A Salem writer had a premonition in a dream, used a seed from that dream and nurtured it into a bestselling novel.
Brunonia Barry, 58, who wrote her first screenplay in her 20s, has achieved critical success with "The Lace Reader," her first book. It is set in Salem with many references to sites familiar to North Shore residents.
Barry will give a book reading at The Bookstore on Main Street tomorrow at 7 p.m.
Barry first self-published "The Lace Reader." But because it was so well received, a New York publishing company took over and published it. Janice Severance of The Bookstore said in the beginning she could not obtain enough copies to meet readers' demand until the major publisher took over.
The story's main character, a woman called Towner, comes from a family of Salem women who can see into the future by peering through a piece of Ipswich lace. Towner, however, renounced her gift of lace reading until her great aunt disappeared, which brought her home to Salem to delve into the mystery.
Barry herself has a cherished piece of lace that was made by the nuns at Saint Chretienne Academy in Salem.
"The nuns made the lace during the Depression. It was the bobbin lace like the kind made in Ipswich," she said.
The lace was a gift from her Irish grandmother, who died when Barry was in her 20s. The author is part of a large extended Irish family from Marblehead.
"I carried the lace with me everywhere, when I lived in Manhattan, Chicago and Los Angeles. Often I would have it in a bedside table drawer," she said.
Barry returned home to the North Shore in 1995, after living in California. She had the initial idea for her book when she and her husband were enlarging the kitchen in their Marblehead home.
"I went to sleep that night and dreamed I was holding up that piece of lace to the wall that was coming down to see what my new kitchen would look like, and I saw a field of horses. I awoke with my heart pounding and thinking this is clearly an anxiety dream of some sort," she recalled.
The next day, the contractor said he hated to work on "old horsehair plaster because it gets in the air and you can't get it out." As he put on his mask to start the work, Barry halted the project.
"That was my first lace reading," said Barry during a telephone interview from Chicago on her book tour.
That incident was more than eight years ago.
She wrote about the event in her journal where she first coined the phrase "the lace reader."
After the couple moved to Salem, where they found their dream house with the kitchen already done, the story began to unfold. Making use of the colorful history of Salem, Barry noted that at the time the city was trying to limit the number of haunted houses, but it didn't succeed.
"Being Los Angeles people, we thought it was Universal tours without the budget," Barry said.
Barry first wrote a short story, which was well received. From there, the story grew into a book, with much editing and rewrites over many years. She described the book as a "hero's journey story for women," roughly based on a Joseph Campbell structure.
"It's a book about perception. It's about going back to go forward and trusting one's intuition," she said.
Growing up in Marblehead, Barry spent a lot of time in Salem. She later would work at a trading company at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, while attending New York University film school at night.
"I always wanted to be a writer," said Barry. Although she sold her first script, about a girl who thought she started a brush fire, it was never made into a film.
After working 15 years in Los Angeles, in large part in script development, it took Barry's return home for her to achieve a dream of publishing a book.
She and her husband, an entrepreneur, started a software publishing company and knew well the hurdles it takes to find an agent, and hopefully publish a book. So they self published 2,000 copies of "The Lace Reader" last October for what they thought would be a regional book.
Barry's first bit of luck was when the public relations company she hired submitted the book to Publishers Weekly, which reviewed it, an uncommon occurrence for a self-published work. Barry also credits the role of independent book stores.
"When the book came out, we started getting calls from agents who wanted make a quick sale to Hollywood. But I was jaded enough to say wait a minute. It was too soon for that, and risk not being able to do anything else," said Barry.
Instead, she called a friend in Hollywood, a successful screenwriter, Alexandra Seros, who asked to read the book. From there, it went to Seros' agent, and then a New York agent. It ended up in the hands of literary agent Rebecca Oliver.
"She said, 'Who are you?' and 'Why don't I know about you?' and 'I want to put it out for bid,'" recalled Barry. In about five days, six major publishers were interested. Barry chose William Morrow Harper Collins.
"By the time it came out, 30 books clubs were reading it and it broke away from Massachusetts with book clubs in California reading it," she said. "I never imaged it would go this far."
Her coast-to-coast book tour, which began this summer, has been extended through Thanksgiving. She missed part of the tour in California because of her mother's death on Sept. 13.
"She is the psychic one in the family," said Barry of her mother, June. "Years ago after reading a draft, she said the story would become a New York Times bestseller."
Her full name is Sandra Brunonia Barry. Her middle name, which means "brown" in Latin, stems from her maternal grandfather's affection for his alma mater, Brown University, where he studied English literature.
"He told me I was going to be a writer," said Barry.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com.