AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: BARBARA O’NEAL
Tell us a little about The Garden of Happy Endings and what inspired the story.
It is the story of two sisters who each come to a crisis point in their lives and come together to create a community garden in a challenged neighborhood. Elsa is a minister who lost her faith when a young girl in her congregation was murdered brutally. Her sister Tamsin has lost her home and all of her belongings when her husband disappears on the eve of being indicted for a Ponzi scheme. Elsa begins to fall in love with the landscaper helping with the garden, but she also has to make peace with an old love affair, one with her now-best friend Joaquin, who is a priest.
It is a story about love—love for family and home, for friends and lovers, for the passions that motivate us to live our best lives. I was inspired to write it when I worked a challenging volunteer job in my small church and started paying attention to the life of the minister and the organ of the church. I also walked a portion of the Camino de Santiago in 2010, and that made me think about what might happen if you set out on a pilgrimage without realizing it might turn your life upside down. It does that for both Joaquin and Elsa.
When you start writing, do you already have the story plotted out or do you let the characters dictate what will happen?
A little of both. I tend to have a general idea of what kind of story I’m going to write, what ideas might be pushing me to write THIS book right now, and I will often sketch out ten or twenty scenes before I start, but mostly, the characters are the driving force. The more clearly I see them, the more I understand where they are going and what is happening on the page. That only happens when I sit myself down and let them talk. (A lesson I have to learn anew each time I start a new book, by the way. I want it to be easier and it never is!)
What inspired you to write in your genre? Is this the genre you started writing in or have you morphed to this one?
I write women’s fiction these days, and have for about ten years, but I would also call it romantic women’s fiction. There is always a love interest somewhere in the book. I like men and the way men and women balance each other, so I don’t see that changing.
I started in romance. It was a commercial decision, honestly: romances were selling, and it was easier to break in there than in mainstream fiction or science fiction, which was my other possible path. Like most writers, I was (am!) a fanatical reader, so I’d absorbed the structure and customs of both romances and science fiction, but romances paid a lot better. I discovered I really loved writing them and I was good at it.
Do you have a favorite character you have written?
So many. I love Jewel, from No Place Like Home, and Elena from The Lost Recipe for Happiness. I also really, really love the character of Joaquin in The Garden of Happy Endings. From the start, I wanted to write about a good, honest, true priest because there are such men in the world and we don’t hear as much about them as we should. But he’s also a man, and he loved Elsa very much. His struggle touched me deeply.
Who was the toughest character for you to “get right” that you have written so far?
It might be the one I’m wrestling with right now. Her name is Ruby. She’s had a challenging life and has had experiences that I have to research deeply, and every time I think I have her figured out, she morphs again. By the end of the book, it will be fine, but she’s raised the bar for me.
Do you draw inspiration for your characters from real life? Any fun stories you could share?
I draw inspiration from life all the time, but it’s more a background sort of thing. One that makes me laugh, still, is from The Secret of Everything. The main character’s father, Sam, is a laid back surfer/hippie kind of guy. Never done much with his life but to enjoy it. He loves dogs and women and his daughter, and he’s great with kids, but not so great with long term relationships. I adored this character!
When my mother read the book, she called and said, “I enjoyed the way your ex-husband showed up.” I blinked and thought very hard, but I had no idea who she was talking about. She said, “Uh, Sam?”
And I cracked up. Because, yep, that’s my ex. Friendly, charming, great with dogs and kids, not so much the long term relationship thing. And his name? Ram.
It was hilarious to me that I didn’t even SEE that!
What do you find the hardest part of writing?
Actually getting started each day. Once I get moving, I have a good time, but I will do 12,000 things to procrastinate getting started.
Name one thing that your readers would be surprised to know about you.
Hmmmm. It’s hard to imagine anything that would be super surprising, since I’ve written 40 books. Eventually, everything shows up on the page, right?
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Only one? I have LOTS of them. Cookies, steam baths, Survivor, wine.
What do you need before you start writing? Anything that is just a must have or the creative juice don’t flow?
Something to drink, like tea or coffee, and a comfortable place to sit.
Does music influence your writing? If so, do any of your stories have a theme song?
They ALL have theme music. I make a playlist for every book, and have done so since my boys were toddlers and I had to re-enter the book very fast to get the maximum amount of work done in an hour. Theme songs for The Garden of Happy Endings are “What if God Was One of Us,” by Joan Osborn, “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright, and “Glitter in the Air,” by Pink. There’s a line in the Pink song about drinking coffee in the Garden that gave me Deacon, one of the main characters, in almost exact, perfect detail. The whole book sprung from that line.
If your story was optioned for a movie, who would play your characters?
Tough question. I can see the characters so clearly in my mind, but it’s hard to put actors in those places. For Joaquin, Javier Bardem (and if he turns that down, maybe he can just come over and have supper with me!). Matthew McConneahy would be a good choice for Deacon. I could see any number of people in the role of Tamsin—so many gorgeous, older actresses!—but its Elsa who is difficult. I see her as small and ordinary, but luminous. Who could do that?
Where were you when you got your first contract? Who did you tell first?
I didn’t have a phone, so they had to call me at my father’s house. He was there, and my boys were there, too.
Sweet story: my oldest was in kindergarten, and I would walk him to school and sometimes tell him that one of these days, someone would say to me, “Yes, Barbara Samuel, we want to buy your book!” When I got the call, Ian said, “Mommy, they said yes!”
How old were you when you read your first romance book?
If we count fairy tales, about 4. Regular romances, around 12 or so.
What author causes you to “go fan girl”/ squeal over/anticipate upcoming books?
Sarah Addison Allen. I love every word she writes. Every single word.
If you still have one of those pesky non writing jobs what is it?
Thank heaven, I do not, and have not for a long, long time.
What are you currently working on, and what else is in the wings?
I’m working on a book about four food bloggers who are meeting for the first time at an organic lavender farm.
Also in the wings, The Sleeping Night, coming from Belle Books June 24. It’s a WWII era romance set in Texas during the war, via letters, and in the first tender days after the war when a soldier comes home and has to grapple with the love he always felt for his good friend Angel, who is in crisis and is very isolated. Her father saved his life—he feels obligated to help her in return. The trouble is that it’s the south in 1946. Isaiah is black. Angel is white.
If you could co-write with another author who would it be?
That’s just not the way I work. The very idea actually makes me shudder.
How do you pick your characters names?
Telephone books and baby name books and long lists. I have sometimes named them wrong, and they tell me.
Do you prefer the love at first sight approach or a steady growth throughout?
I like them both. Most of us have had that sense of being absolutely smitten on sight, but that tends to fizzle out. So it has to be replaced by something real.
What is your reaction to people who say one of the following…”Oh you write romance, I thought you were a real writer”, “Romance isn’t a real writing career” or the ever popular “Oh, one of those books”.
After I strangle them, you mean? I do so get tired of this attitude, and it amazes me that I’ve been writing romances for 25 years and this is STILL a problem. Why are these particular genre novels so witheringly dismissed? I have no idea. As for a real career: I’ll put mine up against anyone’s. Romances have been very good to me.
Where can readers find you?
Oh, I’m everywhere, baby!
And for the silly side – What is your favorite type of chocolate?
Godiva raspberry/chocolate bars.