Today, in the ominous, awe inspiring shadow of the Burj Khalifa, here in downtown Dubai, I meet Barb Taub. YA writer, reviewer, commentator and classic American wit in the Mary Tyler Moore mould.
Barb now lives and writes in the Green and Pleasant. I met her through the brilliant Rosie Amber’s review site, where she reviewed my novel The Night Porter.
Whatever grade Barb gave TNP was less important than the stunning quality of the review itself, like a newspaper article, and I swiftly sent the Goblins out to research her.
I discovered she’s a writer (as you will see of Mature YA novels) and very popular in this little corner of our vast and sprawling Indie world. I also discovered she’s a superhero buff, which etches her name in indelible ink in my personal cool book. Picking up the Wizphone, I tracked her down as she walked the dogs on a freezing spring day somewhere up North. Here’s what she had to say.
As an American lady, how did you come to live over here? What are the key differences and what was the hardest thing you had to leave behind?
I used to say that when I retired, I'd move to an island and open a coffee shop. It would, of course, not be a particularly good coffee shop. (I was picturing a cheap automatic drip pot with some generic grind right out of a can.) That way I would have plenty of time to write trashy novels without
constant interruptions er… customers. It just happened a bit
earlier and not quite the same way as I planned when my company was sold and my
husband was offered early retirement.
We decided to go for the adventure—he took a job with a university in England and we ended up living in one tower of a medieval castle owned by some friends. So the island was a bit bigger than I expected, and there wasn't a coffee shop in our little village. But I did serve at coffee-mornings once a month. And I did start turning out those novels.
The key differences? I had to learn to speak British, of course. Mostly, this meant not talking about my pants (here men wear them under their trousers) and not saying I was pissed (here it means drunk instead of angry). I do miss a few things about the US though—good Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants, celebrating the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving (for some reason, holidays commemorating successful decoupling from England just haven't really caught on here...), and people who know how to pronounce “aluminum”. But oh, what I get in return—fabulous cheese, even better chocolate, and cheap flights to France.
We recently moved to Glasgow, going from a 200+room castle to our tiny Hobbit House, so my current goal is to understand Weegie-speak.
|Scottish icon and tourist ambassador Francis Begbie|
enjoying a quiet night out
Tell us about your work. What’s the latest?
My daughter Hannah and I have this tiny little life-altering addiction to superhero movies. Okay, we’d probably starve to death with chocolate only a room away if a Marvel hero was in front of us. (Except Hulk, of course, because that would be just wrong in so many ways, starting with the costume.) But in general, give some guy a spandex outfit and a mask and he owns us.
One night we started talking about superheroes with awkward powers. Let’s say you are the Man of Steel, but you don’t dare have sex with Lois Lane because your LittleMan of Steel could quite probably split her in two. (And we’re not even going to discuss the havoc your Swimmers of Steel could wreck on Woman of Pasta…)
The point is that when you think about it, most people with special powers would be lining up to get their normal lives back. That’s where Null City comes in. It takes our fantasy worlds and turns them into everyday life. After one day there, those with extra gifts turn into their closest human counterparts. Imps, for example, become baristas.
(Of course, they’re now ex-PhD candidates in literature or classics who claim to be experts on third-world coffee blends and obscure world music groups. But hey – there is only so close to human that hellspawn can get…)
And then what? What if you’re one of the superheroes going about regular human lives as plumbers and realtors and smartphone app developers, and someone pulls the plug on your city? The dogs you’re walking turn back into third-generation hellhound/toy poodle mixes.
(Hoodles?) The kids you’re babysitting turn out to be part witch, part dragon, and part Minnesota Lutheran and start conjuring golden hotdish casseroles and flying jello molds. And after several generations of backyard barbecues and poker nights, nobody’s spandex fits anymore.#
My daughter and I talked about Null City for her last year of highschool. The one thing we couldn’t figure out was who the villain would be, when everyone is a hero. The problem with heroes, though, is that they don’t all have the same goals. What if each group – angels, superheroes, and just plain humans – is willing to do whatever it takes to make their right thing happen?
So Hannah headed off to University in Scotland and I headed to my computer. One year and many hours of video chats later, the first Null City book, One Way Fare, was published by Taliesin (now Hartwood). Its backstory is the founding of Null City.
In the second book, Don’t Touch, the backstory is the Metro train, Null City’s connection with the outside world. Book three, Round Trip Fare, explores what happens when saving Null City might mean destroying the world. Along the way, I also published Tales From Null City as a fundraiser for the no-kill shelter movement.
Can we have an extract, Barb?
ROUND TRIP FARE by Barb TaubMarch 2011: Seattle
“Wait here.”She had, Carey reminded herself, served ARC warrants on some of the most dangerous and violent runners the Agency had ever seen. She’d been shot at, stabbed, and hit upside the head with a surprisingly lethal Prada handbag. Just today, she’d brought in her prisoner, and she had all the proper approvals signed-off for the check she’d requested. So was she really supposed to cower out in the hallway because some Accords Agency accountant was glaring at her?
When the accountant in question was a were-badger whose eyes were squinting, nose quivering, and top lip even now raising over her teeth?
Carey dove for the gray plastic chair by the doorway. “You got it.”The clock on the wall outside of Accounting must have been left from the days when the Agency’s offices belonged to the previous tenant, a now-bankrupt software company, because it showed the time in binary code. Near as Carey could figure, she’d been looking at featureless gray walls and floors accented only by the red lights on the binary clock for 38 minutes. Or three days. She never quite got the hang of those flashing dots. Either way, her shot at making it to her class was history. Even as she mentally winced at that pun, Carey heard her name.“Warden Parker. You haven’t brought me any work lately. Where’s the love?”“Hey, Frankie. Believe me, I was tempted today.” She grinned at the petite figure in the lab coat. The Agency’s resident pathologist had autopsied more than one of Carey’s search targets. “So, resurrected anyone lately?”
“As I explained at the time…” The scientist’s tone was severe, but the eyes behind the rimless glasses crinkled with amusement. “He was only mostly dead.”“If you want to hang onto your geek creds, Frankie, you need to quote something more badass—or at least more recent—than Princess Bride.”
Carey’s former Academy roommate, Claire Danielsen, had once explained patiently that the three of them—Claire, Frankie, and her partner Warden Laurel Franklin—were Carey’s friends. Carey wasn’t sure about that whole friends concept, but when Claire translated that as good people to get drunk with, she decided she could live with the definition.
Carey moved her chin slightly toward the accountant glaring at them.
Frankie’s freckles stood out against cheeks gone suddenly pale. Short, frizzy brown hair fluttered as she held up both hands, palms out. “Uh, right. Well, I’m… going somewhere. Tell Marley that Laurel and I are off to Portland for the weekend but we’re on for Beer Tuesday.” As she backed carefully toward the door, Frankie didn’t take her eyes from the quivering accountant.
Carey didn’t blame her in the least. After all—badgers. “Hang on. I’ll come with.”
Does your work have a genre?
It's the urban fantasy/sort-of-steampunk/the odd time travel/romance/humor genre. (It's kind of a niche genre.) My publisher calls it “mature young adult” but I think that's just because condoms are involved.
In your review of The Night Porter, you said you don’t go for Literary Fiction. Why is that? I hear it is making a BIG comeback after years on the genre-enforced sidelines.
I was once in a bookclub that fancied itself literary if they read anything that made the Booker shortlist. [still shuddering] The thing is that nobody actually liked any of those books, but I was the only one with the nerve to say so. Why did I keep going? Well, since the books were so awful, they had to pad the meeting with incredible food and much (very good) wine. I'd still be going if we hadn't moved away.
|The latest craze in New York. Nude book groups|
Of course, if the books were all like The Night Porter, I might start going for the discussion too. (Who am I kidding? It would probably still be the wine...)
You are a noted – and brilliant – reviewer. A blogger too. How do you describe what you do when you meet someone for the first time?
Okay, I'm having trouble getting past the “noted and brilliant” bit. I have to read that about another—oh, say, million times—before I can focus. So (Noted! Brilliant!!) right... the question. If you're asking about how I do reviews, it's simple. I give every book five stars. Then as I'm reading, I make notes and take stars away for painful, stupid, awkward bits.
For edit fails (I read a lot of self-pubs, which somehow often seems to mean self-edited) I give them three fails within the first few pages. If it goes over that without being cancelled out by great writing, I tell the author I can't give them a good review. In a few cases, stars that are taken away get returned for excellent writing and overall entertainment value.
In very rare cases (The Night Porter!!!) I wish I had more than five stars to give.
If you're asking what I do when I meet human people in the real world? They pretty much get three strikes too. Most of them take those right away.
Paperbacks or e-reader?
E-reader please. (I travel a lot.) I will say that the daughter of a good friend came to visit recently. When she saw our little Hobbit House here in Glasgow, she commented that in the old days you could learn so much about people by looking at the books on their shelves. But now everyone has those on their Kindles.
How do we get kids off the X-Box and back in their bedrooms with a book?
First of all, I like the X-Box. Second, I must see a different group of kids, because I'm not sure how big a problem this is. Online, in social media, and by email I'm constantly meeting kids and young adults who are completely addicted to reading, and to writing as well.
Frankly, my big worry is who will read all the volumes they are generating. That's a good problem for the world to have, if you ask me.
Three favourite books, two favourite CDs and favourite film
Books? Good Omens by Neil Gailman & Terry Pratchett is my go-to desert island fare.
After that, I'd probably take Cien años de soledad by Gabriel García Márquez because I've always wanted to read it in the original Spanish but never really had time to focus. And finally, I'd take the biggest blank book I could find because I pretty much like my own stories best.
CDs? I love Beethoven's Piano Concerto #5, by Alfred Brendel with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Okay, I know people say there are better versions, but for sentimental reasons (I heard them in amazing concert performance!), this is the one.
The other CD (this week anyway) is Trio, with Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, And Emmylou Harris.
Favorite film? Could I have the first (and only) season of Firefly? If not, how about Pride and Prejudice (the Colin Firth version of course).
You are invited for a walk with an inspirational figure. Where would you choose to go walking and who would you like to walk with?
I like to be around smart people. And the smartest person I ever worked for or met—arguably one of the smartest people on the planet—is Stephen Wolfram, physicist and youngest winner of the MacArthur “genius” award.
When he needed a framework for his discoveries, he invented Mathematica, which calls itself (and is) “the world's definitive system of modern technical computing”. But the thing that never ceases to amaze me is just how interested Stephen is in pretty much everything. Hands down, that makes him the most fascinating person I've ever known, and I'd pretty much walk anywhere because I wouldn't be looking around anyway.
What does 2015 have in store for readers and supporters of Barb Taub?
Hopefully, with Round Trip Fare finished, I should be able to get a good start on the final book of the series. I've also been having fun blogging about travel, and that should continue. And of course, I have to focus on learning to at least understand Weegies.
Barb, it’s been an absolute pleasure to meet you round the Cauldron, and I hope you have a terrific 2015 with your books - and also with the learning Glaswegian project.
Thanks Wiz, the pleasure was all mine.
Contact Barb Taub
BIO: In halcyon days BC (before children), Barb Taub wrote a humor column for several Midwest newspapers. With the arrival of Child #4, she veered toward the dark side and an HR career. Following a daring daytime escape to England, she's lived in a medieval castle and a hobbit house with her prince-of-a-guy and the World’s Most Spoiled AussieDog. Now all her days are Saturdays, and she spends them consulting with her daughter on Marvel heroes, Null City, and translating from British to American.