Barbara Greenleaf
Author Barbara Greenleaf says she’s always had “a real entrepreneurial bent but, when I was growing up, girls didn’t go into business.” With Animal Kingdom, the first book in a new series, she hopes to encourage teenagers to pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams.  (Elite Henenson / Noozhawk photo)

Young adult fiction titles abound in bookstores these days, but local author Barbara Greenleaf has managed to come up with an original — and effective — twist for her new novel, Animal Kingdom. The former journalist and successful entrepreneur (not to mention founder of the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival) recently sat down with Noozhawk’s Leslie Dinaberg to talk about the first in a series of books she has planned for business-minded teenagers.

Leslie Dinaberg: Tell me about your inspiration for Animal Kingdom.

Barbara Greenleaf: My daughter, who was a college dropout, not a high school dropout (like the character in the book), was taking time off and she managed a pet store that was very similar to this. It was old-fashioned, it was small, it was in kind of a funny neighborhood, and she had these wonderful stories, so I wrote them down. … She was my inspiration.

LD: Had the idea been percolating long?

BG: I had bits and pieces. You know, you’re a writer; you never let good material go to waste. So I had a lot of bits and pieces, but then I had to modernize it.

LD: You have a background in publishing and journalism and you’ve written a lot of books, but is this your first foray into fiction?

BG: It’s my first published foray. I did a novel about Courtney Love that got the greatest rejections; they were better than the novel.

LD: What is the series going to be?

BG: I had a real entrepreneurial bent but, when I was growing up, girls didn’t go into business. And it was only when I couldn’t stand writing one more second, the isolation of doing books, I went back to work and I loved it. People said, “How could you want to punch a time clock?” And I said, “After being freelance, believe me, I do.”

My last book was Help: A Handbook for Working Mothers, but I used to look at magazines that showed women in their suits with their little ties and whatnot the way other people would drool over a teen idol. I couldn’t wait to get dressed up and get out of the house.

The inner entrepreneur in me was awakened when we moved to California. I was working for a satellite communications company, putting together video conferences and doing advertising and PR. So I started and sold two businesses, one to a public company and one I split in half into two companies.

I really love business and I would like to give teens the encouragement and the knowledge that I never had as a kid. Or the possibility, even, that you can go into business.

A lot of kids are not geniuses in school, and that’s how our society defines success in children’s younger years — how well they do in school. Sometimes I think if you are a square peg in the round hole of school you’re going to do even better in business because you’re not waiting to be patted on the head for getting a good mark on a test. You realize it’s up to you … so it’s almost an advantage — unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg — not to be the greatest student. And that’s what this teen series is about. I’ll be interviewing a lot of business people and ultimately compiling their tips for teens in the third book.

I felt that going the fiction route instead of having a how-to for kids would bring them into this world.

LD: When will the next book come out?

BG: Spring. I’ve just finished the full draft, which is always a thrill because for a writer, as you know, the scariest thing is to look at that blank piece of paper. So I have a beginning, middle and end, I have the characters. That boy is going to find himself through food service. He’s going to have a caterer job, he’s going to do a bunch of things and ultimately have a food truck. … My third one is going to be about a boy who gets involved in some aspect of the ecology movement or environmental movement. He’s going to take away waste that companies would ordinarily chuck, and he’s going to make sure that it’s turned into something usable in our society.

All of the books I hope will have issues. I hope they’re rich. Here the issue (in Animal Kingdom) is animal rights, the next issue is the way we eat. I’m going to have omnivores, flexivores, vegans, vegetarians, sustainable agriculture; you can see my nonfiction roots showing.

LD: But that’s good. I think that gives them some authenticity that not all fiction has.

BG: I hope so, and I hope the kids will get that aspect of it as well as starting a business. It’s tough to start a business so I’m pretty realistic about how it makes you feel as a business owner never being able to walk away from it. It’s a thrill but it’s also a great responsibility. So my hero at 17 is going to want to be a kid many times, too.

LD: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

BG: I didn’t major in journalism but I knew I was a writer. When I was, I think, 10 or 11, I wrote to the editor of The Wall Street Journal and, bless his heart, he wrote back. I still have the letter and he said to me whatever you do don’t go to journalism school. Get your experience and you’ll be a much better journalist for it. I thought it was the only thing I could do. But then with my last two books, I did those book and author tours and I found I could speak, so I began to think maybe there is more to me than just being a researcher and a writer. I went back to school in urban planning, went into the business world and then everything came together with this book.

LD: Where can people buy it?

BG: Chaucer’s and Tecolote. They can get it on Amazon but they have to search “Animal Kingdom Greenleaf” because the Disney Co. has come out with the exact same title and they get a few more hits than I do.

LD: In addition to being an author you’re the founder of the Jewish Film Festival. How did you decide to start that?

BG: I read an article in Hadassah Magazine about the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I had never heard of a Jewish film festival. I was so blown away by it that, as my husband tells the story, I turned to him and said, “You know what this town needs? A Jewish film festival!”

It just seemed like we are quite a secular community and a cultural community so I began to investigate. I went to a conference of Jewish film festival directors.

LD: They have those?

BG: Believe it or not, yeah. In the old days there was the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and they sponsored it, and the more experienced hands took me under their wing. So I had wonderful mentors and we began. We’re now in our sixth iteration.

Santa Barbara has embraced it very warmly and we get all spectrums of all segments of the Jewish community, as well as movie buffs from the general community or those who have a particular interest in film.

We try to come out with a mix of features, documentaries, shorts, films that are from Israel, the United States, foreign countries, controversial — some controversial anyway, that show Jews around the world. Talk about who knew? We’ve shown films about Jews in India, Ireland, the United States, Africa, this year will be Argentina. … Every film has to illuminate some aspect of the Jewish experience. Should I tell you now about our filmmaker in residence?

LD: Oh, yes.

BG: Joan Micklin Silver, who was the director of Crossing Delancey, is coming and she is apparently working on two documentaries. One is the history of the bagel and the other is the history of the Catskills, the home of Jewish humor and humorists anyway. … Last year we had Kenneth Turan, we’ve had Paul Mazursky, we’ve had Academy Award-winner Martin Landau — we try to keep a high standard.

I’ll tell you, Leslie, this film festival has made a Jew out of me. I had no background, and when you see, when you feel — really because you know movies get you in the heart — you can’t help but have the greatest admiration for what this people have gone through. I hope that people feel the same way here. It’s our touch of Yiddish.

If we lived in New York or even in L.A. maybe we wouldn’t feel the need as much, but everyone seems to love it. I don’t speak Yiddish but I know the word mishpocheh. (It means “family,” as in “Relax, you’re mishpocheh. I’ll sell it to you at wholesale.”) They like to get together with the whole mishpocheh and feel a time when life was more homogenized.

There has to be a reason to be Jewish today, so I really do try to show contemporary Jewish films. … Because we’re a people, we’re a religion, we’re a cuisine, we’re a sense of humor, and we are so many aspects, I think, in addition to going to temple.

Vital Stats: Barbara Greenleaf

Born: New York

Family: Husband Jon, two grown daughters and three grandchildren

Civic Involvement: Founder, Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival; volunteer in the virtual enterprise program at Santa Barbara High School; was on front lines in fight to save agricultural lands from development; Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara

Professional Accomplishments: Writer for The Book of Knowledge and The New York Times, where she worked in the book and education department. Author of four nonfiction books, including America Fever, a history of immigration; Children Through the Ages: A History of Childhood; Help: A Handbook for Working Mothers; and a juvenile biography of civil rights figure A. Philip Randolph entitled Forward March to Freedom. She is a former contributing editor at McCall’s Working Mother and has written for Newsday, Journal of the American Management Association, Vassar Quarterly, Westchester, Brides Magazine, Rockland Psychiatric Research Institute and the RAND Corp.. She is a former spokeswoman for Conoco Inc. (now ConocoPhillips) and headed the advertising and public relations department of VideoStar Connections, then founded Greenleaf Video, a mail-order purveyor of nonfiction videos to schools, libraries and colleges. After selling it to a public company, she started Strategic Communications/LA, a corporate communications, public relations, advertising and fund-raising firm whose clients included Arthur Andersen, Price Waterhouse, spcaLA and the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County.

Best Book You’ve Read Recently: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I also liked Start-up Nation about Israel. I just finished Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.”

Favorite Local Spot: “I love ribs; I go to Woody’s. I like barbecue. We of, course, love to walk on the beach and I love the little getaways. Just going up to Santa Ynez for a day is so terrific, going to Ventura for the day is great.”

Little-Known Fact: “I love to fly fish.”

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieDinaberg.