Tuesday, 16 October 2012
Author Spotlight: Mary Smith
Thousands Pass Here Every Day
The poems in this collection explore wide ranging themes of homeland, identity, family. A strong sense of place is evoked whether that place is Afghanistan where people live with war as a constant backdrop to their lives, or Scotland. Characters such as the forestry worker in Galloway, boys with their flocks of sheep on Afghanistan’s high pastures, freedom fighters, mothers and sons, demonstrate common concerns which connect us all. There is, too, a sense of how landscape shapes identities and creates connections.
Here’s a little example of one of the shorter poems, and Mary has kindly allowed me to publish a longer one further on.
writing on the rock
stories of ocean life
Thousands Pass Here Every Day is available as a paperback from Amazon UK; Amazon US, and Indigo Dreams
How did you become a writer? And did you begin with journalism?
As a child I was always writing stories – in books I made out of wallpaper off-cuts. Proper, grown-up writing began with journalism while I was working in Afghanistan. When I was home on leave once, I wrote an article about finally fulfilling my childhood ambition to learn to ride a horse. I sent it out and it was immediately accepted by Horse & Rider magazine who asked for a couple of photos to illustrate the article. I can still remember my excitement. The acceptance letter was practically falling to pieces because I unfolded it to read it so many times. I was also very excited at how much they were going to pay me and calculated if I wrote two or three articles a week I would be able to make a living.
It was another two years before I sold another article! When I did, it was to the Guardian Weekly and I continued to sell articles to them for quite a while. On my return to Scotland, after ten years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I continued to work as a freelance and staff journalist writing for all kinds of publications from local and national newspapers to lifestyle magazines.
It was also when I was working overseas I began writing narrative non-fiction. I sent the first ms out to several publishers but finally gave up on it. Looking at it now, I can see why it wasn’t accepted as it was really little more than a diary, with all the boring bits left in. Nothing is wasted, though, and I have been able to use parts of it in other work.
You have written both a novel and non-fiction book about Afghanistan – how did you diversify into poetry, and is any of it inspired by that country?
The diversification into poetry was very much against my will! Glasgow University opened its Crichton Campus in Dumfries (half an hour from where I live) and I took the opportunity to study for a degree, after what has probably been one of the longest gap years in history. A new creative writing module was offered which sounded really exciting – apart from the fact it contained a poetry element. I had always enjoyed reading poetry but had never written it – apart from the ghastly stuff teenagers tend to write about love and death and teenage angst.
I felt I wouldn’t be able to write poetry but when I talked to the lecturer, Tom Pow (a wonderful poet), he said the assessment portfolio had to contain at least one poem. I actually decided not to take the course but then realised I was probably cutting my nose off to spite my face and signed up with the proviso I could change courses after a couple of weeks if it didn’t work out. The first poem I wrote was about Afghanistan and when I read it in class I realised I had written a ‘real’ poem. That was it – I was hooked.
A lot of my poetry has been, and continues to be, inspired by my time in Afghanistan. There is something about the country which gets under the skin and doesn’t leave you. So few people are able to go there I like to think I am able to offer snapshots of the country, glimpses and insights not shown by the media. I also write about Scotland – landscape, people, family – and am interested in memories from childhood and how they impact on our adult lives.
Here is the wonderful poem Mary wrote for the course:
I remember mountains, that made mine small,
tearing jagged holes in a too-blue sky.
Hoopoes, orange crests bright in the sun,
patrolling the village, seeking
an uncovered milk pail.
Tea tasting of smoke.
Rattle of pebbles in a tin can
calling children home at dusk:
litany of names, Iqbal, Shahnaz, Chaman…
Smell of cow-dung, goats and dust,
mingling with vetch and clover.
And the scent of a little white rose
that would break MacDiarmid’s heart.
How difficult was it to find a publisher for a collection of poetry? Is it only available in print?
Over the years I’ve had poems appear in various publications and this is an essential step on the route to having a collection published. Poetry publishers want to know your work is good enough to be out there. I was very lucky because when I was first thinking about trying to find a publisher someone suggested I look at Indigo Dreams. They have a very specific submissions process and state on their website it is pointless submitting unless you have had work published in recognised poetry magazines, etc. I sent in the required half dozen poems and was told they were interested in seeing the full collection. It was quite a while before I heard back – and I was delighted to learn they wanted to publish my collection.
I don't think poetry works very well as an ebook because you can't pick it up and dip in the way you can with a traditional book.
Could you tell us a little bit about your recent role in the Arts in southern Scotland?
I had the role of Creative Arts Business Network (CABN) Advocate for Literature – which is a bit of a mouthful – for a year. The aims of CABN include raising the profile of the literature sector and gaining recognition for what it contributes to the area and also to provide networking opportunities for writers as well as peer support and mentoring. I met with writers from across the region and listened to what they said they needed in terms of training and support.
I organised a conference at which Nicola Morgan spoke about how to use social media effectively and Janice Horton showed the participants how to put into practice what Nicola spoke about. Sara Bain talked about how to write a press release and gave an insight into the workings of a newspaper. I also made sure there was lots of time for networking. So often at conferences there is little time to talk – and writers do like to talk. It was a very successful day and the participants got a lot out of it.
One thing several asked for was some kind of online forum enabling them to keep in touch – D&G is a vast region and writers rarely have the chance to meet people from different places within the region. Now they have an online virtual group. I’ve been able to point writers in the right direction to find a publisher, encourage others to send work out. I loved the job but decided not to renew my contract because I really need to grab back time for my own writing projects.
How do you promote your books and does it work?
Hah! Good question. I honestly didn’t realise when I started out as a writer I would have to also develop skills in promotion and marketing. However, it seems publishers now expect their writers to have an ‘author’s platform’ and I am slowly learning to get to grips with social media. I have a website and share a blog – Novel Points of View – with four other writers and am on Facebook though I still haven’t managed to start tweeting yet. I realize I should do more to get myself noticed by other bloggers, which is why I’m so delighted to be asked to do an interview for your blog.
Using more traditional methods, local radio, newspapers and magazines have been very supportive and have helped enormously. With the novel, No More Mulberries, I have been to lots of book groups but I don’t think this is so likely to happen with a poetry collection. The poetry book came out in September and I’ve done three launches/readings so far and have several more booked over the coming weeks.
Do you have a favourite writing place?
I have a study where I work surrounded by books. It’s messy but I usually know where everything is. Sometimes, though, I’ll move into what was my son’s study which I tidied up after he left for university and is now almost empty apart from a desk.
Do you find time for hobbies?
Apart from reading? I read a lot and can’t go to sleep without reading. I enjoy walking and am fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland with the Galloway Hills on the doorstep and also glorious beaches on the Solway Coast
What are your current writing plans?
I want to write a biography about a woman who was an engineer and motor manufacturer in the early 1920s – she was an inspiring woman and a real pioneer. I’ve done some research but need time – blocks of time – in which to finish the research before I start the writing.
I’m also working on more poems including some inspired by a trip to Slovakia to visit the Biosphere reserves there. Galloway and Southern Ayrshire has been awarded UNESCO Man and Biosphere status and so my own landscape also feeds into these poems.
Any tips for new writers?
I can’t stress how important it is for anyone who wants to be a writer to read, read, and read. The other advice would be to not give up, ever. There will be rejections, and they are always painful, but they should never make you give up writing.
Thanks for those inspiring answers, Mary!
You can find out more about Mary on her website and shared blog, Novel Points of View.
Mary Smith is a poet, writer and journalist whose poems have appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies and two pamphlets. As a journalist, she has been widely published and has written one non-fiction book and a novel, No More Mulberries, set in Afghanistan where she worked for several years.
In November 2012 her non-fiction book Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni will be published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in November 2012.
Mary Smith lives in Dumfries and Galloway.
(Photo by Sara Bain)