Kathleen Barber was raised in Galesburg, Illinois. She graduated from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law, and previously practiced bankruptcy law at large firms in Chicago and New York. A registered yoga teacher and incurable wanderer, when Kathleen isn’t writing, she enjoys traveling the world with her husband.
Her debut thriller ARE YOU SLEEPING was published in August 2017 by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. It was also released from Pan Macmillan in the UK and Heyne in Germany, and is forthcoming from Corbaccio in Italy, HarperCollins Ibérica, and Michel Lafon in France.
Let’s start from the beginning, your beginning.
Where did you grow up? How did your childhood impact the woman and writer you’ve become?
I grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, which is a small city in Central Illinois. I haven’t lived in Illinois in more than eight years, but I have a very strong sense of being from the Midwest and I get all heart-eyed around cornfields. My roots really show themselves in my writing in the sense that I’m driven to tell stories about women from the Midwest. So much contemporary fiction is set in New York or California—both great places, of course, but different in many ways—and I would love to see more books written about women who live in or hail from the Midwest.
Farthest you’ve travelled from home?
I love to travel! I’ve been to more than 50 countries, and I just lost a good chunk of time measuring distances to various locations on Google Maps. ☺ I think the farthest I’ve travelled from my hometown is Bali, Indonesia, which is more than 9,000 miles from Galesburg. Other close contenders are Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Cape Agulhas, which is the southernmost tip of Africa.
Favorite time of the day to write?
I generally write during the day, which is when I have the longest stretch of uninterrupted time. That makes it easier for me to immerse myself in the work, which is important to my creative process. Of course, all my best ideas start crowding into my head around one in the morning, when I’m trying to sleep.
Favorite place to write?
I like to write in coffee shops because I’m most productive when I’m working in public. (At home, there’s no one to shame me for wasting time on Twitter!) Lately, I’ve been going to this coffee shop not far from my apartment, and it’s fantastic because they actually roast the coffee on-site, which means that it’s really loud in there but in a white noise kind of way that I find really conducive to writing. Also, I have to walk past a branch of the library to get there, so I can pick up a book on the way home as a treat. ☺
You practiced bankruptcy law. While it doesn’t appear that there is any overlap between between our day jobs and our writing, there often are. Has that been true for you or your process?
Absolutely. My legal training in general has really had a positive impact on my writing. When you’re writing pleadings and briefs, you learn pretty quickly to be precise and economical with your words, which is not my nature at all. I tend toward run-on sentences and gobs of extra punctuation, and my legal training really helps me rein that in. Also, working as an associate in a large law firm helped me learn how to take criticism of my work product and how to appreciate working collaboratively with others on documents, all of which prepared me for working with my agent and editor to revise my manuscript.
What is the genre and a one or two line description of ARE YOU SLEEPING?
ARE YOU SLEEPING is suspense novel about a woman who has spent the last ten years distancing herself from her family, and with good reason: her father was murdered, her mother ran away to join a cult, and her twin sister betrayed her. When a mega-hit podcast begins reinvestigating her father’s murder, she’s forced to confront her past and the lies on which she’s constructed her future.
What is Serial, which your book has been compared to?
“Serial” is a podcast hosted and co-produced by journalist Sarah Koenig, and its goal is to tell one story in a serialized format over each season. The first season—which was an enormous success, and had been downloaded more than 175 million times by March 2017—investigated the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee. Lee’s classmate and former boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested for and convicted of her murder, and he is currently serving a life sentence while maintaining his innocence.
“Serial” didn’t prove or disprove Syed’s claims of innocence, but it did provide some support for his assertions that he had ineffective assistance of counsel. Since the podcast aired, his conviction has been overturned and a new trial ordered. That ruling has been appealed, and a hearing was held earlier this summer. The judge has not yet announced the decision, and I’ve been waiting to hear the results!
Are there times when you prefer to read outside your own genre?
Definitely. I love suspense—particularly domestic suspense—but I’m afraid a diet of all suspense books would leave me a little warped. I read widely and am particularly drawn to stories with complex female characters. (Hence why I like women’s fiction!) I’m about to start CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD by Caroline Leavitt, which I’ve heard such amazing things about, and I have GOODBYE, VITAMIN by Rachel Khong queued up after that.
We have writers who claim their story idea starts with a question, others a character, others something they’ve read somewhere. What inspired the idea for ARE YOU SLEEPING?
My inspiration for ARE YOU SLEEPING came in two stages. The main characters—Josie and her twin sister Lanie—came first, and I’ve been writing and rewriting stories about those two for more than a decade. I knew there was a story there, but I couldn’t quite find it. Then I listened to “Serial,” and it was like a light bulb moment. I knew that I had finally found the storyline that Josie and Lanie deserved. After working on them for so many years, it was really satisfying to find that!
A compelling and unique angle to the storytelling of ARE YOU SLEEPING is the inclusion of a podcast. How did that come to you? Is it something you expect to repeat in future novels?
Most of the action in ARE YOU SLEEPING is the direct result of a podcast called “Reconsidered.” Thirteen years before the start of the book, Josie’s father was murdered and the neighbor kid was arrested for and convicted of his death. But now investigative reporter Poppy Parnell, the host of “Reconsidered,” is looking into the neighbor’s claims of innocence. Josie and her family are distraught by the podcast not only because it’s forcing them to revisit a particularly traumatic episode from their past, but also because Poppy Parnell is basically repackaging their tragedy and presenting it to her listeners as entertainment.
The idea for this angle stemmed from my own interest in the first season of “Serial.” I was completely obsessed with the podcast and with the underlying case, and I read everything about them that I could get my hands on. At one point, I took a step back and realized that I had forgotten that this wasn’t just an interesting story—this was a very real tragedy for some very real people. I started to think about how the popularity of “Serial” must be affecting the family of Hae Min Lee, and I knew that was something that I really wanted to explore in the book. (I should note that, while I was inspired by “Serial,” “Reconsidered” is much different from “Serial”—“Serial” is a reputable piece of investigative journalism whereas “Reconsidered” is purposefully salacious and tabloid-esque.)
Josie and Lanie are twins. Why was that an important distinction, rather than simply sisters?
I wanted to explore the idea that two people who have had the same experiences and are otherwise as similar as could be would be faced with a life-changing event—in this case, the murder of their father—and would react to it in completely different ways. Before their father’s death, Josie and Lanie consider themselves the same, true twins in every way. But after their father’s death, they take divergent paths and neither can understand the other’s behavior.
What research went into ARE YOU SLEEPING?
To be perfectly honest, “Serial” was the first podcast I ever listened to. So when I decided to write a novel centered around a podcast, I knew I needed to listen to some other podcasts to get more of a feel for the medium. Also, I had some questions about Illinois criminal that I discussed with my brother, who is a public defender in Illinois and a former state’s attorney.
How long did it take you to write the first draft? To be submission-ready?
I began writing the first draft of ARE YOU SLEEPING in November 2014, and I began querying five months later in April 2015. Remember, however, that I wasn’t starting from zero. I had developed many of the characters over the years I had spent thinking about Josie and Lanie, which made for a faster writing process.
Then I did a lot of revision over 2015. I was lucky to encounter an agent who provided extensive comments and talked to me about revisions. She didn’t end up signing me, but her assistance made for a much better product. After I signed with my agent in early 2016, I spent another month or two working on revisions before the manuscript was ready for submission.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? How did you get started? What aspects of craft do especially enjoy? Find challenging?
I have always, always wanted to be a writer. I used to drag around this typewriter—which I know is totally dating me, admitting that I was writing before home computers were common—and write these stories. There was a lot of The Babysitters Club fanfiction and at least A Wrinkle in Time knockoff in those early days, but there was also some original stuff. I’ve been writing ever since. I can’t not write; I’m always jotting down ideas and random scenes on scraps of paper or in my phone.
Creating characters is my favorite aspect of writing. I love to think about what made my characters the people they are today and what their secret hopes and desires are. I could really just do that all day. Plots, on the other hand—plots are my albatross. I have a hard time figuring out when things should happen. I’ve tried so many different methods, but I usually just have to write all the plot points down and physically spread them around me in order to make any sense of it. It’s like I have to literally climb inside the book to get the plot straight.
Tell us a bit about your publishing journey.
I began sending cold queries of ARE YOU SLEEPING to agents in April 2015. Is there anything more demoralizing than query submission? I got so many rejections (and worse—the implied rejection, where no one even responds to your query), but I also got some interest. One request for a full led to what seemed like a promising conversation: an agent thought the book had potential but wanted to discuss revisions. Over that summer and fall, I worked really hard on revising the book in accordance with her comments, and I felt really good about it. Unfortunately, after I resubmitted it to her, I learned in December 2015 that she was making a career move and not taking on new clients. I was really disappointed, but she asked if she could send my manuscript to a friend of hers at another agency. Of course I said yes, and that was probably the best thing that could have happened for the book.
That friend was Lisa Grubka at Fletcher & Company, and she signed me as a client in February 2016. Lisa is phenomenal. She really dug into the manuscript with me that winter, and we sent a newly revised version of it out on submission in March 2016. Submission is so nerve-wracking! It’s another round of mostly rejection with higher stakes, and I don’t think I slept much during this time. But we sold the book at auction in April 2016 to Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and then I spent another few months working on revisions with my editor, Lauren McKenna. And then in August 2017, sixteen months after I first began querying, ARE YOU SLEEPING made it out into the world!
What tips do you have for aspiring authors?
The most important thing is to get the words on the page. If you worry too much about whether they’re the right words or the best words or the words that an agent will want to see, you’ll get in your own way. Just get the words out there and resist the urge to self-edit until you have a first draft. You might cringe when you read it—first drafts are always terrible!—but you will have already done the hardest part, which is finishing something.
I also think it’s really important to free yourself from worrying about whether your manuscript is in line with publishing trends or whether it will sell. That stuff changes all the time and is out of your hands. Just write the story that you want to read. Expend your energy on making the very product that you can rather than on worrying about things over which you have no control.
Plotter or Pantser? (Readers – these are, believe it or not, publishing terms that describe whether you plot your stories in advance of writing them or if you write “by the seat of your pants.”)
Hybrid. I used to be a total Pantser, but that so often led me down absurdist paths to nowhere, and so now I try to be a Plotter. I usually end up doing some pantsing along the way, but it’s no longer as chaotic as it once was!
Capitol Fourth (Washington, DC’s Independence Day fireworks event) or Cherry Blossom Festival?
Cherry Blossom Festival. While I love pyrotechnical displays, there’s something just so magical about the cherry blossoms.
Smithsonian Museums or Rock Creek Park?
Rock Creek Park … this time of year, at least! Being inside the park feels a world away from the city, and my husband and I go hiking there almost every weekend. But I love the Smithsonian Museums, too—the National Gallery of Art in particular—and I’m sure I’ll be spending more time there when the weather gets cold.
Running or Walking?
Walking! I don’t run unless I’m being chased.
Thank you, Kathleen, so much for talking with us! We support you now and always.
ARE YOU SLEEPING
Serial meets Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood in this inventive and twisty psychological thriller about a mega-hit podcast that reopens a murder case—and threatens to unravel the carefully constructed life of the victim’s daughter.
The only thing more dangerous than a lie…is the truth.
Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation and with good reason. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidant, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past—starting with her last name.
When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future.
“[An] inventive debut … The intense plot and character studies are enhanced by an emotional look at the dynamics of a family forever scarred by violence.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review
“An excellent examination of what it must be like to be caught up in a media frenzy…absorbing reading for those who can’t get enough of flawed-but-likable narrators.” — Booklist
“Josie’s dark past becomes fodder for the podcast du jour — if that doesn’t hook you, the twist will.” — Cosmopolitan
“Dark. Moving. Timely.” — Oprah.com
“Barber is a delightful writer who has produced a taut thriller that will leave you wondering the identity of the killer. My prediction: the book is destined for the New York Times bestseller list.” — Chicago Tribune
“I was completely hooked from the very first page. Layers of deceit, family drama, a murdered father, a disturbed mother, mayhem, cults, lies, betrayals, and a possibly deranged podcaster — this story has it all. Lanie and Josie are Janus twins, and their twisting lives left me breathless. Who to trust? Who to believe? Who really killed their father? ARE YOU SLEEPING taps into our collective conscience with a true crime podcast propelling the narrative and takes an unflinching look at the truths we create about ourselves. Kathleen Barber is a fabulous new author to watch. If you like twisty psychological thrillers, this is your book.” — J.T. Ellison, New York Times bestselling coauthor of The Devil’s Triangle
“Kathleen Barber perfectly captures the media frenzy around a notorious murder and the inclusion of a podcast adds an extra layer of timely eeriness. The public perception is contrasted flawlessly against the element of private pain, such that the “public” itself becomes a fully developed character. Beautifully and sympathetically written, ARE YOU SLEEPING is a murder whodunit, a social commentary, and an exploration of sisterly bonds all in one.” — Kate Moretti, author of The Vanishing Year
“Are You Sleeping will more than likely keep you up all night as this most compelling suspenseful novel unfolds. A classic whodunnit gets a very clever modern treatment that left this reader’s heart racing right up to the last page.” — Liz Nugent, author of Unraveling Oliver
“The powerful portrayal of the joys and sorrows of sisterhood and layers of drama and intrigue only upped the dark, twisty tension as I turned page after page. A swiftly moving thriller that’ll keep you guessing till the very end.” — Erica Ferencik, author of The River at Night
“Reminiscent of the hit podcast Serial, this debut is an exciting read about what happens when the past continues to haunt the present.” — Dallas News
“Anyone who has fallen head-first into a podcast such as ‘S-Town’ or ‘Serial’ will appreciate the plot of Kathleen Barber’s novel.” — Houston Chronicle
“Ripped from the headlines of an on-line pod cast that reopens murder cases, this really well written psychological thriller moves rapidly through time as it unravels the circumstances surrounding a small town murder.” — Fiction Addiction
“This chilling debut reads like a mash-up of ‘Serial’ and Dark Places, a suspenseful mystery to read without stopping to eat, sleep, or breathe!” — Powell’s Books, Staff Pic
“Fans of true crime podcasts like Serial will love Are You Sleeping.” — RealSimple.com
ARE YOU SLEEPING is available –
Other ways to bond with Kathleen –
Interviewed by –
MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and query letter coach, opening pages editor, and overall story analyst as The Query Quill. She oversees WWWB’s Interviews and Agents’ Corner segments. Her women’s fiction 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 chair of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Rising Star Award.
Her work has appeared in national and regional publications, including skirt! magazine. When she isn’t working on her work-in-progress PIN UP, you can find her biting her nails over her novel #LOVEIN140 which is currently on submission, belting out Broadway tunes (off key and with the wrong words), screaming herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), building or fixing household things, or otherwise trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Q&A on Women Writers, Women's Books | Kathleen Barber | September 14, 2017