Writing Coach Interview: Susanne Barrett

Brave Writer Coach: Susanne Barrett

Continuing our series of interviews with our marvelous writing instructors, here’s the latest installment: an interview with Susanne Barrett!

In the wee small hours, Susanne scribbles away, writing blog posts, poems, journal entries, story ideas, to-do lists, academic studies, etc. A former bookseller, she delights in collecting quirky quotations, dip pens and ink bottles, empty journals to fill, antiquarian books, and just about anything related to Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and jolly ol’ England. The most intriguing classes she taught at university include World Lit I (Epic of Gilgamesh through Canterbury Tales) and guest lectures on Medieval Women Writers and Shakespeare’s Henry V. In her 21st and final year of home educating her four “kids” from K-12, Susanne hopes to have more time for writing by candlelight and for reading many, many books.

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What kind of a writer were you in high school?
In high school, I mostly wrote poetry. I discovered the joys of reading and writing poetry due to my tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Sebastian. My favorite poems remain the ones he recited from memory for us: “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” by Poe, “Birches” by Frost, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot (and yes, he recited the whole thing!), “in Just—“ by e. e. cummings, and too many Emily Dickinson poems to count. Mr. Sebastian also taught an elective class in creative writing, and there I learned to write poetry—mostly free verse heavily influenced by Dickinson—no surprise there! In fact, many of the poetry forms I teach in the Playing with Poetry Workshop I first learned in Mr. Sebastian’s class.

You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What color would you be and why?
Hmmm. Sapphire, I think. Midnight Blue was my favorite color in the old 64-Crayola box, but it was a wee bit too dark. Sapphire makes me happy—such a deep, rich, mysterious color.

What is one of your favorite classroom moments?
(As a teacher or student? At Brave Writer or anywhere?) Well, I wouldn’t say it was my favorite, but my most memorable classroom moment was when I was teaching Writing 116 (the MLA Research Essay) at PLNU, and the new English Department chairperson came in to observe my teaching. I was horribly morning-sick with our second child, and this class started at 7:30 AM. I managed to teach despite severe nausea, and my class was soooo wonderful; they knew how sick I was feeling (and why), and they kept the discussions flowing beautifully. As soon as the department chair left, I rushed out and vomited spectacularly into the trash can outside the classroom door…in full sight of and to the applause of my entire class. I was red-faced for a week…and the department chair teased me about it for years. ☺

What inspires you?
Truly beautiful writing. Truly gorgeous landscapes. The music of the wind in the treetops. Candlelight, dip pens, bottled ink, and a blank journal page. The scent of old books and notes written in the margins by previous owners of said old books.

What are you known for?
Red hair, freckles, and glasses. Spouting Shakespeare and poetry. Editing everything I see—articles, advertisements, billboards–you name it; I edit it. Quoting Holy Grail, Princess Bride, Pirates of Penzance, Much Ado About Nothing, and Ferris Bueller in ordinary conversation.

What do you work toward in your free time?
Free time? What’s that?

I usually read books in the genre in which I desire to write—which is Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF). I’ve read hundreds of books in this genre and have become active on several JAFF sites and blogs. I’ve started a couple of stories, but I haven’t had time to develop them yet. Writing—in my journal, on my blog (yes, eleven years of blogging and still ticking!), or working on poems or fiction—this is my favorite way to spend free time. Besides reading, of course. After working as a bookseller on and off for ten years, I have developed quite the library and many groaning bookshelves.

What would your autobiography be called?
The Bookish Theoric (a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello)

If you were an animated character, who would you be and why?
Hmm. Probably Wendy from Peter Pan. When I was little, I admired her perfect ringlets and her amazing storytelling abilities.

Which superpower would you like to have? What is a superpower you already have?
I would love to be able to function on two hours of sleep—then I could do so many things I enjoy doing. My family claims I already have “the editing eye”—I can spot grammar errors anywhere and everywhere.

Where would you go in a time machine?
I would meet the Brontë family in Victorian England and spend an afternoon chatting with them at their parsonage in West Yorkshire. They were so brilliant—three sister writers and a brother artist/poet, plus a wise father/pastor.

If you could be Batman or Robin, which one would you be?
Neither. I don’t particularly like either one. Could I be Wonder Woman instead? Pretty please? (My husband suggested that I should be Spider-Woman as our home is very nicely webbed since I haven’t dusted my bookshelves for quite a while. I tried to call it “decorating for Hallowe’en,” but that didn’t go over too well….)

If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be and why?
I would like to be a Pippin apple tree. The blossoms are so gorgeous in the spring, and the apples in the fall are perfect: smallish, slightly tart, and perfect for baking and making applesauce. Ideally I could be both beautiful and useful. 😉

What do you think of garden gnomes?
They’re cute…in other people’s gardens. I would prefer a crumbling angel or a Saint Francis statue; my grandmother and mother always insisted that the garden couldn’t grow unless Saint Francis was ensconced in a corner flowerbed, apparently a long-held family tradition.

If you could be any character in fiction, who would you be?
Jane Eyre. Easiest question here. I love her quiet strength as she stands up stubbornly for what she believes in. Her thirst for learning when young, her desire to serve others, her curiosity and intelligence, her unobtrusive talents in art and teaching, and her strength of character—all of these qualities drew me to her the first time I read Jane Eyre. (However, because of my red—um, auburn hair and freckles, I have often been compared to Anne of Green Gables…but I haven’t her spunk. I’m more of a Diana than an Anne.)

What would the name of your debut album be?
There wouldn’t be one. I can’t sing, and I can only plink and plunk on the piano. It would be a sorry effort, indeed. I adore music, but I can’t produce it.

What’s your favorite smell? What memory does it remind you of?
I love the rich smell of fresh plums which remind me of picking fruit from gnarled trees for my grandmother and watching her make her famous plum jelly. Aaaah, the pride in seeing jar after jar of palest-pink jelly on the pantry shelf. I also love the slightly spicy scent of Cécile Brünner climbing roses—roses that my great-grandmother grew in her little city garden.

What was your favorite toy growing up?
My stuffed Camel-with the Wrinkled-Knees from the Raggedy Ann and Andy books. He was blue with printed patches, and I promptly named him “Camelot.” He (with my help, of course) used to type extremely insulting letters on my mother’s college typewriter to my brother’s stuffed blue poodle, Pierre. I saved much of their correspondence and keep their badly-spelt letters upstairs in my heirloom box.

What’s the one food you could never bring yourself to eat?
Salmon. Disgusting stuff. <shiver!>

Cake or pie?
Cake, of course!! I adore every kind of cake except for pineapple-upside-down and German chocolate. My favorite is still yellow cake with chocolate frosting which was my brother’s and my birthday cake every year. (He was born on my third birthday.)

If you don’t know the words to a song, do you improvise?
But of course!! And most creatively, might I add. I sing along to songs on the radio all of the time despite my poor family cringing in agony.

When you were little, what did you want to be?
I knew as early as fourth grade that I wanted to be a teacher. Before that, I wanted to be Aurora from Sleeping Beauty or a ballerina. (I did take ballet, jazz, and tap classes and fell in love with tap; I wasn’t nearly flexible enough for ballet!)

What book on your shelf is begging to be read?
Far too many!! But the one that I’ve really wanted to read and haven’t had the time is The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. (Yes, I’m a closet medievalist. My Master of Arts degree in Medieval Lit is soooo marketable these days, LOL!)

Tell us about your fan fiction writing. How did it get started?
My daughter read the Twilight series when she was a young teen and persuaded me to read them, too; I also took her to the premiere of all five films. However, while I loved the characters, I hated the plot of the Twilight saga, so I when I first came across Twilight fan fiction, I read it voraciously as the vast majority of what I read was soooooo much stronger and more interesting than the original books. Then in November 2010, I got an idea for a writing a fan fiction story between the first two books, and it became somewhat popular on Wattpad where I posted it. Then a few months later I thought of a totally different plot for Twilight which started with a vision of Bella curled up on a threadbare mattress in a small, dark room. I started writing and ended up with sixty chapters and nearly 250,000 words—I had jammed all four Twilight books into a single volume with a very different plot. It’s quite popular with over 2 ½ million reads on Wattpad and FanFiction.net. Currently I’ve switched over to reading, editing, and hopefully writing Jane Austen Fan Fiction.

What’s something you’d like us to know about reading Shakespeare?
Always, always, always read Shakespeare out loud!! My high school Shakespeare teacher had spent her college summers traveling in a Shakespearean acting troupe up and down the Eastern seaboard, and she always “cast” the plays we were to read aloud in class, saving the best roles for herself. (And Mrs. Jordan made a mighty fine Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew, I can tell you!) And be sure to attend live Shakespeare performances of decent quality. (A very long, very badly done university production of Romeo & Juliet turned me off that play forever! My brother was chanting “Die, Juliet, die!” as soon as the fifth act started.)

If live performances aren’t available or in one’s budget, then check out some great film performances from the library; I especially recommend the 2009 Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart and the 1993 Much Ado about Nothing with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (but please preview the latter—there are some adult-type glimpses here and there).

Shakespeare is meant to be seen and heard, not merely read from a book. However, if a Shakespeare play needs to be read, then read it aloud in a family/group or at least read along with an audio version; Librivox has free audio versions of most of Shakespeare’s plays—and not only is there a Librivox phone app; there is also an All-Shakespeare Librivox phone app! In addition, most libraries have excellent audio versions on CD available (Arkangel productions are usually amazing!). And HAVE FUN!! ☺ Shakespeare is meant to be enjoyed; reading his work is not a chore merely to be survived.

Susanne’s Brave Writer Classes:

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