I spent the first seventeen years of my life trying to find ways to escape the violence and dysfunction that made my childhood feel more like a prison than any sort of paradise. Of course, there were also moments of sweetness, especially after my sister was born, giving me a sense of purpose in trying to give her the kind of love and nurturing I’d always wanted for myself. I started writing poetry at the age of nine, around the time my sister was born, discovering the beauty and relief that have ever since been the unwavering gift to me of words.
I was a year ahead in school, and left for college as soon as I could—which, in retrospect I realize was very hard on my little sister. Right before graduating from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) as an English major, with a minor in French—working as an undergraduate teaching assistant and devoted intensely to studying the novel—I took a year off to see if I had it in me to write fiction. I balked at the idea of going to graduate school, wanting to find myself, as I said then, “on the other side of the typewriter.”
Happenstance and good luck got me the use of a small stone cottage in rural West County Cork, Ireland. I lived on next to nothing there, in all the months but summer, with fingers that were sometimes blue from the cold. I wrote some tales set in the nearby village of Ardfield, which was largely unchanged from how it had been in the nineteenth century. I also began pulling together the strands of a longer story concocted from the small but tantalizing trove of details my maternal grandmother and great-uncle had given me about growing up as Russian Jews in a family of dressmakers in Kishinev, under the last Tsar. The resulting manuscript became what I like to call my pre-first novel. It had enough good in it to earn some words of encouragement from the fiction editors at the New Yorker.
I returned to California, graduated, kept writing and got a job as an editorial assistant at UC Berkeley. Over the course of six years, I worked my way up the editorial ladder to a senior-level position. I quit—prematurely, as it turns out—when I had the heady thrill of my first book contract, for a biography of MFK Fisher I decided I really didn’t have the stomach to write.
Shortly thereafter, based on more work I’d sent to the New Yorker, I got an agent who sold my first novel, a manuscript that had taken me ten years and thirteen drafts to create while working full-time. Northern Edge was inspired by two field seasons I spent in Alaska—thanks to a boyfriend, later a husband, who was a trained ornithologist—working as a volunteer with a group of bird biologists on the edge of the Chukchi Sea, in the middle of nowhere, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Northern Edge is out of print now. But at the time it was published by Donald I. Fine in 1990 (later brought out in paperback by HarperCollins West), the novel won the Discover: Great New Writers prize (along with Nicholson Baker, Michael Herr, Hanif Kureishi, and Lorrie Moore). “Northern Edge by Barbara Quick” was the solution to a New York Times Magazine acrostic puzzle by Thomas Middleton. But I remained, very much, undiscovered.
I continued to write poetry, which was occasionally published in literary magazines. Embracing the struggles of a freelance writer, I managed to get reviews, essays and articles published in the New York Times Book Review, Newsweek, Ms., People, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. I wrote on assignment for Cosmopolitan and, later, for National Geographic online. And I wrote some pop psychology books, hoping to earn a better living (I didn’t, really)—but also trying to learn what I needed to know for this new era of my life as a single mom.
Still Friends: Living Happily Ever After…Even If Your Marriage Falls Apart, was published by Wildcat Canyon Books in January 2000. Under Her Wing: The Mentors Who Changed Our Lives was published by New Harbinger in April 2000. I was co-author, with artist Liz McGrath, of the 2004 bilingual mother-daughter gift book from Raven Tree Press, Even More/Todavía Más. The Commitment Dialogues (co-authored with Matthew McKay, Ph.D.) was published by McGraw-Hill in 2005. The book was made into an audio version, and was also published in Spanish.
Not earning nearly enough to pay my rent and keep food on the table, I found a big house near a good public elementary school and took in boarders from all over the world, mostly people in their twenties and thirties coming to the Bay Area to improve their English. I cooked sit-down meals five nights a week. Our table was like a little United Nations. This two-year-long experience became the source of a still unpublished book I really hope finds a home someday: Boardinghouse Reach: A Memoir With Recipes.
Novel number two, Vivaldi’s Virgins, took me four years to research and write. I’d already learned enough Italian to give me a slight head-start when a new literary agent, Felicia Eth, snagged me a nice advance from HarperCollins. I headed to Venice to begin digging in the archives of the Ospedale della Pietà, the cloistered foundling home where Antonio Vivaldi was resident priest and composer. I made about four trips to Venice in all, absorbing details of the physical landscape and communing with the spirits of the orphaned or abandoned women and girls who played their hearts out for the Red Priest.
Prior to the book’s publication in English, translation rights were sold by HarperCollins in ten languages: Spanish, Portuguese (one version for Brazil and another for Portugal), Dutch, Arabic, Hebrew, German, Romanian, Russian and Greek. (The publisher in Beirut pulled out of the deal after the book was read by the state censors. I relished the idea of a samizdat edition being passed from burqa to burqa…) There have been a dozen translations of the novel published to date, including Estonian and Korean. The English-language paperback is still in print, having sold over 75,000 copies. The novel has been a frequent choice of book groups and is on the curriculum at some high schools and colleges. An audiobook of Vivaldi’s Virgins will be brought out by Blackstone Publishing at the end of 2019, hopefully on time for the holiday season—amazingly, twelve years after the novel’s debut. And, no, in case you’re wondering—none of this has made me rich, but, really, I don’t care at all!
Italy is the place where I’ve returned again and again as a source for inspiration and stories. I traveled to Lucca to do research on a notorious womanizer of the nineteenth century, which resulted in a screenplay (later a novel, still in manuscript) called Saving Puccini. I was in Italy again, in spring 2007, to do the research for a young adult novel set in fourteenth-century Bologna, this one for HarperCollins’ Children’s Books division. A Golden Web, about the cross-dressing teenage anatomist Alessandra Giliani, was published in 2010. It was translated into Indonesian and was a great favorite with teen bloggers, many of whom wrote about the book and interviewed me. My film treatment based on the novel was a semi-finalist for the Sundance/Sloan Commissioning Grant in 2012.
An unsolved mystery at the heart of that pre-first novel I wrote in Ireland some forty-four years ago—along with the disappearance from my life of my own beloved sister—evolved into the plot for what will be my fourth published novel, What Disappears, coming out from Regal House Publishing in 2021. It’s a story that begins in Tsarist Russia, with the birth of identical twins, and ends in the Belle Époque world of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In writing and reimagining this tale over the years, I found a way to explain why someone like my great-grandmother, a humble provincial tailor who made hats and coats for the girls’ parochial school in Kishinev, took the train twice a year, all by herself, to Paris. My grandmother, shrugging, said it was to see the fashions. But the emotional truth of this extravagance required a much deeper explanation. What but the search for one’s own lost sister would compel such risky and even obsessive behavior?
It’s a great joy to me to see this novel about to be so beautifully launched into the world by Regal House Publishing.
My son is grown up now, a successful and dedicated researcher in the field of wind energy.
Married again—this time, I certainly hope, for good—I live on a small farm and vineyard in the Wine Country of Northern California. My husband, Wayne Roden, is a vigneron as well as a long-time section violist in the San Francisco Symphony. (We were introduced, for obvious reasons, just after the paperback of Vivaldi’s Virgins was published in 2008.) I continue to be a frequent and enthusiastic traveler, having lived or spent extensive time now in the British Isles, Hungary, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Alaska, and Brazil. I speak around five languages—including French, Italian, Spanish and German—with varying degrees of proficiency. And I continue to be a student of Brazilian and, most lately, West African dance.
My favorite day of the year is when we harvest our Pinot noir and Pinot gris. A crew of friends shows up just after the crack of dawn to help us bring in the grapes and sit down at a feast I cook for everyone to celebrate the abundance.
Barbara Quick’s novel, What Disappears, will be published by Regal House Publishing in the fall of 2021.