Q&A with Author, Mary Smathers
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ABOUT MARY SMATHERS
Mary Smathers grew up in Los Altos, California and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Latin American Studies. She earned a Master’s degree in Education and another MA in Educational Administration and Policy Analysis from Stanford University. From 1983 to 2013, she worked in public schools throughout California as a high school teacher, administrator, teacher trainer, grant writer and educational entrepreneur.
Since that time, she has focused on writing, publishing her first work of fiction, Fertile Soil: Stories of the California Dream, in 2016. In This Land of Plenty, her debut novel was published in July, 2020.
On to our interview!
Q: Tell us who you are and what inspires you to write.
A. I am a life-long Californian with a deep love for this amazing place, despite its challenges. I have always loved writing but stopped writing stories and poems in 8th grade, basically due to traditional schooling that did not encourage creativity. I wrote for two college newspapers and taught high school English and journalism and throughout my career I always did the mechanical writing and editing no one else wanted to do. I wrote grants for many years. But I secretly wanted to write creatively, especially fiction. I finally was able to start in 2013 and haven’t stopped.
Q: How did you get to this place in your life? Share your story!
A. I grew up and spent my entire schooling and work life in Northern California, although for the past eight years I have also lived in Costa Rica. From 1983 to 2013, I worked in public schools throughout California as a high school teacher, administrator, teacher trainer, grant writer and educational entrepreneur.
Since that time, I have focused on writing, reporting for a bilingual, regional Costa Rican newspaper and publishing my first work of fiction, Fertile Soil: Stories of the California Dream, in 2016. I just published In This Land of Plenty, my debut novel, in July.
Q: What are you most passionate about?
A. I am devoting this “new moon” phase of my life (after having had a 30-year career in education) to creativity and writing. I got started by writing travel blogs and memory cookbooks for family members. I wrote feature stories for a regional newspaper for years and finally I was ready to tackle fiction. I started by attending workshops and online courses, reading blogs and articles and writing in meetup groups.
Once I had a collection of short stories, I worked with a professional editor to improve the manuscript but also perfect my craft. She gave me books and her writing course syllabus even before she read my manuscript. I published my first book, a short story collection, in 2016. It was a huge milestone but I just wanted to keep getting better, improve my writing and complete a novel. I just published my debut novel in July and it is way better than my first book!
Throughout this second career, I support friends doing creative work, even doing editing for their books. I am a Writing Coach for high school students in an International Baccalaureate program and I am committed to supporting the creative endeavors of friends and family.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process, routine, and/or rituals around your writing?
A. I have a desk with a green view out the window of my office, where I work at an old desk with favorite books on the shelves above. When I work, I close the door and go into my zone. I research on the computer or brainstorm in connecting circles on poster paper and hang them on a clothesline across the room. I sketch out scene plans based on the character’s location in the transformational journey on notecards and tape them to a whiteboard or poster paper so I can move them around or insert new scenes.
Sometimes I have an idea for a scene or a character and I just open up my Scrivener and write and write, not stopping, just letting all the stuff in my brain run out onto the “paper.” I often print these out to review, to cut into pieces, or for notes to refer back to later when I am writing the related scene.
Writing historical fiction requires tons of research. I did a lot of preliminary research on California history by reading books, articles and as much primary source material as possible, visiting archives and museums, even reading fictional stories of early California.
Q: What are a few challenges you faced in creating, marketing, or publishing your creative work? And your solutions to them.
A. I feel very fortunate to be a writer at this time. I already had a full, successful career—this is a second gig for me. So I am not interested in waiting to hear from agents or bemoaning the lack of response from a New York City editor. I want to write, continually improve and put my work out there.
So blogs and online courses, articles and workshops, conferences and social media platforms are amazing opportunities for me to learn and grow in this craft that is new to me, in which I have little formal training. And self-publishing and hybrid publishing have opened up the industry for someone like me to actually see my work in print. Now, that also means everyone is doing the same thing and it is a loud and noisy world to try and get your work out.
The most important thing of all is to produce a quality product. I’ve worked hard to continue learning and improving my craft as I write more books. I have used high level, New York publishing types as editors and book designers. Then I’ve learned a ton about internet marketing and continue to learn about building a platform.
Q: What do you wish you had known before you started writing fiction?
A. I feel that lifelong learning keeps us young and healthy. So I’m not sure there is anything I wish I knew before I started, really. I just feel fortunate that I have avenues for learning and developing as a writer even though I don’t want to go get an MFA right now.
I guess I wish I’d really understood Point of View and Interiority and The Hero’s Transformational Journey before I launched myself into stories and novels. Those are super important aspects of writing fiction I’ve learned about through my editors and in workshops, online courses and at conferences.
I’ve had outstanding teachers along the way and I so appreciate them I dedicated my novel to the truly great history, literature and writing teachers and professors out there, and specifically to those who helped me personally learn in those areas.
Q: What’s next for you in your creative work?
A. What’s next? I have so many books in my head. And some even with pieces written in my computer! I have plans for a children’s book series based on tropical and jungle animals. These will feature only animals with a focus on the importance of nature. They will also each have a social emotional lesson, such as don’t stray too far from the group or you’ll get lost, or eat healthy, natural foods to stay fit to be able to do the things you want to do. I can picture the gorgeous pictures in my head so I am looking for an artist!
Of course, I also have sequels to In This Land of Plenty to write. This first novel covers the first hundred years in the Castro/Brennan family but I need to keep them going another 150 years to get the family to the present. And there is one key character who disappears and I want to write a book about what happens to that character, sort of a side sequel.
Q: Is there anything else you wished I’d asked? Please share!
A. After I published my short story collection, I realized that the story Land Grant, which takes place in California’s Mexican era up to the gold rush, was more of an outline for a novel than a short story. As I made plans for a novel, originally, I was most intrigued by that Mexican era, which only lasted 25 years but has cast a romantic glow over the state’s history and influenced its architecture and narrative. But as I researched I realized I had to change my novel. I had to go way back to when the first Europeans, the Spaniards, came to colonize California and what happened with the Native Americans who had lived here for thousands of years.
I then created a fictional 250-year family tree, eleven generations of Californians. In This Land of Plenty is framed by a contemporary story of a young woman investigating her roots. As she does this the historic story unfolds. I put in some family mystery and stopped at the Gold Rush and launched a series!
A Family Saga through California’s Rich History…
When twenty-something Nicole Sinclair stumbles on DNA reports that document an ancestry far different from her father’s narrative of a white, northern European background, she enlists the help of her great grandmother to investigate their roots. As they search, their true California ancestors come to life—a Spanish soldier, a captured native and a young settler who walks north from central Mexico.
In This Land of Plenty‘s family saga introduces the diverse cast of characters and complex social issues that populate California’s rich history while drawing a direct line to today’s residents.