Interview: Graduate & Guest Lecturer Barbara Ashford

barbara ashfordBarbara Ashford will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop. Barbara has been praised by reviewers and readers alike for her compelling characters and her “emotional, heartfelt” storytelling. Her background as a professional actress, lyricist, and librettist has helped her delve deeply into character and explore the complexities of human nature on the stage as well as on the page. Her musical adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd has been optioned for Broadway.

Barbara’s first published series was the dark fantasy trilogy Trickster’s Game (written as Barbara Campbell). Published by DAW Books, Trickster’s Game was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society’s 2010 Fantasy Award for adult literature.

She drew on her musical theatre roots for her second novel series, the award-winning Spellcast and its sequel Spellcrossed, set in a magical summer stock theatre. DAW Books released the two novels in an omnibus edition: Spells at the Crossroads.

A 2000 graduate of the Odyssey workshop, Barbara has taught eight online courses for Odyssey and has served on the staff of the Odyssey Critique Service for more than a decade. You can visit her dual selves at barbara-campbell.com and barbara-ashford.com.


You’re one of several authors who provide in-depth critiques for the Odyssey Critique Service. What are some of the common weaknesses you see in submissions?

Often, writers do not think about how the various “big picture” elements—plot, character, theme, world—relate to each other. To me, it’s critical to understand the heart of the story you’re telling. Whether you call that the story’s promise or its theme, without a clear understanding of the “message” you want readers to take away, the story can devolve into a series of plot incidents instead of evolving into a unified whole where all the “big picture” elements work together to create a story that is more cohesive and compelling.

You graduated from Odyssey in 2000, and you’ve now come full circle as an instructor for both the online courses and the upcoming summer workshop. What advice would you give yourself back in 2000?

You can’t please everyone. If you try to implement every suggestion you get in critiques, you risk diluting the impact of the story. But equally important is the need to understand the story you want to tell. The plot of my early drafts of Heartwood was a bit like a scavenger hunt—characters going here and there without a clear theme to link the events. Robert McKee’s concept of the controlling idea helped me discover what that novel was really about, choose the plot incidents and the qualities of the main character that would illuminate the theme, and link the external conflict with the protagonist’s internal conflict, which gave the story more cohesion and impact.

You’ve written musicals, including The Awakening and Far From the Madding Crowd. How has writing musicals influenced your prose?

71rVLE8VOnLIt definitely helped me with dialogue, including finding a character’s unique voice. Writing lyrics helped me distill a song to its essence, which is also helpful in creating effective dialogue. Even today, my way into a scene is often to brainstorm a conversation between the characters. But writing for the stage also improved my ability to create scenes with a clear central conflict and an outcome that pushes the story—and the protagonist—forward. And it influenced the way I look at the overall plot. I think of the big turning points in a novel in musical theatre terms. The opening scene lays out the protagonist’s goal or need just like the “I am/I want” song. The protagonist’s crisis (and the choice that arises from it) is the “11:00 o’clock number” near the end of a show, a moment that usually represents a revelation or change of heart.

A lot of your life experiences ended up in your novel Spellcast. One of the most common bits of writing advice is to “write what you know.” How did you go about mining your life in order to create fiction?

Thank you, Sheila Gilbert, my editor at DAW Books, who said, “Why don’t you write a fantasy that draws on your theatre background?” (God forbid I think of that!) I based the Crossroads Theatre on a playhouse where I had performed. I drew on my (occasionally bizarre) experiences in summer stock to add flavor. I gave Maggie much of my work history as backstory. I didn’t start out to cannibalize my life but once I began writing in first person, Maggie’s voice was all me.

You write as both Barbara Ashford and Barbara Campbell. What made you decide to write under different names? What advice would you give a writer who is considering a pseudonym?

My first trilogy was a dark fantasy set in the Bronze Age. Spellcast was a contemporary romantic fantasy. They were so different in setting and tone that Sheila suggested using a pseudonym. She also advised me to keep my first name. “That way, when someone calls your name at a convention, you won’t walk right past them, thinking that they’re talking to somebody else.”

What novel or short story stood out for you recently? What did you take away from it that has helped your own writing?

I recently read The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry. It was a delicious mash-up of fictional characters who could be drawn out of (and exiled back into) books by a professor with supernatural powers. Written in multiple POVs, it’s a great book to analyze for voice and style.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

After a year serving on the board of directors of my co-op, I’m seriously considering writing a novel about it. It’s got all the right elements: conflict, drama, comedy, and bigger-than-life characters. (Who knew that lobby décor could prompt such passionate debates about good governance and ethics?) But right now, I’m focused on a new musical that is slated for production this year.

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