In October of 2007, Blogcritics published a review of an episode of FOX’s popular and critically acclaimed show House, M.D. by a new writer to the site named Barbara Barnett. The piece was insightful and articulate, clearly the work of a true fan who “got” the show and whose writing went way beyond recap. That review kicked off what quickly became one of BC’s most popular features, “Welcome to the End of the Thought Process: House, M.D.“ In addition to an in-depth analysis of every episode, the feature has grown to include news stories, fun polls and quizzes to keep fans occupied during hiatus, and exclusive interviews with many of the movers and shakers behind the show.
Fast-forward a couple of years and Barbara’s hard work and enthusiasm have been rewarded with a prize that is the realization of nearly every blogger’s dream. In September 2010, ECW Press will publish Barbara’s first book, a fan’s guide to the show entitled Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. While we at BC are always happy when a blogger makes the leap to the printed page, we are especially thrilled when the blogger in question is one of our own (in addition to being a writer here, Barbara is also an editor in our TV/Film section). Since we’ve been fans of Barbara’s right from the get-go and are proud to host “Welcome to the End of the Thought Process” at BC, we wanted to get the inside scoop on just how Barbara navigated the road from successful blogger to published author.
When asked how her obsession with House began, Barbara admitted that she’s generally not much of a series watcher. “I usually get hooked on one show at a time (like once a decade),” she replied. “But when I get hooked, I’m pretty obsessed. Last decade it was The X-Files. I read a short write-up in EW early in 2005 about House. It looked interesting and I’m a sucker for English actors. So I tuned in. It was the episode ‘Cursed’ [from season one]. It was in the grand scheme of things only a mediocre episode, but something about the character of House immediately hooked me. I think it was that I saw something not articulated in House’s overt demeanor, but nonetheless there.”
Barbara watched the next episode and immediately became addicted to the show (“as House is to Vicodin,” as she puts it). She got caught up with the episodes she missed, and ventured online to see if there was an active fan community (something she was familiar with from her days as an X-Files fan) and began to take part in lengthy discussions on fan forums. As her forum comments became lengthier and more involved, she eventually put up her own site on Livejournal where she posted in-depth reviews and developed a following. Several readers encouraged her to approach Blogcritics when writer Diane Kristine gave up her regular House feature, and that brings us to where we are today. Barbara says she’s “completely stunned that the blog took off and that readers around the world read me. It’s surreal.”
Barbara has been writing pretty much her whole life and was first published at the age of nine in a Sunday school magazine called World Over. After studying microbiology and “languishing in a lab” for three years out of college, she says, “I realized that I really didn’t want to be a microbiologist after all and landed a job as an associate editor on a food industry magazine. I had an amazing editor-in-chief who taught me how to write quickly and get it right (more or less) on the first draft. No computers back then: Selectric typewriters and five-layer copy paper packs. Since then, writing has always been a part of my professional profile.”
She went on to study environmental policy in graduate school and worked for ten years as an environmental public affairs consultant. She continues, “Much of my work was writing materials to make the complex issues involved in hazardous waste pollution understandable to affected communities. I was honored to receive two awards for writing from the Society for Technical Communication for that work. Even after veering 180 degrees from my field and into my current ‘day job’ of synagogue music and education, I continued to write and have won two national publications awards (one for a prayer book I created for young families and the other for an ongoing series of publications). Like most writers I have two unfinished novels on my computer.”
When I asked Barbara how the idea for Chasing Zebras came about, she recalled that when she began writing her Blogcritics feature during season four of the show she wondered if anyone would even read her articles, which are much more analytical than the episode recaps one frequently finds online. She said, “I wanted to dig deep and hoped that it was something other House fans were craving too. Turns out that they were. A lot of people love the show as I do: for its complexities and of course for Hugh Laurie’s performance. Early on I did a piece called ‘Dr. Gregory House: Romantic Hero.’ I examined the character through the prism of Byronic heroes and the article really struck a chord with a lot of fans (especially female fans). I got letters from literature professors and others who saw what I saw. After that the column seemed to really take off. (It’s the first article that captured the attention of my agent).”
Barbara participated in a couple of conference calls (in which folks involved with a show speak with a bunch of journalists by phone), and recalls being nervous during her first with actress Mira Sorvino. She persevered and eventually worked up the courage to ask for a one-on-one with executive producers Garret Lerner and Russel Friend. She said, “I got the interview and really by May 2008, I had made a name for myself writing in-depth about the show and what happens between the lines, behind the scenes, etc.”
She continues, “I eventually decided that it would be fun to develop a book to serve as a guide for the intelligent fans of the show. Rather than a straight-on episode guide, I wanted to do a book about the series’ character and story narratives and the themes; it would provide intelligent and thoughtful analysis of the complex series, in keeping with the flavor of my BC feature, but going into the sort of depth that’s impossible writing a blog.”
Barbara had some very firm ideas about the book: “I’ve always liked the idea of series guide for more complex television series and some are better than others. … The problem with most television series guides is that either the author isn’t knowledgeable about the series — or that the guide is simply a rehashing of the episode scripts with some nice pictures thrown in to entice. Or both. Back in my X-Files obsession days, there had been a mass-market paperback written by three XF fans who were also television critics in the UK. Their guide was saucy and fun, but also got into the heart of each episode in a way that simply rehashing a script can’t do. I loved that guide. So I had a strong idea that I wanted any book I wrote to capture what I loved about that book. I also wanted to take what I had done in my column and expand and add to create something hopefully unique.”
Of course there’s a quantum leap between thinking it would be fun to write a book and actually taking steps toward getting someone to notice, and I asked Barbara how that part of the process worked. She replied, “Eventually, my writing at BC led me — a fan, a mom, and a writer — to a foreign land of agents and publishers, who wanted to develop books for the adoring House fans.” Barbara credits good advice from Ted Weinstein, of Ted Weinstein Literary Management, with pointing her in the right direction. “He ultimately and wisely introduced me to his House-mad colleague Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency as a great agent choice for [my] special introspective look at House.”
She continues, “It was fun to see how many publishing people are addicted to House, but the one who I chose was Jack David, publisher of Entertainment Culture Writing (ECW Press). The publishing house focuses on entertainment culture. Jack is a House fan and had already done one book on the series because he loves the show. Once I talked with him, I knew he was the best choice to publish the book. … I understand that at some point Harper Colllins may be coming out with an ‘official’ behind the scenes book about the show. As a fan, I’m anticipating it as the first ‘official’ book from the series. And I can’t wait to see it. But Chasing Zebras does what an official book cannot, and that’s offer the sort of introspective analysis that’s unique and uniquely mine.”
So how is writing a book different from blogging? Barbara says, “Doing a book is a completely different undertaking, even if the actual writing is not. I started with an outline of just chapter headings and expanded and expanded it, looking at every episode to figure out how each illuminated a point I was trying to make. Eventually my working outline was more than 50 pages. To me, the outline was key. I spent two months simply outlining and trying to find the direction the book would take. There were things that required full chapter treatment and others that could be handled in a sidebar or mini-chapters. There were episodes I wanted to highlight, but how and in what context?”
She continues, “By the time the outline was done I had a two-part manuscript: several chapters about the show: each character, the structure of the show, how it’s put together (in my opinion), the music, the settings. I wanted to do a chapter on House’s issues with pain and drugs. It’s a crucial theme and one the the series has sometimes obscured. I wanted to address how the series handles religion and ‘God’ issues (which it does incredibly well), as well as medical ethics and other “social commentary” in full chapter treatments. Beneath each heading (and numerous subheads), I jotted episodes and scenes I needed to highlight to make my points.” Barbara chose not to focus on the medical aspects of the show (which deserve a book all their own); while important, they are primarily the framework upon which the show’s themes and broader concerns are hung.
She describes the portion of the book that will serve as an episode guide: “I wanted to have some fun with that, but it ended up being much more challenging than I thought it would be. I didn’t want to simply rehash the episode in a re-cap. You can get those re-caps everywhere on the Internet. I decided to only briefly summarize the medical cases and focus on the relationships and themes while still staying brief. I decided to tease out some of each episode’s highlights: an ‘iconic’ moment; House’s epiphany; ‘shipper alerts’ (highlighting relationship moments between the characters); Housian ethics of the episode, focusing on the ethical dilemmas faced by House and the crew; ‘Musical Notes;’ and something called ‘Title Tale,’ which explores the meaning(s) within the context of each episode.”
She goes on to say, “It was far and away the most difficult part to write. I’m sure I’ve missed some highlights (how could I not?), and I’m sure my readers will let me know once they’ve read the book.”
Speaking of readers’ perspectives, she adds, “House is an incredibly complex series, and there is little wasted either in the dialogue, the music, the sets — even the wardrobe. Everything says something. Writing a column or an episode review is much easier in that everyone knows it’s simply my opinion. … But with a book, I felt I needed to hear all the voices: those that spoke to me and those that spoke to fans who see things I may not. I spent a lot of time agonizing over whether I was missing the point sometimes, or over-analyzing at others. Because it’s a work of criticism – analysis – it’s still my subjective perspective, but I’ve always tried to keep others’ in mind.”
Barbara notes that the easiest part of the writing process was working from a detailed outline as it allowed her to work on one part of the manuscript or another without having to maintain a linear workflow. She goes on to say, “The absolutely most fun chapter to write was House’s. I cast him as a Byronic hero, using the attributes of that literary archetype and running the character through that lens. It’s amazing how well he fits that archetype. It’s a huge chapter, of necessity. At one point, I thought I was running so far over my word limit, I thought about severely cutting it back. My agent talked me out of it. She was right. This chapter is really the heart of the book, as it should be. Everything on the show revolves around House’s orbit!”
The biggest surprise about the process? Being able to finish the book on time! She notes, “The process has been thus far a joy. I have a supportive and energetic advocate and friend in my agent; a great publisher who has involved me in selecting the cover shot and planning the book’s cover design (and I’ve heard horror stories from other authors about this issue much to the contrary with their publishers).”
Now that the book is finished, what’s next on Barbara’s schedule? “Continue writing for BC — and hopefully another book. Probably not a TV book (although you never know). I have three or four ideas rattling around — and then there’s those two unfinished novels, of course!”
Because Barbara has realized the dream that so many of us aspire to, I had to finish up by asking her if she had any advice for writers wondering how to get to the next level. She responded, “Keep at it and always keep your eyes open to possibilities, no matter how remote. Don’t be afraid to let others know what you’re doing. The thing I have been most asked by agents, publishers, etc. is whether I had a platform, a built-in readership of those who know and enjoy my writing. There’s really only one way to get that. Don’t be afraid to approach producers, actors, writers, etc (if you’re into writing about film or TV). Email is my best friend. I would never have the courage to call someone up and ask for an interview. But emailing is another story entirely. I’m a fearless emailer. Much safer territory for my easily bruised artiste ego.”
Barbara resides in her native Chicago with her husband Phillip (“the most tolerant and indulgent husband ever”) where she has been a religious educator and musician for the past 15 years. They have two children: Shoshanna, a PhD candidate in inorganic chemistry at the University of Washington, and Adam, a freshman in Drexel University’s Music Industry program. You can check out all of Barbara’s writing (Housian and otherwise) at her Blogcritics writer page, and you can follow her on Twitter.
Chasing Zebras will be available in September and can be pre-ordered on Amazon now.