Interview by Ceri Wheeldon
In the latest of our midlife reinvention series, Barbara Clarke talks about becoming a published author as her intimate memoir depicts change and discovery between mom and daughter — and how it’s never too late to come of age
Tell us a little about you
I am Barbara Clarke, author of The Red Kitchen, living in Bellingham, Washington. I have moved over 60 times in my life, starting in childhood, and finally happy to call the Pacific Northwest home. I work part-time as a grant writer for several non-profit organizations and volunteer for various writing organizations.
When did you start to write?
I wrote the title story of The Red Kitchen in 1960 as a sophomore at the University of Missouri for an English Composition class. I had dreamed of being a writer since childhood when books took me away from a chaotic family, into the larger world, and enriched my imagination. I wanted to write the next Caddie Woodlawn book for girls my age when I grew up.
What have been the challenges for you?
Major challenges include getting a terribly late start in a writing career, dropping out of college in 1961 to get married and feeling like I could never catch up to my dreams, uncovering a memory of abuse from childhood, coming to terms with my father’s role in our family, and joyously reconciling with my mother.
What did you do prior to this?
Before I went to graduate school, I worked as a secretary and tried out a career in a trade union. During graduate school I worked in a remote village in Kenya, graduated with an M.S.A. and ultimately became an executive in the health insurance industry for twelve years. After ditching that career due to the nature of the industry, I worked as a freelance writer in a variety of capacities and topics primarily pertaining to health and wellbeing.
What is the title of your book and when will it be published?
The Red Kitchen: A Memoir will be published April 6, 2021.
What was the inspiration behind your latest book?
The story I wrote in college was followed by other family stories that would not “leave me alone.” After attending a workshop on memoir writing, I knew I had a story to tell and that it had to be a memoir. I had tried to write much of The Red Kitchen as a novel, but it never felt authentic enough to me. In an email correspondence with UK writer Lucy Ellmann, she looked at ten pages and said, “You have an exciting memoir here.” That cinched it.
What can you share with us about some of the main themes of the book?
Some of the main themes are: how complex mother/daughter relationships can be—and how rewarding; overcoming childhood abuse; making the best out of what happens in our lives; and how to use grit, faith, and humour to get through the tough times in life.
How do you hope readers over 50 will relate to these themes?
I hope readers will find universal themes from my life that resonate in theirs; that they will take heart if they are struggling with issues that need resolution; and that it is never too late (with persistence and patience) to do what you have dreamed of, that makes you feel true to yourself, understood, and appreciated for who you are.
Are there any key issues you wanted to draw attention to?
How to overcome whatever obstacles readers face—childhood experiences, being a woman in what is still primarily a man’s world, the work and joy of reconciliation with parents, coming of age late in life, a possible roadmap for reconciliation, how understanding is often more powerful than forgiving. And, how keeping your sense of humour and fun can be a lifesaver.
What do you want readers to take away having the read the book?
That they found some parts of themselves in the book, they found it enjoyable and want to recommend it to others, and that they are eager to read the next memoir I am hoping to complete in 2021.
What’s next for you?
The Red Kitchen comes first. I am completing a memoir about working in the health insurance industry, dropping out and living on a farm, working in NYC and other adventures, and making a writing life. The working title is Pre-existing Conditions.
What 3 tips would you offer women looking to write their first book?
- Know as soon as possible why you want to write the book. It took me a long time to come to terms with my topics and writing about my family.
- Unless you have already taken writing classes, particularly in memoir writing or fiction, formal instruction will save you lots of time in getting to a good draft and revising (lots of revising). Your first draft is the story you tell yourself; the revisions are for your readers.
- While writing is a solo experience, critique partners (generally not family members) will tell you what isn’t working and what is—an invaluable resource. You will be a better writer by critiquing their work as well as become a closer, more exacting reader.