Author Interview : Helen Barbour | The A to Z of Normal

JJ is delighted to be welcoming Helen Barbour today.

Here’s more about Helen’s debut novel The A to Z of Normal (published in June by Silverwood Books).

Clare Thorpe’s need for order and symmetry governs everything she owns – from tins and toiletries, to cushions and clothes. Yet she has always managed to hide the compulsions dominating her world. Until now. 

When long-distance boyfriend Tom proposes, her secret life begins to unravel. How can she share a future with the man she loves, if she can’t even share her space? And when the only way forward brings a threat greater than any compulsive behaviour, do they have a future together at all? 

A poignant and humorous story of love, family, secrets…and military precision.

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Hi Helen,

Welcome to JJ!

Please summarise The A to Z of Normal in 20 words or less.

A young woman struggles to overcome her obsessive‑compulsive behaviour, so that she can marry the man she loves.

What was the inspiration for your novel?

I was inspired by my own experience of mental health issues, having been diagnosed with obsessive‑compulsive disorder 20 years ago. Writers are often told to ‘write what you know’, and I felt that I could provide an insight into a condition that is still widely misunderstood. There is also a lot of stigma around mental health generally, and so I wanted this subject to be at the heart of my first major fictional work, to raise awareness and understanding.

How did your characters come into existence? Do they have a bio?

Yes, they do have very detailed bios…in fact, I spent so much time creating these that this activity turned into a form of procrastination. It’s much easier to sit around inventing people than actually to get on and write a book! Next time, I’ll start with just light sketches that I add to as the characters develop. Setting out every detail at the start is too prescriptive – and that’s not how you get to know people in real life, after all. In fact, I note from these bios that I intended my protagonist, Clare, to play the guitar, but I’m still waiting for her to pick up a plectrum!

Panster or plotter Helen?

Definitely a plotter, which is probably an inevitable result of my personality – I take an organised and methodical approach to everything I do. However, I don’t plan out every scene in great detail, as that would make the actual writing boring. I like to have key plot points in place, but with a degree of flexibility as to how these play out.

Which authors have influenced your writing?

Mark Haddon is a writer whose work I particularly enjoy. In A Spot of Bother, the central character suffers a mental breakdown, but there is a great deal of humour in the story. I write in a similar vein: tackling serious topics with a light touch. Mental health can be a difficult subject to handle and I wanted to do this in a way that would make it accessible – and entertaining – to readers.

Have you done any writing courses that you would recommend to others?

I’ve done many courses over the years, but found those at the City Lit in London particularly useful. The tutors were often blunt, but I came to realise that they were employing a very necessary ‘tough love’.

One used to say ‘A sentence is like a line of washing. How many pegs [words] do you need to hold it up?’ It was painful having her slash through my prose with a red pen, but it was always the better for her paring down. That single piece of advice has become a guiding principle when editing my writing.

Some people maintain that writers shouldn’t need creative writing classes, but I disagree. If you have a talent for playing the piano, nobody expects you to become a concert pianist without training. Likewise, with writers. Of course, some classes are better than others, but if you find the right one, it can be invaluable.

Have you joined any writing groups?

Yes, in 2009 I joined the Finish That Novel group run by Greenacre Writers, who are based in north London. Their input was vital in fine-tuning my novel, including picking up continuity errors that I was too close to the work to see. As with writing classes, if you find a good group, it can be of great benefit.

What has been the best part of your writing journey so far Helen?

Undoubtedly the launch party for The A to Z of Normal. It was wonderful to be able to present my book to all those friends who’ve had to listen to me talk about it for the last 10 years. It must have seemed like a figment of my imagination to them, after all that time. I was overwhelmed by their warmth, enthusiasm and support.

… and the worst?

Realising that the first draft of my novel was in the wrong tense. I’d chosen to put it in the past, but that made everything too remote; readers needed to be in the moment with Clare, to feel things as she does. My second draft was devoted to changing every verb to the present tense…which isn’t as easy as it might sound!

Finally Helen, are there any tips you could share with new writers that have worked well for you?

A general piece of advice to new writers would be to ensure that they’re equipped with a good understanding of basic grammar and punctuation, as well as the essential writing principles. You have to get your work in the best possible shape ahead of submitting to agents/publishers or self-publishing.

With every draft of my novel, I was honing my craft, but there were some fundamental gaps in my knowledge at the outset. I had the bitter experience of finally learning how to use a semi-colon properly and then having to check every last one in a 95,000+ word manuscript…thank goodness for the ‘Find’ facility! 

Thank you for sharing with JJ’s readers Helen.

Wishing you success with all your writing projects.

Helen Barbour was born and brought up in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and now lives in North London. She began her working life as a journalist on the Express & Star evening newspaper in Wolverhampton, and has written for the lifestyle magazine, Complete Wellbeing, and for the mental health charities Mind and OCD Action. She blogs as The Reluctant Perfectionist about living with obsessive‑compulsive disorder, perfectionism and anxiety. Helen enjoys red wine, live stand-up comedy and adventurous travel and experiences, which have included trips to the Arctic, ballooning and a tandem skydive. Her life’s ambition is to figure out what ‘good enough’ means. The A to Z of Normal is Helen’s first novel.

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Married with two sons in their early 20's, by day I'm an Inclusion Lead in a local school. I recharge my batteries by reading, being out in nature and creating with crochet. I've been blogging for six years, four of those years exclusively about the literary world and during that time awarded Romance Blogger of the Year at the inaugural Festival of Romance. I'm enjoying the freedom of lifestyle blogging and sharing my love of anything that makes life easier! As well as a lover of words, I'm a stationery addict and lifelong learner. I feel passionate about early help for special educational needs, disability and families who are struggling. I'm a member of my local Early Help Operational Board and it's an honour to be working alongside others to instigate change and growth.