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Deborah Smith

e-interviewed by Martina Bexte (February, 2003)

Deborah Smith began writing at a tender young age and went on to study journalism at the University of Georgia. After graduation she worked as a newspaper editor and then as a medical writer before finally deciding to write fiction. She released her first book in 1986 and has since written many more including the recent releases Bear Mountain, Venus Fell, and Stone Flower Garden, all of which garnered critical acclaim. Her latest release, Sweet Hush, is a moving and memorable tale that lingers long after you turn the last page. Ms. Smith lives in Georgia, where many of her books are set, with her husband and a small menagerie of dogs and cats.

Q: Why did you choose to leave a journalism career to try your hand at writing first category and then mainstream fiction? Of those two careers, which do you find the most satisfying and why? What was your most memorable moment as a journalist? As a novelist?

A: Nothing is more fun than being a newspaper reporter. You get to meet famous people, and odd people, and politicians (who are often both famous *and* odd.) Working for a small-town weekly as I did, I learned so much about a wide range of fascinating subjects. A typical small-town reporter spends the morning at a county commission meeting, eats lunch with some cigar-chomping Kiwanis, devotes the afternoon to interviewing an artist visiting from some exotic realm, and finishes off with an evening at the school board meeting, where angry parents threaten to hit a board member with a water balloon. You wander around the local police station and the policemen speak to you by name. Sometimes they show you crime-scene pictures you'd rather not see, but you're proud to be included in the investigation, anyway.

At the time I worked as a reporter, Newt Gingrich was a wet-behind-the-ears freshman Congressman from the newspaper's district. If I have a most-notable memory, it's of drinking beer in a south-Atlanta bar with Gingrich (and a couple of other people, including the newspaper's photographer.) I hasten to add that Gingrich only sipped iced tea. Even then he was an intensely serious, all-business kind of politician. I cringe at the memory of the insipid and clueless political questions I asked him. To his credit, he was never condescending or dismissive of a baby reporter from a podunk paper.

Unfortunately, my sterling career as a discount-rate Lois Lane only paid minimum wage. Working for the average small weekly paper is hardly a way to build a stock portfolio or even support a meager credit card. My husband was a modestly paid engineer at the time, and our combined income barely kept us in cheap rent and Tuna Helper.

I tried my best to graduate to bigger newspapers who offered better paychecks, but the competition was fierce (post-Woodward and Bernstein in the early 1980's, everybody wanted to be Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.) Plus I didn't have the true shark mentality to be a big-time reporter. I tended to guess which questions would embarrass my subjects, and not ask those questions. Which is not how the job works.

Besides, when I sold my first romance novel, in 1986, (the most notable day of my life as a novelist, bar none!) I knew I'd found something even better than newspaper work. Now my *characters* could ask the embarrassing questions and I got to *make up* the embarrassed people. Perfect!

Q: Your first novel, Proud Surrender, was published in 1986 for the romance line, Second Chance at Love. How have your books evolved since then and where do you see future work going?

A: I love my early books but consider them "romances with training wheels." I worked long and hard to understand the accepted themes and structure of the short, series novels, and those first books show my doggedly intense efforts to follow the crowd. As time progressed I began to realize that *not* following the crowd was more important. On the other hand, a writer in a commercial genre like romance has to be smart enough to stay *near* the crowd, at least. Which is where each of my books becomes a new challenge--trying to be different without being too different.

Q: Can you tell us how you came up with the premise of Sweet Hush?

A: I'm a political wonk, maybe because I got to watch small-town politics up-close, as a reporter, and it hooked me. I love all the Machiavellian posturing and scheming, the drama of it all, the idealism and the cynicism, and the marketing angle--which is all about how we want to see our politicians and how they make sure we see what they want us to see.

I've wanted to write a book with a Presidential background for a long time. I actually launched an idea for one many years ago, while I was writing for my former publisher, Bantam Books. That book got beaten up in the editorial process and died a slow death without ever being completed. Maybe the timing was wrong. Maybe the publisher was wrong. At any rate, I still harbored the seed of the idea and kept searching for a good story to plant it in. At the same time I was searching for a plot that could use the mountain apple farms near my home. I absolutely love the roadside orchards. Every autumn weekend is like a huge country festival centered around apples and apple-infused edibles. Through some alchemy I can't describe, the idea of combining two disparate worlds -- apples and Presidents--began to bear fruit. And that's my only apple metaphor for the day, I swear.

Q: The "southern woman" is generally portrayed as tough, resilient, resourceful, fiercely loyal to her loved ones and to her heritage; the women portrayed in Gone With the Wind, Steel Magnolias, and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe immediately come to mind. So do the unforgettable matriarchs in another recent book of yours, The Stone Flower Garden. Women from all over the world and from all walks of life could fit that description, yet in popular fiction the American southern woman continues to stand out. What is it about her that makes her such a memorable character?

A: We love our legends down heah in the South, and the image of the tough, proud Southern Belle is as enduring as Scarlett's turnip-eating-turning-point. I think most of the steel-magnolia image is just a grand puff of hot air---women *everywhere* are the foundation of strength in this world, in my humbly smug opinion. But some of the legend really does come from a cornerstone of truth, because so many Southern women -- of all sizes, shapes, backgrounds and colors -- were left to fend for themselves and their families after the Civil War. A lot of fiercely dedicated women grew out of that crucible, and we're not far removed from their influence. My grandmother was born in a post-Civil War farm family who had lost everything. She grew up with a grandfather and other elderly relatives who instilled in her both their horrible memories and their strength as survivors. The Civil War shaped my grandmother as if she'd seen it first-hand. And thus it shaped me, because I grew up under her tutelage. Of course, I'm a pansy-pantied pantywaist compared to the oldtimers. But I like to think I could rassle a Yankee to the ground and save Tara, if I had to.

Q: Did you base Hush McGillen, your wonderful lead in Sweet Hush, on anyone you know?

A: My lead female characters are always an outrageous exaggeration of my own alter ego. Meaning I only *wish* I had their outspoken courage and witty way with words--not to mention their voluptuous but cellulite-free behinds. Please note: you will rarely find skinny butted heroines in my novels. I'm on a crusade for the Jennifer Lopez Booty Society.

Q: Nick Jakobek, the president's nephew and the man everyone is counting on to straighten out the very unacceptable situation of his niece running of with an apple farmer's son, is what many readers might call a "damaged soul", a man with a dark and troubled past. What is it about this type of character that's so appealing to you -- and to readers?

A: I call it "saving the big bad wolf." Also "smooching the frog." There's something basic and timeless in the appeal of the kingly but cursed frog who can only be transformed by the kiss of the fairy princess. In goofy anthropological terms, we gals like to think we've won the toughest cave man in the clan. In portraying a heroic man as a respected loner and world-weary soul -- no fool, he -- the message is, "If a man that picky picks me, I must really be special."

But okay, I admit it: It's also just plain fun to write about misunderstood guys with the verbally challenged sweetness of a tusked troll. We'll talk about my tingly fascination with Gimli from
Lord of the Rings some other time.

Q: Some of the more memorable scenes in Sweet Hush were the ones between Hush and the first lady, Edwina Jacobs -- two tough lionesses who refuse to budge and who finally end up throwing rotten apples at each other. Those scenes were wonderful and had to be a lot of fun to write.

A: Absolutely. It's no mystery that the best entertainment often features the loudest squabbling between characters of opposing viewpoints. Think of all the great fictional teams who've delighted us with their bickering. Once I launched the wicked, acidic war of words between Hush and Edwina Jacobs, I had more fun than a barrel of *American Idol* fans. You think Simon is nasty? Meet the First Lady. I'm now working on a new book, and I've been sure to include a take-no-prisoners female character for the main character to battle.

Q: As a Georgia native you must be very well versed in local folktales and legends -- Hush is always talking about her past and her ancestors. She also happens to be endowed with "sugar skin", the ability to attract or tame bees. Is this something you created specifically for her character or does such a thing as "sugar skin" actually exist?

A: I've witnessed sugar skin first-hand, albeit not as dramatically as I portray it in the book. I'll never forget standing in horrified awe at a mountain apple festival, watching as a woman calmly peeled apples among hundreds of hungry yellow jackets. They lit all over her arms and hands while she worked. But because she wasn't afraid of them, they didn't sting her. It was one of the most astonishing things I've ever seen.

Q: What about the Sweet Hush apple and Sweet Hush Farms -- is there such a place where apples trees were planted over Union soldiers' graves?

A: Down heah, we don't talk about using our buried Yankees as fertilizer, ifyaknowwhatImean (picture Deb with an innocent, Soprano-like expression.) Seriously, so many apple orchards existed all over the South after the Civil War that there's no way they *couldn't* have been planted over the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. There were, at one time, over 1,600 different varieties of heat-loving Southern apples. Almost every farm had its own small orchard.

Q: You wrote Sweet Hush in first person and then took it a bit further and switched points of view between your two leads, Hush and Nick Jakobek. Why do you choose to tell your stories this way?

A: I stumbled into using first-person back in 1996 when I wrote A Place To Call Home, which became my first novel published in hardcover (and still my most successful in terms of huge sales.) While I know some readers don't like it, I feel that first person is more intimate and more immediate. It brings out a different voice in the character, which to me is more charming. First person can, however, be limiting in terms of narrowing the fictional world down to the perspective of the lead character, so I've experimented with ways to make it broader. In Sweet Hush I've given both the main characters a first-person voice, which turns out to be a great way to let them speak and expand the story. I'm using the same two-character point of view in the next book I'm writing. Judging by the response to Sweet Hush, readers like it.

Q: Tell us about the WaterLilies series and Alice At Heart, the first book in this series of stories about a family of mermaids. How many do you plan in this series?

A: I love paranormal stories, and I used to put a lot of spooky psychic elements in my fiction, especially my Loveswepts. So a couple of years ago I decided to start a paranormal writing project on the side from my "day job" (big novels like Sweet Hush). Friends of mine were having fun writing books about werewolves, fairies, and the like, and I wanted something a little different from that--and something I could set in the South. Plus I wanted to create a big world around the characters, with a lot of background and mythology, their own society and rules, yet do a contemporary story. Maybe what some people call "magical realism" in which the world as we know it is the setting for strange and wonderful things. Voila: WaterLilies. The series is about mermaids, or to be specific, people who look very much like us (only far more glamorous and interesting ) but are descendents of some mythical creatures one might call mermaids, though they would hardly fit the Hollywood caricature ("How tacky, those Hollywood images," says Georgia coastal mer-matriarch Lilith Bonavendier.) My mer-people don't transform into finned creatures, but they do have extraordinary talents, including an ability to stay under water for hours at a time, to communicate telepathically, and "see" underwater using a type of sonar. They are a special, secret society among us, often mingling with "Landers" and falling in love with our kind. And us with them. The first book in the series, Alice At Heart, came out last winter to great reviews. It immediately sold out its small print run and has been selling steadily ever since. (It's published by BelleBooks, the small company I own with fellow writers Deb Dixon, Sandra Chastain, Martha Shields and Gin Ellis.) Next fall I hope to publish book two of the series, Two If By Sea. The series is open-ended and I hope to write a book a year for it from now on. A growing cast of Landers and mer-folk will take part.

Q: Will you ever set any future books outside of Georgia or the southern US?

A: Maybe. I expect the WaterLilies series to use locales all over the world, but the primary setting will always be Southern. For me, writing about places and cultures without personal experience leads to a kind of superficial "costume drama" style that only dresses up an ordinary story with a new setting and a slightly different accent. The South and Southerners are what I know best. Where I can get my most authentic ideas.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your next book and when we can expect it?

A: The next book is in progress and will be finished this spring. The title is Charming Grace, and it's the story of a strong-willed Georgia beauty queen who fights a blowhard action-movie star when he decides to make a cheesy movie about her dead husband, a heroic FBI agent. It's both funny and serious, with a lot of romance (the hero is the movie star's ex-con bodyguard.)

Q: What would you like readers to take away with them once they've turned the last page of one of your novels?

A: A laugh, a few tears, and a feeling that they've taken a trip into a wonderful world with people they like.
Find out more about Deborah Smith and her works at her Website, and try some scrumptious McGillen Family Sweet Hush Apple Recipes.
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