Carole Barrowman is a prolific author, professor, columnist, and one-half of the creative team for the Hollow Earth trilogy, which I finished reading about two hours before this interview while, like any good Con-goer, waiting in line with 3000 other people for Bill Nye the Science Guy.
I sat down with Carole at her Awesome Con booth to chat about writing, working with siblings, and reading good books. In proper con form, we were interrupted by no fewer than ten fans, two handlers, and John Barrowman’s absolutely delightful husband, Scott Gill. [p.s. – If you’re the fan who took pictures of the interview, please send them in!]
If you haven’t read Carole and John Barrowman’s Hollow Earth trilogy (why haven’t you? What are you doing with your life?) it follows two siblings who have the ability to bring their drawings to life and move in and out of art, and end up in quite a bit of trouble because of it. There are monsters, shadowy organizations, and serious adventures. Just out is the sequel: Conjuror.
CB: [Conjuror] takes the twins that you met in Hollow Earth, and they’re 17 and 18 now, and we’re introducing a new main character: a young man named Rémy Dupree Rush. He’s from Chicago but he ends up in London, and he can do with music what the twins can do with art. So he is able to manipulate reality with music and with his singing or with his harmonica or his guitar, which is pretty cool.
MS: How did you come up with this idea of art influencing reality, and why is it so interesting to you?
CB: Well, you know it all started when John and I were on a car ride. We both have a super sweet tooth, and we load up with the most unhealthy snacks when we’re driving together for road trips, and we were on a little bit of a sugar rush— and you probably know what happens then is you got a little bit giggly and a little silly, and it was really late at night, and so what we were doing is ‘what would be your super power?’ and we ruled out you couldn’t do flying, couldn’t do invisibility—those are the biggies, right? So we eventually came up with, well, wouldn’t it be cool if our imaginations were our super power? And we came up with the idea that if you drew your drawings would come to life, and you could move in and out of art. And then it just went from there.
The first trilogy is so rich; readers can get immersed in the art of the novel and the art that’s in the novel. But John has such an affinity for music. So it was just sort of a natural thing. The first three books in the trilogy are art, and then this next three are going to have music as the focus.
MS: What’s the dynamic like co-authoring a series, especially since you two live in very different places?
CB: We do, we do. I’m teaching at a college in Milwaukee called Alverno College. That’s my day job and another one of my passions, and John’s all over the world, right? We come up with the stories, the outline, and then I go off and I write. And then after I feel like I’ve got a draft that I’m comfortable with sharing, he’ll look at it, give me some feedback, and we’ll talk about it. He’ll add some things. Obviously, you know John’s really good at a lot of things, but he’s not a very good writer, and I think I tell stories well. So we talk about it as a collaboration even more than co-authoring. Our ideas are melding together; we imagine characters together.
I really do think that our imaginations are our super powers.
MS: What’s the best and worst parts of that collaborative process?
CB: The best parts—and honestly this is a real joy for us, because a lot of us in middle age drift from our siblings [language redacted for the benefit of the Most Esteemed Mr. Barrowman who does not age, and will transition directly from Young Adult Heartthrob to Silver Fox with no intermediary steps]. We have our own families and they have their families, and you might still be friends, but you don’t see each other very often. We’ve actually gotten way closer as adults then we were even as kids, and that’s been a real joy.
The bad part, well, we occasionally squabble. You know, your relationship when you were kids doesn’t change. There’s still a lot of poking that goes on; there’s still a lot of ‘I’m telling mom’ only on an adult level. Every now and then I’ll say something to my mom and it’ll get back to him and he’ll be like ‘why did you tell her that?’ And I’ll be like ‘well, because why not? You know I’m her favorite.’
John’s schedule is such that if I have to absolutely get some input from him very quickly, sometimes I have to send him those yelling emails and texts that say ‘this is your big sister yelling at you! Answer your email!’ We’ve got a natural rhythm working for us, and we’re not afraid to tell each other ‘you think you could just F* off for a while?’
MS: Is there a particular author who influenced you or that you wanted to emulate in anyway?
CB: When I was growing up my favorite writer was Enid Blyton. She wrote The Secret Seven and she wrote Famous Five, and it was always groups of kids that would go on adventures. So it wasn’t just straight up mysteries, but there was always kind of a Scooby-doo sort of mystery involved. She was a great writer. A lot of her early books are not at all politically correct, because you’re talking about the sixties and seventies. But I really wanted to write those kinds of books, which were these sweeping adventures with groups of kids that were boys and girls, and they all liked each other, they were all smart, and they all went off to islands and they were all at boarding school (and I wanted to be at a boarding school). So that was a big influence on me, I think, in my formative years. I read all the classics.
I love Philip Pullman. He’s sort of my go-to writer. The stories are very different, but I think Conjuror has a tone that’s a Philip Pullman tone; it’s super dark. I’m a huge Toni Morrison fan— but you know I teach English. That’s like the worst question to ask an English teacher.
I’m a very voracious reader. I read eclectically, all over the place. If I have something bad I give it 50 pages, and then I’m done.
Life is too short to read bad books.
MS: Why did you choose to go for fantasy and science fiction rather than crime fiction, since you have a crime fiction column?
CB: I do have that column, and I love crime fiction. My first practice novel—and I call it a practice novel because no one else will ever see it—was a mystery. And I still think there are points of it, bits of it, that I might salvage now that I feel like I’m a better writer and a more seasoned writer. So I haven’t given up mystery.
I actually have a novel that I work on between the projects I get paid to work on. So in my downtime, or when I need to recharge my brain a little, I’ll go and I’ll do a paragraph here, a page there. And I’m pretty much finished with a civil war mystery that has Walt Whitman and Clara Barton as main characters in it. When I get a chance to finish that up I’m hoping to see if I can get that out in the world.
So I haven’t given up crime fiction, but I am a huge Sci-fi geek. When I’m not reading mysteries, I’m reading that genre. I teach a class on dystopian novels at Alverno. It’s one of my loves. And of course with John’s background in movies in Sci-fi, it just seemed like it was a natural thing for us to do with fantasy. But we made a conscious decision to have our main characters be in the real world. So it’s not like Harry Potter in the sense that we’ve imagined a world that’s very different from our reality—and a wonderful world it is—but our kids have to exist here and now in this world. And one of their conflicts is [their super powers and their imaginations are] always coming into conflict with our world and reality.
MS: What are you most proud of in the Hollow Earth series or in your writing projects in general?
CB: I think one of the things I’m very proud of is that we’ve managed— first of all we’ve managed to stay friends, John and I, as we’ve gone through all of this. But I also think we’ve kind of got a versatility down in terms of multiple genres. I mean, we’re writing across a lot of platforms. And for me as a teacher of writing, it’s helped me realize that there really are some essentials that are true to every genre, and that are true across almost every form.
I think the most wonderful chills are when I get kids or families that will come up to us and say ‘because of your book we went to the art museum’ or ‘because of your book I’m taking an art class’ or that kind of thing. People at conventions will come up to me and say ‘if it wasn’t for your book I would never have made it through this part of my life.’ And you realize really how important books are to people, and that’s what I always say to my writing students:
There are enough readers out there for all of us, if you’re writing good stuff, and if you work at it, you take it seriously. Because just look around at the people at this convention; if we all liked the same things—oh my God, it would be awful!
MS: What’s your favorite comfort read?
CB: My favorite comfort read… I love a serial killer novel. And I know that goes against the whole idea of comfort, but I like to be chilled and thrilled. I like to be going to bed at night and saying to my husband, ‘you have to take that shirt off the coat hanger that’s hanging on the closet door, because in the middle of the night I’m going to wake up and see that person there, and I’m going to think he’s coming at me.’ You know that feeling?
CB: I love that feeling. I love really, really good serial killer novels. So I’m a huge Val McDermid fan. Really like her stuff. But I do read a lot of YA. One of my favorites right now—can I plug a book?
MS: Go for it!
CB: It’s The Glass Sentence [by S. E. Grove]. It’s a wonderful book. A fantasy book where all the continents in the world have stopped at different times. So let’s say Europe’s in the middle ages, North America’s in the 19th century, South America is in the future. And you can’t go between them unless you’re a particular kind of person. So that was my last really good comfort read, too.
MS: What’s your next project?
CB: This summer John and I are tackling a reboot of the Torchwood comics for Titan Comics, and we’re very excited to bring Torchwood back and recreate what Torchwood is going to be. And then we have to get the second book in the Conjuror series up and running. So I’m going to be hiding out in my little cubby in my house for most of the summer!