Fri, Jul 22, 2022 7:00 AM
Barb Jeffcott Geris was a busy solo mum when she started tapping away at her first novel. Twenty years on, her work has been read all over the world and she’s passing on her knowledge at the Marlborough Writer’s Festival this month.
When Barb Jeffcott Geris gave birth in quick succession to two sets of twins, she found herself at the centre of a whirlwind churning around the raucous demands of four little people all under the age of three.
In those early years the family environment was frenetic, demanding and stressful, with detailed planning and logistics needed before attempting even the simplest of social activities.
She and her husband George Geris, then winemaker at Villa Maria, moved to Blenheim in 2001 with six-week-old baby girls. “It was quite tough for me,” says Barb, recalling how the newcomers could not tap into the usual support network of family or friends.
“I quickly realised I couldn’t go back teaching with two babies…that’s when I decided that if I was ever going to write, now was the time because I couldn’t do anything else.”
So, in the midst all the chaos, which only intensified when the twin boys arrived, Barb carved out a little oasis of peace and quiet and launched herself into the solitary world of writing.
Every night, after the little ones were settled, George would make dinner while Barb disappeared for an hour or so to write.
“It was a kind of release for me,” she says. “It also meant I trained myself to be able to write on demand. I didn’t sit around waiting for the muse to hit me. I just did it when I had to. I probably did that for about four years, just writing at night in that little window.”
Fast forward about 20 years…identical twin daughters Ella and Sophia are in their honours year at Victoria University; non-identical twin boys, Jay and Luca, are also studying at Victoria; and their mother is an award-winning novelist.
Under the pen name Barbara DeLeo, Barb, 54, writes contemporary romance novels, eight of them so far, plus two shorter novellas. In 2014 she won the Romance Writers New Zealand Book of the Year for “Last Chance Proposal”.
At her home in Witherlea she’s busy working on her ninth volume and, despite her impressive track record, finding it “really hard work”. Digging deeper to unearth new ideas, the pressure of meeting reader expectations … “I find it increasingly difficult,” she admits.
Barb’s romance novels come with a guaranteed happy ending but she bristles at any suggestion her books are trivial, lightweight fluff, not worthy of being taken seriously.
She says complex human relationships lie at the heart of her books. “For me, writing relationships is really difficult. I’m not saying that having a gun in a book makes it easier (to write) but it certainly means that action takes over.”
As her manuscripts grew in those early days of furtive writing, Barb began connecting with writing groups and other romance writers and, around 2005, felt confident enough to enter her first competition.
Two years later she won the Valerie Parv Award, named after one of Australia’s leading romance writers, the prize being a year’s mentorship with Ms Parv who read and critiqued everything Barb was writing.
She found a literary agent in 2010, signed with a publisher in 2011 and her first book came out in 2012. ”It was a long journey,” she says, stretching out the word “long”.
Barb was born in Central Otago but with a high school teacher father the family moved around: she finished her late primary schooling in Motueka before attending high school in Fairlie, South Canterbury.
Armed with a BA from Canterbury University, where she majored in English and psychology, Barb followed in the footsteps of both parents and became a teacher herself.
Her first job was at Whakatane High School in 1991 and she also spent five years at Auckland’s Rangitoto College and a year at Burnside High School in Christchurch before the couple moved to Blenheim.
She’s been teaching (mostly English and psychology) at Marlborough Girls College since 2007 – two years full time, the rest part-time – and it was only last year she opted to take a year off to focus fulltime on writing.
She and George, who is Greek, had previously spent two years in Greece in the early ‘90s, teaching English and catching up with his family and friends there and in Cyprus…two exotic locations that Barb later resurrected for her books.
New Zealand also features in her novels though all the stories link back to a fictional town in northern California, which makes sense as her readership is predominantly American.
“America is a massive market,” says Barb, adding that the next strongholds for readers are the UK, Canada and Australia, with interest also growing in India, South America and South Africa. She also has a literary agent in Florida and initially her novels were produced as e-books by US-based Entangled Publishing.
However, in 2020 she began self-publishing, re-launching all her work – after some re-writing and with new titles – as e-books and paperbacks. A new chapter in the career of this successful Blenheim writer.
At this month’s annual Marlborough Book Festival (July 7-10) Barbara DeLeo will be presenting a self-publishing workshop. She will also be talking to Colleen Shipley whose first novel, Wrens Under the Radar, is set in Marlborough during World War 2.