Author Interview With Barbara Claypole White

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)

Born in rural England, I’m a novelist who lives, writes, and gardens in the North Carolina forest. (I think of myself as a Southern Brit!) My passion is for creating stories about the impact of mental illness on relationships through characters who chip away at stereotypes. I have five books in print—quirky stories of families in crisis, complicated relationships, crazy critters, and hope. I’m also on the advisory committee for a nonprofit that fosters advocacy over adversity caused by mental or physical challenges. Called the A2A Alliance, it promotes a simple idea: we help ourselves by helping others.

Tell us about the characters and relationships in your stories

As a history major who loves research, I spend months—even years—researching every aspect of my characters’ lives through interviews with real people. Those interviews become building blocks for protagonists or secondary characters who are alienated from others when the story begins, adrift in grief or wonky brain chemistry. Then I throw them into a crisis and watch as they rise to discover the best of themselves. Two themes are constant: you are not your disorder, and you don’t have to go it alone. The support of community—friends and family—is everything in my novels.

What lessons could readers learn about real-world relationships from your novel(s)?

That while you can never share the entirety of another person’s private struggles, you can offer unconditional love and zero judgement. 

What real-life relationship experiences, observations or insights have influenced your writing?

I was several drafts into the manuscript that would become my debut, The Unfinished Garden, when our young son was diagnosed with OCD, an anxiety disorder driven by intrusive, unwanted, repetitive thoughts and images that trigger never-ending cycles of obsessions and compulsions.

Naming the monster was a relief, because untreated OCD had hijacked our family and caused a growing sense of isolation. Few people understood—although we were given plenty of parenting advice—so we stopped sharing. But I grew up watching family members struggle with mental illness in secrecy and shame, and was determined our son would follow a different path. 

After finding the right child psychologist, I spent three years directing his treatment like a military campaign. As I watched him fight, fail, and succeed, I learned a great deal about the harsh reality of managing a chronic illness and the importance of emotional support. I also began blogging about parenting and OCD for a collaborative project called Easy to Love But Hard to Raise.

In the middle of this, a sexy entrepreneur with severe OCD drove into my imagination in a vintage Alfa Romeo sportscar and refused to leave. His name was James Nealy. I rewrote my manuscript with James as my hero and discovered my writing niche: creating characters who battle invisible disabilities with empathy, humor, and courage. They are survivors, not victims.

James sparked my love for fleshing out messed-up middle-aged male characters, which led directly to Felix in The Perfect Son, my Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee. But I still had more to say about OCD. Five years later I found the right story—The Promise Between Us, which explores the wrecking ball of undiagnosed postpartum OCD on a marriage. 

My other novels both came from issues we were negotiating as a family: an aging relative’s psychotic breaks led to my beloved Jacob in The In-Between Hour, and another relative’s manic-depression led to Marianne, the heroine of Echoes of Family. Even more so than James, Marianne taught me that a diagnosis of mental illness need not define you.

Are there any relationship themes or topics you want to cover in future releases?

Yes! The completed manuscript I’ve just sent to my agent, The Gin Club, is a father-son story about social anxiety, teenage bullies, and middle-aged heroes. I wanted to explore how social anxiety is often misunderstood or dismissed, and I’ve long wanted to write a family drama about men. I believe talking openly about men’s emotional and mental health is a stigma we have yet to breach.

 Meanwhile, I’m working on a three-generation women’s story about repairing family relationships in the wake of addiction. This is another story close to my heart (my father was a recovering alcoholic). After that? I have an idea for a love story, but my manuscripts always evolve in ways that surprise me. Stay tuned!

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