Go to Homepage   Jill Barnett: Humor from the Heart

 
Photo: Lev Raphael
Jill Barnett (photo courtesy of Jill Barnett).

For someone who refuses to force the humor in her books and short stories, New York Times bestselling author Jill Barnett delivers some of the funniest, most emotional romances around. Barnett strives to write about people who seem real and human -- characters that her readers can relate to, regardless of the era or setting.

And the setting of a Jill Barnett book can be anywhere on the historical map from medieval England to late 19th century California to a deserted Pacific island to (in March 2001) the whole world of World War II. But wherever this self-confessed "over-thinker's" vision takes her, readers know the destination will be graced by whimsy, a wealth of vivid detail and lots of heart.

Crescent Blues: Your novels generally feature an inexperienced, often sheltered heroine beset by a stubborn, know-it-all man. What makes this storyline so compelling for you? Is it a question of the opportunity for humor it affords or something else?

Jill Barnett: Well, I guess I hadn't looked at how my books are similar in character. In fact I think the characters are very individualistic. What they do have is a lot of heart and faith and determination. We are all inexperienced in something. I do believe that in order for us to grow and learn, we must face our fears head-on and overcome them. We have to learn something important about ourselves. That's what life is. I knowingly test my characters that way. I don't set out to make a book funny. It either is, or isn't. You can't force humor. You cannot force any emotion. If you do, it comes off silly or embarrassingly sappy and melodramatic. Ever wince when you're reading a book? That's why.

Book: Jill Barnett, WickedCrescent Blues: The heroine of Wicked, Lady Sofia Howard, closely resembles Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, both in terms of her appearance and her desire for the freedom accorded men in her society. Was this intentional? Do you often model characters on celebrities or people you know?

Jill Barnett: In creating Sofia's appearance, I did think of Elizabeth Taylor's coloring. I hadn't done a heroine with dark hair and violet eyes before. As for her desire for freedom...I haven't watched National Velvet in about forty years. I honestly don't think I had that in mind. I can't even remember that she did fight for independence in that movie. I'm laughing though. Who knows what lies within my mind?

Book: Jill Barnett, Surrender A DreamIn my first few books, I used well-known people to reflect a character. I'd pin photographs above my computer. I remember Montana Creed's features were patterned after Michael Bolton's photograph on the Soul Survivor album, only tall, very, very tall. I believe I sent that same photo to the publisher and I was truly stunned when the original book [Surrender a Dream] came out with a man who looked like Howdy Doody on the cover -- short and red-haired. A friend of mine looked at the cover and said, "Oh look! Montana's standing in a hole!" I decided then and there that I would never use another celebrity as a model for my characters. Now I just pick looks and coloring that I think fits my vision of who he or she is.

Crescent Blues: What are the advantages and disadvantages of developing a character entirely from your imagination?

Jill Barnett: Since my characters are developed from "whole cloth," the writing is always challenging and sometimes inspiring. I do not create quickly. I can't write ten pages a day. I really think through each scene, each sentence, and each line of dialogue. I use description to reflect character, not to only set the book or show the world I can do research.

If the words are not right, if the sentence doesn't fit, I don't write it knowingly. I do a lot of staring at the screen, my mind in another time and place and inside another person's head. I do massive amounts of writing, moving, then deleting. (I just cut almost two hundred pages from a book and afterward I was walking around for two days like a zombie.)

Book: Jill Barnett, Sentimental JourneyI think each thought all the way through, but then I'm kind of an over-thinker anyway. I can physically type/write a book in five months, but it takes me seven months to think a book, and some ideas take even longer. I worked on Sentimental Journey for over 18 months. I'm still working on it.

I hear a lot of writers say, "I just write. I can always fix it later." That was doesn't work for me. Oh, how I wish it would! I have this mental braking system that doesn't allow me to type just anything on the page. It has to feel right. My words, my scenes, my whole characterizations and story each build upon each other, word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. I sincerely wish I could write more productively, and I'm always experimenting with ways to get what I want from my scenes. Maybe someday I'll hit on something that will make the writing flow easily from beginning to end. There is hope.

Crescent Blues: Wicked also features a most unusual character -- a warrior nun. Did such an order exist? How did you find out about them?

Jill Barnett: Yes, there were warrior nuns who fought in the Crusades. They fought in the name of the Church. I do massive amounts of research. I don't just blithely make it all up. Everything is rooted in realism...even the magic in the books.

The warrior nuns were in my research, and so I incorporated Sister Judith into Wicked. I felt the pairing of Judith with Sophia showed Sophia's youthful folly, her growth and her maturing. I had something to say in this book. It is about young love, about the mistakes we make because of our youth, about the repercussions of the quick emotions, the idealism, and the egocentric behavior we all have in our teens and early twenties.

Book: Jill Barnett, Carried AwayCrescent Blues: Your historical romances span the High Middle Ages, the Regency Period and late 19th century America -- with a slight detour to an exotic island or two. How do you go about capturing the feel of these diverse locales?

Jill Barnett: I have been all over the board in my settings and time periods because I don't want to be locked into one era. I have a degree in history, economic history, and I write about periods that fascinate me. I love the research.

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I would spend weeks researching my stories in the archive attic of the Green Library at Stanford. The books were incredible. The archive room in those days was up in an attic-like garret, where you had to walk across these thin wooden planks into a dark and dusty room in the rafters. There were rows of old, old books and even older oak library tables and little chairs. It was like being in a Dickens novel.

Eventually they moved the archives into a special library with motorized metal shelving and stacked together. Those moving book-stacks made me feel like I'd get smashed between the metal cases. Then someday someone would hit one of those newfangled electric buttons and there I'd be...like Wiley Coyote, flattened between shelves of these wonderful old books with title embossing and Dewy Decimal numbers embedded in my skin.

Sigh...researching there was never the same after they modernized the library.

Crescent Blues: How important is accuracy of historical detail and language to you?

Jill Barnett: Accuracy of detail within the book is very important to me. However, a truly intelligent person understands that the research is only as good as the source. There are debatable facts throughout history, i.e. whether individual Scots plaid patterns were actually unique to each clan or whether that was, as art history tends to show, a solely Victorian creation. As a storyteller, you have to decide which side of the historical debate you are going use for your research. You have to make a choice knowing that for some people it will be the wrong one. You can't please everyone.

Book: Jill Barnett, BewitchingAs for the contemporary language, my editor, Linda Marrow, gave me some very sound advice when we began to work together, which was on Bewitching. She said, after I had written all of Bewitching in the Regency vernacular, that she was changing the language to read for the people who were reading it now, to make it have a universal appeal. She was absolutely right. I write my books to be read...today. I am fully capable of writing the book in the current historical vernacular. But that would be very egocentric of me. I write commercial fiction.

Crescent Blues: Were the diverse periods depicted in your novels dictated by your own preferences or by the demands of the romance market?

Jill Barnett: I have never done anything to the demands of the romance market. I write to my own vision. I'm lucky in that it just happens to work for readers. I had a strong vision from the very beginning:

I wrote and sold on fifty pages -- a whaling book when whaling books weren't supposed to be able to sell. That book, my first, was on the bestseller list for three weeks.

I wrote a insular book about two people trying to make it on a farm, when an editor told me she wanted an adventure -- a classic pirate book.

I wrote a dumb blond adventure set in the Philippines that an agent told me was horrible and the readers would hate.

Book: Jill Barnett, ImagineI wrote a book about a witch that I expect no one but Pocket would have published at the time.

I did a fallen angel as a heroine.

I wrote a book about a matchmaking genie in a bottle.

I wrote a single novel with two heroes and two heroines as main characters, with equal time on stage.

I wrote about a real legend of magic ale and about the lore of King Arthur.

And now I've written a World War II novel with five main characters. Sentimental Journey will be out in March 2001.

I write the book of my vision, not what someone tells me to write. It says a lot about my editors, both John Scoglamigio and Linda Marrow, that I have been able to write the books I have written. But I always discuss with my editor and my best friend -- who is also a writer -- when and if we feel the time is right for a certain book. They are part of the process and I respect their opinions. I have so many ideas and books I want to write, but you have to make some business decisions in this career. You just have to make wise ones about content and timing. And most of all, you have to understand the reader.

Crescent Blues: Was there any particular reason why only two of the three friends introduced in Bewitching -- Alec, Duke of Belamere; Richard, the Earl of Downe; and Neil Herndon, Viscount Seymour -- starred in novels of their own? Can we expect to read Neil's romance any time soon?

Jill Barnett - Continued