Hannah Barnaby, author of Wonder Show, visited with students at Louisa County High School on Feb. 1 to talk about writing and inspiration.
According to Librarian Wendy Craig, many of the students had been reading the Young Adult (YA) novel, a Morris Award finalist, in preparation for the visit.Set in 1939, the book details the journey of 13-year-old Portia Remini, who runs away from the orphanage to join the carnival.
Following the visit, we asked Barnaby some questions about the book and about her writing life.
The Central Virginian: Wonder Show has been called both “whimsical” and “dark.” How can a book be both?
Hannah Barnaby: A novel is essentially a created world, a universe that, while small, can encompass a wide range of moods and atmospheres. In fact, I believe it is the contrast between opposites like “whimsical” and “dark” that make for the most emotionally resonant stories.
TCV: What is it about Portia’s character that makes readers love her?
HB: Portia’s journey takes her from desperation to comfort, from misery to hope, and that is what allows readers to connect with her. We recognize our own experiences and feelings in what she is going through, and we want so much for her to succeed. I struggled while I was writing Wonder Show because I wanted so badly to rescue Portia but I knew that the story would lose impact if I didn’t let her resolve her own situation.
TCV: You were an editor with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt years ago. How has publishing changed and what are some of the opportunities for a current high school student who wants to be an author?
HB: I started my career in publishing during what I see now as the last days before the business truly started to change shape. Since that time (the late 1990s), many of the large publishing houses have merged with each other and purchased smaller ones, and the online book retailers have broken into publishing, and the self-publishing side of things has grown enormously. This is scary at times for those of us who like to reminisce about traditional publishing models, but it means that there are many new opportunities for young people who are looking for opportunities to share their work. There are precedents now for self-published books becoming huge bestsellers, and absolutely anyone can put a book together if they are willing to do the work.
TCV: As a high school student, did you write fiction?
HB: Not a lot, to be honest. I read fiction absolutely all the time, and I think that formed a very solid foundation for my writing. But my own creative writing didn’t truly begin until I was in college. I took a children’s literature course that I loved and then did an independent study the following semester with the same professor. I wrote a spectacularly bad middle-grade novel that will never see the light of day. But it was good practice.
TCV: You talk to many groups of high school readers. What sort of interesting feedback do you get from them? From the students at Louisa County High School?
HB: I think that as an author of fiction for young readers, it is too easy to lose track of what real-life high school students are like. For me, a school visit is a chance to reconnect with my audience and get a renewed sense of them, their ideas, and how they inhabit their space in the world. It’s less about getting feedback on my work than about getting in touch with the kids. The students at Louisa had wonderful energy and I could tell that they were thoughtful, attentive readers. And they were excited to share their own work with me, which was thrilling.
TCV: From Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” to your own McGreavey Home for Wayward Girls, what do you think draws people to these fictional settings? What is it about an orphan’s search that appeals to readers?
HB: An orphan is the ultimate underdog, starting from the darkest kind of place. I think we have all felt alone in one way or another and the orphan archetype represents that perfectly. As for The Home in Wonder Show, I wanted to create a place that felt like something out of a gothic fairy tale. Mister is a Bluebeard-esque villain who remains unredeemed at the end of the book, and I felt he had to be fairly one-dimensional that way in order to provide the right contrast to Portia and the other girls.
TCV: Where do you write? What is your process like?
HB: My writing schedule is sporadic these days—like most writers, I have to fit my work into the spaces between the other pieces of my life. But I jot down a lot of notes here and there so that when I do get a decent block of time, I’m not starting from scratch. It’s difficult to write without having some momentum already. And my writing process is fairly messy. I write very instinctively, especially during the first draft of a project. My editing process is more organized.
TCV: What are you working on now?
HB: Another young adult novel. This one is contemporary rather than historical fiction, and follows a girl who has lost her brother in a car accident as she attempts to track down the people who received his organs. It has a dark side, too. I guess that’s just what I’m drawn to.
Learn more about Hannah Barnaby and Wonder Show by visiting her website, HannahBarnaby.com.