Read the Script Corner interview with David-Matthew on winning the Best Short Screenplay award for 'Boxcar' at the 2017 New Renaissance Film Festival in Amsterdam.
Q: Can you tell readers a little bit about yourself ?
A: My name is David-Matthew Barnes. I’m a novelist, playwright, poet, and screenwriter. When I’m not writing, I'm a college professor. I'm the Program Director for the Theatre Arts and Dance Department at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colorado.
Q: Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
A: I was born and raised in California. I grew up primarily in the city of Berkeley. I also spent some time living in Sacramento, Atlanta, and Chicago. Today, I live in the city of Denver.
Q: What are your guilty pleasures in life?
A: I don’t know if I would call them guilty pleasures, but I have many things and people in my life that make me smile including: my wonderful partner Edward, my friends, my dog Kody, my cat Phronsie, white carnations, board games, anything written by Dorothy Parker, white chocolate, Chicago at Christmas, the city of Brussels, iced caramel Chai tea lattes, peanut butter M&M's, the success of my students, the sound of rain, the smell of gardenias, slow dances, and tacos.
Q: Would you say becoming an author has changed you? In what way?
A: Writing is a wonderful part of my life, but it does take a considerable commitment of time and energy. Aside from the actual writing, there’s much more work required of authors including the editing process and marketing. However, I wouldn't trade it for anything. Once my work was published and readers took notice of it, my life did change - it's still changing. After my first novel was published, I realized the power of the written word. When something we create as artists connects with another person, we understand the importance and purpose of what we do.
Q: Do you write in different genres?
A: Yes. In addition to fiction, I have also written several stage plays. I also work in film and television. Some of my poetry has been published as well.
Q: Do you find it difficult to write in multiple genres?
A: Not at all. In fact, I love working and writing in multiple genres. There’s a great benefit to doing this. Sometimes a fantastic idea will come to you but you’re not sure the best way the story should be told. Working in multiple genres gives you an advantage in that regard. You have more choices.
A: I write for teenagers because when I was 13 years old, a woman named Norma Fox Mazer changed my life. Growing up, she was one of my favorite authors. My eighth grade world was lit on fire when it was announced she would be making a guest appearance at our school. After some serious campaigning to the junior high powers that be, I was one of the few students selected to have lunch with her in the library. I was beyond thrilled, having read every book she'd written. Although I was terribly star struck, I bravely showed her a section of a short story I was working on at the time and told her how much I wanted to be a writer. Norma Fox Mazer scanned over the first page and informed me, "You already are." Two years later, I published my first short story. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Q: What is your favorite thing about writing?
A: Writing is my greatest passion, especially when I'm able to tell a wonderful love story. My love for writing comes from my love for reading. I grew up reading fantastic novels. It didn't take long for me to realize writing was my purpose. I really love the research process of a novel. So often I discover something new and usually it inspires more creativity.
Q: What is your least favorite thing about writing?
A: Writing can be very demanding, especially where time is concerned.
Q: Have you always enjoyed writing?
A: Absolutely. I've been writing since I was seven. I published my first short story when I was 15. Since then, I've never looked back. Writing brings me a deep satisfaction especially when something I've written connects with a reader on some level.
Q: What motivates you to write?
A: With each novel I write, I aim to continue to improve and strengthen my craft. Receiving feedback from my readers also motivates me. When I receive a letter from a reader who tell me they've identified and connected with something I've created, as a writer I feel like I've done my job.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration from?
A: A lot of my story ideas come from music. I will hear a song – especially something with very memorable lyrics – and it will spark an emotion or an image in my mind. The ones that refuse to go away are the ones that make it onto paper – and often into print.
Q: How often do you write? And when do you write?
A: I write every day. During the week, I’m up every morning by five o’clock, sitting at the computer in my home office. On Saturdays, I will typically write until noon. Sundays I usually write in the afternoon.
Q: Do you have any weird writing quirks or rituals?
A: I probably have too many too count, but a few are: I must have a title before starting a big project; I always create an unofficial soundtrack for my novels that I listen to constantly while creating; I don’t read other books or scripts while working on a project.
Q: How do you spend your time when you are not writing?
A: When I'm not writing or teaching, I'm often traveling to literary festivals and writing conferences to talk about my work, meet readers, and instruct writing workshops. For fun I love watching classic movies. I also love playing board games, reading a good book, or just spending time with my family and friends.
Q: What books have had the greatest influence on you?
A: I really love the classics. I find myself constantly going back to books like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey and authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams to study the brilliant architecture of how and what they wrote. There's so much to learn from them. In terms of contemporary literature I really admire the works of Hubert Selby, Jr. and Jo Ann Beard.
A: When I was young, I discovered my mother’s collection of Nancy Drew books. I read the entire series. I was fascinated by the sense of mystery and solving a crime. I also read a lot of young adult fiction, particularly Judy Blume, Norma Fox Mazer, and Lois Duncan. Anyone who reads my work will see the influence of those authors. At the age of twelve I read every Jackie Collins book I could get my hands on. She knew how to tell a great story – especially a glamorous one. Later I discovered Dorothy Parker and Jane Austen and fell in love with their words.
Q: What book should everybody read at least once?
A: Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg. It’s hilarious, poignant, and beautifully written. I first read the novel when I was ten years old. By the end of the first page I knew I wanted to be a writer.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for new writers?
A: The teacher in me says to study your craft. You owe it to your writing and your readers to know about technique and style. It is very important to write as often as possible. Frequency not only makes you a stronger writer, but it can help you strengthen your voice and lead you to discoveries about your work.
Q: How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?
A: My novels are not very autobiographical but some of my stage plays are. I am very inspired by place. I love exploring and going to new cities and then writing about them. It’s a challenge sometimes to recreate the true essence of a place on the page, but I embrace it. It makes me work harder as a writer, but I want my novels to feel as authentic as possible for my readers.
Q: What marketing works for you? How do readers find out about your work?
A: In addition to social media, most of my work is marketed by word of mouth. Someone discovers something I've written and they enjoy it and then tell others about it. I'm always amazed when I meet readers and they tell me great stories about how they stumbled upon my books or plays.
Q: What’s your greatest character strength?
A: Determination. Often in my life when opportunity is nowhere to be found, I will create one.
Q: Which book or stage play do you wish you had written?
A: The entire Nancy Drew series. In terms of theatre, I love A Streetcar Named Desire.
Q: Is there a genre(s) that you’d like to write that you haven’t tackled yet?
A: I would really like to write a historical novel. Most likely it would be set in the 1960s. I’m fascinated with that era.
Q: Of all the characters you've ever written, who is your favorite and why?
A: I truly have love for all of my characters – even the evil or supernatural ones. But some of them resonate with me a lot stronger than others: Serena from my first novel Mesmerized, Tina Duncan from my novel Ambrosia, Marie Baker from my stage play Pensacola, and Albert and Joey from my novel Accidents Never Happen.
Q: How do you deal with bad reviews or acid criticism? What would you advise other authors to that effect?
A: I've been on the receiving end of both types of review – the glorious and the awful. As long as a review is helpful and not mean-spirited, I think they have value. I have noticed a new trend of author-bashing happening among writers who post negative reviews for the sake of bettering their own sales. Anytime someone publicly dismisses your art, it makes you wonder if they truly respect and realize the amount of work that goes into writing a novel. However, I don’t write novels for critics. I write them for readers.
Q: What was the last amazing book you read?
A: I just finished reading Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir. Growing up, she was my muse. A lot of my friends were really into Madonna, but not me. Cyndi Lauper showed the world it was okay to be different, that creativity should be valued and respected and revered. I adore her. To this day, I’m greatly inspired by her commitment to be her and no one else. Individuality wasn't exactly the cool thing in the early 80s, but she did exactly what she wanted. She busted her ass to become successful and she never gave up. In the book she talks about one of her favorite personal sayings: “In the darkest place, shed the brightest light.” I take those words to heart. They are words to write and live by.
Q: Tell us a bit about your family.
A: My mother knew from an early age that I was passionate about writing. When I was thirteen, she bought me a typewriter to encourage me to pursue a career in it. I taught myself to type and the rest, as they say, is history. My father has dabbled in writing poetry. He published a chapbook of his work when I was young. I have four younger brothers. One of my brothers is very involved in music and photography. Another is an artist. They’re very talented.
Without a doubt, the person is my family who had the greatest influence on me was my maternal grandmother. I spent a lot of time with her when I was very young. She really encouraged me to be creative. We often put on shows in her living room and made up fun stories. My childhood consisted of imaginary tea parties and soap operas, thanks to her. She always instilled in me that anything was possible. This is something that’s always stayed with me.
Q: Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge and thank for their support?
A: Aside from my wonderful and very faithful readers and my friends and family, the true unsung hero in my life is my partner, Edward. Living with a writer is not easy. My life is very unconventional to say the least. Yet, he gives me more support than I could ever ask for. Not only does he read every word I write, but he travels with me frequently to literary events. He’s quiet and shy and is a true introvert, so big crowds and the spotlight are not for him. But he toughs it out just for me.
Q: What can readers expect next from you?
A: I have many new projects coming out this year - more than every before. I'm super excited about all of them. I working in a lot of new genres for the first time. Each are really inspiring me to challenge myself as a writer.
Q: If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?
A: I would love to live in Europe, specifically in Belgium or on the Italian or French Rivera. I also love the country of Greece. I was very fortunate to live there for a year and loved every second of it.
My favorite American city is Chicago. It’s my urban muse and shows up in almost everything I write. It’s such an incredible literary landscape. There’s something very poetic about it. I lived there over a decade ago and I feel like I've been trying to get back there ever since.
Q: If you could have a dinner party and invite anyone dead or alive, who would you ask?
A: I would invite five people: Jessica Lange, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Mary Wollstonecraft, and my grandmother. After-dinner entertainment would be provided by the girl group The Shangri-Las.
A: I was having a really bad day years ago so I decided to go to the local art house movie theatre alone. I saw Cinema Paradiso that day and I've never been the same since. That film touched my soul and hasn't let go. It is the epitome of love. I’m also a big fan of classic film noir. I think the influence of it is apparent in my work.
Q: If you could wish for any one thing, and it would immediately come true, what would you wish for?
A: For this world to know peace.
Q: If you were stranded on an isolated island, what’s the one book you’d absolutely wish to have with you?
A: Anything by Dorothy Parker.
Q: Name your favorite fruit.
Q: Coffee or tea?
A: Coffee. Although, I also love chai tea.
Q: Favorite season?
Q: Favorite time in the span of 24 hours?
A: Early morning. Just before sunrise. It reminds me of all the possibilities of the day ahead.
Q: Were you a ever a Boy Scout?
A: I was a boy scout for one day. When I realized the girl scouts were upstairs in the same building and they were making macaroni necklaces, I asked if I could be excused and join them instead. Clearly, they were having more fun.
Q: Favorite food for breakfast?
Q: Do you collect things, like stamps, or key chains, or shoes?
A: Other than books and my favorite films, I collect anything related to I Love Lucy.
Q: Favorite color, you know you want to tell us!
A: Easter blue.
Q: Drama or comedy?
A: This is tough because I love elements of both. However, if I had to pick, I would go with drama.
Q: Have a favorite quote or personal motto?
A: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” - Eleanor Roosevelt
Q: Cats or dogs?
A: I have and love both.
Q: Dinner by candlelight or a night out clubbing?
A: Definitely dinner by candlelight. I’m a true romantic.
Q: If you could be any famous person for one day, who would you be and why?
A: Tennessee Williams. I think he was a genius. I’d love to know what his creative process was like.
Q: What is in your to-read pile?
A: I’m really looking forward to reading Alex Marwood’s novel The Wicked Girls.
Q: What is the oldest thing in your fridge and how old is it?
A: There’s a bottle of salad dressing in there that I’m pretty sure is now a science experiment.
Q: Alright, you have one superpower. What is it?
A: I would love the power to heal. I've lost many people in my life due to illness. I wish they were still here.
Q: Where did you get the inspiration to write this novel?
A: The entire concept for the novel was inspired by the instrumental dance song Children, written and recorded by Robert Miles. The music is very atmospheric and it sparked my imagination. The first time I heard the song, the characters of Alex and Robby came to me. I envisioned them running hand in hand in the rain. The image stayed with me until the novel insisted to be written.
When I started writing Swimming to Chicago, I knew I wanted to explore a culture and society that had not been given the attention and focus it deserved, especially where teenagers are concerned.
Q: Tell me a little about Alex, including his Armenian-American roots, what influenced you to include this particular cultural background and how is it important to the story?
A: Alex is a very complex character. Not only is he coming to terms with his sexuality, but he feels caught between two cultures. He feels guilty for not always embracing his Armenian roots, while at the same time he’s frustrated with the lack of substance in American teen life.
In the initial stages of the novel, I considered making the character of Alex an Iranian-American teen, mostly due to my emotional response to the execution of Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari. But, I felt their story was told beautifully by Jay Paul Deratany in his stage play Haram Iran.
I continued researching and soon discovered articles about gay rights (or the lack of) in Armenia. The more I read, the more I became certain that Alex needed to be Armenian-American. Most importantly, because – to my knowledge – a young adult novel written by an American author has never featured a gay Armenian teen character as its protagonist.
Q: What impact do you hope this story has?
A: I received a beautiful email the first week the novel came out from a fifteen-year-old boy, who shared with me that reading the novel changed his life. In that moment, the purpose for writing Swimming to Chicago (and writing for young people in general) became very clear to me.
I hope that the novel reaches as many young people as possible. I wrote the novel with hope that not only Armenian-American teens will identify with Alex, but also other young people from conservative cultures will as well.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for it to have an impact in the first place?
A: As a writer, I feel a tremendous responsibility to write for young people. I recognize how much weight our words as writers carry, especially when read by teenagers.
They need us now, more than ever. They want us to be their best friend, their older brother or sister, their confidant. They want our experiences: the choices we made or didn't, the decisions we've never second-guessed, the regrets we’ll always have. It is imperative that we share our lives with young people – not just through our words, but also by example.
Q: What was the process of writing this novel like?
A: It took over eight years for this novel to see the light of day. It was a long process that involved a considerable amount of research. I revised Swimming to Chicago (including the overall structure) more so than any other novel I've written. I also waited for the book to find the perfect home, in terms of a publisher. Len Barot, the president of Bold Strokes Books, really understood and supported the risks I was taking with Swimming to Chicago, more so than anyone else. I also worked with two incredible editors on this novel, Greg Herren and Stacia Seaman.
While writing the novel, I found and read an article. This motivated and inspired me to write Alex’s story. I knew it was one that needed to be told.
Q: What inspired you to write the paranormal romance Wonderland? It seems so different from your other novels.
A: I've always written realistic, character driven novels. Wonderland was a huge departure from that. I really found writing a paranormal novel to be liberating. I had complete creative freedom. Anything was possible. Because I write mostly for young people, I receive a lot of messages and emails from them. Often they share elements of their lives with me. I started to notice a lot of them writing about losing someone they love. I knew I eventually wanted to write a novel about a young person dealing with grief and death.
The initial idea for Wonderland came to me during a ghost tour in New Orleans. The tour guide asked, “Do you believe in magic?” That question seemed so powerful to me. Back in my hotel room that night, I started to outline the plot of the book. That particular question is the first line of the novel. Wonderland is really a combination of those two elements: love and magic.
Q: Is there any chance Wonderland will become a series? If so, what is the next book? Any details you can share?
A: Wonderland was not intended as a series. However, the character of Topher has stolen the hearts of many readers who feel empathy for his plight. Jennifer Lavoie, a fellow young adult author who also writes for a diverse audience, liked Topher so much she suggested he should have his own novel – and, because of the affinity for him that readers have shown, this may very well happen.
Q: Was one of your characters more challenging to write than another in Wonderland?
A: Without giving away any spoilers, the characters of Dominic, Pablo, and Juliet posed many challenges to me as a writer. We don’t meet them until the middle of the novel, but they are critical to the second half. Is there a character that you enjoyed writing more than any of the others? I really love all of the characters in this novel, but I have a particular fondness for Adrianna Marveaux. In many ways, the character is based on my own grandmother who’s no longer with us. She was also a very glamorous woman who was filled with a tremendous amount of love and light.
Q: What is your favorite scene from Wonderland? Could you share a little bit of it, without spoilers of course?
A: I would have to say the dinner party scene is my favorite. I was very determined to create memorable ways that Destiny entered the party and left the party. I really love both. I feel like this particular scene consists of some of my strongest writing to date. I spent more time revising this scene more than any other. It was very important to me to get it right, to paint the best picture I could, to capture the true essence of love and magic.
Q: Can you tell readers a little bit about the world building in Wonderland? How does this world differ from our normal world?
A: Everything in this book centers on place. In order for the novel to work, I knew Wonderland had to be a fascinating place that both the readers and characters would want to return to as much as possible. I drew basic sketches of the layout of the house. I did a lot of research on architecture, especially on Victorian houses, which Wonderland is – specifically a Queen Anne. Even though there are some references in the form of imagery and objects to Lewis Carroll’s classic, I wanted them in the book more as a tribute and less as an adaptation. I knew comparisons would be made between my version of Wonderland and other variations of it. This inspired me to dig deep into my imagination and really infuse my own style. Avalon Cove – where the novel takes place - is not a real island. However, to prepare for writing the novel, I spent time on Tybee Island in Georgia and the Isle of Palms in South Carolina. A lot of my experiences in both places made their way into the novel.
Q: Do any of your characters in Wonderland have similar characteristics of yourself?
A: In Wonderland, I felt a close connection with Destiny and Topher. In many ways they are both similar to the younger version of me.
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