– Words by Angela Cowan Photographs by Don Denton
A journalist, poet, musician, composer and self-proclaimed “serial artist,” Barbara Black recently ticked another box in her lifelong exploration of the arts: author.
Black’s short story collection, Music from a Strange Planet, came out last May, the culmination of more than a decade of musing and writing. With a full writing career already under her belt—including writing reviews and a column for a North Vancouver newspaper, working with various government ministries, and any number of projects working in public relations and for the arts community—Barbara, an Oak Bay resident for 30 years, finally turned her gaze inward and began writing creatively.
“It started in my 40s,” she says. “I kept saying I wanted to write a book…that germinated for a while…and in my 50s, I started writing.”
Already attracted to the short story form, Barbara began reading and rereading her favourite short fiction collections and designed what she calls a “do-it-yourself MFA.”
“It took me a little while to figure out where to start the story,” she says. “I was learning to find my author voice and to trust my instincts more because my previous background was a journalistic-type voice.”
Short fiction particularly attracted her because of the concise nature of the language and the potential ambiguity of its narratives.
“It’s a very encapsulated form. You don’t always have to explain everything, and when you push it into that surreal envelope, the story has an extra sheen to it,” she says. “In a short story, you can get away with not resolving everything. You’re pulling things out of their ordinary-ness, making them more interesting, or maybe more understandable. If it’s in a story form, you might be more willing to accept it.”
And indeed, many of the stories in Music have emotionally ambiguous notes. In “Darkling Beetle,” a mother struggles to understand and accept her awkward daughter, a girl who envisions herself as more insect than human. In “Night People,” a woman who can’t sleep and a man who won’t sleep find their paths crossing in the dark and lonely hours of the night.
The tone in “Ghosts on Pale Stalks” seems to be light, joking, almost fatalistic towards aging and the passage of time, but the true—and unexpected—grieving nature of the narrator’s cabin holiday quickly becomes clear.
As different as the stories are, there’s a quiet intensity that runs through each of them. This is partly due to the characters themselves, but partly because of Barbara’s ability to infuse her narratives with small, visceral details of the natural world. There are moths described in great detail, rain-soaked forests, slippery tangles of seaweed and a rabid raccoon with a penchant for olives.
“When I was little, I already had this fascination with the small things and the natural world,” she explains. “I loved all creatures and insects. I would project myself into their little environments.”
Around the same time that she began thinking about writing a book, Barbara took up gardening and found endless inspiration in being immersed in those “little worlds.”
“I started being more in the world instead of being so much in my head,” she says. “I’m also interested in putting myself into the perspective of an insect or an animal, or even a plant, and to be in their world, and see their world the way they see it. That pushes a little bit into the realm of surrealism.”
Music from a Strange Planet has been very well received since its publication, and Barbara is currently working on a collection of flash fiction also to be released by Caitlin Press, set for release in winter 2022.
With these pieces coming in at fewer than 500 words, they “almost blur a little into poetic prose,” she says. “They’re very concise. You have to be economic with your language, and I really like that innovative use of language.”
After spending so much time living in the literary part of her brain, Barbara has also recently reengaged with music. After well over a decade of performing classically as a soloist and in ensembles, she’s coming at it from a more organic, personal perspective.
“When you do classical, you’re constantly singing off the score, so you don’t really have a chance to get it into your body,” she says. “I want to be able to sing and be myself. And I really want to be able to tell a story through song. It’s different when someone is singing from their emotional centre, and they’re feeling it, and that’s what I’m aiming for.”
Her two passions will come together this fall, with the premiere of a comic chamber opera in Vancouver, based on one of her flash fiction pieces.
“It’s about a woman named Miss Evans in the Victorian times; she’s a woman who’s being punished for being too intelligent,” says Barbara, who wrote the libretto, while composer Katerina Gimon has written the music for the show. “The Erato Ensemble is premiering it, and that’s going to be very exciting.
“This connection with Katerina came out of a decision to say ‘yes’ to everything,” adds Barbara, who met Katerina at Art Song Lab, a week-long workshop where writers are paired with composers to create new songs. “And when you say ‘yes’ to things, it leads to more.”