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Jennifer Barnes

College of Arts and Sciences

OU's Jennifer Lynn Barnes Talks About Career as Professor and Writer

Jennifer Lynn Barnes, a Robert Glenn Rapp Foundation Presidential Professor in Psychology and Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma, wrote and published her first book when she was only 19. She is the author of more than a dozen young adult fiction novels, including The Inheritance Games, which is set to be adapted into a TV series for Amazon. Barnes recently sat down with the College of Arts and Sciences to answer a few questions about her writing and her career at OU.

For more on Barnes and her novels, click here to visit her website. To read more on the recent announcement of the development of her upcoming book for television click here.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes

How do you balance writing and your job as a professor at OU?

Having a dual-career can be challenging, but the ability to balance writing and being a professor has been made easier for me by two key factors. The first is that I don’t have any idea what it would be like to only do one thing. I wrote my first published book when I was 19 years old, and that was the same year that I started working in a psychology lab doing research. I wrote my first five books while I was still in college and another six while I was doing my Ph.D., so by the time I started as a professor at OU, the balance between academia and writing was, to some extent, already there. It’s my normal, because I’ve done both for literally my entire adult life.

The second factor that has really helped in striking a balance between writing and being a professor at OU is that there is a surprising amount of synergy between what I do as a writer and what I do as a researcher and teacher. My area of research within the psychology department is the psychology of fiction, fandom and the imagination. I often get research ideas when I’m writing or interacting with my readers, and then I can design experiments to test those ideas in my lab. I always tell my undergraduate students that one of the most marvelous things about psychology is that there is a psychology of everything. If there are humans involved, there is psychology involved, and so there is a wonderful opportunity to take whatever you’re passionate about and use that as an inspiration to discover how our minds work.

Where do you draw your writing inspiration from? Do you think your teaching or research ever influence your writing or vice versa?

I teach both writing classes and psychology classes at OU; obviously, my experiences as a writer greatly impact how I teach my writing classes, because my goal there is pretty much always to take everything I have learned about the craft of writing and the business of publishing in the past 15 years and convey as much of it as I can to the students. Interestingly, though, my writing also really influences how I teach my psychology classes. For my seminar classes, there is a strong focus on critical and creative thinking. The students read published studies, critique them, and constantly come up with their own ideas for future experiments, and so much of doing that comes down to storytelling: identifying the story that researchers are trying to tell (and finding any holes in that story), and then using source material to come up with creative inspiration for your own research questions. I think there is a general tendency to view both scientists and writers as if they are somehow special and doing things that other people can’t do, but one thing I hope to convey to my students across disciplines is that you can start asking questions, doing science, and trying your hand at writing now.

The biggest influence that my academic career has on my writing career comes from my research. I study the effects of engaging with popular media, as well as a variety of questions that every writer would love to know the answer to—things like “what kind of stories are humans, as a species, driven to consume?” and “what is it about some stories that gets readers so emotionally invested and imaginatively engaged that all they want to do is re-read, discuss, and think about that story, rather than move onto the next?” All writers wonder these things! As a scientist, I formulate theories and test them. Some of those tests are experiments I run in my lab, but I also see my books as a sort of experiment, because whatever theories seem strongest to me are the ones I test in my writing. I have all kinds of psychological checklists that I use to generate book premises, titles, characters, and so on, all based on empirical research in the psychology of fiction.

What is the hardest thing you've had to do as a writer?

One of the hard things about being a writer is that it is both a creative passion and a business, and sometimes the right business move is hard creatively. In particular, because I write series, I always hope to be able to end a series on my terms, when the story is ready, but practically speaking, most of the time, the series end-point is determined by sales numbers. I am often in the position of writing book two in a series and not knowing if there is going to be a book three, so creatively, I have to tie up enough threads that it’s a satisfying ending, but leave enough open that there’s potential for more. Over the years, there have been a lot of characters and worlds that I wasn’t ready to leave yet creatively or emotionally, but I moved on to new ideas for business reasons. The bright side, of course, is that I then fall in love with the new ideas and worlds, too!

What are you most looking forward to in the upcoming years? In regard to your writing and to your teaching?

Writing-wise, I am really looking forward to the release of The Inheritance Games this fall. It’s far and away my favorite of my books, and I am so excited to start hearing from readers as they try to solve the mystery and puzzle underlying the book, which focuses on an eccentric, puzzle-obsessed billionaire who dies and leaves his entire fortune to a total stranger, a teenage girl who has no idea why he left her billions.

In terms of teaching, I am really looking forward to teaching my first graduate seminar in psychology this fall. It’s called Imagination and Development, and it focuses on a wide array of topics, stretching from childhood pretend play and imaginary friends, all the way up through the parasocial relationships that adults form with favorite fictional characters, the psychology of creative writers, and the study of daydreaming.

What is the process of adapting your books into a TV series like? Are you involved in the process? Are you finding it difficult to hand your story over to producers and to let them make creative choices?

I have had many different projects in development over the years. Sometimes, I am very involved; other times, I am not. For example, last summer, I had two different books being pitched to various networks. The producers on one project flew me to Los Angeles so that I could help pitch the book by talking to network executives about the psychological underpinnings of mega-successful media properties and how the book had been designed to appeal to preferences hard-wired into the human brain. And on the other project, I had two getting-to-know-you phone calls with the team involved, and they did everything else themselves! So there is a lot of variety. Generally speaking, I am really comfortable handing over the creative reins. I’ve done a bit of television writing myself, and I understand that adapting source material often requires making strategic changes. With The Inheritance Games, I am going to be co-producing, which means that I will be involved creatively. I’m excited about that, because so often, when something works as a writer, you have no idea why it works, but The Inheritance Games was a book that I wrote to test specific theories of fiction and fandom, so I feel like I have some good insight into not just what works about the book, but why it works, and I am excited to bring that psychological expertise to the table.

For students who are struggling to pursue their writing career, do you have any advice?

I generally advise anyone who wants to write to do three things: read a lot, write a lot, and find things that you are passionate about that are not reading or writing, so that you’ll have a wealth of experiences and knowledge to give you something to write about. In terms of the publishing side of things, my biggest advice is just to know that while most writers don’t sell the first book they write (the first I sold was the seventh I’d written!), no time you have spent writing is wasted. I refer to my first six unpublished books as “practice books,” because I needed the practice of actually going through the process of writing entire books to get good enough at writing books to do it at a professional level.