Today I am pleased to welcome mother and daughter authors, Juliana Barnet and Sophie Barnet-Higgins, who co-wrote Rainwood House Sings, a social justice mystery for youth and adults.
At the end of June, my cousin emailed to say she’d met an author at a US Social Forum in Philadelphia who knew who I was, but she’d forgotten the woman’s name. Today, Juliana emailed to say she’d met my cousin at the conference, but had forgotten her name. Today, the mystery was solved. Small world!
Juliana Barnet is a lifelong social justice activist, artist and writer with grassroots movements in Mexico City and in the DC area. Rainwood House Sings draws on her own experiences and those of comrades from the diverse worldwide tribe of social justice agitators and activists, including the considerable number who lent their assistance to the creation of this book. Her daughter Sophie loves stories and drawing, especially Japanese-style comics.
Welcome to The Writing Life, Juliana and Sophie!
What is your book’s genre/category?
Rainwood House Sings is a “social justice mystery” for youth and adults, painting a truthful yet mildly magical picture of activists tackling mysteries large and small with creativity, humor and collective action.
Please describe what the story/book is about.
Rainwood House, lightly haunted by local civil rights struggles, rampant houseplants and musical plumbing, is home to University of Maryland groundskeeper Marlie Mendíval and her bat- and book-loving granddaughter Samantha. Marlie rents a room to Demetrius, a good-natured radical horticulturist, unaware that prior to knocking on her front door Demetrius has been hiding from the police in her basement.
Marlie battles mounting bills, bellowing pipes, a lecherous boss, her ex’s scheme to evict her from Rainwood House, isolation, decay and self-doubt, as Samantha becomes embroiled in playground culture wars. Demetrius wanders through Rainwood House’s shuttered rooms pondering how to beat accusations of cop-shooting and terrorism while remaining incognito under Samantha’s friendly but sharp-eyed gaze. Increasingly entangled in each others’ lives, the characters join glamorous union shop steward Laranda Moss and a lively crew of supporters to launch a friendship club, a campus workers’ movement, a neighborhood people’s history museum and a present-day Underground Railroad stop.
How did you come up with the title?
Rainwood” is a fictional community based on three small towns right next to one another on the Eastern border of DC, named Brentwood, Mt. Rainier (the town I live in) and North Brentwood. The story draws on the history and ambiance of these towns. The first working title was Rainwood House, until a friend suggested that active titles were better. I added “Sings,” and ended up deciding that the book was actually a trilogy. The second book is titled Rainwood House Burns.
What is the reason you wrote this book?
As a lifelong social justice activist and a lifelong fiction reader, I became increasingly frustrated at almost never seeing activists depicted in novels, other than occasional appearances as one-dimensional (and generally negative) stereotypes. Even though I know activists to be adventuresome, funny, fascinating, smart and at times heroic people who take on all kinds of issues and activities that lend themselves to mysteries and other exciting, active stories—the kind I most like to read—novels with sympathetic activist protagonists are extremely infrequent. So I ended up following the old adage: if you really want something to happen, you have to make it happen.
What is your favorite part of writing?
I love having ideas pop up, and then following them where they lead. It is thrilling to follow an idea and see it open up like a glittering underground cavern as I explore its branches and possibilities.
What is the most challenging aspect of writing?
I find writing a first rough draft difficult, not so much because the words don’t come—I tend more to the opposite affliction, which in Mexico they call “verborrea!” Afterwards, of course, you have to pare and select, a process I enjoy but at the same time I find it hard to contend with the chorus of internal voices pelting me with putdowns, advice and rude comments that what I’m writing is boring or nonsense or whatever. When I do expository writing, I find it challenging to decide that something is finished, rather than wanting to go on and on perfecting it. So far, though, the most difficult hurdle has been learning the process of putting my writing out in the world in circles wider than folks I have direct contact with. That is the challenge of this moment, for me.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Here’s an off-the-top of my head, arbitrary, not-in-order and incomplete list of fiction authors I’ve enjoyed—in other words, I’m not making any judgment about how “deep” or transcendent they are, but include them because I’ve read—and in most cases reread—more than one of their books, often numerous times, for fun. I know I’m leaving out quite a few. Robertson Davies, Jean Auel, Chimamanda Achibie, Leo Tolstoy, Ken Follet, Anton Makarenko, Laurie King, Terry Pratchett, L.A. Meyer, Zora Neale Hurston, Walter Moseley, Barbara Neeley, Meredith Tax, Jane Austen, George Elliot, Alexander McCall Smith, Carl Hiassen, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Barbara Kingsolver, L.M. Montgomery, Douglas Addams, Katherine Ann Porter, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Laura Esquivel, Paco Ignacio Taibo, Jules Feiffer, Lewis Carroll. A.A. Milne, Caroline Dale Snedecker, Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters), Kurt Vonnegut, Miguel de Cervantes, Chinua Achebe, Kazuo Ishiguro, Tarquin Hall, Sherman Alexie, Sara Peretsky, C.S. Lewis, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Octavia Butler, Joseph Heller, Dave Barry, Anne Tyler, Amy Tan, Clyde Edgerton, Elizabeth Peters, Dorris Lessing, Judith Viorst…(stopping because of time and space considerations, not because I’ve run out of authors!)
What authors or person(s) have influenced you?
Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Barbara Kingsolver, Makarenko, Lenin, Engels, Ruth Benedict, Franz Fanon, Paolo Freire, Margaret Meade, Claude Levi-Strauss, Augusto Boal, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Silvio Rodriguez, Nacha Guevara, Mario Benedetti, Atahualpa Upanqui, Victor Martínez, Assata Shakur, Anne Tyler, Mumia Abu Jamal, Noam Chomsky, Rebecca Solnit, parents Ann and Richard Barnet (both writers), many political bloggers and journalists, teachers and companer@s in Mexico and the U.S. And that’s just a smattering of writers, political folks and musicians off the top of my head. The full list would be much longer!
Favorite place to write?
Outdoors, on my back porch, or other people’s porches if they have a nice view of trees, sky and other restfully beautiful things.
Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
I lived for sixteen years in Mexico City, becoming immersed in a large community and social movement with people who became close friends, comrades and family. Among other adventures there, I played keyboard and sang for a dance band that performed rock and Latin music at parties and events and in nightclubs. And I participated in a popular education movement, including living for several weeks in the building of a democratically run school housed in an abandoned munitions factory. Also, Rainwood House Sings is part of a larger project I am working on called Life in the Liberated Zone, which is about raising awareness of the culture of activists. Another part of this project is working with others to write fun and imaginative fiction that focuses on folks working together to tackle social issues. In June a group of third graders and I published Zombie Elementary, which is a children’s companion book to Rainwood House Sings, and deals with kids and zombies overcoming the fear and prejudice they feel towards one another in order to work together to save their school and friends.
Any surprises or learning experiences with the publishing process?
Publishing pundits always say it is after the extremely challenging work of writing and publishing your book that the truly challenging work of putting it out into the world begins. Intellectually it’s not a surprise to find myself proving them right, but it still feels surprising to be continually discovering how complex and multifaceted this phase of being an author is! As far as learning, it was great to learn so many cool things associated with creating a book, reaching out to folks with and through the book, and to be in the process of learning how important it is to have help!
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you with this book?
I took my time—both to write and edit, and to learn other skills like research, working with graphics on the computer, and formatting; got input and info from plenty of helpful folks; developed a good way of working my young coauthor—my daughter, who worked with me on it from age 10-15; had enough passion and decision to carry me through the process.
Any advice for writers looking to get published?
Persist! And choose the avenues that are most interesting to you. The process is arduous so enjoy it as you go along!
Where can we find your book?
You can order the print book through the website www.RainwoodHouse.com or at http://tinyurl.com/rainwoodhousesings and other distributors. Order the ebook at the website or at http://tinyurl.com/rainwoodebook, and through other ebook distributors. Purchase signed copies directly from me at book events, or by writing to email@example.com. More information and sample chapters available at www.RainwoodHouse.com.
What’s next for you?
- Writing Rainwood House Burns, book 2 of the Rainwood House series.
- Developing Rainwood House Sings book events focusing on activists, both locally and elsewhere, as well as online, starting with folks I know and reaching outward.
- Collaborating once again this coming school year with children from the local elementary school to promote and sell Zombie Elementary, and to write another collective novel with them.
- Developing Life in the Liberated Zone, in particular the website and zine (blog) of literature and essays about activist culture.
- I’d love to hear from any other writers out there who are writing or thinking about writing fiction featuring activist characters! We are planning to start a writing group with this focus.
Thanks for chatting with me today, Juliana and Sophie. I enjoyed getting to know you both and wish you much success with Rainwood House Sings.
About Eleanor Parker Sapia
Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of PEN America and the Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.
A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel, The Island of Goats.