WRITERS TELL ALL
Jessica Barry on FREEFALL, an endless thrillride involving mothers and daughters who never quite have "the perfect life," but fight like hell to get there
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Jessica! I am very thrilled to talk with you. Freefallis a remarkable novel that somehow mixes James Patterson’s short, heart-thumping chapters with the grace of Jeff Abbott and sometimes the ever brilliant and impeccable Alison Gaylin. Before I really dig in here, what brought you to writing? How long did it take to write this novel and were you ever stumped by it? From what I have read this is your first novel (correct me if I’m wrong) and it’s really one of the most remarkable first novels for a suspense/mystery writer. What was it like writing from two (and sometimes three) points of view?
Jessica Barry: First of all, thank you so much for all your kind words about Freefall!
While Freefallis my first thriller, it isn’t my first novel – I’ve written a few women’s fiction novels under a different name. Writing this was a very different kettle of fish, though. I was stumped many, many times during the process – my poor agent read so many drafts she deserves a medal, and her response to most of them was: more plot, please. It took about two years from starting the first draft to finishing the last (I think it was the ninth) draft, and the learning curve throughout was steep. Writing from several points of view was challenging at times (particularly figuring out who knows what and making sure the timelines synch) but I really enjoyed switching between Maggie’s voice and Allison’s throughout the novel – it wouldn’t have been as satisfying a process had it been from a single POV.
MT: I can’t stress how much I love this novel and the characters. Both first person voices of the two primary female narrators are so spectacularly done. It’s rare to find a book with told from different first person POVs, and yet this novel does so effortlessly. What do you think the trick is to writing POVs like this, and my other question would be how did you decide to give the characters such complicated backstories, instead of what lesser authors might do—a simpler backstory to help push the suspense forward?
JB: Thank you! I think the main trick to writing first person is to get their voice in your head. For Freefall, Maggie’s voice came to me almost immediately – I’m originally from Massachusetts so grew up surrounded by tough, flinty New England women. Allison’s voice developed more gradually, as did her backstory – it felt at times like I had to pull it out of her!
I think that we all in our own way have complicated backstories, or at least view our own past in a way that isn’t necessarily linear, and I wanted to capture that here. Allison’s age also played a part in that decision – she’s in her early thirties, but her life is very much shaped by the decisions she made in her twenties, and that’s a time that many of us (myself definitely included) make mistakes or choose paths we later regret.
MT: You pull off so many “tricks” here, with stories that really entertain whether suspense driven or not, and you manage to balance suspense, story, plot, character, and so on without seeming to bat an eye. This had to have been a lot of work, and if it isn’t you must be a genius. Do you mind telling us how you managed to balance so many different elements of writing with this?
JB: Oh lord, it was so much work. The initial idea for the book was about a woman surviving a plane crash and wandering through the wilderness. That was pretty much it! The other elements took a long time to develop, and many, many drafts. The first few drafts were pretty low on plot – they mainly focused on the emotional struggles of the two main characters. I feel like at the end of each draft, I would figure out another element of the plot, or another twist, which meant I would need to go back and dig everything out again and rearrange. So it was definitely a long process!
MT: I’ve read that you work in publishing. Why did you choose to write a suspense/thriller novel, and who are the author who inspired you, and continue to inspire you? What book do you return to upon being stumped? If you have to pick any author, and maybe a thriller author as well, who do you feel has shaped you into he writer you’ve become today?
JB: I work as a translation rights agent at a literary agency in London, which means I have the pleasure of selling authors’ work to publishers around the world for translation.
I didn’t deliberately set out to write a thriller – I just had an idea and became obsessed with it. That said, I’ve always loved a good thriller. I think Dennis Lehane is a genius – I always go back to his books if I need to be reminded about what good dialogue looks like. I love Tana French’s ability to build atmosphere and character, and Laura Lippman’s novels are always great for complicated, intriguing female characters and clever plotting.
MT: Was there ever a time where you felt you might give up on FREEFALL? I know a lot of authors have different novels bouncing around their heads—were you ever tempted by other ideas? What kept pulling you back to the story?
JB: I threatened to throw my laptop out of the window more times than I’d care to remember when writing Freefall, not because I’d had a better idea but because I doubted that I could make the idea I had work the way I wanted. It was the idea itself that kept pulling me back to it. Ann Patchett has this great line in This is the Story of a Happy Marriageabout how, when a writer develops a story, it becomes this beautiful, perfect butterfly in her mind, and that pulling the story out of her head and putting onto the page involves slowly bludgeoning that butterfly to death. That’s what both made me want to give up and pushed me to keep going: the hope that maybe I could save some small part of the butterfly during the process.
MT: You don’t necessarily state it upfront, but this novel deals with so many current topics (and, really, topics that have been plaguing humanity for generations even if people have turned a blind eye). There are issues with emotional, mental, and physical abusive inside a relationship, there is corporate crime and the people who commit it, There are the people who believe that they can start over in all kinds of ways. And then there’s the idea that you can always return home (disagreeing here with Thomas Wolfe). What are the big themes and ideas behind this noel that kept you motivated, and what ideas do you really want to stress to this country?
JB: I’ve been obsessed with corporate malfeasance in the pharmaceutical industry since OxyContin opened the door for the current opioid epidemic, so I was definitely keen to explore the way in which companies that are theoretically meant to make us better can actually do a huge amount of harm.
But the main issues I wanted to explore are a little more broad. The first is complexity of mother/daughter relationships, particularly as that relationship evolves in the transition from childhood to adulthood. When we’re little, we think we know everything about our parents, and they know everything about us. The process of growing up is in some sense unlearning and relearning that relationship. That ties in with going home, too: I grew up in a small town and spent a lot of my adolescence dreaming about getting out into the big wide world. But spending a few years in the big wide world can sometimes make us look back on where we grew up in a different light.
I was also really keen to dig into the pressures placed upon women and how that influences the way we shape ourselves to fit the world we live in. Allison constructs a series of identities for herself based on who she needs to please: her parents, her peers, her creditors, and her fiancé. I know her version of this can be extreme, but it was a process I could relate to, particularly when I was in my twenties. Society expects women to be many things: ambitious-but-not-too-ambitious, thin-but-not-too-thin, ideally pliable, always beautiful. I wanted to explore some of the ramifications of these expectations, and also what happens when all of those expectations are stripped away from someone and they’re left only with their raw core.
MT: I’ve read that you work in publishing and are writing under a pseudonym. Can you tell us how this came to be? One of my oldest mentors, Julianna Baggott (another JB) writes under many pseudonyms, several on her own and then some with other people. What do you think is the appeal of writing under a pseudonym for most people, and what was the appeal of working under a pseudonym for you?
JB: The decision to use a pseudonym came from the switch in the genre in which I was writing. I published the women’s fiction novels under my own name, so it made sense to come up with a new pen name to mark the switch to thrillers for Freefall. Having written under both my own name and a pseudonym, I have to say I really enjoy the pseudonym! Writing is such an intensely personal process and having it published under a different name gives me a little extra layer of separation that I’m finding helpful.
MT: The twists keep coming in this book, although they never feel gimmicky or out of place. So many books simply stick in a twist for shock value, but you rarely do this. What do you think is the importance of having some really great twists, and more importantly what is essential for making these plot twists not feel like a trick of the hat but instead undeniably ultimate to the story?
JB: I guess I tried to make sure that everything that happens to the characters feels plausible. I love a good twist but only if it’s grounded in some semblance of reality – it can be really frustrating to be invested in a book and have the ending come completely out of left field. There’s always a level of suspended disbelief involved but I think you can only test those limits to a certain extent!
MT: Another mentor of mine, poet and novelist Jillian Weise, told me never to give the audience what they want. What are your thoughts on this and what are your approaches toward writing and how you write for or against readers’ wishes. Who do you feel the need to please? Your readers, your peers, yourself?
JB: I try to write books that readers will enjoy reading: that’s my primary goal. There’s always an amount of withholding an author has to do, particularly when writing suspense, but I think it’s a fine line between teasing out information and driving readers insane with a lack of it. Basically, I want to build a story that will keep them interested and entertained and keep them guessing until the end – without baffling them into submission!
MT: There’s the quote many people have attributed to Toni Morrison, although I’ve read variations on the quote in so many different places. She said something the along the lines of having to write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never been able to find. Do you think you did this with FREEFALL or do you think this book is still to come? Would you describe or hint as to what this book may be like?
JB: Well, I’ve always wanted to write a book that featured strong female characters who were capable of saving themselves and weren’t reliant on a man to do the saving. Hopefully I’ve done that with Freefall!
MT: I don’t want to spoil too much, but the book definitely has a certain GONE GIRL vibe to me—although, to be honest, it’s completely different, which is a good thing. I love that the book doesn’t start off with “Allison had an absolutely perfect life,” etc, and that it doesn’t focus solely on the domestic thriller genre, which is so hot on the market right now. How did you decide not to take this route, instead giving both of the protagonists’ rocky pasts and how they fear for the future? What was so important for you to set yourself out from every other thriller writer out there?
JB: I think this ties in with my answer above. It was really important to me to write a book in which women weren’t portrayed as victims or unreliable narrators. Of course, there are lots of incredible books that use unreliable female narrators – GONE GIRL being one of them – but I wanted my female characters to be heroines in the traditional sense: clear-eyed and capable of saving the day. A lot of male-led thrillers feature arcs of redemption for their main characters, and I wanted to do the same for Maggie and Allison.
MT: You’ve gotten some really great blurbs from some really important writers recently. I do have to say, while I have been disappointed in so many writers’ recent books, yours is stunning. How do you feel that fame and acclaim has changed your life as opposed to the way it’s changed other novelists? Do you already have another novel in the works (and may we hear a bit about it, if so?).
JB: I still have a full-time job and am currently waiting for a load of laundry to finish in the washing machine, so my life hasn’t changed all that much so far! I’m super grateful for all of the support I’ve had from other writers and from my publishers and know that I’m extremely lucky to be in this position. I’m sort of expecting to wake up tomorrow and for everyone to shout JUST KIDDING in my face.
I’m currently about two-thirds of the way through a new novel. It’s about two women who are driving through the middle of the night across the desert for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, and who become the target of a seemingly-random road rage incident. Things escalate from there…!
MT: What are three really important habits you would choose to help future struggling writers with their writing and goals in the future? What do you think is the most important thing for an aspiring novelist to get to the place you are now, and the place so many other authors have worked hard to reach?
JB: The most important thing for any aspiring writer to do is to sit down in front of a computer (or notebook, or typewriter) and write. It’s also the most difficult. Even now, I spent so much time avoiding the act of writing. It’s often hard and tedious and unsatisfying and crazy-making. You will want to throw your laptop out of the window many, many times. But the only way to write anything – and the only way to get better at it – is to sit down and do it.
The second is to have faith in your ideas. If an idea comes to you and you feel like it’s a good one, hold on to it. Let it wander around in your head for a while and see where it goes. Write notes. When you feel the idea is ready, sit down and write and try not to be too discouraged by your initial attempts. It will get better.
The third is to keep at it. The first draft is usually junk. The second isn’t much better. There will be moments when you won’t want to look at the manuscript ever again, which are the moments you should stand up from your desk and take a shower or go for a run and then when you’re feeling less despairing, you should sit down again and try again (but don’t wait too long).
MT: I don’t want to go into specific to avoid spoilers, but there seems to be a switch in roles between a husband and wife characters. I won’t go into detail but I will ask—how do you approach gender as opposed to sex in this novel? It seems like you are offering the idea that gender roles are outdated, but I’d love to hear your spin on things.
JB: I’ve never been a huge believer in gender roles. The idea that women are meant to do x and men are meant to do y seems frankly insane to me. That sort of binary dynamic in a relationship feels toxic these days, and this is something we see play out in the novel.
MT: I really loved reading your book, Jessica. It was beyond phenomenal and I’m so excited to promote your book. To all of our readers, I highly suggest you pick up a copy of FREEFALL by Jessica Barry as soon as possible. Jessica, thank you so much and feel free to leave any remarks, thoughts, or questions below. I look forward to reading what you come out with next!
JB: Thank you so much! And thank you for asking such interesting, insightful questions – it’s been a real pleasure!