Hannah Barnaby Interview: WONDER SHOW

What a fun — and beautifully written — novel!  It’s a bit like A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS meets WATER FOR ELEPHANTS with a little Joan Bauer and Frank Cottrell Boyce mixed in.  Actually, it’s a totally unique voice but I’m thinking if you like any of those books and authors, I suspect you’ll love WONDER SHOW, and even if you don’t like any of those books or authors (how is that possible?), WONDER SHOW is different, engaging, and a fantastic ride.  You’ll love it, anyway.  Now, to hear from Hannah Barnaby herself….

Can you tell us how this book came to be published?

In 2004, I was chosen to be the first Children’s Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library. They gave me a monthly stipend and an office space, and that’s where I wrote the first draft of Wonder Show. Then the story sat around for a couple of years and I was doing other things (teaching, working at a bookstore, getting married). It took a long time for me to find my way back to it, but once I did, I polished it up and asked my friend Kate O’Sullivan, an editor at Houghton Mifflin, if she would be willing to read it. Two revisions later, Kate called me up and offered me a contract to publish the book.

Why did you choose this topic?

I have always had a fascination with circuses, carnival, gypsies, micro-cultures that exist within our larger cultural system. Writing Wonder Show gave me the chance to throw all of that into a single story, and to research the history of some really unique characters. Like the Hilton sisters, a pair of conjoined twins who were also movie stars, and Robert Wadlow, a real-life giant who worked with P.T. Barnum.

What’s an important “nugget” that you’d like readers to take away from your book?

We all have times when we feel isolated, different, odd. We all have the sense at one time or another that there is something strange about us, that no one really understand what’s happening in our heads. In a way, this feeling actually unites us. Portia’s story is really about finding a community of kindred spirits, and I want Wonder Show to give hope to anyone who is seeking that same thing.

How much of your book is autobiographical?

Not very much at all, although I did borrow some details from people around me. For instance, Portia’s mother’s name is Quintillia—I borrowed that from my father-in-law’s great-uncle, who named his children numerically, in Italian. Primo, Secundo, etcetera. Quintillia was the fifth child and the only daughter.

What are you working on now?

Another young adult novel, with a contemporary setting. It’s the story of a girl who’s been in a car accident which her brother didn’t survive, and her quest to track down the recipients of his organs…with a dark purpose.

Favorite season?

Definitely fall. I love the colors, the kids go back to school, and my birthday is in November.

What’s always in your fridge?

String cheese, greek yogurt, and white wine. And leftovers.

Favorite comfort food?

My grandfather’s clam chowder. He handed down the recipe and I make it every Christmas Eve. It has a lot of bacon in it. Can’t go wrong with bacon.

Chocolate or some lesser nectar of the gods?

Dark chocolate with chili powder. It’s the perfect combination of sweet and spicy.

Food you’d rather starve than eat.

Green peppers. Liver. Anchovies. (That would be the worst pizza of all time.)

Cat or dog?

I grew up with cats, but I married a dog person so I may have to convert.

Jeans or fancier?

Jeans for daily life, but I still love playing dress-up. As a result, I’m generally way overdressed when I go out for dinner or to a party. But I’m okay with that.

Ideal evening.

“Ideal” depends. If it’s midweek, I’m happy to get the kids in bed, pour a glass of wine, and knit something frivolous while I watch t.v. A weekend night might be slightly more glamorous—sushi dinner with my husband, going to see a movie and eating candy we’ve smuggled in from CVS. The best nights are usually spontaneous. If I have too much time to plan, I overthink it.

Favorite board, card, or computer game?

Yahtzee. Some friends got us hooked on a beach vacation, and I will always associate playing it with feeling really relaxed and happy. I’m also addicted to jigsaw puzzles, but I can only do them once in a while or I will neglect my children.

Language in which you’d most like to be fluent.

Portuguese? Italian? Any of the Romance languages. I know a few words in several different languages. I can ask where the bathroom is in German. That may prove useful someday.

Country you’d most like to visit.


Skill you’d most like to acquire.


Favorite musical instrument.


You’re going on a book tour:  Plane, train or automobile?

Plane. I love airports. The people-watching is unparalleled, and I let myself buy an unlimited number of trashy magazines.

Topic you’d most like to write about.

I don’t approach projects by thinking about a topic; I’m more character-driven. But I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Bonnie and Clyde, and someday I’d like to write about them.

Author you’d like to meet.

There are authors whose work I admire deeply, but when I really love a book, I’m almost afraid to meet the person who wrote it. Because really, authors are just regular people. Some of us are socially awkward, some of us are charming, some of us are outrageously cool. We are all probably all of those things in different moments.

That said, I wish Edward Gorey was still alive so I could have a drink with him. And maybe he’d draw a really creepy picture of me.

Some favorite books?

Feed by M.T. Anderson. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Thursday’s Child by Sonya Hartnett. When We Were Saints by Han Nolan. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Funny Little Monkey by Andrew Auseon. The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken.

Some favorite movies?

Anything by Wes Anderson. Amelie. Big Fish. All of those have an atmospheric, storytelling quality that appeals to me as a writer. On the flip side, I love a good action movie. The Bourne Trilogy, James Bond, Salt. It’s like the difference between contemporary YA fiction and traditional high fantasy—in the first, the characters propel the story and in the second, the plot does the work. A good dose of both is essential.

Thanks, Hannah!  Please visit Hannah Barnaby at her website.


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2 responses to “Hannah Barnaby Interview: WONDER SHOW

  1. Thanks, Kathy. You had me at Frank Cottrell Boyce. (Actually, at the cover…)

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