Thursday, April 20, 2017

Q&A with Kathleen Barber

Kathleen Barber, photo by Bonphotage
Kathleen Barber is the author of the novel Are You Sleeping, which will be published August 1. Originally from Galesburg, Illinois, she practiced law in Chicago and New York.

Q: You write that part of the inspiration for this novel came from the Serial podcast. How did that lead to the novel?

A: I came to Serial late. I didn’t think I liked podcasts, and by the time my brother convinced me to try it, there were probably seven or eight episodes available.

Before I even finished listening to the first one, I was totally hooked. Just totally, completely, utterly hooked. I basically mainlined the remaining episodes, one after another, and then devoured all the materials posted on the Serial website.

After I exhausted all that, I moved onto reading all the articles about the podcast and the case that I could find, and then started following the related hashtags on Twitter and hanging around the Reddit forums. I couldn’t get enough.

It was just such a compelling story, and I lost sight of the fact that it was more than just a story—it was a very real tragedy for some very real people.

I realized I couldn’t be the only one who had forgotten that real people were at the center of this, and then I started thinking about how this intense public interest would be affecting them, especially Hae Min Lee’s family.

And so Are You Sleeping started, in a lot of ways, as me working out my own guilt for becoming so utterly obsessed with the first season of Serial.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Josie, and why did you decide to make her a twin?

A: This probably sounds weird, but Josie and her twin sister Lanie predated Are You Sleeping by probably a decade. I was really interested in the idea of a pair of twins who think they know everything about each other, but then something happens that completely changes their world—and they have completely opposite reactions to it.

Both girls think that their reaction is the correct one and it rips this huge hole in their previously indestructible relationship: Josie can’t understand why Lanie rebels the way she does, and Lanie can’t understand why Josie doesn’t rebel.

Over the years, I had written out a couple different scenarios for them along these basic lines, but nothing really seemed right until I listened to Serial, and then I thought, Aha! This is the plot those two have been waiting for.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: Because I’ve been playing with Josie and Lanie for years, I’ve written a bunch of different plots and different endings for them.

In one iteration of their story, Chuck Buhrman wasn’t actually dead—he was just missing, presumed dead, and then he popped up again in the last pages of the book! Oh, it was terrible. There’s a reason that draft has never seen the light of day!

But when I started the version that ultimately became Are You Sleeping, I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted it to end—and I think the exercise of writing all those terrible plots helped lead me to the ending that felt right.

Q: You include various chapters in the form of Twitter and Reddit posts. Why did you decide to incorporate that into the novel?

A: It really goes back to my own engagement with Serial. While I was listening to that, I spent a lot of time reading theories on Twitter and in Reddit forums. As with any community on the internet, you get a mixed bag—there are some commenters who are really thoughtful, some who are obvious trolls, and others occupying all parts of the spectrum in between.

You’ve got this kind of weird, fractured Greek chorus that tends to emphasize the worst and most salacious details, and it struck me as something that could be really upsetting for the real people involved.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am always working on something! Early days, though, so nothing to report.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Kathleen Barber will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival on April 22, 2017.

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