Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Barbara Barrows’ fiction piece, Follicles
Sommer: Let me just start by saying, I love this story. It is engrossing and extremely moving. Yet, it never suffers from sentimentality. Did you struggle at all with finding that balance between showing real emotion, and becoming too sentimental? Do you have any suggestions for writers struggling with this issue?
Barbara: Thank you! I did struggle a good deal with the story in earlier drafts: I really wanted the emotions to feel earned. The first few versions of the story spent a lot of time in Earl’s thoughts as he contemplated his youth, his marriage, and his former career, and my writer friends agreed that it was overwrought. That’s not to say that stories can’t have lots of character interiority, but it was just too much, and it felt indulgent. Then I stumbled upon the idea of funeral hopping as a kind of dark-humored hobby, and that gave Earl something to do, and some other minds besides his own to engage with. I would say that the emotions have to be motivated by something in the exterior world, something that the characters are co-creating together, and that switching moods or registers (in this case, alternating between pathos and dark humor, and between the interior world of the character and the visceral, exterior itching of his palm), can help.
I also think we can eschew sentimentality when we focus on the surprising and bizarre elements of everyday life. Sometimes it’s not the big life events, but those strange little moments—a hair follicle in your palm, a puzzling conversation with a stranger—that call up sudden and inexplicable emotions.
I understand what it’s like to get a hair follicle stuck in your palm—they are, remarkably, just like hooked thorns. Lewis dies, but Lewis’s follicle remains in Earl’s palm. Sure, metaphor (for how life, and death, is like a pool we all share, perhaps), but also a plain old fact of reality and nothing more. If you could choose one part of your body that could somehow persist after you die, what would it be?
You know, I can be a bit vain about my shoulders. So I would like for my shoulder bones to linger on, eternally, after my death.
How and where is your perfect death?
From natural causes while sitting with my partner, our puggle (pug and beagle mix), and cat in a Borgesian infinite library, watching a Janicza Bravo film, and eating frozen mangoes that have been defrosted for twenty seconds in the microwave.
Or, more simply: the kind of death that Earl wishes for Margaret and for himself. To be lucky enough to die painlessly and in old age, in the company of someone or something you love.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
I would say that writing regularly must be the main goal, and that submitting and receiving rejections is something we should deal with separately. I try to keep to an early-morning writing schedule every day, and to set aside one or two afternoons a month to submit work, so that the creative process gets its own space and the submission process gets its own space. I wait to check email until after my writing time, so that I don’t lose heart if a rejection is waiting for me there. When I do get a story rejected a few times, I try to sit with the unpleasant emotions for a few minutes and then let them guide me to a decision: did I send this out before it was truly ready, or do I just need to re-think the places I’m submitting to? David Lynch’s book Catching the Big Fish uses the expression of focusing on the donut rather than the hole, and I think this is great advice for writers. We can’t control who will publish or reject our work or when, but we can make sure that we make space to write and that we work patiently and continuously on our writing.
What are you working on these days, and where can we next read your writing?
I’m in the very beginning stages of a second novel. My first novel, The Quelling, will be published by Lanternfish Press on Sep. 25, 2018. I also have a short story, “A Temple of Hands,” forthcoming in Cimarron Review. It’s about work crushes, sexual fetishes, life coaching, and crash test dummies.
Thank you so much for doing this with me, and much congratulations.
Thank you for these questions! I admire The Forge Literary Magazine, and I am excited that “Follicles” is a part of it.