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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Interview with Author M.P. Barker

Tell us a little about your background.
I like to tell people I’m a time traveler. No, I’m not delusional (well, okay, maybe a little), but I spent eight years as a historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum that portrays 19th-century rural New England. That means I dressed in costume and basically lived in the 1830s for 40 hours a week. If you came to the Village in the 1980s or 1990s and saw someone covered in manure, sour milk, and dirt, that was probably me. I mucked out barns, milked cows, weeded gardens, made butter and cheese, and dyed wool, to list just a few of my chores. The great thing about the job was that it gave me the perfect background to write two historical novels, A Difficult Boy (Holiday House, 2008) and Mending Horses (Holiday House, 2014), which are set in New England in 1839. When one of my characters has to sit down and milk a cow, I can honestly say I know just how he or she feels—the character, not the cow, that is.
Tell us a bit about your latest book.
Mending Horses is about three misfits—a peddler, a young runaway, and an Irish horse whisperer—who mend each other’s broken lives as they heal a traveling circus’s mistreated ponies. My agent calls it a “family-friendly Water for Elephants.” The story takes place when the American circus was just beginning to evolve into its present form, so the research was lots of fun. In addition to traveling circuses, the storyline explores the challenges faced by Irish immigrants who came to New England to build factories and railroads. There’s also a little romance, a feisty female character, and lots and lots of horses.
The story focuses on Daniel, a sixteen-year-old Irish boy who’s newly freed from indentured servitude. Seeking guidance and companionship, Daniel joins Jonathan Stocking, a peddler and roving jack-of-all-trades who invites Daniel to join him and his assistant, eleven-year-old Billy Fogarty, a reformed pickpocket with a hauntingly beautiful singing voice, who is fleeing an abusive father. The trio joins a circus run by Fred Chamberlain, an old friend of Mr. Stocking’s. When an incompetent trainer abandons the show’s six “dancing ponies,” Daniel discovers his own talents as a horse whisperer, not “breaking” the animals, but mending the damage their previous trainer had done to them. Meanwhile, Fred transforms Billy into “Billy McBride, the boy with the voice of an angel,” the company’s star vocalist. With Mr. Stocking guiding Daniel’s training efforts and coaching Billy’s singing, the three grow from traveling companions into a peculiar sort of family. But past secrets catch up with them, bringing danger and heartbreak.
How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?
I’m definitely a “pantser.” I usually start out with a character and a situation, and just keep playing around with it until the characters start to take on their own voices, and it begins to feel as though they’re dictating the story to me. But for the longest time, I have no idea where the story is going. Once I’ve gotten the story about halfway written and have an idea of the ending, then I make an outline so I can see where I need to fill in holes and make connections.
Which do you consider more important, plot or character?
Character, definitely. I’d rather read a book with a mediocre plot and great characters than one with lame characters and an exciting plot. I believe that plot often comes from character—after all, it’s the characters’ personalities that govern what they do, which is what creates the plot. As a writer, I always start with a character, then try sticking the character into different situations to see what will happen and how his or her personality will develop.
Tell us about your pets, or other animals that inspire you.
Midnight and Barker.
I’ve been lucky to have three wonderful dogs in my life—all of them second-hand. Our first was a Beagle mix, the second a Golden Retriever, and our current dog is a black Lab/Shepherd mix named Midnight. He’s not a great fan of my writing, though, and tends to heave major sighs when I’m working away for hours at “the box” (that’s what he calls my computer). He loves to rest his chin on my hand while I’m typing and say, “Look, there’s a beautiful dog here who’s being ignored.”

Where can we learn more about you and your books?
You can find out more by checking out my website – www.mpbarker.net

M.P. Barker is the award-winning author of two historical novels set in 19th-century New England—A Difficult Boy (Holiday House, 2008) and Mending Horses (Holiday House, 2014). A Difficult Boy received awards from PEN New England and the International Reading Association, and Mending Horses is a Kirkus Prize nominee. Her background includes work at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum, where she experienced 19th-century New England life firsthand. You can find out more at her website – www.mpbarker.net