Overnight success stories generally only look that way from the outside. It's normal, in art-based endeavors, that the "overnight success" generally struggled with craft for a couple of decades, finally "exploding" onto the scene with half a dozen books and an armload of writing credits. This is not true of Barbara J. Stewart. Though she struggled, it was not with writing. A former filmmaker and garden designer, Stewart didn't even know she was working on a book until she was well into The Sleeping Boy.
Stewart says now that, half a decade ago when she was still doing landscaping, instead of taking a lunch break, "I'd go off and write in my little notebook. So I was considered kind of an unusual landscape worker, at that point."
The fact that it was a novel she was working on kind of surprised her. "I don't know when I thought I was writing a book, but it wasn't until I was a long way in. I was just writing. And then I got to page 80 or 100 or something like that and I realized I was creating something. But it was a surprise to me. I was still getting up at five in the morning to do landscaping."
Talking about it now -- in retrospect -- Stewart makes the whole process sound unbearably easy. The book that almost wrote itself, at least in the early stages. The top agent who signed her practically on first contact. The book contract with a top house. Listen to Stewart's story to congratulate, to celebrate, to applaud. Don't listen for tips to the writing life: it just doesn't work this way.
Except, of course, for when it does.
It's apparent when you talk to her that Stewart is incredibly proud of The Sleeping Boy. The book, says Stewart, is a mystery: suspense. At the same time, it's about things that are important to its author.
"Entertainment is too important to be about nothing," says Stewart, "so while I wanted the book to be entertaining, I still wanted it to be about something. My interests are in social policy, in political development, that area. And I wanted to say something about that."
A changing world also contributed to the subtext of the novel. "It was also clear in the last three or four years -- long before September 11 -- that there were significant changes afoot. I honestly think that writers and artists are meant to be part of the political dialog. The issues are the second most important thing. And at the end of that was the idea that it's a thriller and a mystery. I cared about these people in this setting. And I cared about ordinary women like me -- middle-aged women -- being confronted by significant decisions."
The Sleeping Boy takes place in an American city not far from the Canada-US border. While the author is clear on the city's identity, she left the city deliberately ambiguous in the novel. "I wanted a city that was on the edge of being nowhere," says Stewart. "A city that was on the edge of being irrelevant."
The action focuses on three women: Dr. Leah Mallick, dead when the book opens, her fingers entwined with those of her husband, also dead. The couple's son is another room: damaged and unlikely to recover. Enter the mystery: who is the killer? Husband or wife? And why would anyone with such a visibly perfect life bring their family to this conclusion?
These are some of the questions pondered by Lieutenant Anne Shannon who enlists the aid of Susan Shaw, a woman who knew Dr. Mallick in ways she can't afford to admit and can, in fact, only barely acknowledge to herself.
The Sleeping Boy is stylish, thoughtful and intelligent and its author does a commendable job of balancing her poetic style against the sharp edge of her suspenseful narrative. An exciting debut novel.
Originally from Waterloo, Ontario, Barbara J. Stewart, 51, lives in Vancouver where she is at work on her second novel.
Linda L. Richards: I know that The Sleeping Boy is your first book. And, before you wrote it, I don't think you would have defined yourself as a writer.
Barbara J. Stewart: No. Gosh no. I was in the film business for 18 years. I was a producer and a writer and a director. The last five years, I was a producer with the NFB [National Film Board of Canada]. That was much more to do with infrastructure and development and so on. I wasn't making movies particularly anymore. And that may have led to the frustration [I felt]. By the time I left the business, I really wanted to [leave]. No question. And as far as I was concerned, I was finished with that end of it. So I became a horticultural technologist: a landscape designer. I did that for the last six or seven years. And I mowed lawns for people.
You studied horticulture in Toronto?
No, I moved out and got the diploma at Kwantlen [College] while I was here. I don't know what I thought I was going to do [when I left Toronto] but I know I bought a one way ticket. I explored some options and ended up working in a gardening center, then I went to Kwantlen and qualified, then got into landscape design. But the funny thing was that, as gratifying as it was in some ways, creatively, it wasn't for me. And that became obvious rather quickly but, unfortunately, I was already in it. So I just continued with it until I was mowing lawns and I'm listening to CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio] on my Walkman, which I did all day long. Listening to people talking about film and painting and art and all that and I began writing again. And I began writing because I started thinking again. But I'm listening to CBC and listening to people I know and had worked with, talking about their new projects or something that they're doing, and I'm emptying garbage cans. The thing was, I was really happy to empty garbage cans. I wanted not to be in a position where people were asking me questions, or where I was responsible for large budgets or people's careers or training or infrastructure or whatever happens in the Canadian film industry. It's more about building than it is about doing -- at least it was when I was there. And so I just said: I want to start doing my own thinking. And what that amounted to was instead of having lunch I'd go off and write in my little notebook. So I was considered kind of an unusual landscape worker, at that point. [Laughs] I'd take my cup of tea and go down the hill and start sketching into the notebook... I don't know when I thought I was writing a book, but it wasn't until I was a long way in. I was just writing. And then I got to page 80 or 100 or something like that and I realized I was creating something. But it was a surprise to me. I was still getting up at five in the morning to do landscaping.
You're not doing that now?
No! [A chortle, a snort.]
I think I heard "hell no" in there!
You're right: I will oblige you with that. [Laughs] I mean, I look out at a day like this and I would still be out planting spring bulbs. I was planting bulbs on December 24th in the snow. It's a good business in some ways. But there was a point where I realized my passion was elsewhere. There are people that love gardening; love landscaping. I love the architecture of design. I love the hardscape stuff. I would be far more excited designing a multilevel gazebo than I was choosing the proper plant material. So my background being in architecture, to some extent, I was attracted to the design aspect, not so much the plant aspects.
So you were still emptying people's garbage and mowing people's lawns, and suddenly you said: Ohmigawd! This feels like a book!
Yeah. It feels like a book.
Was it that clear of a revelation?
What I realized was that I'd rather do this -- what I was doing -- than anything else than I could think of. I rather melodramatically mentioned to someone that I'd rather die than not do this. And I actually meant it. I also meant that I'd rather do this than get up a five in the morning. Landscaping is a really tough business and while I was beginning to develop my own design business I still wasn't as passionate about doing that as I was in finishing doing it so I could go write. So when I found myself perhaps turning down a design client because I was far more interested in writing, I realized that something had to give. And what it was was could I pursue this more aggressively?
How long ago was that?
That was about four years ago. So that's really when I stopped and while I still did little bits of consulting, I found myself writing articles for gardening magazines rather than garden. That's actually what kicked me back to the writing. And I found that I'd rather do the writing than the gardening.
The other impetus to it, really, was that at one point, before I even left the film board, I thought: I don't like 95 per cent of what I do. I don't like 95 per cent of this business. And someone said to me: Well, what part do you like? And I said: Well, working with scriptwriters, script developing, writing, that stuff I could do endlessly. I would be at a script meeting until the scriptwriters wanted to leave. That never happens. I'd still be in there working with them.
Which really explains why you chose horticulture.
[Laughs] Exactly. Now there's a segue, yeah. But I wanted a place of refuge. And, for me, the idea of doing something so totally different. But, I thought: This is life-affirming. This is green and I love landscape. I love outside stuff.
Touching the earth.
Yeah. I was digging in the dirt.
[Laughs] So to speak. I would never write that in a book! But, no, the idea of writing a novel no: I skipped right past all the typical apprenticeship.
And, despite that, managed to get one of the top agents in the country [Hellen Heller].
Yeah. This sounds corny, but my agent is a gift. It never occurred to me that would make so much difference, but it did. And it was only later when I realized how well it served a first time writer -- how well it served someone who didn't know what they were doing. She was enormously patient. She treated me as a writer before I was. That's for sure. And as far as I'm concerned, she made the difference. It sounds like I'm making a speech, but the agent made the difference in this circumstance.
The story about how I got my agent was very interesting, too. She is the agent for another writer whose book I was reading. And I loved the book. And then, when I started casting about, I looked through the acknowledgments and I noticed that she'd given her agent credit. And I realized that that agent was one I'd read about and heard about. So I took it upon myself to send a letter of inquiry. I mean, I knew I wanted an agent before I began submitting to a publisher. It was never a consideration that I would submit the book to a publisher first.
You'd come from the film industry, so that doesn't surprise me. You knew better.
Exactly. And I knew what it was like being on the other side of the desk and getting pitched. I knew what it's like getting unsolicited whatevers. In my case it would have been scripts or films or whatever. But all I knew was that if you wanted to be taken seriously, you work with serious people.
So [after I sent my letter of inquiry] I got a phone call back. She must have held the letter maybe half an hour. She asked me to send a chapter, I suggested that was too much. She said: Send whatever you want then. So I sent the prologue. I got a phone call back 45 minutes later: Send three chapters. I want to see three full chapters. Got a phone call back an hour after she would have received it by FedEx. We had a deal between the Wednesday and the Sunday. And the Sunday we signed the deal was my birthday.
So between the Wednesday first chat, response to a letter of inquiry, four days later I had signed with one of Canada's -- I think she's Canada's best agent. And she never let go. I mean, at that moment I was enveloped in this relationship. She was incredibly supportive. She was very careful not to give me false encouragement at any point. She never said: We're going to make you a million dollars, baby. She just said: I'm presenting this, let's see what happens and I'll let you know how it goes. And we kept talking and we revamped and revamped and revamped the manuscript. I'd completed the manuscript before I sought an agent, because I'm a first time writer. I wasn't going to pitch them a 20 page idea and ask them to trust me. So I had completed a manuscript to prove that I could go from beginning to end and complete a writing project. While we rewrote a lot of times after that, that also made a huge difference to her: that I had a completed manuscript.
A couple of months later I got a phone call that she'd done a deal for The Sleeping Boy with Doubleday. My first reaction was shock: literally, physical shock. Like all the blood was rushing to somewhere else and I could feel everything tingling. It was the strangest reaction. Because it's such a personal thing and because writing a book is so close to your heart. It was a high like I'd never felt with film. I mean, this was it.
Before the agent, while you were working on the book, did you ever wonder: Why am I doing this? Who's ever going to care?
No. It never occurred to me. I didn't care. I was going to write it. And I was going to write it if it killed me. I think I said that at some point. And I would put things up in front of my desk while I was typing and I would use them as inspiration. Whatever it took. The thing I put in front of my book was the quote I ended up using [at the beginning of The Sleeping Boy] the Isaiah Berlin quote: Liberty is not liberty -- not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.
Because that, actually, was like a light going on. I read that quote and went: That's what I'm trying to say. And that became the hook for everything. I'm not trying to be esoteric by quoting a British philosopher. That actually was the drive to some extent.
What people notice is that it's about incredibly strong female characters. That's what I really cared about. I thought: OK, if I'm going to write a novel -- and, again, I didn't know I was until it was happening -- I want strong female characters. That was the starting point. Entertainment is too important to be about nothing so while I wanted the book to be entertaining, I still wanted it to be about something. My interests are in social policy, in political development, that area. And I wanted to say something about that. It was also clear in the last three or four years -- long before September 11 -- that there were significant changes afoot. I honestly think that writers and artists are meant to be part of the political dialog. The issues are the second most important thing. And at the end of that was the idea that it's a thriller and a mystery. I cared about these people in this setting. And I cared about ordinary women like me -- middle-aged women -- being confronted by significant decisions.
Speaking of setting: why did you choose the one featured in The Sleeping Boy?
It's one with which I'm familiar. I wanted a city that was on the edge of being nowhere. A city that was on the edge of being irrelevant. And so I picked a place that I know very well -- I don't even want to identify what city it is -- but it's an American city close to the Canadian border near Ontario. The idea is of a former industrial powerhouse casting around for who we're supposed to be next. And I've got characters who are trying to determine that in a city that no one else cares about, no one except the people who live there. Well, the people that I created are the people who live there.
Are you being called a crime fiction author?
It's being bandied around as a thriller mystery.
I'm not surprised. With a noir cover like that -- and a gun on the cover to boot -- it would be hard to call it anything else.
But it's the wrong gun! And one of the editors said to me: It scares me that you know that. But I think it's like a thriller written by Anne Tyler. Though I don't know if that category exists. It's not a domestic thriller. There's a closer kind of feel to what I wanted. Someone that we know being confronted by something huge. Something really big: bigger than themselves. I think that, for a lot of people, politics is over there and concerns about ethics are over there and everything is outside themselves. What I wanted to say was: No. Politics is how you live your life, it's not just how you vote. It's what you drive, it's what you choose, it's where you live, it's all of those things. And I wanted also to indicate that you are 100 per cent responsible for the choices you make in your world, in your life. So I'm trying to sort of convey the small decisions she makes that become larger ones and the large ones she make that become world shaking. And they're all indications of an individual's ethical choices.
That's an interesting segue, I think. Because you made some interesting choices in your life in the course of making this happen.
It didn't matter. What was really interesting was letting go. You know, the Sony DVD and the Bang and Olafson turntables and the rosewood [tables] ... I actually gave everything away. It didn't occur to me to sell stuff: I gave it away.
So this has been like a spiritual journey for you.
OK. But no: as far as I was concerned getting rid of stuff was getting rid of stuff. I live out of a cardboard box now. My life is down to my laptop and two boxes of books. The thing was, when you're forced to give away your stuff with an open heart -- I'm giving away Henckels knives and expensive blenders and just all the stuff. What it amounted to was: Let go of it, let go of it, because all that mattered was the writing. And as corny as that sounds, I would have done anything.
So you were doing this to make The Sleeping Boy happen?
Yes. In many ways. But I didn't know that.
Financially or emotionally?
Emotionally. Oh, yes. It's utterly emotionally.
You weren't selling the stuff so you could live?
No. Like I said, I didn't sell it, I gave it away. But, like I was mentioning, I bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver. I was at the desk at Air Canada and [the ticket agent] said: For another $20 you can get return. And I said: No, I could probably use the 20 bucks. But I was changing lives and there was no questioning that. I just didn't know what it amounted to. I can remember -- it's almost like a Stendahl syndrome, which is where you're looking at a piece of art and you're incredibly moved by it. The idea of being overcome by something quite beautiful.
Why I thought of landscape design was that I saw a misty valley when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be. And the mist and the way that the trees were in layers. The landscape overwhelmed me. At that moment I thought: I want to create landscape. And it began clarifying itself that I wanted to do landscape design. It turned out that I'd actually like to design landscapes: fields and valleys and mountains. Not someone's garden, there wasn't enough scope in someone's backyard. [Laughs]
Well, you can do that in a book. I did that in a book. It's like Peter O'Toole said in the movie Stuntman: Imagine what God could do, if only he had our budget. I can remember being a film director, I can remember being a film producer. I can remember doing a budget in order to create a different reality. It's nothing like writing a novel. Writing a novel is creating a new reality, and yet you want it based in truth, but I couldn't care less about budget. However if The Sleeping Boy were ever made into a movie, ironically it would be fairly inexpensive because it's character based.
So you gave the stuff away, you made your life light, you have one of the top agent's in the country and you've seen your first book published. Now what do you do? Do you buy an estate somewhere? [Laughs] I mean, you accomplished it. You did it. What now?
Write the second one. That's all I care about. Nothing's changed. What do you do next? You just find your way to writing the next one. And that's the constant struggle, right? For the first time I've applied for an arts grant. I hadn't done that before but one for which I've qualified, the qualification is that you've published a novel. And I did it. So now I qualify for an arts grant that I'd not been qualified for before. I haven't gone that route up until now.
I had a decent advance for The Sleeping Boy, but I've used a lot of it to develop a Web site because I want to continue the dialog that started with the book. The Web site is about bioethics, it's about biotech and we're launching it at a tech conference in Toronto in November. We're launching it to a bunch of delegates representing the cultural industries: technology and media. The point of the Web site is to continue that dialog. I think you have to do certain value added things for books now. You have to find a way to create a word of mouth in a way that's changed. Not just the Internet, but the idea of establishing a relationship that might have happened before by going on talk shows that talked about writers. Well, when was the last time Jay Leno had a writer on? Or David Letterman had a writer on? They don't do that stuff anymore. They used to have talk shows. Now they have -- I don't know what they have anymore: variety promo shows, I guess. Trade shows.
I actually want to emphasize the sort of five target areas with this book. In terms of taking it off the book review pages -- it's lovely that it's there, because that's my background and I love cultural industries and so on. But I also want to talk about the substance of it. And the substance reflects on bioethics, biotech, corporate malfeasance, development of social policy, health care: those issues. That matters so much to me. So the investment in the Web site is where I've directed a lot of the funding that I got from this book. And I'm hoping that it happens. At the same time, I want the Web site to be sort of fun. I'd like to stimulate people: You know you're middle-aged when... But a character in the book is always reflecting on middle age. Well, that's because I do and my friends do and that's because it's a real surprise to us that we arrived here. And we're all turning around to each other and going: When the hell did that happen?
Well, the Web site, I think, is the single most important thing I'm doing with regard to The Sleeping Boy. The rest of it is rather out of my hands. As much as I want to, I can't go to each book store and sell it, although I've offered [Laughs]. For me the next one is what's important. The second book I'm writing is a book I thought of 10 years ago.
Is it also a mystery?
It is. And it's intrinsically one. It's about the Canadian art world in 1936 and I'm developing a parallel story set in the contemporary art world. So you've got Canada between the Wars and you've also got the international scene which has sort of been overpowered by marketing and name and all sorts of movement that have somewhat left Canada behind. Yes, we have extraordinary artists in Vancouver but when everyone thinks of Canadian art, they think of Group of Seven.
What I want to do is juxtapose that expectation of Canadian art with a central conceit -- and that's what it is -- a central conceit that at one point there was a Canadian artist who was head and shoulders above any artist in the world. And that at one point Canada stood at the center of art in the world. So that's what it rests upon. And the second conceit is that art is the most important thing in the world. | October 2003
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Blue Murder, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.