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Getting to know Brunonia Barry

December 3, 2017 Published By Julie Arrison-Bishop

by Rae Padilla Francoeur

Brunonia Barry, Salem resident and author of the international bestseller, “The Lace Reader,” has a couple of stories about The House of the Seven Gables she loves to share. These are writer stories, proud affirmations of a true calling.

Barry came to The Gables on Saturday, November 25, to talk about her newest book, “The Fifth Petal,” her writing life and what it has been like for her to feature Salem in all three of her bestselling novels. It was her last stop on a long book tour and there was a celebratory feel to the enthusiastic gathering of Gables’ members and Brunonia fans. Pastries, cider and a beautiful Christmas tree in the lobby added to the specialness of the occasion.

Barry was home at last…

Barry’s first story was brief but poignant. She told us she wrote parts of her second book, “Map of True Places,” under the glorious wisteria arbor at The Gables. Every writer passing by the arbor, with a row of small tables and chairs underneath the leafy canopy, must feel similarly inspired. Starbucks cannot compare. The Gables calls to writers, with its beautiful grounds and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s inspired legacy permeating the very air everyone breathes on the National Historic Landmark District campus. There, beside the colorful gardens and stunning blue sea, is one of the most idyllic settings imaginable. And Brunonia Barry took good advantage.

Barry’s second story comes with a bit of a wince. Storytellers, prone to exaggeration, will identify. At 16, Barry worked at The Gables as a substitute tour guide. It was her first job, one that her mother helped get for her. Barry was thrilled. She had only worked a couple of days when she decided to add a touch of embellishment to the story of the Secret Staircase. Her boss overheard. “I was fired!” Embarrassed, Barry walked over to the Salem library every day rather than tell her mother what happened. Eventually the librarians noticed and notified her mother.

“At that moment, my mother said she knew that I was going to be a fiction writer,” laughed Barry.

Barry brought good news with her on Saturday. The Strand mystery magazine’s editors had just announced that they named “The Fifth Petal” their mystery book of the year.

There’s more good news! Hollywood producers are currently discussing a limited TV series based on “The Fifth Petal” and tentatively titled “Gallows Hill.” Some scenes from the series would be filmed on location. And producers are open to additional series based on Barry’s books.

Speaking of titles, her new book’s working title is “Bone Lace.”

In the warming afternoon sunlight at The Gables Visitor Center, we got to know Salem’s famous native daughter (she was born in Salem Hospital) a little better. Here are a few of our discoveries:

  • Brunonia is a beautiful, unusual name. All the same, her friends call her “Bru.”
  • Though she was born in Salem Hospital and lived in Marblehead as a child, she relocated to Los Angeles. She moved back to New England, specifically to Salem, 20 years ago with her husband.
  • As a child, she used to take her family’s Boston Whaler to The Gables from Marblehead.
  • The walls in Barry’s Warren Street home office, once owned by artists, were covered by National Geographic maps first put up by the couple’s son.
  • With every book she writes, Barry collects relevant objects that she arranges in her writing room. “It becomes a shadow box for my creativity. At the end of every book I clean out the room and start over.”
  • Factual rigor is required for this novelist held to a high standard by local historians. “When you’re writing about Salem, you better get it right. So many historians live in Salem. ‘The Fifth Petal’ took five years to write, three of which were for research.”
  • Barry takes a slide show about Salem with her when she’s on the road. This presentation helps her establish the facts about a city that is so dramatized and distorted by the media. In an ironic twist, the embellishments she was once fired for she now seeks to temper with truth.
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This post was written by Julie Arrison-Bishop