Today I’m sharing an interview with Morgan Smith, the author of A Spell in Country. Most books are about the hero saving the world. But what do you do when your only a foot soldier?
Interview with Author Morgan Smith
Where are you from
A little about your self i.e. your education Family life etc.
Well, being old, there are too many answers to this one! I’ve done a lot of things, been a lot of places.
I grew up as the child of hippies (well, first they were beatniks, then they became hippies) in Toronto. So I was a hippie, too (it just comes with the territory) and I think I probably never really lost that. At 17, I ran away to Europe for the summer, but that turned into a two year wander around a good chunk of the world.
That really changed me a lot.
I trained originally as an artist, but later one, because I was exploring the origins of textiles and clothing and weaving, I went back to school to get an Anthropology degree, and wound up moving to the UK, to do an MA in Archaeology.
When I got back to Canada, archaeology was so underfunded and unsupported that I had to find another job for life. And that was when the writing really started to become central.
Question:Tell us your latest news?
I’m in the middle of my fourth book – my third fantasy novel. It’s called “The Shades of Winter” and it’s loosely based on Norse/Viking culture (VERY LOOSELY!) and I think it might be my best book yet. It’s certainly the most complex, emotionally.
Question:When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve always written…not stories, though. I was encouraged when I was little, to write poetry, and to write essays (my mom was pretty romantic, and my dad was an academic).
But I was always scared of writing fiction, even though I pretty well devoured a ton of it growing up. I was okay with facts, with the formula of academic writing. Fiction? That was definitely not me.
Except that in my head, I was always telling myself stories. Like Walter Mitty: I wasn’t just sweeping the kitchen floor, I was a pirate, swabbing the deck. I wasn’t just some girl in a math class – I was a sorceress, learning to write spells in a grimoire. I wasn’t riding a city bus, I was a passenger on a spaceliner to Mars.
It got me through a lot of really boring stuff without anyone knowing I was any different from anyone else.
Question:What inspired you to write your first book?
I used to own a bookstore, and the book reps were always giving up advance copies of stuff. This one time, the rep for a really big name in fantasy publishing gave us a book they were really, really pushing: half a page, in colour, in the catalogue for fall, promo bookmarks, in-store posters – hardly any first-time authors get this.
Two months later, he comes back, and he’s still pushing it hard – “You gotta order copies! It’s really going to be big!”.
And we said, “Look, it’s awful. None of us could get past page two. We gave it to our best fantasy customers, and none of them made it past page four. It’s horrible. We are not carrying this.”
And I said it wasn’t worth the death of even one tree.
“It’s really hard to write a book,” the rep said.
“Obviously, it is not,” I said. “Writing a good book might be hard, but stringing 80,000 random words together is not at all hard, and this book proves it.”
“You think so? I dare you to do it.”
My business partner pipes up with “I double dare you.”
The next morning, I started “A Spell in the Country”. It took me 9 months to write, which, considering I wrote for about an hour every morning before work, was kind of amazing.
Question:When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Well, as I said: I always knew I was good at non-fiction/academic writing. That stuff always came pretty easily: it’s a formula, really, you just plug-and-play.
Writing fiction – I had no idea I could do that until I wrote “Spell”.
But it got rejected by everyone and their grandmother, so I figured that despite what my friends said, fiction wasn’t for me, and I put it away for fifteen years.
Question:Do you have a specific writing style?
I call it “conversational”.
I write in first person singular a lot, but even when I don’t, the narrator is telling the reader “This is what happened. What do you think?” I like to put myself in the place of a listener.
Question:How did you come up with the title?
Titles are really hard for me, because they have to be exactly right before I can start writing. They could change along the way (“Casting in Stone” had two previous titles) but I have to feel good about the title while I’m writing, or I can’t do it.
I don’t know why. I think the titles influence the story for me.
Anyway, I don’t go for puns exactly, but I like the title to have layers of potential meaning in subtle ways. I want them to be evocative, not literal. I wind up looking at poetry and quotations till something sparks something…
Question:Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Ummmm, maybe that the gods don’t have to tap you on the shoulder for you to make a difference in your world?
Also, if you have read the first two novels, you can see that there isn’t “one true hero”. Keridwen, even at the end, doesn’t do this all alone. Caoimhe believes she needs no one, but again: she doesn’t act alone, even when she thinks she is alone. She’s a really important part of the solution, but she’s only a part of it.
And the new novel: it’s about a whole group of people who have been comrades almost their whole lives. They totally depend on each other.
Question:How much of the book is realistic?
I try for a sense of realism within the realm of fantasy – mostly to do with how people react to things, how they view events.
People have said that they enjoy the fact that when people get hurt in my novels, there’s no instant magic healing. That it takes time to recuperate from an injury.
That’s because it was one of the things that turned me off reading fantasy novels for years. People got major injuries and then a page and a half later, they were out there kicking ass again.
Question:Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Not exactly. I always tell people that if they see themselves in my books, they need to check their ego.
But the fighting – I have over 35 years of martial-combat sports experience to draw on, so the fighting stuff: most of that is based on match-ups I’ve had, or that friends had.
Question:What books have most influenced your life most?
In real life, possibly “The Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac. I read it when I was very young, and I think it instilled in me a belief that travel could cure all ills.
And then Arthur Ransome, because it was kids taking the everyday and turning it into adventure. That was me, inside my head, because I was completely convinced that no one else was doing that…until I met my husband, who confessed to doing the same thing.
Question:If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Jane Austen. If you take apart her novels for structure, you realize that she had everything down so perfect – and she never took a “writing class” or “workshop” – she just learned, somehow, how fiction works.
Question:What book are you reading now?
“Rise” by Gareth Wood. It’s zombies. I’m not a huge fan of zombies, but I’m a huge fan of Gareth.
Question:Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Well, I have gotten pretty strung out on Ilona Andrews over the last couple of years. And recently, I started revisiting David Gerrold’s work: that man can really write.
There are so many new authors that I’ve recently been reading that it would be really hard to choose among them. “Monochrome” by H. M. Jones – it’s about depression and post-partum stuff in a fantasy framework, and it really stays with you. And “God in Drag” by Kristine Madera, which isn’t fantasy but has a very deep and enduring mystery about it. Bob Goddard’s “Mother Moon” had a really surprising ending to it that taught me something about not assuming you know where a book is going to go.
There’s a lot of really awesome writers out there, and it fascinates me, because an awful lot of them are indie authors – I think the traditional publishers have missed the boat a time or two, there.
Question:What are your current projects?
In addition to “The Shades of Winter”, I’ve got some ideas for an urban fantasy. The motivation there is to see if there can be something other than the trope of the wisecracking paranormal detective, which seems to be the only main characters going in that genre.
Maybe a “gaslamp” fantasy I’ve been noodling around with. I should give a shout out to Teresa Edgerton here for “The Gnome’s Great Engine” and “Goblin Moon” because it was a complete tour-de-force, and I wish only that I do it half so well, if I ever get around to it.
Question:Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Smashwords, actually. I know that I wouldn’t have felt able to self-publish, except that the site makes it really easy. And the services people are brilliant: I’ve never sent an email that wasn’t answered within 24 hours, even on weekends.
They really do try to support authors.
Question:Do you see writing as a career?
We-ell, I don’t think I’ll be buying my dream home or taking retirement on the proceeds any time soon, but I can’t seem to stop doing it, so – sure.
Question:If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I keep thinking I need to go back and rewrite the end of “Casting in Stone” – it could be stronger.
But you can self-critique and second-guess your writing forever…at some point you just let go.
Question:Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I was always writing – and writing fiction – from the time I was very small. But not actually getting it down on paper. I wrote it in my head, and I would go back and reread it – rewrite it! – and the tales just changed and morphed as I grew up. I was still doing it as an adult.
I never wrote these things down. I made occasional notes and lots of crazy drawings based on the things in my head, but nothing you could recognize as stories.
But then when that dare came along, I discovered that on the computer, I could do it. That I could type fast enough to shape that stuff on the page. It was a pretty big step.
Question:Can you share a little of your current work with us? This is hopefully going to be released in 2016…I’m at the midpoint and having some, ummmm, staging difficulties.
…this is fairly near the start of “The Shades of Winter”, when Tamar’s friends come to her with a plan of revenge for an attack made by their enemies on a holy place…by raiding the other country’s holy place. Just that small group of friends. All nine of them.
“And how,” I asked, “How, exactly, do you propose to get within a sword’s length of any of them? Even supposing we could get near that place undetected, do you think they’ll just politely let us sail right up to the front door, tie up our ship, and form up before they spit us like dogs?”
“No, no, that isn’t what we want to do at all.”
“Well, then, what?”
“You remember Bolle, the trader from Andvettsholm?”
I had to think a bit, before it came to me. Bolle had gotten an entire winter of safe moorings and good dinners out of his tale of a freak storm on his way back from an unsuccessful attempt to open up trade with some Camrhyssi lord on the coast.
“You’re taking a traveler’s tale for instruction?”
“Well, said Lavran, stubbornly, “he swears to the truth of it, even now.”
That explained some of the days between hearing the news of the attack on Heilaegr and their arrival here, at least. And it explained where Lavran had gotten the map.
Bolle claimed he’d been blown off-course in a sudden, unseasonable squall. Worse, the rudder strap had broken, and by the time they’d managed to effect some make-shift repairs, they had drifted even further from their last known position. He’d made his best guess as to where he was, given the cloudy night, but as the false dawn rose, he’d found himself standing less than half a league off the shadowed isle.
He had a knack for the dramatic, Bolle had. By this point in his rendition of the tale, his listeners would have been all riveted, open-mouthed in fascination. He could have told them the wildest things, and they would have believed him without question.
The quayside portion of Alvandir might be heavily watched and guarded. Bolle didn’t know, and he was honest enough to admit he had had no desire to find out. But the north-westerly shore, he said, was virtually deserted. The wise had not been such good stewards as to completely repair those parts of the fortress they had no use for, he reckoned; the walls were more like a hasty pile of rocks than proper masonry, and the approach seemed to be ignored. The remains of the ruined guard towers were plainly unmanned on this side of the island. He had drifted close enough that he could see the reflected torchlight from two other towers on the southern side, and he’d made note of the general lay of the land.
The walls, such as they were, melted into a tumble of stone and scree, as if some other structure had once been there long ago, and in Bolle’s opinion, it was entirely possible, on the face of it, to climb up and over, right into Alvandir’s heart.
“If I’d had some decent warriors,” he’d boasted, “I’d have gone in and murdered the lot of them, filthy Istaran scum. Not but what they’ve probably laid traps and curses all about, hoping some poor fool will try it.”
I hadn’t really believed his story the first time around. None of us had. But now they seemed to have lost their doubts.
“Even if every word of it is true,” I said, “that was four seasons past. Maybe they didn’t have a watch there that night. Who’s to say they aren’t watching it now?”
“Well, we needn’t sail straight up,” said Sigurd. “We could stand off a ways and watch.”
“Yes? At some point, someone is bound to notice a ship, even in the distance.”
“That’s why we came in the ‘Sea Cat’, this time. It’s so small. At night, without a sail, who could notice that?”
I pointed out that none of us had ever believed that Bolle had sailed as close as he’d claimed, even if the rest of his tale was essentially true.
“We don’t even know if there’s any sort of landing place at all. It could be impossible to get near the shore without some rock scuppering us a half a league away. And I’ll give Bolle this much: what are the odds they haven’t laid a host of traps and curses to save themselves the trouble of guarding a pile of rubble?”
“Ah, well,” said Sigurd. “Were you planning to die in your bed, then?”
I slammed down my cup, and walked away, along the length of the hall, till I stood in the open doorway.
Even in the dark, Dyrsholt was an orderly-looking community. The way from the halls to the docking place was a wide, well-kept track bordered with the workshops and houses of a dozen crafters, separated by tidy little kitchen gardens. All along the headland, I could see the outlines of farmers’ steadings, the gaps that signified open fields, and the silhouettes of communal granaries, filled not just with enough food to get us through this year, but a surplus against calamity or woe.
It had virtually nothing to do with me, to be honest. I was never here in the spring or summer, off trading or raiding when the real work was done. I was gone most winters to Raethelingas, and I was barely aware of the work involved when I was home.
Apart from my occasional forays into harvesting barley, whatever time I spent here was mainly involved with hunting, inspecting the defenses, and drilling our own household warriors and any likely youngsters who wanted a little more than farming in their lives. I was aided and abetted in this by everyone around me, too, because they got on with their own tasks so much more easily without my interference. Only in times of violence was my presence at home really useful, and even then, Gunnr and Trude always managed perfectly well in my absence.
Every morning was a struggle, not only to come up with some sensible task to fill my day, but to keep hidden the ache in my back that slowed me when I rolled out of bed, or the even worse ache of my left knee when the weather was about to turn wet. I knew from experience that nothing is more boring than listening to some old geezer’s complaints about their body.
Raisa came and stood beside me, slipping her arm around me, but wisely, perhaps, saying nothing. I leaned against her shoulder, seeking that familiar comfort, and after a minute or two, I straightened up, and we went back in and rejoined the others.
“Well,” I said. “We’re going to need a better map.”
Question:Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
The character motivations. I struggle with making those work in ways that don’t require mental gymnastics or more than the ordinary amount of suspending disbelief.
Normal people do not run cheerfully into the jaws of death. It’s hard to create characters who will do that and keep it believable.
Question:Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Guy Gavriel Kay.
Everything works in his books: the cultural details, the characters, the plot resolutions, the language, everything.
If I had a quarter of his talent, I’d have the fattest ego on the planet.
Question:Who designed the covers?
I did my original ones. But now I have Mandi Schrader, and she’s doing some terrific stuff for me. Clean, polished, modern, and really true to the sense of the books.
Question:What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The actual plot.
The characters come pretty easily. Their backstories are almost obvious. And I always know where it starts. I frequently know where it ends, too.
But how to get from that start to that finish – that’s the part that is really tricky. It’s got to be interesting and active, and lead the characters inexorably to their appointed ends without being so over-the-top that the ending feels flat.
Question:Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
One thing I learned is that I am actually pretty good at this, that I know how to put the words together in ways that keep people reading. It was kind of a surprise for me.
The other thing I have learned is that a writer should never allow anyone to look at their browser history. My baby brother and I had to have a very serious talk about that.
Question:Do you have any advice for other writers?
Read. Read everything: read what you like, what you don’t like, what you think you won’t like. Read the classics. Read literary fiction, read essays, read science articles. Just read as widely as you can.
Because reading is what teaches you to write.
Question:Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Please write more reviews. The indie authors have inflated the book market, on-line shopping has altered how we buy books, and all that’s fine, but reviews really matter now, because readers need to have a better idea of how to choose their reading material.
The whole ambience of the bookstore is gone for a lot of people. And on-line, those covers have less of an impact. The sample read is important, but lots of people won’t even bother unless the reviews spark something for them.
So if you love a book – write a review. If you hate a book – write a review. If you feel underwhelmed, say so.
Honesty is important, but that goes both ways. Don’t ever review the writer – only the book. The writer is a human being and they can be as flawed and as base as anything, but the Amazon site or the Smashwords site or the Goodreads site: that’s not the place to vent your ire about them as a person. Just review the book on its own merits.
You want to complain what a shite so-and-so was to you at a convention or on Facebook? Honey, that’s what Twitter is for!
Question:Do you have a blog/website? if so what is it?
This is where I crab about writing, give unsolicited (and probably useless) advice, and also I post recipes. Really, really fantastic recipes!
About the Author
Morgan Smith has been a goatherd, a landscaper, a weaver, a bookstore owner, a travel writer, and an archaeologist, and she will drop everything to travel anywhere, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Writing is something she has been doing all her life, though, one way or another, and now she thinks she might actually have something to say.
05-24-16 Shelia Hoag https://topaz08.wordpress.com/
05-25-16 Assaph Mehr https://theprotagonistspeaks.com/
05-26-16 Dianne Gardner https://diendrial.wordpress.com/
05-27-16 Edward Antrobus http://seampublishing.com/
05-28-16 K. Caffee https://pukahworks.wordpress.com/