JEAN BARKER left a successful writing career as a journalist and humor columnist in South Africa to pursue her long-delayed dream of becoming a filmmaker in the USA. Her master’s thesis film at Chapman University, One More Day, won her the prestigious Director’s Guild of America (DGA) Student Jury Award for Women Directors in 2014, and screened at top international genre festivals—most recently at San Diego Comic-Con. Jean now lives in LA. She works as a script consultant, directs advertising content, and writes feature films. Jean is the author of ZANA, the new comic published by EMET Comics.
What sort of subjects/genres do you like to write about and why?
I have a problem with authority. I’ve been told that all my life, and it’s true. I don’t trust institutions. Maybe it’s because I grew up in South Africa, with Apartheid as the institution. Maybe it’s because most of them suck by the time they’re established enough to exist. Most of what I write is about that, in some way – or about being a prisoner of some kind. So, not so much a genre as a driving obsession… Or you could call it paranoia… It tends to lead me to futurism or sci-fi stuff.
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest work?
ZANA, the comic book set in a future South Africa, is a re-imagining of the present and future as it might have been if Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, had been hung for treason instead of imprisoned.
What or who influenced you to start writing?
I wrote as soon as I could speak. My parents were both storytellers. My Dad’s a journalist and my mom was a teacher, now a writer too. My brother used to complain that I kept him up at night telling stories out loud. I only figured out that I could not whisper, but just do it in my head, when I was about six. These days, I’d have been on drugs by age 4. As soon as I learned to write, I started writing stories down, and illustrating my own stories (badly).
Are you a morning person or a night person? Does that influence what time of day you write?
I’m a morning person, as in… 2am. Actually I’m a film person now, so I can’t afford to be either. I work when I can, and when I have to, but I’m trying to sit down in the morning more often. I try to write for at least two to four hours a day, and spend the other nine working hours on other stuff.
How do you keep yourself on track and focused when you sit down to write?
The only thing that stops me writing is fear. Sometimes, that’s a bad collaborator – someone who starts feedback with the negative, or who doesn’t care at all. Other times it’s a recent failure. Otherwise, the most important thing is to make time to rewrite. The first draft is easy. Getting to the rewrites is painful and difficult because it involves admitting that the first draft was at least some kind of failure. And every single first draft needs a rewrite!
If you could be any character (other than your own), who would you be and why?
I love Ms. Marvel. She’s rebelling within love for her own culture and religion. She reminds me of many of my journalist friends in SA, who’re also Muslim feminists.
Have you ever taken writing classes or gone to school to study writing? Do you think classes are necessary to become a professional writer?
Yes I did, though not initially. I’ve been a professional writer ever since I graduated with an arts degree and needed a gig, and had one marketable skill. But I grew up privileged as a white South African, with clever and creative parents, who read to me. I learned to write less by technique than by absorbing it without realizing it. I read three novels a week as a kid, was free to explore the world all day and come home after dark. I hardly had homework cause I went to a weird school. I learned to be self motivated, which no writing school can teach you. I only recently studied screenwriting, at Chapman, and that gave me the push and polish to do what I’m doing now.
Did you ever encounter someone who told you that you wouldn’t succeed as a writer? How did you handle this discouragement and what advice would you give to aspiring writers in a similar situation?
Almost everything and everybody will tell you to give up. About 90 percent of those who believe they can be successful writers are insane, and don’t have the talent. You have to hope that you’re not insane, and be willing to work hard enough to prove it, and then also lucky enough to be the 10% of those who are actually right to believe in themselves. The fact that you can contemplate this as a job, as opposed to cleaning toilets, sewing clothes, or breaking rocks for a living makes you lucky, though. By the way, I don’t in any way consider myself successful! Not yet.
What is the best thing about being a published author? The worst thing?
The tangibility of the comic book in your hands is very special. People like the book. They are willing, even, to pay for it. As a filmmaker, that’s pretty amazing, because we deal in such intangible stuff, and telling even the shortest story costs so much. There’s no worst thing, so far, except perhaps that there’s really no money in comic books – not anymore.
Did you learn anything from writing your comic book? What surprised you?
I definitely learned the value of my heritage, as a South African. I discovered knowledge I didn’t expect to find within me. At conventions, people are often very surprised to see that I am the writer, then curious, and very generous towards me. I’m often surprised that people accept me writing this story, because I am white, and most of the characters aren’t.
How is writing a comic book different than writing screenplays or novels/short stories?
I haven’t finished writing a novel since I was 16… so I’ll just talk about screenplays/directing vs. comic books. As a comic book writer you are the writer and director and… well it depends how your company works, but it’s much like being a director, except that it’s a simpler collaboration, between you and the editor and the artist. There’s less chance of the story being told differently to how you scripted it. And it goes from concept to complete a lot faster than a film.
What was it like working with an illustrator? How does that collaboration happen?
Joey Granger is amazing. It’s rare to find a collaborator – in any industry – that you are grateful for every day, and Joey is one of those people. Maytal Gilboa, my publisher, discovered Joey on tumblr I believe. We’d tried working with a few people, and Joey’s previous stuff wasn’t much like Zana but their interpretation of the script was so perfect from the first. We were blown away. Joey cares about story, and is never afraid to try something in order to tell it. We have never met. We work by email, and occasionally when text won’t suffice, I’ll send them bad drawings or images found online, to clarify where people should be standing, or what something South African should look like.
Tell us a little about the protagonist in your comic book. Was there real-life inspiration behind her? How about your antagonist? Good villains are hard to write. How did you get in touch with your inner villain to write this comic? Was there real-life inspiration?
Well, she’s inspired by all the many female heroes who exist in South Africa, who fought apartheid, and also by Mandela. In terms of getting in touch with my inner villain, it’s pretty easy really. We all like to pretend to believe we’re good people, but we’re just as much bad people. Only vanity stands in the way of writing good villains. The villain is racism, and unfortunately, I’ve met many human manifestations of it. Some of them even have good intentions, or like to think they do.
Did you do research for your comic book? What did that involve?
Most of what I have to research is stuff for Bisa, because she makes gadgets. She’s a tech genius, a natural talent at it. I’m not, so I often ask people who are for help, or have to google and youtube things I would normally not.
Is there a certain subject or situation that’s harder for you to write than others? (i.e. love, action, racy, etc.)
I think we all struggle to get the audience the information they need without boring them to death, especially in world that’s both foreign and futuristic.
What was your favorite chapter/section to write and why?
I love writing the scenes where Zana and her mom interact. I enjoy that Zana’s a bit of a brat. That comes from a deep place within me, because was an annoying know it all as a kid. Was? Probably still am.
How important are names? Do you choose names based on the way they sound or based on their meaning? Do you have any name-choosing resources you’d recommend?
Well most Xhosa and Zulu names do have meanings. Nontshaba (Zana’s mom) means “mother of enemies”. Zana is short for “Nkosazana”, which means princess. I just google “xhosa names for girls” or whatever. I try to vary the length of names, but also pick ones that Americans will not struggle to pronounce. This is one of the reasons that I use the shortened versions of names.
Characters often find themselves in situations they aren’t sure they can get themselves out of. When was the last time you found yourself in a situation that was hard to get out of and what did you do?
As an adult, I less often end up in these situations, but when I do, I cope. When I was younger, I hitch hiked across Europe on one Dutch guilder, and did some really weird and dangerous jobs to survive. I have had a gun pointed at me by an angry, drunk white supremacist wearing a bath towel. I pretended to fall asleep! More recently my car broke down in a kinda gang-banger area in LA, at night, while I was on my way to the airport, and I called a tow truck and sold the driver the car. Most of what you need to get out of a bad situation alive is to be flexible, and willing to change your plans and let things go. When I was a kid, my family was always on these very dangerous holidays. This taught me that sometimes, like if you’re lost hiking in the middle of the Karoo and have run out of food, you just have to stay alive until the sun comes up again.
Are you a part-time or full-time writer? Do you have a day job? How is your writing affected?
I work doing script coverage. I live on as little as possible and in the cheapest way possible so that I can spend as much of my time as possible writing, rather than earning money.
Do you have any helpful resources for writers that you’d like to share?
For screenwriters, the Scriptnotes podcast is amazing. It’s not just a great way to stay fresh and keep learning, it’s also therapeutic.
What are three books you think everyone should read and why?
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, because her characters are wonderful. This is such a tricky question. I’m just going with recent stuff, okay? I thought Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, was great (the movie was just okay). I still think Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a must-read for everyone. But I love books. I read a novel a week, at least. Always have since I read my first book ever (Little House in the Big Woods) when I was six.
What are you working on next?
A super low budget script I hope to direct soon, set in a single location, with lots of nudity and death and drugs and stuff – and a young female protagonist.
How can readers get in touch with or follow you on social media?
I only Facebook people I actually know, but I’m on Twitter: @jeanbarker and I follow anyone who amuses me back.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, check out the other amazing comics by women in the same stable as Zana, at emetcomics.com.