Brunonia Barry is the New York Times and international bestselling author of THE LACE READER (first self-published then picked up by William Morrow 2008) and THE MAP OF TRUE PLACES (William Morrow 2010) and her newest THE FIFTH PETAL (Crown 2017)! Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She was the first American author to win the International Women’s Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award and was a past recipient of Ragdale Artists’ Colony’s Strnad Fellowship as well as the winner of New England Book Festival’s award for Best Fiction and Amazon’s Best of the Month. Her reviews and articles on writing have appeared in The London Times and The Washington Post. Brunonia co-chairs the Salem Athenaeum’s Writers’ Committee. She lives in Salem with her husband Gary Ward and their dog, Angel.
Thank you for joining us, Brunonia. We are thrilled to have you!
Let’s start from the beginning, your beginning.
What was your childhood like? How did it shape who you’ve become?
My childhood was pretty great. I was brought up on the Salem harbor side of Marblehead, Massachusetts, a little New England seaport that hadn’t yet been discovered, the kind of place where your neighbors looked after you, and no one locked their doors.
My mom was an artist, and my dad owned a real estate company in town, so they were always around and helpful in any activity my brother and I got involved with, from sports teams to the little theater we started in a neighbor’s basement.
Our house backed up to conservation land which sloped down to Salem harbor where some neighbors moored a beat up Boston Whaler. We spent a lot of time on the water, traveling everywhere in boats long before we could drive cars, and my favorite place to go was across the harbor to Salem’s House of the Seven Gables.
I was fascinated by Salem even at that age, partly because I knew our family had roots there on my mother’s side, and partly because we all knew Salem’s dark history. My dad’s family was a fun-loving Irish clan, old Marbleheaders. I had uncles, aunts, and cousins all over town. They were all great storytellers, and I think that’s where my love of narrative came from.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a writer, so I was writing stories at a very young age, and reading every book I could get my hands on. My library card was my most valued possession until my father gave me a huge old typewriter he’d brought home from the office. I think he and mom kept every story I ever wrote on it. My mother gave me the best piece of advice, which was to learn to entertain myself. It’s great advice for someone who wants to write. My father told me to just sit down and do it. Also great advice.
I have a lot of favorites, but, “Wonder Boys” is one I watch again and again.
Anything baked with blueberries in it.
Place you haven’t been that you’d most like to visit?
Egypt. I really want to see those pyramids.
THE FIFTH PETAL is set in Salem, Massachusetts. That setting is evocative for most of us on name alone, but you have genealogical ties to Salem. How so?
My mother’s ancestor, William Sprague, came to Salem in 1628 with the colony’s governor. His job was to chart (and acquire) the western territory, which, at the time, was the border of Salem Village (now Danvers), only a few miles west of Salem and extended south to Charlestown. They were of the Anglican faith, but at some point they connected with the Puritans, because accused witch Rebecca Nurse and her two sisters also hang from our family tree. Later, the Spragues broke with Mother England and William’s descendant, Samuel Sprague, along with the other members of the Boston Tea Party, dumped tea into Boston Harbor at the beginning of the Revolution.
Your books feature recurring characters (this interviewer loves that; Towner is her personal fave.). Jodi Picoult does a similar thing with her attorney-character Jordan McAfee who has shown up in three of her novels. She describes it as sharing the journey with an old friend. Which characters of yours recur? What is the experience like? Did you expect after THE LACE READER that they would continue to “haunt” your imagination?
The Lace Reader was my first novel, and I had no idea how the characters would haunt me. The protagonist of that story was supposed to be May Whitney (Towner’s aunt), but Towner’s character took over the book. Then, she just wouldn’t go away, and I realized that there were at least two more books I had to write before her story would be complete.
Many other characters are still with me as well. Ann Chase, Salem’s famous witch, is one of my favorites and often represents the voice of reason in my stories. She’s a compilation of several real Salem witches I know. I expect she’ll be in every story.
Zee Finch, the psychiatrist who used to steal boats, made her first appearance in The Map of True Places, but I expect she’s here to stay. She has become a good friend of Towner’s, and, since I write psychological thrillers, there is always need of a good therapist.
May, the reclusive family matriarch who runs the shelter on Yellow Dog Island, will continue to appear. Her sometimes difficult relationship with Towner provides a great counterpoint to the other characters. Her perspective is always unique and challenging.
And then there’s John Rafferty, now Salem’s Chief of Police, who is the easiest character for me to write. As a recovering alcoholic and an ex-New York City detective, he came to Salem to live a simpler life, only to find it far more complicated than what he left behind. Rafferty doesn’t “talk to me” the way the other characters seem to, but he is always there, trying as hard to understand the developing story as I am.
There are so many characters I love and so many potential stories to write about Salem that I expect I’ll know these characters for a long time to come.
Speaking of THE LACE READER, are you the original lace reader? How did it come about?
When I was in high school, my Irish grandmother gave me a piece of bobbin lace made by nuns at a local convent. Since it was all I had to remind me of her after she passed, that piece of lace went with me every time I moved, always landing on my bedside table. My husband and I lived on the west coast, but we came back to New England when my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the family needed help.
We bought an old Victorian house In Marblehead and were renovating it, planning to break through a wall to make our kitchen larger. The night before the demolition, I had a dream that I was looking through the piece of lace to see what the finished kitchen would look like. In the dream, it seemed logical. But instead of seeing granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, I saw a field of horses. This was rather confusing. It was also anxiety-provoking because I have a very serious allergy to horses.
I didn’t sleep much for the rest of the night. When the crew came to demolish the wall the next day, one of the workman put on a dust mask, and picking up his sledgehammer, said “I hate this old horsehair plaster. The dust gets into everything, and you can never get it out.” Needless to say, we didn’t tear down that wall. That was my first lace reading. Soon afterward, we moved to Salem, and I began to look for other lace readers. Everyone thought they knew someone who read lace, but it always turned out to be tea leaves or palms or something unrelated. But since The Lace Reader was published, the Salem witches are now reading lace.
Your understanding of the history of witchcraft and related folklore is stunning. How and where did you learn it? Could there possibly be more to learn?
There’s always more to learn. Living here, you grow up with the stories as well as the generational guilt from which the city still suffers. But the stories aren’t always accurate, so you really have to do your homework, especially if you’re going to write about history. PEM’s Phillips Library was a great resource, as was the University of Virginia’s online transcript of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. I read several books on the subject of witchcraft history and folklore.
The Fifth Petal took me five years to write, and at least two of them were spent doing research. If I hadn’t finally been given a deadline, I think I’d still be at it. Just when you think you understand what happened here and in Europe, you uncover another story. Which leads to another conclusion. And another. The psychology of the whole thing fascinates me.
What drew you to banshees? What other paranormal elements are you interested in that you haven’t written yet?
My father’s family always claimed to have a banshee who would wail when someone was about to die. I spent a year in Dublin when I was in college, and I became fascinated by Celtic folklore. Surprisingly, there hasn’t been much written about banshees, and everyone has a different idea about their derivation. So that gave me the freedom to get a bit creative. The idea of the diminished goddess is part of the lore. So is the tree mythology, although the way I combined the two is unusual.
Like Callie and Towner, and frankly many real people who live in Salem, I’ve always had a bit of second sight. Nothing I could count on, just a little knowledge of things before they happen. My mother had it too, though much more strongly than I do. At the end of her life, she suffered with a bit of dementia, and, as the other parts of her logical brain faded, her prescience became more profound, so much so that the staff of the nursing home where she spent her final year called her “the oracle” and often sought her advice. I have come to believe that this “knowing” is really something far more logical than we realize, some as yet unmapped part of the brain.
What is the difference between witches, wiccans, and pagans?
Pagan is a broad term that includes many earth-based religions. Many Pagans practice witchcraft, but many others do not. Wicca is a term popularized in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner to describe the practice of witchcraft, but it is not certain whether it is the same form of witchcraft that the ancients used.
You address the possibility of the devil himself being responsible for the tragedy at the heart of THE FIFTH PETAL. That takes courage. And you did it unflinchingly. Your work is absolutely consuming for the reader because of that courage and unflappable expertise in your subject matter. What is the secret to your imagination and faith in your ability to translate that to paper?
Well, the devil has always been fascinating because, historically, he has taken so many forms. I’ve come to think of him as fear. Because we do horrible things to each other when we are fearful. So, for me, the devil has become a metaphor for that part of each of us that is most fearful, and I always seem to write about that in some way. Since I write psychological thrillers, this seems to work. My imagination is always driven by an effort to understand something or someone that is otherwise incomprehensible. In this case, I wanted to explore the idea of “turning.” What are the events that turn us from good to evil, or from evil to good?
You self-published THE LACE READER prior to being picked up by William Morrow who wanted to release it under their name. This is a dream come true for many writers. Was it your sales, your book, or what else that put you on their radar?
I think we were lucky in a number of ways. My husband and I had an entertainment software publishing company, and we thought it would be an easy leap from publishing software to publishing books. I always say that we were emboldened by our ignorance, because, at the time (2007), there was a stigma against self-publishing.
We hired a PR company who submitted the novel to Publishers Weekly for a review. At the time, PW didn’t review self-published books (they do now), but, because we had our own imprint, it slipped through and got a starred review. Things happened very quickly after that. Agents started calling. All along, we had hoped to create a little buzz, then get picked up by a larger publisher (which is what had happened with our software).
But these were not publisher’s agents but movie agents calling. I didn’t know any of them, so I called a few friends in New York and Los Angeles for advice. I was picked up by Endeavor (now WME) who asked if I’d mind if they found me a larger publisher before dealing with any film rights. The book went to auction, and my writing career was born. I’m now working on my fourth novel.
As the industry has changed, you don’t recommend self-publishing first for those who do it in hopes of being discovered by the big publishing houses. If a writer with this dream already has self-published, what do you recommend that they do to garner that attention? When do you recommend self-publishing?
I didn’t recommend it when people first asked me, but I’ve changed my mind since then. Back in 2007, there was a stigma against self-publishing, and it was very hard to get your book into stores. E-books were really just starting, so that wasn’t an option for us. We printed 2,000 books, hired editors, PR firms, printers, etc., which is expensive. We easily could have lost every cent.
And what we didn’t realize was that even if you could get your book into stores, which we managed to do, you couldn’t afford the marketing budget of the large publishers who have more than one title to promote. Usually, the book would sit, spine-out on a back shelf, with little way for us to distinguish it. We were lucky, and it did fairly well, but, even so, it was very expensive and quite risky.
That said, the world has changed. Now, I do recommend self-publishing, but only in e-book form, where the financial risk isn’t as great. I think it’s a great way to be discovered. I know that both publishers and agents look for new talent among self-published authors. It helps to have a hook of some kind, which seems to be easier for non-fiction writers who find their platforms and target marketing campaigns to them.
How does your experience self-publishing under your own (in addition to your husband’s) label compare with the experience you’ve had at a large house?
The biggest difference is in the team of people working on your behalf. When you’re self-published, you have to do everything, and there are only so many hours in the day, so something’s going to slide. Being with a large house—provided your book is one they get behind—gives you access to editors, public relations experts, and marketing pros who all have ideas, as well as amazing contacts, and want to see the book succeed.
When did you hit the bestseller list? What was that like?
The Lace Reader hit the New York Times bestseller list the first week after it came out. I was on tour for the first time when I got the call. I was thrilling, but it didn’t seem real. I’m still amazed.
What marketing techniques have you found most successful? Book clubs have been enormously helpful to you. How do you find them? How does one budget for marketing?
Book clubs are amazing, because they’re some of the best readers out there, and they really pass the word. When The Lace Reader came out, our local Indie bookstore sold to almost 30 different book clubs, and had a section in the store that showed what each was reading, which was a big help.
But it wasn’t just local; one book club would talk to another, or someone had a friend 2,000 miles away who was also in a club and asked for recommendations. Right now, my initial marketing is mostly done by my publisher, with mine limited to social media, but as the life of a book progresses, I always expect to do more and more on my own. At some point, the publisher moves on, and that’s when you have to do your own marketing, though the vehicles change all the time.
Do you still Facetime or Skype into book clubs or classrooms?
I do. Connecting with readers is one of my favorite things. And whenever time and geography permit, I visit in person.
What is the most meaningful or helpful mantra you lean on in this crazy career of ours?
Process over product. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but, if you lose the joy of the process, you might as well quit. Books take so long to write, and they seldom end up as you planned. Trying to anticipate the market never seems to work. And when a book is finished, it’s not yours anymore. If you’re lucky it moves on to readers who bring their own perspectives to the story, and you go on to write the next book. It’s such a solitary endeavor, and success is so unpredictable, that you really have to enjoy the creative process.
How can readers best support writers?
Obviously by buying our books. That’s important in order for writers to keep working. But also by passing the word, and by letting us know when a story touches them in some way. That means so much.
For readers who might not have read you yet, who are some authors they may have read that you share an audience with?
This is a difficult one for me, because I’m not really certain what genre I belong to. Psychological thriller, obviously, but I often hear mystery, history, literary, magical realism, family, women’s fiction, horror, and romance as well. The Fifth Petal has already been called all of those. If the interest is witches, then Alice Hoffman, Deborah Harkness, and Kathleen Kent come to mind. I read a lot of contemporary thrillers, and I love Mary Kubica’s work, so I imagine there’s a tie in there. I’ve heard Erin Morgenstern as well. And then there’s a kind of New England gothic thing going on, so Jennifer McMahon’s novels might also be a good match. I admire all these writers and would love to be compared to any of them.
Ghosts or Signs?
Snow or Sun?
Tarot Cards or Palm Reading?
Lobster Roll or Seafood Chowder?
Thank you, Bru! We support you now and always. ☺
THE FIFTH PETAL
When a teenage boy dies suspiciously on Halloween night, Salem’s chief of police, John Rafferty, now married to gifted lace reader Towner Whitney, wonders if there is a connection between his death and Salem’s most notorious cold case, a triple homicide dubbed “The Goddess Murders,” in which three young women, all descended from accused Salem witches, were slashed on Halloween night in 1989. He finds unexpected help in Callie Cahill, the daughter of one of the victims newly returned to town. Neither believes that the main suspect, Rose Whelan, respected local historian, is guilty of murder or witchcraft.
But exonerating Rose might mean crossing paths with a dangerous force. Were the women victims of an all-too-human vengeance, or was the devil raised in Salem that night? And if they cannot discover what truly happened, will evil rise again?
“The superlative Barry creates a vividly eerie, time-bending landscape that stretches back and forth between the Salem witch trials, the Goddess Murders, and the present-day mystery ….. This spooky, multilayered medley of mysteries is sure to be a bestseller.” Booklist Starred Review
“Banshees, lost memories, and secret pasts each play a significant role in this novel; enthusiasts of the author’s earlier work and readers interested in the history of witchcraft and the occult will enjoy this return visit to Salem.”
“[An] entertaining occult murder mystery.” Kirkus Reviews
“… the power of modern magic, mythology and history … Dark and suspenseful, Barry’s well-constructed tale is filled with traps and red herrings as the truth is slowly revealed and Salem is forced to confront its sordid past.” Publishers Weekly
“In contemporary Salem, a murder has taken place, with roots that reach back to the seventeenth-century witch trials. Filled with twists and turns, as well as ancient tradition and modern mystery, Barry’s story has deft pacing, a marvelous sense of place, and a quirky cast of characters. The Fifth Petal is another haunting tale by the author of The Lace Reader where past and present collide.”
Deborah Harkness, New York Times bestselling author of the All Souls trilogy
“Brunonia Barry’s Salem is alive with rich history, and with a unique and colorful cast of characters: witches and healers, lace readers, the well-to-do and the down-and-out. And everyone’s got secrets. The Fifth Petal is a mesmerizing take on the ways the past affects and influences the present. “Time isn’t linear,” says one of the characters, and the way Barry artfully weaves together a modern-day crime, a twenty-five-year-old murder case, and the Salem witch trials, you’ll close the book believing that she’s absolutely right.”
Jennifer McMahon, New York Times bestselling author of The Winter People and The Night Sister
“There is true magic in The Fifth Petal, where Salem’s dark history of murder threatens to destroy yet one more young woman, a descendant of one of the accused witches. As in The Lace Reader, Brunonia Barry weaves together ancient myths, modern mysteries and the power and wisdom of a cabal of fearless women who’ve been touched by the invisible world.”
Kathelen Kent, author of The Heretic’s Daughter
“Brunonia Barry has done it again. If you liked The Lace Reader, you’re going to love her new novel, The Fifth Petal. A real page-turner about murder and prejudice and love and what’s possible and what isn’t. Enjoy.”
B.A. Shapiro, New York Times bestselling author of The Art Forger and The Muralist
“A seductive combination of suspense, history, myth – with a sprinkling of the supernatural – The Fifth Petal is an enormously satisfying mystery novel. Brunonia Barry has created a world that is at once inviting and menacing, populated by characters both warmly familiar and surprising.”
Andrew Pyper, author of The Damned and The Demonologist
“There are many writers who write wonderful books… then there are those rare writers who make magic. Brunonia Barry proves once again she is a sorcerer. Transported to Salem, I was lost in a Gothic tale that only the author of The Lace Reader could have conjured.”
M.J. Rose, New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Language of Stones
“Written with pens dipped in magic and chills, The Fifth Petal uncovers hidden corners where myth, malevolence, and fervor converge in Salem, Massachusetts. Tendrils from the past and present wrap the complicated characters—and the reader’s attention—until the stunning final sentence. Brunonia Barry weaves miracles.”
Randy Susan Meyers, bestselling author of The Murderer’s Daughters
“The Fifth Petal is a brilliant and suspenseful tale that prods at embers still live in a buried past. By weaving together the lost evidence of two Salem tragedies, Brunonia Barry’s novel prompts profound consideration of the respect for history, the importance of resolution, and the power of voice. Highly recommended.”
Therese Walsh, author of The Moon Sisters
“Spellbinding! Clear your schedule–this beautifully written and seamlessly researched tale is a thriller, a romance, and a deeply felt investigation of the witch frenzy that haunts us to this day–and it’s the book everyone will be buzzing about. Surprising, compelling and profound–even revelatory–it will stay with you long after the last page.”
Hank Phillippi, Agatha, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark award winning author
THE FIFTH PETAL is available –
Other ways to bond with Brunonia Barry –
Interviewed by –
MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and offers query letter coaching and opening pages editing as The Query Quill. She oversees WWWB’s Interviews and Agents’ Corner segments. Her women’s fiction and is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the contest chair for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association 2016 Rising Star writing contest for unpublished authors. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications, including skirt! magazine. When she isn’t editing her novel, #LOVEIN140, you can find her belting out Broadway tunes (off key and with the wrong words), cheering herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), building or fixing household things, and trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Litsy (@MMF). Say hi! http://www.mmfinck.com