Interview with an Author: Phyllis Barber


The English Reading Series is a hidden gem of the BYU experience.  Every Friday at noon, a writer -- of some kind -- visits BYU, reading his or her work in the library auditorium.  Over the years, there have been plenty of literary masters featured, each sharing their work with an eager university audience. 

This semester alone has featured both Brian Doyle and Marilynne Robinson, notable writers and essayists in the literary community.   They will be joined by Phyllis Barber later this week, an author whom we were lucky enough to interview in preparation for her visit later this week. 

Phyllis Barber most recently authored Raw Edges: A Memoir, preceded by a series of other works.  Our interview focused on Barber's habits as an author, something we can learn from to be better writers and readers.

Where and how do you gather ideas for your writing?
 
      Idea for writing come from everywhere. My children's book, Legs: The Story of a Giraffe, came from a newspaper article about a giraffe that had splayed and eventually died in an English zoo. I went to Africa soon after, and decided to tell the story of Imburugutu, a giraffe who had the same ending as the newspaper article. Another children's book came from a commission to write an easy reader. Most of my adult books come from my experience of being born in Boulder City, Nevada, next to the Hoover Dam; from growing up later in Las Vegas; from the experience of living in the West and trying to understand what that meant in the large scheme of things. I've also written about issues that were troubling me, as I feel that writing is a way to figure things out and heal them, if necessary.
 
How do you evolve your initial ideas into substantial material?
 
      The generative process is a most important place to keep your mind fluid before closing in on the intention of the piece too soon. I think that the language we choose can teach us what we want to say in our writing. I write a very spotty, disjointed, free-form first draft, then gradually shape the piece as a sculptor would shape a piece of stone---always looking for what the language is saying and where it is pointing.
 
What's your writing process like? (do you have a certain workspace, do you listen to a specific kind of music?)
 
I wish I could listen to music while I write, but I was a semi-concert pianist (I've played recitals and a few concerts, but haven't soloed with a symphony). Therefore, when I hear music, I'm listening to the workings of the piece of music---a sonata, a concerto, for instance, and how it is put together---and my mind becomes engaged with that. Therefore, I can't listen to music while I write. I have my own workspace, but sometimes I like to write in the car, or in bed, or on the airplane when I'm doing both a first draft and the work of revision. Nature inspires me, so I also like to write outside or in the mountains when the weather allows. A lot depends on what I'm writing about and what might inspire a particular story or essay. 
 
What parts of the publishing world have surprised you?
 
     I've lived a fairly long time, and when I was first trying to publish books in the early 90s, mainly, I was surprised by the lack of understanding of the West (and of the Mormon perspective) in the publishing world. One agent told me about How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir, that no one was interested in a Mormon girl growing up in southern Nevada. Luckily, that book went on to win the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction in 1991 and I found a publisher in that way. I've also been surprised by how diverse the publishing world is, and that if you look long enough, and if you work hard enough to make your writing the best it can be, then you'll probably be able to find a home for your writing. I've spoken to other writers from the Mormon culture who've found a resistance to their perspective in the trade publishing world and who have had to go the route of publishing with small and/or university presses, which I have mainly done. One of my goals with my writing has been to provide a bridge from the insular world of Mormonism where people speak their own particular language to each other, without realizing it is a specifically-targeted language, to a larger audience. But in the process, sometimes I get lost in the deep blue sea in between, neither "side" getting what I'm trying to do. I am a literary writer, above all. My craft matters to me immensely.
 
What's your absolute favorite part of the writing process?
 
     I resist the generative process every time I begin a new piece of work, but it can be the most rewarding phase if I allow myself to stay away from "knowing" what a story is about. I don't believe one should begin their writing with a "moral" or with a "teaching moment" or with a specific intention (I'm talking about creative writing here), and that writers should trust themselves, the pool of language inside of them, the stories bubbling around inside of them, and let their interior language lead the way. If writers allow themselves a great deal of freedom in this early stage, it can be surprising what can happen. Let that vigilant editor take a rest while you are in this phase. 

The types of lectures that come from Barber in the English Reading Series are what college is all about, learning about things you never knew from people who have done it before.  If you can, go to this lecture and the ones that follow.  Expand your educaition through simple means and extraordinary people.