Meet the Author: Music from a Strange Planet by Barbara Black

Today we travel to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada to chat with Barbara Black about how a porcupine, a magic spot on her couch, the Delphic Oracle, adventure motorcycling, playing the piano, collage, whispering to bees, the William Tell Overture, thriving on the random, a margarita with a Antarctic ice cube, and the Jetsons come together as part of Barbaras life.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I live in the southwest corner of British Columbia, Canada, on big, beautiful Vancouver Island in the city of Victoria. Land of sea, mountains, rainforest, raccoons and seagulls. City of many restaurants and creative people who move here to pursue their bliss.

In which genre do you write? How many published books do you have?

I write poetry, short stories and flash fiction. I’m a minimalist at heart. I love the art of compression and squeezing an entire world into a few lines or pages. Music from a Strange Planet is my first book: a collection of twenty-two short stories, published by Caitlin Press.

Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?

Since it’s a story collection, I can’t cite just one idea. But mostly my stories start with a character’s voice, or a distinct statement that I know will lead me into a new fictional landscape. Interestingly, for my story “Belly-Deep in White Clover,” about a solitary taxidermist who becomes enamoured with a porcupine, the idea came from Geist magazine’s “CanLit Premise Generator” (as in Canadian Literature). It was a fun generator of random CanLit themes and tropes, including moose, loggers, beavers, hockey teams, Leonard Cohen, French-Canadian clowns, and harsh winters. When I pressed the magic generator button I got something like: an unusually tall man/with an antiquated profession/falls in love with a wild animal. For the longest time, I tried to write a humourous story on this subject, but finally gave up. Then one day, the beginnings of a very differently-toned story arrived, with those same quirky elements, but it was beautiful and tender and mysterious and has been beloved by readers.

What is an interesting writing quirk you have, that we wouldn’t know by reading your biography?

I have a magic spot on my couch. When I sit there early in the morning, brilliant opening lines come into my head, unbidden. It’s like I’m the Delphic Oracle presiding over the mysterious fumes of prophecy, only with no fumes!

What would you choose as your spirit animal and why?

I discovered my spirit animal at a poetry retreat. Our first assignment was to call in our spirit animal and write a poem about it to share the next morning. I tried all evening to summon up an animal and as the deadline loomed, started to panic. I imagined all the experienced writers in their rooms crafting pieces of brilliance about their totem animals. The solution? I just let go and wrote nonstop, calling in this animal until my pen stopped, then looked at the first line: “Are you the dark brown one of the sweet-smelling soil, the solitary thorn who eats the tender leaves?” It was a porcupine. Of course, there’s the connection of quills with writing, which I only subconsciously realized. But after some research, I was touched to learn that porcupines are mostly solitary (like writers!) and gentle and they sleep in trees, something I actually did as a child. I composed the poem and went to bed after midnight. The next morning, I read it at the writing circle. One of the retreat participants was an editor of a Canadian literary journal. She came up to me afterwards and offered to publish my poem. It was my first publication.

What are you currently reading?

I love to read and write short forms. Short stories, flash stories and compact poems. My latest interest is prose poems. They’re a lyrical, enigmatic hybrid. I’m currently reading two prose poem collections—a heart-breakingly beautiful collection by Allison Benis White, called Self-Portrait with Crayon. She writes in a unique style that somehow manages to convey complex states of mind; and David Shumate’s witty book of prose poems, High Water Mark, inventive takes on everything from Hitler’s barber to Neruda carrying a sea in his suitcase. On the fiction side, I recently finished Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I highly recommend. I’m also working my way through George Saunders’ short story master class book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. And I love pretzeling my brain with cryptic crosswords.

What outdoor activity haven’t you tried, but would like to try?

Adventure motorcycling on the backroads. No traffic! Hills, and rivers, mud, dirt paths, and bumps. Plus, I might see a porcupine. Or, at least, the back of one.

Can you play a musical instrument?

I play piano. Currently enjoying a book of transcribed jazz improvisations from some of the greats. What a little jazz can do for a person’s soul. I have over ten years of classical vocal training, but now I prefer singing jazz and folk music. I can also play the beginning of the William Tell Overture on my front teeth, if you care to listen.

What do you do when not writing or marketing your books?

In the warmer months, I’m travelling, out in the garden whispering to the bees or riding my motorcycle and bagging some curves. In the winter, I read and write and often am busy on a collaboration. This year I’ll be working with a composer in Amsterdam, writing text for his composition, “Seven Colours of the Night.” I also recently took up collage and now collage excerpts from my writing on Instagram. (As a matter of fact, my publisher kindly asked if I would design the front cover for my book and I did!)

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself through writing? What’s your writing process?

…that when a story gets stuck, I can just wait until a new scene acts itself out in my head visually. If I allow my subconscious to do its work, the character solves the problem for me. Characters generally come to me unbidden and seem to ask for me to write their story. In this collection, there’s a solitary taxidermist who lives in the woods, a business analyst who yearns to be a sculptor, and a female global traveler who looks for love in all the wrong places. Where these people came from is a mystery to me.

After I finished my manuscript, I was surprised to see inadvertent themes related to my past or to what was happening in my life during the four years of writing the book. I saw in several characters my Dad’s struggle with dementia; and myself in a little girl character who wants to dress up as a very specific kind of beetle (as a child, I loved insects); and my thoughts around mothers and daughters showed up in a story with a mother who mourns her stillborns; one who’s lost her daughter; another who connects with her estranged adult daughter. This is not to say there aren’t moments of humour and subversity in the book. There’s plenty of that, too. So, despite most of the characters not being like me at all, parts of my life are woven into the very fibre of the stories.

As for a writing process, I’m not a planner. I don’t follow the advice to have a writing routine. I thrive on the random. Mostly, I rely on a very strong voice or line to kick-start a story and start the “machine of story-writing.” George Saunders calls this, “Follow the Voice.” Once the kernel of the story is in place, I’m very disciplined at pursuing it.

A penguin knocks on your door and is wearing a sombrero. Why is he there?

Never doubt the muse. It might bring a sombrero-wearing penguin to your front porch. Go with it! And say yes to the margarita with the Antarctic ice cube floating in it.

If you were trapped in a cartoon world from your childhood, which one would you choose and why?

I loved The Jetsons. That opening with its crazy, punchy, exciting music (they squeezed in a few notes of “Chopsticks”!), and the family bubble-jet zipping around the futuristic cityscape. It was so neat that, after landing, the jet snapped down into George’s briefcase! Being a bit of a tomboy, I identified with Elmore. Back then, my father read Popular Science magazine and there were always futurist scenarios in there, like moving sidewalks in the city, personal mini-jets and highways layered on highways like a stack of noodles.

If Mars or another planet were livable, would you accept a one way ticket there?

“Livable” is a pretty minimalist term. Why would I leave my little pocket of raincoast paradise of four seasons for a dry red planet with no greenery or coffee shops?

What are you currently working on?

A collection of flash fictions titled, “Little Fortified Stories,” that began with sitting in the Port Institute in Lisbon, sampling port and muscatel and free-writing words that came to me based on that tipple’s unique qualities. The collection has since evolved to include more story-inspiring spirits, from bourbon to gin and other warped, poignant or fantastical tales that relate to my mostly imagined ancestry.

Tell us about your most recent book. And what’s the “strange music” part of it?

My first book is Music from a Strange Planet, a collection of short stories with themes of quirky love, emotional attachment, transformation, grief and the influences of the natural world (and the occasional insect). Among many other characters, you’ll meet a woman who plans a “sologamy ceremony” to marry herself; two insomniac strangers who come together over a raccoon; and an installation artist who transforms herself into a caribou.

The book title comes from a story with the same title which involves a precocious girl named Lucky Bee who, in addition to having a live cricket who helps her predict the future, is a young composer. Her most recent opus, “Music from a Strange Planet,” is inspired by the convergence of cricket choruses. Several stories in the collection reference music, including one about a punk music singer suffering a creative crisis and inadvertently falling in love with a bassist, and another about a love-seeker who meets her true love—a tram-riding musician—in a tiki bar in Prague.

The book is eclectic, or “unusual and unorthodox,” as one of my endorsers says, full of varying characters, all of whom I care deeply about and who seem to exist somewhere in another galaxy, carrying on their unique lives. I’m thrilled to be introducing them to readers.

It was wonderful having you on MTA, Barbara!! Such a fun interview!! Wishing you all the best, with much success, and many margaritas with Antarctic ice cubes! – Camilla

Book Blurb:

Music from a Strange Planet:

A striking and genre-bending debut short story collection from writer Barbara Black.

Off-beat, provocative, philosophical, Music from a Strange Planet transports you to intimate worlds in a quirky multiverse. This unique story collection places characters at the core of their vulnerabilities. Grief, tenderness and longing soak the pages, taking the reader into the intimate places of the heart: An awkward child envisions herself as a darkling beetle; an unemployed business analyst prefers water-walking over “rebranding” himself; a psychologist wants to marry herself; and in the squatters’ district, a biogenetically-altered couple visits an attic to observe a large cocoon. Black takes the reader from the ruins of a dystopian city to inner self-created landscapes with a masterfully crafted tone and a register that ranges from contemplative to comic. Expect your planet to tilt a little to the strange after reading this engaging collection.

Book Trailer for Music from a Strange Planet:

Book Endorsements:

These exhilarating stories, quick and sharp and tender, breach the barrier that separates civilized and wild, human and non. Senses fuse, flesh is transfigured; characters come to themselves at moments of metamorphosis, modulating to new forms of life. Barbara Black’s magic is the kind that illuminates.”

—John Gould, author of The End of Me

“Barbara Black’s debut collection, Music from a Strange Planet, offers tales of obsession and transformation in which the melding of character with the phenomenal world is nothing less than astounding. With a surgeon’s exacting skill, she lays bare the often-strange music of the human heart.”

—M.A.C. Farrant, author of One Good Thing: A Living Memoir

“Be prepared. Be very prepared and preferably with your inner antennae on high alert as you enter into this translucent, transcendent, Kafkaesque world of illusions. Black goes beyond spider-like weaving as she spins her tales. Unusual, unorthodox, but always unique, they will stick to you.”

—Cathleen With, author of Having Faith in the Polar Girls’ Prison


Music from a Strange Planet

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Other Links:

Author Interview with Mandy-Eve Barnett:

Book Review by Bill Arnott:

Author Interview with Bill Arnott:

Author Interview with Oscar Martens:

Taking risks with Barbara Black


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