Photo by Thom Bartley
“It’s a comforting love affair - that’s how I feel about writing."
I’m so happy to have interviewed Charley Barnes - one of my favourite authors who has inspired my writing. If you haven’t heard of her (why on Earth not??) Charley is a Worcestershire-based poet and novelist, author of Intention (Bloodhound Books), The Women You Were Warned About (Black Pear Press) and A Z-Hearted Guide To Heartache (V Press). She also runs Sabotage Reviews, which focuses on giving Indie publications the spotlight they deserve, and Dear Listener, a monthly spoken word event in Worcester. She recently beat out two other finalists to become this years Worcester Poet Laureate and her next novel Copycat comes out on the 24th June.
I was lucky enough to meet Charley around the Worcester spoken word scene a few years ago. I have always enjoyed and admired her work and it’s great to see her doing so much with her writing.
We had a good natter about her inspiration for the deliciously creepy Intention, writing about disability and how she creates her fascinating ‘unsavoury female characters’.
So, without further ado.... Let’s jump in!
When did you start writing?
CB: When I was about 7. I used to write poems for my mum. That was how I communicated with her over a long period of time.
There was a 6-month stint when I was about 12 when I really wanted to be a surgeon, but thought that I wasn’t good enough at science to be a surgeon and went back to writing!
With any level of seriousness, it probably wasn’t until I started my masters degree. At that point, I wrote because I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I thought I should take it seriously.
A lot of writers who dream of being published imagine that it would be life-changing. Has being published been life-changing for you?
CB: In some ways. I’m very lucky that both of my fiction books (The Women You Were Warned About and Intention) have been labours of love. The Women You Were Warned About was my MA thesis and Intention was my Phd. It was life changing in that it validated both of those degrees and [those degrees] became something worth doing as I got two books out of them.
It’s not life changing in that I’ve been able to quit everything else that I do and just write.
But then it has, particularly with Intention, allowed me to see writing as work. Not that it’s stopped being fun - I still feel very lucky and I still enjoy writing very much . My first royalties check from Intention was a third of my monthly salary again, so I can make a bit of a living off of writing books, and because of this [fiction writing] is worth taking seriously and it’s worth having the dedication.
It must be amazing to see that people enjoy and engage with your books
CB: It’s beautiful and perhaps slightly disconcerting... A friend of mine sent me a message on Facebook a few weeks ago, and it was a picture of someone reading my book. I didn’t know that person. It’s a wonderfully weird feeling…. an unexpected connection with a complete stranger because they were reading my words.
Writing about disability
Charley blogs about disability, as well as many other things and A Z-Hearted Guide To Heartache also features poems about her disability. I think it’s so important to talk about disability - how certain conditions can affect people, highlighting the grains of truth in the myths, reducing stigma and raising awareness, especially for less well-known and invisible illnesses.
When did you begin to write about disability?
CB: I have two conditions. When I was younger, I was diagnosed with chronic regional pain syndrome - it’s basically a malfunctioning of your nervous system. It means that your nerves run riot essentially, and send messages to your brain that aren’t true. It usually focuses on one limb, but when I was younger pain would spread throughout my body.
Through drugs and the grace of God I got better, and was ‘in remission’ - I would have bouts of it, but was fine for long periods of time. Last year I began to get what I thought was symptoms of it again, but it turned out to be fibromyalgia. Both conditions affect me in different ways.
I decided that I do too much stuff now to not be honest about it. I run open mic nights, I do readings, and I feel that people need to know that there is something going on for them to understand why I’m not always feeling 100%. But I also want people to know that you don’t have to be 100% all the time to get stuff done. That was my main reason for wanting to talk about it.
CRPS is an invisible illness, and I think it’s really important that people understand that disability isn’t just surface level. At any moment anyone around you could be in tremendous amounts of pain, but just being brave about it.
I remember being particularly impressed by her honesty in one of her blog posts that detailed an encounter with the general public regarding her parking in a disabled bay using her blue badge.
Does that situation happen often for people with invisible illnesses?
CB: Way more often than it should. People are very perturbed when someone in their mid-twenties gets out of a disabled bay and is upright and walking. A lot of people think ‘she’s not disabled’.
Are you trying to raise awareness by writing about your disability?
CB: Very much so. People forget that you can have stuff wrong with you that isn’t as obvious to see as a deformed limb or a walking aid. I think when calling people out on blue badges, particularly, a little more sensitivity is warranted, because you don’t know what people are going through.
She quotes David Foster Wallace - an author who has inspired her writing.
CB: What he essentially says is: ‘At any time, anyone around you could be going through anything, so try not to be an asshole’. I think the world would be a slightly better place if people had a little more sensitivity to each other.
Writing about 'unsavoury female characters'
Why did you choose to focus on these types of women, and where do you get the ideas for your characters?
CB: I’m fascinated by ‘unsavoury female characters’. In The Women You Were Warned About I really wanted to discuss behaviours that women completely engage in on a day-to-day basis, but we’re not supposed to talk about it. There seems to be this force-field around women, in fiction at least, where they have to be victims or a little off-beat but never really do anything you can condemn them for.
I think it’s hugely misrepresentative of real life because women are allowed to cock-up, they are allowed to not always get things right.
The Women You Were Warned About was partly inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. In that, he has interviews with hideous men who get things wrong. As I was reading the book, I remember thinking it was wonderful and really interesting. Then I wondered why we aren’t talking about women who get things wrong.
Charley believes that there should be more representation of every kind of woman in fiction - not just those we would like to meet and sit down for a cup of tea with! The thing I really like about Charley’s female characters is that they break away from the stereotypical women’s roles you often see in fiction - it’s true that some women are capable of doing terrible things, but it’s rare that you’ll find a novel with an interesting female serial killer or a romance where the female character is the one playing games. It was this gap in the market that Charley wanted to address with her female characters like Gillian, the protagonist in Intention , and the host of hideous women in The Women You Were Warned About.
CB: I am forever frustrated by the under-representation of violent women in fiction. Good and bad qualities don’t exist on a gendered spectrum. I think we should acknowledge that, at their core, not all women are maternal and loving.
**Warning: spoilers for Intention below**
Where did the character Gillian come from?
CB: Gillian came from an awful lot of research into the psychology of serial killers.
I read an awful lot about male serial killers and violent male psychopaths to try and lift over as much as I could into a female character, which was not hard as women are capable of doing these things - we just have to acknowledge it.
Gillian is the love child of a lot of true crime and psychological textbooks.
People seem to be fascinated with true crime and serial killers, and they usually want to know ‘why’. But in Intention, Gillian never quite works out the reasons for why she does what she does - but that’s not a bad thing. It seems more realistic, given that no real-life serial killer has ever been able to explain ‘why’.
Gillian says in the novel that, for her, killing is the equivalent of having a good cry. Charley explains that she chose to use that analogy as it’s a feeling that she thought a lot of people could relate to and that it might help readers to understand the character and the way she thinks and feels.
CB: I think we have this morbid fascination with serial killers.... The problem with looking for a ‘why’ is that, for those of us who aren’t violent sociopaths, I think our reasons for doing things are quite logical and straight-forward. Serial killers are often portrayed as ‘monsters’ because they don’t make sense to normal people. We’re conditioned to be wary of monsters from a young age but also interested in them because they feature in canonical children’s stories. (Witches, Vampires and Ogres, for example).
She explains that because monsters feature as characters in popular literature, it gives us a sense of familiarity with them and we learn to recognise their behaviour and patterns of behaviour as bad behaviour. But that they feature so much in stories also cracks open the window to understanding those sorts of characters.
CB: We’re attached to but at the same time removed from behaviours that we don’t understand.... We’re removed because we chastise those characters as monsters but it also gives us a window into understanding them. Because they are human, I think we feel a need to try to understand them.
On Writing Intention
The Love Story of Gillian and Daniel
CB: I needed Gillian to be a little bit human, that’s why she has Daniel. To this day - without giving any spoilers - I feel guilty for how things end in the book. Daniel deserved better.
I was talking to my Phd supervisor about Gillian’s behaviour. My supervisor said ‘you will need to give her something that will allow people to forgive her’, essentially. That was why I chose to give her a love interest.
I think they’re cute together, in a strange sort of way. At one point Gillain herself admits that Daniel makes her more human and that he does he make her feel different emotions. She feels like she has a duty of care to him almost - she’s aware that she needs to look after him. He brings out a whole spectrum of feelings in her that she otherwise wouldn’t have had.
Who would play Gillian and Daniel in the Intention movie?
CB: Gillian - Mia Wasikowska. She’s a deliciously off-beat character in everything I’ve seen her in and I think she would make a good Gillian.
Daniel - Michael Cera. He’s quite a gangly, dorky kind of character... quite bumbly and a bit off-beat. Though he might be a bit too old now to play Daniel.
Ellen Page might also make a good Gillian. I’ve seen her play uncomfortable roles and I think she could play Gillian quite well.
Where did you get your inspiration for the storyline in Intention?
CB: Intention predominately came out of reading lots of crime novels where women died. I found it really frustrating that, in every crime novel, it always seemed to be a woman who was being murdered.
I read a lot of first person narratives. I don’t really take real-life examples and have borrowed from fiction quite a lot but, even with first person narratives, if you want an unpleasant one it’s usually a male speaker. I wanted to do something different. That was quite a source of encouragement when I was trying to put the book together.
So many people are writing and publishing books these days. I think if you’re going to write something, the first thing is to make sure you really want to do it - you can tell when a writer isn’t interested in their own work. You also need to be able to tell people why it’s worth reading. For example, I think Intention is worth reading because Gillian is different.
Which brings us on to the publishing process. Is it as simple as it seems?
CB: I think there’s a really common misconception that you write a book, get an agent, find a publisher - and bosh that’s it, job done.
There’s a lot of waiting, praying, tibetan chants...
With Intention, I tried to be as calculated about the process as I could. I started by sending it out to agents and publishers who had published similar books. I thought if they have an interest in violent fiction or slightly off-beat narrators, maybe they would be interested in picking up that sort of fiction again. I then worked my way out to more general psychological thriller publishers and crime thriller publishers. Towards the end, I was frantically sending it out to another 5 or 6 potentials every 2-3 weeks.
I sent Intention to somewhere between 40-50 agents/publishers and out of those got 3 bites.
And now you’re about to release your second full-length novel, Copycat.
CB: Copycat is my first police procedure novel. It follows a team of detectives tracking a copy-cat serial killer and is a third person narrative, rather than first person narrative. I’ve never done anything like it before. It was interesting writing it and I’ve learnt a lot from the process.
I would love for Copycat to be the start of a series - that’s very much something I would like to work on.
Is there anything else you really want to write in the future?
CB: Long term, I would like to write another Gillian. Not to say that there will be a sequel to Intention - but I would like to write another first person narrative about an off-beat woman who’s trying to get stuff right, but ends up getting it violently wrong.
Who are your favourite authors?
CB: I think Angela Gibson and Neil Hilborn are glorious writers.
More locally, I have recently worked on a pamphlet with Claire Walker and fell head over heels in love with Claire’s style of writing. Claire’s poetry is beautiful.
Rob Francis is amazing... his work is intellectually stimulating and makes me feel things. It’s like a one-two punch.
I binge-read every M J Arlidge book that comes out. He writes crime novels - they're not the most 'high-brow' things in the world, but I find them thoroughly entertaining.
I’m slowly but surely falling in love with Anna Burns. She won the Booker Prize in 2018 for her novel Milkman. I heard her read from the book at the Hay Festival and it was an absolute game changer in terms of how I understand the novel and how I hear the narrative… I’m a little bit in love with Anna Burns - current favourite author.
Where’s the weirdest place you have ever written?
CB: I wish that I had somewhere really weird to do it, or say that I had done it.
When my partner and I first got together - we didn’t live together then - he would leave me to get ready for bed and find me writing in his room. It was unfamiliar territory at the time as we hadn’t been together long. I was like ‘don’t mind me - I just caught a poem!’
When I was writing Intention I hopped around coffee shops in Worcester. It’s good noise in coffee shops - not complete silence, but not completely draining of your concentration either.
Have open mic nights developed your writing?
CB: Massively - When I first started going to Speak Easy, I would get home and be up for hours because I just wouldn’t be able to switch off. That was when I was first really starting to write and perform.
Dear Listener is like a good facial scrub. You put it on and you can feel stuff coming out, then when you take it off you’re fresh-faced and ready for whatever comes next.
I find it a real mental cleanse to go to Dear Listener, be around other writers and hear what other writers are doing. It develops my writing in a different way than it used to - I don’t necessarily go home and start writing, but I do feel prepared to write.
Has writing changed you as a person?
CB: I think it has. I don’t know what writing does to a writer’s brain, but my other half can just tell when I’ve been writing!
Writing about women’s issues and disability has given me a real confidence boost. It’s given me the confidence to say things I wouldn’t ordinarily say, and to talk about things I wouldn’t ordinarily talk about.
There are some days where [writing] just makes me get out of bed. I’d say it’s helped me as a person, in lots of different ways.
It’s a comforting love affair - that’s how I feel about writing.
To find out more about Charley and her books, visit her author page.
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Georgie Bull is a freelance writer and published author living in Worcester, England.
Author: Georgie Bull
1. You Can Go Home Again
2. A Beautiful Dream
5. Let Me Tell You A Story
6. The Haunting Of Verno House
7. The C Word
8. A Ghost Story
9. Father's Son
10. Time (poem)
11. Poems - Unheard and Silent Musician
12. The Ultimate Dystopia - part one
13. The Ultimate Dystopia - part two
1. The Desert - Peregrin Jones
2. The Being Verse - Peregrin Jones
3. Who Will Feel The Rain Now? - Leena Batchelor
The Blue Hour by Dreena Collins
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