As promised, I am happy to be hosting Stephanie A. Smith, today, here to talk about her sequel to Warpaint. “Baby Rocket” is the name of a child who, in 1966, was abandoned by her suicidal mother and later found by a policeman in the seat of a children’s rocket ride on Cape Canaveral. The novel is the story of this child’s (Clementine Dance) adulthood discovery of an abandonment she does not remember, and how she comes to terms with it and her past. Below, we provide a bit about the book and talk to Stephanie about her recent writers retreat and upcoming speaking-schedule. Thank you, Stephanie, for joining us!
Upon her father’s sudden death in Santa Monica during the summer of 1998, Clementine “Lem” Dance finds a file about a “Baby Rocket” on his computer. The file suggests she is Baby Rocket but she’s never heard the name; and her late father, a former NASA employee, James Walter Dance, Jr., had been prone to romantic white lies – he claimed he once met Marilyn Monroe, for example. The file on “Baby Rocket” seems crazy and yet all too real: it contains Lem’s birth certificate, a document which shows that her father was not her biological but rather her adoptive father and emails that show he’d been in contact with her birth mother’s surviving family – as if he’d been on the verge of telling the truth.
“Baby Rocket” as the first responders dubbed her, has no memory of this violent past, and her family kept it a secret. Now, as an adult, she must become a detective of her own life, in order to heal these ruptures in her past. This is the second of three, intertwined novels, all of which deal with contemporary women who are struggling to balance art, love, illness and trauma; the third, Content Burns (2014) follows two women in the same family with the same antiquated name Content Burns, 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.
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.
Author Interview (take two!)
1. In this trilogy, however, the books are inter-related in a fresh and interesting way. Can you tell us more about that?
The trilogy works as a trilogy because the stories are connected by friendships and family ties. Quiola Kerr, one of the painters in WARPAINT is a close friend of the protagonist of BABY ROCKET, who is the second cousin of one of the main characters in CONTENT BURNS. This means you don’t have to read the novels in sequence, but each story amplifies and enriches your relationship to the people in the stories. I wanted the novels to be able to stand alone, but to deepen your experience of these people, if you keep reading.
2. I always find sequels to be an interesting beast–on one hand, you have the blueprint of characters; on the other, you have to maintain momentum on a single project. How do you approach the writing of a sequel?
Well, these aren’t sequels, they are intertwined, so the story stands on its own, but the characters come back. I’ve never really written a sequel per se, so I cant’ really say. Each story has its own rhythym and momentum.
3. I know you recently went to the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency program at the Noepe Center for the Arts. I am personally interested–as it seems my regular life rarely gives me time and opportunity to finish my novels (Here Comes Troubelle, particularly, is languishing). Please tell us more about this opportunity and what it can do for the busy writer!
A good residency gives you the freedom from daily life to concentrate, not only on your craft, but on yourself for a change. Most women, in particular, are caught up in care taking of something or someone, so going to a residency, which is not routine, and one specifically designed to encourage your craft, is, to me anyway, like heaven. You organize your own schedule, and because these residencies are competitive you get juiced by understanding that someone thinks you write well, and therefore deserve the time to write. Also, if you are lucky, the other writers at the residency feed your sense of being an artist. At Noepe, I met serious, career driven artists (among them Anna Sequoia, who has written 11 non-fiction books, several of them bestsellers and Jack Sonni, former guitarist for Dire Straits, who is working on memoir) with whom I could share my work, but also to talk craft. Hedgebrook, on Whidby Island near Seattle is just for women and is equally fantastic, with a professional chef on site, and a beautiful working farm. Each woman gets their own cabin. Gloria Steinem is a particular fan of this residency. I’ve been there twice and just applied for a third.
4. Your novels in this series really grapple with important issues of gender, of identity, and of finding your place in a complicated world. What influences you most? And are there particular readers you hope to reach?
Life influences me most. Just being alive, and taking notice of the world around me and being keenly interested in all things, past and present. I love literature, of course, since I teach 19th c American literature, but also history, biology, nature, genetics, and the sea. Space. Animals. My students inspire me, too, and my mentors, Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Cunningham, but also all the writers I teach: Melville, Fitzgerald, Cather, Wharton, James, Plath.
5. Lastly, I am always curious about next projects. What else have you been working on? What can we expect for the future?
Well, CONTENT BURNS, the third novel in the WARPAINT trilogy comes out next spring, and I’m trying to arrange a book launch back on MVY. In the meantime,
I’ve just finished a draft of a new novel called STRANGE GRACE, which follows an actor through a difficult patch in his life. He makes a brief appearance in CONTENT BURNS. Anyway, he’s been a comedian, but he’s sick of it and wants to do serious work, so he takes a part in a science fiction movie that is both physically and mentally so much of a challenge that he begins to lose his grip on reality, as he navigates a difficult ex-wife who tries to make their daughter frightened of him, a dangerous co-star who is unstable, a bully of a director and a family secret of the past that has warped his life more than he understands.
The challenge here is to write a credible movie line (going back to my origins as a SF author) and a gripping ‘real’ story about this man. I’ve never written about a man, from the inside as it were, before, so this is also interesting.
And I have an idea for a book about a female marine biologist, SEA STARS, which would also tackle the question of tissue regeneration (my protagonist wants to help those who’ve lost limbs) and global warming. I have a semi-draft of that. And finally, I’m toying around with a novel about a transgendered person who is in their 60s, looking back on the choices they made, and trying to craft a life after mid-life (tentative title SEAL ROCK).
Thank you for joining us, Stephanie! For more about these books or about Stephanie Smith–see the website or the speaking schedule below!
- September 4@ 6 p.m. University of Florida Smathers East Library, booktalk on trilogy
- September 8@2:30 Millhopper Library in Gainesville talk to the Gainesville Writer’s Alliance
- September 18 @7pm at the Alachua County Library Headquarters booktalk/reading
- September 22: I will have a table at the Brooklyn Book Festival
- September 29 @2:00 at the Tower Road Library in Gainesville booktalk
- I’m working on events for October, November and December.
- November 1 I will be at the Gulfport Art Festival at www.smalladventuresbookshop.com