Alex Risen and I are sitting down with a pensive Barbara Radecki, as she talks about acting, writing, and her penchant for very dark stories.
CBC named her first novel, The Darkhouse, one of the five best YA novels of 2016. (And it was just launched in December.) The Globe and Mail called it a “showstopper.”
Diane: Welcome, Barbara.
Barbara: Thank you for having me.
Diane: My first question is about your transition from acting to writing: how did it happen?
Barbara: Well, originally—when I was very young—I only wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first novel when I was eleven. Then, when I was fifteen, a writing teacher told me I had no talent, so I despaired and thought okay, I’m never going to write again.
Diane: Okay. I have to interrupt. You wrote a whole novel? You finished a novel when you were eleven?
Barbara: Yes, I did. It’s in a basement cupboard right now.
Diane: What’s it about?
Barbara: I had just read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: that iconic book of young female childhood. It so inspired me, in the way it relayed the journey of this family and all the obstacles they had to overcome, that I had to sit down and write my own version of that book.
Diane: Wow. And who was this writing instructor that said you had no talent?
Barbara: It was a high school English teacher on my very first creative writing assignment. I was really excited. I was totally stoked. I was convinced my latent talent was about to be discovered—
Diane: After all you were a novelist.
Barbara: Yes! I was. (Laughs)
We handed in our assignments and when she marked them, she stood up in class as she handed them back, naming all the students who had talent.
And I wasn’t one of them. I was devastated.
Diane: This is a very bad teaching story.
Barbara: Yes. I actually don’t have very many good teaching stories. My best teaching stories are from my theatre teacher in high school. Which is probably why the choice to act felt very safe, and the choice to write felt very dangerous.
So I shoved writing aside. I tried a bit, but I always had a voice at my shoulder saying that I was no good. With acting there was a sense that even though I wasn’t the best, I was pretty good. And that made me feel wonderful. So I pursued it. I went to acting school. I went to the university of Windsor and got a degree in acting.
I came to Toronto as a young woman, and there were a lot of opportunities. I played wonderfully challenging parts. I got work. I got commercials. I paid the bills.
When I turned 35, the roles dried up. I felt like I was up against this inner turmoil that I didn’t understand, so someone suggested that I read the Artist’s Way. Do you know it?
Diane: It’s about finding your creative self.
Barbara: Yes. I started writing every morning: stream of consciousness, and I organically made my way into writing.
The kids would go to school, and I would just write. Stories about my own family, stories about growing up. The more I explored the writing side of things, the less interested I was in pursuing acting.
Diane: In another interview you said that writing was the love that almost got away.
Barbara: It was.
Diane: How do you think having been an actor influences your writing?
Barbara: It gives you a shortcut to accessing the emotions of a character, and when you’re writing you have to access a lot of characters. A weird thing though—and this is something I haven’t figured out—a lot of writers talk about improvising their scenes out loud. But I can’t.
I just need some quiet. I need to sit at the computer, until I can see my characters, hear their voices, know how they speak. Then my biggest task is to pull them from my imagination, through my hands on the keyboard and onto the page.
Diane: And structure? Have you studied it? I always thought an actor wouldn’t need to: you’ve spent so much time rehearsing scenes, performing in plays, imbibing it, as it were.
Barbara: I’m actually a huge believer in learning about structure. I think you can have a sense of it, an instinct, but you can have an academic understanding too.
Sometimes I’ll read a book that feels a little bit gooey, and I think I’d connect better if it were tighter, if scenes didn’t go on so long or weren’t repeated.
Diane: Yes. The repeated scene.
Barbara: You’ve made a statement. A thematic statement. An emphatic statement. A dramatic statement. Why make it again?
Diane: Because it worked so well the first time?
Barbara: I’m a reader who appreciates structure. So I’m a writer who appreciates it too.
Diane: Moving from structure to subject matter: your novel for teenagers, The Darkhouse, is very dark. Why?
Barbara: It’s funny. I do this improv class where my work frequently gets dark, and I have a friend who says, “Aha! You have a dark side.” I say that I don’t, but it’s true that every story I’ve ever wanted to tell goes to that place.
As a child I loved German fairytales with these horrible twins, Max and Moritz, who would would wreak havoc wherever they went. They were awful, and I really enjoyed them. I have a strong curiosity about how horrible we humans can be.
But there is another element. Something that connects humans to each other is going into someone else’s story. Into dark spaces. It gives us empathy. That’s one of the great gifts of reading.
I also think that very many of us read because we want to know that we can survive. Every book is a guide to survival. How to survive the great whatever. Fill in the blank: mental illness, personal depression, terrible tragedy. Readers want the survival manual in the real world and also in a heightened world: more dramatic than something the average person will go through. Down the rabbit hole. I connect very deeply to Alice in Wonderland.
Diane: I didn’t even like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was young, because it was creepy, but I loved fairy tales, and, I realized when I got older, that they are really dark. I have a friend who hates fairy tales, and when she mentions them, she always goes back to Bambi. But how wonderful would Bambi be for the child whose mother has died?
Barbara: Or the child who is afraid her mother will die. Children imagine the worse. Weirdly, though, I hate horror.
Diane: I don’t think that’s a contradiction. Horror is very different.
Barbara: Yes, it’s gruesome. You can be dark without being gruesome.
Diane: What is your writing process?
Barbara: I’m a solitary person when I write. When I’m done, I go back out in the world, see my friends and have lunch. But as an actor I come from a collaborative background, and I write screenplays with a partner, so I also like the experience of working with an editor. I like hearing ideas. Actors are used to taking direction.
And successful writing is actually a team experience because you have to connect to your readers.
Diane: I never thought of it like that.
Barbara: So I also like to have readers along the way. To get responses and then go back to my work.
Diane: Do you write everyday?
Barbara: Every day. And I’m lucky that I can.
I get up at 8. I feed the dog, clean the kitchen, empty the dishwasher, have breakfast. I sit down by 9:00- 9:30 and write. I do three hours of just creative writing in the morning, based on what I think that scene should involve. Then I take a break, come back and revise, revise, revise. Revise. Then I’ll go to bed that night and wonder ‘did I get a pretty good idea of that scene?’
Diane: And if not?
Barbara: I don’t move forward. I revise.
Diane: That sounds like a good spot to stop. And good advice for aspiring writers. Thank you, Barbara!
Barbara: Thank you!