The idea for her audio novel, “Girls on Jane,” came to writer Zara Barrie when she was in the clouds.
The former Senior Writer for GO and author of the non-fiction book, “Girl, Stop Passing Out in Your Makeup,” was on a flight to Florida, when she opened her laptop and started writing. She didn’t have a plan, exactly. The words just sort of came out. Next thing she knew, she had a chapter.
“I was like, ‘What do I do with this?’ Barrie says, over a Zoom call where she appears in full makeup, dangling earrings, and studded leather jacket (by contrast, I was in the cozy shawl my mom sent me for when I’m alone at home watching British mysteries on PBS). “I’ve never written fiction. But I think this is okay.”
One chapter would eventually turn into 12, and a first novel that Barrie would publish online in both written and audio format. With the help of illustrator Toadstone and her wife, Meghan Dziuma, who provides sound on the audio, Barrie launched the first season of “Girls on Jane” June 30 2021. A second season is set to drop today, November 30.
The switch to fiction, and to an audio rather than print format, was a departure for Barrie, whose first book, “Girl, Stop Passing Out in Your Makeup” debuted on May 19, 2020 — right in the middle of the Covid pandemic. Instead of going on a book tour, Barrie found herself, like the rest of us, quarantined. Although she spent part of the quarantine in a Hell’s Kitchen sublet, she missed the New York City nightlife that had shuttered to a halt. The time away from the nightlife she loved so much — and for so long the nexus of the city’s lesbian social culture — allowed Barrie to reflect more on the importance of these now-forbidden spaces. More specifically, she started thinking about how these places brought together queer women “from all such vastly different backgrounds,” ages, and life experiences.
“Wherever I go throughout the world, I end up in a lesbian bar or a gay bar,” she tells GO. “And all of a sudden, I’m sitting next to somebody who’s in their 70s and was part of a gay civil rights case … and then [on] the other side of me, I’m sitting next to a woman who started her own construction company in her 30s, and then a college Gen Z-er, and we’re all kind of together and our paths would never cross.” This type of experience, she says, has “opened up my life in the most beautiful way.”
Her experiences in lesbian and gay bars, specifically NYC mainstays like Ginger’s, Henrietta Hudson, and Cubbyhole, and the people she has met in these spaces, inspired her to start writing about them while on that plane to Florida. “I couldn’t really write the truth,” she says. In those spaces, which are “sacred,” she says, “people let their guard down.” Rather than inadvertently expose any secrets, she decided to fictionalize the experience.
As for why she chose the audio format, she made the decision based in part on suggestions from her readers, with whom she communicates regularly. Many expressed their love for stories delivered in audio format (Barrie is also an audio fan) and which feature “strong queer storylines.” Another benefit: publishing online meant that she could bypass the traditional publishing route, which can take up to two or three years for any one project. With the recent loss of the nightlife, which is crucial to her story, Barrie “didn’t want to wait two years. There was a sense of urgency that I wanted to honor.”
The end result, and the setting for much of “Girls on Jane” is Dolly’s bar on Jane Street somewhere in the West Village, where an eclectic conglomerate of queer women meet, including damaged model and professional liar, Knife; bar owner and Nigerian oil heiress, Serafina; and a queer magazine writer, Violet, based loosely on Barrie.
Set in the mid aughts, “Girls on Jane” — named for the real West Village street that is the location for the fictional Dolly’s — explores the characters’ personal crises and sexual escapades as they navigate life and the lesbian dating scene. It’s a world away from Covid, a throwback to the time when meeting people required more than simply swiping right.
“If you wanted to go out and meet someone, if you wanted to find love, you had to go physically to these spaces,” says Barrie, who herself came out in the mid aughts, and was new to the scene about which she now writes. “I long for the days of real-life connection. I think there’s nothing more special than going to a bar and being nervous, and socially anxious … but dealing with it because you want to meet people, and you want to connect.”
Politics made this time appealing, too. Set on the cusp of the Obama years, and before marriage equality, “we felt like we were on the brink of something new, like a new beginning. And that permeated through everything. And you could feel that energy, of being on the brink of change.”
Perhaps ironically, the post-Covid world might not be all that different from the one Barrie came of lesbian age in. Following our over year-long quarantine, Barrie believes, “we realized how empty these digital connections can be. I’ve been going out to lesbian bars, and they’re alive again. And people are flirting again and interacting and there’s also that feeling of change being in the air.”
And what has lesbian nightlife been like, now that it’s back on? “Hedonistic. In the best way,” Barrie says. It also very much resembles the world of the mid-aughts, which we see dramatized in “Girls on Jane.” “People were making out wildly on the dance floor, people were getting dressed up, the sexual tension was there, and I felt this huge sigh of relief. Even though some of the stuff that happens in the underbelly of nightlife is dangerous, there’s something so alive about it. It felt like that was back and that, to me, is such the heartbeat of New York.”
Of course, there are some changes between life then and now. Barrie is now married, has one book under her belt, and is “more comfortable in my life” than she was when she first came out. But that time of coming out, while both “challenging and terrifying” was also “magical.” She likens it to opening a Pandora’s box: “You do this thing that is so hard that you could get rejected by your family and society … but you do it anyway,” she says. “Because living your truth is so important.”
She’ll explore more of the characters’ coming out in the second season of “Girls on Jane,” which will delve more into their backstories. We’ll learn “why … these issues [are] these issues, what is still haunting them,” she says.
She also found that there were some avenues in season two that she hadn’t necessarily anticipated. “Everything that I didn’t think was a big deal in season one caught up with season two, like that one comment, or that one aside or someone using substances a little too much,” she says. “That thing didn’t just go away because they’re in a healthy relationship. Now, it manifested into something else.”
As for Violet, whose own story has parallels to Barrie’s, Barrie hadn’t set out to make Violet in her own image. “She’s almost like the shadow side of me,” Barrie says. Violet’s also a bit of a cypher for the other characters, who have a difficult time knowing what to make of her. That’s because Violet is “disruptive … she’s not someone that can be put into a box,” Barrie says. “I think that she is sensitive. She is intelligent, but she’s also a massive, glorious fuckup.” Violet will start to grow more comfortable in her own skin, and her potential, “is huge. But right now, she’s definitely getting into her own way.”
Barrie, too, has gotten more comfortable with herself, especially as a writer, and especially since taking on a new genre. As a nonfiction writer, the transition to fiction wasn’t one she once believed she could make. “I was always like, ‘Oh, unless I’m writing about my life, or unless it’s real, I don’t have the chops to do fiction,” she says, “When I just stopped that narrative in my head and just went for it, it ended up helping me discover a whole thing inside of me I didn’t know existed.
“I know I’m still learning, I have such a long way to go” she adds, as our interview draws to a close, “but I love it. And it’s been one of the biggest gifts of the last decade, realizing I could do this.”
You can read or listen to “Girls on Jane” online at girlsonjane.com. The second season premieres on November 30.