Susan Barker: 6 Years, 7 Cities, 1 Novel

Susan Barker
photo: Derek Anson

Late last summer, a friend who was in England tweeted about a novel she’d just found, The Incarnations by Susan Barker, and how amazing it was. It didn’t seem to have an American publisher, and it sounded like exactly the sort of thing I’d like to get a look at in my capacity as an acquiring editor, so I made enquiries, and found out that I was just a smidgen too late—the rights had already been picked up. Now, a year later, I’m finally getting to see why my friend was so excited, and I’m having much the same reaction. I’m approximately one-third of the way through, and there’s suspense, there’s the possibility of fantasy, and at the heart of the novel there’s a compelling character study wrapped in a portrayal of life in 21st-century China. In this guest essay, Susan Barker talks about the circumstances of the novel’s creation over a period of time in which it seems the only constant was the novel’s creation.

During the six years I spent writing The Incarnations I lived in seven cities in four different countries. I moved in and out of seventeen different houses and flats in Beijing, Seoul, Colorado, Boston, Leeds, Washington, DC, London and Shenzhen. I have lost count of the long-haul flights I made, crammed in economy, crossing oceans and continents and time zones, between the UK, China and the US.

This itinerant life, where I got a new stamp in my passport every three to six months, wasn’t my original plan. When I first moved to Beijing in 2007, I expected to spend several years researching, writing and completing my novel. However, a pre-Olympics change in China’s visa regulations meant I had to leave mid-2008, and then came the offer of house-sitting gigs in the States, and then the decision to accompany a boyfriend to his new job, and so on and so forth. The regular packing of suitcases, getting on and off aeroplanes, recovering from jet-lag, acclimatizing and settling in, were at odds with the stability and routine I need to work. But as a self-employed writer with no 9-to-5 job, mortgage or children, I was free to improvise my life, moving whenever a new opportunity arose.


23 August 2015 | guest authors |

Tania Luna: How Mary Poppins Secretly Shaped My Life

Tania Luna
photo: Zack DeZun

Tania Luna is the co-author (with her business partner Leeann Renninger) of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, a book about the positive benefits that can come when you don’t know what’s going to happen next—and how you can cultivate the potential to be surprised in your professional and personal life. (And, too, how to delightfully surprise others; there’s some lessons in here that I’ll be doing my best to incorporate into this site and other projects in the future…)

For this Beatrice guest essay, Luna tells us about a time that she was recently surprised by a book… and about the deeper, underlying principle of surprise she recognized in its pages.

Recently, I decided to stay away from fiction. That sentence sent a chill down my spine, but it’s true. I am an obsessive story reader (I’m also an obsessive chocolate eater and workaholic, but that’s a different conversation). As a kid, I used to skip school to finish a novel. As an adult, I’ve postponed meetings and missed more train stops than I can count just to soak up a few more chapters. My life had gotten so busy that I decided to stick to nonfiction. The resolution worked reasonably well. That is, until I glanced up at my bookshelf one night. Before I knew it, I snatched up a book, and in my hands I held the soft, worn pages of Mary Poppins.

When I was a child, my grandmother made me a swing from a broken lawn chair that she suspended from the ceiling. I would hang in the middle of the room, kicking my legs in and out, as she read me Mary Poppins. I looked at the book in my now grownup hands, and I could remember my grandmother’s voice, the way she’d clear her throat, the rustling of the pages, the swing pressing into my thighs, the way the lamp light danced in her reading glasses. But I couldn’t recall the story. My fiction ban notwithstanding, I decided that a quick dip into a children’s book couldn’t hurt my productivity all that much.

I was wrong, of course. As soon as I read the words “Chapter I, East Wind,” I was transported to P.L. Travers’s strange, whimsical world, and I didn’t come back up for air again until there were no words left to read. From beginning to end, Mary Poppins filled me with surprise.


5 April 2015 | guest authors |

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