Author Conversation #3: Barbara O’Neal

Confession time: when I first meet successful authors, I’m always a little bit leery. The more books they’ve published, the more I expect they will be either looking over my shoulder for someone more important to talk to, or simply too jaded to be pleasant. It is all too rare to enjoy both a person and the books they write.

So when I first sat down for breakfast during the Writer’s UnCon with Barbara O’Neal, knowing she had written forty books under various pen names, I wasn’t expecting such personable conversation. When I ordered her latest book, When We Believed in Mermaids, I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy it so much. Last but not least, I was surprised to discover how much this Colorado native is in love with the ocean—a fellow #coastalfiction author!

As soon as I finished devouring Mermaids, I reached out for an interview. I was definitely NOT surprised when she responded, promptly and warmly, with great answers to my questions. Here’s a taste of this rare ego-free success story, Barbara O’Neal.

1. In Mermaids, your female characters quite consciously need their water view. I think the ocean is a new theme for you. What inspired it for this book?

I don’t think I’ve written novels set around the ocean before, but my love for it began when I was quite young.  I was born and raised in the Rockies, but when I was seven, we moved to California for a brief period, and I fell madly in love with the ocean. We moved back, but I returned again and again to the coast of California, camping as a young woman, visiting as much as possible, and teaching whenever I could land a gig. For several years, I taught every spring at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, in a hotel right on the beach. It was heaven.

And I’m a traveler. My travels have taken me to coasts and beaches around the world, from Florida to Mumbai, Canon Beach OR to Vancouver to Salem MA to England and, of course, New Zealand. I love everything about it–the light, the movement, the sounds. It always changes, minute to minute, and it feels like it speaks to me. Settles me. 

2. You grew up and still live in the Rockies. What similarity do you see between ocean and mountains?  

The ocean is immense and impossible to ever really understand, much like the Rockies. Mountains and oceans are both ancient and teeming with life and make my own life seem very small in comparison, which I like. It makes problems seem small, too.   

3. Can you give us your thoughts on genres: women’s fiction, romance, and of course my own personal favorite: #coastalfiction?

I think they’re all on a continuum.  Romance is the journey of people who are looking for a mate, and it often follows young women as they seek to create a stable world in which to raise offspring. Of course, it takes many forms and features people of all ages, but at the heart, it is about finding a happy sexual partnership.  Women’s fiction is about a woman finding her way through situations to her own inner truth, or at least that’s what I write.  Women’s fiction is often about satisfying work, and finding a place in the world, and learning what things make us happy and productive, and which things torture us.  It’s also often the story of a disaster or turning point in a life. How do you navigate tragedy and loss?  What qualities carry us through.  

As for #coastalfiction, I’m not as familiar with what the parameters are, but it seems it would be about humans interacting with the sea and how it influences their lives and choices, which is definitely the case with When We Believed in Mermaids. The three women in the book can’t sleep if they can’t hear the ocean. It unifies them, defines them. 

4. What are you working on now, and what excites you about it?

I’ve just wrapped up my next book for Lake Union, called The Lost Girls of Devon, about four generations of women in a small English coastal village. The ocean figures into this one, too, in several ways. I’m in love with the setting and the tangled relationships of mothers and daughters and how our choices frame us, but also the other people in our lives. It will be out July 14, 2021.

Thanks Barbara for being so approachable and for writing a book I really enjoyed! I can’t wait to read the next one (as well as dig into your backlist).

Got another favorite #coastalfiction author you’d like me to interview? Comment below or email me. Thanks for reading!

2 Replies to “Author Conversation #3: Barbara O’Neal”

  1. I enjoyed this interview. Recently I’ve really gotten into some books with water themes, such as “Sullivan’s Island,” by the late Dorothea Benton Frank. “The Weekenders” by Mary Kay Andrews is a good one. Would love to see her interviewed because I got to hear her speak once. She’s entertaining. 🙂

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