By May S. Ruiz
It’s been a thrilling few weeks for Pasadena author Bree Barton as she embarks on a tour to unveil ‘Heart of Thorns,’ the first book in the trilogy. Geared for young adult (YA) readers, it’s a feminist fantasy book set in a dark kingdom where only women have magical powers.
‘In the ancient river kingdom, where touch is a battlefield and bodies the instruments of war, Mia Rose has pledged her life to hunting Gwyrach, women who can manipulate flesh, bones, breath and blood. The same women who killed her mother without a single scratch,’ reads the publisher’s blurb.
‘Heart of Thorns’ sounds like a story with a strong female protagonist who is out to wreak vengeance against evil women. The conflict it conjures in my mind is intriguing and I’m determined to find out more about the author who can come up with such challenging, if not entirely self-defeating, plot. I catch up with Barton at Vroman’s Bookstore on Colorado Blvd. the morning of her July 31 launch.
Brimming with excitement, Barton says, “Most girls envision their wedding as their ‘day’ but, for me, this book debut is my ‘day.’ I have dreamed of this since I was a child and it’s difficult to grasp that it’s actually here!”
“This is my first published book but it isn’t my first fantasy story; that distinction belongs to ‘The Snog-Pig-Mouse,’ which I wrote when I was eight years old,” Barton points out. “When I was ten I wrote my first novel and was obsessed about writing that I would send letters to editors asking them all kinds of questions about publishing. That interest waned in high school when I was sidetracked and went into dance.
“My love of writing returned when I was in college, after an essay I wrote received a lot of plaudits. That led to my ghost writing stint after college. While it was a good experience, it wasn’t fulfilling because the books were in someone else’s name and I wasn’t writing in my own voice.”
Barton hastens to add, “Having said that, though, ghost writing was excellent preparation because I learned about the many layers involved in the process of getting a book published. A writer’s work goes through so many edits and revisions before it’s passed along to publicists, etc.
“It also gave me a resume when I was looking to publish my own book. I was able to claim I wrote a book that was optioned for television; I could give the name of other publishers who have printed books I have ghost-written. That gave me credibility and set me apart from other writers – and there are so many creative writers in the YA genre!”
“Fantasy books for young adults became hugely popular after the ‘Harry Potter’ series came out,” expounds Barton. “Although ‘Harry Potter’ is a genre that is its own universe. The ones that followed were more in the mold of ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Hunger Games.’
“But the YA books out there now aren’t only being read by teenagers, they’re read by people who are in their 20s and 30s. And that’s what I’m hoping for. ‘Heart of Thorns’ is about diversity, acceptance, and empowering women – issues that matter to people of all ages. It’s about women breaking free of years of persecution, misogyny, and a false belief that has been hard-wired in their brains. Furthermore, it’s women being in control.
“This tribe of women, called Gwyrach, has been made to think their powers are evil until Mia found out it can be used to heal. That made her realize that her power can be an instrument for good. It was fun to create a young protagonist because everything’s a new experience, it’s all about ‘firsts.’ That provides for a satisfying character arc.
“My sister’s 18, she graduated from high school, and is at the cusp of adulthood. People always congratulate teenagers when they graduate; and it is a cause for celebration. But it’s really a bittersweet moment because it signifies the loss of their childhood and it’s never coming back. While they have so much to look forward to, they also are leaving so much behind. She’s the reason I write YA.”
Women figure prominently in Barton’s world because she was raised by a single mother. She discloses, “My family background and childhood provided considerable inspiration. In my young mind, my Mom was the model of perfection. Then she had a child out of wedlock and we were banished from our Christian Fundamentalist community.
“That event made me recognize my Mom isn’t perfect; but I also know her to be determined and strong-willed. When I was going to school in Massachusetts, she drove straight through from Texas to spend some time with me. For today’s book launch, she came to Pasadena to organize the hospitality for the event. She’s a tiny woman – all of five feet – and she’s out there now laden with cupcakes, drinks, cups, and plates.”
Barton based the Gwyrach tribe, angels descended from the gods, from mythology. She says, “I looked at Irish and Welsh mythology, the origin of the word. However, this is also a mix of Brazilian, Portuguese, and Spanish folklore. I spent some time learning about cultures with a dominant maternal influence, like the pachamama, a fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. She also embodies the mountains and causes earthquakes.”
Continues Barton, “While the idea for ‘Heart of Thorns’ began many years ago, it was really the Trump win in the 2016 elections – when we all thought we were going to have a woman president – that was the impetus for this. I would like for women to realize that we are stronger because of it, not in spite of it.
“And storytelling can be a source of healing. I wanted this book to have a balance so I made it light and funny. There is so much violence and gore in it but, at the same time, there are many humorous moments between Mia and Prince Hal. I wish for readers to find it engaging and interesting.”
Writing is a solitary endeavor and can be isolating, especially for a novelist who spends months on end working on one book. Six years ago Barton joined a group of writers who formed a community to share the same experience in this journey, to be each other’s support system.
We’re sitting in one corner of the YA section of Vroman’s and we’re surrounded by books whose authors Barton knows. She gets up to pick a few books off the shelf to show me, then not only gushes about how great the stories are but also marvels at the friendships she has with their writers.
Through this group she has met another author who also writes for television and then mentioned ‘Heart of Thorns’ to a producer. So there could be a TV show or series in Barton’s future. But for right now, she’s concentrating on the book launch.
“Social media has helped spread the word about ‘Heart of Thorns.’ Some readers have been sent advance copies and are tweeting about it,” Barton says. “Because of Twitter, someone from the United Kingdom who has a subscription book box business heard of it and ordered 5,000 books to include it in her mailing to subscribers. Maybe she would have heard of me at some point, which would have yielded the same result, just not as immediate. On the other hand, if I was hard to track down, she could have found another author.”
“Twitter has been really great but it’s also an incredible distraction –you’re reading what the other authors in the group are doing, where their publishers are sending them, and so forth, and you’re comparing yourself with them. So it’s challenging to give them love and support when you’re not enjoying all that at the time.
“Then you go on Facebook and all you read is how great everyone is doing. The danger is that you also want to show only ideal situations and make up success stories. But I’m really advocating for being honest so I started a monthly newsletter where I reveal secrets. For instance, it’s ‘I’m depressed,’ or ‘I’m terrified because I’m launching my first book and I don’t know how it will go.’
“I’m really proud of this newsletter because it will strip social media of some its negative side. It’s an outlet for people to just be themselves and not be thought of as lesser beings because they’re not perfect.”
“You also get so involved in social media that it takes time out of your work,” Barton adds. “The second book in the trilogy was due last month but because I’ve been tweeting instead of writing, I haven’t been able to finish it. So I needed the ‘down time.’ It’s scheduled for launch on July 31st next year and revolves around a minor character in the first one. It’s also darker and funnier. I’m so looking forward to completing it.”
While Barton may have written ‘Heart of Thorns’ with her family in mind, we all are the beneficiaries of her creative work. Mia Rose’s triumph is an inspiration, a call to arms, for womankind.
That Barton accomplishes that with a healthy dose of humor is testament to her ingenuity, maturity, and skill as a writer. She has come a long way since ‘The Snog-Pig-Mouse’ days but, happily for us, her eight-year-old self’s sense of fantasy and vivid imagination never left.