A Moment with Rebecca Barnhouse

Dr. Rebecca Barnhouse first read Beowulf in Old English at the University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill where she earned her doctorate studying Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and medieval literature written in Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and other fascinating languages. She currently teaches in the English Department at Youngstown State University, where she was named Distinguished Professor in Teaching and was as well awarded the Northeast Ohio Council Award for Teaching Excellence, and she writes about medieval topics and about children’s literature set in the middle ages.

Her first novel, The Book of the Maidservant, was released by Random House. In her second novel, The Coming of the Dragon, Barnhouse weaves Norse gods, blood feuds, and a terrifying dragon into a spectacular retelling of Beowulf.

Rebecca Barnhouse’s forthcoming novel is entitled “Peaceweaver.”  You can read an exclusive look at her first chapter here.  Please note that this text is not final, and is the copywritten property of Rebecca Barnhouse.  Peaceweaver is being published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

An Interview with Rebecca Barnhouse

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Chris: Hi. This is Chris Lettera here for Jenny speaking with Dr. Rebecca Barnhouse. Barnhouse first read Beowulf in Old English at the University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill where she earned her doctorate studying Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and medieval literature written in Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and other fascinating languages. She currently teaches in the English Department at Youngstown State University, where she was named Distinguished Professor in Teaching and was as well awarded the Northeast Ohio Council Award for Teaching Excellence, and she writes about medieval topics and about children’s literature set in the middle ages. Her first novel, The Book of the Maidservant, was released by Random House. In her second novel, The Coming of the Dragon, Barnhouse weaves Norse gods, blood feuds, and a terrifying dragon into a spectacular retelling of Beowulf.Thanks for being here today, Dr. Barnhouse. At what point did Medieval studies really strike you and really become relevant to you? In what moment did you first perceive that as an active interest and a means of fascination?

Rebecca: Well, medieval studies were always interesting to me but I never thought of them as something you could actually go study and get a degree in until I was in graduate school and I went to Chapel Hill specifically because you can get a Master’s degree where you didn’t have to specialize. And I didn’t want to. But, you did have to write a thesis, and so I wrote my thesis on Old English and Old Norse, comparing two poems. Then, while I was in graduate school, I saw these other students getting to study manuscripts, and they had facsimiles of manuscripts that they were transcribing. They were doing this for credit! This is stuff I would do for fun, and it became apparent to me that this was something that I could do at Chapel Hill and that I really wanted to do. And so I did.

Chris: With regards to your two novels, The Book of the Maidservant and The Coming of the Dragon, I’ve spoken with a lot of students here at YSU about the distinction between research-based writing and creative writing, and how authors and scholars make use of or house multiple voices within themselves in the sense that you’re going to approach the writing of an article in a medieval studies journal differently than you would approach the writing of a short story in just a general fiction workshop. Both of the novels that you’ve published so far are pieces that have required research. How did you maintain or negotiate your creative self during the writing process? It seems like it would be sort of a stop-go affair, as in something strikes you as to where to take the narrative next, and then you have to pause and research, go to the library, hit a database, so on and so forth . . .

Rebecca: Well, I actually . . . you know, they have a lot of similarities for me, because for both I do research. And so, I take notes for one topic, you know – for a scholarly topic, and then at the same time, I’m using the same source sometimes to take notes or get ideas for a creative topic. I don’t do the writing at the same time, but very frequently the research will overlap. Sometimes it’ll mean that I just get an inspiration or idea that I’ll jot down for something that I want to pursue in fiction that I won’t get to later. When I’m actually writing, I can’t . . . I don’t do a good job of writing them at the same time. That “stop-go” metaphor you used, it works for me that’s . . . you know, I’ll maybe write for a few days on one topic, and when I get stuck or frustrated, I’ll switch to a different topic. But they’re very much related in ways that surprise me. Sometimes when I’m putting a class together, that will give me ideas for teaching or for scholarly kind of work. So, they all kind of meld together.

Chris: That’s interesting. So, it’s sort of . . . it blends really well then. In looking at both of your novels, a lot of us in SLAA (Student Literary Arts Association), we immediately – because they were young adult lit – began thinking about current trends in YA. Immediately, a knee-jerk reaction – we thought specifically of this focus on teenage melodrama, and particularly the whole Twilight phenomenon. How do you account for this sudden interest in what we would call commercial YA. What is the appeal? Why is something like Twilight popular right now?

Rebecca: Keep in mind that Harry Potter was read by adults and kids at the same time, and so much so that publishers finally asked the NewYork Times Book Review to divide its bestseller list up so that Harry Potter did not dominate the entire bestseller list. They now have a children’s bestseller list as opposed to an adult bestseller list, which has now just been divided again into an e-book bestseller list. But, back to your question . . . Twilight is sort of an interesting case, I think, because its values are very conservative traditional values, particularly gender values, that girls basically exist to make boys happy. And a girl is happiest when her boy is happy. If he happens to be a sparkly vampire, you know, that doesn’t really matter (laughs). But . . .

Chris: As long as he has abs.

Rebecca: That’s right! Abs and, well, the sparkly skin, I think that’s important too (laughs). But, there’s a huge focus on paranormal, but not just in young adult lit. That’s true on the adult bestseller list too. The Sookie Stackhouse novels, for example. Charlaine Harris, I think the author is . . .

Chris: The True Blood series, yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah. So, in young adult lit right now, vampires are being pushed out by dystopia, which is taking over, which . . . I don’t know enough about it and why it’s popular right now. But that whole . . . I wonder if that whole sort of conservative push that the country has taken, this whole “values” focus, you know, if that is maybe related to some of the reason why people are drawn to something like Twilight. But like Harry Potter, Twilight is not read just by kids by any means. There are people of all ages reading those books. So, it’s a weird thing. What was your question? I forget?

Chris: Well, I wanna come back to this, but I wanna take it in a slightly different direction. You teach courses in young adult lit here at YSU. And I’m thinking, you know, outside of the university setting . . . I’m wondering how many readers do you know who go to the bookstore, say Barnes and Noble or wherever, and they just shop actively in the young adult section. And also, how can the average reader benefit from reading YA, as opposed to – or even alongside – you know, whatever is currently popular adult literature.

Rebecca: Well, I’m glad that you say “alongside,” cause I think that’s really important. I know, for example, plenty of people who . . . plenty of adults who read, you know, Pulitzer Prize winning novels, Nobel winning novels, just as a matter of course, who also read young adult literature as a matter of course, and who will go into the bookstore and go to that section as well as go to other sections. I think it’s important to remember that just like fiction written for adults has many genres and many different kinds of quality and appeals to different people for different reasons, so does young adult literature. And I think a lot of times adult readers who do not read young adult literature and who don’t know very much about it put it all together in one category, and they don’t realize that actually there is some very fine, very literary young adult fiction, and then there’s, you know, very commercial young adult fiction at the same time. And the commercial fiction tends to be the stuff they see, because – guess what? – it’s commercial, and so it’s in Barnes and Noble. The only time they see the literary stuff is the middle grade fiction that is in the Newberry winning category that you find at Barnes and Noble, but other than that, they don’t tend to necessarily see it or be aware of it.

Chris: I like that you mention the Newberry Award because I feel like particularly in YA, there’s such . . . I mean, marketing seems to play a much larger role in the sense that if you go to Barnes and Noble and you see the shiny silver medal, you know, with the rippled edges . . . well, “Oh! This is a YA book that adults can read.” Sort of going back to the previous question, what distinction do you make between commercial young adult literature and literary young adult literature?

Rebecca: That’s a really hard question. I mean, there’s some stuff that you can definitely say “That’s literary,” and some stuff that you can say “That’s commercial.” But the editor is always looking for a literary novel with commercial appeal and that’s harder to find. You can definitely find some commercial YA that is in, for example, series. They get published quickly, they come out a couple of times a year so that they keep the market, so that they keep the kids interested before they “age out.” That’s something that adult publishers don’t have to worry about, about kids aging out of these books. But then again, if you get somebody hooked on, you know, The Gossip Girls, or The A List, or these kinds of very commercial products that in fact, use products . . .

Chris: Goosebumps?

Rebecca: Well, Goosebumps is much younger. I’m talking about for older kids, the ones that are published for, you know . . . Goosebumps might be read by 8-10 year olds, and then there are young adult books that are considered . . . they’re published for 12-18 year olds, but they’re read by younger kids, you know? And they focus on seventeen year olds, or eighteen year olds in the city who live very luxurious lives and who have access to a lot of brand name items that are associated with wealth and luxury. Those are very commercial, very popular . . . and they don’t even pretend to be literary. There’s no pretense at all.

Chris: They’re probably very pleasing for anyone, you know . . . it’s almost a fantasy element, particularly when you’re looking at . . . I mean, I can think of a lot of YA where the characters are particularly young people who have a lot at their disposal, or a lot of means and a lot of money and comfort. You know, something you mentioned earlier . . . the whole . . . that just strikes me, that idea of an e-book bestseller list. That’s still very odd to me, and I remember being in one of your classes – I think it was History of the English Language – where we were talking about the distinction between print and e-book. How do you feel about that as someone who has studied the written word across a wide span of time? How do you feel about e-books? Do they have an adverse effect? Are they good? Are they bad? Are you aggressively pro-print? (laughs).

Rebecca: Well, I’m still a print reader, but I don’t think there’s any good or bad. I don’t think there’s any moral value attached to them. We have an emotional value attached to them based on what we like, but it’s a change in technology in the same way that we went from manuscript to print in the 15th century, and people resisted that, and the early printed books look as much like manuscript books as they possibly can in the same way that a Kindle tries to look like a printed book. You know, it even . . . the size of it, and exactly how you turn the pages . . . they’re all looking at, “What is the effect of a printed book? And how can we make it look as much like that as we can so it will appeal to people?” I think that we’ll probably get past that later on after we get really comfortable with e-books, which I think is happening very, very quickly . . . you know, the statistics showing sales on e-books . . . wow. They show that these things are really, really taking off. I don’t think that printed books are going to go completely out of existence any time soon. I think the two will exist side by side just the way manuscripts existed side by side with printed books for a very long time. But, I think it’s a change that we just have to accept or embrace or . . . just know that it’s happening and watch how it’s happening. But, I was talking to Virginia Duncan, the editor of Greenwill books, when she was here for the English Festival, and she talked about how picture books are, you know . . . right now, a printed picture book has to be thrity-two pages because of the print process, but with e-books, there’s no longer any reason to do that. You can have, as she said – shocking! – a thirty-three page picture book, which you simply cannot have – you physically can’t have it – in a printed book because of the printing process. But, in e-books, you can have anything you want, and it allows huge freedom for artists. It allows all kinds of things that people just never associated with books before to happen. So, in that way, it’s really exciting.

Chris: It has been for Jenny, too, because at least as a start-up we haven’t had the means with our first two issues to go print right out of the gate, and this has given us a great amount of freedom in terms of reaching an audience and also just being able to publish it at all really, as opposed to generating costs for a print edition. That’s very reassuring. So, until we get USB ports behind our ears or in our knuckles or something, then we’re ok for now. You mentioned the English Fest here at Youngstown State University. Can you explain what the English Fest is for someone who hasn’t attended or isn’t aware of it?

Rebecca: Sure. It’s a festival of reading that is for kids in grades seven through nine and ten through twelve. We have two days where seventh through ninth graders attend, and one day where tenth through twelfth graders attend. And we have about a thousand kids attending each day. In order to come, they have to have read – or, they’re supposed to have read – seven books, and that list gets put together over the summer by the English Festival committee, which is made up mostly of YSU professors and staff members. We read a whole bunch of books and put together a list. We invite an author every year and usually another speaker and kids get to come hear those speakers. They get to participate in all kinds of writing and reading contests while they’re here. They also get to participate in several contests ahead of time. There’s a writing contest, an art contest, a music contest . . . and all of this is done because thirty-three years ago this started because two English professors wanted to honor the memory of their daughter who died of leukemia at age thirteen. Candace Gay. And so, they put together this festival to honor her and it’s still going strong.

Chris: Great. Yes. Before we spoke here today, I talked to a lot of people in the area and here in the area who remember going to the English Fest and I remember going. But I also remember high school and middle school as a really rich period of time in my own writing, a time when I was probably doing more creative writing than I am now. Some of that has to do with time constraints, and work and other responsibilities, and general pessimism about the world as we know it, but I’m wondering, especially now . . . Jenny has a partnership with SMARTS (Students Motivated by the Arts) where we’re working with the Boys and Girls Club and all of us who have been there have been continually refreshed by the sense of freedom and the joy with which young writers, really of any age – up to eighteen, even, high school age – approach the blank page. Based on your experience in writing YA and working at the English Festival, what can we learn from young writers.

Rebecca: Wow. That’s a hard question. I have no idea what we can learn from young writers! You know, the ones . . . the young writers you see at the English Festival are writing according to prompts that adults had given them. We don’t give them a whole lot of freedom. And part of that is simply the constraints of . . . we’re judging these contests and we have to have a mechanism by which to do that. We don’t, for example, have a creative writing contest, except in poetry. We don’t have any fiction writing contests, which we need to do something about. So, we’ll get the SLAA people to work on that . . .

Chris: Oh, we’ll get on that.

Rebecca: Ok! But, it’s kind of interesting . . . there have been a whole bunch of young adult novels published by young writers, and I mean very young writers. You know, if they’re fourteen when it gets published and it takes about a year for something to get published, well, they’re thirteen or twelve when they are writing these novels. And what kind of strikes me about them is how derivative they are of what’s out there that’s being written by adults. Instead of taking something totally new . . . but I also think that’s because that’s how publishing works. If a thirteen year old were to go to a publishing house or an agent with something that didn’t look at all like what was being published but said, “You know, this is what my friends and I like to read.” The publishers wouldn’t have any way to really judge that, and so the marketing departments would say, “Well, what can we do with this?” So, they would probably turn it down, which is, you know . . . publishing is, in a lot of ways, very conservative. It needs to make money. It’s a business, and so it’s going to look at what’s already sold and sell something very much like that. “The next Harry Potter. The next Twilight . . .” And kids are trying to do the same thing. But, on the other thing, I don’t think there’s any problem with that. That’s how you learn to write a lot of times is by imitation.

Chris: Right, absolutely. By exposure to other storytelling, and by the absorption of that storytelling. Dr. Barnhouse – thank you so much for speaking with us today. To everyone out there – thanks as always for listening. Rebecca Barnhouse’s two novels – The Book of the Maidservant, and The Coming of the Dragon, are available online and in stores now.

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