Welcome to the five hundred and eighty-sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with memoirist, poet, non-fiction and fiction author Barbara Morrison. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Barbara. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Barbara: I’ve been a passionate reader ever since decoding that first Golden Book and began writing while still in school, mostly stories and plays that I forced my siblings to put on. I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in my twenties.
Morgen: I’d love to have had a sibling (my brother) do that. 🙂 You write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Barbara: While sometimes my non-fiction is about writing and publishing, I mostly write about poverty and women’s issues. Part of my mission as a writer is to show the real lives of people living in poverty, having myself been on public assistance as a young, single mother and felt the stigma of all those hurtful stereotypes.
Morgen: That’s a wonderful idea. People like JK Rowling, formerly a struggling single mother, are inspirations. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Barbara: I’ve published two poetry collections, Here at Least and Terrarium, and a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. I’ve also had work published in magazines and anthologies. I write under the name B. Morrison.
Morgen: You’ve self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Barbara: My memoir is from Apprentice House. Before that, however, inspired by musician friends who bypassed record labels to put out their own CDs, I decided to self-publish my poetry collection in order to learn all I could about the publishing process. Somewhat to my surprise, since I was unknown and there’s not a big market for poetry, Here at Least sold pretty well.
Morgen: Well done. Poetry as you say is a tough market to crack, which is a shame. Are your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Barbara: Innocent is out as an eBook. My collections are currently traditional books. I read some eBooks, especially when travelling, but mostly paper. Once I get through my huge to-be-read stacks of books–like that will ever happen!–maybe I’ll move more into eBooks.
Morgen: I have so many paper books to read and am gathering eBooks that I think it’ll be half-and-half until the eBooks take over (if they do). Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Barbara: The publisher sought my input on both the title and the cover. They are critical! They are what make a customer pick up the book. In the long run, good writing is what matters but first a reader has to want to look inside.
Morgen: Absolutely. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Barbara: I’m working on a novel.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Barbara: I never suffer from writer’s block, though I often struggle with a tendency to procrastinate. I mostly write on the weekends, but try to do something during the week, some marketing activities, maybe a little revision.
Morgen: Marketing does tend to take over. You mentioned revision, do you do a lot of editing on your work or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Barbara: I do a lot of editing. I tend to do a rough first draft and then devote a lot of time to tightening it up and making sure it is the very best I can do. It usually takes multiple drafts to get the manuscript where I want it.
Morgen: Same with me, although I’m getting better, reigning in when I start to waffle. 🙂 Do you have to do much research?
Barbara: Even though my book is a memoir, I did a lot of research because I felt a responsibility to be as accurate as possible. In addition to consulting my letters and journals from the time, I interviewed many people who are in the book and compared their memories to mine. I also did a good bit of fact-checking for aspects of the book that are in the public domain.
Morgen: That’s very wise because if you get something wrong, you can guarantee that someone will pick up on it and (hopefully) let you know. Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Barbara: I’ve had so many rejections that I stopped counting a while ago. I just file them, log them in my spreadsheet, and send out the work again. Having seen some excellent writers give up after receiving a few rejections, I decided to just push ahead. I also know that the publishing industry is in the midst of huge changes, so I’ve treasured the few rejection letters that had hand-written notes saying how much they liked the manuscript even though they couldn’t publish it.
Morgen: They say a successful writer is one who didn’t give up and I think if you love it enough you won’t (I won’t :)). Do you enter any non-fiction competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Barbara: Yes. Competitions were an important way to build credentials as a writer in order to sell my manuscript to a publisher. Then after Innocent came out, I entered it in book award competitions. It has won a 2012 bronze medal from IPPY and an Honorable Mention at the 2011 New England Book Festival. It is also currently a finalist for ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year. All of these are in the Autobiography / Memoir category,
Morgen: Congratulations. 🙂 Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Barbara: I queried many agents while searching for a publisher but was unsuccessful, so I queried publishers directly and that is how the book sold. I think the role of the agent is changing, along with the whole world of book publishing.
Morgen: It is, and some are becoming publishers. Do you write fiction? If so, do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your stories were made into films, whom would you have as the leading actor/s?
Barbara: Whatever I’m working on right now is always my favourite. Associating an actor with my fictional characters is too limiting; it’s my job to flesh out the characters, and the actors’ job to inhabit them.
Morgen: And in between, readers to imagine them. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Barbara: I prefer to work from an outline, though I’m not afraid to deviate from it. If one of my freewriting sessions produces a fertile idea, I will run with it for a while but always go back and outline to ensure everything fits together.
Morgen: I usually plan very little and have just written a second crime novel, the first (I hope) of a series and I didn’t plot at all so it’s gone a bit all over the place but I’m very pleased with it and feel that what I have so far (just over 50,000 words) will split into more than one book, obviously with a lot more writing to do. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Barbara: No, I don’t have a particular method for creating fictional characters. It sounds a little crazy but they just start inhabiting my thoughts. What I then do is put them in situations that will test them.
Morgen: Not crazy at all, it’s what I love most about fiction. What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Barbara: With fiction, I sometimes write the first draft in first person and then revise it to third. Which one sticks depends on the piece.
Morgen: You mentioned earlier that you also write poetry, do you write to form or as it comes? If to form, what are your favourites? Are some easier than others?
Barbara: I mostly write free verse, though I do write a lot of haiku. I love the elegance and simplicity of that challenging form.
Morgen: I run a writing workshop every other Monday evening and although we mostly have prose exercises, occasionally we’ll do some haiku or Fibonacci because they’re so short. Do you think eBooks will change poetry?
Barbara: I don’t think they will change poetry so much as fiction and non-fiction. There are some formatting issues that can complicate publishing poetry in eBooks.
Morgen: That’s true. I think it’s the same with children’s picture books; because of the ability to change font size they’ll distort more easily. What / who do you read? And is it via eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Barbara: For poetry I prefer paper. For some reason it is more conducive to rereading and mulling. I also enjoy seeing how poems which were written individually interact with each other when put in a collection, and that is easier to do with paper. I read many poets, both current and classics. Some whom I go back to again and again are Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück, May Sarton, Rilke, Keats, John Clare.
Morgen: Do you show / read your poems to anyone before you submit?
Barbara: Yes, I have a critique group who have been helpful, and I also try them out in readings.
Morgen: Critique groups are invaluable – the meetings in between the writing workshops are critique and I’m so lucky in that I have a wonderful group who are firm but fair, as are another fortnightly Thursday night group that I’m involved in. Why do you think poetry is such a difficult market to break into?
Barbara: Actually, I think it may be the easiest market so break into. There are so many poetry competitions and online publications.
Morgen: I have quite a few (50?) on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/submission-information/submissions-poetry but I bet I’ve missed loads. Do you do a lot of editing of your poems or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Barbara: If anything, I do more editing now because I’m more aware that they could be better.
Morgen: I used to write a lot of 60-word stories and found the more I wrote the closer they came out to the word count. It’s obviously not a direct comparison but do you find your poems come out at similar lengths, or does they really vary.
Barbara: Yes, they do usually come out to be about the same length.
Morgen: We mentioned marketing earlier, how much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Barbara: I do a lot of marketing. Small presses don’t usually have the resources to do marketing and even large presses only have limited funds, so it is up to the author. I used my self-published poetry collection to learn how to promote a book; it was a huge learning curve for me. For the memoir, when I realised I needed to go to the next step, I decided to hire a publicist. Although some friends have had bad experiences with publicists, I’ve been lucky enough to find a wonderful publicist who has been very helpful.
Morgen: Publicists are a field of writing I haven’t interviewed yet. I should build some appropriate questions… What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Barbara: I like the revision process the best, which did surprise me. When I first started writing, I was afraid to revise, worried that I would ruin the piece, but now I’ve found it to be the most exciting part, seeing everything take shape. Marketing is easily my least favourite part of the writing life, but I’ve found that I enjoy giving readings. I expected to hate it, but in fact I love the interaction and seeing how people react.
Morgen: I say that editing and research are my least favourite aspects (although marketing is the most time-consuming) but we have the internet for our research (as long as we don’t get side-tracked) and editing does polish. My favourite aspect though is the writing. If I could just write it then pass it on to a buffer I’d be happy. 🙂 Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Barbara: I help lead a monthly poetry discussion group and am active in my local writer’s association. I also teach workshops on writing, publishing, and promotion.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Barbara: I dance! After 30 years as a morris dancer, my knees gave out but I still do traditional social dancing: New England contras, English Country, Scottish Country, and English Ceilidh dancing.
Morgen: Oh, wow. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Barbara: Read, read, and read some more. Surround yourself with supportive people; write from your heart; and never give up.
Morgen: Absolutely. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Barbara: I would love to sit down with Lillian Smith, Adrienne Rich, and George Orwell and figure out how to make the world a more “morally civilized” place, in Smith’s words.
Morgen: That would be great. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Barbara: I have a list of useful sites on my website: http://www.bmorrison.com/links.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Barbara: I’m on several: Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, SheWrites, and LinkedIn. All of these sites offer opportunities for communities of writers and/or of readers and writers to coalesce. I find these groups and chats a valuable source of information and support. Facebook and Twitter are also great for getting the word out about events.
Morgen: They are. I love the internet although, as I mentioned a moment ago, it’s all too easy for the hours to fly. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Barbara: A lot of uncertainty. There is so much change going on right now, what with the rise of eBooks, the death of bookstores, and the confused state of intellectual property law, that all we can do is stay flexible.
Morgen: And enjoy the ride. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Barbara: My website and Monday Morning Book Blog are at www.bmorrison.com. You can follow me on Twitter @bmorrison9 where I mostly tweet about poetry including a weekly haiku and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/InnocentMemoir. My Amazon Author Page is http://amazon.com/author/bmorrison and GoodReads is www.goodreads.com/author/show/1453712.B_Morrison.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Barbara: My blog grew out of my reading journal, a valuable tool for a writer! Every Monday I post a blog about a book I read that week. Usually I comment from a writer’s point of view, i.e., what worked and why, but sometimes just as a reader. I’ve been doing this since 2006 so there is quite an archive now.
Morgen: What a great idea. We all need feedback, especially what works and what doesn’t. It’s why I created my blog’s https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/feedback page (and reviews on Reviewers). Thank you, Barbara.
I then invited Barbara to include an extract of her writing…
Why don’t they pick that trash up? The thought skittered across my mind, almost as though someone else were speaking. Then I heard myself and—appalled—braked the car and pulled over, even before my mind caught up with my hands and feet.
Trash littered the sidewalk on both sides of Monroe Street: soda bottles, chicken boxes and newspaper pages caught between the front stoops. The sun, low in the afternoon sky, threw a shadow over one side of the street. On the other side, the sunny side, the harsh lines of the brick rowhouses and stone steps shimmered in the heat of a Baltimore August. The flat face of the houses boasted no ornamentation, merely crumbling mortar and discolored brick. Four were boarded up, one still stained by smoke.
On the shaded side of the street, a few people sat on the stoops, not moving, not even talking, simply sitting as though hypnotized by the heat. A heavyset white woman in shorts and a sleeveless blouse rested on one stoop, a thin woman dressed in dark blue on another. Down the block, an elderly African-American man with a dark baseball cap pulled low over his forehead roosted on a step.
No matter how isolated I was, sitting there in the locked car, I could not believe that I had even for a moment thought that the only problem with the people who lived on this street was laziness. It wasn’t very long ago that I too sat on a front stoop, no job to go to, no money in my pocket, staring at the sidewalk.
According to popular wisdom, I should never have found myself on welfare. White, educated, healthy, I grew up in a two-parent family in Roland Park, a middle-class neighborhood in Baltimore, and went to college. I was nothing like what most people picture when you say “welfare recipient”. But then, in my years on welfare, with all the women and men that I met then and since, I never did meet anyone who fit that stereotype.
And then to include a synopsis of her book…
When my marriage dissolved, I found myself with a one-year-old and another baby on the way, no job, no health insurance, no child support, and no savings. As door after door closed in my face, supporting my children became my first priority. Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother tells why I went on welfare, what I learned there, and how I got out.
I use my experiences as a welfare recipient and my friends’ experiences to tell the truth about living at the mercy of the welfare system and to explore what actually works to help families escape from poverty. Innocent offers a powerful personal narrative on important social issues. Part coming-of-age story and part immersion in a foreign culture, this book puts a human face on poverty.
Barbara Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and a poetry collection, Here at Least. Her award-winning work has been published in anthologies and magazines. She conducts writing workshops and speaks on women’s and poverty-related issues. Visit her website and blog at www.bmorrison.com.
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