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

Sibling authors Carole E. and John Barrowman likely have been “collaborators” since childhood. Today their grown-up collaboration brings science fiction and adventure stories to life on the page and, perhaps soon, to the screen.

The Bone Quill

Publisher: Michael O'Mara
Author: John Barrowman, Carole E. Barrowman
UK Publication date: 2013-03

Hollow Earth

Publisher: Aladdin
Author: John Barrowman, Carole E. Barrowman
Publication date: 2012-10

Torchwood: Exodus Code

Publisher: BBC
Author: John Barrowman, Carole E. Barrowman
UK Publication date: 2012-09


Director: David Nutter
Cast: Stephen Amell, Katie Cassidy, Colin Donnell, Willa Holland, Susanna Thompson, Paul Blackthorne

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.

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