To celebrate International Women’s Day Chloe Johnson has interviewed author and lecturer Raffaela Barker who discusses what it’s like being a female writer and shares advice on breaking into the industry as a young female creative.
As you have literature run through a lot of your family, what words of advice would you give to those who view writing as more of an unstable career, or who might not have been as encouraged as you were to pursue a creative path?
I was not so much encouraged; it was the norm in my family. I would suggest that people try not to see it as “other”. If you love it, you just see it as a very important strand of your life. I think why I was lucky was that most people in my family were really interested in the Arts, literature, dance, paintings and so it was a form of communication in our household. What wasn’t, unfortunately, was anything practical, like how to fix your car, or plumbing. My words of encouragement would be to think of it as the norm, rather than as “other”.
Have you found it difficult to be taken seriously as a writer because of your gender? A lot of creative activities are viewed as feminine, but things like the business aspect of publishing, how involved are you?
I think that’s such a good question, I think not only have I found it hard to be taken seriously – I’ve found it hard to take myself seriously. Because I think that I don’t know how to do it. My agent has always been a woman, my direct publisher has pretty much always been a woman, but I would say, without knowing exactly, that the top boss has always been a man. The first publisher that I knew well, who is still my editor, a very inspiring woman called Alexandra Pringle, she first worked at Virago and was the first publisher who took me out to lunch, so all the publishers I very first met were women. Which was fantastic, and so I feel I’m fortunate in that I’ve never felt the struggle, personally, although I’ve seen it.
As a woman, how do you feel about the fact a lot of your bios come with your father’s name attached?
Very well noticed, that’s just how it happened. I started off when I was very young, I was 25 or something like that when I published my first book. At that age, you’re more defined by your family than you expect to be and so that was what came up first. In the way that google hits and things like that make it happen now, that’s the first thing that often comes up about me. I don’t like it very much but I also accept that it’s what the shape of your life is like – it’s where you come from first, and that [family] is one of the first things that happens to you, that is defining for you, but not necessarily of you. So, now, I’d quite like it to change. Funnily enough, when I have interns, I get them to go and have a look at my website and tinker around with it to move it about. But it keeps creeping back.
A lot of your novels tend to focus on women coming undone, and then as a result coming alive. For example, in Green Grass, Laura completely leaves everything she’s known but as a result of it starts to take control of her own destiny. Was this inspired by personal experience?
I don’t see it as inspired by personal experience; it’s seen through the prism of it. So, because I’m living my life, and I’m a writer, I see things and think: it would be really interesting to explore what it would be like to be that person. But I’m seeing it from where I am. Although I do think everything to do with coming undone and putting yourself back together is the shape of human experience. There’s lots of moments in your life when you do that. And I also think that’s what the creative process is, I think it’s very much: I live in a state of total chaos and disorder, my writing gives me order, but then it becomes chaotic again.
What would you say makes a successful woman?
I think it’s somebody who feels fulfilled and feels that they move through the world in a way that isn’t constantly tripped up. The way that they want to.
Most of your novels contain Norfolk in some way, where are your top three Norfolk hotspots?
My favourite ones are mostly outside, I do like nature quite a lot. My favourite current one is called the Five Bridges and it’s out at Stiffkey, you walk out and get covered in mud and you walk across these really narrow bridges, or if you’re my dogs you jump out and fall in! Another is this creepy wood near where I grew up. Some kind of sink hole happened, so all the trees that were upright suddenly crashed down. down below in this swampiness it had just their tops coming out. Now you can see them they look Japanese like because they’re coming out of this pond with waterlilies in it. It’s so cool. I love things that make you think that nature is dangerous and other. And then my third…I really love churches. Even though I’m not religious, I love them for what they represent: community and congregation. There’s one called Salle Church that’s got lots of ghostly feelings, and there’s meant to be a hare – the doors will burst open – and this hare gallops in, and it’s meant to be the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Bleak and beautiful.
What’s the best thing about teaching young women creative writing?
The young women! Without a doubt. It’s absolutely heaven because they are excited, open and brave. Willing to try. The best thing about being a writer for as long as I have been, is being able to be a teacher now.
Finally, what advice would you give to upcoming female creatives trying to break into the Arts Industry?
Do your homework. Do your research. Similarly, when you’re applying for jobs, or trying to get a publisher, look at what else they’ve got and be intelligent in your discussion of it. So, if you look at an example of Bloomsbury, my publisher, you find some authors like yourself, or authors who you have empathy with, you think of some interesting questions to ask Bloomsbury about those authors, and some interesting questions Bloomsbury might ask you, and approach that in your covering letter. Use all your intelligence. I think that sometimes people give their power away to the publishers. You’ve got to meet them in the middle. It’s both of you. It’s about having agency in the world. You know what you’re doing.
Interview by Chloe Johnson – third year English Literature and Creative Writing student.
Are you eager to get more advice from industry professionals? Come along to Working with Words on 25 April 2020 to hear from published writers, literary agents, editors and more! This is a day-long event where we bring over 40 speakers back to UEA to help you to explore careers in publishing, journalism, broadcast, marketing and communications. Bookings open soon so keep an eye out on our social media.