The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of The Truth According to Us
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born, raised, schooled, and pretty much everything else in California. I grew up in a town just to the north of the San Francisco Bay called San Anselmo, which has grown alarmingly elite in recent years, but was just a plain little town during my childhood. I spent most of my youth at the library. I went to college at the University of California in Berkeley, where I studied medieval religious history (how practical!) and later got an MFA in Creative Writing (also practical!) at Mills College nearby. With all this California background, why did I write a book set in West Virginia? Sheer mulishness.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
That’s easy! When I was twelve I wanted to be eighteen. When I was eighteen, I wanted to be thirty, and when I was thirty, I wanted to be twelve again.
I think at twelve, I was still clinging to the hope that I’d somehow be transported back in time to 1880, so my career planning was confined to reading 19th century etiquette books in order to blend in. I’m sure this will come in handy someday.
At eighteen, I had a fantastic career plan. I was going to be an art restorer—one of those quiet, delicate-fingered people who spend years pasting together shards to make a single Grecian urn. Oh boy, was that going to be great! Except then I did it and found myself restringing thousands upon thousands of teeny glass beads on six inches of an Indian headband and almost lost my mind.
At thirty, I had attained every career goal I had set for myself in the previous ten years: I was the Managing Editor of one the largest book publishers on the West Coast and I was the acquiring editor of their first New York Times Best-Seller. Everything was great, everything was swell—except that I had just realized that what I really wanted was to be a writer.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
When I was eighteen, I thought that the most important thing in the world was to be right. Now I think the most important thing in the world is to try to think that other people are right.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Literary influences are such an enormous can of worms—there were so many of them, they were so influential—that I’d better focus on other art forms. (Though I’m pretty sure I would not be a writer if I hadn’t read, at about age 12, J.D. Salinger’s description of the Glass family’s bathroom medicine cabinet in Zooey.)
Three major artistic influences are:
Back when I was a kid, our grubby local movie theater held kiddie matinees on Saturdays. These events were strictly kid-only; no grownup ever entered the theater during them (even the ushers stayed out unless someone threw a chair). As a result, kiddie matinees were mayhem. The kids on the balcony rained spit and chewed candy on the kids below. The kids below hollered threats at the kids on the balcony. Children wailed and sobbed. It was like Lord of the Flies with Milk Duds. But there was no avoiding it; our parents made us go. They’d shove us out of the car and speed off, gravel spraying, to enjoy a quiet afternoon.
Regular kiddie matinees were pretty bad, but one Saturday I was dropped off at a matinee of Dumbo with my older sister and my cousin. It was one of the most terrifying episodes of my life. Dumbo is about death and loss; specifically, it’s about a little elephant whose mama is tormented to death, leaving him to wander, alone and in despair, through various dire misfortunes. There I was, at age six, watching Dumbo’s mother die in agony while children wailed and sobbed around me. I tried to run out of the theatre, and my sister grabbed me and told me to sit still.
That afternoon was the foundation of a lot of neurosis, but also—and more to the point here—the foundation of a profound distrust of anything that calls itself children’s entertainment, a species that, in my opinion, rarely wants for children what they want for themselves. It was this distrust that ultimately led me to write for children.
2. The Hunt in the Forest
I stumbled on this painting one day in Oxford, and I can’t get over it. Paolo Uccello kills me in general, but this particular combination of precision and mystery completely mesmerized me. Uccello loves, loves, loves lines, but he doesn’t love lines more than he loves what he can’t see. It’s very instructive. Hilary Mantel does the same thing in writing.
3. Enrico IV
I am not recommending this play. It’s by Pirandello, and it’s kind of tedious. But in 1981, I saw a performance of it that blew me out of my seat. By the end of the show, the stage had been ripped apart—we could see more or less into the dressing rooms—and everything that signals Theater was in ruins. It was definitely the performance, not the play, that held the power, and for me, it was an astonishing lesson about the delivery of story through form, which I had always thought was cheap. I mean, mostly it is cheap, but when it’s on, it’s pure power.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I had to. Nobody would ever in a million years read—or publish!—what I’d most like to write, which is story without end, a literally endless following of, say, three lives (not mine) from beginning to—the moment I drop dead. It would be volumes and volumes and volumes long; it would tell story after story after story. Wouldn’t that be great?!
This is why I wrote a novel.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Truth According to Us is set in the summer of 1938, when the town of Macedonia, West Virginia, is celebrating its Sesquicentennial, an occasion that will be commemorated with parades, picnics, and most importantly, a book recounting its history. Its reluctant author, the debutante Miss Layla Beck, recently disinherited by her father, arrives in town with one goal – to get out of it as quickly as possible.
Macedonia’s history seems simple enough, easily disposed of, easily understood. Then Layla meets the Romeyns—Jottie, Willa, Felix, Emmett—a family at once entertaining, eccentric, seductive, and inextricably bound up in Macedonia’s most impenetrable historic event.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I have to admit it—what I want most is for readers to love my darling people. They’ve been my dearest friends for years now, and I feel a little uncertain about them going out in the world without me. I felt exactly like this on my daughter’s first day of kindergarten.
On a more theoretical (and less insane) level, I’d want readers to question the possibility of veracity, the endlessly receding goal of knowing the past in order to possess it. Time is a tragedy from which we hope to protect ourselves by believing in the existence of facts.
How many days do you have? My problem here is that there’s not one realm of writing. There are lots of realms and sub-realms. For instance, there’s the realm of children’s writers, and within that realm, there are picture books, chapter books, novels, and young adult novels. I can deeply admire the work of a picture book writer, but my admiration is influenced by fact that I can’t write picture books myself. So that admiration is different than what I accord to people working in the same genre that I work.
And then, there’s the issue of variability in a single author. I don’t mean that the author’s skill is variable. The variable is my ability to be acted upon—I’m just way less engaged by some things than others. Take murder, for instance. It mostly bores me, so a book that’s centered on a murder has to be really good to overcome my apathy about the topic. An example: what Kate Atkinson is addressing in Life after Life is completely fascinating to me. Her books about Jackson Brodie are probably equally accomplished, but they’re accomplished at something I’m less interested in. Now that I think about it, I should probably admire her more for the Jackson Brodie books than for Life after Life because I liked them so much even though I don’t care about murder.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To finish my next novel in less than seven years.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
There are as many ways to be a writer as there are writers.
Annie, thank you for playing.
by Annie Barrows
In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck is forced out of the lap of luxury and sent by her Senator father to work on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Assigned to cover the history of the little mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, Layla envisions a summer of tedium.
However, once she secures a room in the home of the unconventional Romeyn family, she is completely drawn into their complex world.
At the Romeyn house, twelve-year-old Willa is desperate to acquire her favourite virtues – ferocity and devotion – a search that leads her into a thicket of mysteries, including the questionable business with which her charismatic father is always occupied and the reason her adored aunt Jottie never married.
Layla’s arrival strikes a match to the family’s veneer, bringing to light buried secrets that will tell a different tale about the Romeyns and their deep entanglement in Macedonia’s history. As Willa peels back the layers of her family’s story, and Layla delves deeper into town legend, everyone involved is transformed – and their personal histories completely rewritten.
Quirky, loveable, and above all human, this novel of small-town life in the 1930s is an immersive experience that will leave readers reeling and wanting more.
About the Author
Annie Barrows is the author of the children’s series Ivy and Bean, as well as The Magic Half and Magic in the Mix; she is also co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Annie lives in Northern California with her husband and her two daughters.