Barbara Hannay’s “sparkling feel-good emotional romance” has attracted more than 12 million readers to her uplifting hope-filled stories.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today in the Joys of binge reading Barbara talks about the power of romance and how in days of pandemic, more than ever before, readers want to be uplifted.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How Barbara got started on her 60 book career
- Why we still want to believe in love
- North Queensland escape part of her charm
- Working hard never hurts a career
- The “feel-good” romance she enjoys
- Why readers won’t want to read about the pandemic
Where to find Barbara Hannay:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny Wheeler: But now here’s Barbara. Hello there Barbara, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Barbara Hannay: Thanks Jenny. Lovely to be here.
Jenny Wheeler: We both live in an extraordinary time of pandemic. You’re in Australia and I’m in New Zealand and we’re both in either isolation or lockdown. Can you give the listeners a picture of where you are and how Covid 19 is the affecting you?
Living in tropical Queensland
Barbara Hannay: Well, we’re living in Townsville, which is a city in North Queensland and we’re in an apartment, but it’s a ground floor apartment with patios, front and back, where I’ve got lots of pot plants to keep me happy. And we’re also very close to Townsville Strand, so we can go to beautiful walks along the waterfront and around Rose Bay.
We’re well set up in terms of being able to exercise and just get out a little bit. Unfortunately, we can’t see our family though, which is hard.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve got wonderful climate in Northern Queensland though, haven’t you? What are the temperatures like at the moment?
Barbara Hannay: At the moment? Well, it’s a wonderful climate in winter, though summer can be a bit humid and tropical. We’re still in the early thirties at the moment.
12 million and more books sold
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, right, still pretty warm. Turning to your writing, and you’ve really established a fantastic career. I saw somewhere that you had 12 million books sold, and that was a while ago now. So was there a Once Upon a Time moment when you just decided you needed to write fiction or your life would somehow not quite have the full meaning it should, or was it always there as a long term desire?
Barbara Hannay: It’s actually a little bit of both. I did love telling and making up stories right from when I was little. Even before I knew how to write. I used to draw pictures on pieces of paper and pass them through the gaps in orange boxes and make my sisters sit down and watch these movies that I’d created. Then later when I joined the Brownies, the first thing I wanted to do was the writer’s badge, causing my Brown Owl some consternation until she found it tester for me!
Writing ‘wasn’t in the family’
At school English was my favorite subject, but even given that strong desire, I never actually thought about becoming an author. I think that’s probably because I didn’t come from a family that was at all that way inclined. My dad was an engineer. My mom worked in the bank. They weren’t big readers. They were gardeners, so the main things that came into the house would be gardening magazines.
I used to go to the library though, and I kept up my love of reading all through all that. But when I got a job, I became a teacher, an English teacher. And then I had a family, and when the kids were little, I’d write stories for them and they would illustrate them. However it wasn’t until I was teaching a Year 11 class a unit of popular fiction, and we had to look at action, adventure, detective novels and romance novels. I’d never seen a Mills & Boon before at that point.
Discovering Mills & Boon romance
I looked at these (romance books) and they instantly reminded me of the books I’d loved as a girl. All the ‘Anne’ books and Little Women, and the classic girls’ stories. They’d all had romances in them. At the same time, there were other teachers saying “Mills & Boon.”
We were having to pull these stories to pieces and be very clever and analytical and talk about the stereotypes of the characters and the predictabilities of the plots. But at the same time I was thinking, ‘but these are fun. I want to have a go at writing one of these.’
I suppose it helped that we had a really horrible principal at the time who was sacking staff left, right and centre. People were having nervous breakdowns. My job was okay, but the possibilities of doing something else did appeal.
A first rejection letter
So I wrote one over the Christmas holidays, thinking it was the most brilliant thing ever, after having read two Mills & Boon novels and sent it off and I got a rejection.
But it was a nice enough rejection. There were things they liked and already having sat down and written 50,000 words of a story, I was hooked. I just knew it was what I had to do, so I kept trying after that.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. You are now published by three different publishing houses. As far as I can see, you’re still doing some Mills & Boon? You’re published by Hachette and by Penguin. You’ve got yourself well-accepted over the whole range of publishing, really from what is considered the more popular right through to the more literary end of the spectrum. But you started with Mills & Boon?
Covering the publishing spectrum
Barbara Hannay: I did. Yes. I haven’t written for them for a few years now and to be honest, the Hachette books that you see there are probably reprints of Mills & Boons put into anthology, but I have also written a couple – I’m just writing a second story now – for Tule, which is a smaller American digital only publishing house. They’ve been fun too.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve got a lot of books there online because you have been writing for quite a few years, I guess, now haven’t you? How many books in total have you got in publication?
Barbara Hannay: I’m just finishing my 57th.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh wow. That’s tremendous. Now there are two new ones that you’ve got out at the moment. The Summer of Secrets, which is a delightful story set in Northern Queensland in a local newspaper and Meet Me in Venice, which is about an Australian family who go on holiday in Venice, and both of them qualify as “sparkling feel good emotional romance” which is what you describe yourself as liking to do. Is it hard to cater for different publishers and how do you differentiate between them?
General emotional family fiction
Barbara Hannay: Well, both those stories have been written for Penguin. I think I’ve written about nine, what we call ‘single title’ novels for Penguin. and I think really the only differences that I can expand myself. I write just as carefully when I was doing Mills & Boon stories as I do now for these stories, but I can have multi generations. I can have dual timelines if I want to, because I’ve enjoyed including some World War II elements into some of these stories, with flashbacks for older characters.
I can go into more issues. Whereas the shorter category romances just focus on the hero and the heroine and the romance. And they don’t like too many secondary characters. But the tone and the feel is probably very similar in all my books.
Uplifting but believable fantasy
Jenny Wheeler: You say on your website, in your mission statement, that as a romance writer you want to give readers an “uplifting heart-wrenching fantasy while keeping it believable.” And I wondered if you could explain to us a little bit how you manage to do that, keeping the fantasy element, but also making it believable.
Barbara Hannay: Well, first of all, I’ll work on the emotional element first because I do think readers like to have their emotions engaged, so I always try to make sure there is a situation that I know will be an emotional one. Often it involves some kind of loss for one of the characters. They’ve lost their job, or they suffer a broken relationship, or they’ve lost a loved one, or there’s been a serious mistake they’ve made in the past.
Narrative drive from emotion
Something like that, which will be very involving on an emotional level. I try to make it believable by making sure my characters are well motivated so that whatever they do, you understand why they’re doing it. But I think for me, the fantasy level probably comes from the feeling of being swept away.
Probably the whole romance of falling in love, but also the setting. I don’t go in for wealth and billionaires and all that sort of thing so much. The fantasies that I create are more about going to a different place, a place that might be different for the reader who might be busy in the city, hard at work, dealing with traffic and all the rest of it. I try to make my settings a bit like a far-away dream.
Escapist settings also a key
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. I do really agree. Having read both these latest books, in both of them you lose yourself in the environment and they’re both set in very beautiful or pretty places. And I suppose the Outback ones, I haven’t read the Outback ones, but I’m sure that they also have that same feeling of scope, and an amazing world that you enter into.
Do you manage to go to all these places yourself or do you just dream it up?
Barbara Hannay: I have tried to write about mainly places that I’ve been to. I have another book, The Country Wedding, that I wrote just before The Summer of Secrets. I’ve got World War II sections in that one – just before World War II actually – set in Shanghai.
And we did go to Shanghai to check that out. And I have been to Venice, and I lived on the Atherton Tableland where The Summer of Secrets is set. So yes, I do try to write about places that I’ve been to. I think the only one that I haven’t been to was Bangkok, but I only took my character there for a couple of days.
The satisfaction of going there
Jenny Wheeler: Oh yes, in The Summer of Secrets. That’s interesting actually, because I thought there were references there, like the favorite hangout for the journalists in Bangkok and so forth, were very credible. You must’ve had some research or contact or journalist friend to help you understand right down to the local level where he would have gone and what he would have seen. It sounded convincing. I don’t know too much about Bangkok, but it really sounded convincing to me.
Barbara Hannay: Oh, good. Thank you. I’ve had people write and ask me, can I give them more information on where the real Venetians live in Venice too, because I put a lot of attention on that in Meet Me in Venice, but I must admit, we writers do have a bit of poetic license with some of these things. I try to be as authentic as possible, but of course it is also fiction. It is an imaginative story.
Imagination plays an important part
Jenny Wheeler: In Venice, did you actually stay there in an apartment?
Barbara Hannay: No, just in a hotel.
Jenny Wheeler: Meet Me In Venice was described by one reviewer as “deeply Australian yet full of international color.” All of your books really do major on the Australian aspect, don’t they?
Barbara Hannay: I guess so. I guess I can’t really help that.
Jenny Wheeler: I think that’s part of their popularity. ‘Venice’ is a heart-warming story about a recently widowed woman who decides to bring all her family together in Venice – which is her deceased husband’s birthplace – for a holiday, and some unwelcome family truths come to light during, I suppose, a dream holiday.
I’m sure readers are always asking that question. How did you think up the story, but what was the genesis for that story?
Where do those ideas come from?
Barbara Hannay: Oh, good question. You know, it’s a really funny one with that story. I was putting in a proposal when we were going to get new contracts with our publishers. We have to put in proposals, and I put in a proposal for another idea. I had to put a second one in as well. One of my friends had told me about a widowed friend of hers who was going to gather all her family together. I think she was going to get hers to go to Edinburgh for Christmas.
And I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds like an interesting story possibility,’ but I just threw it together really quickly that they’d go to Venice and just as a one liner. My publisher got back to me and she said, ‘Oh, we really love this second idea. Could you work it up?’ I had to really push myself. It took me quite a while because normally the stories have been brewing by the time I put in the proposal. But this time I had to push myself. But I also had a friend who had a son who was in Silicon Valley, as Mark is in that story.
Characters with artistic dreams
He’d been a genius at school here and gone off to the US, so he inspired that little element. And my own daughters have been very into the arts. One of my daughters is now a music teacher, head of music, at one of the big schools in Brisbane. The other one was a professional dancer for many years before she went into OT instead, occupational therapy.
So I’ve been a mother of girls with artistic dreams, and I understood what it would be like to have the daughter who was the actor in London, (Anna in the Venice story.) It came from all little bits and pieces of my life, or people I know.
Jenny Wheeler: And I suppose most of the stories are like that. In The Summer Of Secrets. you’ve got two people, as you mentioned, whose lives have fallen apart in very different ways, and they both end up in this small northern Queensland town almost trying to get away from their past.
Small town and rural flavour
It gives the same combination of deep emotion and people needing to healed and re-build in a really nostalgic sort of setting. I guess was that put together on the same sort of way, from partly people you knew and partly imagination?
Barbara Hannay: That was more imagination. But my husband was a journalist and when we met he was on a small country newspaper, so I knew a little bit about how that sort of thing works. That one came from a bit from my past but a lot more from my imagination probably with that one.
Jenny Wheeler: With the romance aspect of it, it’s very much more the emotional aspect than sex, isn’t it? Mostly they are an emotional journey, but they are very romantic. Do you think that it’s one of the reasons that romance is still the most popular genre in the world because apart from all the exciting sex it is just so deeply emotional?
One of the best things humans do
Barbara Hannay: Yes, I think so. I think people do enjoy reading stories that still believe that romance is possible. Even people whose own lives may not have been as romantic as they would’ve liked or, people who are happily married perhaps, you know, who know they’re only ever going to have fallen in love once or twice in their life so they don’t mind doing it again via books.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s a great way to look at it.
Barbara Hannay: I think love’s one of the best things that we humans do, you know? So it’s something we do like to see on the page.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. What do your readers tell you they like best about your books?
Barbara Hannay: Well, it changes from book to book. Probably a lot of people do appreciate the north Queensland settings because I don’t think a lot of stories have been set up here. So that’s been something that I’ve been able to have as unique to make to me.
World War II a popular theme
Then I wrote about five books that had World War II elements, and they probably got the most reader emails, possibly from older readers who appreciated having stories of World War II that hadn’t been told much.
A lot of people didn’t know Townsville got bombed during the war. I had a story told from New Guinea in the jungle and I had people writing to me whose family had actually lived on the mission in New Guinea.
Jenny Wheeler: Hmm. Great. Perhaps now turning to your wider career away from the specific books. Is there one thing you’ve done more than any other that you’d credit with being the secret of your success?
Barbara Hannay: It’s going to sound really boring, but I just think hard work. I had a dad who brought me up on the whole idea of “a job worth doing is worth doing is worth doing well.”
Working hard no secret
I put my very best effort into every single story, and editors seem to appreciate that. So yes. It doesn’t make me a best seller though. There’s probably an element of daring or something in my personality that would help. But I’ve had a steady career, that has been useful.
Jenny Wheeler: How long did it take you from the time when wrote that first Mills & Boon to getting a book accepted?
Barbara Hannay: It took me four and a half years.
Jenny Wheeler: Well, that’s a definite persevering journey for starters, isn’t it?
Barbara Hannay: Yes. I’ve been really disappointed with a lot of people I’ve met who’ve wanted to get published, who just aren’t prepared to hang in that long. They give up after the first rejection, which has always disappointed me.
Jenny Wheeler: Hmm. Now you had, as you mentioned, you had a few years at Atherton Tablelands, living out in the country, out of town.
The country life
I’m not quite sure what distances we’re talking about, but I’ve seen pictures online where you seem to have this idyllic country life with pigs and things there, but you’re now back in town.
Tell us a bit about that country life and was it hard to move back to the city? I mean, Townsville isn’t a big city exactly, but you’re not quite in the country anymore.
Barbara Hannay: No, that’s right. We were on an acreage on the side of hills with lovely views and we had a nice garden to play with and patches of rainforest and it was beautiful. We had it for about 15 years, 10 years full time. And we loved it. We did love that life.
We’d played at being farmers . . . We had chooks and veggie gardens and pigs that my husband turned into bacon. I guess we just got to the point where, well, actually my husband had a heart attack last year and we started thinking about old age and needing to be sensible and closer to the facilities.
Writing in changing times
So that’s why we’ve come back. Leaving was hard, but now that we’ve settled in here we’re quite happy and we think we’ve made the right choice.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. And it looks like from your pictures online, you’re part of a community garden, so you can still get fingers in the soil if you want to.
Barbara Hannay: Exactly.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s interesting. . . .the last interview I did, just in the last few days, we got onto this topic of how the pandemic is affecting writing, and I suddenly started to realize there were going to be whole lot of ramifications that we hadn’t even really started to think about.
My interview last week was a Kiwi author called Bronwyn Sell, who is writing romantic comedies and she’d set one of them in a Whitsunday type of island resort, and she was doing Book Two and she had people flying in and out of this resort, and she suddenly thought – the book is to be published in February 2021.
How will pandemic affect authors?
What if the lockdown is still happening? What if people can’t fly into Australia from America at that time?
She asked herself ‘should I try and rewrite the whole thing or what should I do?’ And it started to get me thinking about how publishing and storylines and things might really be affected by the pandemic. I wondered if there was anything in your coming work that might be affected in that way?
Barbara Hannay: I’ve been talking about that with writer friends, too. We’ve got a group of friends who normally go on a retreat every year together to the Gold Coast. . . Well, if you can retreat on the Gold Coast . . . we gather there together, and this year we’ve had to do it by Zoom.
We were talking about this last night and we’ve decided – and some of them have been talking to their editors and they agreed – that readers want their normal world in the book. They don’t want to worry.
Facing up to the challenge
The pandemic is going to be a shock and it’s going to be real for some time ahead. But I think they want to be able to escape in their reading, so they don’t particularly want the pandemic in the story.
The one I’m writing at the moment that I’ve nearly finished, it’s a little Tule book. I had started it before things got bad, so the world was already set up and I’ve been okay with writing that, but I must admit the one I want to write next for Penguin, I haven’t got my head in the right place yet.
I’m going to have to get rid of the pandemic, I think. I don’t want to write about it, but I’m pretty sure it will intrude.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s hard to ignore it, isn’t it?
Barbara Hannay: Yes. I mean, even watching TV, sometimes you see people getting too close together and you want them to stay further apart!
Barbara as reader – her favourites
Jenny Wheeler: Look turning to Barbara as reader, because it is The Joys of Binge Reading . . . I imagine you’ve been quite an addictive reader over your lifetime. What are you liking to read at the moment and are you binge reading anything at the moment?
Barbara Hannay: I’ve just discovered a UK author called Jenny Colgan in Scotland, and I’ve read her book The Shop of Happy Ever After. And I’m definitely going to be reading more of hers. They’re lovely light romances, but with a bit of depth to them, to the characters, and set in Scotland. This one was set in the Highlands of Scotland. I certainly enjoyed escaping up there.
I’ve enjoyed similar kinds of stories from Lucy Diamond in the UK. I’ve read all of hers, I think. There’s an Anne Tyler one coming out that I’m very keen to read. I love reading her books, but I also like reading nonfiction when I’m researching for my characters.
What Barbara would change
Strangely, before all this started, I was reading a book called Lost Connections, which is about how depression is often caused by a lack of connections in people’s lives. That was going to be the central theme of my new book. And now of course, we’re all so disconnected. I’m feeling a bit weird at the moment about where my thoughts are going to go in that direction, but I do find some nonfiction books good to read.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. Looking back over your very long and successful career, if there’s anything that you could change, what would it be?
Barbara Hannay: This is going to sound really trite, but I’d probably change my name. When I first was published by Mills & Boon, I’d chosen a nom de plume but they said, ‘Oh, we like your real name.’ So I stuck with it. I don’t dislike my real name, but I just think Barbara puts you in a certain age bracket.
Maybe if I’d chosen Lucy or something younger.. . . Anyhow, apart from that, I’m happy enough with how other things have gone. I feel quite lucky really, that I’ve been able to hang in there, for 20 years now. I’ve still got another contract being offered, so, yes.
What’s next for Barbara the writer
Jenny Wheeler: So, what is next for Barbara, the writer? What have you got looking ahead over the next 12 months? What kind of writing pattern do you establish? Do you have a few months off between each book to gather your thoughts together, or do you have more than one manuscript going at the same time or how do you approach it?
Barbara Hannay: No, I’m a one at a time, girl. I am finishing off this little short romance and then I’ll put at least a month or more aside to do more reading and thinking before I plan my next book, and it usually takes me about six months to write the first draft. And of course, there’s the rewriting and the editing and all those sorts of things that take up a fair bit of time as well.
Jenny Wheeler: The next one that you’ve got coming out, have you got a title for that one?
Next book – sisters and surrogacy
Barbara Hannay: Yes. I’ve got one supposedly coming out in August, so as far as I know, it is called The Sisters Gift, and that is set on Magnetic Island, which is just off the coast here. That’s another idyllic setting that I had a lot of fun writing.
Jenny Wheeler: And is that a Penguin or a Tule?
Barbara Hannay: That’s a Penguin. Actually, you remember Freya, the friend of the widow in Meet Me In Venice? Well, it’s her story. Daisy (who was the lead character in “Venice” ) has a very minor role in this book.
I like to have little links sometimes between, the books. This is Freya’s story. It’s a story about surrogacy. That’s what the gift was. When she was very young Freya had a surrogate baby for her sister who was infertile. She thought she was doing this amazing, generous thing, but it turned out to have all sorts of ramifications she’d never expected.
Where readers can find Barbara
Jenny Wheeler: It’s funny that you mentioned about a link, because when you said earlier that you had been partly prompted by a friend who’d gathered her family in Edinburgh for Christmas, it just crossed through my mind – that could be another one in a similar series to the Venice one, another family reunion type thing, but in a different place and but with a whole suite of other characters, it would be a completely different story.
Barbara Hannay: It would be!
Jenny Wheeler: I’m sure your readers love interacting with you and I imagine that some of the time you manage to do book tours when it’s possible, but how do you interact with your readers and where can they find you online?
Barbara Hannay: I have a website BarbaraHannay.com and there’s a contact link on my website, and I have a Facebook page (@BarbaraHannayauthor).
Social media connections
I have a blog that I don’t write very often anymore, unfortunately. I am on Twitter (@BarbaraHannay) and Instagram, so all those usual places, and I do love hearing from readers. It’s the thing that keeps us going, isn’t it?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, it is. I guess that The Sisters Gift might be affected by, the way things are. …What do you normally do? I guess at least some speaking around a book release.
Barbara Hannay: Yes. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Jenny Wheeler: August is a bit too far away to really know, isn’t it? But Australia seems to be managing this very well. They’re one of the most tested countries in the world I read somewhere. Is that right?
Barbara Hannay: I’m not so sure about that, but certainly our curve is flattening nicely, so I think they’re just watching what happens over Easter, hoping everyone’s very well behaved and stays home over Easter.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. The same here.
Barbara Hannay: But yes. We’re very grateful to be in Australia and as I’m sure you must be in New Zealand too.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, yes. It breaks my heart to see what’s happening in some of those developing countries. It’d just be so hard there. But we want to talk uplifting and heart- warming things and you’ve done that for us today with these books of yours, which are so emotionally uplifting. Thanks so much, Barbara, and all the very best with the next book.
Barbara Hannay: Thank you Jenny.. you too.
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