In April, I was lucky enough to be on a panel at Literary Orange, one of the biggest book events in Southern California. I was also lucky enough to meet Tracy Barone. We were both attempting to find the green room. Nothing bonds people better than being lost together. Her panel was right before mine, so I sat in. I’d had her book, Happy Family, in my Amazon cart since it came out last year (I “save” hundreds of books in there and go on semi-annual book binges. I’m weird). After meeting her and hearing her talk about the book, I finally bought it. Within fifty pages, my jaw was on the floor. This is one of those books that makes you doubt your own ability as a writer. The story is an epic family drama with heart. The characters are so well-drawn that you assume the author has been each of them in numerous past lives. I just had to reconnect with Tracy after I read her book. She was nice enough to answer some questions for me.
You started out working on movies in Hollywood, right? Were you always “a writer” at heart? What motivated you to dedicate yourself to this novel?
I’ve always been a writer at heart. I wrote my first short story and several bad ballads inspired by the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (ah youth!) when I was ten years old and have been a storyteller in one form or another ever since. I fell in love with dramatic writing and was a playwright in NYC during the 80’s, a very exciting time for theatre. I was doing a lot of experimental work with a very talented group of actors and directors. During that time I was selected for the 92nd Street Y program of young, upcoming playwrights paired with masters for a series of readings. My “master” was Marsha Norman who had a big hit with “Night Mother” playing. During the critique, she told me that I was a colorist with a big palette and that I should write novels. I took that the wrong way at the time but she was right. A novel? The long form scared the hell of me. So it took me many years, and another career as a producer, to dedicate myself to writing a book. I could not have imagined “Happy Family” in any other form, it’s the way it came to me or through me.
Happy Family is such a beautifully-developed story. Did you have the full story in mind when you started, or did you develop it as you went?
Thank you for saying that. I had the full story in mind from the onset. Kind of like a musical composition, I kept the whole in mind while hearing the individual voices. But I developed as I went along because it’s a big story, it goes for many years, so what do I show? This took time and throwing a lot out.
What struck me about this book is how each of the characters seemed so real. When you introduced Cici, I thought, “She must be based on the author herself.” But then I thought the same of Cheri, Cici’s adopted daughter. Then I realized all the characters seemed “real.” What character do you connect with most? Do you still think about your characters?
That is I think what we all go for as writers, writing down to the truth, the essence, the “real” of our characters. Stripping away the layers, pushing them up against limits – often themselves – at least this is what interests me as a writer. On one level all of the characters are based on me or some part of me that I can imagine, but none of this is true in the book on a literal level. It’s hard to say which character I connect most with as I connect with parts of all of them; the good, the bad and the ugly. Cheri is the main character so I spent a lot of time in her head, her shoes, and the angry, frustrated, wanting connection but pushing it away parts of her tapped into my shadow side. Who wants to be that? But it’s a part of us, we have to make friends with it. I have an affinity for Billy Beal who is a minor character but I feel him deeply, his being misunderstood, his connection to the baby. I’m writing a TV pilot for Happy Family so I’m still thinking about these folks! Although the series jumps off from the novel and goes in many other directions so it’s a departure.
How much do you draw on personal experiences in your writing versus pure imagination and research?
It’s a combo platter. I am a research junkie so if I’m writing about a car from 1962 I know if it had seat belts, what the tires looked like, what colors it came in. Kind of obsessive on details. Usually though research is supplemental for me, not the source. Friends and family of writers should know that we draw from our experiences, that’s it’s all fair game. I tap into my experiences, some aspect of them may inspire a character or situation. I also write down snippets of dialogue I hear strangers say, great procrastination if I’m writing in a public space! I have a notebook filled with this and sometimes they filter into the story. But a lot of my writing is just off-roading into my imagination. That’s the most fun because who knows where that come from!
Speaking of research, you must have had to do quite a bit. You created a very realistic Italian mother in Cici, and your descriptions of the different medical situations in the book (I don’t want to give away too much of the story), were so authentic. Do you research before you write, or research as you go?
I research as I go along. In the case of Cici, I knew where I wanted her to be from in Italy and she was from my imagination as well as my experience with Italians and understanding that sensibility. For the bird hunting scene in Italy, for example, I knew what I wanted to accomplish, the character dynamics, the look and feel, what it smelled like, the sounds. I sketched it out and then researched what kind of guns would be used at the time, how the dogs would interact, the mechanics of shooting, what kind of birds would be hunted in that season. Then I went deeper, filling in the details. But it could just have easily worked the other way around. Getting the details first then writing the scene. I’ve done it that way as well.
This is your debut novel. What has the debut-book experience been like for you?
It’s a bit scary to put yourself out there for the first time. I was lucky to have a great editor in Lee Boudreaux and a wonderful team at Little Brown. And an amazing agent, Susan Golomb, who guided me through the process. As much as I knew the business of film, and that IS a business, I didn’t know much about publishing. The marketing mechanics and how so much is driven on early book sales, I wouldn’t have known that but it’s a lot like in film. There’s a lot of excitement and buzz around debuts which is fun but also a bit of pressure.
I always hate this question, but I have to ask it: Are you working on anything right now?
Right? It’s a tough question because I am working on a new book but it’s early days. I’ll just say it’s set in 2050 involving twins (male and female) who have the key to man’s past and future hidden where they’d least expect to find it: their DNA.
Do you have a tried-and-true writing routine? Any daily habits or rules?
Just show up. Every day. No set time, although I’m better in the morning and afternoons. By evening, I fade.