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Sibling writers piece together past on ‘Mr. Joe’

By By Cat Pleska
WV Book Team

I was curious about the process of writing and publishing of “Mr. Joe,” and about the reaction of readers to the revelation of Joseph Barnett’s ghostly experiences and family life.

So I had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Joe Barnett, the author, and his sister Jane Congdon, who co-wrote the book with him.

Q: When it came to childhood memories, did you find you agreed more or less about them?

Joe: Different events stuck to us, and sometimes we saw the same situation from separate viewpoints; for instance, Jane was antagonistic toward our mother, who drank, but I was fearful of Mom.

Dad was our rescuer at the end of the day. He would come home from work and shield us from Mom, but I wanted more from my father, and we were not close.

That lack of closeness fueled my lifelong desire to be a good dad myself. As a child I thought my sister got more of Dad’s time and attention, the way daughters often do, but she hadn’t given that a thought until I said it 50 years later.

Sometimes she and I had no idea of the other’s experience of the same event. I wonder if that’s typical in families.

Of course, many times one or the other was not even there, so we found ourselves sharing memories that were new as we reminisced writing “Mr. Joe.”

Jane: Our combined recollections of childhood enriched the writing and the book itself.

We weren’t just going over old ground; every day held new discoveries. Sharing our memories also helped us to piece together our past and to know one another after many years of being apart.

As children we were close, but each had retained false perceptions of the other.

When I wrote “It Started with Dracula,” I had barely seen my brother in 40 years.

I was convinced he was lost to us. We laugh about it now, but I even wondered on the page if he had inherited our mother’s disease.

The opportunity to tell Joe’s story was a blessing.

We found out while writing it that he and I are more alike than we had thought.

Both of us like to balance our social lives with doses of alone time. We’re compulsively neat and tend to be early for appointments.

We share a sense of humor too. “Mr. Joe” isn’t just a sad or scary tale; it’s full of my brother’s wit.

Q: Now that you’ve both written memoirs, what reactions have you had from family and friends?

Joe: We’ve been surprised that our friends from home did not know our childhood secret.

After “Mr. Joe” was published, several told us they had thought we were rich and privileged as children, that Jane and I “had it all.”

I’m thrilled that people like the book so much. Our families and friends have been supportive, and I’ll admit that I was afraid of the opposite.

It’s all been good. We even had a signing at my older son’s workplace — at 6:14 a.m.

I call it the world’s earliest signing. We posted a photo on Facebook of Jane and me sitting at a table there with my son and someone joked that we looked like a parole board, one she’d hate to face!

I was worried about writing that I’d seen ghosts, but the outcome of that has been that people tell me about their ghost experiences, some of which are stranger than mine.

Having so many people on our side has been the cool thing for me, and the fact that people wanted my signature took me by storm.

One aspect of being an author has been disappointing, and that’s getting “Mr. Joe” out there.

I’m happy that my kids and grandkids and their kids will know my story, but I’ve learned that it’s very hard to become publicly known when you aren’t.

I’m so proud of “Mr. Joe” and have been looking forward to signings and opportunities to talk, but they aren’t automatic just because a book is published or well written.

Jane: There is always a fear that someone mentioned in the story will react badly, even if names and circumstances are altered to protect individuals’ privacy.

We’re not above gallows humor. Joe and I have a running joke about certain people lining up to greet us with baseball bats.

But on to the good news. When we found out that “Mr. Joe” is a finalist for the 2014 Ohioana Book Award in nonfiction, it took us by surprise; we had not knowingly entered the competition. Whether or not we win, that honor is huge for us.

Every nomination, every award, every review, every “like” and “share” on Facebook, every reader telling a friend about a book he loves — all of it helps.

Some memoirists write for themselves or their families only, but we have published a book that is for sale to the public.

We believe that “Mr. Joe” can help others, and we welcome opportunities to sign books and/or speak about writing, alcoholism, fatherhood, health and overcoming challenges.

One wonderful outcome of publishing “Mr. Joe” is that our family, fractured for so many years, has pulled together because Joe had the courage to tell his story. That closeness was an unexpected gift to the remaining members of our family.

Q: Do you think you would tackle writing another book together? Any comments you want to make regarding this experience now that you’re several months after publication?

Joe: The stories didn’t stop after “Mr. Joe” was published; they keep coming to me.

Every time I tell one to Jane, she says, “Why didn’t we put that in the book?” It was because I hadn’t remembered it until that moment.

I doubt we’ll have enough for “Mr. Joe, Volume 2,” but you never know.

A second book would have to be on a topic I care about, such as paranormal events, to sustain my interest in such a long project.

When we started “Mr. Joe,” I had no idea it would take six years.

I also didn’t know how hard it would be to write a book.

Now that I know the process, I would be better at it next time. The story would have to be true; it isn’t like we’re going to write the great detective novel.

Jane: People ask for another book. Some have read our memoirs multiple times.

When I was a kid, I was embarrassed to be from a small town.

When people would ask where I lived, I wouldn’t say Glen Ferris. I’d say, “A little town about an hour outside Charleston, West Virginia.”

Now I always talk about our hometown. Through our books, Joe and I have helped to put Glen Ferris on the map for people, and that makes me happy.

I love the writing process, but it’s not easy; and after a book is done, promoting it is like entering a foreign country for me.

That stage is especially challenging with so many books being published and marketed.

Working with Joe has been a priceless experience. Would I repeat it? I have a couple books in mind that only I can write, but given the right opportunity to collaborate with my brother again, I would not be able to resist.

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