A Peek at the Creative Space of Tracy Barrett

Joining us this week for Creative Spaces is author Tracy Barrett. She is the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction titles including a middle grade time travel mystery, On Etruscan Time; The Sherlock Files which is a series of middle grade mysteries about two young descendants of Sherlock Holmes who set about solving his unsolved cases by using modern technology and their smarts; the ghost story Cold in Summer; and the award-winning Anna of Byzantium, a blend of history and fiction, a story of political intrigue set in the Byzantine empire.

Her latest young adult novel, King of Ithaka, will officially be released into the wilds of bookshelves near you tomorrow. The King of Ithaka is based on Homer’s Odyssey and tells the story of Telemachos and his journey to find his father Odysseus who has been away for 16 years. Kirkus Reviews wrote: “A rousing introduction to epic characters and mythic creatures of ancient Greece from the fresh perspective of an engaging young hero.”

In addition to her career as an author, Tracy also teaches Italian, Women’s Studies, English, and Humanities at Vanderbilt University. And she served the SCBWI for ten years as the Regional Advisor for the Midsouth (Tennessee and Kentucky) region.

If you’d like to learn more about Tracy, here are two more interviews: one with the Vanderbilt Register about her dual roles as author and professor, and another at The Spectacle blog about King of Ithaka. You can also visit her website or check in at her blog, Tracy’s Yarns.

And now, if you’re anything like me, you’re itching to get some insight into how Tracy Barrett manages to juggle both a successful writing career and teaching career, so let’s get to it! Here’s a peek at Tracy’s writing space:

Describe your workspace.

I have half a bedroom; in the other half is a twin bed that’s technically a guest bed but actually is more frequently used by me as an escape from a snoring spouse, so the whole room is really mine!

I have a large bookcase near my computer; half of it is filled with books I use for ready reference—books on writing, dictionaries, atlases, etc., and then books about whatever I’m currently working on. Right now that’s a hodge-podge of medieval Scandinavia and ancient Greece. In the other half are autographed children’s and young-adult books, and also one copy of each format that each of my books has been in: ARC, hardcover, paperback, CDs, translations, etc.

I have a wonderful piece of furniture that used to be mailboxes in an office. It’s old, scarred, dark wood, and turned over on its side, it makes great cubbies for different projects.

Both my home office and my day-job office are very organized. If I get totally caught up in a writing project, I want to be able to get to the university and hit it without worrying about completing some project I left half-finished on my desk the day before, or making a last-minute quiz full of mistakes, or scrabbling around to find something before dashing out of the office to a class.

Describe a typical workday.

I wish I had one! I teach at a university, so my typical summer day is quite different from my typical day during the school year. On a summer day I usually write for a few hours in the morning and take care of business—research, blogging, etc.—in the afternoon.

During the school year I get a lot less of both done. I at least think about what I’m writing every day, but I don’t get to write every day. I’ve learned to accept this and to realize that ideas are always percolating, whether I’m aware of it or not, and whether I’m putting them on paper or not.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

One of my mother’s friends when I was a little girl was the wonderful author Jean Fritz. On my seventh birthday, Jean gave me one of the original illustrations from her book The Cabin Faced West. It’s always hung over my typewriter and now my computer. Jean is an inspiration to me as a human being and as a writer.

A few years ago, Jane Yolen wrote a poem for the regional advisors of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I had my copy framed, and it too hangs above my computer. It’s entitled “Let Dreams Take Flight,” and exalts the creative process.

In elementary school, my daughter painted a self-portrait that is fairly abstract, showing a large yellow figure with a smaller figure inside, flexing its muscles. She wrote on the back: “I like this because it shows two wonderful states of being: strong and happy.” What better place to start from when writing?

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

Not really a ritual, but a rule: I never bring university work home, and I never write my books at the university.

What do you listen to while you work?

NPR. I turn it low enough that individual words don’t grab my attention, but a gentle murmuring in the background makes me feel less alone.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Very unoriginal: coffee.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

The work itself! If my mind wanders, I know something’s wrong.

Time-pressure helps too. When I have all day to write, I sometimes piddle around instead of getting down to it. But if I know I have forty minutes, I get forty minutes worth of writing done. Usually.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

Computer only.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I once had an editor who required a detailed outline, and it was hard for me to get excited about writing the book once the outline had been done and approved. I felt I had already done it. There were no surprises left, nothing for me to discover. It was only when I gave myself permission to leave the confines of the outline that it came alive for me. Luckily, those deviations from the outline were fine with the editor!

I usually have an idea of where I’m going, but how I get there isn’t always clear, and the path may lead me a little away from the ending I thought I had. For instance, my most recent book, King of Ithaka, is based on the first quarter or so of the Odyssey, when Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, goes in search of his father. I knew the story had to end with Telemachus and Odysseus slaughtering the suitors for Penelope’s hand, but by the time I got there, my Telemachus was not the kind to do that, so I had to figure out an ending that would remain true to Homer and yet to my character as well.

I’m one of those who revise while writing. I agree with what Newbery winner Paul Fleischman said: “I like to build my house on stone, not sand.”

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Rush Limbaugh, because I wouldn’t be tempted to stop working and chat.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

I heard Sharon Creech say that after she won the Newbery for Walk Two Moons, she started listening to writing advice and panicked when she realized that she wasn’t doing anything the “right” way. She called her agent, who calmed her by saying, “Sharon, your process is your process—honor it.”

11 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Tracy Barrett”

  1. Patricia Wiles

    Tracy is a terrific writer and dear friend. 🙂 It's so fun to read about her workspace and her writing process. She's an inspiration to me and many other writers. Go Tracy!

  2. Jessica Leader

    Fun and inspiring interview, and I agree that the Rush Limbaugh part is hysterical! I'm not sure I'd sit next to him because I bet he'd be the type to bluster out loud about the contents of his inbox, but the general principle is sound.

  3. Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files)

    I'm glad you all enjoyed the interview! And I agree, the Rush Limbaugh pick had me laughing out loud too. I hadn't ever considered taking that approach to picking a forced officemate. Pretty brilliant.

  4. Sheila

    I didn't know we had so much in common. I'm married to a sailor too and have to vacate the room when he starts to snore.
    My office space is similar (not as organized. the information about how you juggle two jobs was real helpful.

  5. DLCurran

    I liked the interview – and your blog. I must say I wish I had an actual difined space to write… and if I did I'd want that big old mail furniture thingy she's got there! Warms the organizing heart, it does. 😉 Haven't read her yet, but I'll track her down now.

  6. Janet Fox

    I've loved knowing Tracy and have to say…her space fits her. Clever, smart, thoughtful. She's a talented writer and one of the nicest people on the planet. Thanks for the great interview!

  7. Tracy Barrett

    It's fun to see how many people like my mailbox-turned-cubbies! Someone at work left it in the hallway to be carted away to the landfill, and I instantly plastered it with post-its saying MINE MINE MINE T. BARRETT until I could get it home.
    Thanks for the opportunity to do an interview for such an original blog!

  8. LadybugSF

    As a college prof myself, it's great to hear that another author has come to terms with not being able to write every day. Often I feel that's a failing on my part, but really, it's just life. And, the ideas ARE always percolating!