Monday, March 16, 2009

Author Q&A with Charles Barber, author of 'Comfortably Numb'

Charles Barber is the author of COMFORTABLY NUMB: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation (Pantheon Books), which was released in 2008 to national media attention, including appearances on The Early Show and Fresh Air. Vintage Books published COMFORTABLY NUMB as a paperback in 2/2009. His work has appeared in the The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Nation and Scientific American Mind. He has taught nonfiction writing at Wesleyan University. He is currently a senior executive at The Connection, a social services agency, and a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine. He lives in Connecticut with his family. Barber was educated at Harvard and Columbia and worked for ten years in New York City shelters for the homeless mentally ill. The title essay in his first book, SONGS FROM THE BLACK CHAIR (University of Nebraska Press), won a 2006 Pushcart Prize.

How did you get your start in writing? I wanted to be a writer from about the age of 14. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I was always reading and writing, but I kept all my scribblings and musings on scruffy pieces of paper that I usually lost. I didn’t get serious about writing until my late thirties when I wrote a memoir, Songs from the Black Chair.

What does your writing routine look like?

I still work in psychiatry and mental health, and writing is not all that I do. So I write when I can – which is usually the evenings and when I’m stopped at a red light and whenever I have an hour or five minutes or three minutes. I’m surprisingly productive this way. Even if I have the whole day ahead of me, I can only write effectively for four hours a day. Writing is exceedingly hard work. That’s why a lot of people talk about doing it but few people really do.

Tell us some writers whose work you admire and why.

John Cheever, Walker Percy, James Agee, Tom Wolfe, A.S. Byatt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ignazio Silone, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Dorothy Day, Andre Dubus, William Styron, V.S. Pritchett, William Trevor, Evelyn Waugh, Raymond Carver, William Finnegan, Graham Greene, George Orwell, PD James, Donna Tartt, TV writers like David Simon and David Chase, and on and on. A mixed bag, I know. I am drawn to: great stylists in the Anglo tradition, elegantly done books about social issues, Catholic writers, and highly literary mystery or crime writers.

What are you working on next?

A novel – a sort of mystery with a psychiatric theme.

What made you decide to write COMFORTABLY NUMB: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation?

I worked in psychiatry and mental health for many years and witnessed the psychiatric medication revolution during the 1990s. I thought there were extreme parts to the rapid acceptance of psychiatric meds in American society, and I wanted to say something about it.

What advice would you have for other writers/would-be writers?

- Don’t write on scruffy pieces of paper! If you want to get published, be disciplined, resourceful, and focused.

- Once you submit something, don’t think about it again until you hear back.

- The law of threes: always have something you’re working on, something that is soon-to-be published, and something that you’ve submitted and are waiting to hear back about. With three things going on at once, you don’t agonize as much about any one of them.

- Write what you know.

- Either say it well or say it originally. One or the other will do. Doing both is rare.

- Network. I always thought that writers were eccentric people who didn’t talk much to people. That may have been the case way back when, but to get things noticed these days you have to advocate for yourself and be social and hopefully be charming.

- Listen to rock’n’roll or classical music while writing. I do.

Where can we find your work?

Through my website,, or through the websites of Vintage Books, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.

EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Louise Larson, blogmistress for The Writing Porch, interviews published authors. To be considered, email her at jackielarsonwrites (at) gmail (dot) com. Larson's work has been published in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Dallas Morning News and Entrepreneur Magazine. She is the managing editor of the Ennis Journal and a contributor at the Waxahachie Daily Light, and she has received the top award for series writing in Texas, the Texas APME, as well as a silver from the Parenting Publications of America. She co-authored a nonfiction career guide for FabJob Publishing in 2006, and is seeking representation for her new novel, 'At High Tide.'

No comments: