Monday, August 13, 2012

"Barge Pilot" by R. Lee Barrett

Today we have R. Lee Barrett. He lives with his wife Shareen and most of their six children near Ft. Worth, Texas.  Lee has been a practicing attorney for more than ten years, often bartering legal services for premium cigars.  Although Lee has published numerous legal articles, and maintained a blog for bankruptcy practitioners, Barge Pilot is his first novel.

A narrow column of wind kicked down the valley, spilled across the unbroken morning surface of Beaver Lake, whistled gently through the window of a small solitary lake front home, and pushed back the gauzy white curtains to expose the fitfully sleeping Jack Webber to a cinematic Ozark sunrise. Jack had nowhere in particular to be this morning, just as he had nowhere in particular he needed to be any other morning. He had walked away from his law practice ten years ago, after his partners walked away from him. His wife and sons slipped through his fingers while he grasped desperately at the life he once knew. Even in the absence of a job or the necessity of a morning commute, Jack still felt an innate sense of urgency to get up and get on with each new day. Yet, as was his custom, he remained in bed a few minutes more while the neighborhood birds argued about the morning’s catch. Lying still so as to neither aid nor discourage the distant lake in its eternal battle to extend its shores ever closer to Jack’s front porch, he bore silent witness to the daily resurgence of life in and around him.
(Used with Permission)

What attracted you to practice law?  

I grew up in a small town in the Panhandle of Texas that always seemed to be economically depressed, no matter what else was going on in the state.  At the time, there was really only one attorney in the county and it seemed like there was no end of help that he provided to every family that I knew.  In a way I guess he was my private version of Atticus Finch without quite the dramatic moral dillemma.  I never really grew out of that romanticized perception of the law, but it has changed quite a bit since then.  In a large, modern society, lawyers really do pull a lot of levers that shape the way things happen, whether it be our daily decisions about how we handle our marriages and our money, or how we plan for future generations.  It is a pleasant challenge to be part of that system, even if in a very small way.

What finally pushed you to take up writing? 

When I was a kid, writing was probably the only thing I could do better than anyone else.  I think I was 8 years old when I had a haiku published in a local arts journal, and I was hooked.  Then I allowed "life" to happen to me, and gave up creative writing for a long, long time.  The confluence of two personal events changed all that.  Following on the heels of the 9/11 attacks, I had my first bout with what was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis.  About that same time, my marriage to my first wife was falling apart, and we really put our two daughters through a tough time with the ensuing divorce.  While I was coming to terms with the uncertainty of MS, I also rediscovered the love of my life after having been apart for 15 years.  My wife, Shareen, has always had the ability to pull the best parts of who I am from out of the shadows and make me a whole person.  I feel bad for her that she has to live with a moody, sometimes bombastic personality, but she has always valued creativity and I think she understands the cost that is sometimes associated with that. 
In many ways, Jack Webber seems like a man on the edge. He has suffered one loss after another. I truly get the feeling that he is one more bad thing away from snapping. How did you determine his breaking point? Did you just keep piling on the troubles to see what he could handle?  
Barge Pilot has a small cast of strong male characters, and across the spectrum of those characters I like to think that the book represents every man.  In that sense, the book is not really about finding the breaking point or determining what "every man" can handle; Barge Pilot is really more an examination of how a man lives his life after he has reached that breaking point.  One of the elements of Barge Pilot that sometimes gets missed is that we are fathers, but we are also men, and most of us are grappling with some unrealized dreams and dashed expectations.  There comes a point when our children become adults and need to start seeing their fathers for the men that they are, or wanted to be.  Specific to Jack, the reader should recognize one of most subtle, yet most important metaphorical themes throughout the book.  On the face of it all, Jack seems stuck in the painful quagmire that is multiple sclerosis.  The disease really represents one of Jack's "post breaking point" flaws, in that he has allowed himself to become emotionally paralyzed by the relationship, or lack thereof, with his sons. For me, there are some unresolved issues with the book related to your question.  After the manuscript was largely completed, I lost my little brother to suicide, which of course is a prevalent theme with the character Sid Peters.  I never did go back and look at the manuscript in this context.  I don't suspect it is subject that I will write about in the near future.  I understand that Cormac McCarthy is working on a novel that does address sibling suicide, and I am anxious to see how he treats the subject.

Every bit of fiction has some truth in it. Are there parallels between Jack Webber's life and yours? 
The commitment of words to paper lays bare the heart of the writer.  There are some parallels there I suppose, but that is not something that one wants to rely too heavily on because writing the next book would probably be too much of a challenge.  Short of having multiple personalities, even the most expansive life cannot provide substenance for a long career's worth of novels.

Where did this story come from? Morning epiphany? Slowly stewing over time?  
When I started the manuscript, I originally wanted to write a story about what happened to a burned out attorney trying to start over.  The inspiration for Jack, in some part, came from a local attorney I had befriended who bragged that he was a big fan of wearing cowboy boots with shorts and a beach shirt.  I envisioned Oscar one morning when I was driving in to work late, stuck behind an old farmer in a broken down pickup truck.  I wish I knew that place where creativity is born, where is comes from, so that I could more consistently visit.

And what's next?

I have a list of 4 or 5 novels in my head right now, but I think the next one is going to be a more panoramic work set in Kansas, dealing with the decaying rural lifestyle, politics, dwindling resources, an the endless narcissism of a reality-TV society. 
What is the most discouraging thing that's ever happened to you in regards to your writing? 
I am told from time to time that I am my own worst enemy, more commonly I am reminded I am my own worst critic.  So, the thing that discourages me the most is that I am never satisfied with what I write. I want more, and I want it better.  
How did you overcome it? 
Unless and until an established, quality writer tells me to lay off of myself, I guess I won't over come the problem, but maybe I can write around it.

What was the best moment?

I have a new blog about parenting called Awfuls and Pannycakes at www.awfulsandpannycakes. that is much lighter reading than Barge Pilot.  The feedback I have gotten from parents is nothing short of inspirational, but the real payoff is when my kids laugh about the things I write about them. There have been some great moments for me regarding Barge Pilot.  The day the proof came in the mail, my wife took a picture of herself holding it and posted that on Facebook, that was a good day for me.  When people tell me how jarring it is, how strongly they are moved, when they find out what happens in Jack's life, that means so much to me.  I like when people connect to the characters in Barge Pilot, they have almost a personal relationship with them, and it is a similar relationship that has carried me for all these years while I was writing them.

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