Mary Smith is a writer, freelance journalist and poet based in Dumfries & Galloway, south west Scotland. She worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan for ten years and her experiences there inform much of her writing. Her novel, No More Mulberries, is set in Afghanistan and she has also written a narrative non-fiction, Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women, which provides a unique insight into the lives of ordinary Afghan women and their families.
Her prize-winning poems have appeared in many publications and her first full collection, Thousands Pass Here Every Day, was published in 2012.
What inspires you to write?
All sorts of things inspire me. For poems it can be the landscape of south west Scotland or by childhood and family memories – or wondering whether it would be my teenage son or I who would start to shave our mustache first!
The inspiration for both my novel No More Mulberries and my non-fiction book Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women came from the years I spent working in Afghanistan. I had some amazing experiences there, thanks to the many wonderful women (and their menfolk) I met and lived with. I wanted to share those experiences with people back home and – as I couldn’t bring everyone to Afghanistan – the next best way was to write about it. I wanted to show that despite the hardships they face in daily life – and there are many – Afghan women are not all downtrodden victims. They laugh, fall in love, enjoy life, cry for their losses, love their kids and do all of that against a seemingly endless backdrop of change and war. The women of Afghanistan are truly inspiring and I wanted to show a different perspective of their lives than the one the western media generally provides. In the novel, I drew on many real events so the portrayal of life in rural Afghanistan is authentic but with a completely fictional storyline running through it.
The project on which I am now embarking is a biography of an inspiring woman who became an engineer and car manufacturer in the 1920s.
Tell us about your writing process.
I wish I could be an outliner but I’m more seat of the pants. When I started writing No More Mulberries I had the two central characters – Scottish-born Miriam and her Afghan husband, Dr Iqbal – working in a village in rural Afghanistan. I knew I wanted to write about the problems a couple of such a mixed marriage would face but once I started writing they behaved in ways I had not expected. Their marriage was clearly in trouble and in my head it was all Iqbal’s fault. However, when I wrote a chapter from Iqbal’s pov, things changed and I realized Miriam wasn’t the only one to have to cope with cultural changes and differences. The more I wrote the more sympathetic I became towards Iqbal – which surprised me.
I do keep a notebook on my desk and jot down timelines, characters’ names and brief comments about them including age and number of children, etc. The timeline was vital because there are flashbacks and I had to be sure I had dates of major events such as the Soviets’ arrival and departure, the rise of Taliban.
For Fiction Writers: Do you listen (or talk to) to your characters?
Yes, I do listen to my characters. I don’t mean they talk directly to me, but they have conversations with each other inside my head: it is a bit like I am eavesdropping. I also ‘see’ them so it is almost like watching a film. While the characters are talking to each other I notice their gestures, facial expressions and how these change depending on mood.
What advice would you give other writers?
Read, read, read! I really believe to be a writer you need to be a reader first.
Write about something which really interests you – don’t try to jump on the latest ‘big thing bandwagon’ because if your heart isn’t in it your writing will be flat and uninspiring.
Engage with other writers. One way is to join a good writers’ group. It’s good to be able to talk about characters who won’t do what you want them to do, changing points of view and other issues the rest of the non-writing world doesn’t care about. Accept and learn from constructive criticism.
Don’t give up – but then, if you are a writer, you won’t. You will keep on writing.
How did you decide how to publish your books?
I sent No More Mulberries to several publishers who sent it back. I tried agents and when one said she ‘loved it’ I was ecstatic. However, when the main publishers turned it down, albeit with fulsome praise for the writing, the characters, the setting, but… she gave up. A friend told me about YouWriteOn, which, with funding from the English Arts Council, was offering to publish new novels and so I sent off the manuscript. They pay royalties twice a year. YouWriteOn, which is now called FeedARead – ghastly name – didn’t do eBooks but as their authors keep all rights I was able to bring out No More Mulberries as an eBook.
My first poetry collection, Thousands Pass Here Every Day, is published by Indigo Dreams Publishing. The publisher noticed on my email signature I had a link to No More Mulberries on Amazon and asked if I had any other fiction projects. I didn’t. but I did have a non-fiction manuscript, which he asked to see and agreed to publish Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni so my books are published by a mixture of self-published eBook and traditional publishers.
I think there is still a feeling that being published by a traditional publisher offers a validation of one’s writing which self-publishing doesn’t – though the latter may well lead to greater financial reward.. If a new author really wants to go down the traditional route I’d say give it a go. If it isn’t taken on by a publisher, then self publishing is an option worth considering.
Whichever way they go, new writers need to be prepared to put a lot of time and effort into marketing and promotion. Is a fallacy that traditional publishers will do all the promotional work to generate sales. Most – other than the big five – simply can’t afford it and expect their authors to get stuck in to marketing and promotion, sending out press releases and organizing book launches and readings.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
Book publishing is going through a huge change right now. Mainstream publishers are finally wakening up to the fact ebooks are here to stay, after being very dismissive of them in the beginning, and are now jumping on the bandwagon, often offering Kindle versions of a hard copy book at a very high price. At the same time they continue to issue dire warnings to indie writers that they can’t self publish successfully because they don’t have the skills a publishing house offers – in editing, proof reading, cover design and marketing – despite the evidence of many indie authors doing very nicely indeed.
I think whatever happens in the book publishing world as long as there are readers – and evidence points to the fact that millions of people still read books – there will be a need for writers and for writers to be able to offer their books to the reading public.
What do you use?
Professional Cover Designer, Beta Readers
What genres do you write?
Fiction, Narrative non-fiction, Poetry
What formats are your books in?
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