Author Anne Clinard Barnhill published her latest novel, The Beautician's Notebook, in April. Anne has published short stories, a memoir, and two historical novels. She says books like this one are her real work-humorous and poignant. Listen to our short interview above and read an extended interview below. Information about all of Anne's writing can be found on her website and her facebook page.
If you read the book, Anne would be delighted if you left a review on Amazon.
Gina: One writer said your first book came from your heart; your second two books came from your brain.
Anne: [The second two] were very well researched and they were historical novels.
Gina: Your first book was a memoir-and then this book.
Anne: This book is just a lot of fun.
Gina: Tell me about your writing genetics, what you've been writing and how this book, which-on the back of it, the first thing you read is, “When Willa Jo Temple is found stabbed through the heart on the floor of her beauty shop, the good folk of Sommerset, North Carolina are sent into a tizzy.” So you can tell it's going to be fun, even though it starts with someone being stabbed right through the heart. So how did you get to this fun book?
Anne: Well, I was in the middle of writing another book that was not fun at all. It's a story about a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, and the daughter-in-law has terminal cancer. And I was writing and being unhappy and I went to get my hair done. And the beautician told me a funny story, and I said, “Oh, you should write these down,” and she goes, “Well, I do.”
And I said, “What do you mean you do?” She says, “Yeah, I've got a notebook...” And I said, “Are you serious?”
And I left that day and it wouldn't leave me alone. I was halfway-150 pages-into this other book, which I will finish. But this idea of the beautician and the notebook and writing things down and everybody knows you tell your beautician everything. So what secrets could be in there? And it wouldn't leave me alone. And so I just put the other book away and started writing this one. So, this is more like my, what I think of as my work. The first book was a memoir, At Home in the Land of Oz, about growing up with my sister who has autism and that book came out in 2007, which is the same year my own daughter-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And then I have some short stories, which are really more like what I call my work. Which is kind of a combination of funny and poignant I would say. And then these weird two historical novels came out because because I have been obsessed since I was a teenager with my ancestors who served at the Tudor Court. And so I did all this research and found out about them. And there it is. So this book was just...I don't ever write the same kind of thing twice. I just can't seem to do that. I wish I could, but...
Gina: When you say it's your work-the short stories and this book...what do you mean by that?
Anne: Well, it's more like what I'm interested in. I'm interested in how people relate, what happens when love fails, bigger questions. I'm also interested in the absurdity of life which can be humorous. So, those those are things that are more local, kind of small stories, I guess. But the historical novels, I mean, I was not used to describing these enormous dresses and all of the hoopla around royalty. That was not, really, kind of what I think of as mine, although it is mine, so, yeah.
Gina: It's one of those things that's like, well I'm not really like that, but I guess I am like that because I just did that.
Anne: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It's like, OK that's a part of me. Yes, I'll claim it.
Gina: So, you know, that just the premise of this book, it sounds like a lot of fun. I mean, I hate to say that about the poor Willa Jo being, you know, stabbed to the heart on the floor of her beauty shop, but it just sounds like a lot of fun. In terms of her ex-husband, the sheriff, is doing the investigating and the notebook that she wrote-all kinds of secrets from the townfolk-that notebook is missing initially. And so there's definitely a mystery quality to it.
Anne: Oh yeah, yeah. The notebook kind of travels around. Various people steal it. The first thief is the the minister's wife and she's quite a character. I had a lot of fun with her. She, she ends up going to jail and her perspective on the jail is quite interesting. So, I still laugh when I read over that part.
Gina: Do you want to read that part right now?
Anne: Well, I could.
As she entered, Avenelle noticed a cage-like space to her left. It was empty. The guards helped her up to the front counter where another deputy wrote down all her information. Name, address, phone, DOB, occupation. They took her fingerprints. Then they told her to look into a little camera on the computer screen.
“What's this?” she said.
“We just want your picture, lady. Look at the camera,” said the man behind the desk.
“Do you mind if I freshen my lipstick?” said Avenelle. Oh no, how ridiculous. At first she wondered what made her say such a stupid thing. Then she realized the crazies were closing in. Hallowed be thy name.
“Just look at the camera,” he said. He pushed a button and she heard a click.
“Oh can I see it? I bet it's not as good as my driver's license picture,” said Avenelle.
She clapped her hand over her mouth. She was clearly out of control.
“Sorry lady we don't have time to let the inmates see their mug shots. What do you think this is? A selfie we're going to splash all over the net?”
Avenelle felt herself blush. She couldn't believe the crazies were taking over. Not now. Not when it was a matter of life and death. Good God, she prayed, Please don't let the crazy spill the beans about the notebook. If they found that, she'd be doomed for sure.
The deputy made her hand over her purse. Then two guards escorted her to a small room to the right-the examination room. A nurse asked about her general health, whether she had been out of the country in the last three weeks, whether she was HIV positive-imagine- and if she had any allergies. When the exam was complete, a female guard directed Avenelle to another small room directly opposite the medical office.
“Strip down for a shower and put all your belongings in this bag, even jewelry, those earrings and your watch. Here's the uniform you'll be putting on,” said the woman. Her manner was clipped, businesslike. Now Avenelle was truly afraid. When the sheriff had arrested her, she had been scared enough for the crazies to appear but now she felt as if she were splitting in half. One part of her was still at home enjoying a meal with her family. This other half was play acting in some dark fantasy come to life. Something about having to remove her clothes and wear that dreadful orange jumpsuit made the jail experience all too real. She wasn't sure what she'd do next.
“Ma'am? Ma'am? What about panties? I see there are none included, just the suit itself. Should I keep my own panties?” Avenelle said.
“Lady, this would be such a great moment for a 'don't get your panties in a wad' joke. But no, as I said, put all your belongings in the plastic bag. You'll be going commando.”
“No panties. Just you and the suit.”
Gina: [Laughing] The crazies?
Gina: Now, this is the minister's wife?
Anne: This is the minister's wife, who is very interested in keeping up her image. He's, he has a voice in the book, too. And he's very...at the beginning of the book, he's very rigid and, you know really, wants her to be perfect and makes her get her hair done a certain way and all of this. So, she's very conscious of all these things, but she has this other side where the crazies come out and she does bizarre things that he is surprised by.
Gina: Let's just talk about this character. Avenelle. She is...are those crazies, do you think, do you think that she has the crazies because she's so suppressed and repressed? Or is she somebody you know?
Anne: She's not anybody I know. Although, I did use her name, a former elementary school teacher, I used that part of a name from her. She just came to me. My characters usually just come to me. And I could hear her voice and I could just imagine this middle aged woman in the South who really hasn't experienced too much and seems to be the perfect minister's wife playing the piano for the choir and baking goods to take to all the sick people and all this. But she has another side.
Gina: Now, she's not the main character.
Anne: Not exactly...
Anne: Do you have a main character?
Anne: I think it's kind of an ensemble. Willa Jo is not the main character. She's dead. So it was kind of exploring what happens, all the ripple effects that happen in a community, in a family after someone dies and how it doesn't just stop after the funeral. How it continues to have effect after effect, some good and some not so good. So, I was kind of looking at that.
Gina: Who's another character that you like a lot? I'm sure you like all your characters.
Anne: I do like them all. I like Tommy “Mad Dog” McGee. He is a race car driver and he was Willa Jo's lover. He was about 10 years younger than Willa Jo and he's, he's... not very likable, but I sort of do like him, he can't help himself. He's under suspicion, of course, being the lover.
I am in love with Sheriff Tal Hicks, who is investigating the murder and is Willa Jo's first husband and first love and the father of her only child. He is just such a stand up guy. And I really like him. And of course there's Clarissa, who is wealthy and married to a very wealthy man and they live on an island right on the beach. And I like her because she has an interesting story, back story, that nobody knows about. I guess it is all about secrets and the face people put on. And what's really on the inside. And that difference.
Gina: And the story is, it's not just a fun little romp. Another writer has said that it's not just a collection of stereotypes. These characters, there is kind of a depth, there is that poignancy that you spoke about. It's not just all fun and jokes.
Anne: Right. Exactly. Yeah. There's there's definitely an exploration of relationships, particularly between mothers and daughters and husbands and wives, and I think that that exploration is very poignant. There are parts of that when I read I still cry over, and I would always think to myself-because I go over the book a thousand times, especially once we were in the editing process, and I was trying to fix all the errors, which I probably never did. But anyway, I would cry at the same parts, and I'm like, what is wrong with you. You know what happens, why are you doing this? But it just-something about it moved me.
I try to do some other things. I'm very interested in and concerned about race relations in this country and particularly after Charlottesville and all of that. But even way, way before that it's been a concern. And I find things popping up in my books. And so, there is a character who's a partner with Willa Jo, who's an African-American hairdresser. And it's unlikely. They're kind of an unlikely pair. But I try to explore some issues about race in a very gentle, gentle manner. I guess it's an idealized view of what I wish things were, but still, there are questions.
And Avenelle, I guess she is kind of the main character, has to make a decision about whether she-now that Willa Jo's dead-whether she is going to go to Trudy, who is Willa Jo's partner and she has to face the fact that her hesitation is about Trudy's race. And she-Avenelle-is a very spiritual woman even though she's married to this minister who's kind of---she, she talks about weeding the racism out of her heart and that God has to help her do that. And so she ends up going. And then she ends up telling all the other friends of hers to go. And so the business continues. So that's another little little element of depth to the book, I think.
Gina: How did you start with your publishing?
Anne: Well I went to UNCW, to their master's program and I started a memoir there. Paul Wilkes was teaching creative nonfiction and I kept, every week he would want us to come up with a topic and like, four weeks into the semester I still didn't have a topic and I finally wrote a piece about my sister and gave it to him and he said, OK this is what you have to write about. And I had never-I was an older student. I graduated in 2001. I had never, in all that time, spoken with anybody about my sister. What it was like to grow up with her before anyone had ever heard the term autism and the pain of that experience in my heart. And so, I started writing this stuff and it was, it was awesome. And then, but the thing was that when it was my turn to be up in the class, people would be reading my work and responding and I hadn't even really processed processed it myself.
So anyway, long story short, I graduated, I quit writing it because nobody was making me. I had about half the book. And then, my sister was in a group home at the time, and when you have someone in a group home you get to know everybody in the facility and she had a friend who had Down Syndrome and the friend passed away and we lived in the same town. So my mother and I went to her funeral. And my mother doesn't cry very much. She's one of these stoic, strong Southern women. And I thought I would cry because I cry at the drop of a hat. So I'm sitting there with my mother and we're hearing the family talk about what a joy Julia was and how much she meant to them. And I'm sitting here thinking, just counting the tiles in the ceiling because I think I'm going to cry. But we got all the way to the end. And we stood up to sing the final him and they said, this is Julia's favorite, this was Julia's favorite hymn and it was Jesus Loves Me. And so my sister plays that and sings it on the piano a lot. And so I look at my mother who was probably in her 80s at the time, and she's just crying. That was it. It undid me. And I just, just started crying, crying. And that day I decided I was not going to wait until my sister's death to honor her. I was going to finish my book to honor her and my parents.
Gina: Wow, Anne. That's beautiful. That's the Land of Oz.
Anne: Yes. At Home in the Land of Oz.
Gina: I can't remember what I asked you. I think it was-and you got it published?
Anne: Yeah. Yeah. The publish-well this is another really great story.
Anne: I used to take my daughters-in-law for a girls weekend and my one daughter-in-law was pregnant and so we went near her so she wouldn't have to drive, so I went up to Brevard and got us a little cabin in the mountains, right? And so we like to go to consignment stores and thrift stores on Saturday, so we were in this kind of ratty looking thrift store. And I was, I had just finished the book and I was really excited about and I was trying to find a publisher and get an agent. I didn't have an agent at that time.
And so, this young man comes up and starts talking to me. You know, this does not happen to a woman my age. So, anyway. So he starts talking to me about my book, he had overheard us. And he we went on and on and he was a student, a sophomore at Bovard, and I'm like, and the girls are giving me the eye like, come on, get out of here, let's go. And so, you know, I'm too polite to do that. So I just, I'm listening. He goes, well I know where you can get your book published.
I'm like, you do? Like, sure you do.
So he scribbled something on a piece of paper and I put it in my purse. Didn't think another thing about it. Well, I got home and I had gotten rejections all over the place. One that I thought was particularly hopeful did not pan out. So I'm thinking hmmm...wonder where I can find that little piece of paper. And so I looked and I found it and I said, this probably isn't even really a publisher. And so I typed it in. Sure enough, it was a publisher in England, in London. Jessica Kingsley So that very day, I typed, you know, I submitted the first three chapters. And that next day she-the publisher, not not somebody else, but Jessica Kingsley herself-emailed me said, we love this book. We don't like the title and you'll have to cut it. Are you interested? And I'm writing back, oh yeah. Oh yeah. And I really think that guy was my angel. I really do. He was my angel.
That, that got it started. And then, you know, Main Street Rag took my short story collection. Practically all of them, 14 stories and 12 had been published in literary magazines. And then, so that was next. And then I found an agent and sold the two historicals and then I'm currently without an agent and I found the home for The Beautician's Notebook myself. It's a very small publisher in South Carolina-Moonshine Cove Press. And I got to say, it's the name that sold me. I had a couple of small presses interested but I went with Moonshine because it's called Moonshine.
Gina: Any final thoughts about being an author?
Anne: Would it be gauche to say, if you read the book, please put a review on Amazon?
Gina: No. I will put that on the web.