Greensboro native and current New Jerseyan Emily Croy Barker has two events in NC this week in support of her debut novel, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, out earlier this summer from Pamela Dorman Books/Viking. The book garnered significant pre-release praise, from iO9 to Glamour to The Los Angeles Times, including being named to the August Indie Next List — accompanied by a review from The Regulator Bookshop’s Tonie Lilley: “The great thing about Nora, the titular ‘thinking woman,’ is that she is completely relatable. Nora, a perennial graduate student who hasn’t made the best romantic choices, lands in another world that is rife with medieval attitudes toward women. She brings an analytical eye to a highly stratified, low-tech, but magical place, and by speaking truth to power she learns new lessons about herself. This beautifully written first novel reverberates with echoes of fairy tales and fantasy literature from Narnia to Harry Potter.” No surprise then, perhaps, that Barker’s first stop in the Carolinas will be Wednesday evening at 7 pm at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, before heading to the Friendly Center Barnes & Noble in Greensboro on Friday.
Barker’s novel tells the story of Nora, a graduate student in literature from our world who stumbles through a portal into a fantasy world of enchantment and demons and spellbooks, in the midst of a protracted sort of “Cold War” between Fae and human. I had a wonderful time listening to the audiobook, and I’m very grateful to Barker for her time here for the latest “Coming to Town” interview, easily the longest and most in-depth yet. We talk about Asheville, academia vs. Tolkien, trusting your readers, worldbuilding, and how her jobs as an editor and journalist help her as a writer of fiction. Enjoy!
Q: You set parts of the novel in and around Asheville — what is it about the Land of the Sky that makes it an ideal setting for both a wedding and a portal to another world? Did you spend much time in the mountains while you lived in North Carolina?
I set the beginning of the novel in the mountains of North Carolina because when I was a kid, my mother, my brother, and I had an exerience somewhat similar to Nora’s, in that we climbed a mountain near Asheville, discovered the bald at the top, had a wonderful time exploring it, and then—just as the sun was setting—found that we couldn’t remember which was the right path down. We realized then, just as Nora does, that if we took the wrong path, we could wind up on the wrong side of the mountain, miles from where we wanted to be.
Fortunately—and unlike Nora—we did pick the path that led back to the house where we were staying. But I’ve always remembered how easy it is to get lost on a mountain top, and the memory came back to me when I was trying to imagine how Nora would find her way to another world.
Q: Is it academia or something else which leads to Nora’s dislike for contemporary fantastic literature, to rolling her eyes at Tolkien and dismissing Harry Potter as “a kid’s book”?
Good call. It’s Nora’s state of mind and the choices she has made that make her turn away from Harry Potter, but yes, I think Nora has absorbed a bit of academic snobbery about Tolkien. When I was in college, there seemed to be a feeling among the faculty that, if you had a taste for fantasy adventure, you’d be far better off reading Beowulf instead of Lord of the Rings. Personally, I don’t see why you can’t read both.
Q: For me it was hard to take Nora’s confusion and lack of agency — even though it was an intentional enchantment. Did you worry about losing readers in the opening third, or do you just have to trust your readers to stick with you, and Nora?
One of the most terrifying scenes in fantasy literature (for me) comes at the end of Ursula LeGuin’s Tehanu, when Tenar is placed under a spell, but LeGuin doesn’t tell you what kind of spell it is. Very quickly Tenar’s perceptions and thoughts grow simpler and simpler until she has regressed to the level of a child or even an animal. And of course, at that point, you’ve had the chance to get to know Tenar through a whole book, so it’s very clear that something is wrong.
It was a little riskier for me to introduce a character in Chapter One and then promptly subject her to an enchantment that robs her of most of her intelligence and individual will. So, yes, I worried quite a bit that I would lost readers there. I tried to make it clear that something odd is happening, that Nora feels dimly that she isn’t quite herself, even if she doesn’t know she has been enchanted. Then I have to trust that the reader will figure out the clues, and I think most people do. Readers are smart; they don’t need to have everything spelled out.
Q: How much time did you spend on worldbuilding and in developing the Ors language, where a woman’s subservient role is built into the language? Is worldbuilding something you enjoy?
I didn’t spend too much time on worldbuilding outside of writing. That is, I didn’t draw any maps of Aruendiel’s world at first, I didn’t sit down and work out a detailed Ors grammar and dictionary. I know my own obsessive tendencies, and I know how easily I could spend all my time on that sort of fascinating subsidiary project instead of writing.
The worldbuilding really evolved during the writing. For instance, at one point I had Nora and Aruendiel sitting together, having a rather strained conversation while Aruendiel is eating his dinner. Nora has her Ors grammar book open. It seemed natural that Aruendiel might make a couple of caustic, perhaps-intended-to-be-helpful comments about Nora’s grammar. I knew that it would set Nora off to discover that a) she had been making the same grammatical mistake for months without noticing it, and b) that the gender inequality that she has already noticed in this world is also baked into the language. And that would lead to a confrontation with Aruendiel, which is where I wanted to go all along.
So then it was just a matter of trying to figure out what Nora’s grammatical mistake would be.
Q: Did the audiobook narrator, Alyssa Bresnahan, call you to ask about pronunciations? Hirizjahkinis is a doozie.
I didn’t talk to Alyssa Bresnahan, but I did spend about an hour on the phone with an editor at Recorded Books, going over pronunciation. He had a list of names—18 pages!—and he’d pronounce each and I’d tell him whether he was right or not. He was really good—about 90 percent of the time he nailed it.
Yes, “Hirizjahkinis” is tough. You’ll notice that even Aruendiel calls her “Hiriz.” But if you pronounce it “Here is Jacques Innes,” you’ve pretty much got it.
Q: How do you think your years at Viking and as a journalist change you as a fiction writer and editor of your own work?
I worked at Viking as an editorial assistant for a year, when I was in my early 20s. It was great for honing my critical skills, because I had to read lots of fiction, both finished novels and unedited manuscripts—sometimes several books in a weekend—and I could see what worked and what didn’t.
Being a journalist taught me how to write even when it’s not fun. (Because if you keep at it, it does get fun again.) I learned a lot about what to put into a story, how details can make fiction or nonfiction credible and engrossing. As an editor, I’ve also learned a lot about what not to put into a story—trimming unnecessary paragraphs, sentences, and individual words so that the story gets tauts and moves faster. It’s like a game: How much information do I actually need to give here, and what can I leave to the reader’s imagination?
Q: Do you come back to NC often? If so, any favorite things to do? If not, what are you looking forward to most about your stops in Durham and Greensboro?
I come back to NC several times a year to see my mother, who lives in Chapel Hill. When I’m here, I usually spend most of my time with her and with friends. My mom and I always find time to visit the Carrboro farmer’s market—preferably during tomato season, but it’s wonderful all year round.
Q: This may seem a bit random for those who haven’t read the book yet, but: What’s the most you’ve ever done for the perfect pair of shoes?
I could tell you, but then I’d have to put you under a silencing spell.
Emily Croy Barker has spent more than twenty years as a journalist, after starting out as an editorial assistant at Viking. Barker had great fun turning her writing skills to fiction to produce her first novel. A graduate of Harvard University, she is currently the executive editor at The American Lawyer magazine, where she oversees international coverage. She lives in New Jersey.