This interview is sponsored by Harper.
In Lisa Barr's seductive second novel, The Unbreakables, a woman flees to France in the wake of her husband's betrayal. But for 42-year-old Sophie Bloom, heartbreak leads to a creative and sexual revival, spurring her to rediscover her passion for sculpting and her sense of adventure. We asked Barr a few questions about this saucy story of self-discovery.
You started your career in journalism, and worked as an editor as well. What was the transition to writing novels like for you?
Let me tell you a secret: There was no transition. I still do it all—just at different levels of intensity. I’d also like to toss into the mix that I’m a mom of three daughters (aka: Drama Central). I’ve had a very full career as an author/journalist/blogger—both here in Chicago and in Jerusalem. I’m very disciplined out of necessity, and it’s really a matter of divide and conquer. When my girls were younger, I would report or edit during the day while they were in school and write fiction at night after they fell asleep. Or, I’d wake up and write at 5 a.m. before they got up. Now that they are older, my time is my own. I also started a Mom blog—“GIRLilla Warfare”—in 2013, right when my first novel came out. It’s a lot of blending and mixing, and sometimes I feel like I’m in Crazy Town. But my journalism skills have really helped my fiction, especially in terms of pacing and cutting away the fat. And I always think in terms of the who, what, where, when, why and how in both fiction and journalism. It’s too ingrained to let that go. There is a lot more freedom with fiction—and I kinda love that.
What’s your favorite thing about Sophie?
Sophie is all heart—she gives so much of herself to those she loves. I admire her vulnerability, but I also relish when she goes from hot mess to badass. Although her husband and best friends betrayed her, the truth is, Sophie abandoned herself long before that. It is a joy to watch her grow and blossom.
When Sophie starts her new life, she comes up with 12 “unbreakable” rules for living. Do you have any rules to live by?
I try to incorporate several of Sophie’s rules into my own life. My rules to live by are simple: Be kind. Be loving. Be communicative. Be strong and stand proud. Be Me in all my forms—the good, bad, strong and vulnerable. Living in a house of women and writing about lots of women’s issues, “you are enough” is probably the number one rule that I’ve embraced and try to put out into the world. And “you got this” is my daily motto—it is the sword I use to slay my fears.
Visual arts play a central role in both The Unbreakables and your debut, Fugitive Colors, a historical novel. How do you research the art world, and were there differences between understanding it in a contemporary context versus a historical one?
I’m a writer, not an artist—but art/passion runs through everything I do and write. Fugitive Colors was a labor of love. Four years of research on stolen art, the artists themselves, the time period, Expressionism and the Nazi persecution of the avant-garde, before I would even allow myself to write a single word. I read everything I could get my hands on, and I even had the Holocaust Museum vet my manuscript. My greatest compliments for that book have come from artists themselves—and it means the world to me. Along a recent journey, I met a sculptor in Napa. He fell in love with Fugitive Colors, and I fell in love with his work. He taught me a lot, and gave me the background in sculpting for The Unbreakables. I researched, watched films, tutorials and read articles. I did my book “research” in the south of France to get all the feels and sense of place. The only difference between understanding art in a contemporary context versus historical was time. Historical research requires SO much attention to detail, time period and trying to understand an artist’s mindset within the context of history. It’s exciting but all-consuming—a quest to get it right. Contemporary is lighter for me—but no less passionate.
The drive to create and be creative is the same whether you’re a visual artist or a writer. Did you find that writing about different types of creativity led you to think about writing differently?
Yes. I think what I’ve really learned from visual artists is that I need to incorporate all my senses into my writing. The sex scenes are very visual in The Unbreakables, and I created them as if they were a painting. And ironically, one of the stronger sensual scenes in the book is actually Sophie “acting” out a painting that moved her, charged her, stimulated her to the point of arousal. Artists, in my mind, bring such beauty and passion into this world, and I try to evoke those same emotions on the page—my own blank canvas.
What do you wish more people knew about women at midlife?
Women are so much better in midlife. We are stronger, sexier, smarter, more decisive, don’t take crap—we know who we are in midlife. This is such a great age—minus the wrinkles, joint pains, forgetfulness and terrible eyesight. I certainly have come into my own—the insecurities of the past have fallen away. And good riddance. It’s almost as if I want to say, “Hey, this is me, and I like what I see, what I feel, who I am.” This simply doesn’t happen in one’s youth. It’s a journey that comes with the seasons.
What are you working on next?
I’m sort of that “forbidden fruit” in the publishing world: I’m a genre jumper. My first novel was historical fiction, the second contemporary women’s fiction—and the next, suspense. But I dig strong women who come into their own with hurdles and challenges. I like to create characters who are not afraid to be vulnerable, go to dark places, get their sexy on, face trials and tribulations, seek passion and truth and, ultimately, find their redemption in a new beginning.
Author photo © Tell Draper.