Carole E. and John Barrowman on the Art of Word Painting and Visual Storytelling

Following the author’s axiom “Write what you know,” Carole E. and John Barrowman can point to an ever-growing list of successful publications to prove their mastery of this concept. In a short few years, the Barrowman siblings have written best-selling non-fiction with the autobiographical Anything Goes (Michael O’Mara, 2008) and I Am What I Am (Michael O’Mara, 2009).

Then there’s the Torchwood fiction, beginning with a comic book story “Selkie”, and possibly concluding with the novel Torchwood: Exodus Code (BBC Books, 2012). Now they are working on their third young adult novel in the popular Hollow Earth series, published by Michael O’Mara Books in the UK and Simon and Schuster, under its Aladdin imprint, in the US.

John Barrowman is an all-around entertainer. He has starred in numerous West End musicals, become a much-sought BBC presenter, developed and hosted Tonight’s the Night (a television series bearing the logo of his Barrowman Barker production company), given life to one of Doctor Who’s most memorable characters — Captain Jack Harkness — and brought him to international prominence via Torchwood, and currently plays Malcolm Merlyn in the CW’s Arrow. When it comes to theater, film, or television, John thoroughly understands what it takes to attract and please an audience.

Carole E. Barrowman often expresses her creativity through teaching. She is an English professor and Director of Creative Studies in Writing at Milwaukee’s Alverno College. True to her roots as an educator, Carole by nature is a researcher and writer. In addition to writing books, she reviews them in her crime fiction column in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and discusses her favorites once a month on television during WTJM4’s Morning Blend.

Perhaps the common denominator in their creativity is the ability to tell a good story. The Barrowmans excel in writing characters with special connections to others, whether that involves humans and otherworldly creatures or families sharing loss or laughter. Frequently their fiction takes readers and characters throughout space and time (a trick perhaps learned from the Doctor), but the stories always provide a strong link back “home”, no matter how untraditional that home or family structure may be.

Whereas the pair generates story ideas together, Carole writes the chapters, then John provides feedback, and the story is further shaped through their collaboration. “John and I do all the brainstorming together,” Carole elaborated, “and I take the notes. I take about a 40-page outline away with me. I actually go back and do the physical writing involved.”

Do they ever disagree about a character or plot point? The siblings laughed. John said that everyone wants to hear stories about big blow-ups when “we threw wine on each other,” but in truth, “we haven’t disagreed. When Carole has written stuff and lets me read it, that’s when I’ll have comments, but I never have disagreed on anything.”

Carole quickly provided an example. “At dinner the other night, we were sort of figuring out some final things that we want in the third book. We were thinking that this has been such a welcoming success in both books that we would like to think of more than just the trilogy. When we were thinking of how we might resolve some things in the third book, things that we really needed to talk about, John came up with a fabulous idea. We spent the rest of the dinner talking that through.

My challenge then, when I get that information, is to get the narrative to that point. That’s my part of the process, but if I get us there in a way that John and I didn’t really think about, he’s not going to care. If I alter a little bit of what an outcome will be, then he’ll just jump in and say ‘if you try this’ or ‘let’s think about this.’ We trust each other’s strengths in this collaboration, and I think that’s why it works so well.”

Inventing a World Far from Hollow

The Hollow Earth series follows the adventures of two Animare (people who can animate their drawings), Matt and Em Calder, almost-teenaged twins forced to flee London to their ancestral home on Auchinmurn Isle. There they learn more about the creatures hidden deep in Hollow Earth — and why others will want the twins to use their gift to free these mythic beings.

Whereas in the first novel, Hollow Earth sets up the mythology and outlines the dangers the twins face, the recently published The Bone Quill is a more tightly structured, faster paced story involving time travel — between the island’s present and medieval past — and providing truly scary moments. Although both books are enjoyable reads, the second novel, freed from much of the exposition necessary to the first book, soars and offers a more satisfying (and terrifying) adventure that further hooks readers into the third book. At the conclusion of a recent UK book-signing tour, I talked with the Barrowmans about their highly prolific and successful collaboration.

Early in their writing partnership, the duo produced autobiographical books focusing on John’s career in the entertainment industry. After such success with non-fiction, the shift to young adult fiction must have provided a very different kind of challenge. John admitted he found it more difficult to write children’s fiction than adult non-fiction. He and Carole agree that they will “never talk down to young people.” Sometimes getting that blend of language just right so that adults will want to read the Hollow Earth series but younger readers can understand the terminology can be challenging.

“Carole and I wanted them to be books that adults would also read and not feel that they’re reading kids’ books,” John explained, “so it was a difficult thing for Carole to do because she had to appeal to the younger audience of the piece and the momentum and yet she had to write it in the sense that she wasn’t dumbing down [the plot] and it was also going to be interesting for adults.”

Carole added that, in The Bone Quill, “the concepts of the Middle Ages, in particular, might not be familiar to everybody. I think we made a few conscious choices about things, like all the illuminated manuscript stuff. We tried to be accurate historically,” especially because the authors “hoped teachers might use the book.”

John told the story of one little girl who approached the Barrowmans during a recent signing. She “came up to us and said, ‘I have a couple of questions.’ She rattled off her questions, which were really good questions, but then she said, ‘I don’t understand that when the monk was killed, why did you put coins on his eyes?’ We like things like that, [young readers] asking those kinds of questions.

So Carole whispered in her ear, like secret stuff. In that period of time that’s what they did to pass into the afterlife. The girl read it, she thought it was kind of a weird thing, something that she didn’t get, but she was going to ask a question later, so she did. Therefore, she learned something.”

Beyond the word choice and historic accuracy, establishing an appropriate reading pace for a younger audience was another early challenge with fiction. Carole recalled that “John and I had this idea that we wanted to have the house in Hollow Earth with the Kitten sisters as the landlords. When I was writing the draft, I wrote two pages of this wonderful backstory for the Kitten sisters, and our editor said ‘Cut it. It’s lovely, but cut it.’ You just can’t have that kind of excess [in a young adult novel], even though an adult might love to wander in the backstory of those characters.” John promptly summarized: “Kids get bored.”

Perhaps more surprising as they drafted the adventures of Matt and Em Calder is the editor’s and publishers’ request: “We want it scarier.” The Barrowmans ably complied, especially in The Bone Quill, which benefits from intriguing cliffhangers that tantalizingly dangle readers between the island’s pivotal point in history (when the creatures of Hollow Earth could be released) and the dangers of the present, as the twins struggle with their increasing powers as Animare and the disappearance of their mother. Along the way are some literally death-defying situations as characters leap between the past and the present, never knowing exactly what they will find when they land. The tag line for the first novel proclaims “Imagination can be a dangerous thing,” and the authors deliver on this promise.

Using their imaginations is what the Barrowmans do best, and the characters often have talents beyond those of their creators. Art provides a way for the authors to interest readers into learning more about famous painters and their works, as well as serving as a clever plot device to allow characters to enter another time or place. However, John exclaimed, “We can’t even draw!”

Appreciating art, even if they cannot paint or draw, is a gift they share with readers. Carole likes to integrate information about paintings, such as Seurat’s “Bathers at Asnières” into their novels. “When John was doing Phantom of the Opera, and I was just over [from the US to London] for a visit, he would finish the matinee and, before he would start the evening performance, just around the corner, we would meet up at the National Gallery. I always was attracted to that painting, so we would meet in front of it.

When I left after a couple of weeks, John bought me a limited print of just the section of the boy in the red hat from the painting. What’s really funny is that my son Turner grew up with that painting, and he always assumed it was him. He thought he was the boy in the red hat. So when we knew that we wanted to have a big opening and establish the powers of Matt and Em right away, we just immediately said together it has to be that Seurat painting.”

Part of the appeal of writing is that it lets them explore the world from another perspective. “As different people,” John said. “As superheroes,” Carole added. “I always think if I’m going to have an imaginary or fantasy life, I want to be a lot younger than I am right now,” she joked. More seriously, Carole “gets a lot of pleasure just sitting and doing the writing about the characters in my head,” but “from a teacher’s perspective, there really is something quite thrilling about standing in front of an audience of young children, eight-, nine-, ten-year-olds, and having them read along with us.”

The Barrowmans design their stories to be highly visual; each novel could be turned into a script, and, in fact, they have plans to produce a Hollow Earth children’s television series. Early on, John knew exactly how their stories should be told. “The main point when we started was that you have to write this like a movie or a TV show so that we can lift it right from the book and put it on the screen, so that people will be reading it and visually picturing it on the screen.” If all goes according to plan, the Calder twins may be animating themselves onto television in the near future.

Beyond Hollow Earth

The Hollow Earth novels are not the Barrowmans’ only recent publications. Torchwood: Exodus Code arrived in autumn 2012, and a paperback version (with new cover art) comes out later this year. Publisher BBC Books described the plot as the story of a world in growing chaos: earthquakes, women apparently going mad, and even a strange Twitter tag (#realfemmefatales) starting to trend.

Although Torchwood is in tatters, Captain Jack still is determined to save the world. He finds the source of the problem in a Peruvian village, and, this being a Torchwood novel, aliens are likely involved. Back in Cardiff, Gwen Cooper fears she is going mad. Discovering something undoubtedly alien, she turns once more to Jack. They may be the only ones who can uncover what is happening — and to restore the world to normalcy.

Torchwood: Exodus Code, written for a more adult audience, may be the easiest book yet for readers to visualize because, to date, it’s the latest chapter in the long, eventful life of television’s Captain Jack Harkness. Although it might seem more daunting to write for characters a television audience knows so well, according to John Barrowman, “It’s easier when the character is more established.

There’s ease and difficulty in both [creating new characters and writing for established ones]. With Matt and Em, we have free rein. We can create their — I call it the backbone — but with Torchwood and Captain Jack, the backbone is already there. We had to stay within the parameters of the BBC and ‘Jack’s rules,’ and also everything had to be approved.”

“That was the biggest challenge,” Carole concurred, with “way more people looking over our shoulder. And I had way more people commenting.” Ensuring continuity from television episodes to novel also included “mentioning how we can talk about other characters,” John noted, “so that’s why we decided to do a Jack story, not to worry about the other characters, but to make it a Captain Jack story.”

“And Gwen,” Carole added. “I felt like we knew Gwen really well. It was a conscious choice to stick with those two main characters. Everybody else in Exodus Code is coming right out of our heads. We weren’t going to get a lot of feedback about them, because they were ours.”

“The biography for Jack was there,” Carole continued, but “the one thing I depended more on John for was [Jack’s history]. I would ask, ‘Has Jack done this before?’ and he would remember. There’s so much online about Jack and Torchwood, too, so that, in a way, the research was easy.”

Torchwood creator and showrunner Russell T Davies had to approve the novel, which Carole defined as a “scary” part of the process. “When we heard he loved a rough draft and got the go ahead to finish it up, that was incredible, because I’m a huge fan. That was wonderful.”

Will there be another Torchwood novel from the Barrowmans? “No one has asked us!” Carole teased. “I know it sold well for them,” John said. Nevertheless, with so many current and forthcoming projects, the actor/author is looking to the future more than to the past. “I’m saying this as the actor. There comes a point where I personally have to move on… I think for me, the Torchwood novel was the cherry on the cake. Personally, for me, I’ve had closure with it.” Carole thinks that the arrival of this year’s paperback, bearing a new cover illustration, “is exciting” and hopes that more American readers will “have more access [to the story] with the paperback.”

Perhaps the pair will find source material in another television series in which John plays a role. Is there any chance of their writing an Arrow book? John took a huge breath before replying. “Oh, I don’t know. That’s a bigger can of worms” because so many entities, including networks, production companies, and DC Comics, would need to grant approval. “There would be a huge number of people to get involved. I have thought about it, but the way I’ve thought about it is doing a book that looks at Starling City and the characters and the people in Starling City who are major players in the show and doing a history of them…

There’s a lot of artistic license that could be taken with [the Green Arrow] because his story and his world in Starling City is very vague. There are a couple of different incarnations of the Green Arrow… There’s a whole backstory that hasn’t been touched upon yet, so that might be a fun book to do but do it as a graphic novel.” Carole considered the possibility. “I’d have to do a lot more research in that genre.”

Even if an Arrow book never becomes more than the stuff of sibling discussion, the authors’ quick responses and immediate consideration of the possibilities of storylines and characters explain a lot about their collaboration. The Barrowmans are open to new ideas but, by now, can effectively pinpoint the possible sticking points to publication as well as envision new directions for storytelling.

The Creativity of Writing

Despite the many other creative outlets in their lives, writing offers something different. “One of the things we’ve had a lot of fun in doing, particularly with the first book, is seeding a lot of things that we hope to pull out as we go along,” Carole explained. “We planted little Easter eggs, or symbols, to discover. The twins live on Raphael Terrace. There are all sorts of allusions to art in ways that kids may not pick up until they get a little older. [Matt and Em’s] last name is Calder, not only a Scottish last name but also a famous artist’s last name. The idea of duality is in there. We’ve actually had a lot of fun playing the puzzle makers for all of that.”

Carole E. & John Barrowman

As with the first novel, The Bone Quill leaves readers anticipating the next book, and the authors plotted more of the twin’s adventures during their recent book-signing tour. “We worked out some key plot things and some new things we hadn’t originally planned.” Carole elaborated, “When we first planned [the series], we had three major evolutionary things we wanted to happen, [one] in each book, based on Matt’s and Em’s ability. We fleshed out the little details as we went along.”

As a professor with academic responsibilities throughout the year, Carole often must wait for time to explore the details discussed during brainstorming sessions with John. She reminds readers that “my summers are when I’ll be writing more than a little bit.” After the success of the first two Hollow Earth novels, and with all of space and time as their literary playground, the Barrowmans might not want to plan a summer holiday any time soon.