Barbara Binns, the award winning author of Pull , (Westside, 2010) has a new book coming out this month. It is one of only four young adult books written by an author of color that is released this month. (Yes, only four because Leitich-Smith’s and Bruchac’s books are both re-releases.) Here’s a chance to get to know Barbara before you go order her new book!
Hi Barbara! Let’s start with a few short questions. Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the south side of Chicago and still live in the Chicago suburbs. Even though I have traveled and resided as far away as Washington D. C., I’ve always ended up returning home.
Then winter arrives, and I wonder what in the world is wrong with me, when I could be in Florida or southern California.
Do you have any pets?
I acquired a dog over Christmas. I say acquired because she was neither a gift nor a purchase. She had been taken from a shelter by my adult niece as a present for her daughter who decided she didn’t really want a dog. After that she was shuffled to several relatives who all decided a dog was more trouble than they had bargained. I met her as they were deciding to return her to the shelter. To prevent, in my foolishness I agreed to take her for a one-week trial basis. She’s still with me. Honestly, she is well behaved, housebroken, doesn’t chew. She does bark a little too much, and pulls on the leash when we walk (she is strooong!) but, I’ve begun buying doggie toys and treats. We are attached and she has to stay.
What do you enjoy watching on television?
I am into the dramas. I loved the first episodes of The Following and I’m already addicted. I think I’m attracted to the show’s villain because there’s something in me that is fascinated by the idea of a super-psychopath against a wounded hero.
My real guilty pleasure is the restaurant reality show, Kitchen Nightmares. It’s the only reality show I feel required to watch. I think it must be Chef Ramsey and the way he totally tells it like it is. As a side-effect, every time I eat out I worry about what is happening in the back of the restaurant.
Meat or vegetables?
Come on, meat. I need my protein.
Are there any books that stand out in your memory from your childhood?
I was a voracious reader, and I moved to the adult shelves at a pretty young age, so most of my favorites are adult books. I was seriously in love with books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Heinlein while still in elementary school.
What book(s) are you in the middle of reading right now?
I just finished Holly Black’s curse worker trilogy: White Cat, Red Glove, and Black Heart. Its YA, paranormal, noir—a hero who can curse you with a touch having to decide between working for a mob family, the normal life of a curse worker, and the government which in his world isn’t really much better than the mob.
I’ve just started Strong Deaf by Lynn McElfresh, a story about two sisters, one deaf and one hearing, told in both voices.
What is Being God about?
I have come to realize that almost everything I write is about family relationships. Theme-wise, Being God is about the effects of multi-generational substance abuse. The protagonist is Malik Kaplan who readiers will recognize as Pull’s villain. Pull showed him as a bully, with no respect for other people, including his parents and his girlfriend. Being God shows how he got that way.
Malik Kaplan is a former victim of bullies who now “gives back” by pushing others around. The Kaplan men have always been the top dogs at Farrington High School, and Malik is determined to make himself the worst of the worst. He also drinks, encouraged by his grandfather and uncle. Malik’s mother became the ultimate stay at home mother after an accident left her disfigured and unwilling to face the world. His father is an ACOA (adult child of alcoholics), who doesn’t understand boundary issues or how to be an effective parent, so he retreats into his work. Secretly, Malik and his father want to be close, but neither of them knows how.
As Malik’s senior year winds down he is faced with the price of holding down the family legacy. He goes from the basketball court to a legal court after shouldering the blame for someone else’s crime. (He really didn’t think there would be much of a consequence.) Suddenly he loses his car and his place on the basketball team, and is faced with court-ordered community service shepherding an angry ten-year-old who hates the world. Next comes an “offer he can’t refuse” from the boy’s gang leader brother and an opponent he doesn’t want to fight. Barney, the fourteen-year-old girl from Pull is also in this story. She watched her alcoholic father abuse and murder her mother and now, she wants nothing to do with any bad boy, especially not one who thinks drinking is the way to forget his sins.
Malik, Barney, and Malik’s father all have to come to terms with the meaning of friendship and of family as Malik spirals closer and closer to a bottom that could cost someone their life.
How did you come up with the title?
Some people have speculated that it’s because Malik is half Catholic and half Jewish (Hebrew Israelite). The original title was Badass, after the kind of person he thinks he wants to be. For a few months, that morphed into BAMF(I think I thought adults wouldn’t get the meaning). Then at some point I realized that part of my young alcoholic’s problem was a need to face his own reality, that he isn’t god, but he’s not the devil either. Both he and his father needed to accept the twelve steps of alcoholics anonymous (and of al-anon). Especially the first three steps:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we
The Being God title came to me when I realized the story’s epiphany involved both Malik and his father realizing that their attempts to keep control over their lives—to be God, so to speak—were accelerating their problems and destroying their hopes of a family relationship. As I tell people, Malik has to learn that he’s not God, and not the devil either and, the title stuck.
Pull did so well for you, yet you’ve gone the route of self publishing. What happened?
After my first publisher, Westside books, went out of business, my agent was unable to find a home for the next book. I could not even find someone willing to take a chance on re-issuing Pull, a book that won numerous awards and sold out its first printing. At one point an editor even suggested I change what I write about and make my stories more “commercial,” then they might be more interested. I tried, but changing my style did not seem right. I write to attract reluctant and at-risk readers. Most big publishers want stories designed to attract the widest possible audience. I decided to found my own company, allthecolorsoflove press, and became a tiny, boutique, independent publisher.
I won’t sacrifice quality any more than I would sacrifice story-line and concept. I hire editors for my projects, and I have worked with three so far. Eventually I may pick one to have a permanent relationship. I need an editor to call me out when necessary, because self-editing takes me only so far.
It’s not an ideal situation. I have limited distribution and exposure. But I did manage to sign with Follett Library Services and books and eBooks are available from both Amazon and my publishing website, allthecolorsoflove.com.
At least this way my books will get out of my head and into print. Even if they only influence one reluctant reader, I feel I have done my job. But I know I have done more than that. I have donated copies of Pull to a number of schools and libraries. I have just sent copies to a juvenile detention facility and to a local therapeutic day school, because I want to make sure that kids who can really use a good book have access to mine. During February I will be donating copies to a number of Chicago Public Schools. Reluctant readers do not make publishers rich, but they do give me great satisfaction.
Can you give examples of some of the more commercial changes you were asked to make?
There were two areas. First, one group wanted the book from the female POV. They felt that would sell better. Another group asked me to remove references to race, especially from the main characters. Their reasoning was that that way anyone could see themselves in more generic characters. I listened and understood their reasoning. If this is all a numbers game, those are paths that would probably lead to bigger numbers. But my gut said no.
Now, interestingly enough, and it purely my own decision that it is best for this particular story, my current WIP is being told from an alternating male and female point of view. But my goal is still to reach out to more than just the eager reader, to appeal to kids – especially boys – who normally see no reason to pick up a book for enjoyment. If that makes me less commercial, I have learned to live with that.
Pull was your first book?! What was it that made you sit down and write this story?
Pull was my first published book, but not my first manuscript. I wrote two others before Pull, both adult books, both meant to be romances. One of those books featured a grown-up Barney and her overbearing and over-protective older brother, David. A number of my reading partners were curious about what made him the kind of man he was. At the same time, I attended the 2009 AWP conference in Chicago, and sat in on a panel of teens discussing why a lot of teen boys avoid reading. My brain grabbed the opportunity thinking I could write about the forces that shaped David. By letting him tell his own story in his own voice, he helped attract other young men to read about him.
It seems like now that you’ve started writing, you’ve found a passion. What is it about writing that makes it so necessary for you?
I think it’s the same thing that made it necessary for me to devour every book in sight during my childhood and early adult years. Reading helped me develop empathy and learn to really care about others, and to understand people different from me. Even more, it took me to places I could not get to by myself, showed me that more was possible, and made me want to strive to achieve it.
Retirement gave me the time and energy to actually create as well as consume. It rurns out I had a load of stories and characters inside me, sometimes they barely let me sleep with their desire to live out their lives. It was either let them rattle around inside my head, or put them on paper.
It really is a passion. I actually tried putting things away, to give myself a break from writing. One month off, I told myself. Everyone deserves a vacation. That “break” lasted two weeks. Two incredibly long weeks during which I nearly bit my fingers off to keep them from writing. I think now I need to write, whether or not anyone ever reads what I create. But I am determined to let people read it. That’s where the passion comes from, I want to reach kids, let them see themselves in the pages of a book.
Is there a particularly genre that you haven’t written yet, that is somewhat of a stretch for you, but that you might like to try in the near future?
I admit a yen to try a paranormal. I have been researching African mythologies, and would love to make a break from contemporary realistic to do a non-traditional paranormal story involving that pantheon.
Thanks, Barbara! It was a pleasure! I wish you much success with you new book!