This month, Genre Chick Alethea Kontis connects with one of her favorite romance authors of all time–Jill Barnett. In this very personal interview, Jill discusses the death of her husband, the adoption of her daughter, and The Days of Summer …all at a very early hour.
Alethea Kontis (8:30am CST): You must be a morning person!
Jill Barnett (6:30am PST): I am. I’m one of those horrible people everyone hates that wakes up humming. I’m most prolific in the morning. I write in the morning–if I can’t write in the morning, it’s a lot more difficult for me to get my pages done. When my daughter was young, it was the one time of day that it was completely quiet. When I’m on a deadline, of course, I usually work straight through, with very little sleep, for maybe three days at a time.
AK: I really enjoyed Days of Summer, but I have to confess I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time. My uncle actually recommended you. He was an incredibly eclectic reader.
JB: My father-in-law was, too. He read everything. I loved that about him. A book to him was a book. It didn’t matter if it was written by a woman or not.
AK: What were your reading tastes like growing up?
JB: I started out like most kids, with Nancy Drew, and worked my way from there. I still remember the first romance that really hooked me–I think I was in seventh grade–it was The Mistress of Mellyn, by Victoria Holt. It was just amazing; it opened a whole world for me. That and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I read that my freshman year of high school, and then you just couldn’t get my nose out of a book.
Of course, I grew up in the beach areas of Southern California, where Days of Summer is set, and I spent most of my spare time on the beach playing volleyball. So I rediscovered reading again in my mid-twenties and didn’t let go of a book after that.
AK: So how did you get into writing?
JB: I was an art major in college the first time around, right before I decided I was going to change the world; after all, it was the 60’s. So I quit school and ended up not changing the world, but getting married a few years later. I went back to college in my mid-thirties to get an accounting degree and headed straight for the humanities. (You just can’t take the humanities out of a girl.) I started working toward my Masters in History. What I wanted to do was write History textbooks–I love history, and the textbooks are so boring. If they were written more like lectures, would more kids be able to fall in love with History like I did?
I was rebelling against TV because they had just taken Soap off the air and replaced it with The Dukes of Hazzard. I was at a garage sale with a friend one Saturday morning, and I picked up a paperback book: Moonstruck Madness by Laurie McBain. I was reading thick and heavy stuff for the History Masters, and this was so much fun! So I started reading romance.
My daughter is adopted–which is mentioned in the acknowledgments in Days of Summer–I had lost a couple of babies and I didn’t think I was going to have any children. She was just a wonderful gift. Someone contacted us, and we adopted her independently. I never thought that I would have this.
But I was still in school and trying to be a mother and an executive’s wife–trying to keep house, and get my degree, and be everything to everybody (and not doing everything as well as I could have). I am such a perfectionist, and a bit obsessive. I really am a writer.
It happened when I took my daughter to day care one day to drop her off and I watched her–there was such a sense of joy on her face–and I thought, “Jill, what are you trying to do? You know this is what you’ve always wanted. You know you want to write.” So I quit school and decided that if I hadn’t sold a novel by the time my daughter was in school full-time (I figured about 7 or 8 years old), then I would go back and finish getting my Masters.
I sold my first book almost two years to the day I quit school.
AK: Days of Summer seemed like such a personal book. There were a couple of times when I thought, “My god, this woman is baring her soul to us.”
JB: You write what you know. My favorite writer is Pat Conroy. He writes his life over and over again. Some writers are searching for answers to their own lives in their work. I think, maybe, that is true of me. It is no surprise that I had trouble writing romance after my husband died.
I had this long, happy marriage–26 years–we’d still be married to this day. I was loving writing these historical, funny, poignant fairy tales. I always had something to say in the books, whether it was a romance novel or not. I always had this thing about people having faith in you, and being able to find faith in yourself before you can love someone. I think my heroines were always endearing, mostly because they screwed up so badly. (I didn’t really change that–the people screwed up badly in Days of Summer also.)
Chris died in 1996–I just realized this year it will have been 10 years. Maybe that’s a turning point, I don’t know. But I had lived more of my life with him than without him. I had a daughter who was eleven at the time, and I was scared to death. I woke up one morning, said goodbye to my husband, and that night the policeman came to the door to tell me he was dead. It was a blood clot to the heart. He was 47.
I looked at my daughter and I was so frightened of raising her alone…and of course, being a writer on top of it is just scary. You’re an independent contractor. You never know how your career’s going to go, and it can change on a dime. So I made every decision based on what was best for her, what was best for us together. I didn’t allow myself to do much grieving.
It all makes sense now but I didn’t know it at the time–when my daughter turned 18 and went off to college, I just fell apart. I woke up with grief in the morning, and I went to bed with it at night. I couldn’t write. I was about to transition into hardcover, and my editor approached me and asked me if I wanted to write something else, so I did Sentimental Journey. But in the middle of this book, that’s when the grief hit me. That’s why there hasn’t been a book in four years.
I’m very lucky, I have very good friends–one in particular is Kristin Hannah. I was about as deeply down as I could get, and she dragged me out of the dregs of that fear and that grief. She pulled me up by the hair kicking and screaming and I found that yes, I could write again and yes, I loved it.
The stories I tell now relate to this part of my life, and to women trying to overcome problems. Women out there need to see that they can find the grace to rise above tragedy. They can look at their mistakes and say, “I can move forward. I can find happiness. I can find peace.” Those are the kinds of stories I want to tell.
I also had to change my process. I actually write longhand now. I think part of my problem was that staring at the computer screen wasn’t conducive to being creative. Now I have the freedom to write wherever I want. It’s wonderful! I actually did some research and was stunned at the number of writers who still write longhand.
AK: California was almost a character in and of itself in Days of Summer, but not the glitzy California most people think of. What made you choose that setting?
JB: Hollywood does not a state make. I was born and raised in Southern California, and there were those idyllic beach communities–there still are. Not a lot of people know about Catalina Island. I wanted to show the California that I knew growing up in the 50’s and 60’s.
AK: My other favorite Jill Barnett book is Just A Kiss Away. I had so much fun reading that book. It was the craziest title, had the craziest characters, and it was every romance trope taken to the nth degree. It was ridiculous, and I LOVED it.
JB: That was a fun story. When I realized I was going to do a dumb blond in the jungle with a mercenary soldier the idea actually came to me all from a line of dialogue that popped into my head one day when I was brushing my teeth. The rest of the story came right behind it. It was the craziest thing. Some people even said, “Nobody will like this girl. She’s unsympathetic.” But I convinced them to let me do it anyway. My publisher is in the process of repackaging and reissuing it, so look for it to be available again soon!