Retired from film and theater acting but still singing and writing music and screenplays, I'm in my third act as a novelist. Born in Chicago, with decades spent in Los Angeles and Colorado, I'm known for sharp dialogue, twisting plots, unusual atmosphere, and psychological portraits of upended characters experiencing life-changing circumstances. As a young man I wanted to be a lawyer, but a curiosity in cultural anthropology catapulted me on a tightrope of ethical quandaries that mark my novels today. My latest novel, The Mermaid Latitudes, is currently out to agents and publishers. I am currently researching and outlining my next book, a YA about young brothers who bring Paul Bunyan into a modern America where he doesn't belong.
Meet Barry James Hickey author of The Five Pearls, Chasing God's River and The Glass Fence
Norm: How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Barry: My first attempt at writing began in my early twenties. I was an elevator operator at night in an old office building in downtown Chicago. After six the building was usually deserted, save two cleaning women and myself. I did my college homework in the shaft and set aside at least an hour a night researching and outlining two novels. Both were great adventure stories - Voyageur and The Sons of Marco Polo. Of course, that was decades ago. I never wrote the books. I drifted into singing and acting first. I am a late blooming novelist and that is a good thing, Norm. Writing a book rescues me from ennui and keeps me away from lots of shenanigans and destructive indulgences.
Norm: What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Barry: Each book is a unique play on a newly created stage, a certain reality that is my own to share. I get to say things I can't say in everyday conversation. I remind myself that a good book of fiction is really a two-way conversation between strangers where I control the flow. A writer must be a firm editor against his own work. Keeping order in the created universe is a challenge of the intellect. Something on page ten finds a pay-off on page thirty, those sorts of things. I write, I polish, I rewrite and polish again. A writer is an architect with the novel substituting for a house. I must fully understand my characters, first of all. I don't want caricatures. I want people to stand off the page. After fleshing them out, I understand how they will act and react in any given situation. I challenge myself to keep the reader guessing with my plot direction as my story unfolds, but try to keep it realistic. My fingers bleed for good dialogue. It's important for me to convey to the reader the truth behind the intentions of my characters. This is the mark of a good story.
Norm: Where do you get your information or ideas for your books? Do you write from your own experiences?
Barry: My subjects seem to find me out. It's as simple as that. Once engaged, I do put my characters in a landscape familiar to me. Towns and streets and places I've been. My experiences often incubate my stories. I have characters pieced together, molded from so many people I have encountered. Then again, it's exciting for me to invent, to step into the unknown territory of whatever I am writing. I love the research involved. I love to learn new things about people, places, how things work, how my characters think and live, what makes them special and interesting as people, what they are capable or incapable of doing.
Norm: Could you tell our audience a little about your novels and what inspired you to write each one?
Barry: I know now that grief is as common as happiness. My first novel, The Five Pearls, developed from three years I spent as a high school teacher. I suppose I was doing research on teenage minds then. I was so reminded of my own youth, hanging out on park benches, hunting the neighborhood with friends for beer, looking for cheap thrills, something not yet experienced, illegal things, testing myself against authority. For The Five Pearls I wanted to create an adult character the kids in the book would learn to accept and value. I wanted to offer the nobility of what a common person can achieve and I wanted that nobility to pass from one character to the next. In Chasing God's River I wanted to test the strength of a marriage, examine what Americans yearn for in the myth of true love and test the strength of friendship. In Pretty Maids All In A Row and The Pendragon Prophecy , I examine multicultural America, the hearts and actions of a handful of people looking for outside validation. In the Mermaid Latitudes, I drag a quiet stamp and coin collector kicking and screaming into the chaos of the modern world he has hidden from. In my upcoming Waking Paul Bunyan, I pit a man against modern culture to show how far removed we as a society have shifted from the greatness our forefathers wished for in the Constitution. In all of my stories I drift between romanticism and hard social science. Too much time spent on material things deprives our true soul. It's uncommon people that shape our lives. Personal and social change almost always comes from small experiences.
Norm: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
Barry: From some, Norm. I have found that my readers enjoy the thrill of a good read. They look for sustenance and new perspectives they can apply in examining their own lives. Women are more avid followers than men. They're more in tune with what my characters feel and try to overcome.
Norm: What do you want your work to do? Amuse people? Provoke thinking?
Barry: In fiction, the world the writer creates must resonate something that can be understood by the reader as being actual and true in the context of the work. When my story starts to spill out, when I have the full grasp of where it is heading and why, I absolutely intend to provoke thinking from my readers. A great percentage of readers want that challenge. They seek it out. They want their heart and mind, spirit and soul to be energized and provoked. It's a real human need. We approach our social culture for lessons and signs that we can take back inside our hungry consciousness where we search for the meaning of our individual lives. At the core of each and every one of us is a spirit searching for peace. I'm told my dialogue is right-on and real, that my books make readers laugh aloud and sob. To have accomplished that, to drag out a reader's emotions, to make them think, feel and cry, it's powerful stuff. The best I hope for is a well-conceived and executed story. Some fiction is like ice cream. Satisfying for the moment, but eventually lost in memory. When a writer puts his work into the world, it's done. It's locked into a certain time in history. I like what Ernest Hemingway says; "All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened."
Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
Barry: The loneliness, the stepping away from family and friends, the insomnia I live with because my imagined people need to be completed. Think about it. The writer is playing God with his words. The novel is a unique universe. These unfinished books of mine bother me a great deal. How many will I finish before I die? Of course, there is always the "I could be getting paid doing something else with this time if I wasn't cursed to be a writer."
Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
Barry: Can I change the world? No. Bend a bit of it, maybe. Can I make sense of it? Yes. At least from my experiences in it. I do think readers examine their own lives from my writing. My stories are close in nature to the everyday experiences of common people. I just add a few steroids to the plot. I strive to engage my readers emotionally and spiritually. A good book fires the intellect. It has the power to move people. When I come across my readers, it is as if we share a secret (the book), that few others will ever understand. Now if I ever get a bestseller and a movie deal, it won't be such a secret anymore. Ha ha ha. Just remember, a good book can influence actions.
Norm: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Barry: Share your words. Don't be afraid of the response. There are many opinions out there. Ignore some, heed some. Use a dictionary, learn the rules of grammar and sentence construction. Realize that those closest to you will probably never read your work and will always imagine you as who you were, not who you are. And by God, step outside your boundaries and discover people.