am a great killer of plants.
I have a cat (photo attached).