Southern Scribe Our culture of storytelling, Featured Romance Author The Writer's SoulAn Interview with Barbara CaseyBy Elaine AugustBarbara Casey stays on the cutting edge of the publishing world. A move to Florida added even more to her career lineup. She could have bought a handmade hammock of sunny-colored threads, attached it to palm trees that would guarantee shade, enjoy potted hibiscus in the garden and gently list with a book of poetry.Instead, Barbara Casey has just won the Independent Publisher Book Award for 2003 with Shyla's Initiative. This contemporary work, set in South Florida, is a direct result of inspiration taken from such diverse cultural surroundings. It is also Casey’s first novel.This follows a successful career up every avenue of the written word. In addition to having her own literary agency, Barbara Casey acts as an editorial consultant, publishes a bimonthly directory and has been the Florida Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators since 1991. Little wonder, that now, The Coach's Wife, her second novel, was nominated for an award by the Southeast Booksellers Association.A double major in English and history that led you to an earlier career as a Public Relations Director and VP of Development for North Carolina Wesleyan College – so, when did writing first reveal itself to you?I think I have always had a passion for writing. When I was in third grade, I won a poetry contest. I was competing against students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades which made winning that much more special. Then in junior high school, I won a short story contest. It was much later in life, however, that I realized just how important my writing was to me. That was when I decided to give myself one year to try to get my first book published. I wrote a middle-grade novel, Leilani Zan, and not only was it published, I received a contract for my second middle-grade novel, Grandma Jock and Christabelle, as well. I have been writing ever since, and, quite honestly, I can't even imagine doing anything else.Although Illinois was home, then college/career years in North Carolina and years of extensive US travel and abroad – What finally persuaded you to settle in Florida?I was married to Willis Casey, director of athletics at NC State University. Both of my daughters from a previous marriage had graduated from college and were working in Florida. My parents were retired and living in Florida as well. So when Willis retired, we decided to move to Florida where we would be closer to my family. I am sure it was meant to happen, because the house we bought was one we had fallen in love with several years earlier while vacationing in the West Palm Beach area.How has Florida living influenced and/or changed your writing; as well as your manuscript evaluation and editorial services and a newly formed literary agency?As much as I love North Carolina, I have really enjoyed living in Florida. I think my writing has gone through a natural growth, but also I find that many of the themes I focus on in my writing is directly connected to the things I am exposed to in Florida. Also, much of what I am writing now is for the adult market as well as the children's. In my novel, Shyla's Initiative, I go into the elements of an ancient religion, Santeria. I knew nothing about Santeria until I moved to Florida, but it is something that is part of life here. I was able to actually visit botanicas and witness various rituals as part of my research for this novel. I also have a new middle-grade novel coming out early next year, The Airs of Tillie, which is the story of a young girl who is the daughter of a sugarcane field foreman, but who wants to be part of the show horse community. Both Shyla's Initiative and The Airs of Tillie were a result of my living in Florida.What has most surprised you about Florida living?I guess the biggest surprise has been the enormous cultural diversity. Before moving to Florida, what time I spent here was brief. But now that I live here, I am learning about the different cultures and using what I learn as much as I can in my writing.Barbara, Florida is home to many well-known authors. What does the talent base you have now worked with compare to other parts of the country?As an editorial consultant and literary agent, I evaluate work from all over the world. I don't find one area any more prolific than another. Rather, I seem to notice trends. For instance, I will receive manuscripts for a period of time that simply haven't been polished enough to submit. Then all of a sudden, I will receive thirty or more manuscripts at once that are exceptionally good. Another thing that seems to happen is the repetition of themes. Sometimes I will receive five or six manuscripts in one week that all have to do with spousal abuse or some related theme. Or maybe I will receive several children's manuscripts all having a bunny as the protagonist. It must be some sort of pattern of cosmic creativity.You have a wonderful background that goes far beyond 'penning' the diversity in all your writing and won awards throughout many fields from poetry to children's books to short stories and essays and now novels. Which area offers you the most challenge and enjoyment?That tends to vary. Right now I am very much into writing novels. I love to examine relationships and get into the minds of the people in those relationships. I try to be honest in my writing, but I also like to have a strong feeling of resolution at the conclusion. Right now I am working on another novel. When it is finished, though, it will just depend on what that little "voice" says as to what I write next. Sometimes it is a child's voice--sometimes it is even an animal. Whatever it is, I will let it guide my writing.Tell us about your television special that you both wrote and coordinated in North Carolina.That was such an exciting event for me. I had just been named Director of Public Relations for a small, co-educational liberal arts college in North Carolina that was struggling with its enrollment, along with so many other colleges at that time. I worked up a proposal and convinced the television network to run a thirty-minute special about the college. The day they came for the shoot, they filmed the grounds, classes in session, the cafeteria, library, and we even had the choir to sing. The campus was so beautiful and the weather cooperated. For all the work and effort that went into the thirty-minute show, enrollment increased over the next couple of years and the college didn't have to close."Shyla's Initiative" is your first novel not written for younger readers. What moved you over into this genre?I think most writers will understand what I mean by the "voice" that leads us to write what we do. For some reason, my child's voice has been replaced by my adult voice. The story of Shyla formed and it could only be told from an adult perspective. I still plan to write other children's books, but for now I seem to be happy writing novels for adults.The 2003 Independent Publishers Book Award just went to you for "Shyla's Initiative". This rich romantic tale that delves into an ancient African practice with sacraments and prayers keeps the reader turning the pages. The story is alive with tradition that transports us into another culture that still exists in some communities today. What took you to the hunting grounds of Regla de Ocha? I had been trying to sell a property without much success when someone told me I should visit a botanica and purchase a St. Joseph's statue. Supposedly, if I buried it in the yard a certain way, the property would sell within days. As a writer, I like to keep an open mind about things, but this was a little strange, even for me. Still, I found a botanica and the moment I walked through the door, my imagination soared. The aromas, the colors, the shapes of all the objects simply bombarded me. When I left the store, I not only had the statue of St. Joseph with me, I also had the beginning of Shyla's Initiative. Incidentally, that property?--It sold the next morning.Has all of your travel strongly influenced your poetry and books?I would like to think that it has. Not only has my travel given me insight into various cultures, people, and situations, it has helped develop me as an individual. I am a writer in every since of the word. I really enjoy my quiet time where I do nothing but create ideas and write about them. Of course, poetry tends to be a language all of its own. It is the essence of language--a short hand, if you will, of emotion and thought.Does your work with The Jamaican Writers Circle and MicoTeachers College in Kingston come into your world of stories as well?I am sure it does without my even realizing it. I spent several days in Jamaica not too long ago presenting a writers workshop. The experience of spending time with the people who until then had sent me so many manuscripts was something I will always consider special. They opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I am honored to be working with them.Can you tell us a little about your recent editorial work with the Albanian children's stories.FeritLamaj, a famous author in Albania with over fifty books to his credit, contacted me about doing some editorial work on a collection of Albanian children's stories and fables he was writing for publication in the English market. It was a privilege to work on this project, and when it was completed, I was given special recognition as the editor on the project.Barbara, your many literary hats cover a lot of ground. How do you divide your day to allow for your own writing and book promotion. And where is that favorite 'creative corner' for just you?Covering so many areas isn't easy. Both the manuscript editorial work and the literary agency are demanding. I really love working with other writers and occasionally illustrators, though, and helping them get published. When I get an idea for something I want to write, I usually sort it all out in my head before I even start actually writing it. By doing that, it doesn't take me too terribly long to actually write a book. Of course there are always exceptions, but I usually know the title, the beginning, and the ending, as well as several things in between that sort of guide me through the story as I am writing. Once I start, it takes on a life of its own and the words flow.As a frequent guest speaker - what questions come from fellow writers and what advice would you give them today?It is so important for writers to be patient and realistic about their expectations. Publishing is harder than ever with the use of computers and massive multiple submissions. Editors are overwhelmed with work and most publishing houses don't have the financial means they once had. This makes competition really tough. I strongly believe, though, if the manuscript is good, it will get published. Not all books are destined to become best sellers or made into multi-million dollar movies. However, there are other rewards, whether you get published by a small publisher or a mega corporation. Writers need to keep writing and learning from each thing they write. Above all, writers shouldn't take rejection personally.What do you admire in the contemporary publishing world today? How does it differ from ten years ago?No question, it was much easier to get published ten years ago. Today, publishers are much more selective and focused on what they want--what kind of image they want to project. Getting published is challenging, but once you are fortunate enough to break into the publishing world, the satisfaction is enormous.2003/2004 will see five more 'Casey' releases. Can you tell us about them. Will Shyla Wishon continue with her new life and have some more surprises in store for us?I have two novels for adults, two middle-grade novels, and one children's early chapter book scheduled for release over the next two years. Shyla won't be a part of my new novels. Instead, there will be new characters and new situations. As I mentioned before, I really like to work with relationships and get into the minds of my characters. These books will have new problems and new resolutions. Probably, for me, the satisfaction comes in the writing. But there is always a desire in the back of my mind to make my readers feel a degree of satisfaction as well once they have read my books.Barbara Casey’s take on those problems and resolutions reach readers of her youth and adult books. Unique situations, real life and a sprinkling of the ‘Casey style’ have garnered much praise. Her modesty is an intricate part of the success.In Shyla's Initiative, Shyla Wishon pinches some dry lavender and smells the calming aroma. Perhaps the author takes some quiet time and enjoys brewed lavender tea with lavender shortbread cookies to contemplate her next adventure.Casey, a lover of poetry, might then also reread a poem by Craik from 1866 she offered in Shyla's Initiative. It goes like this… Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible Comfort of feeling safe with a person Having neither to weigh thoughts Nor measure words, but pouring them All right out – just as they are – Chaff and grain together – Certain that a faithful hand will Take and sift them, Keeping what is worth keeping, And, with a breath of kindness Blow the rest away.