interview with sarah e smith
I'm one of those people who struggles to multi-task. Especially when it comes to juggling my writing with my actual, real world life. There are, however, people who are incredibly good at doing just that. They manage to balance a complicated and taxing working life with a highly productive and successful writing career. One such person is the brilliant Sarah E. Smith.
Not only did Sarah create the thrilling The Secret of Aldwych Strand trilogy for younger readers and last year launch A Cowardice of Crows (the first book to feature her gentlemen detective, and literary icon in the making, Symington Byrd), but she's also a teacher and turns up at all manner of book fairs and lectures. On top of that, she's also a thoroughly lovely and interesting person.
I'm lucky enough to know Sarah through the fact we're both published by Kensington Gore, but I'm certain I would've found her work without that connection. Her characters are vivid and her plotlines are compelling stuff. I managed to get an hour or so to just ask her just how she does it. So, here's what I suggest; read this and then go out and make sure your e reader or bookshelf is full with everything of hers you don't own. Trust me, you won't regret it.
CL: I've managed to get to a computer a bit ahead of schedule. Are you ready to receive the first question? Asking that makes me feel strangely like I'm hosting a quiz show.
SS: Ready. Sitting in a pub in Ely.
CL: Nice. I'm slightly jealous now. I've only got a glass of water in front of me. Right, here's your start for ten.
SS: "Ooh, go on Bamber" she said showing her age.
CL: You've written a trilogy of books. That's not something I've not attempted before. How did you go about planning that story as a whole and did it change over time?
SS: To be honest, I didn't set out to write a trilogy. I thought I was writing a book. But like buses, three came along at once. I knew the last line, so I knew when to stop. But, as far as for planning? Compared to the planning I have to do now, it was child's play.
CL: Oh wow. So the story basically evolved into the sequels. That must've caught you off guard.
SS: Totally. I knew I was onto something bigger when Lloyd George and Churchill refused to be bit parts. But I never saw the Destroyer coming. Not til the last book. Though in hindsight I should have done.
CL: It's always great when a story wonít do exactly what you tell it to. I have to ask, how did it feel writing Churchill. I've always been worried about tangling with real life people and Churchill was such a force of nature in his time.
SS: He was the easiest of all of them. Probably because he's not a hero of mine. Not in the same way the others are. Destroyer excepted. So I focused on the black dog and Mark's need for a father and he accepted that. Especially after we went to Blenheim. I kept as true to what I knew from my own research. None of the historicals act against what history knows.
CL: How much research do you put into each story and do you do research ideas to fit the stories or to fuel them?
SS: Steve says I do a hell of a lot of research. It's both ways: it feeds and fuels. We spent a long time in Whitechapel researching book three and making sure I had the geography right - and, as I did that, the underworld of Crows was fuelled. Today, however, I was finding out about scorpion spiders to feed into the latest.
CL: Oh man, do I ask about Whitechapel or scorpion spiders? I'll go with Whitechapel. Is that place the goldmine I hear it is for stories? I've heard a lot of people saying it's like stepping back in time in some areas, like you can hear the footsteps of a certain gentlemen in a top hat walking very close to you.
SS: Well in all the times I've been there, which has got to be over 40 times now, I've never seen Kenny! But Mordy and Emily definitely came out of the houses on Fournier Street to speak to me. And if it wasn't for our tour guide when we did the Ripper Trail I'd have never found out about Mary Jane Kelly's eyes!! And, of course, I'm lucky. My Nana was from that part of the world.
CL: Your writing always makes me think you have a genuine love of the past and of Victorian life. Is there anything in particular that really appeals to you about that time period and the past?
SS: History oozes from my fingers. I took my mum and dad to my first Roman dig at 5 years old. Not the other way round. So I think I was born to teach history. As for why I have such an affinity with Victorians? Nana was born in 1899. She lived with us. Told me about her childhood and stories of Whitechapel. She died in 1983. I went to Whitechapel in 1990 and a little old lady stopped me and said: you're related to May Leader. Spooky or what? I also did Victorian History for A Level. 16's an impressionable age. So maybe that's why I love the era. Or maybe it's because my second historical crush was Disraeli.
CL: Not that I'm trying to steal any ideas (honest) but what sort of stories did your Nana tell you about life back then? I bet it was fascinating to hear about such a different era.
SS: My uncle had the first motorbike in Manor Park. She picked Apples in Appledore. And threw stones at Oswald Mosley. Standard stuff.
CL: Well, Oswald Mosley had it coming. Good for her!
SS: That's what she said! Oh, and she had poison ready for if the invasion happened.
CL: Okay, mental note, if I ever stumble across a Tardis and travel back in time; don't mess with your Nana.
SS: Yep. I got a lot from her.
CL: Your characters are all very memorable. I can see where they get it from. Although, for their eccentricities, they have a very real heart to them. Do you base them on people you've come across in real life?
SS: Lucy and Mark: yes. CC's been around since I was about 12. But the others? I'm not so sure. I think it's the situations I know: not the people.
CL: Cowardice of Crows is wonderfully character driven. How did you go about plotting it? Did the characters guide you through the twists and turns or did you have to map it all out first? For the record, it kept me hooked until the resolution.
SS: As a fellow writer, I hope you know what I mean when I say my characters talk to me. So to some extent they took me to a twist then told me to work it out. The swines! Symington and his entourage told a simple tale. The Pawnbroker and Emily. They were devious.
CL: I know exactly what you mean. I've had a character I was writing turn out to basically be the devil and he didn't tell me until I got to the end of that story.
SS: Why do they do that? Isn't it enough they make you write when you have a real life to live?
CL: I know, right? Speaking of characters, Byrd is a well-rounded person. He's more than just a sharp intellect. There's a real sense of loyalty and bravery to him. Is there one historic detective you would love to write a story for and is there any classic crime writer you'd love to see tackle the world you've created for Symington?
SS: Thank you. *Blushes* The editor (the glorious Amanda) and I worked hard to get his "voice". Initially I'd have said Lord Peter Whimsey or Campion. They're both from the same world. But actually I'd like to write a Miss Marple. And I'd love to see Reginald Hill of Dalziel and Pascoe fame try his hand at writing a Byrd Mystery.
CL: The crew he has around him and the way the story developed reminded me a little of Bulldog Drummond as well. You know, without all the unfortunate baggage that comes with those stories. I would love to see you write a Miss Marple. That would be brilliant!
SS: She'd turn out to be a mass murderer like Jessica Fletcher.
CL: But what a story that would make. I think you got Symington Byrd's voice spot on. He has a real, classic pulp feel to him. What were your aims and inspiration when it came to creating him?
SS: I wanted a chap with depth. True to his era. Yet at the same time someone who could capture a 21st century audience. And, of course, he has to be someone who has no idea that while he might be the cleverest man in the England: he's not the cleverest person.
CL: Well, mission accomplished there. Symington has all the makings of a classic crime icon. He can certainly teach people trying to a write a crime story a thing or two. Speaking of teaching, do you find that your teaching and writing inform each other or are they very separate things?
SS: *blushes* *again* I told Mark and Lucy's story because I wanted history to be fun. How I told it - in short chapters - was because I teach kids with short attention spans. When you're reading, a chapter is still a chapter. That's an achievement. "I read a chapter tonight, Dad" sounds better than "I read three sentences." But I'm dyslexic, so every time I write a book I finally learn about a new bit of language or structure and how to do it properly. Which in turn makes me a better English teacher as I have a practical solution to offer.
CL: That sounds like an amazing way to encourage kids to read. I love that! Also, I'd never thought of writing as a way to deal with dyslexia.
SS: Me neither but it's how it's happened. I hope.
CL: As someone who goes out to literary festivals and lectures, do you have any tips for authors starting to start look that form of networking? That's something I really need to start working on.
SS: Ahh, you're appealing to my inner Whore! Join a local forum go to local events. Write while you're there. Actually create the character your writer wants to be. Mrs Smith the Teacher is different to Sarah the Writer and me, the little girl who lived through Nana's stories of the East End. Create the character you want to be and live it. At the end of the day, pack it away with your books to return to being you. As Shakespeare once said: one man in his time plays many parts.
CL: One last question. Who was your first historical crush?
SS: Oh, Chris! Really? Isn't is obvious, cariad?
I'd like to thank Sarah for taking the time out of a long, Wales-bound drive in order to stop and chat to me for a while about writing and throwing stones at Oswald Mosley.
All of her works are available on Amazon or through Kensington Gore Publishing. I've attached some links below for you, including one to her website. Enjoy!
Sarah's Website - https://morethanacat.com/