Barbara J. Taylor was born and raised in Scranton, PA, and teaches English in the Pocono Mountain School District. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Wilkes University, and English and education degrees from the University of Scranton. She still resides in “The Electric City,” two blocks away from where she grew up. Her novel—Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night—was recently named a “Best Book of Summer” by Publishers Weekly magazine.
Curtis Smith: First novel. Congratulations. How does it feel?
Barb Taylor: Amazing. There are a lot of wonderful writers out there who may never have this opportunity, so I’m grateful and humbled.
CS: This novel must have involved a good deal of research. Can you take us down that road? There can be a dilemma for fiction writers working on a period piece—the struggle to make the story fluid and real without bogging down into a history lesson.
BT: It’s interesting. I didn’t start out to write historical fiction. When it was time to begin my novel as a student in the Wilkes Creative Writing Program, I simply followed my heart. I grew up hearing a story about my great-aunt who died tragically in the early 1900s, and I knew I wanted to incorporate that event into a novel. The story dictated the time period, so I found myself doing research the whole time I was writing. I spent hours at the Lackawanna Historical Society, the public library, and the Anthracite Museum to name a few places. It’s tricky when you’re writing a period piece. You’re always going to bring a modern sensibility to the work. It’s just a matter of balancing that with the language, imagery and syntax of the time.
CS: You mentioned that a very important part of this story has a place in the real-life history of your family. Can you tell us about that? Did this bring with it any added sense of urgency or responsibility?
BT: Let me start with the story. When she was almost eight years old, my grandmother’s sister, Pearl, was baptized. It was the Fourth of July, 1918. That night, she and her friends were playing with sparklers, and Pearl’s dress went up in flames. She survived for three days, and according to the story, sang hymns. When she died, everyone in town came to view the body of the little girl who sang hymns. Growing up, I heard this story over and over and knew I wanted to use it to inspire my fiction. When I started the novel, my grandmother’s sister, Louise, was the only sibling still alive. I went to see her and explained what I wanted to do. Technically, I didn’t need permission to use Pearl’s story, but I knew I couldn’t move forward without her blessing, which she generously gave.
CS: The book takes place in pre-WWI Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s a time when the city was extremely prosperous, yet beneath that wealth waited not just the divisions of race and gender and class common to that time, but also the darker side of industry, especially the anthracite coal industry—the unsafe working conditions, the child laborers. It’s such a rich background.
BT: So much was happening in Scranton at the turn of the century—coal mining, Vaudeville, electric streetcars. It was a time of great wealth for some, and extreme poverty for others. If you worked in the mines, you worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. For the most part, owners were not concerned with safe labor practices. And if a father died in the mines, his oldest son was expected to take his place in order for the family to keep the company home. Times were hard. Those people, to me as a writer, were resilient and fascinating.
CS: The Billy Sunday Snowstorm is such a great angle. For those unfamiliar with it, can you shed some light? Was it always in the back of your mind to use it in the novel? What special elements does it bring to the book?
BT: Growing up, my grandmother used to tell me that she was born during the “Billy Sunday Snowstorm.” On March 1, 1914, evangelist Billy Sunday preached three sermons in a wooden tabernacle built for his arrival. It started snowing that afternoon, and by the end of Sunday’s third sermon, some of the snowdrifts were ten feet high. Over 2,400 people got snowed in with the very charismatic evangelist, and as the story goes, they were all saved by morning. When I started writing Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, I had two very loose ideas in my head. I wanted to start with a story similar to my great-aunt’s accident and end somewhere around the Billy Sunday Snowstorm.
CS: Your novel deals with grief and healing and faith. What draws you to these tides?
BT: For me, grief, healing and faith are all part of the human experience. While the novel certainly contains tragic elements and hardships, for me, it was always a story of hope.
CS: I’m always interested in the work habits of other writers. Can you tell us about your approach?
BT: I’m a high school English teacher by day, so my approach was simply to make time to write after lesson planning, grading papers and such. I wrote this novel mostly at night and on weekends because that’s when I could find pockets of time. I’m definitely someone who responds well to deadlines, so the Wilkes Creative Writing Program provided me with structure. I couldn’t wait for inspiration. I just had to write everyday in order to get my pages in by the due dates.
CS: What’s next for Barb Taylor?
BT: Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is the first book in a trilogy. I have the first draft of the second book completed, so it’s time to start revising—again.
Curtis Smith is the author of the novels An Unadorned Life; Sound and Noise; and Truth or Something Like It. His work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing List of The Best American Spiritual Writing.