D.O: Welcome Jo Barney, thanks for joining us today on Authors Curtilage Novel-Profile Raising.
JO: Hello! Thanks for having me Darmie!
D.O: What type of books do you write?
JO: My books are novels, several are what I call “Women’s Contemporary” and this last one is a thriller. All have feminine protagonists in the midst of change: job, marriage, aging, loss. Each in her own way discovers that she is capable of dealing with change and in fact, she herself is changing in the process.
D.O: Is Graffiti Grandma your first book?
JO: No, I have written three others and am finishing a fifth this month. The last three books, The Solarium, Graffiti Grandma, and the untitled one are or will be self-published as ebooks and paperbacks. The first two are “practice” novels and may remain in a folder on my computer. But I do like them and may someday rescue them from my private slush pile.
D.O: What is this novel about, tell us shortly?
JO: Ellie, a cranky old woman who cleans graffiti off her neighborhood’s mail boxes meets Sarah, a street kid in punk garb, on a street corner. They have nothing in common except that they each have lost a family. Neither imagines that she will soon be making her way through the town’s forest, looking for the serial killer whose victims are homeless teenagers spending time in the park nearby. Each nearly dies in the effort. Seems strange but the theme of this novel centers on our universal need, no matter who we are, even serial killers, for family, either the one we have or the one we create.
D.O: What inspired you to write Graffiti Grandma?
JO: I disliked the tagging and graffiti on my neighborhood’s mailboxes so much that I went out with remover and scrapers every couple of weeks and removed it from the eight or so boxes in in the area. Scrubbing away, I had time to imagine what would happen if one of the kids who probably did the tagging came up and tried to talk to me. Ellie fleshed out from that thought, as did Sarah, Jeffrey, a five-year-old who grows up to become a psychopath, and Matt, a policeman with a autistic child. I did quite a bit of research for the book: the drugs, homelessness runaway youth, crime. As a former school counselor, I knew a few kids like the ones I wrote about in Graffiti Grandma. I guess I can say that the inspiration came out of my own experiences with graffiti and with teenagers. I have never experienced a serial killer, though.
D.O: How does it feel to be published author on the right foot?
JO: The “right foot” became evident when Graffiti Grandma received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, two well-known review publications. Then Kirkus named Graffiti Grandma to its 100 Best Books of 2013 and this recognition has been very gratifying. It is difficult for an author to know how others will respond to what she has created, and I am pleased with the positive response the book has received.
D.O: Are you a mainstream author, an independent author or a self-published author?
JO: I have had shorter pieces published in journals and magazines and when it became evident that finding an agent was going to be difficult, I decided to self-publish. The process is exciting and creative and I enjoyed it, especially opening that first box and holding Graffiti Grandma in my hand, For me, the most difficult part of self-publishing is the marketing and I work hard at it.
D.O: I wish you all the best you need to succeed in the Literary Markets.
JO: Thank you for this opportunity to spread the word. I do appreciate it.
We both were shivering a little in the gray morning air as we headed towards the first mailbox, me, in my black skirt and boots, Ellie in her old lady sweatshirt and red sneakers. I carried her supplies and towels stuffed in an old garbage bag like usual, and I could tell she was still mad at me, at my knowing how the graffiti got on the mailboxes. I was thinking about that, too, but she didn’t know the whole story, not then.
“Spray!” Ellie ordered and I stopped remembering and pointed the bottle at the box in front of me. We scrubbed, Ellie not talking to me yet. After a couple of minutes, the black polish on my nails began to melt like the paint scrawls we were working on. Ellie muttered “Good,” when she saw me rubbing at them.
As soon as the blue metal was as clean as Graffiti-X could get it, we headed towards the next mailbox. By the time we got to the street with the big trees, I was getting hot and glad for what little shade was left, the limbs above me almost bare. Orange and brown leaves crunched under my feet.
Rich people lived in these apartments. I could tell by the doors, polished brass knobs, and the pots of flowers beside them. They probably sat on their upstairs terraces and felt like they were living in the arms of the trees. I was imagining eating breakfast four stories up and feeding a squirrel a piece of pancake when I stumbled and heard the heel of my boot snap. Shit, my only shoes was my first thought. I picked up the broken piece and had to walk like a cripple, one leg short, one long.
“Take ‘em off!” Ellie said, shaking her gray head at me. “Stupid to wear boots like that; you look like a baby hooker.” She took the bag of supplies from me and I leaned against a tree and bent down and yanked. The cold from the sidewalk seeped through the leaves and into my toes. Ellie’s disgusted frown told me not to complain, so I shoved the boots into the bag. Maybe I could get the heel fixed somewhere.
She marched ahead, not waiting up for me, calling over her shoulder, “We’ll finish up with the next box. When we get back you can borrow a pair of my old sneakers.”
I watched where I was going, hoping I wouldn’t step on dog poop or something yucky hidden under the leaves. That’s when I saw the white basketball shoe sticking up from a pile of leaves at the curb. Someone must have lost it. Except that the shoe also had a sock in it. And in the sock, a leg.
I grabbed Ellie’s arm and pointed. She looked back, made a sound like she was choking, whispered ”Oh no,” and shut her eyes.
Without thinking, I made my way to the gutter and pushed sticks and leaves away from the rest of the leg. Familiar, worn denim jeans appeared. Then I recognized a plaid patch on a thigh and a hand with a small ink tattoo of a smiley face at the wrist. I was bawling by the time I uncovered his head, brushed bits of dirt from his eyes, understood that he was dead. Peter.
Ellie came close and leaned over me, her words sharp as broken glass. “Leave him! Not our business.” She pulled me upright and, sobbing, I shoved at her against the trunk of a tree. “It’s trouble!” She reached for me again. “Nothing good ever comes from a dead body.”
She dragged me away from Peter through a tear-blurred trail of leaves. “I’ll call 911,” she said. “When we get home. Anonymous.”
And she did and now I’m lying here half alive in this hospital bed, wires and tubes beeping and bubbling, hoping she’s not dead somewhere....
Kirkus Reviews: Ostensibly about a serial killer, Barney’s (The Solarium, 2011, etc.) novel is about much more than that. It’s also the story of people who are down but not out and a rumination on family, courage and responsibility—a book that reverberates long after the last page. (3/11/2013)
Publishers Weekly review: Barney weaves a multifaceted narrative with quick shifts in time and focus to show how flawed individuals overcome, or are destroyed by, failed relationships. The destructive impact of alcohol, drugs, and sexual abuse on children is abundantly displayed—and made stronger by the absence of graphic or exploitative portrayals. . .The grim, understated scenes of young people coping with the seamy side of life ensure that this is no lighthearted read, and Barney's convincing portrayal of ambivalent teen psychology. . . provides a powerful glimpse of an underground world unknown to many, whose inhabitants are capable of transformation through love and acceptance. (3/1/2013)