Interview with Marilyn Barr
by LaShawn Williams
Paranormal Romance author Marilyn Barr has a diverse background containing experiences as a child prodigy turned medical school reject, published microbiologist, special education/inclusion science teacher, homeschool mother of a savant and advocate for the autistic community. This puts her in the position to bring tales containing heroes who are regular people with different ability levels and body types, in a light where they are powerful, lovable, and appreciated.
Can you give us insight on your experiences as a child prodigy, and how those experiences translate into your Strawberry Shifters series?
It all started when I transferred from Catholic school to public school because my family was not Catholic. I only went to the Catholic school because Ohio assigns elementary schools by home address and my parents didn’t like the local choice. We moved to a suburban district with a tracking system based on reading ability. Before the first day of school my parents brought me to my prospective elementary school to be tested for reading readiness. The testing between kindergarten and first grade was more rigorous than my parents anticipated. There were the physical tests like vision and hearing, the parental interview to determine emotional stability, and an IQ test in addition to the academic testing.
After hours of testing, I was placed in a Talented and Gifted (TAG) program. One day per week, all the TAG kids from around the district (approximately 20 schools) were gathered to work together on a specialized curriculum. The 12 of us were treated to logical puzzles and what I think of as SAT practice in the morning. In the afternoons we were divided further by our talents, whether it be advanced mathematical/engineering skills, emotional intelligence/humanitarian problem solving, or my area of talent: creativity.
My parents weren’t phased by my new label and gave me a typical childhood. My summers were filled with swim team practices, treats from the ice cream truck, sprinkler fights with the neighborhood kids, and later, summer jobs. Two of my best TAG friends were not so lucky. Their summers were filled with accelerated classes, think tanks, and secret projects that took them out-of-state. They were miserable. While I only took early college and AP classes as offered by the school district, my two friends were full-time college students by age 12.
I went to Ohio Northern University and started as junior because of the early classes I had taken. I met my husband on the first day of school in Level 3 Engineering Calculus. We were the only two freshmen in the class. My degree in Molecular Biology would have taken less than two years, and I wanted to graduate at the same time as my college sweetheart. So, I added a second degree in Chemistry, and I got the full college experience.
I lost touch with my two friends from TAG until a few years ago when they started eating at the restaurant where my sister works. Both never married or had children. One of them still worked in the government job connected to the think tank he joined at age 9. They told me how they envied my work/life balance. I combined their stories to create Nate Wagner, a snow leopard shifter, and jaded child prodigy in the Strawberry Shifters Series. You meet Nate in Bear with Me, as the jokester who works in IT but somehow gets pulled into all the other departments. Strawberry Shifters Book 2: Round of Applause is partially narrated by Nate and readers get an inside look at the dark side of being the smartest kid in the room.
What inspired you to write paranormal romance?
Among the alphabet soup of conditions by son and I share, we have a genetic disease called ulcerative colitis (UC). My son’s doctor prescribed HBOT sessions for my son in 2014 to repair the intestinal damage inflicted by everything he eats. While there are no known cures for UC, the HBOT forces the body to repair damaged tissues by increasing oxygen load in capillaries. My son was four years old at the time, terrified of the loud machine, and incapable of independent civilized play for the two hours required for treatment. Having the same disease (but in remission) and a fiercely protective streak for my son, I go into the chamber with him. Every day.
We take old used cell phones into the HBOT to watch Netflix. My son reads comic books, plays with little fidget toys, and eats allergen-free vegetable-based gummy candy (that I make from scratch to know that they are safe for him to eat). Meanwhile, I would try to hold myself together for two hours alone with my thoughts. In 2014, I was in the midst of a three-year depression over giving up my career and my dreams for my son’s future. We traded a fancy private school for therapy appointments, special teachers for specialist doctors, and field trips for hospital visits.
On 8/16/2016, my brilliant husband pulled me out of my sadness without fancy words, an expensive trip, or novel medical treatment. He simply put a stack of paranormal romance books in the HBOT with no explanation. He claims to have not known what to say. It was a last-ditch effort to bring me back. He remembered my love of Anne Rice’s books while we were dating in the late 1990s. He went to an indie book store and asked for books resembling her vampire books. What he got was Lora Leigh, Christine Feehan, Lyndsay Sands, Kerrelyn Sparks, Gerry Bartlett, and J.R. Ward.
I got lost in their books. I devoured them. I read between 300 and 500 pages per day. I laughed and lived through their characters while slowly rejoined my own life. By Christmas 2018, I had caught up with their releases, ran out of paperbacks, and I panicked. It was more fear of sliding back into depression than frustration at the speed of publishing that made me put a pencil to a notebook. How could I lose my security blanket?
I wrote a short story about a middle management guy who loves his strange wife but struggles to communicate with her. It is no secret that Bear with Me is an ode to my spouse but no one knows (until now) that I originally wrote the entire first draft from his point-of-view. It wasn’t until I found the courage to talk about my own sensory issues and autoimmune disease, that Alison’s point of view chapters was written.
With paranormal exploration, what kind of research do you conduct before incorporating your findings into your story?
All the interactions at Began Pharma are stories my husband has brought home from one job or another as he has climbed his career ladder. Listening to him vent has been my best source of the material. While he focuses on acute healing via modern medicine, I use ancient herbal remedies instead of over-the-counter drugs. While I am not a doctor, I have studied herbal remedies as a scientist. All the witch’s tinctures in the Strawberry Shifters are what I would use in the same situation. The herbs used by Gran and Alison are the same ones hanging in my kitchen.
For the shifters themselves, I study animal behavior in nature documentaries, but I spend hours in zoos. In November 2019, I made a vision board for that quarter featuring all my vampire ideas. I put a picture of a bat on the board because it was adorable. After writing Go Scorch Yourself, I became friends with the bat’s caretakers from the amount of time I spent watching the bat’s wing patterns at a local zoo. Being a biomedical scientist for seven years, I have training in many animal medical procedures which gave us common ground.
Within a week, bats came into my life in a big way. I have always wanted a pet bat but unfortunately that is against the law. However, Fate delivered a bat colony to my bedroom window. Platelet and his family of six sleep on the eve of my bedroom window during the day and hunt the bugs of my backyard at night. It is Platelet’s family that I modeled the Von Popescu Saga in Book 4.
At the zoo, it was time for some of the bat’s annual checkups and vaccinations. My spouse had signed me up for a behind-the-scenes animal encounter with the bats. It was a dream come true to go into the back of the zoo exhibit and hold one. The caretakers said the encounters with elephants are the most popular and no one had ever requested the bats. They claimed to have guessed it was me before I arrived.
Do you hide any Easter eggs in your books that avid followers of your series will find?
There is a reason the social center of Strawberry KY is a pizzeria. I absolutely love it. Being half Sicilian, I believe pizza is the ultimate comfort food. The problem is that I am mildly allergic to tomatoes. I cannot eat them raw without my lips going numb and the inside of my mouth itching. I can have them cooked in small amounts. An Easter egg for all my fans is to count all the Italian dishes without tomatoes in my books. There is even a character who moves to Strawberry in a later book with a tomato allergy. Currently, I am receiving Natural Allergy Elimination Therapy (NAET) to try to reverse it. The Strawberry Shifters character will receive the same therapy from Dr. Van Dijk, Strawberry’s resident chiropractor. Stay tuned!
In addition to NAET and HBOT, I utilize a network of natural therapies to keep my autoimmune disease in remission. As more of Alison’s childhood is revealed, my journey from victim to autoimmune fighter will be revealed. Not only does Alison utilize yoga in Bear with Me, but look for healing practices in the form of NAET, Reiki, crystals, sleep studies, magnetic healing, herbal medicine, grounding through forest bathing, and meditation in later books of the Strawberry Shifter Series.
What are common traps that aspiring writers should be mindful of?
If you are like me, you will worry about every step of your journey. It starts with worrying about whether you have it in you to finish your first novel. Next comes the anxiety of letting others read it, the brutal query process, and the anticipation of meeting your dream editor or agent. Once you get the coveted contract, you will worry about ARC reviewers and editing choices. When it is time to release your book, you will worry about promotions, sales, and rankings. However, you do not have to be miserable.
Just write. Every day at the same time of day (if possible) write something. Whether it is 10 words or 10 chapters, every written word counts toward your dream. When you feel the doubts creep up, and you want to pace your floor while wringing your hands, sit and write. It doesn’t matter if you delete the words later because you would never release anything unedited anyway. Just write it. The muse shows up on her terms. Today may be the day, so write.
Let’s examine each worry. The fix for finishing your book is to write it. The tip for not perseverating on the query process is to be distracted by writing the next book. You cannot count minutes between refreshing your email inbox and count the words you put on a page at the same time – or at least I cannot. Once you sign your contract the time between editing rounds is best spent, you guessed it, writing your next book. The release, promotions, platform building, and pieces needed to market your book are time consuming. However, in every training I have attended, the experts agree there is one bull’s eye that increases sales and rankings. It is the release of your sequel, so write your next book.
I started writing my first book to give myself a mental vacation, an escape from my daily responsibilities. It made sense to give myself a mental vacation from publishing my first book by diving into the next book. It was easier to not take criticism of Bear with Me personally when my head was in Round of Applause. The anxiety of waiting for the wheels of publishing to turn was mitigated by my excitement over Go Scorch Yourself. Will I be obsessing over my sales rankings of Bear with Me tonight? No, I will be writing Book 4. Just write and everything else will fall into place.
FOLLOW MARILYN BY FOLLOWING THESE LINKS: