PEORIA — Galesburg native Kathleen Barber quit a soul-sucking job to follow her passion, and it's working out pretty well.
In 2014 Barber left her career as a New York City attorney in corporate restructuring to write novels. In 2017 she published her first book, “Are You Sleeping?” and last fall a film adaptation of the book, called “Truth be Told,” aired on Apple TV+.
On the heels of that success, Barber is promoting her second book “Follow Me.” She will be at the Galesburg Public Library at 6:30 p.m. March 3, and the Peoria Barnes & Noble at 7 p.m. March 4.
“I have always been writing, ever since I was a little kid, but I grew up with the idea that you couldn’t necessarily make a living from art," said Barber during a recent phone interview from her home in Washington, D.C. "So I had this idea that I was gonna go and be a lawyer, which was a reasonable respectable job, and I was gonna write on the side. I was working at a large law firm in Manhattan, and I just didn’t have any time on the side. I ate like all three of my meals at my desk every day. That wasn’t necessarily a sustainable life, particularly one that was gonna make me happy.”
In 2014 Barber and her husband, who is also an attorney, quit their jobs and did some traveling.
“When I came back I felt like I’d had kind of a hard reset, and I was able to sit down and write,” said Barber.
Inspired by the podcast “Serial,” which investigates a true story each season, Barber’s first book, “Are You Sleeping,” is a thriller about a podcast that reopens a murder case and disrupts the life of the victim’s family, including his daughter, Josie, who has gone to great lengths to distance herself from the tragedy. Josie, who is living in New York City when the book begins, goes home to a small town in central Illinois to deal with the situation. Barber was picturing locations in her hometown of Galesburg when writing scenes in the book.
“The town is a made-up town, by it does share a lot of similarities with Galesburg,” she said.
When the television series came out, Barber and her editor decided to re-title the book to match the name of the series, “Truth Be Told.” The series deviates a lot from Barber’s book. While Poppy Parnell, the investigative reporter, was a minor character in Barber’s book, she is the lead character, played by Octavia Spencer, in the television series.
“It was very strange to see my characters and story re-imagined like that, but it was also very, very cool to know that what I had written inspired such an incredible show,” said Barber. “The head writer/showrunner/producer Nichelle Tramble Spellman is brilliant, and she really took the source material and turned it into twisty and compelling television, and the actors were incredible.”
Barber’s second novel, “Follow Me,” is also a psychological thriller which continues an exploration Barber began with her first book — how the internet is affecting interpersonal relations.
“The protagonist in 'Follow Me' is a minor social media influencer. She has a huge following on social media because she shares her life. And it’s something she’s been doing for so long, and she’s been getting good feedback on it, so she doesn’t even stop to think about whether she’s sharing too much,” said Barber. “She has some followers who like her too much, and when she moves to Washington, D.C., for a job, she moves within striking distance of one of these followers who likes her too much.”
Barber didn’t originally set out to write thrillers. That happened in the course of editing her first book.
“I always really enjoyed mysteries and suspense novels, but when I started writing “Truth Be Told,” it was as women’s fiction because to me the story was about Josie, the protagonist, and how this podcast was affecting her family,” said Barber. “One of the issues I ran into when I was pitching this to agents is that it was kind of straddling the line between women’s fiction and suspense, and it was gonna make it a little bit harder to sell in the market. So I kind of leaned into the suspense aspect on that one. But “Follow Me” has been a suspense story from its inception.”
Barber is enjoying writing suspense. She’s already begun working on her third novel, another psychological thriller.
“I’m actually in the stage right now where I’m working on my spreadsheet,” said Barber. “It’s fun to do the plotting work, thinking about ‘OK, the protagonist thinks this, but this is what’s really going on, and how can I seed that for the reader.’ It’s fun to write like that.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.