Today I would like to welcome Jeanne Barrack to dish with us on the blog. Jeanne has been writing since grade school and has been published for four and a half years, with eight solo books and two anthologies to her credit. Jeanne is a native New Yorker from Brooklyn, married for thirty-odd years to her high school sweetheart. She currently lives on a mountain top in rural Pennsylvania, plays the guitar, and studied voice privately with a coach from Julliard. She sings everything from folk music to Grand Opera – in ten languages including Gaelic and Hebrew and her day job involves music therapy for seniors. Jeanne writes paranormal, urban fantasy, contemporary, historical, erotic romance, with both m/f and m/m content and her books are published with Loose Id, Liquid Silver Books, MLR Press and Aspen Mountain Press.
Jeanne, welcome to the blog and thank you for agreeing to this interview.
My pleasure, Wave. And let’s be honest here: I couldn’t wait to be interviewed… I really enjoy reading your interviews because you ask questions that others shy away from asking.
As someone who interviews other authors on your blog, The Sweet Flag, what do you most want to know about them?
Generally, I pick the authors to interview when I find out something a bit quirky or a backlist book catches my eye or I see a brief mention of something in their life that makes me want to know more about their writing process and why they chose the genre/s in which they write.
Tell us about Jeanne the author.
Well, let’s see. I went from a pantser to a plotter as my books became longer and I delved more and more into historical writing. This switch began when I wrote “The Crystal Flacon”. The book was inspired by Lucrezia Borgia. As I researched I realized that there was so much about her life I didn’t know and that much of what was written was either erroneous or exaggerated. I also lucked into finding a detailed genealogy chart of her last husband, the d’Este family. It told me so much about her and her descendants. Then I bought a guidebook about the part of Italy she was from and learned that the City of Ferrara, her last home, had strong ties with the Italian Jewish community. The d’Estes placed their Jewish population under their protection and it stayed that way until the family lost control of the city. I incorporated a fictional journal of Lucrezia that reflects the information.
I rented the beautiful film, “In the Garden of the Finzi-Continis” that was set in Ferrara and I was able to see the city within the context of a wonderful story based on the real life experiences of the screenwriter. Far more evocative than a dry travelogue and I fell in love with the city. I also learned more about stolen Nazi art and treasures and wove this into the storyline. (I have a very brief excerpt relating to this aspect of the story if you’d like to use it)
I gathered so much material I knew if I didn’t do a detailed outline, I’d lose a lot of the points I wanted to make. BTW, Although the story is m/f, one of the minor characters is a spunky lesbian fashion designer. She didn’t start that way. As I wrote her interaction with my heroine and hero, I realized that Gaby – the fashion designer – had a girlfriend who was a model, not a boyfriend. Gaby was a fun character to write. This book was the first historical I did and then the next book for Loose Id was The Sweet Flag and that one had to be outlined even though it was a novella. I really put myself in Brandon’s place. He was researching the story of the Vigilant Soldier and that was how I approached writing the story.
Now I outline all my stories.
What important fact about Jeanne do you feel most readers don’t know.
That I used to compete in fleadhanna cheoil (Irish music competitions) in the east coast and have over twenty gold medals for singing in Gaelic. That I’m a confirmed lover of Ireland and honeymooned there. Half of my writing output is inspired by Irish history, culture and language.
Your blog is called The Sweet Flag and I’m not sure if the story by the same name came before or after. What was the genesis of the name?
The story came first. I answered a call for submissions for Memorial Day stories. Since I knew that Memorial Day was inspired by the Civil War, I decided to set the story during that time frame. I also knew that Walt Whitman played an important role during the war as a well-respected battlefront nurse and of course, a literary figure. His same sex love had also been revealed in his writing, especially in the poetry known as the Calamus Cluster. The term “sweet flag” is another name for the calamus, which is a long, sturdy reed used quite a bit in folk medicine. The name (Calamus) was taken from a minor Greek myth: Calamus fell in love with the boy Karpos, and when Karpos died, Calamus continually pined for him and mourned. Rustling calamus reeds are believed to be the sound of Calamus’ never-ending lamentations. Since the story also centered around a period in American history when banners/flags waved, I realized I had both my title and the ingredient I needed for my special potion. Since the blog focuses on primarily gay fiction, I felt this was the perfect name. (Tidbit about Whitman: the man was a Brooklynite like me! )
I read The Sweet Flag this past week and absolutely loved it. I understand that you wrote the story because of your love of the paranormal and the American Civil War era but the love story was what drew me in initially as well as the paranormal aspect. What else would you like us to know about The Sweet Flag?
Thank you, Wave. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I had several goals when I wrote The Sweet Flag. I wanted to present the fact that it wouldn’t have mattered if deMonde and Matthew had been a het couple. The love affair between deMonde and Matthew would very likely have been doomed even in the 20th century for several reasons: deMonde was a bastard, of mixed blood and a Jew. It can be easy to forget that Jews were and have been vilified and have died for their heritage and still do so. We can blend in. DeMonde was able to do just that since his features were not the stereotypical image of a black man. His background as a Jew wouldn’t be known until he disrobed and revealed his circumcised penis. In fact, it isn’t until later in the book that he comes to realize that if he denies every aspect of his family, he is denying part of himself. I also wanted to introduce a different version of a traditional paranormal character. Kazvan, the “villain”, was unlike any other of his kind with few of the traditional trappings that go along with this.
Another bit about the paranormal aspect in the story. I had finished researching paranormal gay activity in “real life” and found it sadly lacking. After the book was written, I stumbled upon a present day, sweetheart of a gay paranormal investigator who collects paranormal activity that involves glbt ghosts! I’m sure folks would be interested in his blog Spooked!
I understand that you’re writing a sequel to The Sweet Flag which I believe is your most popular book. Most authors are concerned when they write a sequel, that readers might be disappointed because it didn’t live up to the original. Do you have any such concerns? When do you expect this story to be completed?
Of course, I have concerns. Especially since this one is centered completely in the past and focuses on the villain of the piece. I hope to have it done by the end of the summer. I have another story in mind about a serial killer and is a contemporary paranormal that will follow Aaron and Brandon .
Another Jeanne Barrack book that is very popular is Bend In The Road which is published by MLR Press. Can you tell us a bit about the stories and characters in the book and what drew you to write these historical stories?
Oy! So much went into this book. It’s, in the words of the characters, “a big megilla” — that’s a long, involved story. The historical period is just around the same time as “Fiddler on the Roof”, the 1880s. The first story, “In the Lion’s Den” was in response to a call from MLR for cross dressing stories that had to be placed in a theatrical setting. One of the things I knew beforehand was that during the holiday of Purim – the celebration of which has been called the Orthodox Jew’s answer to Halloween – cross dressing was allowed: men and young boys dressed as Queen Esther, the heroine of the story, and women and girls dressed up as Haman, the villain or Mordechai, Esther’s uncle, one of the good guys. I dug deeper and found out that the Yiddish theater, just as in Shakespeare’s day, had pants roles for women, and men often dressed as soubrettes, old women, etc. So, I had the skeleton for the crossdressing, but I needed to learn more about Jewish attitudes towards homosexuality during those days, etc. That has been a learning experience in itself!So, Aryeh Nachman, born in England on the wrong side of the blanket, bon vivant, falls in love with his tutor, an observant Jew who, to take care of his parents, denies his feelings and returns to his home in eastern Europe to marry a girl with a dowry.
Soon after, Aryeh leaves his home and without the allowance of his father, wanders throughout Europe drawing nearer to where his tutor lives. Aryeh’s very sophisticated, very sure of himself. Dani, is trying to come to grips with his feelings for Aryeh. He’s just eighteen and has led a sheltered life within the troupe, but he’s always loved women’s finery and longed to play the soubrette parts. The title for the story drew on Aryeh’s name which means lion in Hebrew and of course, Dani is short for Daniel, so “In the Lion’s Den”. When I wrote these stories, I wrote them as if they were gay folktales. I grew up on Yiddish folktales and the works of artists like Chagall and those pictures were in my thoughts when I wrote. I wanted to create stories that would seem to have sprung naturally from a story teller’s lips.
“From Stage to Stage” is actually my favorite story since it drew so much on music and the bible. Yuval has been with the troupe for years as its music director. I pictured him clearly in my mind as someone who for the most part, has had to sublimate his feelings for men into his music and taking care of his younger sister, who is, as they said in those days, simple. Yuval’s name also comes from the bible and refers to the man who was the first to play the harp. Tsvi’s name has several different meanings: beauty, splendor and gazelle,and is found in both the “Song of Songs” and the passages dealing with the death of Jonathan, and David’s lamentations regarding it. In reading of the relationship between David and Jonathan, there is a not so subtle context that their feelings for each other ran deeper than mere friends. David’s name is usually associated with the word “beloved” and Jonathan “God’s gift”
For Tsvi, coming to grips with his attraction to other men is even more difficult since his background is ultra-Orthodox. Throughout the story there are quotes from psalms, prayers, songs translated from either Yiddish, Hebrew or Aramaic. The little folk songs and lullabies may sound trite in English, but that is how many of them were taught to me when I was growing up.
You have a strong Internet presence and you blog frequently. Do you find this is helpful to your book sales to be “out there” in the blogosphere? A recent mini poll on my blog indicated that 46% of readers were turned off by authors because of bad experiences on the Internet, while 37% bought an author’s books for the first time because of this interaction.
Hmm, a strong Internet presence? Moi? I actually don’t do that much blogging other than commenting on other folks’ postings. I’ve tried not to be redundant. I don’t think I’m too out there but I have cut back because I’m trying to focus more on getting out the next story. I really don’t know whether being out there has helped or hindered. I write a lot slower than many authors, I guess. About 50% of my work is novels and the other, novellas.
What do you love most about writing? What is most challenging?
Creating new worlds and exploring the world is what I love most. Emily Dickinson wrote: “There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away” and I’ve always looked on books like that. If I can take readers away for a while then I’m happy. The most challenging aspect is finding that perfect word that expresses my ideas
Since my blog is 98% about male gay relationships, I’m always interested why an author (male or female) chose to write about men in romantic relationships. You write both het and M/M and I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that you started out writing het romances. Why did you decide to write M/M? Was it because it was the new “in thing” – the hawt factor?
I did start out writing het stories and continue to do so, though several of my het stories have characters that are either gay or bi. But even at the beginning, gay characters were part of my stories.
In “Amber Inferno”, the second story I wrote as part of a paranormal trilogy, now out of print, one of the strongest subplots concerned an m/m love story. The character of Merkatrosa was a middle-aged man who was the shaman of his entire people. Twenty years previously when he had accepted the position, he had also accepted the tradition to be celibate. He had to turn his back on his first, and undeclared love for A’ynos. When they meet up in the story, they renew their love. BTW, in this world, when certain characters made love they generated a magical dust that fueled all the magic of the world. Each couple in the book have their own specific colors of lanbeth - magic dust: silver and crimson, amber and sapphire. When Merkatrosa and A’ynos finally join, they also create a unique color – green as in the color of spring and of rebirth. Lesbian lovers generate pink shades.
In “No One Else on Earth”, my villain was a shapeshifting, sexual energy sucking, alien vampire who could mate with either the male or female of a species. He was a Predator, with no empathy for his prey. I have a scene with Tzahyad (his name means hunter in Hebrew) and another character, deep in denial of his true nature. A pivotal moment for me happened when Tzahyad made love to this character. I didn’t realize it was going in this direction until after I started writing the scene.”The Game”, my story for Aspen Mountain Press has characters who are gay and bi and also has menage scenes. The main character, Dave Harris, is a NYPD detective. He’s also Jewish and the story takes place during Chanukah. I kind of was thinking along the lines of a younger, better looking Detective Briscoe from “Law & Order”.
After all these secondary characters and short works, I knew that I had to write a longer story that had gay characters as the central protags. The Sweet Flag was the result. And, of course, I had early inspiration from several of the Spanish films of Antonio Banderas — my favorite under-used Hollywood actor — in which he plays a gay character. And then, there was the film, “Philadelphia”. Who could resist Antonio as Miguel, Tom Hanks’ devoted lover? Even Hanks couldn’t! IOW, yeah, guys making love to each other is really hot.
What I love about you is that you have chosen a different path than most writers because you write stories that reflect your cultural heritage. Was it difficult for your stories to be accepted by MLR Press, Loose Id and other publishers because the protagonists are Jewish, which is not typical of the characters in most romances? Do you find that publishers are generally supportive of your theme of cultural diversity?
Not difficult, but for Loose Id, I did have to demonstrate that I had done my homework (research) and that my characters were true to their background and their times. For MLR, I had the world’s most supportive editor and all of the staff at MLR have been incredibly supportive. In fact, they want another story with Nassi, from From Stage to Stage. In A Perfect Symmetry, my latest story for Liquid Silver Books, one of the characters’ history is that she is a “Desert Terran”. Her group followed different paths and blended their cultural traditions with various Semitic peoples. Aviva’s clan developed traditions of the Hebrews and settled in Israel. Her name, Aviva, means spring and the root of her last name, Shiron, comes from the root for the word song. She’s what’s known as a Terran and is a Singer and Spirit Keeper. They loved the idea of a Terran from the middle east. In fact, Mrs. G liked Aviva the best of all the characters. The Terran Realm is a fascinating world with plenty of opportunity for writers of m/m and f/f.
I know that all of the publishers I’ve worked with are very supportive of cultural diversity.
I find that many authors , even though they are supposed to be imaginative and push the boundaries of society, are not very imaginative when it comes to moving the yardsticks in terms of the characters in their stories (of course this is a generalization). Many of them don’t write about older protagonists (those over 40), culturally or ethnically diverse characters (except yaoi), physically challenged characters, etc. Why do you think M/M authors are afraid to move out of their comfort zone? Some M/M writers defend their position by saying they don’t want to be criticized for getting it wrong, but they already write about gay men and they have no (or little) personal experience about being men or gay.
I can’t speak for other authors. I only know that if I’m delving into a different area, I research the hell out of it. I’ve written about older characters — Aryeh, Yuval and Tsvi were in their late thirties, in Bend in the Road. Their life experiences were what drew them to me. When I wrote Ruth’s character I could draw upon my experiences with my cousin, Michael who was mentally challenged. I haven’t yet written a story about someone with a physical handicap, but that’s not to say I won’t. Again, I guess in a perverse way, I’m lucky? I have my dad’s life to use. He contracted polio at the age of around eight during one of the early 20th century polio epidemics. He fought against letting it get him down. I admire him greatly. When he passed away, over a hundred people from every walk of life were at his funeral. And this was with little more than twenty-four hours notice since quick burials are a Jewish tradition. I love diversity. If we were all the same, it would be boring as hell. And I love learning about different places and people and food and music. I mean, the rainbow was created as sign of God’s covenant with man. I think if God wanted us all to be alike he wouldn’t have sent something as multi-colored as a rainbow. It would have been stripes of black and white.
And as for getting it wrong? Aren’t writers supposed to have imagination? And there are plenty of older gay people to talk with if you need confirmation about something.
What is on the horizon in terms of your new releases over the next 3 – 6 months?
Probably nothing until the second half of the year. And then hopefully two works — one het and one m/m/m. I’m a pretty slow writer.
Now we’re going to move into uncharted waters and see if Jeanne can fly *g*
Why haven’t you ever written a M/M/M ménage? I think 3 guys in bed is so cool:)
It’s coming in the sequel to The Sweet Flag. And I think it’s cool, too! And I have already written m/m/f and m/f/m ménages in A Perfect Symmetry, the sequel to The Shimmering Flame. These are Urban Fantasies with a strong romance element from Liquid Silver Books.
Oh, deMonde for sure. But I also adore Antonio d’Este from The Crystal Flacon. He was patterned after Antonio Banderas’s personality: loves his country, loves his woman, loves his children. And then there’s Casey Aidan from A Perfect Symmetry. Now, that would be interesting because Casey is bi-. Hey, can I go for an m/m/f/m?
Hmm, I’m seeing a pattern here. I guess I like accents.
Have you ever done bad things with liquid chocolate all over your body? If not, why not?
Does your husband ever read your books? If he has, what is his reaction, other than dragging you straight to bed?
He has and he’s very supportive. In fact, we’ve been catching up on the old series, “Queer as Folk” together! He’s gotten hooked on the characters. He’s developed “gaydar” and alerts me when there are movies or shows on TV with glbt characters.
What do you think is the best sex organ in a man? Of course I don’t mean THAT! (For me it’s his brain, and if you believe that I have an island I can sell you)
Other than the obvious? His eyes. I can just melt for the right eyes looking at me. Doesn’t matter what color, the eyes have it. Of course, there’s always a nice, tight, butt.
What’s the most public place you ever had sex (not necessarily with your husband)?
Actually it was years ago before I met my husband. I was on a late date in Manhattan and on the IRT with my date. We had the subway car all to ourselves and so we took the corner seats near the end of the car and indulged in some pretty heavy making out. We draped our coats over our laps and shall we say, we were both happy campers by the time we reached the end of the IRT Lexington line.
Thanks Jeanne. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Jeanne Barrack who took time out of her busy schedule which includes singing for seniors and writing wonderful stories for us to enjoy.
Thank you, Wave. It was a lot of fun.
Jeanne has generously donated a copy of her book The Sweet Flag, by random draw, to a blogger who leaves a comment on her interview.
Jeanne’s Contact Information