:: Interview with Barbara Wood
By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian
Barbara Wood is the author of more than twenty novels for which she has garnered many enthusiastic reviews. Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey kindly writes of Ms. Wood, “[She] is a master storyteller. She never fails to hold the reader enthralled.” Phyllis Whitney reports that Ms. Wood is “tremendous… a reader-pleaser in every way…” James Patterson writes of her novel The Prophetess, “It is a riveting, exciting novel that speaks to our time—and all time. Not to be missed.” And of Green City in the Sun, John Jakes declares, “From page one, I knew I was in the company of an accomplished storyteller. Barbara Wood has written an enthralling saga, packed with memorable characters and rich detail.”
Her novels, which have an enormous following in Europe, explore a wide range of subjects, whatever sparks her interest—archaeology, Aborigine culture, postcolonial Africa. Barbara Wood’s most recent novel, The Star of Babylon, was released in English in March 2005. Barbara Wood also writes under the pseudonym Kathryn Harvey. You can visit her website at www.barbarawood.com.
DM: What was your childhood like?
BW: I was born in England, to an English mother and Polish father. I remember rain and Catholic school. We emigrated to the United States when I was seven. I was sort of a loner as a kid, spent a lot of time telling stories to my dolls and teddy bears, made picture books about characters that I invented, and then when I was around twelve, started writing "real" stories. I wrote my first novel, a romance set in ancient Egypt, when I was sixteen. Storytelling has been with me since I started toddling (so my mother tells me). The compulsion to write was born in me and I haven't stopped since.
DM: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
BW: I have an older brother who lives in Australia.
DM: Were your family members readers?
BW: We were all big readers when I was a kid. My father learned English by reading Mickey Spillane novels. I was a sci-fi nut (still am). My mother loved the gothic romances that were big in those days.
DM: What subjects did you enjoy the most at school?
BW: I don't think I had favorite subjects in school. I was not keen on school, and dropped out of college in my first year (I was a hippie). I didn't like being told what to study, I preferred to study subjects on my own – I had a passion for ancient history and still do. I lived in the local library in those days.
DM: So at the age of twelve you began writing your own books. Did any of your teachers encourage you along the way?
BW: I got no encouragement from teachers at all. In fact, I was told I spent too much time writing stories instead of concentrating on my studies. I wasn't meeting my "potential." But the compulsion was within me to write and I couldn't stop. So I got average grades in school.
DM: I admire your determination. It can be difficult to carry on with so little support. You also mentioned you're a sci-fi nut. What are some of your favorites?
BW: I was weaned on Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Other favorites are Robert Silverberg and of course Heinlein.
DM: One of my friends is a huge Philip K. Dick fan. He absolutely loves him.
BW: I adore Philip Dick. I prefer the "old school" of sci-fi, none of the new cyberspace stuff.
DM: Are you familiar with the book The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey?
BW: Yes, and I can relate to that. I preferred doing my own studying. To this day, research is the best part of writing a book. I have a passion for reading non-fiction. But it has to be of my own choosing and not a teacher's.
DM: How do you piece your novels together? Do you extensively outline, or do you allow the characters to unfurl on the page?
BW: I outline as I go along, that way I can see where I have been. I never outline ahead of time, as the characters (and my research) tell me where I am going next. I do, however, have a broad idea of how the book will be laid out and where it will end up. I am not a linear writer -- I'm all over the map, writing bits and pieces until finally, miraculously, it all fits together.
DM: What was your first published work? And perhaps your editor the teacher/friend you never had?
BW: My first book was The Magdalene Scrolls (Doubleday 1978). Nolonger in print in the U.S. but selling quite strong in Europe. The teacher/friend I never had turned out to be my agent, Harvey Klinger. We have been together for twenty-eight years. He was fundamental in shaping my career.
DM: Do you have other writer friends who give you encouragement? Everyone needs a support system.
BW: Yes, I have two writer friends. One is Alanna Knight, an author in the UK, and the other is Susan Liming who writes wonderful historical novels as Mary Spencer and Susan Paul (she lives in Monrovia). We get together at the Mission Inn and encourage each other over wine.
DM: Do you ever read reviews of your books?
BW: I'm always interested in how my books are received. I don't always agree with them, though.
DM: Do you work on more than one project at a time?
BW: I am always overlapping -- researching one book while writing another. I keep files open and constantly add to them so that by the time I am ready to start writing, I have enough material. The research for The Blessing Stone took several years. While I was developing it, I wrote Perfect Harmony and Sacred Ground. Working on more than one book also keeps my mind fresh and I don't get bogged down in what I am doing.
DM: You must like cats! When I visited your website, I noticed the scampering kitty.
BW: I adore cats. We have always had one. Our latest, Bucky, came to us via FedEx. I was receiving a package one morning and the Fed Ex driver asked me if I would like a kitten, saying that he had one in his truck. I asked him how that happened and he said when he was making deliveries a few streets over, a car was moving down the street in front of him, and he saw the driver throw what looked like a small animal out the driver's-side window. The FedEx stopped and saw that it was a little kitten (about 8 weeks) so he picked it up. And that is how Bucky came to us via FedEx.
DM: You're the author of twenty books so far. How do you choose the next story you're going to write? Is it planned, or do you write your way to inspiration?
BW: I don't think I choose the story, the story chooses me. It comes to mind and I start writing. I have files filled with ideas, and I also have several books going at once.
DM: I'm curious about your writing routine.
BW: I always write in the morning, getting up around four and keeping at it until afternoon. I don't take breaks -- the breaks normally occur (usually when I am called upon to take care of something). I write seven days a week -- again, the days off usually happen by themselves, I never schedule them.
DM: How do you feel about publicity tours? What sorts of experiences have you had out there on the road?
BW: I did one book tour in the US and found it hectic and not worth anyone's while. So I only do European and South American book tours (I alternate years). I enjoy them thoroughly and come home having had new experiences and having made new friends. Since my books sell far better in foreign countries (my latest, Star of Babylon, just debuted this week on the best seller list in Germany), and all of my books are made into miniseries in Europe, the response at my events is always energetic and positive. In fact, I leave in a few weeks for a book tour in Germany and have to start focusing on that (I like to brush up on my German ahead of time). Plus, I have a deadline on my latest (book #21) so I can't concentrate on email as much as I would like to. In fact, can we make this the last question? I leave for Europe in a couple of weeks and I’m already panicking!
DM: Absolutely, Barbara. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm very grateful.
BW: And thank you for including me in the Riverside Public Library website.
This interview was conducted via e-mail in the summer of 2004.