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Writer's cradle

Novelist Barbara Parker comes home to Chamberlain High, where she says she got her foundation as a writer.

By TIM GRANT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

CARROLLWOOD -- Bestselling novelist Barbara Parker will kick off her national book tour this week by coming back to where it all began.

The Chamberlain High School graduate will spend Thursday morning at her alma mater talking to advanced English students about the writing life and treating herself to a walk down memory lane.

"I will take out my old journals from those years and, with great embarrassment, read a few things from them," said Parker, who graduated in 1964. "I will tell them what it's like to be a writer. It's a mysterious process. We don't just sit at a typewriter and words come out."

Her Chamberlain visit won't be open to the public, but fans can meet Parker at the Carrollwood Barnes & Noble Thursday at 7 p.m., when she'll be signing copies of her latest thriller, Suspicion of Madness.

It is Parker's seventh novel in the popular suspense series featuring attorneys Gail Connor and Anthony Quintana of Miami. Her stories are framed around their roller-coaster romance and legal escapades in sunny south Florida.

Parker, a former lawyer, says she owes much of her success to what she learned at Chamberlain.

"My Chamberlain years are the absolute foundation of what I do," she said, crediting journalism teacher Nancy White for sparking her interest in writing, and drama teacher Grace Clay with showing her how to tell a story.

She was introduced to publishing through the student newspaper The Chieftain. "I was a photographer," Parker said. "But the process of putting a newspaper together interested me a great deal."

It was also at Chamberlain that Parker began the lifelong practice of keeping a journal, which she said she will encourage the students to do as well.

Her journals from high school note a variety of facts and feelings. They reveal the price of a gallon of milk, her feelings during the Cuban missile crisis and John F. Kennedy's assassination, and the terrible crush she had on a boy named Johnny.

Born in Columbia, S.C., where her father attended law school on the GI bill, Parker lived in the mountains of North Carolina until the family relocated to Florida.

After two years in Citrus County, they moved to North Edison Avenue in Carrollwood in 1962.

Parker graduated from the University of South Florida, where she studied drama and history before going to law school at the University of Miami. She worked for a time as a prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office, then for eight years as a solo practitioner in Miami.

"I was not happy as a lawyer," she said. "You need a confrontational personality and a thick hide. I was constantly on the edge of sheer terror. I was stuck in courtrooms where you have to have the instincts of a predator.

"I was constantly examining the whole picture -- the other side -- which is good for a novelist, but not a lawyer. I'm too contemplative to be an effective lawyer. I'm much more suited to be a novelist."

It wasn't until the mid 80s, after a divorce, Parker contemplated a career change, and then only by accident.

Her son was visiting his father for the summer and while she was writing him a short story, she thought, This is fun! Parker started writing as a hobby, but it became a new way of life. While still practicing law, she wrote a novel.

Eventually she gave up law, went back to school and earned a master's degree in creative writing at Florida International University in Miami. Her first suspense novel Suspicion of Innocence, published in 1994 by Dutton, was her master's thesis.

Parker, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale, draws heavily on her legal background for ideas. But the riveting cases her main characters encounter are not based on those she handled as a lawyer.

"None of my cases were quite that exciting," she said. "The actual cases were stolen from newspapers or other lawyers. But if I had not been a lawyer, I wouldn't understand how the system works. So I have that advantage."

But what prompted her to match the Anglo-Saxon Gail Connor with the Cuban character Anthony Quintana for a serial romance?

"You can't write a novel in Miami and not include Cubans," Parker said. "I think it began by observing the conflicts between the Anglo and Cuban communities in Miami. And I needed someone to embody sexual attraction.

"In the beginning, I did not intend to do a series. But my editor liked him. Now Anthony is at the point of taking over. Most of my women readers find him fascinating. I think it's the allure of the unknown and the forbidden. In our heart of hearts, women don't find ordinary men all that interesting."

Parker tries, in every installment, to address some major issue, such as capital punishment. But, judging by her fan mail, readers really want to read about Anthony and Gail's relationship.

"So I throw up my hands and say, if that's the engine that drives the series, so be it," Parker said. "People always want to know what will happen to them next. I know for the next book. (The couple will go to Cuba). But beyond that, I don't know."

Will they ever marry?

"Possibly," Parker said. "But if they did, something terrible would have to happen."

-- Tim Grant can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or at .

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