Barbara O’Neal: WHEN WE BELIEVED IN MERMAIDS

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Barbara O’Neal. Barbara is the author of several women’s fiction novels, including a couple of my favorites: When We Believed in Mermaids and The Art of Inheriting Secrets. Barbara’s award-winning books have been published and recognized globally. An avid traveler, she resides in Colorado Springs with her partner.

Gretchen Tarrant: Thank you for taking the time to connect! If you will, let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a writer?

Barbara O’Neal: I started writing when I was very young. I think I wrote my first story in the 5th grade and I got a lot of attention for it, so I was like this is my gig! I always wanted to write, but at the time there was no clear path to become a writer. So I winged it. I studied journalism in college, and when I was getting out of college I heard a reporter I absolutely loved talk about how she was one day going to quit the paper and write her novels. I was frozen in place, and thought that’s going to be me, if I take this easier path I’m never going to write my book. So I went home and asked my husband if he’d give me five years to try to sell something. I spent that time studying, reading magazines, and trying to figure it out. I learned that you could sell category romances and actually make money, and so I went that direction and was there for about 10 years. Then I started writing more like the books I’m writing now.

GT: You are the author of dozens of acclaimed novels in multiple genres at this point. Tell us, which have you most enjoyed writing?

BO: I love writing fiction. I like romance and I enjoy reading it as well, but it tends to be a specific period in a woman’s life; a certain short period when you’re falling in love and finding a mate. And that’s all great, but I’m interested in a lot of other things that happen in a woman’s life. I’m really interested in work and how work shapes us, and how having good work can make you very happy in a way that I don’t even know if relationships can come close to. I’m also interested in the relationships between mothers and daughters and sisters because I seem to come back to them over and over and over again.

GT: Where did you draw the inspiration for “When We Believed in Mermaids?” 

BO: I heard that first line in my head. It doesn’t happen like that very often but I heard Kit say: “I thought my sister was dead until I saw her on the evening news.” It’s a good first line, so I ran with it.

GT: How, if at all, was the process of writing this novel different than your others? Did you immediately know you had something special?

BO: It did not come easier [than my others.] I was actually worried, because The Art of Inheriting Secrets, the book before this, had done pretty well. I was hoping to keep the momentum going, and I thought this book was a little bit different. The sisters were a little bit darker and I worried that people would not like it as much. So I’m not sure the writer is a good person to predict which books will fly and which won’t. I don’t feel like this book is that different from the other books I’ve written, honestly. 

GT: One of our favorite things about the book is how you manage to weave in some very powerful lessons at moments when the reader least expects them. Lines like “I miss my little girl self,” or “You needn’t apologize for the space your quest takes,” or “Your pain is your pain,” took us off guard and made us think. Do you have a favorite lesson or theme you hope your readers walk away with?

BO: I think the main thing I want readers to walk away with is that we are all very complex beings, we are not all good or all bad. You know, someone said to me yesterday: “ You are not the worst thing you ever did and you are not the best thing you ever did, you’re more a combination of all those things.” I think that’s a very powerful idea, especially today when media culture can take one thing that happens to a person, one single day out of their entire lives, and wreck everything. We’re not that clear cut.  

GT: I want to ask about how travel has influenced your writing. I know you are widely traveled, and this particular novel is set primarily in New Zealand. Can you walk us through how you came to that location and the role it played as the story unfolded?

BO: I have to say I love New Zealand, which probably comes through in the book. I’ve been there three times, I have a brother in law who lives there. I was actually a little worried that people would think it was too far away and too foreign to relate to, but I found quite the opposite was true; people love the idea of New Zealand and almost everyone I meet wants to go there. That gives me a good excuse to go back! I can set some more stories in New Zealand which I love.

GT: Zooming out a bit, your titles of late are typically characterized as Women’s Fiction. Besides being a woman yourself, is there a reason you find women’s stories so compelling?

Barbara ONeal Headshot

It doesn’t have to have political weight to have political importance if that makes sense. Women’s viewpoints and the way we approach the world is really big. 

BO: Well, for one thing I don’t think that they’ve been told as often as men’s stories have been told, so adding to those voices is important. And it doesn’t have to be serious stories, it can be lighter stories…it doesn’t have to have political weight to have political importance if that makes sense. Women’s viewpoints and the way we approach the world is really big.  

GT: You have been known to use different pen names for different genres, can you share with us your thought process behind this?

BO: I started in category romance and I had to have a pen name then, so I picked Ruth Wind. It was a very old name even then, I don’t know why I picked it. So I wrote Category Romance as Ruth Wind, and I wrote Historical Romance as Barbara Samuel. When I first moved into Women’s Fiction I wrote as Barbara Samuel but there were branding problems. People tend to read in their genre, and they don’t like things to be “tainted.” It might sound crass to think of books in that way, but the truth is you have to understand how to reach your readers.

GT: You are working on a new title, The Lost Girls of Devon, set to release this July. Is there anything you can share with us about the book?

BOLost Girls of Devon is about four generations of women and a secret, kind of a dark secret in the village in Devon. I love this book, I think it’s quite different than Mermaids, but I love the grandmother and granddaughter relationships in this book–and the mothers and daughters have very prickly relationships so it’s kind of fun to play with that. Lost Girls of Devon is actually already done, and I’m working on the next book.

GT: Can you share what you are currently working on?

BO: It’s very much a work in progress, it will change and shift a lot, but it’s set on the Upper West Side of New York which is a place I love. It’s three generations of women dealing with work and the things it takes to become yourself when you’re a woman. Of course, I’m writing it during this virus thing, and wondering: Do I say there was a virus? Do I not say there was a virus? Regardless, I’m really looking forward to this one.

GT: On a final note, what do you find to be the most rewarding or fulfilling part of your career as an author?

BO: I think for me, I love writing so much, so that’s a big part of it. But it’s also because it’s a way I can communicate with women I might not ever have met or talked to. I’m still talking with them, and they are actually engaging with me, and that’s extremely powerful and touching to me. I love that part.

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