Born and raised in Massachusetts, Brunonia Barry’s passion for storytelling has taken her all over the world, from Dublin to Hollywood. She currently lives in Salem with her husband and her dog Byzantium, who lent his name to one of the characters in The Lace Reader, her first original novel. Originally self-published, The Lace Reader was a local success and eventually became a New York Times bestseller. Her second novel The Map of True Places will be out later this year.
What gave you the inspiration for The Lace Reader?
My husband and I had just moved back to New England after living in California for 15 years. We had purchased an old Victorian house and were in the process of renovating, which included knocking down some walls to enlarge the kitchen space.
Since this promised to be a dusty job, I didn’t unpack many of the boxes that we had shipped, just the bedroom things, which included a small piece of Ipswich lace that my Irish grandmother had given me and that I had always kept on my bedside table.
The first night in our new bedroom, I had a dream that I was holding the piece of lace up to the wall that was about to be removed in the kitchen and looking through the lace in an effort to see what the new kitchen would look like when completed. (Only in the logic of dreams would this make sense.)
But instead of seeing new cabinets and counter tops, I saw a field of horses. It was an odd vision and one that was alarming to me because I am very allergic to horses.
So it was an anxiety dream of sorts, though I had no idea what it meant. The next day, our contractor came in with his crew, and just as they were putting on their masks in preparation for the wall demolition, he turned to me and said, “I hate this old horsehair plaster, it gets into the air and you can never get it out.”
Evidently, New England houses in the late 1800s had horsehair in their plaster. Needless to say, we didn’t knock down that wall. The dream, my first lace reading, saved me from a trip to the emergency room. I assumed that lace reading was something I had heard about and then forgotten. But, after looking for lace readers for the last eight years, I have come to believe that it is something I dreamed up. Though now, since the book came out, the new Salem witches have started to do lace readings.
What are your views on magic and witchcraft?
Well, there certainly has been a lot of magic in my life, particularly in relation to the book and its success. I think, as a general rule, I believe more in intuition than in magic. I am from a long line of very intuitive women, my mother was so good at predicting events that we called her “The Oracle”.
In my research for the book, I have learned a lot about modern day witches from Salem’s pagan community. I think the old religions like Wicca are not well understood in our modern society. For that reason, I think they are too often maligned, which is a shame. I hope The Lace Reader paints a more realistic and understandable picture.
Which of your characters do you most identify with?
Probably Eva. She was based on my grandmother, though my nieces are certain she was my mother. Eva is the closest to my heritage. But there are certainly elements of me in all the characters. I often say I have a tenuous grip on reality, so it was not difficult for me to imagine the same in Towner, though her experiences in no way match my own. And there’s an element of me in May as well. As a writer, I have a reclusive side, so her life on the island was not difficult to imagine.
Together with your husband, you co-founded a puzzle company. The Lace Reader is like a literary puzzle for the reader to solve. Will all your tales include a puzzle?
My second book, The Map of True Places, which comes out in the US this May, deals with some of the same issues but in a very different way. The common element is that the reader as well as the protagonist must find the truth in a situation that is clearly masked. So, in that way, the stories are similar and do contain some elements of puzzle. I don’t know what my third book will bring.
What is your next novel about?
The Map of True Places is about navigating your way in the world when you don’t have a map. The main character is a psychotherapist who believes she may have caused the death of a patient. The incident throws her into emotional turmoil causing her to doubt all the choices she has made in her life so far. The book is about her journey to a place she can finally call home.
Although this is your first original fiction novel, you’re clearly a writing veteran. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The advice I would give them is to stay with it. I started out in my 20s with a bit of success which was not repeated until my 50s. There are many times I might have given up the dream, but, if I had, The Lace Reader would not exist, and this bit of magic would not have happened for me. Another piece of advice would be to write what you want to write and not be attached to the results. If you start thinking about selling a piece, you make all sorts of choices you shouldn’t make. That’s a mistake I made early on and one I would be very careful not to make again.