I’m so excited about this week’s interview with the amazing Maggie Smith who has done so much to support so many women writers via her podcast and the many other hats she wears. Maggie’s debut novel, THE TRUTH AND OTHER LIES, will be out in spring 2022 (I can’t wait!) and has been described as The Devil Wears Prada meets All the President’s Men.
Read below about how the very first short story she wrote (in a day!) ended up getting published, about a book that made her cry, and her wise advice for her younger writer self. Enjoy!
Maggie Smith’s debut novel, TRUTH AND OTHER LIES, will be published in March 2022 by Ten16 Press. She’s the host of the weekly podcast Hear Us Roar (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google – 100+ episodes) where she interviews debut women’s fiction authors about their novel and their path to publication. Her first-ever short story, THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, appeared in the 2018 anthology False Faces and she’s a monthly blogger for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. A board member of the Chicago Writer’s Association, she serves as Managing Editor of their on-line literary publication The Write City Magazine. She posts daily on Instagram as @maggiesmithwrites, and considers it the best social media platform for authors. Maggie makes her home in Milwaukee where she lives with her patient husband Scott and her aging but still adorable sheltie Colt.
What time of day do you love best?
Dusk. In Wisconsin that can be anywhere from 5 in the afternoon during the frigid winter months to 9 in the evening in the summer. When the weather permits, I’ll take a short walk around the neighborhood and watch as the sun slowly drops from the sky, turning the horizon into brilliant shades of color. There’s something peaceful about that hour, the transition from work to leisure, a slowing-down of the pace and hubbub from the hours spent either writing or marketing. With our kids grown and out of the house, it’s also a time for my husband and I to re-connect and share stories from our work-day. We’ve had some of our best conversations during this twilight time, in front of a firepit in the fall, on the porch with wine during the summer. I can almost feel the tension leave my shoulders as I take time to breathe deep, watch the birds at our feeders, and admire our courtyard garden. I detune from the hectic pace to a more serene and philosophical mindset and any problem I’m facing seems like something I’ll be able to handle.
What was the first piece of writing you ever published or saw in print?
In the summer of 2017 I signed up for a short-story class at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. My thought was I’d try my hand at writing something short before diving into a full-length novel. Little did I realize this wasn’t a class but a workshop, which meant I was supposed to have already written a story that the class would critique during our time together. I found this out late Friday and the pages were due Monday to the instructor. I clearly remember retreating to my writing space Saturday morning and telling my husband he wouldn’t see me again until I’d completed a short story. Well, eight hours later I emerged, story in hand. I edited and proofed it on Sunday and sent it in on time (yes, I was that girl in school – never late with an assignment!). The story centered around a high school girl who seems to be a classic unreliable narrator. She accuses her male English teacher of raping her and then blackmailing her to continue the relationship, but it was written with such an ambiguous ending that it left room for doubt as to whether the affair had been consensual. In fact, the workshop of 8 students were deadlocked; half believed her, the other half insisted she was lying. Regardless, it seemed to strike a nerve and a few months later when Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers announced their theme for their 2018 Anthology was False Faces, it seemed like a perfect fit I submitted it for publication and to my delight, it was accepted. So I had the pleasure of seeing the first short story I ever wrote (and wrote in a day) published and sold on Amazon.
Tell us about a book that made you cry.
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, this novel tells the story of a typical American family – Mom and Dad, and siblings Lowell, Fern, and Rosemary. Family dynamics are upended when the adopted member of the family is given away when Rosemary is only five, causing upheavals, divided loyalties, and a series of plot twists that kept me turning the pages as I followed the lives of this unique and conflicted unit. In addition to its depth of characterization, the narrative voice is fantastic —by turns funny, wise, and poignant. I was in the doctoral program in psychology at the University of Oklahoma and actually knew some people who participated in the type of academic study featured in this novel, which made it even more fascinating. I cannot read the last few paragraphs at the end without tearing up, desperately wishing I had my own “red poker chip.” (you’ll have to read it to understand what that means). A favorite passage is: “My mother reads us that old fairy tale in which one sister (the older) speaks in toads and snakes and the other (the younger) in flowers and jewels, and this is the image it conjured for me, this scene from this movie, where my mother puts her hand into my mouth and pulls out a diamond.”
Did anything change significantly in your book during the writing or editing process?
A lot! Initially the book had three point-of-view characters: a mother, her college-age daughter, and an older, famous mentor to the girl. Those three generations of women are still in the book but the previous plot centered around issues of adoption with the mentor having given up her baby when she was a teenager and the mother, only now as an adult realizing she is adopted, setting out to find her biological parents. A developmental editor pointed out a major flaw/coincidence in the plot that could not be worked around so I jettisoned the adoption story but kept the generational conflicts and switched to a single POV, that of the younger woman pulled between the influence of her conservative mother and her famous mentor.
If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
I actually do an Instagram post every Thursday on this very topic, called “Notes to my younger self.” Some are funny — like “learn to cook.” Others are heartfelt — like “get paid what you’re worth.” But specifically having to do with a writing career, I would tell my younger self (and I picture myself at 25, the age my protagonist Megan is in my debut) that it will take time to learn the craft and what you write initially won’t be any good and that will be hard for you because you like being good at stuff. But do it anyway. Take classes. Become friends with other writers. Read craft books. Read good fiction writers in the genre that appeals to you. Go to workshops and conferences. Take jobs where you can leave the work behind when it’s quitting time and spent your off-hours on your writing. Travel. Listen to conversations. Observe others and take notes. When someone breaks your heart, feel it all but after a bit, write those feelings in a journal so you remember. Above all, start. That’s the only way you’ll learn. And gradually, you’ll get better. Believe me, you will.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Megan Barnes’ life is in free fall. After losing both her job as a reporter and her boyfriend in the same day, she retreats to Chicago and moves in with Helen, her over-protective mother. Before long, the two are clashing over everything from pro-choice to #MeToo, not to mention Helen’s run for US Congress which puts Megan’s career on hold until after the election.
Desperate to reboot her life, Megan gets her chance when an altercation at a campus rally brings her face to face with Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Jocelyn Jones, who offers her a job on her PR team. Before long, Megan is pulled into the heady world of fame and glamour her charismatic new mentor represents.
Until an anonymous tweet brings it all crashing down. To salvage Jocelyn’s reputation, Megan must locate the online troll and expose the lies. But when the trail leads to blackmail, and circles back to her own mother, Megan realizes if she pulls any harder on this thread, what should have been the scoop of her career could unravel into a tabloid nightmare.
This shrewdly-observed, fast-paced debut centers around the corrosive nature of lies, the complexity of female relationships, and the pervasive reach of the internet into all our lives. Fans of Liane Moriarty’s character-driven stories and Jodi Picoult’s topical plot twists will devour it.