Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A visit with Barbara O'Neal, author of How to Bake a Perfect Life

By Julie

I’ll never forget the first time I sat down to read a novel by Barbara O’Neal. I can’t remember where I got it – from the library? From a used bookstore? But I was glued to it. I couldn’t put it down. I laughed, cried, and was absolutely in awe of the writing in what appeared, from the cover, to be an average women’s fiction novel. But No Place Like Home (written as Barbara Samuel) was anything but average and will stay on that list of books I’ll remember for a long, long time. I still get choked up remembering two scenes in particular in vivid detail, because she’s that good. I found as many of Barbara’s other novels as I could and read them quickly, then eagerly awaited each new release.

Three years ago, Barbara debuted with a new name, and though her backlist is rich with details about food as well, her last three novels take food and its significance in relationships and family life to a new level. I dare you to read her latest release, How to Bake a Perfect Life, without getting the itch to follow one of the recipes posted inside while at the same time losing yourself in this lovely story.

About How to Bake a Perfect Life, from Random House: In a novel as warm and embracing as a family kitchen, Barbara O’Neal explores the poignant, sometimes complex relationships between mothers and daughters—and the healing magic of homemade bread.

Professional baker Ramona Gallagher is a master of an art that has sustained her through the most turbulent times, including a baby at fifteen and an endless family feud. But now Ramona’s bakery threatens to crumble around her. Literally. She’s one water-heater disaster away from losing her grandmother’s rambling Victorian and everything she’s worked so hard to build.

When Ramona’s soldier son-in-law is wounded in Afghanistan, her daughter, Sophia, races overseas to be at his side, leaving Ramona as the only suitable guardian for Sophia’s thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, Katie. Heartbroken, Katie feels that she’s being dumped again—this time on the doorstep of a woman out of practice with mothering.

Ramona relies upon a special set of tools—patience, persistence, and the reliability of a good recipe—when rebellious Katie arrives. And as she relives her own history of difficult choices, Ramona shares her love of baking with the troubled girl. Slowly, Katie begins to find self-acceptance and a place to call home. And when a man from her past returns to offer a second chance at love, Ramona discovers that even the best recipe tastes better when you add time, care, and a few secret ingredients of your own.

About Barbara O’Neal:
Barbara O’Neal fell in love with food and restaurants at the age of fifteen, when she landed a job in a Greek café and served baklava for the first time. She sold her first novel in her twenties, and has since won a plethora of awards, including two Colorado Book Awards and six prestigous RITAs, including one for THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS in 2010. Her novels have been published widely in Europe and Australia, and she travels internationally, presenting workshops, hiking hundreds of miles, and of course, eating. She lives with her partner, a British endurance athlete, and their collection of cats and dogs, in Colorado Springs.
And now for a conversation with Barbara!

Julie: Interviews are one of my favorite parts about participating in the What Women Write blog. I love these conversations, especially with authors who have been on my list of favorites for years and have had a direct, profound influence on my own writing. Barbara is one such author. Having taken several small, intimate online classes from her, where I not only developed as a writer, but made some lifelong friends, I feel like this is a conversation with a friend I haven’t talked to in a while. (Facebook doesn’t count!) And so … what do you ask a friend when you haven’t seen them in a while? Duh. So, Barbara, what have you been up to lately?

Barbara: You know, I’ve been enjoying myself! 2010 was quite a year, including a trip to England and Spain, walking and walking. I rode trains across Europe by myself and navigated tubes and Metros and train stations without any great mishaps, which made me feel brave, A Woman Having Adventures. I have also been writing, of course, because that’s what I do, every day. The past couple of months, I’ve been doing research for the new book, set in a community garden.

Julie: Oh, I’m going to love that. My son and his girl are deeply involved in community and school gardens where they live.

If I were forced to name one thing about Barbara O’Neal that never lets me down any time I pick up one of your novels (because there are so many things!), it would be that thing we aspiring authors are always trying to chase down: Voice. You do a fantastic job in your online classes helping writers attempt to get a handle on this elusive element. How did you begin to recognize your own voice in your writing? And what’s all this stuff about the Girls in the Basement?

Barbara: Thanks for that! I don’t know that I was aware of my voice, particularly, for a long time, but I began to see that I seem to return to certain themes, settings, and characters, over and over, as we all do. My themes tend to revolve around family dynamics, women as sisters and friends, and how each of us handle the traumas in our lives. I am a native of Colorado, so it’s not surprising that my work is nearly always set in the West, against the mountains and deep skies that are the backdrop of my life. I noticed that the books that seemed to please both readers and writers the most were books that were very personal in some way—and that, of course, is what your voice is: you, all the things that make you who you are.

The Girls in the Basement is taken from the Stephen King book On Writing, where he describes his muses as a bunch of guys in the basement, hammering and nailing and doing mysterious things, then handing him some pages. The image grabbed me and I ended up writing a column for Novelist’s Inc, an organization of published commercial writers, for several years. It was about nurturing your creativity and recognizing that you can’t be a whole, healthy writer without taking care of your inner child, the teenager who creates.

Julie: Speaking of teenagers … You grew up in the restaurant business and food has played a major character in so many of your stories. Would you be willing to share a favorite “shop story” from your years growing up and working in and around restaurants?

Barbara: I wanted a job in a particular restaurant in the worst way—Michelle’s, in Colorado Springs. It was an European-style café, with pastries and ice cream and sandwiches and elegant little drinks, and had once been written up in Life Magazine. The reason I wanted to work there was not for any of those things, however, but for the hats the waitresses wore (we were still waitresses back then). The hats were blue or red velvet, trimmed with gold braid, and I thought they were so incredibly beautiful. I had Rapunzel hair at the time, and tucking it up beneath that hat made me feel like a medieval girl. Putting it on, I was 12x more beautiful than I was any other time. It was an enchanted hat, I know it was.

Julie: Picturing that makes me smile! And speaking of food as a character, Bread gets a capital B in HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE. I know you put a lot of time, energy, and ingredients into getting the recipes posted in your novels just right. I know you also place a lot of value in letting things beyond your own mind guide you as you write. Can you share a moment that enchanted you while experimenting with bread baking as research for this novel?

Barbara: When I took the pain au chocolat out of the oven and put it on the counter, I could hear hosannas. The pastry has to be rolled with a huge amount of butter, then chilled, and rolled, and chilled and folded and rolled. The ingredients are so simple: flour, water, salt, butter, chocolate, and the result is astonishing. It was all I could do to let them cool long enough that I wouldn’t burn my tongue on the chocolate. (There is a recipe in the book for very simple pain au chocolat using frozen dough that is very good.)

Julie: In the midst of reading HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE, I got such a strong hankering for pain au chocolat, I melted some semi-sweet chocolate chips on a roll (as I was taught to do in French class in junior high) because it was all I had in the house. It was good, but probably not as good as your recipe, which I still intend to make very, very soon.

In my own stories, I love experimenting with voices and point-of-view characters who aren’t like me. (It makes life so much more interesting!) I always completely fall for your characters, Barbara. This is a question you’ll see in many of the interviews I conduct for What Women Write because I am fascinated with how each unique author conducts this process. In this novel, you get into the mind and soul of Katie, a teenage girl who has basically been abandoned by her meth-addicted mom, and you explore what happens to an entire family when Oscar, a badly burned and injured Afghan war soldier returns stateside. And these are but a few of a cast of unique and richly embodied characters. How do you get into those voices that aren’t really “like” you or empathize with a character and describe a situation so foreign to your own experience?

Barbara: This is one of the best parts of writing to me, that something can take over and let me walk in another person’s shoes, walk around the world as somebody else. The process is pretty straightforward for me. I do a ton of research and then I put on their personality and life much the same way an actor would. I’m definitely a “method writer”, and immerse very deeply into the characters in each book. I have to know each character extremely well—I feel I should be able to order food in a restaurant as they would; I should be able to shop for their clothes and know what their favorite movies are and if they sleep well or not well. Everything. I think most writers do this in some way, and that’s why writing is so tiring—we are not just putting words on a page; we’re living all those other lives. Katie touched me deeply. Her story is sad in many ways, but she’s also mighty and willing to fight for herself, which I loved.

Julie: Yes, Katie is mighty. As a mother of a 13 year old, I absolutely love that!

Anyone who has read your blog over the years or spent much time researching you as an author knows you use some pretty unique methods for planning out a novel. Would you share about some of these and why they work for you?

Barbara: I never think of my methods as particularly unusual, but it is pretty organic. I feel like the girls in the basement hand me up a basket of stuff at the start of a book and there might be one thing I recognize—oh, a book about sourdough? That’s a great idea! I love sourdough! —and then I have to figure out from there what it’s all about. At the start, I try to stick with a lot of play: if I were to write a book about bread, what might it be about? Rising dough makes me think of a pregnant belly, and dough feels like a baby butt, so maybe it’s about mothers and children. I will collage through the first stages, which is less about the actual collage and what pictures are on it than it is about giving my right brain plenty of room to discover what the book is about, what images we’re working with, what themes, even what colors. I know a book is going to gel when I know the colors.

And I guess that does all sound slightly strange, doesn’t it? But I also use pretty standard techniques like first person bios and plotting tools like the 9-step female journey as presented by Victoria Lynn Schmidt in 45 Master Characters. I am also very attached to giant Post It notes that I stick to the walls and doors in my office.

Julie: Well, your stories are far from ordinary, and I know for a fact (having received some of it myself over the years as I’ve taken classes with you) that you have some advice about writing that isn't run-of-the-mill, either. What one tidbit would you like to share with our readers who are also aspiring authors today?

Barbara: The main thing is to be yourself. Give yourself permission to write a story you’d really love to read, and listen to it reveal itself to you. Therein lies your great work.

Julie: Thank you so much for that, Barbara, and thanks for being our guest today at What Women Write! I can’t recommend your books—those written as Barbara O’Neal as well as your backlist written as Barbara Samuel or Ruth Wind, highly enough to our readers!

Start with HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE, available now at all major booksellers (and currently a Target Pick!), and work your way backwards—you won’t be disappointed. And while you’re at it, stock up on aprons, pot holders, and ingredients. I guarantee even the most hesitant cook will find herself strangely moved to fire up the oven! (And probably a pallet of tissues, too. Fair warning!)


  1. Very interesting! Thanks :)

  2. Julie - Thank you! You captured my feelings exactly in your intro...I discovered Barbara a few years ago when I picked up a library CD of Lady Luck's Map of Vegas. Proceeded to read or listen to every one of her books I could find - & to tell many others about her mesmerizing stories. I read many genres, love to cook & bake...and to write. Knowing Barbara & her work has enriched my life (we tend to see each other in interesting locales or on FB)...even if my pomegranate baklava doesn't come close to hers!

  3. Isabelle, thanks for reading!

    Cheryl, I'm glad you found the interview and enjoyed it. Barbara's an inspiration for sure!

  4. Cindy Keeling24 March, 2011

    Great post! I just finished "How to Bake a Perfect Life," and enjoyed it very much. "No Place Like Home" was also my first introduction to Barbara's writing. I cried the entire last third of the book. ha! She definitely pulls the heartstrings.

  5. Thank you, Cindy. I was the same way and I'm not much of a crier when reading. I sobbed, I'm pretty sure. :) Glad you found the interview.

  6. Wonderful!!! Thank you for posting this. She is an amazing author, so inspiring! I just picked up A lost recipe for happiness and can not put it down. She is just the kind of writer I crave but rarely read. Thank you for all of your efforts to high light authors like her. She gives me hope! Now... back to my own writing! Thanks again. Ali


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