Thrilled to have Ellen Barker on The Spotlight to chat about her debut novel, East of Troost
Author Name: Ellen Barker
Book Title: East of Troost
Book Genre: Literary Fiction
Release Date: September 6, 2022
Publisher: She Writes Press
Welcome, Ellen! Please tells us a bit about East of Troost.
Troost is a street, and east of it is where Black people were allowed to buy houses. What happens when a white woman who grew up there when it was still a white neighborhood goes back to live there again?
What sparked the idea for this book?
When I first heard my childhood neighborhood described as East of Troost, I thought: there’s a book title! And then when I went back to Kansas City and saw how dismal things were in that neighborhood, and saw my childhood home abandoned and crumbling, I thought: I can’t fix this, but I can write about it. I can reclaim that house through fiction.
How long did it take for you to write the book? Did you do any research?
I wrote it in a couple of months. Once I got through the first few chapters, I just couldn’t stop.
I did some research – “East of Troost” is a known term in Kansas City now. Mostly, I researched the events that I remembered from the 1960s to make sure I had the facts straight, particularly the events after Martin Luther King was shot in 1968. I looked up a lot of statistics – Kansas City has great information available on line. And I used Google Streetview to drive around the neighborhood where the story takes place.
What drew you to writing literary fiction?
I’m an avid reader and will read most genres, but literary fiction is my favorite. I love the way literary fiction can entertain the reader and still give the reader a new understanding of what happened in other times and places and how people felt about what was going on. It can illuminate without teaching, develop empathy, and give the reader a way to draw new conclusions.
What’s your favorite part about writing/being an author? What do you find challenging?
I love the writing, watching the characters develop and figuring out how keep the story both interesting and cohesive. I love taking a snippet of real life and making it into something else entirely in the story I’m working on. The challenges in writing are energizing to me. The real challenge is getting from manuscript to the readers’ hands. It’s a long haul through publishing and marketing, and requires an entirely different set of skills.
If you were speaking to someone who hasn’t read your writing before, why should they want to read East of Troost?
It’s an engrossing read encompassing the good, the bad, and the ugly of urban life in America. It makes you want to tell your own story. And it has a dog, a German Shepherd who is afraid of nothing . . . except stairs.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
First, some understanding of how past events, particularly in the Civil Rights Era, shaped what is going on today. But I don’t expect or even want that to be anything hard and fast. I want it to be thoughtful: Hmm, I see what she’s saying. After that, I want them to enjoy reading the book and look forward to seeing what the characters do in the next book.
What about the writing/editing/publishing process has been the most surprising to you so far?
How long it takes – years! And how dependent it seems to be on having a social media following. Many fiction writers are introverts, which gives them the insight and patience and focus to write great stories. But we aren’t really into social media. That makes it so hard to get the book to a publisher and then in front of potential readers.
Any words of wisdom you give your pre-published writer self (or to a new writer)?
Start sooner! Write the first paragraph and follow the story from there to the end. Then start the next one.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
I’m an avid reader when I’m not outside, hiking or biking. I’m lucky to live in California now, with all our beaches and mountains and National Parks – although I still miss the rivers and woods of Missouri. You can follow me on Goodreads to see what I have been reading. I’m also a watercolor artist, strictly as a hobby. For me, painting is a great way to take a break from words and recharge my creative side. And I volunteer with a couple of local nonprofits that take me into entirely different worlds right next to the one I live in.
Are you working on a new project? Please tell us about it.
Yes! A follow-on to East of Troost will be published in 2024. In this one, the narrator is still living east of Troost, and she loses her job on page one. We tag along as she copes with job searches, interviews, contract work. . . . We also get an amusing peek into the tech start-up world, juxtaposed against a fun but very part-time minimum wage job. And living east of Troost continues to provide drama. But she still has her stalwart neighbor and German Shepherd to support her, thank goodness.
Where can readers find you?
Goodreads (follow me to read my blog)
Thank you, Ellen! East of Troost is OUT NOW.
Under the guise of a starting-over story, this novel deals with subtle racism today, overt racism in the past, and soul-searching about what to do about it in everyday living.
East of Troost’s fictional narrator has moved back to her childhood home in a neighborhood that is now mostly Black and vastly changed by an expressway that displaced hundreds of families. It is the area located east of Troost Avenue, an invisible barrier created in the early 1900s to keep the west side of Kansas City white, “safely” cordoned off from the Black families on the east side.
When the narrator moves back to her old neighborhood in pursuit of a sense of home, she deals with crime, home repair, and skepticism—what is this middle-aged white woman doing here, living alone? Supported by a wise neighbor, a stalwart dog, and the local hardware store, we see her navigate her adult world while we get glimpses of author Ellen Barker’s real life there as a teenager in the sixties, when white families were fleeing and Black families moving in—and sometimes back out when met with hatred and violence. A regional story with universal themes, East of Troost goes to the basics of human behavior: compassion and cruelty, fear and courage, comedy and drama.
Ellen Barker grew up in Kansas City, where she had a front-row seat to the demographic shifts, the hope, and the turmoil of the civil rights era of the 1960s. She has a bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Washington University in Saint Louis, where she developed a passion for how cities work, and don’t. She began her career as an urban planner in Saint Louis and then spent many years working for large consulting firms specializing in urban infrastructure, first as a tech writer-editor and later managing large data systems. She now lives in Northern California with her husband and their dog, Boris, who is the inspiration for the German shepherd in East of Troost. This is Ellen’s first novel.