AUTHOR INSIGHT: MEET DAWN BARKER

Released earlier this year, Dawn Barker’s first novel, Fractured, has garnered high praise from readers and reviewers. The child psychiatrist began writing Fractured in 2009 shortly after the birth of her first child; since the novel’s release she’s been sucked into the whirlwind of author talks, writers’ festivals and social media that’s part of book promotion these days … as well as working on her next book! Dawn will be my Stories on Stage guest on July 10 and very much I’m looking forward to meeting this talented woman. Thanks, Dawn, for making time to answer my questions.

Monique: You’re a child psychiatrist and now an author – such a juggling act! How does that work?

Dawn: It’s hard! At the moment I’m not practicing medicine as I have three children under the age of 4, and I found that trying to juggle being a mum with both writing and psychiatry was too much. So for now, I’m enjoying the flexibility of being able to write from home while I look after my daughters.

Monique: Your first novel, Fractured, was released earlier this year to fantastic reviews. What was that experience like? How is your life different now because of this?

Dawn: The past few months have been amazing, and I still have to remind myself that it’s real! It felt strange when the book was published: it was out of my hands, and I was very anxious to see how it would be received. But, luckily, most people are saying nice things about it! My life has been more hectic since publication. I was lucky enough to speak at the Perth, Margaret River and Sydney Writers festivals, and I’ve been doing talks in libraries, bookshops, bookclubs, radio and even television! I’m also trying to write the second book. So I’m busy, but I love it all – it’s my dream job.

Monique: Why do you think the book has been so well-received? What made you chose the main themes in Fractured?

Dawn: I think that Fractured deals with topics that many people can relate to: relationships, parenting, and mental health. I hope that I managed to write about these issues in a realistic and sensitive way. The themes of the book evolved from my experiences as a psychiatrist and as a mother of young children. The book is also structured in way that creates an element of suspense, which I think keeps people engaged with the story.

Monique: What do you like most about Fractured?

Dawn: I’m most proud of the fact that I have written about a confronting topic – that of serious mental health issues – without (I hope!) sensationalising or trivialising it. I think it’s important to open up conversations about mental illness and I know from the feedback I’ve had so far that it’s doing that.

Monique: In Fractured, Anna is dealing with severe post-natal depression, with horrific consequences. How can people help those experiencing post-natal depression?

Dawn: Anna, in Fractured, has an illness even more severe than depression: postnatal psychosis. The most important thing that people can do if they’re worried about a friend or family member is to seek help as soon as possible and not assume that they will improve without professional help. Anyone who is worried should contact a health professional as soon as possible (midwife, childhood nurse, GP or emergency department).

Monique: In some ways, Fractured is a confronting read. As a mother, was it hard to write aspects of this book?

Dawn: I get asked this question a lot, and I’d have to say that being a mother actually helped me to write this book. Many of the scenes about the early weeks of being a new parent were inspired by my own experiences (although I was lucky enough not to experience any mental illness). I was also very clear in my own mind that I was writing fiction, and that helped me to separate myself from the characters and situations in the book.

Monique: Your second book is now under way. What stage is it at now? (I loved Fractured so I’m keen to read your next book.) Can you tell me what I have to look forward to with this book?

Dawn: Thank you! I am currently redrafting my second book. There is a lot to do, but I hope to have it finished by the end of this year, for publication in 2014. While the subject is different, it will deal with similar themes as Fractured: parenting, mother-infant attachment, relationships, mental health and ethical dilemmas! I’m still hard at work, so I won’t give away too much at this stage!

Monique: Is your writing experience different this time around?

Dawn: I had written the first draft of this second novel while I was waiting for editing feedback on Fractured, so I was lucky enough to have the basics of the story already written before Fractured was published. I certainly feel more experienced this time, and I’m having to be more disciplined in writing as I don’t have the luxury of taking as long as I want to write it! I’m far busier, as I’m still promoting Fractured and have three little children instead of one! I find it challenging yet exhilarating when it seems to be coming together.

Monique: As a mother, what’s your writing process like? Where do you write? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?

Dawn: I write every day – I have to, as I can only write for an hour or two a day maximum. I used to write while my children napped, but two of my kids have given up their day sleeps unfortunately! I have a babysitter two mornings a week, when I go to the local library and write. I have a desk and office at home and will sometimes write in the evenings. As I tend to get too distracted at home, I tend to work on the ‘business’ side of writing when I’m at home: blogging, social media, paperwork etc. If I have a deadline to meet, then I get up at 4am to fit in two hours’ work before the children wake up.

Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?

Dawn: Being too distracted! It’s usually the internet (I really should turn it off!) but anything will do: housework, children, a sudden urge to weed the garden or go for a run …

Monique: Do your characters create themselves? Or do you plan them out? Do they ever surprise you?

Dawn: I don’t plan more than a rough outline when I start writing, and that goes for my characters too. They start out being quite flat, as does my entire story, and with each re-draft, the characters and story become more complex as I add the layers and depth. I found in writing Fractured that certain characters took on a life of their own, especially Ursula. It’s great when that happens as scenes are then much easier to write and it doesn’t seem like hard work at all.

Monique: What do you look for when you read fiction?

Dawn: I like books that have depth to them, but they must have a good story too. A book can be beautifully written, full of descriptive and original writing, but without a good plot, I tend to lose interest. I tend to read ‘literary’ fiction, although I’m really open to reading anything that engages me.

Monique: Which Australian women writers do you admire the most?

There are so many great Australian women writers! One of my favourites is Kate Grenville, especially her early work (Dark Places is one of my inspirations for writing). I am in a writers group with some West Australian women writers (Annabel Smith, Natasha Lester, Amanda Curtin, Emma Chapman and Sara Foster), and I’ve been thrilled to discover their work.

Monique: Which book are you reading now?

Dawn: I’m reading Elemental by Amanda Curtin, a Perth-based writer. Much of it is set in the North East of Scotland, where I grew up, so I’m really enjoying it.

Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?

Dawn: No, no, no! I rarely give up on a book either, though a wonderful consequence of having my novel published is that I now have almost too many books to read, so sometimes I put a book aside if it doesn’t grab me immediately – although I (almost) always return to them!

Monique: What party trick can you do?

Dawn: Haha! I can do a Highland fling … (well, my version of it)

Monique: If I came over for dinner now, what would we have to eat?

Dawn: If it was last night, you would have had salmon grilled on the BBQ, and oven roasted potato and sweet potato with wasabi mayonnaise. Tonight, take away …

Monique: Finish this sentence … I really hate it when …

Dawn: People don’t use a possessive apostrophe properly! It’s not that hard!

Monique: Which song best describes you?

Dawn: Paperback writer?

Monique: Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?

Dawn: I am kicking myself that I didn’t take my Margaret Atwood collection along to the Perth Writers Festival when I had the honour of meeting her! I thought I’d look too much like a groupie if I asked for her autograph!

Monique: How would you describe your bookshelves? What do others think of your bookshelves?

Dawn: Overflowing! I try to clear out my bookshelves every so often by donating books to charity or passing them onto friends, but the ‘to keep’ section keeps growing. The main comment I get from others is that I have a lot of books!

Monique: You’re based in Perth. Which places would you take a friend/relative to show off the city?

Dawn: As I’m from overseas, this happens a lot! Usually we go to King’s Park, Point Walter, Little Creatures in Fremantle for a bite to eat and a drink, and ‘down south’ to Eagle Bay.

Monique: If you had time to own a bookshop, what would you call it?

Dawn: I’m no good at coming up with titles of my own books, never mind a bookshop! Barker’s Books?