“Friday-Fortnight” Interview with Mary Smith

Hi guys,

When I post this, I’ll be on my way to Old Blighty to visit the little ones—three children and three grandchildren. Yes, I know, I’m a granddad. Didn’t think I was that ancient, did you?

Anyway, I love my little ones to pieces, naturally, and have a great time when in the UK, but I love my own bed and hate travelling. Wish me luck; I’ll be back on the 22nd, exhausted but eager to press the launch button on my latest Casebook novel—more on that in a few weeks.

Right now, I’m interviewing my friend and Scottish author, Mary Smith.

KJD: Hi Mary, how you doing?

MS: Excellent, Kerry, thank you. How are you?

KJD: Not looking forward to travelling, but keen to reach my destination. Scottish, eh? I’ve only visited Scotland once, but loved it. Can you tell me a little about there you live?

MS: It’s a small market town set in the middle of some of Scotland’s most beautiful countryside. Forget the Highlands—we have everything right here from hills that are manageable, forests, lochs, rivers and glorious beaches. I’ve just been commissioned to write a tourist brochure!

KJD: A commission? Fantastic.

MS: Thank you. As for living here, if you like anonymity, it’s not a town for you—everyone knows everyone and knows everything you do. After years of being away from it, I find that comforting now.

KJD: Exactly so. I live in France and don’t speak French very well, but everyone seems to know my secrets, not that I have many, of course. Not many bad ones at least.

What can you see out of your studio window?

MS: I live right on the main street so there are shops opposite and I can watch people walking up and down and stopping to chat to each other. On weekend nights, I can watch the drunks weave their way homewards and eavesdrop on their alcohol-fuelled conversations, which are conducted at high decibel level. Over the rooftops, I can see the hills.

KJD: There are drunks in Scotland? Really? Who’d have thought?

MS: Don’t go there, Kerry. You have been warned. (She smiled saying it, so I know I’m okay—KJD).

KJD: Sorry, Mary. Only kidding. Ahem, moving on. I know you’ve been to Afghanistan. That sounds fascinating. What led to your visit, and what did you find there?

MS: “Tell me about Afghanistan” – what in one interview? I’ve written books on the subject and still haven’t done telling people about it! It’s a country that gets under the skin and never, ever leaves you. It was whisky—indirectly—that took me there. I was watching a snooker match in a pub in Lancashire, drinking whisky and talking to a Pakistani friend and by the end of the evening had been invited to visit Karachi in Pakistan with his wife and sister (they didn’t actually know about this until much later).

Off I went and while there visited the leprosy headquarters which Oxfam supported in a small way. I spent three days seeing the work they do and was totally bowled over by it and said I’d love to be able to do something. They suggested I stay on and set up a health education department! Pointing out I had no medical training didn’t put them off in the least and they said they would train me in leprosy and arrange language lessons and not being a doctor was a good thing as I wouldn’t use jargon ordinary people didn’t understand.

I ended up signing a three-year contract. During those three years, I came in contact with a number of Afghans – this was during the Soviet occupation – and at the end of my contract I signed up for Afghanistan. The Soviets left that same year! I stayed for another seven years.

My time was divided between the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and the rural areas of Hazara Jat running a project to train female volunteer health workers. It was often frustrating, sometimes heart-breaking, occasionally dangerous—like when armed robbers broke in and stuck a pistol in my ear and an AK47 at the back of neck or when we got caught in a bombing raid—but ultimately incredibly satisfying. I never felt so much alive and connected to the people I was working with, ordinary people who are as appalled as the rest of us by the terror happening in the name of Islam.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the most exotic places I’ve lived but up there in exoticism are India which I’ve visited a couple of times and Vietnam which I was lucky enough to visit last year when a friend was out there for a year. I only managed two weeks and would love to go back to explore further. I’m never satisfied with a couple of weeks as a tourist. I always want to stay on and immerse myself in the culture.

KJD: Wow – and here’s me complaining about travelling on the ferry to England. You are very much more intrepid than I am. I can only imagine what it must be like to have a gun against your head.

Can I move to less dangerous topics? When not working, what’s the very first thing you do in the morning?

MS: Whether working or not, the first thing I do is drink coffee and read the paper. I know we can get all the news we want online but for me the day has to start with a real newspaper. Then I might have a few games of spider solitaire—totally addicted, I’m afraid.

KJD: That’s more like it, very genteel. Let’s move onto books. What genres do you read and do they differ from the ones you write? If so, why?

MS: Apart from erotica and science fiction/fantasy/horror, I read most genres.

KJD: So I can’t interest you in my next book, Nymphet Vampires from Alpha Centauri on Acid.

MS: Not one bit.

KJD: Shame. So, what do you like to read?

MS: I don’t have one particular favourite—a lot depends on my mood. Feeling down for example, a light romance or cosy crime cheers me up. I enjoy contemporary fiction, stories about people and what makes them tick, crime novels and I also read memoir and biography.

KJD: Excellent. I know you are a writer, poet, and freelance journalist. If you had to choose only one of these, what would it be?

MS: Oh, no, don’t make me choose. I’m going to say journalist because… No, I can’t say only one because I want to write other novels, poems, and non-fiction. Journalism pays quicker so I need it but I can’t imagine only doing that.

KJD: Okay, I’ll give you a pass on that one. What’s the first thing you do when starting a new novel? Do you research and write a detailed plot outline, or are you a pantser?

MS: Well, I’ve only written one novel. Correction—only published one novel. There are parts of novels, which will never see the light of day. I think I’m a pantser who does a bit of planning. When I started No More Mulberries I had my main characters and thought I knew how it was going to end—but it didn’t end the way I planned because as I got to know the characters I realised the ending had to be different.

KJD: I know that feeling. Happens to me all the time. What excites you about writing and the writing process?

MS: When it’s going well and those people I’ve made up are interacting and talking to each other as though they are real—that’s exciting. I didn’t much like Iqbal at the start of No More Mulberries but when he more or less demanded a chapter to himself I discovered things about him which made him a more sympathetic character—and I love it when readers tell me they changed their opinions about him around chapter four. There’s something magical about that.

KJD: I can understand that. I love it when readers ‘see’ something in one of my characters that I didn’t write in so many words. I prefer to let my characters’ actions define the person.

For how long have you been writing creative fiction?

MS: Oh, I started writing stories when I was a wee girl—long, long time ago. I stopped when a teacher in secondary school demanded to know what book I’d copied a story from. I was so shocked that he didn’t believe I wrote it and would steal someone else’s work. It was years before I realised that actually he had paid me a compliment in a funny sort of way—but it put me off writing fiction for years.

KJD: I understand that situation. Teachers have a lot to answer for in my life. Can’t be too hard on teachers anymore because my daughter’s head of music in a secondary school. Don’t know where I went wrong with her. Teehee.

If there were a single thing you’d like to change about yourself, what would it be?

MS: I would really, really love not to be addicted to spider solitaire. I would be so much more productive. And I’d like to be less easily distracted when the writing isn’t going as well as I’d like—you know when suddenly washing the kitchen floor seems an interesting thing to do rather than sort out a plot dead end?

KJD: Nope! I can honestly say that I’ve never had a need to wash the kitchen floor, or any other floor, come to think of it.

I see from your bio that one of your roles is to help writers find ways to improve their marketing skills and organise networking with other industry professionals. Can you give my author readers a couple of tips to set them on the road to success? Spend– take as long as you like here, I’ll be taking notes.

MS: Did I write that in my bio?

KJD: Yep. It’s there in black and white.

MS: It sounds frightfully grand and expert-like when I feel I’m very much on a learning curve myself. What I do locally, where I live is to help writers network and find outlets for their books. There is a dearth of local booksellers and the one chain bookseller in a wide radius has little interest in stocking local writers’ work. Also, although we have a successful literary festival, it tends to bring in writers of the celebrity kind and doesn’t do much to promote local writers. I teamed up with a some other writers to form a collective called WagTongues—basically if you are a writer living locally you are in it—to provide sales outlets through pop-up bookshops around the region. This sort of evolved into mini-lit-fests with short readings, interviews and workshops. It gives writers a chance to sell books and readers the opportunity to meet writers. We now get invited to pop up at events as well as organising our own pop-up shops. What’s been really pleasing is that some bookshops have started to show an interest in stocking local writers’ books.

KJD: Wonderful. That’s something I miss out on by living in France, but there are other benefits. Anything else?

MS: I’ve also arranged writers’ gatherings with industry professionals. I didn’t want the usual things of writers listening to one speaker after another with only time for a few questions from the floor then we all go home. Writers love to talk—mostly they are holed up on their own so when they get together they chatter—and most conference allow no time for that. I make sure the time for chatting—call it networking if you want—is factored in. The speakers have included people who are experts in using social media effectively. It used to be a publisher or an agent would be invited to talk but now it is much more likely to be someone who has successfully self-published or someone who can talk about formatting issues.

Lots of people, especially starting out, really have not the faintest idea about using social media.

I also help people organise book launches, write press releases, contact local radio. I think we sometimes forget about the importance of this locally-based on-the-ground work – book selling is not all done on the internet, some people still want to buy a hard copy rather than an ebook. Other ways to sell books is on the talk circuit – book groups, yes, but also social groups and associations who have guest speakers at their meetings – they are always on the lookout for speakers to fill their schedules and for some reason the idea of having a published author goes down very well. Give an interesting talk about writing, sell a few books, and get your name passed on to other groups.

KJD: Wonderful. Now, Tell me a little about your latest work. Where did you find the inspiration? What’s it about? When can we expect to see it on the bookshelves? How about a sneak preview?

MS: Apart from Dumfries Through Time which will be published in August this year, I’m working on two books. The sequel to No More Mulberries the one about a demented dad. For that one, readers can visit the My Dad is a Goldfish blog:


KJD: Good luck, I’ll have them on my watch-list.

Finally, tell me something about yourself you wouldn’t want you partner/parents to know. Don’t worry; it’ll be our little secret. 😉

MS: Nope. I don’t want to be in the divorce court next week!

There is something I wouldn’t have wanted my parents to know. They used to make homemade wine—gallons of the stuff: apple, elderberry, elderflower—and I used to sell bottles of it to my pals at school. Sorry mum, sorry dad.

KJD: Oh dear. So you’re the one who led all those innocent Scottish children to a life of drunkenness? How can you live with yourself!

MS: Remember what I said earlier? Be careful.

KJD: Er, okay! And finally, finally – is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask that you’re desperately, desperately keen my readers should know?

MS: I want to say thank you for asking me to be a Friday interviewee. Chuffed. And I want your readers to know that Scotland is never shut and is a beautiful place to visit and it doesn’t always rain. But, at least when it’s pouring you won’t be devoured by midgies.

KJD: I’m never going to live that down, am I? (I told you not to slag off Scotland! Ed.)

About Mary

I was born on the island of Islay, home of some of the best whisky in the world but moved to the mainland to Dumfries & Galloway when I was seven. Finished school and had the longest gap year in history which lasted about 30 years while I travelled a bit in Europe, lived in England where I worked in a factory, was a child-minder and then went to work for Oxfam UK before a chance holiday in Pakistan led to a job there followed by a job in Afghanistan. I returned to Scotland when my son was five and when he started school I finally went to university.

I had started selling articles while working abroad and have continued as a journalist – sometimes freelance, sometimes staff – ever since. ‘Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women’ (a title which seriously curtails tweets) is a memoir from my time in Afghanistan. I wanted to write a novel and worked on what became No More Mulberries while doing an MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University.

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About No More Mulberries

Genre: Contemporary Romance

Culture clashes, divided loyalties, loss and love against a backdrop of war in Afghanistan.

Scottish-born midwife, Miriam loves her work at a health clinic in rural Afghanistan and the warmth and humour of her women friends in the village, but she can no longer ignore the cracks appearing in her marriage. Her doctor husband has changed from the loving, easy-going man she married and she fears he regrets taking on a widow with a young son, who seems determined to remain distant from his stepfather.

When Miriam acts as translator at a medical teaching camp she hopes time apart might help her understand the cause of their problems. Instead, she must focus on helping women desperate for medical care and has little time to think about her failing marriage. When an old friend appears, urging her to visit the village where once she was and her first husband had been so happy, Miriam finds herself travelling on a journey into her past, searching for answers to why her marriage is going so horribly wrong.

Her husband, too, must deal with issues from his own past – from being shunned by childhood friends when he contracted leprosy to the loss of his first love.

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The next FFI victim interviewee is Lorrie Farrelly, and I’ll post it during March (due to publishing deadlines).