Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Brunonia Barry: She must have read the lace...

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.


  1. Hi Brunonia,

    We had lunch once at a conference that alphabetized the lunch tables - I loved this interview, which was candid and enlightening.

    What great ideas. For marketing, and for books. I love history. Your new book sounds terrific.

  2. Thanks, Jan. I hope we have another lunch together.

  3. Such a great story...kind of gives me the willies when I hear it: lace, horsehair plaster, and the out-of-the-ordinary doppelganger relationship of Towner and Lindsey. Both books are great the point where my high school junior students read The Lace Reader as a part of their journey through American Literature. Wonderful...

  4. Thank you, Peter. It thrills me to know that your high school students are reading my book.

  5. I love Brunonia Barry and her books. Salem is one of favorites places in the world. Thank you for a terrific interview, as always.

  6. Thank you for stopping by, Brunonia. I would love to hear more about how you worked with the book clubs that served as your critique groups, if you wouldn't mind.

    For example, was your book that month's reading assignment? How did your arrangement work?

    Again, thank you so much for sharing your story here on JRW.

  7. Your story-telling and connection to book clubs makes for approachable, yet highly rich, literature. You are an inspiration to all aspiring writers. Can't wait for book #3. Enjoyed the interview too!

  8. Your books are the perfect examples of why the best fiction can be so meaningful for the reader. It seems to me that we're only able to creatively confront our journeys through life when we mix in a healthy dose of mystery and magic. Life is too big to view through a rational lens alone. Your dream confirms that, and your books are dreams we all get to share.

  9. Hi Rhonda,

    My book was chosen as that month's selection for each of the book clubs. For the most part, they conducted their meetings as usual. After that, I asked questions.

  10. To Melchior,

    For me, it is much easier to get to those issues through magic and mystery, though I hadn't realized it until now. Thank you for putting it so well.

  11. Welcome Brunonia--I loved the Lace Reader and look forward to the next one.
    And I'm fascinated by psychic dreams.

  12. Thank you, PJ. I'm glad you love my favorite city.

  13. Thank you, Rhys. I'm having many dreams about the book I'm working on now. Can't tell what they mean yet, but I'm trying to pay attention.

  14. Thank you, Brunonia, for your reply. I haven't been to Salem for a while, but one of my favorite spots there is the Peabody Essex Museum. And the shopping in town. Oh, yes - I had a wonderful time. Witches? What witches? ;)

  15. The Peabody Essex is a gem. I wonder, are the souvenir shops in Salem now selling lace?

  16. I love the Peabody Essex, Rhonda! The mayor of Salem hosted a party there last week for everyone in town. The Phillips Library is part of PEM now, and so are many of our historic houses.

    Hallie, some of the souvenir shops are selling lace, but it's not Ipswich lace. You can still read it, though.

  17. Brunonia,

    I had the ultimate summer reading experience with THE LACE READER - I brought it with me on a trip to Vinalhaven (an island off the coast of Maine, for those of you not on the East Coast.) I read it in the car while driving up Route 1, I read it on the ferry, and I finished it in a wonderfully salt-stained and slightly spooky inn on the island. Needless to say, it was the perfect book!

    Thanks for the enlightening interview, and I'm looking forward to reading THE MAP OF TRUE PLACES. We have a trip to Boothbay Harbor coming up----I'm thinking that will be the time!

  18. Hello. I'd like to know how you distributed your book to the book club members. Manuscripts are very costly, and not all readers have electronic readers. What's the most cost-effective way to do it? I've wanted to try this with my own club, and have held off because of the cost of manuscripts.

  19. Oh, this is FASCINATING! The book is magical, absolutely, and Brunonia's journey is just as magical.

    I have a very early copy..with an early beginning, and if I gave ti up, it might pay for my retirement, right?

    And Brunonia, you are the poster child for the glory of editing and change, right?

  20. Julia,

    Thank you so much! Have a great time in Boothbay. I love it up there. Please let me know what you think of The Map of True Places.


  21. To Annief,

    I made ten copies of the book and distributed those copies with the changed pages inserted. Then, when our copy of the book came out, I made sure that each book club member received one.

  22. Hank,

    I love editing. It's when I finally begin to relax. I also think it's where the poetry happens. So yes, I love changing things. The trick is to know when to stop.

    I think you were in the booth next to us when our independent press was promoting the book at BEA (just before it was purchased by Morrow). I remember pointing you out to my husband and whispering, "Do you know who that is?" He did, of course.

  23. You're next book is set in several places - will you be traveling to each of those cities/countries to give the book the same wonderful flavor that your knowledge of Salem brings to your other books? I can't wait for book three!

    - Rebecca

  24. Rebecca, I will be traveling to each of these locations. I need to make sure I get the details right. I adore research!

  25. When is our next book trailer coming out, what will be be about, and who is producing it?!

  26. Great interview... you asked all the questions I wanted to know the answer to! I remember hearing about this self-published book that had gone BIG, and agree that Brunonia is a true inspiration for those of us trying to promote our novels! I am going to google book clubs right now and see if I can come up with some contacts...

  27. To find out more about the real tunnels in Salem Brunonia Barry talks about read Salem Secret Underground:The History of the Tunnels in the City and then take the cool Salem walking tour about them. Learn how 144 people hid behind the creation of a park to build a series of tunnels in Salem utilizing the nation's first National Guard to build them so a superior court justice, a Secretary of the Navy, and a bunch of Senators could avoid paying Jefferson's custom duties. Engineered by the son of America's first millionaire.