Author Interview: Maggie Smith

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your published book.

Hi, I’m Maggie Smith (not the British treasure you love from Downton Abbey but an author with the same name living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin). My debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, releases March 8, 2022 which is ideal timing because it’s International Women’s Day and my novel can best be described as a braided tale of three generations of women: a world-famous journalist (think Diane Sawyer) at the final stage of her career who’s in danger of losing everything because of a vicious online troll; a newly-minted politician in middle-age running for Congress but also longing to reconnect with her estranged daughter; and a young reporter, desperate to reboot her stalled career, who must choose between the two after she unearths a decades-old lie.

I’m blessed to have received endorsements from such well-known women’s fiction authors as Jacquelyn Mitchard, Ann Garvin, Jamie Beck, and Camille Pagan and early reader reviews have praised the book as a “timely page-turner” that “effortlessly weaves the cutthroat world of journalism and PR nightmares with politics, ambition, reputation, and integrity.” 

Tell us about the genre you like to write, and how is it similar / different from other women fiction genres?

Women’s fiction, by its very definition, focuses on the emotional journey of the protagonist and that’s usually been interpreted as the relationships within a family unit–parents, children, grandparents, siblings, or other relatives. The family home, be it a farm, suburban dwelling, high-rise apartment, or summer cottage, usually provides the setting and a divorce, death, or long-buried family secret, is often the precipitating event that launches the tale.

But when you think about it, most people spend 40-60 hours a week in a workplace environment, one which is teeming with misplaced loyalties, back-office intrigues, and changing power dynamics, all ripe fodder for fiction. So, I’m part of a growing number of women’s fiction writers who are centering their plot lines in workplace settings, be it the corporate world, the political arena, the legal profession, or a high-tech start-up.

While my novel explores the fractious relationship between my 25-year-old protagonist Megan and her 49-year-old mother Helen, it also examines how Megan becomes involved with an older mentor in her field who not only offers her guidance and the promise of career advancement but strokes her ego in ways her mother never has. I find it fascinating to write about how people we meet in the workplace can become so important in our lives and how the lessons learned as we pursue our careers can affect the direction our lives take.

What are some of the biggest challenges authors of older protagonists face today?

I can only speak to the ones I’ve encountered in writing the two older protagonists in my debut.  Jocelyn is a baby boomer who has risen to the top of her profession. She’s been a foreign war correspondent, a TV anchor-woman, even won the Pulitzer prize. She’s winding down her career and releasing her memoir when a series of social media posts accuse her of unethical behavior and she’s watching a lifetime of striving and sacrifice be threatened. In this case, I’m channeling what it feels like when you’ve achieved great success, only to be blindsided by an event that could destroy it all. I think that’s a very real fear in older people—that their reputation could implode in an instant.

And then there’s my GenX mother, Helen, who is starting life over after a divorce. With her, I needed to show her venturing out into the world of politics, a realm she is unfamiliar with, but still have her maintain her value system and refuse to resort to dirty tricks or lies to win an election. Many women in middle age find themselves empty nesters or divorced and reinventing themselves. So that was my challenge with Helen—she’s still a mother but also at a stage where she’s coming into her own as an individual apart from her former identity as a mother and a wife.

When you write a story with an older protagonist, you have to imagine someone who is still striving toward something in their life, not frightened of losing what they have, not pulling back and playing it safe. You need a protagonist with agency, someone who is going after an achievable goal, despite obstacles along the way. It’s a balancing act but totally achievable if the goal you give them is strong and compelling enough. Certainly older protagonists face plenty of challenges, from aging parents to divorce, health crises, and career set-backs. The trick for the writer is to dive deep into these complex issues and make those challenges interesting to the reader.

Given the ongoing popularity of chick lit, where do you see light-hearted fiction for older readers ten years from now?

I think the predominance of the current “chick lit” with its cartoon-like rom-com covers will fade a bit through over-saturation but that novels depicting middle-aged GenX’ers  and aging boomers in a more light-hearted way will gain in popularity.  These would include stories of second (and third)-chance romance, friends creating shared-space habitats, and travel adventures with not only family but best friends. All the women I know consider our friendships as important and sometimes more important than our marriages. Groups of BFF’s banding together either in leisure activities like road trips or volunteering or founding a start-up (think Grace and Frankie) will attract a large potential readership.

When did it dawn on you that you wanted to be a writer?

Even though I’ve been a big reader since an early age, it wasn’t until I attended a retreat in upstate Wisconsin a few years ago that I actually decided to write a full-length novel.  I had edited my high school newspaper and initially majored in journalism when I began college (like my protagonist Megan – I even had her attend Northwestern, my alma mater). But later I switched to an English major,  got a doctorate in psychology, and founded a nationwide art consulting business (yes, three separate career paths). As I got older, I wanted a creative outlet and stumbled on a writing workshop and before I knew it, I was hooked.  It seemed like an activity I could do on weekends while continuing to run my company and it was only later when I decided to sell my business that it turned into a full-time career.

Do you have a day job other than being a writer?

Since selling my business in 2017, I’ve considered writing to be my career. My days are filled with activities related to writing, although not always actually sitting down at my computer and banging out words. Three years ago, I started a podcast through the Women’s Fiction Writing Association so I interview a debut author every week for that.  I also serve as managing editor for the on-line publication The Write City Magazine under the auspices of the Chicago Writers Association and I write a monthly blog for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. And of course for the last few months, most of my time has been spent marketing my upcoming book.

What is your typical writing routine like?

I’m one of those writers who doesn’t maintain a regular writing routine. My first novel was written mainly on weekends because I worked full-time so it took several years to finish. It also went through three distinct iterations —it always had three generations of women but in the first drafts, it was an adoption story with the mother as the main focus rather than the daughter.

As for my second novel, I wrote the first half during NaNoWriMo in November 2020 and am just now getting back to it.  I have an outline of where the story is going but there have been a lot of distractions this last year including COVID, my first novel being published, and a personal health scare. When I do write, it’s usually from 9-12 in the morning when I’m freshest, but a great deal of work also occurs in the time between writing sessions. If I’m honest, most of my best ideas come to me in the shower.

What kind of message does your book convey to readers?

I hope the reader finds herself thinking about how quickly we often stereotype others without truly understanding what has led to their behavior and second, how we often hide the truth to protect the people we love, only to wind up hurting them in the end. And finally, how time and age change us and shift our perspective and values. 

Does your book (s) incorporate certain aspects of your own life (and / or that of others)?

At its heart, my novel is about how young women often pattern themselves after someone older and seemingly wiser and how that choice can affect the trajectory of their lives. That theme resonated with me because of my own experiences growing up and the prickly relationship I had with my own mother. Our values were very different and in no way did I view her as a role model. That made the scenes between Megan and Helen easy to write because I’d lived them. I never had a role model like Jocelyn Jones and I never did mend my relationship with my mother, who died a decade ago.  So, in some ways, writing this novel was my attempt to come to terms with both those facts—to write a story where my 25-year-old protagonist was able to achieve what I could not. A way to give my own life story a better ending, to tell a story in which a mother and daughter with opposing world views reach out to one another and learn to accept and love each other for who they are.

Who are some of your favorite authors and why?

Like most writers I know, I’m a voracious reader and I’ve always preferred novels to non-fiction. In my younger days, I read every book to the end but lately, if I’m not engaged by page 75, I’m done. My criteria is credible but surprising plots, interesting and well-defined characters, and lyrical language. If the book has 2 of the 3, I’ll read to the end.  Three out of three, it goes on my favorites shelf along with my dog-eared copies of novels by Ann Patchett, Lily King, Toni Morrison, Sue Miller, and Jesmyn Ward, as well as newer writers like Joanne Tompkins, Christi Clancy, Nancy Johnson, Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Lisa Braxton, Jeannee Sacken, and Elizabeth Wetmore. I’m also a big fan of suspense/mystery fiction and have enjoyed every book I’ve read by Megan Miranda, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Tracy Clark, Jane Harper, Clare Mackintosh, and Tana French. If someone wants to read the Great American Novel, I direct them to Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers which conjures up Chicago in the middle of the AIDS crisis and makes you weep for the lives and hopes that were lost. And if you want to read a book that shows what publishers mean by a distinct “voice,” pick up a copy of Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson or Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. Both feature one-of-a-kind protagonists that will make  you laugh out loud.

Any advice you’d like to give for aspiring writers over 40?

There is no such thing as an aspiring writer. If you write, you’re a writer. You may not be agented, you may not be published, you may not even have a completed manuscript, but if you’re putting words on paper (or typing them onto a screen), welcome to the world of writers.

The good news is you can stay here as long as you want because there’s always more to learn. To get better (and that should always be your goal), read craft books, attend seminars, join a critique group, join a writer’s association, travel to conferences, and treat the profession as seriously as any other. You do not know everything when you start and that’s okay. You will learn more through studying, through interacting with other writers, and through sure osmosis.

Cultivate friendships with other writers. They will serve as your mentors, your beta readers, your cheering squad, your shoulder to cry on. Boost their careers with no expectation of pay-back but because you believe in their contributions and sincerely want to see them succeed.

Cultivate persistence. There are so many obstacles and so many definitions of success that if you don’t have stamina, you will quit when things get rough. And they will. Other writers will get a contract and you won’t. Other writers will snag a place on the best-seller lists and you won’t. Other writers will sell their story to the movies and you won’t. Don’t make any of these your goal. Your goal is to write better this year than you did the year before. And that’s something within your control.

Cultivate openness. Listen to advice. Listen to feedback. Analyze well-written novels to see what they did right.  Copy them, then change the writing to your style and learn from the analysis. Don’t treat your writing lightly. It is a serious life-long profession and deserves your full attention and devotion.

Finally, keep filling your life with adventures as long as you’re physically and financially able to. As Nora Ephron said, “It’s all copy. Take notes.” Travel to other countries, associate with people from all walks of life and keep listening and reading extensively. Then put your butt in a chair somewhere and start writing. I guarantee, based on your years of experience and the wisdom that comes with staying open to life, you’ll have something amazing to say.

Maggie Smith is the author of TRUTH AND OTHER LIVES (Ten16 Press; March 8, 2022). She hosts the Hear Us Roar podcast, which features interviews with debut women’s fiction authors. She also serves as a board member for the Chicago Writers Association where she edits Write City Magazine, contributes quarterly blog posts and oversees a monthly independent bookstore feature. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she now lives in Milwaukee, WI. You can visit her online at maggiesmithwriter.com.

In TRUTH AND OTHER LIES—described as The Devil Wears Prada meets All the President’s Men–a young woman reporter clashing with her politically conversative mother who’s running for Congress lands an opportunity to work for an iconic feminist journalist. But a looming scandal threatens all three women.

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