Thursday, March 16, 2023

Q&A with Christine Barker




Christine Barker is the author of the new memoir Third Girl from the Left. It focuses on her experiences as a dancer in the show A Chorus Line, and also on the impact of AIDS on her family. She lives in New Mexico and in Connecticut.


Q: What inspired you to write Third Girl from the Left?


A: Inspiration is probably not the right word. Compelled would be more accurate.


I knew from the outset that I would write this story. It was always there in my mind; I just had to wade through 30 swampy years before I could make it real.


Q: The writer Vijay Seshadri said of the book, “Christine Barker’s Third Girl from the Left is a gorgeous show-biz tapestry from the late golden years of the Broadway musical; it is the story of a dazzled ingénue dancer’s passage through that world; and it is also, at the same time, an intimate, profoundly mature portrait of the loves and dependencies among one American family gripped by the devastating AIDS crisis of the nineteen-eighties.” What do you think of that description?


A: “Profoundly mature” resonates.


I think writers can easily fall into the trap of trying to solve their characters’ issues because its ultimately uncomfortable to let a stinking mess sit on the page without hope of relief. 


I hope that makes sense. It is what a nonfiction writer faces, though, when going back and reading what one has put on the page. You think, “God, that’s so awful…maybe I should soften it or do something to make it a bit more palatable.”


But my teachers at Sarah Lawrence College taught me that writing memoir/ nonfiction requires brute discipline to stick to exactly what something was. The trick is finding the right words with which to convey such raw clarity.


My friends, family, and I were facing the worst circumstances of our lives. We were not at our best; we were stupid, ignorant, heartbroken, and naive. Still, as a writer, I needed to be true to my most basic instincts, which is that every gesture of my life is an attempt at finding a way to cope.


All my life, I’ve been compelled to explore my desire to be wholly me, and along the way, have been generously rewarded as well as bitterly disappointed. I’ve suffered extreme loneliness and grief. But never can I sit still and just take it. I have to make something of the experience. That is the only way I know how to make sense of life.


I take Vijay’s words as the ultimate compliment. I think he means it’s a well-written book.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, or did you write it mostly from memory?

A: Luckily, I have an excellent memory. Details seem to imprint themselves in my brain. Also, I’ve kept journals since I was 12 and had cartons of handwritten pages from the days when events in the book took place.


Other than that, I read And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts and How to Survive a Plague by David France, plus many articles I’d saved over the years.


The information in them helped me map the overall arc of the AIDS epidemic, including the scientific and governmental responses, which gave me an outside perspective on what I personally had experienced from the trenches. People forget that there was no internet, and newspapers were reluctant to write about “the gay disease” until Rock Hudson knocked down the gate.


Q: You address some very difficult experiences in the book--what impact did it have on you to write it, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: I know how to access memory and emotion through my acting/theater training. But even without that, experiences of extremes – the ecstasy of performing in A Chorus Line juxtaposed with the despair of an inevitable death – aren’t something you forget. I don’t have to try hard to hear [my brother] Laughlin screaming his way out of this world.


At a certain point, I realized that I had to put “undiscussables” on the page; things like sex, failure, and death that, in my experience, are rarely talked about candidly.


I had the professional sense to know that I would not write a good book unless I went to those places. And frankly, I had no choice because I wanted to memorialize a time and place, my brother, and my closest friends. I owed it to them to write the best book I could.


To write a book is to tell the story, and telling is different from the actual experience. In the telling process, I feel the audience alongside me, and that is comforting. The story becomes a type of communion, the same intimacy I experienced when I performed on the stage.


My hope, my prayer is that my book touches others and initiates conversations about death, stigma, disenfranchised grief, and love.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have lots of ideas and keep files on them. My areas of interest are women, families, motherhood, wifehood, individual identity. 


Right now, my time is being spent getting Third Girl into the hands of readers and introducing myself to the literary world. With this first book, it is important to establish myself as a writer. I want to publish some essays in the near future and do that before taking the deep plunge into another book.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As painful, as arduous, as demanding as writing this book has been…followed by the blistering trek of getting an agent, selling the book, rewriting it, marketing it, and finally promoting it... it’s been worth it.


I wake up every morning with a list that is too long and find it impossible to look back to see how far I’ve come because I’m suddenly distracted by the birds outside my window. They found my new bird feeder! And that brings a wonderful sense of peace.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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