Welcome to the two hundred and fortieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with children’s author, scriptwriter, ghostwriter and literary thriller novelist Fiona Veitch Smith. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Fiona. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Fiona: I trained as a journalist but have always written fiction and scripts as a hobby. When I turned 30 I decided to turn that on its head and try to write fiction and scripts for a career and just dabble in journalism. My cunning plan took a while to get going though and I’ve been thankful that I’ve always been able to fall back on freelance journalism and now lecturing in journalism between my more ‘creative’ work.
Morgen: What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Fiona: I have been the most successful – if you judge ‘success’ by publication – in writing for children. I have ghostwritten 18 children’s picture books (6 of which are published, the other 12 pending publication, in the Myro the Microlight series) and have now started a series under my own name – the Young David Picture Books. I have also had a series of children’s short stories published in Aquila magazine. My first published book was a chapter book for 6-8s called Donovon’s Rainbow. I also write for theatre and screen – for children and adults. However, I have always wanted to write adult novels and have finally released my first one, a literary thriller called The Peace Garden. In terms of genre, I have a penchant for mysteries and thrillers. My most recent book is what I would refer to as a ‘literary thriller’ as it has a mystery / thriller framework but also deals with themes, ideas and symbolism – hence the ‘literary’ dimension. But as there’s no shelf for ‘literary thrillers’ or ‘literary mysteries’ it’s simply filed under thriller / mystery or sometimes romantic thriller (there’s a romance sub-plot).
Morgen: Wow, a busy lady. That may have made my next question redundant unless there’s more. What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Fiona: Apart from what I’ve listed above, I have ghostwritten another two books – a non-fiction book called ‘Mentors’ aimed at career guidance, and an autobiography called ‘The Choice’ by Elizabeth Robertson Campbell (Bridge Logos Publishing). In addition I have had some devotional booklets published for CWR. I am currently contracted to Lion Hudson to co-author the life story of a boy soldier from the Congo called ‘Child of War’. Mmm, the first time I saw one of my books … ah yes! It was Donovon’s Rainbow in an Exclusive Books in Cape Town. A very surreal experience.
Morgen: And fantastic, I’m sure. Have you ever seen a member of the public reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Fiona: I saw a little boy on a bus reading Donovon’s Rainbow and I once saw a woman in a coffee shop with a copy of one of my devotional booklets for Inspiring Women Everyday. I also once overheard a couple in a lift talking about a play they’d been to see the previous evening – Pig Stew – which was mine. Unfortunately they got out before I heard whether they liked it or not!
Morgen: Oh no! I think I would have followed them. That’s so wonderful though, seeing three incidents of your books in readers’ hands. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Fiona: As much as I can. I do a lot of social networking and try to give talks to reading and writing groups when I have the opportunity. I also send press releases to the local paper and have given talks on local radio stations. I have also approached established writers for reviews. Most recently RS Downie who writes the Ruso series of Roman mysteries (and is a NY Times bestselling author) gave The Peace Garden a great review. I was then able to use that in my publicity. Every little helps. As I’ve recently launched my own indie publishing house, Crafty Publishing, (with two other partners) I’m having to do more and more of that. So far we’ve only published my own titles, but we’ve just signed another two authors so will have to do marketing for them as well. However, as part of their contract with us they are obliged to co-operate as much as possible in the marketing of their own books. Gone are the days when a writer wrote and left all the marketing to the publisher.
Morgen: I think I’ve only had one or two interviewees say that they leave everything to the publisher, because they can. That would leave more time for writing but it’s great chatting to the readers (which I’m sure they still would do). Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Fiona: Donovon’s Rainbow won the Writers’ News Best Independently Published Children’s Book in 2003. (It was published by Vineyard International Publishing, a small indie publisher). Pig Stew won the People’s Play Award in 2010. I’ve also had a number of play scripts and film scripts short-listed for awards. Each time I do I can use it as a publicity platform. It’s a fine balance though between ‘sharing your good news’ and ‘crowing’. The other benefit these awards have is giving me a sense of achievement. Both the Donovon and Pig Stew awards came at a time when I was feeling particularly discouraged about my lack of ‘success’ – receiving the awards encouraged me to keep going. It helps to know that people besides your family and friends think you have talent.
Morgen: And great things to add to your ‘CV’. Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Fiona: Not by choice. As a ghostwriter other people’s names are on books I have written, but I’ve never written under a pseudonym for my own writing. Do they affect an author’s profile? When ghostwriting, yes. If people search for my name very few titles of the now twelve books I’ve had published will come up. But I know some authors choose to write under different names for different genre as this frees them from being type-cast by readers and publishers into a certain niche. In marketing terms, it’s useful to be able to refer to Fiona Veitch Smith, children’s author, because it simplifies things, when in fact writing for children is just one string in my bow. For this interview, for instance, I would like to be described as Fiona Veitch Smith, literary thriller writer. The media also like to type-cast writers. I once went to a radio interview to talk about my new play Pig Stew that was opening the following week, but all the interviewer wanted to talk about was Donovon’s Rainbow that was published 10 years ago! That’s the first thing that came up when he googled me and he hadn’t bothered looking at anything else. He looked confused when I told him that I actually wanted to talk about my stage play. ‘So you’re not a children’s writer,’ he said. ‘Yes I am, but not today,’ I answered. Suddenly pseudonyms seemed very appealing …
Morgen: Some ‘household’ authors do that (Ruth Rendell = Barbara Vine, Joanna Trollope = Caroline Harvey and journalist Jane Bidder, who I interviewed on Christmas Eve, uses three pennames). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Fiona: No. I think an agent could help open doors that I have been unable to open myself, and perhaps higher up the ‘career’ ladder than I’ve managed to achieve myself, but as I and many other un-agented authors show, they’re not essential. However, if anyone’s interested in representing me, we can certainly talk …
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Fiona: Up until recently I’ve only read non-fiction e-books as part of my part-time job as a lecturer. However, this year I developed a nasty allergy to the bleach in book paper (seriously) and so have started reading fiction on a Kindle. And I’ve been surprisingly pleased with the experience. I don’t know why I resisted for so long. Donovon’s Rainbow has been available as a free download through my website for the last five years – I thought it would encourage people to buy the print version. But I was wrong. People who buy the print book tend not to have read the e-version. And those that have downloaded it haven’t bothered to buy a print copy. Oh well, I live and learn. However, in light of the Kindle Revolution, I decided to bring out my debut adult novel in e-book only. As my husband and business partner is a computer programmer, it hasn’t been as stressful as I thought it would be. Sales have been slowly increasing and I’ve had some good reviews on Amazon. My children’s picture books (ghostwritten and my own) are not on e-book yet as the technology on the cheaper e-readers is not quite ready to cater for full-colour manuscripts. But when it is, they will be going digital!
Morgen: That won’t be long, I’m sure. I’ve not heard of anyone being allergic to books, that’s really sad. but at least there’s a great alternative. Did you have any say in the title of your books? How important do you think titles are?
Fiona: I’ve made the final decision on all the books in my own name. For ghostwritten books I’ve had some say in some of them and no say in others. Titles are crucial as they are the first hook to catch a reader.
Morgen: They are. I’m a big title fan. I have one of James Patterson’s co-written books called ‘The Quickie’ (with the brilliant Michael Letwidge who co-wrote ‘Step on a Crack’ – actually wrote as I understand that James comes up with the plot, the other author writes the book then James makes it his voice). But seriously, who came up with the title ‘The Quickie’. It may have a different meaning outside of the UK but I laughed when I first saw it. I’ve not read it yet but not taking the title seriously may not help. Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?
Fiona: My grandma, my daughter and my husband (different books). Why? My grandma because she inspired me to start writing in the first place; my husband and daughter because they inspire me to continue. And I love them. This is just a small, tangible expression of that love.
Morgen: Who designed your books’ covers?
Fiona: Amy Barnes designed the cover for The Peace Garden. I gave her a brief – dark, brooding, must include plants. I wanted the mood of the cover to suggest foreboding and to create an ironic counterpoint to the potentially benign title. Amy gave me a selection of six sketched ideas; we narrowed it down to two, then one. We settled on the image quite quickly, but the font choice took weeks!
Morgen: I really like it so I’d say it was worth the trouble, plus as you say it’s the first thing (because it bears the title) to hook in the reader. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Fiona: Donovon’s Rainbow was my first book that was accepted. The thrill hasn’t lessened over the years.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Fiona: Oh yes. Too many to count. I usually mope for a few days then pick myself up and start again. As I normally have a few projects on the go at one time I can always distract myself and pour my hope into something else. But each rejection hurts – bitterly. After a few days (or in some cases months) when the pain subsides I will try to look at the feedback (if any was given) more objectively to see if there is something I can work on to make it better.
Morgen: It is a shame that it affects you so badly, when it’s just one person’s opinion, but I guess they know what they want. My second rejection impacted me more than the first. The first thing I’d ever submitted (a short story to Woman’s Weekly) was accepted so I was OK with the first rejection as it balanced things out. Then the second made it lopsided and overall, I’ve had more rejections than acceptances so have grown a thicker skin. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Fiona: Well my memoir of the boy soldier is currently on pause as we’re waiting for some developments in the subject’s life to work themselves out (which may require a rewrite). So I’m now working interchangeably on a new stage play with an Olympic theme…
Morgen: We have the Olympics here in London (I’m not in London but it’s only an hour away) this July so that’s very timely.
Fiona: …and my next adult novel, a reporter sleuth mystery called Deadline. I’m hoping to develop a series for my main character, Astrid Parker.
Morgen: ‘Deadline’ – I love that title, very apt. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Fiona: I manage to write about three days a week. The rest is taken up with admin and marketing as well as my lecturing commitments. And oh yes, there’s the little matter of having a family to look after too. In the run-up to a deadline I will write on weekends as well, or get up extra early before the rest of the family. I think I once managed to write 8,000 words in a day, but my average is closer to 1,000. I would rather have one thousand words (or fewer) of quality than 8,000 of dross (which most of it was!)
Morgen: Oh dear (the dross). 1,000 is still incredible. 300 words a day is a 100,000 novel in a year so you do three a year. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it?
Fiona: No I’ve never suffered from it. I always have loads of ideas. My main problem is finding the time to actually write them!
Morgen: Oh me too, which is why (perhaps rashly but I don’t yet regret it) I’ve quit my day job. What do you like to read?
Fiona: People often raise an eyebrow when I refer to my book as a literary thriller as there is a perception that books should either be ‘genre’ or ‘literary’. But I, and I’m sure other readers, like a mix of both. There are lots of precedents – all of which are the type of books I like to read: a book that has something important to say about the world or the human condition but which is also a gripping good read. Examples include ‘The Interpretation of Murder’ by Jed Rubenfeld, ‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova, ‘Clay’ by David Almond, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris, ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco and ‘The Wire in the Blood’ series by Val McDermid (I suppose the latter are more ‘genre’ but they have a subtle literary quality). I also enjoy books like Yann Martells’ ‘Life of Pi’, ‘The Book Thief’ by Marcus Zusak and ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ by Mark Haddon.
Morgen: Mark comes from Northampton (where I live ). I’ve not him yet but I should track him down (in a non-stalkery way). And Val has agreed to be an interviewee so I hope to bring that to you shortly. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Fiona: I play the clarinet badly, I sing in the church worship band (not too badly) and I hoolahoop exceptionally well.
Morgen: I’m hopeless at that, although owning a hoolahoop would help. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: I’ve really enjoyed this, thank you Fiona.
I then invited Fiona to include an excerpt of her writing and this is taken from her new novel from ‘The Peace Garden’:
The murder charge was only one of the things he had come to South Africa to face; the other was winding her way towards him through dozens of statues of mothers and infants. As she passed a soapstone dog suckling two pups, she stepped into a pool of sunlight, and paused for a moment, enjoying the rare warmth on the crisp winter day.
She was still as beautiful as he remembered, only more so. The braided hair was pulled up into a sophisticated French knot, drawing attention to the poised neck and proud jaw. Her shoulders, still slight, gave way to full breasts and her waist, thicker than it had been, slowly swelled to rounded hips, not unlike those of the silent African women bearing witness in stone to the first meeting of these lovers in two decades.
“Poppy,” he said softly, then louder when she didn’t respond. He stepped out from behind one of the watching women and into her pool of light. She looked, but didn’t speak.
“Poppy!” He said, this time slightly pleading. She smiled, but not with her eyes, then took his hand and led him to a nearby bench. The hand was soft yet cool despite the warming sunshine. They sat together for a long time; Gladwin did not know what else he could say.
Formerly a journalist, Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer of books, theatre plays and screenplays. Her latest novel, The Peace Garden, is a literary thriller set in England and South Africa. It is available as an e-book. Her Young David children’s picture book series is available online and through bookshops in the UK. She is a member of the British Society of Authors and her full list of published books, including ghostwritten books, can be seen there.
Fiona is also the editor of the popular writing advice website The Crafty Writer and her courses attract students from around the world. She has just been commissioned to write the feature screenplay for the adaptation of ‘The Choice’.
Fiona lives with her husband, daughter and two dogs in Newcastle upon Tyne where she lectures in media and scriptwriting at the local universities. She has kindly mentioned this interview on her sites crafty publishing.com and fiona.veitchsmith.com.
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