Voices, Family Stories and Encore Careers—An Interview with Novelist Barbara Stark-Nemon
You haven’t been paying attention if you didn’t notice audiobook sales have been on a roll—double-digit growth for eight years now, and that doesn’t include the pandemic year 2020 when preliminary figures show an even more extraordinary sales spike. Let’s credit a handful of different causes, from the ease of digital downloads to more user-friendly listening devices, but foremost we should acknowledge the fact that publishers are making a great many more audiobooks than ever before. For most publishers, nearly every book they publish in paper or hardcover also earns an ebook and audio version.
Boots are made for walking and, come to find out, books are made for talking.
On the occasion of her audiobook release of Even in Darkness, a Gold Winner in Literary Fiction in the 2015 INDIES Book of the Year Awards, we caught up with Barbara Stark-Nemon to talk about her remarkable journey as an author and publishing-savvy entrepreneur. With the 2018 release of Hard Cider, she’s now written two published novels and, we learn below, is hard at work on her third.
First of all, let’s talk about Even in Darkness coming to light as an audiobook—which seems to have been a dream of yours for years. Tell us why this wrenching Holocaust story was so well suited to be listened to? How does it feel as an author to hear the voices of characters you created? Jilly Bond’s narration is superb. Are you pleased overall?
I’ve always believed that hearing tales told aloud reaches into an archetypal form of story transmission that we are hardwired to receive. (My career as a speech and language therapist using stories as a basis of therapy reinforced this belief.) I am very much more an auditory than a visual person myself, so I love entering book worlds through listening. Because I’m a voracious consumer of audiobooks, and I have a sister with very low vision, I’ve wanted my books in audio form since they were first published. Our family and close friends created an informal audio version of Even in Darkness for my sister by recording chapters read aloud, and while it was a great project and gave her access, the result confirmed my need to find a professional narrator for the public version!
Although written as historical fiction, Even in Darkness is based on a true family story, and I still have the voices in my head of many of the people underlying the characters, so finding a narrator who could bring accuracy to the German-inflected dialogue, and audibly create the distinctive characters was a challenge. I auditioned so many wonderful narrators, but when I heard Jilly, I knew I’d found the right person. Her British accent gives the narration a European elegance that I hope matches the story. She was a joy to work with—closely reading the book, absorbing my input about what mattered to me thematically, and understanding the characters well. It made me appreciate how skilled voice actors have to be to do audiobook narration well. As an author, it was a thrill to have the book I’ve spent so much time with, brought to life so authentically.
Please talk about the realities of your life as an author and publisher of two novels? Why did you decide to work with She Writes Press instead of a conventional publisher? What, if anything, surprised you about the various roles of publishing? In a dream world, would you prefer to simply write and leave the business and marketing side to others, or do you enjoy that work, as well?
I came to writing novels as an encore career, after many years of using my clinical, research, and writing skills to work with communicatively disordered children. When you’re used to working effectively and collaboratively as part of a team and finding reward and a sense of agency in that work, it’s hard to face the capricious world of conventional publishing with its uncertainties and lengthy wait times. She Writes Press, a hybrid publisher, provided the professional team, the high standards, and the sense of agency that best suited the way I wanted to bring my work to publication. The community of women writers I found in my fellow She Writes authors has been an inspiration and invaluable resource. That sense of community, of collaboration rather than competition, all the while pursuing excellence in the publication process is fostered by our publisher, and I think it’s pretty unique.
Two things surprised me about the publishing process. First was the simple fact that I could have this second successful career at all. I thought I was so fortunate to have found and enjoyed a long career as a speech and language therapist and teacher—doing something I loved and got good at for my everyday work. To find that satisfaction and reward in a second career as a writer has been a true gift.
The other surprising outcome of publication was the impact that reader and trade reviews, winning book awards, and receiving personal communication from readers had on my sense of identity as an author. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, and the editing and technical processes of bringing a book to publication are somewhat removed from the reader. It sounds naïve, but I only ever thought about how readers would respond to my books in a very abstract way—they would like the book or they wouldn’t. Instead, as reviews and awards came in, I found that readers understood my work and my characters in the very ways I meant to portray them, and sometimes in ways that I hadn’t thought of. Even more than holding a physical book I’d written in my hands, this feedback cemented my sense of myself as an author, and gave me the courage of my conviction that getting my books out into the world was worthwhile. (On the other hand, to keep me humble, my son purchased a piece of slate from a woman in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin, not long after I published Even in Darkness. As he wrote out the check to her, she noticed his last name and said, “Oh are you related to the author?” His reply: “What author?”)
I don’t know a single author who loves the business and marketing side of publishing a book—we’d all rather be writing—but these functions are an essential part of the job description in our current publishing environment. My publisher, Brooke Warner, promotes the concept that authors should actively “greenlight” their books. Engaging readers on social media, placing related content in other publications, entering writing contests, advertising, and securing book events involved a steep learning curve for me that is ongoing. I know that the results are strongly related to the amount of effort I put into it rather than what a publisher’s marketing department decides to devote. Would I love to have someone at my command to do all the business and marketing? Yes! But I am living my “author dream world” and the business side is necessarily part of it.
In your two novels, as different as they are, you seem especially interested in exploring the nuance and nature of family—from the nightmarish experience of a family of Jews in Nazi-era Germany to the trials of surrogacy and adoption on a contemporary marriage to the sharp elbows known to competitive siblings. What makes familial relationships so fascinating to you?
If we’re fortunate enough to live long enough, most of us find that life presents us with twists and turns that are unexpected, and even unwelcome. I am always interested in exploring how women, who often anchor their families, respond to that very human condition. I deeply value our capacity to choose reinvention rather than defeat, and what the struggle to do that looks like. Family is important to me personally, and I’ve found that readers are interested in how families work or do not work and how depictions of other families relate to their own .
Klare, in Even in Darkness, is a strong complex woman who must cope with the unthinkable in 20th century Germany and somehow make meaning for the remainder of her life after living through two world wars and the Holocaust. She must restructure her sense of family after significant loss and dislocation and find and preserve her capacity to love again. I guess I wasn’t done with that concept—that a strong multidimensional woman must overcome the unexpected with dignity and self-determination, so in Hard Cider the main character, Abbie Rose, must reinvent not only her work as a cidermaker, but her very sense of who constitutes her family. When circumstances (infertility, the challenges of adoption and reproductive technology, a house fire, and difficult child-raising) have already challenged her, a stranger with a secret threatens Abbie’s hard-won balance between her family and her dreams.
We are born into families, but we also make families. In our contemporary world, we have embraced new and different ways to form family. These changes can be expansive and rewarding, but also bring complexity to the dynamic among family members and challenges to traditional role definitions. Great fodder for novels!
In Hard Cider, Abbie’s relationship with the men in her life—husband and three sons—is a case study in the caretaker dynamic: self-sacrifice, enabling, and the unwarranted guilt familiar to so many wives and mothers. To her credit, as she steels herself to launch her cidermaking business, Abbie also strives to stop with the dutiful role-playing she’s always engaged in with those men. Please talk about why this aspect of Abbie’s personality was so important to the story overall?
This complication is at the basis of some of the book’s most important themes. How do we balance our loyalties, responsibilities, and personal dreams and goals with those we love, and how does this balance change over different times in our lives? To whom do we owe these kinds of considerations? Abbie comes from a generation of women who benefited from the pioneers of the women’s movement, and believed they could and would develop careers outside the home, but still confronted unequal childraising and homemaking responsibilities (as many women still do). Whether learned or intuitively, Abbie values nurturing others, while resisting having that role surmount all others. As her children move into adulthood and her marriage matures, Abbie makes changes that disturb the family roles the men in her life have come to expect. It’s been fascinating for me to observe readers’ reactions to Abbie’s bid to pursue her dreams while remaining an important part of her family. Some readers think she’s selfish—that she violates her commitment to her marriage and family in pursuing her business and keeping secrets. Others find her courageous, vital, and formidable in asserting a new life direction. This topic has made for some great book club discussions!
What’s your next challenge? Are you working on another project? Can you give us a hint or two?
I am working on a new novel! A fourteen-year-old embroideress, who must escape early 17th century Portugal and find her way through Spain and France to Germany in order to escape the Inquisition, has taken up residence in my writer’s mind! It’s back to historical fiction for this book. I’m looking forward to being able to travel again to continue my research..
She Writes Press
Softcover $16.95 (317pp)
“Love and devotion [bloom] as redemption for pain and suffering,” writes Barbara Stark-Nemon at the conclusion of her emotionally challenging and meticulously researched new novel. The story centers on Klare, a resourceful, intelligent woman with a real-life counterpart in the author’s family history, who at eighteen is faced with lethal threats related to her Jewish identity.
Despite the growing presence of Nazism, Klare elects to marry Jakob Kohler, the reserved older lawyer who’s captured her imagination. With Klare’s brother, Jakob enlists to fight in the First World War, and comes home to find his world no safer for it. Their family grows in time with increased restrictions on Jews, and perceptive Klare must find ways to protect the people they love before a brutal, merciless enemy.
The daring choices of the Kohlers, and those in their immediate circle, involve notorious avenues for escaping Nazism: use of the kindertransport, immigration to Palestine, and crypto-Judaism all find well-drawn places on these pages. With all they lose, the Kohlers still find ways to gain: in redoubled affection, in the certainty of a line that will continue if on foreign soil, and in the knowledge that never, under any pressure, did they lose their integrity for the sake of survival. This is a Holocaust story certain to move readers not only because of the quiet heroism of its characters, but because it rings with truth. Even in Darkness is a stunning historical endeavor.
**2018 INDIES Finalist **Finalist, General (Adult Fiction)
In Barbara Stark-Nemon’s Hard Cider, a midlife desire to pursue a dream comes to literal fruition—but not without persistence, resistance, and research.
Abbie Rose Stone is a wife of thirty years, a mother, and a true lover of the Great Lakes region “at the pinky finger of the Michigan mitt,” where she and her family have a lakeside cottage. Abbie finds herself increasingly intrigued by the process of making hard cider, a fascination that began decades ago in England, where she lived before marriage and family became her focus.
Now approaching her mid-fifties, Abbie is accustomed to putting the needs of others before her own. Abbie’s plan to start her own cider press in Michigan is not met with enthusiasm by her husband or her three adult sons. They needle her with questions about finances, time demands, and the viability of such a venture, surprised that she would step beyond her nurturing role into the realm of becoming a small-business owner.
Fortunately, Abbie refuses to have her hopes quashed. She continues to research logistical and horticultural details, learns about the wide variety of apples, travels to New England to visit other cider presses, and seeks out local business allies. Beyond all this is some family drama and a mysterious young woman who will come to play an unexpectedly larger role in Abbie’s life.
The novel soars with passages about upper Michigan’s unique beauty, as well as through Abbie’s instinctive love for nature and her captivating excitement as she steps into a cider house, with its “sweet dank warmth and the powerful smells of a packed earth floor, crushed apples, and hay.” Hard Cider is a story about following a dream, but not without the planning and perspective needed to turn passion into reality.
Reviewed by Meg Nola