Barry Hoffman is no slouch when it comes to speaking his mind about subjects deemed too taboo by common societal standards. As the publisher of Gauntlet Magazine, he peeled back the corners of “off limits” topics ranging from racial equality to pornography to everything between, all designed to be read and contemplated and learned from. An inner-city school teacher for thirty years, he examined how we develop relationships and co-mingle despite and because of our differences during our most vulnerable and influential early years.
With words for weapons, Barry went from kicking down barriers of censorship with Gauntlet Press Magazine to celebrating classic horror authors with his Bram Stoker award wining Gauntlet Press Publication so that writers like Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson could get the modern treatment they so deserve. With several critically acclaimed novels of his own to his name, Barry’s stories tend to play host to strong female characters who are often forced to utilize their flaws as well as their strengths to survive a world not designed to be merciful to the weak of mind or heart.
Track of My Tears, with gorgeous cover art from the always fantastic Harry O’Morris, is Barry’s thirteenth novel to date and takes its tragic inspiration from true events. ‘Tears is set on a University campus and tells a horrific story of rape culture while exploring the dark conspiracies hidden in plain sight behind a well protected curtain of lies. ‘Tears is about the corrupt side of human nature and the desperate measures taken to get away with it all. It’s about speaking out when you know something’s not right. It’s about exposing human behaviours at their heroic best as well as their unmercifully worst. Mostly, Track of My Tears is the reality-based story about bringing the truth – no matter how painful – into the blazing light of day before more lives can be shattered by the very people who have pledged to keep our children safe.
Welcome to Barry Hoffman’s world in which we discuss his latest novel.
HELL NOTES: Barry, while you obviously took liberties at changing the names of your characters and other details of the real-life horror the book is based on, how much research and factual aspects of the real-life Baylor University scandal went into the making of Track of My Tears?
BARRY HOFFMAN: As you know there was a lot of reporting on the Baylor scandal including statements by at least one woman who was raped. I followed all the reporting on the case (ESPN’s Outside The Lines was a great source with impeccable reporting). Tracks of My Tears puts the Baylor scandal on steroids with a booster running the cover-up (resorting to violence) and others in the administration also involved (all of which is fiction). For previous books I had done a good deal of research on the trauma of rape. It was a matter of going through my notes to show the impact any rape has on the victim. While the characters I create are fictional the depression that results from date rape is all to real. I also interviewed some women raped or sexually harassed who are still coping with the trauma. I found that (as a crime) rape is more insidious than murder because the victim has to live with its impact for a lifetime. Years later a noise, smell or voice can trigger PTSD which had been long dormant. Yet, there are statutes of limitations that at times make it impossible to prosecute rapists (which include priests just recently reported on). And, the sentences for rapists still pale to what they should be. We hear of those cases where someone like Larry Nassar ends up with life in prison, but don’t forget the California college student who got off with a six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman (and served three months).
HL: When I first received Track of My Tears it had a working title of Blowback. Why the change?
BH: The Blowback title deals with the violence faced by the main character and those who were working with her during the investigation — murder, kidnapping, a cyber attack and a beating. When I finished the book I decided that the trauma of date rape victims was the more important message of the book, hence the change in the title.
HL: I love how familiar characters pop up that I’ve already met from previous novels of yours, some of them playing key roles here while others simply pass through. Yet, there was no supernatural elements to be found here. How tough was it for you to steer clear of the supernatural this time around? Was it even a decision you had to consider?
BH: I take every novel I write as an individual entity. After I wrote Tracks of My Tears I wrote a female version of Lord of the Flies (it was inspired by the novel but has little resemblance to it). In that novel the use of the supernatural was required. In Tears the horror of date rape and the trauma young woman have to endure is the focus of the book. Adding the supernatural would, I felt, dilute from both the horror these young woman face and distract from the plot. It was a no-brainer. I think the inspiration for this decision came from Richard Matheson. He wrote in many different genres (horror, fantasy, westerns, mysteries and more). The subject matter of the book dictated whether he would involve the supernatural. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony with each novel driven by a supernatural aspect. For Tears it was an easy decision to go straight for the jugular with real life horror (and later redemption) without any supernatural aspects.
I’m glad you mentioned characters from past novels who make appearances in Tears. More than the plot it’s my characters who drive my novels and I enjoy adding layers to them from book to book. I even envision the day when all of these characters join together to solve some mammoth conspiracy. It may never occur but it’s a thought I sometimes play with.
HL: While I appreciate your talent in guiding the reader through the varying viewpoints of both the attackers and the victims, I was most intrigued by the respectful way you explored how a lack of judgement or mistaken interpretation could almost be plausible in certain situations. Why do you feel it was worth exploring this grey area of perspective along with all the other more polarizing points of right and wrong?
BH: Over the years in my research of date rape there has been an argument by some males and even females that the sex was consensual even when the woman at the last moment changed her mind. You have young men and women controlled by their hormones get to a point sexually where the female saying no is misinterpreted. I may not agree with this interpretation, but with all but one of the women in Tracks having been raped beyond question there are two women where there are mitigating circumstances, one in particular which puts the date rape in a gray area. In one the woman herself questions whether she was raped. It’s like pulling the pin of a hand grenade and tossing the pin away. Can you put it back? The other case (I won’t go into specifics because it would be a major spoiler) the woman says no for a reason she condemns herself for later. It further adds to her depression. I intentionally work in those grey areas because little in life is black and white. However, all of the males in the book acknowledge to themselves they have committed date rape. Their football coach convinces them to cover the rape up, but there is no doubt in their minds they were guilty. Tears is a thriller and I hope the reader is riveted by the twists and turns that occur. At the same time I want to give the reader something to think about. Is redemption possible for a male guilty of date rape. I pose the question with a plot turn.
HL: As I write this, my new provincial government has actually fought to revert sex education in public schools back to the out of date program it used to be in 1998. How important do you feel it is to educate our children on sexual culture and awareness at a young age and who’s shoulders should these sexual teachings, or at the very least, the advocacy of these teachings, fall on first and foremost?
BH: It’s essential for schools to teach safe and healthy sexual practices as well as provide condoms for adolescent students. Kids today are exposed to sex on a daily basis, whether it be through television or the ever present cell phone. And not everything on Snapchat or Instagram is accurate. Moreover, there are stalkers on the Internet posing as sympathetic friends who are actually pedophiles. It’s up to schools to provide the needed education. Just as important, parents have to take responsibility for having open non-judgmental discussions with their children. Ultimately, parents are responsible for setting their kids straight.
HL: Above all else, what do you hope readers take away with them long after they’ve read the final pages of Tracks of My Tears?
BH: The college atmosphere today lends itself to the potential of date rape. Whether it be fraternities and sororities or parties held at off campus apartments the prevalence of alcohol and drugs makes the possibility of date rape extremely high. You also have to add peer pressure to the equation. Young women have to learn to be able to say no and if they are victimized to go to the proper authorities rather than hide in shame. I also hope those reading Tracks of My Tears come away with the knowledge that women can’t handle date rape alone. Whether it be a therapist, family or friends they must confront the trauma they are suffering and not be shamed into hiding their assault. Recovery is possible but those attacked need a support network to help them through the inevitable bad days. Moreover there is strength in numbers. At the conclusion of Tracks women stand together and gain empowerment. Their rape may define them for months or years but they can take back their lives. Readers, hopefully, see the book as a tale of redemption not despair.
HL: As an author, where do you go after completing such a harrowing tale from your muse? Do you take a shower? Hit the nearest bar? Write a book about butterflies and ponies? In other words, what’s next?
BH: I tackled a project that was ten years in the making — the female Lord of the Flies tale that I’ve just completed (and kept putting off because it seemed like such a massive undertaking). Unlike my other books it consists of all new characters — 24 women stranded on a deserted island. It was totally different from any other novel I had written. I was able to separate myself from Tears with 24 young women each vying for my attention.
With that complete I was drawn back to the characters of Tracks of My Tears. Before concluding the novel I was intrigued by several characters, two of which, appeared near the end of the novel and were underdeveloped. I wanted to explore them more. The plot deals with college cheerleaders who are victimized (another ripped from the headlines plot). I have a new villain whose identity (unlike Tears) we learn right from the start. There’s a wonderful cat and mouse game between this character and Asha and her ever-expanding crew or strong women. It’s really difficult to abandon these characters, along with past characters who make appearances in the novel.