(This interview originally written for The Romance Reader in 1996)
While some authors can make you laugh, others can make you cry, and still others can make you tingle, it is a rare author who can manage to do all three, sometimes simultaneously. Jill Barnett is such an author for me. Her book Bewitching is one of my all-time favorite keepers, and is on three of our Special Title Listings – it is a Favorite Funny, a Two-Hanky Read, and a Luscious Love Story.
So spending time with Jill at last summer’s national RWA conference in Dallas was just about the best hour I spent during that marathon five-day event. I had questions about her writing, her family, her life, and her humor, which has been sorely tested in the last year following the unexpected death of her husband. She was gracious enough to answer all my questions, even apologizing for my tears upon hearing about how very special her beloved John had been during their life together.
–Laurie Likes Books
About writing humorously:
Some of it (humor) comes really well at 2 a.m. after three pots of coffee. It’s a very difficult topic to talk about because humor is very subjective. What is funny to one person isn’t funny to another. I don’t know where it comes from, just that my ideas start off a little bit off kilter. For instance, in the book I’m working on now, the first line just hit me.
The ideas for things just hit me all of a sudden and I don’t know whether it’s the way I think or if I see love and relationships starting off as funny and not ending up that way.
The book is a medieval – I think medievals have to be rich, full, and political, or they have to be Monty Python. Julie Garwood does a wonderful job on these. Anyway, that first line is (tentatively) “When the boy fell down the tower stairs for the fifth time that week, she named him Thud.” So, this is a heroine who collects these misfits and these little boys have no names, so she names them.
I had already decided to write a medieval and that it was going to be a romp because she’s an ale maker. I had read somewhere that the only way women could make money independently in medieval times was making ale. Oh, an ale maker – would she make it correctly? Well, sometimes the brewing goes off a little bit and things don’t exactly work – things can explode. And horses love ale, so what would happen to a knight whose horse had drunk a bit too much ale?
About writing romance after personal tragedy:
The unexpected death of Jill’s husband John last year has sorely tested her views on life, let alone her ability to write romance, and humorous romance at that. Jill and her then 11-year-old daughter were devastated during the middle of the night when a policeman brought them the news. A few weeks later, after the initial rush of family and friends had ebbed, she called her friend, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and asked, “How can I write happy and joyful when there is no joy in my life?” Susan responded, “I don’t know, Cookie. I just don’t know.”
Much of the healing process has come from the small things, such as taking time to sit in her daughter Kasey’s favorite tree to reminisce about their lives together. To celebrate John’s life rather than mourn it.
Part of that celebration has come through Jill’s writing. She initially feared that she wouldn’t be able to write again. At that time she was working on Carried Away. Her publisher wanted to be as accommodating as possible, but Jill frantically called them and said, “Please, don’t pull the book!” She added, “And so, you know, I just had to kind of sit at the screen and work. And whether it worked or not, I don’t know. . . This book stood as a symbol for me whether I could do this (write) at all. I had started the book before John died. I knew I had some funny scenes to write. I couldn’t do them at first – they seemed so flat to me.”
Jill has bounced back with the love of her daughter, her family, and her friends. She finished writing Carried Away, released last fall, and which received a 4-heart rating from me at The Romance Reader. While not her best book, the humor is definitely there, as well as the romance.
If the book doesn’t work as well as some of her others, and it is still a cut above most, it could be because of Jill’s ambitions – she tells two romances in one book. And she uses different points-of-view than romance readers are used to. In one of the romances, the points-of-view are of the heroine and the seven-year-old daughter of the hero. In that love story, she goes back to the 70’s style of romance before heroes had points-of-view. As she said, “Everything is done with dialogue. It’s a real stretch for an author. . . I love to stretch – I want to do it more.”
More on stretching as an author:
Jill has written books about witches, about ship-owners in 1800’s San Francisco, about isolated islands off the coast of Maine, and now is working on that medieval. She chalks it up to being an explorer. While she’s not wild about romances set in China, the Tudor period, or against the backdrop of witch-hunts, she is going to do two back-to-back sequels of Bewitching. The first will feature the son who has not inherited his mother’s powers. That book will be set in North America. The other will be set in Victorian England and will feature the son with strong powers.
It’s hard to imagine Jill writing a book without a humorous element, but she does plan to tackle a more serious subject after her medieval is complete. What she always envisions in her writing is allowing her characters the freedom to be themselves.
She says, “I like most writing the things that are unexpected, like when the statues came to life in Bewitching. Things such as all the maids being named Mary or all the children being named for Joy’s aunt. The things that aren’t planned are such a high for a writer!”
When asked whether she takes dictation for her characters, she responded, “The first hundred pages, you don’t know them. You’re struggling with them, stretching with them – how would they react? By page 120 they’re off on their own, the first 100 pages are wrong, you’ve gotta rewrite. I’m not real structured because I know they are going to take off. I just go with it. And that’s when all the magic happens.”
What about the flow of laughter to tears, something you so adeptly manage in your books, when most authors have trouble being either funny or sad, let alone both?
Well, that’s tone, and that’s what my talk at RWA was supposed to be about. I have a workshop about it entitled From Laughter to Tears, but they wanted me to talk only about humor. It’s so hard to talk about humor because it’s so hard to explain.
Balancing it (humor) is like life. My books are works of fiction, but they are filled with people who are really human and vulnerable. A lot of the humor with Joy, the heroine from Bewitching, was funny when it happened, but the repercussions were not funny. The repercussions created a lot of sympathy and brought humanity to this character. We can all laugh but we can all hurt, too.
And so when you are laughing, it is very easy to lead into that hurt. I was at a cocktail party last night with Jill Marie Landis and her husband Steve and we were having such a good time! We had all been together last year in Hawaii and had such fun. When I saw Steve last night, all of a sudden it reminded me of last year and I just lost it. So I can be laughing one minute and crying the next.
Bewitching is considered Jill Barnett’s finest work to date. It is a love story set in the Regency era between a witch not in full command of her powers and a Duke without a sense of humor, imagination, or wonder. By the end of the book, his world has been turned upside down. There are so many inventive, romantic, and cleverly-written scenes in this book that it is hard to pick which are the best. The author, however, has hers picked out. As it turns out, her choices mirrored my own, but more about that a bit later.
Where did the idea come from?
It took me 14 months to do that book. The idea had been festering for a long time. If I can’t do a book when I want to, I’ll wait and the idea will get better and better with time. I had known that I wanted to do a heroine who is a witch but I didn’t know what time period to set it in. In 1990, Meagan McKinney was staying with me in San Francisco for the RWA conference. We were in my office, laughing and talking about ideas. I told her about my idea of a witch who can’t control her magic. When I told her I didn’t know when I should set the story, she said, “You have to do Regency”. These scenes started coming, half of which never ended up in the book, but, I really had a good time and that book really did some cool things when I was writing it. There were a lot of scenes I didn’t plan on that just happened.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is on the roof when all the statues come to life and that was not planned. I had no idea that was going to happen. I had done some research on a house in the Cotswolds that had statues on the roof and a domed room and so that was all actual.
What about the rose petals that appear during the love scenes?
They popped into my head one day. I don’t know where the rose petals came from, but when it happened, I say, “Oh, thank you, God. Thank you so much!” When I got the idea, I just built it up and played around with it.
What was it like writing such a tight-ass for a hero?
Anal-retentive is a good term. He was the hardest hero I’ve ever done.
Wasn’t Bewitching the first book of its type? How supportive was your publisher (Pocket Books)
There probably was something like it in science fiction, but I don’t think in romance. . . I had an editor at the time at Pocket. I told him about the book. “Well,” he said, “that sounds like a good idea, but I want it to be a different position on the list. So can you save it and do the blond-in-the-jungle book (Just a Kiss Away) next?”
So I did, and waited, and did Bewitching.
Did Bewitching make you a lead author? Didn’t that happen relatively quickly for you?
They were already going to make me a lead. And relative is a good term; I had been at Pocket for two years before they even published me! I sold to them in 1988 and was not published until 1990 and then there were two years between Just a Kiss Away and Bewitching (1991 – 1993). So there was a lot of lag time.
When that editor left and Linda Marrow wanted to see the idea. I sent her about 300 pages and she called me and said, “I knew the idea was good but I was worried because it’s one of those things you don’t know whether the author can pull it off. Jill, I think this is a book people are going to be talking about for the next 10 years.”
Did you know it would be so great?
I knew it would be good, but not how good. I knew it was fun, and when I am having fun, it just comes – that’s probably where the humor comes from as well.
The epilogue from Bewitching is one of the cleverest I have ever read, and features our previously anal-retentive Duke being flown around the room on a chair by one of his daughters. Where did that come from?
I think I might be a creative person (duh, Jill!), because these things just come to me. By then, the characters were done, I knew who they were. I knew this man had to have all these daughters. And I had already done epilogues where the children have the same traits that were irritants earlier.
So I just thought as I sat there – well, of course he has to have all these daughters and so he has these daughters who can’t control their magic. Well, he’s in a chair, sitting there – I could just picture him flying around the room on the chair, and then landing with a bam – but by then he’d learned to hold on tight. So I thought that showed he had changed.
Any anecdotes to share on the stereotypes faced by authors of romantic fiction?
I was interviewed on my first book. The journalist came to my house from a local paper. This was in my own home! She picked up the book and she held it like it was a dead rat by the tail and she said, “How can you write all this sex?” And I said, “Well, I don’t write about sex, I write about emotion.” And she said, “No, I mean all the sex.” And I said, “Well, no, I write about love and emotion”. And she said, “No, I mean all the sex.” And I said, “Can we talk about the other 400 pages?” And she looked at me and changed the subject. It went really quickly after that.
When the article came out, I was listed as 5 years older than I was. She said I was a housewife with no career and no degree, which was not true. She made it sound as though I wrote it in the kitchen between cooking little pies. I hope her breasts fall off – it was awful, a horrible thing!
How her family helped:
I’ve had men come up to me at cocktail parties and stuff – they find out you write romance and they look at your husband and they go, “I’ll bet that research is really fun.” You just sit there. My husband was wonderful about this. He was very proud of what I did and would usually say something like, “She did this and this and this and I’m incredibly proud of her.” He was very heroic, a wonderful man.
We went shopping for a car one time and the salesman would only talk to him and the car was for me. I asked the salesman. . . something else and he blew me off. I told my husband and he told me, “We’re out of here” and we started walking. The salesman chased after him. “Buddy, you insult my wife, you insult me!” and we walked out and down the street to another lot and bought a car. This is the same kind of thing he did with rude people about romance. My daughter is also very proud of me. Even when she was younger (she is now 12), she always said, “My mommy writes romances.”
About what bothers Jill the most:
As Jill and I ended our conversation, she spoke quite passionately and eloquently about the mixed message society makes about love and commitment.
The tough thing that bothers me the most is when they pretend they aren’t real books. I don’t understand how you can take a book that deals with tragedy and horror and call it a real book but you can take a book about love and call it trite. We all strive for love and celebrate it; men are as happy when they are in love as women are. We are blessed with children through love, we all go and celebrate a marriage, and yet, when you write about it, it’s trite? And yet our whole society is based on ritual and wonderful celebrations of it. What kind of a mixed message is that?
(P.S. – As a writer on romance who writes from a fan’s perspective, it is sometimes difficult to maintain one’s objectivity and not sound gushing. I may have gone over-board in the gush department with this profile. If I have, I apologize. If not, never mind.)