An interview with author Peter Barbour . . .
Peter Barbour is a children’s book author and illustrator, and short story writer. He’s been writing for 30 years, and for much of that time, he was also a neurologist. Now retired from his clinical duties, Peter writes full time. His short stories have been widely published in print and online. His latest children’s book, Tanya and the Baby Elephant, was published this year. A member of the Bethlehem Writers Group, Peter lives in Portland, OR. His website is www.petebarbour.com.
Interview by BWG member Dianna Sinovic
Bethehem Writers Group: Let’s talk about your new book first. What was the inspiration for Tanya and the Baby Elephant?
Peter Barbour: My wife, Barbara, and I like to travel. In the spring of 2019, we traveled to Namibia. Our guide, Stewart Matsopo, and his wife were expecting their first child. Among the six people on the tour with us was a couple from New Zealand, Shona and Dave. After Stewart’s daughter, Tanya, was born, he posted the news on Facebook. Shona publicly challenged me to write a children’s book featuring Tanya. I’m always up for a challenge. Namibia is fascinating country, one of the driest places on the planet with deserts, colossal dunes, and interesting people and history. The desert-adapted animals there included elephants. Who doesn’t love baby elephants? Who wouldn’t want a baby elephant for a pet? I knew I would and projected that onto Tanya.
BWG: Your previous children’s books have featured a dog named Gus. Why did you break away from that theme for Tanya?
PB: The main impetuous for writing Tanya and the Baby Elephant was as present for Tanya. The challenge from the New Zealand friends we met traveling in Southern Africa helped motivate me. I took the challenge as a way of honoring Stewart, our guide in Namibia. I haven’t abandoned Gus or Oscar. If I write another children’s book, Gus and Oscar will be in it.
When we were traveling in Southern Africa, we each took turns sitting up front with Stewart on the long drives through the Namibian desert, with its spectacular landscapes of rocks and dunes sculpted by the wind. When I got my turn to sit up front, I told Stewart that I was a writer. I offered to tell him one of my stories if he told me a story from his village. He gave a big belly laugh and said this was a first for him. I had published a short story some time ago called “Big Rock,” for which I took bits and pieces from several Native American tales to make up my own version of a creation story. I told him that one. Stewart told me how bats came to live in caves. With Stewart’s permission, I used that as a basis for another story, “Why Bats Live in Caves,” which appeared in Fur, Feathers, and Scales: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Animal Tales, an anthology from the Bethlehem Writers Group. So, the challenge from Shona motivated me to do something nice in honor of Tanya’s birth.
BWG: Is Gus based on a real dog?
PB: Gus was a real dog. We took him to Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm, in Bangor, PA, for seven years to learn how to herd sheep. He was a soft-coated wheaten terrier, with long, soft, silken hair that didn’t shed and was the color of wheat. The breed is originally from Ireland, where they are known as Dingle dogs. They are all-purpose farm dogs, whose jobs include keeping vermin at bay and helping the farmers herd sheep. We tested Gus for herding instinct, and his instinct was strong. We signed him up for training. He loved it and so did Barb, my wife, and I. Alas, wheatens are not the sharpest pencils in the box. They are fun-loving party dogs, with a short attention span. Every time he got too close to the herd–just like in my story–he just had to have fun. He’d look at me with a glint in his eye, turn, and run full speed into the middle of the herd and scatter sheep all over the field. I kept a journal and wrote down what we were supposed to do and what exercises we were to practice at home. Then, I started to draw sketches of what Gus was supposed to do. At the end of Gus at Work there is a portrait of Gus, provided by Barbara (barbarabarbourphotography.com).
By the way, Oscar of Oscar and Gus was also based on a real dog. He lived with my middle son. The interactions between Oscar and Gus, depicted in that book, are based on fact. If I write a fourth children’s book, it will surely include Oscar along with Gus.
BWG: Tell us about Gus and his philosophy of life, as featured on your website. (Who is Greg Marcus?)
PB: I’ve led a Mussar study group for the past five years. Each month we discuss a soul trait, a virtue, such as humility. I use these soul traits as a basis for illustrations that depict the virtue to be discussed and include it with the monthly reminder for our meeting. I’ve been posting the cartoon illustrations on my webpage under the section, Gus on Life. The philosophy behind Mussar is simple. The key is finding the middle road, balance between too much and too little, and using that knowledge to bring into mindfulness the soul trait appropriate for a given situation. For instance, where do you sit on a park bench? In the middle, you take up too much space; no one else can sit (example of too little humility). Crammed into the side, you take up too little space and are uncomfortable (too much humility). Sit comfortably at one side, and there is room for others, and you are not squished (just the right amount of humility). Picture Gus sitting on a park bench. Where does he sit? Practicing humility is about knowing your self-worth and appreciating the self-worth of others. Without humility, it is impossible to learn.
Greg Marcus is the author of The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions. That book and Everyday Holiness, by Alan Morinis, are the main references I use for Mussar discussions.
BWG: Your short stories aren’t aimed at children. What made you switch to children’s fiction for your book-length pieces?
PB: Many of my stories are aimed at children, especially middle grades, such as, “Fishing with Nick,” “Big Rock,” and “Henrietta and Lucinda.” “Choices,” “Messyman,” “Enthusiasm,” and a number of others are allegorical, with Mussar themes aimed at middle grade children. I liked to read them to my grandchildren, and that was the main motivation for writing them. I enjoy experimenting with different genre and styles that sometimes take me away from children’s stories.
BWG: You both write and illustrate your children’s books. How did you get your start as an artist?
PB: I’ve always enjoyed creating things. I started by carving wood when I got my first knife as a Boy Scout. I specialized in chains, followed by sculpting in clay and plaster. I’ve created two chess sets, one out of clay, and the other of wood and plastic from molds made from the wooden set. My mother painted with watercolor, and I had her teach me watercolor technique just prior to her passing. Most recently I’ve discovered acrylics and found a niche painting pictures of doors; Irish doors, mostly. I started drawing pictures of Gus and sheep in pencil and ink. When I originally drew the illustrations for Gus at Work, I used a computer drawing program. The original art was black and white. It failed muster with my test audience, my grandchildren; but when I colorized the pictures, they embraced the stories.
BWG: Your website is a kind of gallery of your whimsical art. What medium do you use for your illustrations?
PB: I use a computer drawing program, Bushes Redux, with a stylus.
BWG: Your tag line is “what comes from the heart goes to the heart.” Tell us what that means to you. Is this your phrase or someone else’s?
PB: That is a quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I’m not sure whether it is something he said or from one of his works. He was a 19th-century English poet, who wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which is one of my favorites. I first heard the phrase from Richard Seltzer, who was visiting Lehigh Valley Hospital as a scholar in residence. Dr. Seltzer was a general surgeon, Yale University Hospital, who also was an acclaimed and award-winning author of memoir and fiction, including short stories. Some of his works include, “Rituals of Surgery,” “Mortal Lessons,” “Confessions of the Knife,” and “Down from Troy.” His short stories are poignant with poetic imagery. He held appointments in the School of Medicine and Literature at Yale. I was among the Lehigh Valley Hospital staff with an interest in writing that had the honor of meeting with him. His parting advice to us was to always write from the heart because what comes from the heart goes to the heart. That is a prescription to strive for honesty in the emotions I try to convey to my reader.
BWG: There is a subtle religious and spiritual aspect to your stories and books. Tell us about Mussar, the idea of Jewish mindfulness, and how that informs your writing.
PB: For me, the essence of religion/spirituality is the embodiment of a guide to becoming a better person. Mussar, which means study, was popularized in the mid-1800s in Eastern Europe as a attempt to put relevancy back into religion. The study consists of exploring virtues and how to incorporate them into daily life. I have enjoyed the process, which involves individual study, group discussion, application, and self reflection. An important part of self reflection is keeping a journal. Instead of writing in a journal, I began writing short stories illustrating the virtues. I read the stories to my grandkids to spark discussion. Nearly put one over the edge with “Messyman,” about a man who failed to keep his things in order, and, as a child, ended up unable to sleep in his room because of the mess. Pre-COVID, I read “Simplicity” to a middle-school group for “Character Day.” I’ve had the opportunity to read stories at Neurology Grand Rounds, and Friday night Shabbat services at our Temple.
BWG: What are you working on now?
PB: I have several short stories in states of incompletion. My biggest project has been putting together an anthology of the short stories dedicated to the Mussar themes. I decided to do this by weaving the stories into a novel according to a hero goes on a journey. The story is an action adventure fantasy aimed at middle-grade children. Our protagonists, Hank, Ben , and Wes, are on a quest to find the keys that will allow them to open doors that make them eligible to become leaders in their community. In their travels, they meet people like Messyman, who lives in the clouds in complete disorder, a man named Happiness, who always knows where to find joy. They meet Have-Little, find Too-Much, and eventually discover Enough, who teaches them the difference between wants and needs. They spend a winter in a village, where a girl named Golden Skye tests Hank’s humility. The trio encounters many more adventures before returning home.