Fiction Reboot Author Interview: Stephanie Smith

Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot!

Today, I am pleased to host Stephanie Smith, author of the recently released Warpaint, and a professor at the University of Florida.

Thank you, Stephanie, for giving us your thoughts on the writing (and academic) life!

_________________________

AUTHOR BIO

Stephanie Smith took her PhD from Berkeley in 1990, and is a Professor of English at the University of Florida. Examining the intersections of science, literature, politics, race and gender, her essays appear in such journals as differences, Criticism, Genders, American Literature and American Literary History. A 1998 Visiting NEH Scholar at UCLA, she is the author of Conceived By Liberty and Household Words, as well as three novels, Snow-Eyes, The Boy Who Was Thrown Away and Other Nature. She has held fiction residencies at Dorland, Norcroft and Hedgebrook. In September of 2012, the first novel in a trilogy to be published by Thames River Press in London, Warpaint, will be launched, to be followed by Baby Rocket (Dec. 2012) and Content Burns (Spring, 2012). Currently she is also at work on a book about publishing and American letters, The Muse and the Marketplace.

WAR PAINT

A haunting tale of friendship and rivalry between three women artists, who’ve known each other for years, who must come to terms with imminent mortality and artistic frustration: Liz Moore, born poor in Minnesota, fought her way to New York in the 1920s, but isn’t “discovered” until late in life; C.C. Davis, a well-to-do New Yorker is Moore’s only student, and rival, who, just after WWII achieves some small success, but feels, as she faces cancer in 2002, a failure; and Quiola Kerr, part Ojibwe, once C.C.’s lover, who is caught in the middle, and who, as a painter in the 21st century, has the most doubts about art’s value in an electronic world. In April 2002, all three meet a week before C.C.’s mastectomy at a MOMA retrospective for Liz Moore, but their reunion is tense. Still, they try to cope, until C.C. makes an unexpected and controversial choice, one which nearly breaks the bonds these three took so many decades to forge, and forces Quiola to try to confront Liz, who she believes deliberately sabotaged C.C.’s career. War-paint (Sept. 2012) is the first of three, intertwined novels from Thames River Press, all of which deal with contemporary women who are struggling to balance art, love, illness and trauma; the second, Baby Rocket (Dec. 2012) is the story of an abandoned, adopted child, who, as an adult, must heal these ruptures in her past, and Content Burns follows two women in the same family separated by three centuries, both of whom survive historical trauma: the massacre of the Pequot tribe in 1637 and the loss of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences?

Yes, Asimov’s quote describes me—I write because I am. I met him once, when I was still a college student, and Asimov’s magazine published one of my first short stories. I started writing when I was just a little kid, and illustrated my own stories, since I love also to paint and sketch. The first story I remember writing at the age of six or so was called “Christmas with the Stumbles” about a family that kept knocking each other over. Not Pulitzer material! I started writing seriously in grade school and knew by the time I was in high school that I wanted to be a writer; I went to Westfield High School in NJ and worked on the high school magazine Folio, along with the poet and critic James Longenbach, who is also now a professor at the University of Rochester. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I dedicated time every day to my own work.

2. Many authors (myself included) come from academic backgrounds where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. As a full professor at a major research university, can you say a bit about when you decided to “write for real”—that decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it deserves? On a related note, how do you balance your time as an academic and an author?

As I said, I started “writing for real” in college. My college room-mate (Anne Kibbie is now a professor of 18th C. British lit. at Bowdoin in Maine) wanted to be a poet and I wanted to be a novelist, so we kept each other on track and read each other’s work. She told me to find a living author I truly admired and take a class from him or her, because having encouragement and praise from someone I truly admired would be a real drug. So I chose Ursula K. LeGuin and during the summer after I graduated from college, I took a workshop (Haystack from Portland State University) from her (and two other women SF writers, Vonda N. McIntyre and Elizabeth Lynn).

The experience was mind-blowing and as a result, I moved to Portland, Oregon to be close to her, and to continue to work with her, which I did for about 5 years. I also leaned very heavily on Vonda McIntyre, who was unbelievably generous and kind, when I was more or less a kid. Both of these women read my work for me. In fact, Ursula invited me up to her home to write in the mornings, as she did, before I went off to my evening job at Willamette Weekly, and that’s how my first fantasy YA novel, Snow-Eyes got written. She read it for me, and encouraged me to send it to her editor, the late Jean Karl at Atheneum, who was a marvelous editor. The book was published in 1985, and in that same year, I was accepted into the English graduate program at UC Berkeley (as a medievalist) because being an academic was the only job I could think of that would let me write as part of my job description. But I did not want an MFA, I wanted a PhD. My experience with MFA programs (as an undergraduate at BU) was not a happy one: I became convinced that all you learned at a university program was how to write like the instructor. Plus I’m a very, very serious person. Too serious, some might say, very “intense.” Scholarship and research appeal to that side of me. I LOVED graduate school—everything about it, the work, the competition, the politics, the drive! You have to be driven to do a PhD, especially at Berkeley. I did mine in 5 years, while publishing my second YA novel and starting my third SF novel. But when I took my job at the University of Florida, things changed.

The department at UF in 1990 was a very, very hostile place to anyone trying to do both fiction and criticism, most particularly hostile to anyone writing what they call genre fiction and some folks weren’t too happy about my feminism, either, so I was told my fiction “did not count” and I was actively discouraged and in fact on several occasions, insulted. Part of this had to do with my feminist politics, part with the fact that I wrote fantasy and SF, part having to do with the culture of the department which had been hostile to junior professors for years. In 1995 when my first academic book (Conceived By Liberty) came out from Cornell and my first SF novel Other Nature was published by TOR, I started to want to branch out a little, to try something different—which made my F/SF publishers unhappy. And so I’ve waited a long, long, long time for my desire to expand bear fruit, but I signed a three-novel contract with Thames River Press in London for the novels I’ve been writing since 1995, and the first one, Warpaint comes out this September 15 (2012). How do I balance my time? Not easily. I get up very early (4:30-5 am) to write fiction first thing in the day. Everyday.

3. I know that your research concerns intersections of science, literature, politics, race and gender—though I recognize such matters don’t always make it into mainstream fiction. Could you say a bit about how this perspective affects your work as a fiction author?

My interests in science, literature, politics, race and gender tends to make everything I write fairly complex and unpredictable, and mainstream American popular culture is just not either unpredictable or complex. But being interested in this unusual nexus of interests makes for a fascinating set of concerns, at least to my mind. Let me put this another way—science and fiction several centuries ago were not that far apart: mythology and alchemy are good examples of this, and I like to keep alive the sense that we must make sense of our world by telling tales that explain what we experience.

4. Related to Q3, has writing fiction changed your perspective on research? On teaching?

No, writing fiction came first for me so it really hasn’t changed my perspective on research. If you want to know something you haven’t been taught, haven’t ever studied or haven’t experienced you either have to research it or try to experience it. For example, something I’m working on now concerns marine biology. I am not a marine biologist. So I went and talked to marine biologists here at the University of Florida, got their advice and such—people are remarkably helpful when you just ask!

5. Your latest work, part of a trilogy, carefully treats the struggles of four women—with each other and with themselves. What led you to the topic, and is it an outgrowth of other projects? How do you perceive your audience?

I became interested in women artists not only because I think of myself as one, but because I went to a lecture years and years ago at the Harn Museum of Art at UF about American women painters and how under-appreciated and unknown they tend to be compared to their male counterparts. Many people of heard of Jackson Pollack, for example, but not of his partner, Lee Krasner. I was one such person. Knew lots about male artists and the only female artist I could name was Georgia O’Keefe. So I started educating myself. This led me to think seriously about other endeavors where women have done remarkable things, but are relatively unknown. The second book in the trilogy features women pilots and astronauts; the third looks backward in time to the twin dates of 1637 and 2000 to think through American women who have experienced extreme political trauma, and who survived.

6. Genre can be difficult to manage, but you have written YA as well as adult novels. How do you find the transition between these?

The answer is that I don’t transition. I always say that I write for adults who just happen to be young. Most young adults think of themselves as adults and I respect that. I never write down, or water anything down. When I write a YA I do think a little bit more about what vocabulary I will use, but I want the reader, young or otherwise, to be challenged a little, to think beyond comfortable boundaries

7. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?

I approach my writing like Sylvia Plath did: it is my job. It is what I do. If I’m not inspired, it doesn’t matter—I write through the tough spots. Sometimes you throw that stuff away but you are always exercising your mind. I’ve said this before: it is like being an elite athlete. You must work. Hard. Everyday, flexing, stretching, working, trying. So I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve had to erase, revise, discard, edit but I’ve never felt blocked, for which I’m very grateful. Revision, it seems to me, is key. You revise until it feels right, until the people on the page feel real to you, more real than people you actually know and until the story seems to fall into place.

8. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of networking and workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m something of a loner. My greatest mentor was Ursula K. LeGuin, when I was in my 20s. After those years, sometimes I would ask close friends to read pieces of the novels, to see what they thought, but over the years I’ve become more or less my own reader/editor.

9. You are, I believe, working on a new book about aesthetics and the publishing industry in the United States, titled The Muse and The Marketplace. What insight can you give new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? Or even into screen writing? What about the need/value of agents?

Breaking in to a publications is very hard to do AND very easy, these days. The Muse and the Marketplace is really more focused on history and the turn into the 20th century, so I can talk about the history of publishing more easily than talking about now, because now offers so many options, due to technology, and yet those options are not always viable if you want critics to take you seriously. For example, self-publishing is becoming more and more popular due to the internet. There is a whole industry called “publishing services” which allows you to publish your own book and some of these works attract an audience. But you still have to deal with the stigma of “vanity” publishing. Vanity publishing gets you little to no respect in the main. Libraries won’t buy self-published material in the main. So it’s hard to break into a space where there is room for an unknown and respect. One of my students, Justin Taylor, has done so but so many of my students have wanted to write and are writing and getting little attention. London and New York still rule the publishing world more or less, and agents can get you past certain firewalls that publishers have—indeed, so can certain MFA programs. Or a good mentor. All I can say is really don’t give up. If you are a writer, write, no matter what.

10. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)

Ursula K. LeGuin without a doubt, and Toni Morrison who I had the good fortune to meet at Berkeley—she gave me very sound and wonderful advice as a graduate student. I took a wonderful workshop from Michael Cunningham at Provincetown as well and he inspired me greatly because he had a rough patch in his career and almost quit. I know how that feels. But I also feel very close to a number of artists, living and dead, like Herman Melville. James Baldwin. Mavis Gallant. William Trevor. Nella Larson. Sylvia Plath. Henry James. Willa Cather. Angela Carter. And artists, like O’Keefe or Louise Nevelson. If the work is grand and daring, or deeply felt and comforting or it shakes you to your soul, that’s all that counts. And I’d also have to confess that I’m a murder/mystery junkie. I grew up on Sherlock Holmes and when I need a little comfort, I always return to Conan Doyle in any of his manifestations. Jeremy Brett got me through the PhD. Benedict Cumberbatch has taken his place recently. I just got a kitten I named Sherlock! A bit cheesy, but fun.

11. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?

Publishers Marketplace has been good to me. And I would recommend writer’s retreats where you can really focus, like Hedgebrook for Women Writers on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, which has been a marvelous resource for me; I went to Norcroft as well, but unfortunately it no longer exists. Or the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s retreat, or the Vermont Studio. Some of these retreats, like U-Cross, are really kind and helpful to unknown or just starting out writers. And you meet other writers, other people who are struggling just as you are. That’s invaluable, to talk to other people about what you are trying to do.

1.I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences?

Yes, Asimov’s quote describes me—I write because I am. I met him once, when I was still a college student, and Asimov’s magazine published one of my first short stories. I started writing when I was just a little kid, and illustrated my own stories, since I love also to paint and sketch. The first story I remember writing at the age of six or so was called “Christmas with the Stumbles” about a family that kept knocking each other over. Not Pulitzer material! I started writing seriously in grade school and knew by the time I was in high school that I wanted to be a writer; I went to Westfield High School in NJ and worked on the high school magazine Folio, along with the poet and critic James Longenbach, who is also now a professor at the University of Rochester. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I dedicated time every day to my own work.

2.Many authors (myself included) come from academic backgrounds where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. As a full professor at a major research university, can you say a bit about when you decided to “write for real”—that decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it deserves? On a related note, how do you balance your time as an academic and an author?

As I said, I started “writing for real” in college. My college room-mate (Anne Kibbie is now a professor of 18th C. British lit. at Bowdoin in Maine) wanted to be a poet and I wanted to be a novelist, so we kept each other on track and read each other’s work. She told me to find a living author I truly admired and take a class from him or her, because having encouragement and praise from someone I truly admired would be a real drug. So I chose Ursula K. LeGuin and during the summer after I graduated from college, I took a workshop (Haystack from Portland State University) from her (and two other women SF writers, Vonda N. McIntyre and Elizabeth Lynn).

The experience was mind-blowing and as a result, I moved to Portland, Oregon to be close to her, and to continue to work with her, which I did for about 5 years. I also leaned very heavily on Vonda McIntyre, who was unbelievably generous and kind, when I was more or less a kid. Both of these women read my work for me. In fact, Ursula invited me up to her home to write in the mornings, as she did, before I went off to my evening job at Willamette Weekly, and that’s how my first fantasy YA novel, Snow-Eyes got written. She read it for me, and encouraged me to send it to her editor, the late Jean Karl at Atheneum, who was a marvelous editor. The book was published in 1985, and in that same year, I was accepted into the English graduate program at UC Berkeley (as a medievalist) because being an academic was the only job I could think of that would let me write as part of my job description. But I did not want an MFA, I wanted a PhD. My experience with MFA programs (as an undergraduate at BU) was not a happy one: I became convinced that all you learned at a university program was how to write like the instructor. Plus I’m a very, very serious person. Too serious, some might say, very “intense.” Scholarship and research appeal to that side of me. I LOVED graduate school—everything about it, the work, the competition, the politics, the drive! You have to be driven to do a PhD, especially at Berkeley. I did mine in 5 years, while publishing my second YA novel and starting my third SF novel. But when I took my job at the University of Florida, things changed.

The department at UF in 1990 was a very, very hostile place to anyone trying to do both fiction and criticism, most particularly hostile to anyone writing what they call genre fiction and some folks weren’t too happy about my feminism, either, so I was told my fiction “did not count” and I was actively discouraged and in fact on several occasions, insulted. Part of this had to do with my feminist politics, part with the fact that I wrote fantasy and SF, part having to do with the culture of the department which had been hostile to junior professors for years. In 1995 when my first academic book (Conceived By Liberty) came out from Cornell and my first SF novel Other Nature was published by TOR, I started to want to branch out a little, to try something different—which made my F/SF publishers unhappy. And so I’ve waited a long, long, long time for my desire to expand bear fruit, but I signed a three-novel contract with Thames River Press in London for the novels I’ve been writing since 1995, and the first one, Warpaint comes out this September 15 (2012). How do I balance my time? Not easily. I get up very early (4:30-5 am) to write fiction first thing in the day. Everyday.

3.I know that your research concerns intersections of science, literature, politics, race and gender—though I recognize such matters don’t always make it into mainstream fiction. Could you say a bit about how this perspective affects your work as a fiction author?

My interests in science, literature, politics, race and gender tends to make everything I write fairly complex and unpredictable, and mainstream American popular culture is just not either unpredictable or complex. But being interested in this unusual nexus of interests makes for a fascinating set of concerns, at least to my mind. Let me put this another way—science and fiction several centuries ago were not that far apart: mythology and alchemy are good examples of this, and I like to keep alive the sense that we must make sense of our world by telling tales that explain what we experience.

4.Related to Q3, has writing fiction changed your perspective on research? On teaching?

No, writing fiction came first for me so it really hasn’t changed my perspective on research. If you want to know something you haven’t been taught, haven’t ever studied or haven’t experienced you either have to research it or try to experience it. For example, something I’m working on now concerns marine biology. I am not a marine biologist. So I went and talked to marine biologists here at the University of Florida, got their advice and such—people are remarkably helpful when you just ask!

5.Your latest work, part of a trilogy, carefully treats the struggles of four women—with each other and with themselves. What led you to the topic, and is it an outgrowth of other projects? How do you perceive your audience?

I became interested in women artists not only because I think of myself as one, but because I went to a lecture years and years ago at the Harn Museum of Art at UF about American women painters and how under-appreciated and unknown they tend to be compared to their male counterparts. Many people of heard of Jackson Pollack, for example, but not of his partner, Lee Krasner. I was one such person. Knew lots about male artists and the only female artist I could name was Georgia O’Keefe. So I started educating myself. This led me to think seriously about other endeavors where women have done remarkable things, but are relatively unknown. The second book in the trilogy features women pilots and astronauts; the third looks backward in time to the twin dates of 1637 and 2000 to think through American women who have experienced extreme political trauma, and who survived.

6.Genre can be difficult to manage, but you have written YA as well as adult novels. How do you find the transition between these?

The answer is that I don’t transition. I always say that I write for adults who just happen to be young. Most young adults think of themselves as adults and I respect that. I never write down, or water anything down. When I write a YA I do think a little bit more about what vocabulary I will use, but I want the reader, young or otherwise, to be challenged a little, to think beyond comfortable boundaries

7.Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?

I approach my writing like Sylvia Plath did: it is my job. It is what I do. If I’m not inspired, it doesn’t matter—I write through the tough spots. Sometimes you throw that stuff away but you are always exercising your mind. I’ve said this before: it is like being an elite athlete. You must work. Hard. Everyday, flexing, stretching, working, trying. So I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve had to erase, revise, discard, edit but I’ve never felt blocked, for which I’m very grateful. Revision, it seems to me, is key. You revise until it feels right, until the people on the page feel real to you, more real than people you actually know and until the story seems to fall into place.

8.As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of networking and workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m something of a loner. My greatest mentor was Ursula K. LeGuin, when I was in my 20s. After those years, sometimes I would ask close friends to read pieces of the novels, to see what they thought, but over the years I’ve become more or less my own reader/editor.

9.You are, I believe, working on a new book about aesthetics and the publishing industry in the United States, titled The Muse and The Marketplace. What insight can you give new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? Or even into screen writing? What about the need/value of agents?

Breaking in to a publications is very hard to do AND very easy, these days. The Muse and the Marketplace is really more focused on history and the turn into the 20th century, so I can talk about the history of publishing more easily than talking about now, because now offers so many options, due to technology, and yet those options are not always viable if you want critics to take you seriously. For example, self-publishing is becoming more and more popular due to the internet. There is a whole industry called “publishing services” which allows you to publish your own book and some of these works attract an audience. But you still have to deal with the stigma of “vanity” publishing. Vanity publishing gets you little to no respect in the main. Libraries won’t buy self-published material in the main. So it’s hard to break into a space where there is room for an unknown and respect. One of my students, Justin Taylor, has done so but so many of my students have wanted to write and are writing and getting little attention. London and New York still rule the publishing world more or less, and agents can get you past certain firewalls that publishers have—indeed, so can certain MFA programs. Or a good mentor. All I can say is really don’t give up. If you are a writer, write, no matter what.

10.Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)

Ursula K. LeGuin without a doubt, and Toni Morrison who I had the good fortune to meet at Berkeley—she gave me very sound and wonderful advice as a graduate student. I took a wonderful workshop from Michael Cunningham at Provincetown as well and he inspired me greatly because he had a rough patch in his career and almost quit. I know how that feels. But I also feel very close to a number of artists, living and dead, like Herman Melville. James Baldwin. Mavis Gallant. William Trevor. Nella Larson. Sylvia Plath. Henry James. Willa Cather. Angela Carter. And artists, like O’Keefe or Louise Nevelson. If the work is grand and daring, or deeply felt and comforting or it shakes you to your soul, that’s all that counts. And I’d also have to confess that I’m a murder/mystery junkie. I grew up on Sherlock Holmes and when I need a little comfort, I always return to Conan Doyle in any of his manifestations. Jeremy Brett got me through the PhD. Benedict Cumberbatch has taken his place recently. I just got a kitten I named Sherlock! A bit cheesy, but fun.

11.Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?

Publishers Marketplace has been good to me. And I would recommend writer’s retreats where you can really focus, like Hedgebrook for Women Writers on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, which has been a marvelous resource for me; I went to Norcroft as well, but unfortunately it no longer exists. Or the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s retreat, or the Vermont Studio. Some of these retreats, like U-Cross, are really kind and helpful to unknown or just starting out writers. And you meet other writers, other people who are struggling just as you are. That’s invaluable, to talk to other people about what you are trying to do.

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