Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview with Rebecca Barnhouse

Rebecca Barnhouse and I first met at Rutger’s One On One Conference in October 2007. We were placed in the same Five on Five group with our editors. Both of us wrote historical fiction and both of us had manuscripts set in 15th century England. When the session was over Rebecca and I spoke for a few minutes I discovered that she teaches medieval literature at Youngstown State University in Ohio! Wow! She is a real medievalist and I’m just a history buff.

After One On One, Rebecca and I emailed occasionally – mostly I emailed her asking for references – and then we “met” again on Verla Kay’s Blueboards, where I learned Rebecca had sold her manuscript to the editor she’d been paired with at One On One.

I pre-ordered Rebecca’s The Book of the Maidservant and as soon as it arrived I curled up with a blanket and the book and read it in one sitting. I enjoyed the story and was mesmerized by Rebecca’s ability to make her medieval characters and their world come to life. Johanna’s voice is original, spunky, and made me laugh out loud.

Rebecca and I are both hoping that 15th century historical characters become the new vampires!

I was thrilled when Rebecca agreed to be interviewed for this blog.

1) When did you fall in love with history and, particularly, medieval history?

When I was a teenager, I did a lot of calligraphy and spent time pouring over photos of hand-lettered books. Later, in graduate school, I found out I could actually take courses—for credit!—about medieval manuscripts. I was hooked. Studying medieval books allows you to delve into so many other subjects that help you understand why a book was made and for whom, how it was put together and how it was used, where it traveled, and how it ended up where it is now.

2) What was your favorite childhood book and why?

So many! How can I name just one? But with that understood, I will mention the Little House books. I loved hearing about what I called “olden times,” but I also loved the fact that my fourth-grade teacher read those books to us every afternoon while we drew or dozed or listened, rapt. Then she’d pull out her ukulele and we’d sing. Now the books and the reading and the singing have all melded together in my memory.

3) You’ve written several scholarly books on medieval history, what made you decide to try your hand at writing for young adults.

As I was writing the scholarly books, I was also writing for young adults—I just wasn’t getting published. In fact, I wrote my first YA novel long before I wrote anything scholarly, and several more contemporary YA novels followed. All of them have been consigned to the scrap heap of history! Some of my academic publications focus on the way the Middle Ages are portrayed in young adult literature. Writing those books and articles gave me the impetus to go from writing contemporary YA novels to historicals.

4) Dame Margery Kempe was a real historical person. The Book of Margery Kempe is considered the first autobiography written in English. Can you tell us what made you want to write a “companion” piece to her story?

I teach Margery’s autobiography, and like my students, I have conflicting opinions about her. She’s fascinating but also frustrating. One of the things that particularly bothers me about her is the way she treats other people, especially her maidservant, about whom Margery said some unkind things. When she made it sound as if her servant wanted to cook and clean for all the other travelers on their pilgrimage, that was it! I had to know how the servant would have responded to Margery’s words.

5) Johanna is a wonderfully original and appropriate character for her time and age. How did you discover her voice?

When I first decided to write this novel, I was overwhelmed with work from my job as a college professor. For several months, I simply had no time at all to begin writing—yet, I was telling myself the story in my head all along. Without really realizing it, Johanna’s voice started to seem real to me. I could particularly hear her every time I crouched in front of the fireplace to build a fire, something Johanna spends a lot of time doing. When summer finally came, giving me time to write, her voice was ready to be gotten down on paper.

6) Can you describe your writing process? What is your day like?

During the summer, I try to write every day. Wordcounts help me along: I can generally write 500 words without too much trouble, and if the words aren’t coming easily on that particular day, I’m allowed to take a break before writing another 500. I tend to start at the beginning and keep writing until the end without a lot of outlining, although I take lots of notes. Once I have a draft, the real work begins: outlining, looking for repeated scenes, examining character motivation, and all the other things that go into rewriting.

7) I write historical fiction and I love doing the research. Sometimes, in fact, I love doing the research so much that I don’t want to stop researching and start writing. How do you know when you’ve done enough research to start writing?

I understand your problem! I, too, am sometimes tempted to let the research get in the way of the writing. But I usually start writing knowing I’ll do more research when I get to a place in the novel where I need more information—I have to see what my characters are up to before I find out what I need to know. To keep the rhythm of the writing going, I leave blanks in the manuscript where there are topics that I need to research further.

8) Your second novel, The Coming of the Dragon, (due for release by Random House in Fall 2010) draws on the legend of Beowulf. Like Johanna in The Book of the Maidservant, Rune stands on the edge of the Beowulf legend. What can you tell us about him and how you came to tell his story?

Again, the novel springs from a text I teach. The last part of Beowulf is my favorite section of the poem. It’s definitely the part that evokes the most emotion. Just like with Maidservant, I had a hankering to hear the story—about the dragon attack on old King Beowulf’s realm, and the desperate battle to save the kingdom—from the perspective of a teenager who was part of it. Although it’s set in 6th-century Scandinavia, the novel is historical fantasy. But I was halfway through writing it before I realized I was writing fantasy because I was still thinking of it as history. History plus a dragon, that is!

You can learn more about Rebecca and her books by visiting her website. Rebecca Barnhouse

Thank you, Rebecca, for your time.


  1. Thank you so much for introducing us to Rebecca Barnhouse. Her books sound fascinating and I will look for them. Historical fiction has always been one of my favorites.

    Interesting to read how a teacher sparked her interest in historical material. Those elementary school classrooms can evoke powerful memories!

  2. My love of history started when I was five and went to London for the first time. Though I don't remember, my father used to tell me I was fascinated with The Tower of London. When I was a bit older I watched the BBC series on Henry VIII and Elizabeth. That was it, I was hooked.

  3. Great interview, Meg and Rebecca. I love to read good historical fiction and added Rebecca's book to my TBR pile. Any character that is both fascinating and frustrating is a great place to start--no matter the time period.

  4. I'm just in awe of writers who love and tackle historical fiction.

    What a great interview!

  5. Great interview! I just love hearing how both books got started. Can't wait to read them now!

    (And here's hoping that "15th century historical characters become the new vampires! :o) )

  6. I enjoyed reading about Rebecca B's writing process. I was also heartened to read that she wrote several YA's before she hit pay dirt. Mostly, I can relate to her feeling too overwhelmed with work as a college professor to write--just like me!--but she finally managed to do it during her off-season. Thanks for an interesting and encouraging interview.

  7. Thanks for interviewing me, Meg, and thanks for the comments, everybody! I keep reading that historical fiction doesn't sell, but now I know: don't believe everything you read!

  8. Here's hoping historical fiction is the next vampire!

  9. Great interview! I love historical fiction books too. And how neat that she met her editor at the one on one. I love hearing stories like that.

  10. Thanks for the great interview! I shall now go off an link to it...