Art Works Blog

Art Talk with John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman

You may know John Barrowman from the theater or from his TV work, including Malcolm Merlyn on Arrow and Captain Jack Harkness on both Doctor Who and Torchwood. You may also know his sister Carole E. Barrowman from her regular crime fiction column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or her book reviews in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. But did you know that together the brother-and-sister team are the minds behind YA science fiction series like the Hollow Earth trilogy and the Orion Chronicles? The way John tells it, the Scots-born duo first started writing together on sugar-fueled roadtrips around the time he was first asked to write an autobiography. The two liked collaborating so much, they’ve stuck at it, with—they say—one project just naturally leading to another. We spoke with them by phone in anticipation of their appearance at DC’s Awesome Con. While we weren’t able to verify that Captain Jack Harkness is actually the Face of Boe, we did learn how family Christmas parties nurtured their love of the arts, what they consider their superpower as a writing team, and what they admire most about each other. (Editors Note: Due to scheduling issues around the time difference—John lives on the West Coast--we started the interview talking with Carole and then in true younger brother fashion John joined in.)

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?

CAROLE: Our parents were very involved in music and my mom is a beautiful singer. She sang a lot in church choirs and at weddings. We were born and raised in Scotland, and Scottish families, when you get together at parties you have to do what’s called a party piece. You’d sing. You’d do a dance. In my case it was reciting poetry because I took elocution lessons for years when I was a young girl probably from the age of maybe four or five. I was essentially doing forensics and drama and rhetoric and learning how to speak. And to do that I was memorizing poetry and Shakespearean monologues and all of those kinds of things. I loved the fact that we got a lot of attention in our families when we did something like that well, you know, everybody applauded. And grandma and grandpa were happy. So we always did a lot of party pieces. I think that it was a real personal connection and realizing that this stuff is part of our family’s fiber, the storytelling and the way we tell the stories.

NEA: When did you start thinking about writing in a professional way?

CAROLE: I guess I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I can’t mark one particular place in my life. I was a voracious reader. I was reading way ahead of my grade when I was very, very young. Luckily, I had teachers who supported me in that reading habit and would give me books. I just knew that I wanted to tell stories like that so I wrote my own stories. In high school we had a magazine, and we could submit pieces to it. I remember [that for] the very first piece that I actually got published I reworked a David Bowie song….I took some lyrics from “Life on Mars” and I wrote this freaky sort of alien come to earth and teenage angsty story out of that. I’m sure I wrote other things, but I remember that one particularly because I was really into David Bowie and I felt this was a really, really good story. When I went on in college, I wanted to be a journalist because I thought that would be a good way to make a living as a writer. I had this professor one time who got really sick and asked if I would teach the class. He recognized I had some talent that way and then I just fell in love with teaching. I thought, “You know what, this could work.” I could work both my passion for literature and books and writing and this sort of newly discovered passion to teach.

NEA: When you are thinking about a writing project what gets you to say, “Yes, this is something I definitely want to do?”

CAROLE: I’m a real fan of mysteries and crime fiction. I’ve been reading them since I first discovered Dorothy Sayers many, many years ago and Agatha Christie, all of those [writers]. I continue to read a lot in that genre because I write a column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and for the Milwaukee newspaper. Once a month I write a column reviewing and recommending good crime fiction that’s out right now…. My very first thing I ever wrote was purely out of my own interests and my own passion for the genre. And for the fact that I wanted to play around with some ideas about what could make a really good person do something really, really bad. That novel didn’t go anywhere. I call it my practice novel, and it’s still unpublished. Maybe it won’t ever get published but I had to write it nevertheless. After that I think I did a lot of journalism kinds of things. I was lucky enough that the editor I work with would give me free rein. I was really interested in profiling writers and what brought them to their craft and what are the things that they learned.

I guess my answer is I really look for a personal commitment to [the story] because I think my voice—even if it’s not my voice, it’s a narrator’s voice—I think it’s stronger if I have some kind of a hook or a passion that that writing task is involved with. John and I, many many years ago when he was asked to write his autobiography, he knew I was really looking to try to break in and get a book published. He said, “I'm only going to do this if my sister gets to write it.” What we found was that the collaboration and the back and forth between us—we taped all of our conversations—became this running family story, a conversation. I think the voice that came through, which is John’s voice even though I wrote it, it came through stronger because we both were really interested and passionate about the stories we were telling. After that every project that’s come up for us collaboratively has come up during the final stages of the project before it. But we have to be somehow linked to it in a way that it connects to passion or something that we care about.

NEA: So you’re a teacher as well as a writer. How does teaching inform your work as a writer and vice versa? How do they feed each other?

CAROLE: Everything I do is blended together in a way that sometimes when I’m teaching I might also be thinking and working with my students on maybe revising. And it will click with something that I’m writing and I’ll say to them, “While you’re thinking about doing this, here’s the problem I’ve got right now as a writer and this is how this impacts me.” So when they’re workshopping an idea, I might be workshopping an idea with them. I think it makes my teaching more authentic for them. But it also gives my writing a broader platform to play off. Maybe it makes it more collaborative in that way. I think it's hard for me to separate and say it’s two careers. To me it feels just like one really amorphic career.

The other thing I was thinking, too, is that the brother and sisters in our [Hollow Earth] books, [their superpower is] when they draw, their drawings come to life and they move in and out of art. Visual art has always been a really important part of our lives. So I think for me, as a teacher, I always had the visual arts in my classroom. When I teach poetry, I bring in paintings. When I teach literature, I bring art and music and so on. And John’s life, obviously, is from the theater and has been multimedia-driven. So when my writing career and our writing together started to really take up more time it just seemed to make sense that we pull all of that art and music and other creative things in with it.

NEA: My next question for you is actually what’s your superpower as a writer?

CAROLE: That is so hard. I’ll tell you the thing that I know I’m really, really good at because people ask me to do this all of the time. I can edit and revise very succinctly. I’m really good at editing and I don’t just mean editing in the correcting commas and this sort of cosmetics of the language way. I’m really good at deep structural [editing] and seeing that you’ve got something happening at the beginning here and it has to be seeded better for it to play a role at the end. In that way, especially with other people’s writing I’m really, really good at that. With my own writing—

JOHN: In other words, your superpower is cutting people’s stuff up.

CAROLE: That’s right. I was trying to think of a much, much more refined—

JOHN: More intellectual way of saying it.

CAROLE: [Editing] is my favorite part. When I’m writing a draft, it’s a vomit draft and I can’t wait to get it out on paper and just start shaping and massaging and playing with it and copying things and moving them around. So I think that’s probably my superpower.

NEA: And what do you wish you were better at?

CAROLE: I think sometimes I can overwrite, which may sound as if it’s in contradiction to what I’m just saying. But we can have a big chase scene and I can have the chase scene going on for pages and they’re jumping and they’re leaping and sometimes John will come in and he’ll say, “Let’s just rein this in and make it this. It will still be great but we don’t need five pages of it.”

JOHN: Too much information.

CAROLE: So I think I’d like to be better at that initial draft, not overwriting so much.

NEA: Thanks for joining us, John. I’d like to ask you the same question I asked Carole: what do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?

JOHN: The first thing that pops to mind is when I was a kid and I went to see Peter Pan as a pantomime at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. My mom took me. Whoever was playing Peter Pan at that time came off the stage and flew right into the middle of the audience. That was the hook for me because all of a sudden I felt this wave of euphoria and emotion and happiness…. I’ve never really wanted to be or do anything else. I’ve always had the arts in my vision whether it be singing or acting or with the collaborative writing or anything of that kind.

NEA: John, you have a very wide ranging résumé to say the least. What gets you to say yes to a particular project?

JOHN: I learned a lesson very early on in my career and it was thanks to a woman named Elaine Page, who I did my first professional West End show with, Anything Goes. Elaine told me, “Only do something because you want to do it, not because somebody else wants you to do it.” I’ve stuck by that. You know, there have been a couple of times that somebody will want me to do something and it’s a favor or something like that, that’s a different story…. But everything is based on whether I want to do it, and if I’m going to have fun doing it and the enjoyment that it comes from it. Some people do it for the money and I’ve done that and I’ve had a miserable time. The jobs that I have done because I liked [the project] have always ended up paying me off tenfold financially because I’ve done it because I really thought I would enjoy doing it.

NEA: Before you joined us, Carole told me her version of—

JOHN: It’s lies. It’s all lies. Everything is a lie.

NEA: Carole told me how you two started writing together. What’s your version of that story?

JOHN: We were on a trip from either London to Cardiff or Cardiff to London. Carole had come to stay with [my husband and me] and we started recording ourselves in the car just telling stories. We needed to get some stories for the autobiography going…. We started recording this stuff in the car while eating tons of sweets. It was a sugar-fueled euphoria and we were literally sugar high for two-and-a-half hours in that journey. We started going off on tangents that were just bizarre. Eventually we said to each other, “If you could have a superpower what would it be?” For a split second there was silence. Then somebody had to spurt out something because the sugar kicked in again. We decided we’d take out all of the general can fly, come back to life, eternal life, blah, blah, blah, all of that [superhero]stuff. We decided there and then that it would have to be art because [while] Carole and I cannot draw and aren’t artistic in that sense, we both have a great appreciation of art.

That’s one thing that I have done with my husband Scott, although he doesn’t like all of the same stuff that I like. Whenever I’ve had some money to purchase some pieces I’ve bought some really nice pieces of art. We’ve everything from original Keith Harings to new artists that are up and coming.

But, anyway, we thought, what if we could draw? What if like in the Mary Poppins movie we could put ourselves into the drawings, like we could go into them and live in that period or bring those people from those drawings out with sketches or, you know, with the artistic impression that we have? We’re like, “Oh my God, that would make a totally cool book!” and that was it. That was how [our book series] was born. That conversation was recorded so any time we want to get a new idea we go back and listen to that high euphoric state and then we pick it apart. But most of the stuff that we do was born from that one simple session.

NEA: That's a great place to ask the question I was asking Carole when you joined us: what’s your superpower as an artist?

CAROLE: It could be your voice, John, don’t you think?

JOHN: You notice how my big sister answers? That’s a hard one because there’s a really weird kind of thing that happens when you become someone who is a public figure or someone who is in the public eye because different people know you for different things. There are people who know me for being a singer. There are people in the States who don’t know me as a singer, but know me from television and Doctor Who and Torchwood and Arrow and all of the different genre TV shows. Then there’s other people who know us from the books. But one thread that they have in common, and this is going to sound weird, but a lot of people say that what we have done—either me individually or Carole and I as a team—is helped them through something. We’re actually helping people out by the work that we do in the arts, and we’re unconsciously doing that. That would be the underlying superpower that all of this does; it actually frees people up in the long run. My voice, my face on television, the stuff that Carole and I do together all brought into one, I think the superpower is that it helps free people up to be themselves and do what they really like and enjoy.

NEA: I have one last question for both of you. What do you admire most about your sibling’s work in terms of the arts?

CAROLE: I would say what I admire about him is his empathy. And I think his ability to be expansive in how he deals with the world. There’s a bigness to the way he lives his life, and there’s a bigness to the way he deals with people. That’s what I think I admire the most.

JOHN: I think I admire Carole’s tenacity, if that’s the right word. I mean it in a good sense. For instance, when something comes up, she’ll call me and she’ll ask what we should do. Then she’ll talk herself around at the end of it and she’ll basically say, “We’re just going to do it!” I also admire the fact that she has been able to not forget about her dreams of being an author. And that while she’s been teaching all of her life, she’s also raised two kids who now are out in the world. She also has jumped on her dream when most people would have done it earlier and not bothered about children or anything like that. But she’s done all of that first. Then she’s decided now is the time, it’s her time. So I admire that—someone who is able to say I’ve done what I’ve done, now it’s my time.

CAROLE: And we both have really good hair.

JOHN: We have great hair!

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