Interview: Cathleen Barnhart

Hi there, Cathleen! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your debut novel, THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO. Before we get to the book, would you care to share a bit about yourself?

I would love to! I’ve been writing, on and off, almost my entire life. I wrote and illustrated my first story when I was seven. It was called “Aunt Ant” (pronounced awnt ant). In high school, I was the editor of the literary magazine. I majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University, where I also worked on the literary magazine. I later got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But I never really saw myself as a writer because I didn’t do stuff I thought real writers did (like write every day). Believing in myself took a lot of years. I’m married to a wonderful and supportive man, and together we have three mostly grown children, a rescue dog named Zeke and a cat named Scout. In addition to writing, I foster kittens, do CrossFit, and am the co-leader of a chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom.

THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO is your debut novel. And as you’ve shared in a recent post on the site, writing it was quite a long process. But is there anything else you wish to share here about your journey to the printed page?

I’m just going to say (again) that there’s no formula for, or failsafe path to, being published. Everyone’s experience is different, but for all the not-yet-published writers out there: don’t give up. Believe in yourself.

Okay – let’s get to the book. What’s THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO all about?

It’s the story of one seventh-grade girl’s first #MeToo experience, told in alternating points of view by the girl, Sammie, and by her best friend, David, who’s on the other side of that experience. It’s the misunderstandings that lead to the #MeToo moment and the missed opportunities for communication and healing afterwards. But it’s also a story about learning to listen to your own, inner voice, and to be true to who you are.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to have books that tackle tough topics? What do you believe such a book can do for young readers?

Because so many children live through tough experiences. They need to see themselves in the books they read. Even someone who hasn’t had a #MeToo experience might have a friend who has. Books give children (and adults) a way to see a different path, other solutions to problems, other ways of behaving, and empathy.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO?

I hope they see that other kids struggle with fitting in and with finding their voice. I hope some kids say “that’s me,” to either Sammie or David’s experience, and that the self-recognition gives them strength and courage.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO to their classroom libraries?

Yes! First, I’d love to come visit your school and talk to your students about this book and the process of writing it. And second, especially for teachers who are concerned about addressing the #MeToo moment at the center of the novel: this is the lived experience of so many middle school girls and boys. I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t have some experience of being touched inappropriately or flashed or physically threatened. But that part of the story doesn’t have to be what you (or I) talk about with students. There’s so much more: parental expectations, finding your own voice, the ways that the same event can be seen and experienced very differently by different participants. 

In another recent post you did here at the MG Book Village, you interviewed a variety of those people who worked “behind the scenes” on your book. I couldn’t resist asking you some of the same questions you asked them — so, a quick, lightning round of questions before we say goodbye…

Describe your work space, and what you need to be productive.

I am a wandering writer. I don’t have a dedicated work space (although I’m working on creating one). I mostly write at my scarred and battered, purchased-secondhand kitchen table. Sometimes I work standing at the kitchen counter. When it’s really cold, I sit on the sofa in my family room, with a fire in the fireplace. And in the summer, I sit on my front porch. My porch the best. No matter where I am, what I mostly need to be productive is quiet. 

Do you have a drink of choice while you write?

Decaf coffee with homemade almond milk until lunch. Seltzer from about 1 pm until 3 pm. Then more decaf coffee. I have a mug or glass of something liquid next to me all day.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I wish I knew because then I could get more inspiration! These are the things that I do, without understanding or being able to quantify how they affect my writing: travel, travel, travel (especially to Italy); look at art; read the New York Times (these days, I pretty much skip the headline news in favor of Health, Obituaries, Science and Sunday Styles); walk in the woods with Zeke; and read adult nonfiction.

What do you do for fun that your readers might find interested and/or unexpected?

I foster feral kittens because they remind me of the importance of being open-hearted, patient and loving. I also do CrossFit because it’s really hard, every time. As an adult, I’ve gotten pretty good at a lot of life stuff (like cooking and bill paying and driving a car). CrossFit is a great reminder that it’s okay to do hard things and even things I’m afraid of. More often than not, I discover that I’m stronger than I thought I was.

What was your favorite book when you were a middle schooler?

Oh, this is such a hard question because I was a voracious reader in middle school. I’m going to say Joan Aiken’s Wolves series. The girls in her books went on such adventures! I especially adored Dido Twite.

Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

My best friend from fifth through seventh grade dumped me so she could be part of the popular group. I will be forever grateful to the nerdy second string who took me in at the end of seventh grade, although I’ve lost touch with most of them.  There are two friends from that time I’ve kept up with: Rebecca and Rick. Rick and I became friends when he joined the orchestra in my 8th grade year. He was in 6th grade, two years younger than me. We stayed friends through high school and college, and still see each other once or twice a year.

Now, when can readers get their hands on THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO, and do you have any exciting events or upcoming blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

The book appears in bookstores (or on your doorstep) on January 28, 2020.You can pre-order today at any online or bricks-and-mortar book retailer. I will be holding a book launch at Bronx River Books in Scarsdale on Sunday, February 2 from 4-6 p.m. Come on over, have a quindim (a Brazilian dessert; it’s in the book) or a brownie, get entered to win a sour cream apple pie, and get your copy of THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO signed by me! I will also be appearing on Melissa Roske’s Ask the Author blog on February 3: http://www.melissaroske.com/ and will be popping up in the Class of 2k20’s blog throughout the year. Check out the class of 2k20, a group of twenty authors with debut MG and YA books coming out in 2020 at classof2k20books.com.

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

The best place to find me is on Instagram, where I’m @CathleenBarnhart. I love the #mgbookchat Twitter chats on Monday nights and try to be on those whenever possible. For more about me, check out my website: cathleenbarnhart.com.

Cathleen Barnhart has been writing her whole life. She wrote her first story she she was seven. It was called “Aunt Ant.” Later, she majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University and then got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has held more jobs than she can count, including process camera operator, waitress, perfume salesperson, college writing instructor, and middle school teacher. She is married and has three mostly grown children, an excitable rescue dog named Zeke and a Machiavellian cat named Scout. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Zeke in the woods, Cathleen fosters kittens and does CrossFit because it’s important to be sensitive and strong. That’s What Friends Do is her first published novel.

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