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Journalist meets author

The original woman on fire

It’s a gripping tale of a gutsy journalist who becomes embroiled in a major international art scandal, centred on a Nazi-looted masterpiece. The AJN spoke to investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author Lisa Barr about Woman on Fire.

Lisa Barr was on the ground at the White House witnessing the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. Yet, that isn’t her most memorable moment from her investigative journalism career to date.

Rather, it was her interview with Leah Rabin, as she grieved the loss of her husband following his assassination.

In the Rabin’s home in Tel Aviv, Barr said her heart was palpitating as she went up in the lift.

“We had a four-hour interview,” she recalled while chatting to The AJN over Zoom from her home in the US.

“And I asked her a specific question. I said ‘Mrs Rabin, is he proud of you that you have mothered an entire nation while you, yourself, are going through deep pain, having lost your husband of 47 years?’ And she looked at me, this stoic woman, and she burst out crying.”

Barr describes how they sat together, journalist and widow, no separation, just tears and comfort. The pair stayed friends, right up until Rabin’s passing in 2000, with Barr writing that the way she approaches her work – as a journalist and an author – is always with the same care that she approached her story with Rabin.

“I not only have to report a story, I have to feel it deeply before I can write it,” she wrote for JTA in 2015.

Barr has covered some heavy-duty stories during her career. One of which she has written into her latest book, Woman on Fire.

While still in high school, as part of an internship, Barr was approached by a special law enforcement unit to be used as bait to help break a sex trafficking ring. Jules Roth, the journalist in Woman on Fire, tells a similar story.

“Out of all my characters that I’ve ever created, she is the most me,” Barr explained. “At that moment, I really knew that I wanted to become a journalist and go after the big stories.”

The other experience that had a huge impact on Barr? Covering an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called Degenerate Art: The Face of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany.

“When I walked into that exhibit, I had what I would say is called an ‘aha moment’,” Barr said. “I saw all these master works that were deemed degenerate, deplorable, forbidden by the Nazis and in that moment, I knew not that I was just covering a story, but that I had found my story.”

Barr notes that this was before stolen art became a trending topic, before The Monuments Men, before Woman in Gold. From that moment, she began to deep dive into the world of stolen art.

“I not only have to report a story, I have to feel it deeply before I can write it.”

Barr’s first novel, Fugitive Colours, had stolen art as its background, written from the perspective of the artists. With everyone demanding a sequel, Barr felt something different needed to be said.

Describing her “happy place” as “being surrounded by piles of books and documents, finding all the exciting details”, the self-confessed research geek spent years researching her first novel, and needed a bit of a break. Until COVID-19 locked her down.

“I wanted to go back to a time and place that I loved, when I was a young journalist, idealistic, who would take on assignments and never saw consequences,” Barr laughed.

“It was an amazing time in my life, and I tackled a lot of intense stories. So, I thought, if I’m going to be locked down in COVID, I’m going to work on a protagonist that I can really connect to.”

Jules, she said, is a true reflection of herself, and a nod to her own personal “land of women”. With three daughters in her house, Barr made a conscious decision to make the two main characters of Woman on Fire female – both equally passionate in their truths.

“It’s a young journalist pitted against a very seasoned, savvy art dealer. That was a very conscious decision to make it a woman versus woman showdown. And I think the art dealer looked at the young woman and didn’t see her as a threat, and that was the young woman’s weapon because she was underestimated,” Barr said.

Barr explained that all her books have a news nugget connected to them. For Woman on Fire, it was the Munich Art Hoard.

“I saw all these master works that were deemed degenerate, deplorable, forbidden by the Nazis and in that moment, I knew not that I was just covering a story, but that I had found my story.”

Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of one of Hitler’s art thieves Hildebrand Gurlitt, tasked with confiscating priceless art collections from Jews, was found to have approximately 1500 masterpieces around his apartment – from Chagall to Picasso and everyone in between.

Barr’s novel follows the story of fictional Expressionist artist Ernst Engel’s famous work Woman on Fire as multiple characters try to locate the masterpiece, each as passionate as the next about staking their claim.

While journalist Jules is based on Barr, the author reveals that there are a couple of other characters who reflect real people. Perhaps the most special is Lilian, inspired by Barr’s grandmother.

“I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and my grandmother was my best friend,” she said lovingly. “She’s the voice in my head and she’s the reason I write and tackle subjects like stolen art.”

When asked whether it is hard to move from investigative journalism to fiction, Barr is honest in her answer, explaining that it is both a blessing and a curse.

“Having my investigative journalist background, I have ingrained in my head ‘no stone left’,” Barr explained. “Until I am seeing my sources on repeat, then I’m satisfied. So, it takes me a little longer to get there.”

Her journalism background comes in handy when leaving a cliff-hanger. After all, as Barr says, that’s her boot camp training. This includes, of course, making sure all her facts are correct. And she does love being able to describe things in minute detail.

“As a journalist, you have to take out all the adjectives, as an author, you get to throw them all back in,” she laughed.

Woman on Fire has struck such a chord that Sharon Stone has now optioned the rights, and will produce and star in a film version.

Barr explained that she decided to choose one celebrity to send an advanced copy to. Believing that Sharon Stone is the original woman on fire, Barr sent it off believing she was going to be completely sidelined. Until she received a text message from Stone herself who said she absolutely loved the book.

“I was like mic drop,” Barr laughed.

“I was out of my mind excited. It was a dream moment. She’s lovely and kind and generous. That was a very exciting moment in the story of this book and its journey.”

Woman on Fire is published by Welbeck Publishing, $32.99 rrp

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