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Daily Pilot

Checking In With...Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

'Writers on Writing' host knows of what she speaks

By Michael Miller

1:33 PM PDT, May 1, 2014

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If you want to strike up a conversation with an author of your choice, the words "Barbara DeMarco-Barrett says hi" may do the trick.

The Newport Beach resident, who oversees the KUCI 88.9 FM program "Writers on Writing," has interviewed so many guests over the past decade and a half that reading the list of participants on her website almost requires a magnifying glass. DeMarco-Barrett is an author herself — among her credits is "Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within" — and her show, which also features co-hosts Marrie Stone and Nicole Nelson, grew largely out of a desire to meet kindred literary spirits.

Like other KUCI team members, DeMarco-Barrett has been busy in recent days promoting the station's spring fund drive. Those who donate between now and May 5 stand to win CDs, T-shirts, books, coupons and other prizes. The donations won't just go toward an Orange County institution: DeMarco-Barrett has heard from "Writers on Writing" podcast listeners abroad. (The station's website, http://www.kuci.org, has basic information about the pledge drive.)

Last week, DeMarco-Barrett spoke to the Daily Pilot about her history as a radio host — and what she's learned about writers and writing along the way. The following are excerpts from the conversation:

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There's that old saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Do you think it's ever hard to talk about writing too?

No.

Never?

No, because we just have on people we want to talk to — you know, authors or agents or poets we want to talk to. So, you know, we don't get paid to do this, so we get to choose. So for that reason, I think it's easy. If we were assigned notable authors that we had to talk to, that would be hard.

I mean, I've been sent bestselling books that ... it's like, I don't even read this author. I mean, why would I? I'm not getting paid. So the show began originally because I wanted, really, my own personal MFA program. ... There weren't any book shows, writer shows, back then that I really liked or could find.

And plus, I was getting my own writing going, and an editor in a marketing department where I was originally trying to sell "Pen on Fire" said, "You know, the book's great, everything's great, but who is she?" Meaning, I needed a platform. So I was like, "A platform? What would I enjoy doing in public?"

Have you ever had a real coup, like an author that you were really hoping to get that seemed like kind of a long shot, and then they actually came through?

I think of Billy Collins right away, because he was poet laureate, I think, when I had him, and I think he was on twice during that time. He was one. I think Scott Turow, because I loved "Presumed Innocent" back when it came out long ago, I guess in the '80s, probably, late '80s (1987), and [I] loved it. It was like, if I wrote a thriller, a suspense novel, that would be it. And then he agreed to come on. He's another one.

J.D. Salinger passed away a few years ago. Did you ever have a dream of luring him out of his reclusive state and having him on "Writers on Writing"?

I never thought I could. We had Joyce Maynard [Salinger's ex-lover], but we never had him. No, you know, I just thought, "He's not going to do it, so why even bother?" Although we've tried others that we had the same feelings about that agreed to come on. And some would [say], "Well, I'll come to the studio." It's like, "It's rush hour." "No, I want to come to the studio." Janet Fitch wanted to come to the studio after "White Oleander." "OK, fine." I mean, I liked the book a lot, but it always just kind of surprises me when people want to come in, because you have to deal with parking and ...

Maybe it's the homey touch?

Maybe. I mean, it's cool being at a radio station, being in the studio, but for us, it's probably easier to have people on the phone because we do our own engineering. At least I do.... And if there's somebody sitting across from me, inevitably they want to maintain eye contact. But I'm looking at the board. I'm looking at the screen. I'm doing stuff, adjusting levels, and I begin to feel like they're offended. And before we start, I'm like, "I'm not going to look at you half the time. Please don't be offended." And so the phone is easier.

Was this a childhood dream of yours, to run your own radio show?

No. Not at all. It really came out of — well, in college, I probably played around a little bit, but I didn't have a show. But it really came out of trying to figure out what platform I could develop that I would enjoy. What could I enjoy? And plus, my son was really little. I think he was 4, and I was thinking of graduate school, and I just thought, you know, I can't do that. I don't want take a lot of time away from him. So it really was my own personal MFA program.

So my dream, if there was any dream, it was more to be able to have access to authors that I wouldn't naturally talk to. I mean, I'm more of an introvert, so if I see them at a writers event or something, I'm not going to go up and introduce myself. I'm just not going to do that. I don't do it still. When I go to the L.A. Times Festival of Books, even people who have been on the show, like T.C. Boyle, who comes through, we've never met. I just feel like, what are we going to say? You know, "Hey"? Do you know what I mean? The show is really a way of having the kind of talk I'd like to have with them, which is about writing and their work and whatever.

Having interviewed authors for so many years, have you learned what questions to avoid? Any questions that drive authors crazy?

"Where do you get your ideas?" I don't think any author likes that one. Do you?

Not much.

I never ask that. I never ask about money, because, you know, it's one thing I think beginning writers are too hung up on. It's like, "Well, how much can I get?" It's just, get your work right, and if money will follow, it will follow later. So I never ask about money, and I never ask them where they get their ideas. I rarely ask them what they're working on now, because I wouldn't want to talk about it, so if there's something I don't want to talk about, I won't ask.