HALLIE: I heard the buzz about Brunonia Barry and her remarkable first novel, The Lace Reader, long before I had the pleasure of meeting her. The book was a publishing phenom.
Brunonia had started writing it in 2000. Finished a draft and began revising in 2002. Self published in 2007. The book did spectacularly well, and soon major publishing houses were bidding seven figures for it. When HarperCollins brought it out again, it shot onto the New York Times best seller list. What a ride!
Aside from the wonderful writing and a mystery that keeps you guessing, it has two great things going for it. The setting, Salem, home of the witch trials; and the notion of a psychic who reads the future in pieces of lace.
Here's a snippet from the book:
The Lace Reader must stare at the piece of lace until the pattern blurs and the face of the Seeker disappears completely behind the veil. When the eyes begin to fill with tears and the patience is long exhausted, there will appear a glimpse of something not quite seen.
In this moment, an image will begin to form… in the space between what is real and what is only imagined.
How did you come up with the idea of reading lace, or is this something people really do?
BRUNONIA: The idea came to me in a dream. We had just moved back to New England from California and were renovating the tiny kitchen in our Victorian fixer-upper, knocking down walls to enlarge the space. It was going to be a dusty job, so I wasn't unpacking much, basically just the bedroom furnishings. Included in one of the boxes was an old piece of bobbin lace that my grandmother had given me when I was a teenager. I put it on my bedside table.
That same night, I had a dream that I was looking through the lace in an effort to see what the finished kitchen would look like when the walls came down. Only in the logic of dreams would this make
sense. Instead of seeing granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, I saw a field of horses. This was confusing imagery at best, but it was also anxiety provoking, because I am severely allergic to horses. I woke up covered with sweat, heart pounding. I couldn't get back to sleep.
The next morning, the construction crew arrived and was preparing to knock down the walls when I overheard one of them complaining: "I hate this old horsehair plaster. It gets into the air, and you can never get it out." Evidently, the plaster of that era contained horsehair. We stopped the job immediately. I think that first "lace reading," saved me from a trip to the emergency room and a house that might have become uninhabitable for me.
At the time, I assumed that lace reading was a real thing, something I'd heard about but had forgotten. Living in Salem, I thought that I would be able to find someone who practiced lace reading, since they read just about everything else here, from tarot to tea leaves to the bumps on your head. I've searched for years, not just in Salem, but elsewhere, and have never found anyone who reads lace, although, since the book came out, many of the Salem witches are doing it. They're pretty good.
HALLIE: I'm fascinated by how you used book groups to hone The Lace Reader. What kinds of changes did you make?
BRUNONIA: When I finished the second draft of my novel, I went to my local bookstore (Spirit of '76 in Marblehead, MA) and asked if they knew of a book club that would like to help a fledgling author. I had come from the world of software where we often used focus groups, and I wanted to do something similar, to see what people thought. It took a while to find the right group, but, eventually, I hosted ten women at my house. When they arrived for our book club night, I asked them to be brutally honest about their opinions. At first they were reluctant, but, gradually, they began to tell me what they thought of the story. I had a list of questions, the most important of which was "Where did you lose interest and stop reading?"
After taking many notes, discussing pacing and POV, I asked my final question. "Would you recommend this book to a friend?" It was a scary question, because we had already uncovered a number of flaws I had to fix, but it was one I had to ask. I was surprised when most of them said yes. In some cases they had already recommended it.
I repeated this process three more times with different book clubs before we published the manuscript. By the time our edition hit the shelves, there were thirty-seven book clubs waiting to read the book, all recommended by the initial four.
HALLIE: Your new novel, The Map of True Places, also takes place in Salem. It tells of a woman who reluctantly returns home and finally deals with difficult family history. I was fascinated by the information in it about Nathaniel Hawthorne and pirates--you have a knack for mixing in fascinating information. Are you a historian by nature?
BRUNONIA: In Salem, we walk through our history every day, so it just seems a part of life here. Because the city's economy relies so heavily on tourism, things from the past are preserved and celebrated. Most tourists visit because of the witch trials, but that is such a small part of Salem's history.
At one time, Salem was the richest port in the New World with hundreds of ships that sailed the globe, opening trade routes to far ports. The Phillips Library holds more nautical history of China and Japan than their own countries do, so Salem regularly hosts research scholars from those areas. The architecture around the city documents America's history. On a corner near my house, you can look to the left and the right and see five architectural periods represented. I couldn't write a book about Salem without including some aspects of a history which seems to work as both character and metaphor in my novels.
When the curator of The House of the Seven Gables found out that they played a big part in the story, she invited me to write The Map of True Places there, so, of course I took her up on that immediately.
HALLIE: Would you recommend that other authors go the self-publish-first route that you did?
BRUNONIA: Actually, I don't recommend self-publishing. I was incredibly lucky. I always tell people that we were emboldened by our ignorance when my husband and I decided to self-publish. We owned a software publishing company which had started small and developed until it was picked up by Hasbro for distribution. Since we were already publishers, we thought it would be easy to do something similar with a book. We soon found out that it wasn't the same at all.
At the time, print on demand publishing was not well regarded by bookstores, so we started a small press and manufactured the books ourselves. The issue of distribution was challenging. For credit and accounting reasons, book stores usually purchase from large distribution companies. They were not willing to carry one title by a small press, and distributors did not want to take on a one-book company. Eventually, we found one that made an exception. Even so, the process was expensive and time-consuming. After hiring editors, designers, and a PR company, and then paying for printing, we could have lost a great deal of money.
Since that time, things have changed, of course, and e-books are making it easier to self-publish, but there is one question that is common to both scenarios. How do you distinguish your book from the hundreds of thousands that come out each year? The big publishers are good at this, but an individual can get lost. I think e-book self publishing might work better for non-fiction if an author has a platform to promote, but fiction is more difficult to distinguish. For a well known fiction author with a well established brand, it might make sense.
For a writer starting out, I wouldn't recommend it.
HALLIE: You seem so smart about using the Internet to promote your writing. What has worked for you?
BRUNONIA: I am learning the process as I go along and, luckily, I have a very Internet-savvy assistant who helps keep me up to date.
Things are changing so fast. Something that works one month does not necessarily work the next. When I started my blog, I believed it was something I would contribute to every day. It hasn't turned out that way, partly because of a rather aggressive book deadline, and partly because I just don't have something interesting to say every day. I wish I did. So, for me, blogging is a bit sporadic.
What seems to work best is that I regularly contribute to a few other blogs, posting once a month to each. I do better on a day to day basis with Twitter. It's quick and easy. I like to follow people and topics and comment where appropriate. They often start following me, and our fans begin to overlap.
I also Skype with book clubs. Since my books have been translated into many languages, I am able to keep in touch with international readers online, particularly on Facebook, which, for me, is the best benefit of that application. I do targeted ads where they make sense. I'm a big fan of book trailers. William Morrow did a wonderful and very evocative one for The Lace Reader. I am writing a mini-screenplay for my next trailer, which I will probably produce myself. I already have some of the footage.
HALLIE: Can you share a little bit of what you're working on now?
BRUNONIA: I'm not allowed to say much about it, but I can say that I'm moving away from Salem for this next book. It is set in Boston, Italy, Ireland, and New Orleans. It's part mystery, part psychological thriller.
HALLIE: Finally, growing up, what were 3 of your favorite books?
BRUNONIA: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher in the Rye.
HALLIE: Brunonia will be here today, so chime in -- lace reading, self publishing, publishing, promotion, or whatever her words sparked.