Setting That Works: an Interview with John Byrne Barry
Tonight at six we welcome novelist John Byrne Barry to lead us in a workshop, “Setting that Works,” at WeWork in Oakland. Today Cristina Deptula of Authors Large & Small asked us a few questions about setting in anticipation of his workshop.
John Byrne Barry writes novels, designs websites and book covers, and leads bicycle tours in San Francisco. He is author of two “page-turners with a conscience”—Wasted: Murder in the Recycle Berkeley Yard, and Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, which won the 2015 Best Book award from the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA). His third novel, coming in 2019, is an assisted-suicide family thriller, tentatively titled Why I Killed My Father.
Interview with John Byrne Barry
How do you know how much setting to include? What does it mean for setting to ‘work?’
There’s no one answer to how much setting to include, but my leaning is to use as little as possible. Only what’s necessary. Even the most elegantly written setting can slow the story down. As for what I mean by “setting that works,” the best and most memorable setting is not just a pretty, or gritty description, it’s also doing other “jobs,” like advancing the story, setting mood, echoing theme, and more. Its primary role, of course, is helping the reader visualize the scene. Smell it and feel it, too. But if that’s all it’s doing, it’s a missed opportunity. At the workshop, we’ll be going over eight of the jobs setting can do. Defining or revealing character is one of the more common, and useful, jobs that setting does.
In most novels, there’s one or more point-of-view characters, and the camera usually sits on that character’s shoulder. The reader sees what the character sees. If I were a character walking in my neighborhood in Tam Valley, I might notice how happy the trees are, with all this rain, how many flowers and blossoms and weeds are everywhere. Another character might notice all the Teslas and BMWs and Mercedes. What the character notices tells the reader who he or she is. I might note the expensive cars too, not because I care about cars, but it reminds me that I’m living in a community where most people have more money than I do. That’s revealing as well.
What books, and which authors, would you say provide good examples of setting done well?
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day comes to mind because the setting there is so much about describing a culture, a tradition, more than a place. It’s a brilliant book, and the setting is only one of its many strengths. The story follows Stevens, a middle-aged butler in the 1950s. Most of the novel is his reminiscence of the time between the wars, when he presided over a large staff at Darlington Hall, a Downton Abbey–like estate. The setting is not so much Darlington Hall or the West Country as much as the devotion to “dignity” that limits Stevens’ life. It’s sad and somber.
Then there’s Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver, which is set in the fecund forests of Appalachia, and follows Deanna, a wildlife biologist who is studying a den of coyotes that have recently migrated into the region, and who falls in love with a young man who had come to the mountains to hunt the coyotes. The setting here is the opposite of The Remains of the Day — it’s humid and lush and bursting with procreating plants and animals. It’s messy and rowdy nature at its sexiest, and it rubs off on Deanna and her complicated relationship with the hunter. I read it a long time ago, and I still remember the feeling of the natural environment and the way it seeped into everyone’s story. It was the birds and bees writ large.
I also want to mention my “green noir” mystery, Wasted, set in the recycling world of Berkeley. Two decades ago, I had done a lot of reporting and had written a long cover story for the East Bay Express called “The End of Garbage.” I had visited landfills and transfer stations and recycling centers, even the harbor in Oakland where bales of aluminum were loaded onto ships. I was intrigued with the idea of setting a mystery in this garbage and recycling universe, which is rich with themes of reinvention and discarding that which no longer serves us. The setting wasn’t just the recycling world, but Berkeley, where I lived for more than 25 years. I saw it as a colorful, creative place that also was ripe for ridicule. Like, for example, what I call “Berkeley-itis,” which is the idea that anyone on the street knows as much about anything as educated experts. I was very happy that one review of Wasted said I nailed the “vibe” of Berkeley. I think that’s what the best setting does. It’s not like painting a backdrop for a play. It’s more about capturing a feeling, a zeitgeist.
How important is setting to a story? What do you think of books, such as Wuthering Heights and Faulkner’s novels, where critics say that the ‘setting has become a character?’ Is it possible for that to be literally true? Can setting go through a character arc of its own?
Not sure setting can go through a character arc, though consider The Perfect Storm, a true story about the crew of a fishing boat caught in one of the most vicious Atlantic storms ever. The storm escalated in the same way a character might, and the storm was often described using some of the same adjectives as people — angry, fierce, relentless. Severe weather, because it changes, can be like a character. There are plenty of books where the cities they’re set in are characters of sorts. Think 1980s New York City in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, with its go-go greed-is-good bond traders and its polarizing racial tensions. But character arc for a setting is a bit of a stretch. Not that cities don’t have their own character and don’t change. Just look at what’s happening with San Francisco now with the tech boom. But that arc happens over generations. It’s hard to depict in a book, unless you’re writing an epic saga that unfolds over decades or centuries.
How integral should the setting be to the story? Should a story be grounded in a place or able to happen anywhere? (or does it depend on the book?)
I don’t know that it matters if the story takes place in some recognizable plac e, but most stories play out in a variety of settings, some of which are enclosed spaces, like bars or kitchens or prison cells. You may not need more than a sentence or two to capture those settings. Again, it’s more about the feeling than the colors of the walls. I’m in several writing critique groups and I also read a lot of novels, from literary to trash, and I find that many books, even ones that have won prizes and sold millions, have too much setting for my taste. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from Elmore Leonard, who said something like, “You know those parts in books that you skip over? Leave them out.” Often, it’s setting that readers skip over.
How should you research (or imagine!) the setting of your book before you begin to write? How familiar should you be with a place before you start to write a draft?
I wouldn’t say should because everyone has their own way, but for me, what has come first was finding the right setting for my story. As I just said, Wasted started with the setting, and I then I built the characters and story on top of it. The same was true of my other novel. In 2004, I knocked on doors for John Kerry in Milwaukee. It was tedious work, phone banking even more so, but I got excited about the idea of setting a story against the backdrop of a presidential campaign. There’s the ticking clock, there’s the high stakes, there’s the adrenaline and dirty tricks and moral gray areas. But I grew up in Chicago and Milwaukee did not seem like a colorful enough place, for me, to set a book. (Sorry, Milwaukee. It’s not you, it’s me.) So in 2008 I got myself to another swing state, colorful and quirky New Mexico, where I set my novel, Bones in the Wash. The novel unfolds during the presidential race, as my two protagonists, campaign operatives for Obama and McCain respectively, fight for the state’s five electoral votes.
As I knocked on doors in Albuquerque, I kept my eyes open. I had been asked by a colleague to post a blog every night. As with Wasted, the setting came first. I attended a panel on setting at the San Francisco Writers Conference a few years ago, and the first two panelists insisted that you had to be physically present to research setting, but the third presenter, who ran a writers conference in Santa Barbara, said not any more. You want to find out what it’s like to ride in the canals of Venice? You can find that on YouTube, he said. Certainly, it is more possible than ever to see what places look like without being there. But that zeitgeist I talked about, you’re not likely to find that in a video.
Join us for Barry’s Barry’s hands-on workshop, where we’ll review the different ways setting can strengthen your narrative, and lead a writing exercise putting what we learn into action.
The best setting is more than a pretty, or gritty description. It’s lean and strong, because it’s working two or more jobs—pushing your story along, helping us get to know your protagonist better. Whether you write fiction, memoir, or nonfiction, join us for “Setting That Works” on June 5th at WeWork in Oakland. Price goes up at the door so get your tickets now.
Topics Covered at Tonight’s Workshop
- Studying the different ways setting can strengthen your story.
- Do writing exercises putting what we learned into action.
- Capturing the essence of a place in a few short sentences—a strategic snapshot, not a Wikipedia entry.
- Drip-feeding description into your story so it doesn’t slow the momentum.
Ticket Info for this Workshop
Advance tickets $30; $40 at door.
CWC Members (50% discount): Advance tickets $15; $20 at door
There will be a member list at the door. Information about membership benefits and costs can be found at cwc-berkeley.org/about/join-us.