Busy Women Writing Books
This is the the third instalment in a new interview series profiling women writers who’ve written and published books while also working, volunteering, balancing family and writing, attending school, and ALL OF THE THINGS.
For this week's interview, I'm pleased to introduce you to Melissa Barbeau.
Melissa Barbeau is a founding member of the Port Authority Writing Group. She has been anthologized in Racket: New Writing Made in Newfoundland, The Cuffer Anthology, and Paragon. She lives with her husband and gaggle of children in Torbay, Newfoundland.
Her debut novel, The Luminous Sea, won a gold medal at the 2019 Independent Publisher’s Books Awards (an Ippy!), was a finalist for the BMO Winterset Award, was shortlisted for the Miramachi Reader Very Best Book Award for Best First Book, and was a 49th Shelf Book of the Year. It was also recently long-listed for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.
I know how amazing you are, but please let everyone else know a bit about yourself and the books you’ve written thus far. Own it and brag a bit for us!
My name is Melissa Barbeau and last summer I published my debut novel – it’s called The Luminous Sea and it was published by Breakwater Books. The Luminous Sea won a gold medal at the 2019 Independent Publisher’s Books Awards (an Ippy!), was a finalist for the BMO Winterset Award, was shortlisted for the Miramachi Reader Very Best Book Award for Best First Book, and was a 49th Shelf Book of the Year. It was also an inaugural selection for a curated boutique book service called Briny Books.
Before publishing The Luminous Sea I was anthologized in Racket: New Writing Made in Newfoundland and I’ve had short stories published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, NQ Online, the Cuffer Prize Anthology, NaCl, and Paragon I and III. And I’m a founding member of the illustrious Port Authority Writing Group.
In my other lives, I am raising a gaggle of children – all junior high and older – with my husband. I work full-time as a junior high instrumental music and English teacher, and I volunteer on my local library board. In the past couple of years I’ve also finished my MA in English – The Luminous Sea is my thesis. I knit, whenever I get the chance, and I’ve just taken up a little sewing. And I garden which is really just a euphemism for killing plants.
What’s your current writing routine? Has it always been like this? What about it might be different for you now than in the past?
When I was doing my Masters and writing The Luminous Sea I was fortunate to be working part-time. And of course, as a teacher in the public school system, I have summers off to write. So, my first novel was largely written when the children were in school and I was off for an afternoon and during July and August. Which is not to say that there were not many days when the children were instructed to make eggs and toast or macaroni and cheese for supper if I wrote through the evening and sometimes late into the night. There was a lot of tiredness.
Now that I’m working outside the home more, I’m squeezing writing into whatever pockets of time I can find – evenings, weekends, holidays. So, I write during the hour I have to kick around town and wait to pick up my daughter from her university classes, or when one of the kids is at dance or music lessons. I write by opportunity rather than on a set schedule. I occasionally take a couple of days and travel BY MYSELF to my mother’s childhood home in outport Newfoundland to write but that’s an occasional luxury.
Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?
The first story I published is called “Wooly Socks” and it was published in Paragon, which is a literary journal out of Memorial University of Newfoundland. “Wooly Socks” is a story about a woman who is self-conscious about revealing her wooly knitted socks to her new lover only to discover they may have a little something in common. I was in my thirties when I sent out this story and had not yet come out as a writer. I wrote quietly, at home, and didn’t let anyone know what I was up to – only my husband was in on the secret.
Having this story – that was incubated in secret – out in the world was immensely gratifying for me as a writer. It was the first chance I took as a writer and having it published gave my bit of validation that this was something I could actually do.
When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?
Getting serious as a writer was a really incremental process for me. I built myself from being a secret scribbler to a real writer little by little. I published one story and then another one. I began taking writing courses at MUN that were open to the public and where I had the chance to learn from people like Lisa Moore, Jessica Grant, and Robert Chafe. These courses helped hone my craft but also gave me the opportunity to ask questions and learn how a career in writing could be made – the writing community in Newfoundland is beyond supportive and generous and inspiring.
I’ve also tried to take advantage of every opportunity that came my way. When MUN started offering a creative thesis option for their MA program I decided to enroll. Most importantly, I’ve had the amazing fortune of meeting my writing group – The Port Authority – through one of these classes. And they have proved to not only be amazing writers but beautiful people.
What have you had going on in your life over the years that wasn’t writing and may have made finding time to write challenging? What strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles and get the writing done?
Work. Family. A Masters degree. Volunteering. Working as a junior high teacher, especially, is time heavy. And it is always hard to find the balance between family and writing. There are definitely days that I struggle to balance everything and when things are dropped. There are days when I am overwhelmed by everything I need and want to get done. I have had to cut back on the time I spend volunteering (a lot) to focus on other things that are important for me – and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what is most important.
I try to have discipline and write when the opportunity presents itself – late at night or for an hour while I’m waiting for one my kids. And I’ve learned to accept the fact that I’m can’t be all things to all people all of the time, that balls will be dropped, and to try to be a little easier on myself when that happens.
Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?
I have never felt the urge to give up writing – it is something I want desperately to do – but I have definitely felt despair that I will ever find time to do it. Looking for time to squeeze in even a hundred words, even one sentence, when there is truly no time to write helps reassure me and keeps me on track. I try to write everyday even if it is just that one sentence. And, again, I try to be easy on myself and stay positive when there are days or weeks or even a month when it seems impossible to find time to write another word.
How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?
Positive! Right now I am in that place of trying to find balance and time. As a teacher with three children in middle school and one starting university I feel slammed by September. But connecting with my writing group, attending a writing festival this month (the Winnipeg International Writer’s Festival), even this interview(!) helped me continue to feel motivated. Connection to the writing community feeds my motivation and makes me hopeful that I can do this thing. I’m sitting down most nights right now around 9:30 p.m. and writing for an hour or so or, again, whenever the opportunity presents itself in a busy day.
What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your book(s)?
I have loved meeting people – writers, festival organizers and volunteers, and especially readers. It is such a wonderful thing that I’ve connected to people without knowing them, without ever speaking to them. It is the most surreal and lovely feeling to have a complete strange start talking to you about how they feel about your characters, how they know them. It’s really a beautiful thing to have created a fictional person, just with words, that a faraway person you’ve never met has a relationship with. I’ve created these bridges to people I might never have known, or might never know.
Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?
I am a huge believer in walking. Whenever I am stuck I put on my sneakers and head out onto the East Coast Trail or into the woods around my home. Getting my feet moving makes my brain move to. I love being alone with the ocean or with the trees and imagining my characters and my story in a way that’s more free and loose than sitting down with my writing book.
What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?
My favourite book about writing is one I read years ago and which made a huge impression on me before I was out in the world as a writer – it’s Natalie Goldberg’s “Wild Mind: Living the Writing Life.” It has a lovely, encouraging tone, it’s insightful and warm, and it’s full of great writing advice and writing exercises for when you get stuck. I also love Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” for it’s insight and straightforwardness.
Who do you consider your mentor(s)?
Lisa Moore. Lisa was the intrepid leader of that class that birthed the Port Authority. She was my thesis supervisor and was first eyes on “The Luminous Sea.” She is a brilliant writer – her writing is muscular and vivid, her sentences beautiful. Even more than that, she is a person who is completely generous of spirit and is so giving of her knowledge and of her time. And the Port Authority themselves. They are honest, fierce, and smart.
What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?
I am working on a new novel! I think it has passed the stage of being an infant novel. It feels like it might be a five-year old right now. It hasn’t fully matured yet but it’s beginning to come into itself. Right now it’s mostly a collection of unrelated scenes that will hopefully soon coalesce into something more clear and definite.
What advice would you have for writers who do really want to finish a book but just haven’t been able to get there yet?
Don’t give up. It’s going to be hard. Writing has been blood, sweat, and tears for me. It has meant guilt at being pulled in many directions, especially when I’ve felt that I don’t have enough to give everything that demands my attention. But keep going. There is a reason you’re called to be a writer: because you something to say, because you have something to contribute to the world, because you going to make the world more beautiful through your art. Keep going. Be disciplined. And remember to treat yourself with compassion.