Cathleen Barnhart has been writing her whole life. She majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University and later got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has held more jobs than she can count, including process camera operator, waitress, perfume salesperson, college writing instructor, and middle school teacher.
She is married and has three mostly grown children, a rescue dog named Zeke, and a cat named Scout. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Zeke in the woods, Cathleen fosters kittens and does CrossFit because it’s important to be sensitive and strong. THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO is her first published novel.
Janae: Hi Cathleen! I loved having you interview me a couple of weeks ago, and I’m excited to ask you questions this time! I’m thrilled that I got to read an early copy of your timely and important book. How did you decide to write a #MeToo story, and why are such stories important for middle grade readers?
Cathleen: Believe it or not, when I started writing the book, there was no #MeToo movement! I was teaching middle school, and heard, very third-hand, about an incident on the bus similar to the bus incident in TWFD: a girl touched inappropriately by two boys who were her friends. What struck me was that the girl behaved as though she’d been sexually assaulted. Again, at the time, no one was talking about sexual assault in middle school, but I felt that it was a story that needed to be explored. There’s a lot of awkward, and sometimes frightening, stuff that happens as kids begin to be sexual beings. I think it’s important for middle grade literature to reflect the realities of middle school, and one reality is that kids – boys and girls – often don’t know how to act and react around sexuality.
J: I completely agree, and I’m glad kids will be able to explore this topic through your book. What made you decide to tell the story from both Sammie and David’s points of view? Was it difficult to switch back and forth between their voices?
C: Some early readers really felt this was Sammie’s story! But I wanted David’s point of view in the story because I wanted readers to walk in his skin, and to feel what he feels. David’s not a bad person. He’s a person who misinterprets what he sees, and who makes a bad choice. It was hard to differentiate the voices when I started writing the book, (and at the time, I was also writing from Luke’s POV, so I had three different perspectives going). I made some very deliberate choices about how each character spoke, and words they used. David, for example, calls his father “Pop,” which is a sort of verbal eye-roll. And Sammie, whose relationship with her mom isn’t so close, always refers to her as “my mother.” But as I got to really know my characters, their different voices became clearer to me and more natural.
J: Sammie and David first met on the Little League team, and baseball plays a part in the story. Did you play sports growing up, and are you a baseball fan now?
C: I did not play any sports growing up. I was a completely unathletic child and teenager. And I’ve never followed baseball, or any other professional sport.
J: Wow, you wouldn’t know from reading the book! What was your hardest scene to write in the book, and what was your favorite scene to write?
C: The hardest scene for me to get right was the scene on the bus. I really struggled with each moment and each movement of that scene, and rewrote it in numerous ways. I was still tweaking it in the final pass pages! There’s a scene where David thinks his dad is going to take him to a movie, and he starts to get excited, but then discovers that his dad has rented time at the batting cages. I loved writing that whole scene. It still cracks me up when I read it. The other scene I loved writing is the one near the end, between Sammie and her mother. That one makes me cry every time, still!
J: Aww! Those are all such great scenes. Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey?
C: In many ways, I was my biggest road block to becoming a published author. I was so convinced that I would never be published that it was easier to keep polishing the manuscript than send it out and get rejected. I spent seven years writing and rewriting the novel (and I did make some significant changes along the way). Finally, a writer’s group friend of mine convinced me that it was ready to send out. I queried eight agents in the fall of 2017, and had a signed contract with one of them about six weeks later. I did two rounds of revisions with my agent, and she started sending the manuscript out in early 2018. I had a publishing offer in April of 2018. So that whole part of it was very fast. But there were the seven years before that.
J: My journey with my debut was very similar! What do you hope that readers will take away from your book?
C: I hope they see that other kids struggle with fitting in and with finding their voice. I hope some kids say “that’s me,” to either Sammie or David’s experience, and that seeing that reflection of themselves will give them strength or courage or comfort. I also hope that the parent-child relationships in the book will lead to conversations between parents and children who read it.
J: What part of being a published author are you most excited about?
C: Honestly, the whole thing is so exciting to me. But I’m really looking forward to sharing the book with middle schoolers and getting to talk with them about it.
J: What advice do you have for unpublished writers?
C: Join SCBWI! Today!
J: Now for some lightning round questions! Please fill in the blanks.
- My favorite subject in school was English.
- The book I’ve read the most times is either THE CUCKOO TREE by Joan Aiken or THE GENIE OF SUTTON PLACE, by George Selden.
- When I sit down to write, I need to be alone.
- The hardest part of writing is when I really want to be writing and life gets in the way.
- When I’m not writing, my favorite thing to do is CrossFit.
J: What are you reading right now, and what are you planning to read next?
C: I love memoir, so I’m reading a sort-of memoir called THE YELLOW HOUSE, by Sarah M. Broom, which is blow-me-away brilliant. I also just started DAN UNMASKED, by Chris Negron, and am loving the voice. Next up is COO, by Kaela Noel.
J: Thank you so much, Cathleen! I’m so excited to celebrate the release of THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO today!
Congrats on the release of your debut novel, Cathleen! You can visit Cathleen’s website to learn more and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, as well as order THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. Lastly, don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!