I’m so pleased to welcome the lovely and talented Sherri L. Smith, author of YA and middle-grade fiction featuring some of the strongest and most interesting female protagonists in the genre.
RLM: If you could not longer writer (fiction OR nonfiction) what would you do for a living?
SS: Hmm. If I couldn’t be a writer, I would want to be a dancer, or learn an instrument and be a song writer. Is that allowed? Otherwise, I’d be a baker. I make pretty good cookies. But the truth is, I’d probably just be a basket case. Writing (like reading) is fundamental to me.
SS: The very first piece of fiction I sold was a poem and activity to Ladybug magazine. It was called “Snowberries” and was about making ice cream from snow, which my father used to do when I was a kid.
RLM: What does your writing process look like (from first inspiration to finished product)?
SS: My process usually begins with an image or a title or a challenge to myself, “I wonder if I could do that?” From there, I write down the images and ideas that spring to mind. Next, I define my story in three sentences, expand those to an outline, and start to write. When the draft is done, I wait a little while, re-read it, do a new outline based on what’s on the page, and rinse, repeat until it’s as good as I can make it!
RLM: And how many hours a day do you spend writing?
SS: The amount of writing time varies wildly. I have a day job, so most weeks it’s an hour or so after dinner. However, if I’m on a roll or a deadline, I can cram about 3 hours into the evening. Then there are days, even weeks where very little physical writing happens. That’s when the ideas are brewing. Or I’m just taking a break!
RLM: What for you is the most difficult part of the writing process?
SS: For me, the hardest part about writing is accepting my editor’s notes. Even if they are the best, most insightful notes in the world, I usually take a day or two to feel misunderstood by an unjust world. And then I look at the page, see what can be better, and I get back to work.
RLM: What is the easiest?
SS: The easiest part is coming up with the initial idea. I tell my husband I’m a story factory. Ideas come left and right. But that doesn’t mean they come fully-fleshed and complete. There’s a lot of thinking and tinkering and false paths to follow before you figure out what the story wants to be. I enjoy that, as well. But just the, “Hey, what if an X and a Y did Z?” is just plain fun.
RLM: What authors do you like to read?
SS: I go on cyclical binges. I spent a year reading period mysteries. I get caught up in a certain flavor of story and want more, until I run out of “If you liked this, you’ll love that” suggestions. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy growing up. Oddly, that’s not my go to arena anymore. I’ve become more of a dabbler.
RLM: What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
SS: I enjoy reading China Mieville because he is both brilliant and insane. Neil Gaiman because he is brilliant and fearless. I have enjoyed Laurie R. King, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Kerry Greenwood, Alcott, Austen, Hemingway and Faulkner. I think classic fairy tales have had the most influence on my work. And then I turn to various authors who have done something well to figure out how to do it in my own work. Stephen King and David Eddings come to mind, for setting a scene, or writing the feeling of a song. And Frank Herbert for worldbuilding.
RLM: What do you think most characterizes your writing?
SS: I write books about identity and finding one’s tribe. They are all about figuring out who you want to be, not just who you think you are or who you are supposed to be. Lots of interesting female protagonists (and my first male protag in the upcoming middle grade The Toymaker’s Apprentice). I like the world of the story to be fully realized. Oh, and apparently can I make people cry.
RLM: How do you react to a bad review of one of your books?
SS: I get grumpy, like any other human being. And then I try to see it from the reviewer’s perspective. Usually it means they weren’t the right reader for the book. I’m proud of what I’ve written and, even things that aren’t perfect have merit. So I grouse, try to glean some insight from it, then shake it off, and move on.
RLM: You’ve had a fascinating and varied career. Has anything from your work experience ended up in your books?
SS: That’s an interesting question. Writing is such a goulash of ideas, I know that there are moments, lines, characteristics of people I’ve met that end up in the work in one form or another. Working in animation at Disney and, before then, in film has definitely influenced my writing style. I’m very visual as a result. More specifically, I’d say it’s the personalities and feelings I’ve experienced or witnessed that end up resurfacing, rather than actual moments from the job.
RLM: Give me a weird or fun fact about one of your books/stories.
SS: My new book, The Toymaker’s Apprentice, is a middle grade historical fantasy based on the original story of the Nutcracker by E.T. A. Hoffman, that also inspired the ballet. In the world of the book, animals are intelligent and form their own kingdoms. One of the kingdoms of mice has declared war on humanity, starting with the human boy hero of the book. At some point, there is a chase across countries. My editor expressed concern that mice couldn’t possibly hope to catch up to a human on the run. This is where the thoroughness of world building sets in: I researched the average and top speeds of humans and mice, then Google mapped directions from one country to the other (thank goodness Google includes “walking” miles). It took some math, and a little finessing, but I believe a motivated mouse army could definitely stay hard on the heels of the average human on foot. My editor, Shauna Rossano, likes to make sure we go the extra mile in believability, even in a fantasy novel.
For the record, mice apparently have a top speed of 8.1 miles/hour. That falls squarely in the “weird” category, right?
RLM: Absolutely. That’s actually faster than I would have given them credit for!
RLM: Sum up what you’ve learned as a writer in four sentences or less.
SS: I’ve learned not to give up. Listen to the voice of the story and tell it to the page, not the people, until it’s done. And just keep writing. Enjoy it!
RLM: What’s next on the horizon from you?
SS: The Toymaker’s Apprentice comes out October 13th. I’m super excited to have it come out before the holidays. So, I’ll be spending part of the fall promoting the book. I’ll be in Portland, the Bay Area and New York. I’m currently working on my next young adult novel, a noir mystery called Pasadena. It’s edgier than my previous books, and follows a girl investigating the death of her best friend. I’m also at work on a middle grade nonfiction book and a graphic novel. A fair amount of things on the horizon, I guess, but what a lovely view!