More Than by Diane Barnes is the story of single-mom Peggy Moriarty’s second act. When her husband died 14 years ago, Peggy didn’t allow herself to grieve. Instead, she funneled all her energy into caring for her twins, Grace and Greg. Now that the twins are headed to college, Peggy has found herself middle-aged and alone with only a TV psychic to keep her company. Peggy desperately wants to go to a taping of the psychic’s show to connect with her dead husband, but she’s concerned he won’t recognize her after all these years. So begins Peggy’s journey into bootcamp, friendship, and possibly even self-forgiveness.
You’ll be rooting for Peggy as she undergoes a transformation from someone who lives only for her kids and eats her feelings to a woman who finally starts to open herself to the friendships and world around her. Just in time for last-minute gift giving, More Than made Ms. Magazine’s list of Feminist Fiction Books to Curl Up With for the Holidays.
Julie Peterson: Your stories always begin with great characters. Despite your main character Peggy living a cloistered life, she has acerbic sense of humor and view of the world. Was she a character who popped into your head or did it take time to build her?
Diane Barnes: In a way Peggy did pop into my head. Before I started writing, the only thing I knew was I wanted to write about a woman who attends an exercise boot camp. I was cooking dinner and not thinking about writing when the title “Reshaping Peggy” popped in my head — my publisher eventually changed the title to More Than. I could see Peggy perfectly, sweaty and sitting on her mat and huffing and puffing. I could also see she was sad, lonely and irritable. It was important that she have a sense of humor to make her likeable. It was fun to write about her transformation and how her friendships with other women were essential in her change.
You also do a great job developing a memorable cast of supporting characters. Is this something you intentionally focus on in first drafts? What do you think are the keys to developing real characters who seem to breathe on their own?
Thank you. I pay close attention to secondary characters from the start because I don’t want them to be too similar to the main character. As a writer, one thing I do all the time is watch people and note their mannerisms, personality traits, and the way they speak and incorporate these observations into my characters. Because More Than takes place in a fictionalized version of a town I used to live in, several people have asked if the characters are based on real people in the town and have offered their ideas about who they’re based on, but I definitely didn’t consciously base my characters on anyone I knew.
Your novel starts with Peggy’s twins getting ready to leave for college. What was it about this huge transitional period that interested you?
Since her husband’s death 14 years before the novel opens, Peggy has been living her life only for her children. I wanted to explore what would happen to her if the kids weren’t home anymore. What would she do? Having the twins leave for college was a way for me to complicate things for her. Also, at the time I was writing this, three of my nieces were getting ready to move away for college. It was interesting to see how my two sisters-in-law and sister responded to this. My sister would tear up months before talking about it while my sisters-in-law were more stoic.
More Than is about a woman who joins boot camp and transforms her life in the friendships she builds and the confidence she gains, but she doesn’t lose a lot of weight. Why didn’t you want her to have a big weight loss?
It was important to me that Peggy’s transformation wasn’t about the changes to her body. Her inner transformation is the heart of the story. Her unhappiness had nothing to do with her weight, and I wanted her to be happy no matter how much she weighed. I also wanted the story to be realistic, and losing a lot of weight is so hard to do.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Is structure easy for you? Any resources you swear by?
Definitely a pantser. I also don’t write linearly, so I often have to work backward to figure out what has to happen to get to a scene I’ve already written. I honestly don’t think about structure when I’m writing early drafts. When I go back and read the entire draft, I can tell if the structure works by the pace of the story and how the character changed. The best resource for me has always been Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Whenever I’m stuck, I reread it because she reassures me that I don’t have to have the entire novel figured out. I only need to know the next scene, and it’s okay if the writing isn’t good, there’s plenty of time to fix it in later drafts.
How about endings? Without giving away any spoilers, did you find it difficult to craft an ending that felt both realistic and satisfying?
Figuring out where the book ended and writing the ending were the most difficult parts of this book. About halfway through my second draft, I came up with an idea for an ending that I loved. When I workshopped it, people loved the idea but not the execution. I wrote the ending several more times and felt I finally nailed it, but when my agent read my manuscript she said it didn’t end at the right place and explained why. So I added another chapter, and of course my agent was right, it was a better place to end the story. I read all my reviews, and one reviewer said something to the effect that I couldn’t have written a more perfect last page. After all the time I spent thinking about my ending and rewriting it, reading that review made me really happy.
This is your third novel. How was the process of writing More Than different from or similar to writing your first two novels?
I wish I could say I used the same process every time because it would make things easier, but writing each book has been a unique experience. The one thing that’s been consistent for each of my books is my commitment to see it through. There’s always a point somewhere in the middle of the book where the words and ideas stop flowing and I think about moving on to another project. I might even write a chapter or two, but I always go back to what I was working on. I can’t leave something unfinished. I feel I owe it to the characters to see their story through.
Several of your novels have a mystical element to them. In your first novel, Waiting for Ethan, your main character relies heavily on a local psychic’s prediction. In More Than, Peggy wants to visit a television medium to reconnect with her dead husband. What draws you to the supernatural? Are you a believer? What sort of research did you do?
I’m fascinated by psychics and mediums and what they claim to be able to do, but I don’t believe they have supernatural powers. I’m more interested in the comfort they give the grieving who need to believe. There’s something to be said for that. As far as research, I read about mediums and I went to see one of Theresa Caputo’s shows. She’s the Long Island Medium and she was hugely entertaining. I will admit, there was a point in her show when I thought maybe she really was connecting with someone on the other side. I attended with a friend who is a much bigger skeptic than I am. On the drive home, she made a compelling argument on why the part of the show I thought might be real wasn’t.
How do you know when your novel is ready for your agent? Do you have a writing group?
I joined a writing group at my local library about ten years ago, and they critique every chapter I write several times. By now, they know my writing, and they’re not afraid to say, “You can do better.” They’re a great resource. I have beta readers for the complete manuscript, but they’ve been different for each book I’ve written. I asked a book club to read a late draft of my debut and made revisions based on their feedback. When I can’t think of any other ways to improve my manuscript, I send it to my agent. Not only does she read it, but other people at her agency read it too. When we discuss it, she always suggests ways I can improve it. So even when I think it’s ready, it’s really not until she says it is.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a women’s fiction novel about a couple who can’t have a baby and the impact of infertility on their marriage. The novel also explores the definition of a family. Additionally, several readers of More Than have told me they didn’t want the book to end because they didn’t want to say goodbye to Peggy, Roni and Carmen. So I’ve just started thinking about a sequel. I’m not sure if it will go anywhere, but I’m excited to explore its possibility.
What are you reading now?
I’m listening to The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman. It’s making my commute enjoyable! I’m also reading Better Believe It by Fern Ronay, which is really entertaining. Next up is Confession Club by Elizabeth Berg, and I can’t wait for that.
About Diane Barnes: Diane is the author of More Than (October 2019), Waiting for Ethan (2015), and Mixed Signals (2016). She is also a marketing and corporate communication writer in the health care industry. When she’s not writing, she’s at the gym, running or playing tennis, trying to burn off the ridiculous amounts of chocolate and ice cream she eats. She and her husband Steven live in Massachusetts and dream of moving to Turks and Caicos—at least for the winter months. She hopes you enjoy reading her books as much as she enjoyed writing them. You can follow Diane on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.