Talking to Deborah Smith

(September 9, 1997)

Recently, Deborah Smith e-mailed me about something here at All About Romance. As is generally the case when I receive an email from an author, I emailed her in return asking about her writing, her books, and to contribute to the site. Because her most recent release, A Place to Call Home, has received such stellar reviews, including a 5-heart review from Susan Scribner of The Romance Reader (who demands brilliance of books she awards with five hearts), I asked Deborah if she knew her latest release was destined for greatness.

Here is what she had to say:

Like everybody else, when I sit down to write a book I’m hoping it will turn out to be the best thing ever published. On the other hand, I’m just hoping my editor will like it and send me money.

The frustrations and constraints of writing for a career – that is, to pay ye old household bills – means that oftentimes I sit down to work with several creepy little devils whispering in my ears. “Come up with something like the books on the bestseller list,” they say. “Don’t try anything odd until your editor appoves it,” they hiss. “You’re a lousy writer. Go get a job at K-Mart,” they chortle.

So when I start most books, I spend considerable time just brushing the devils off my back and chasing them out of my office.

A Place to Call Home was different. Although it was my fourth big contemporary novel and my 26th book overall, I’d never felt so connected to a book before. I came up with the basic plot idea one cold March night after dinner. My husband was working late. I’d eaten alone at a local restaurant in the mountains, and as I was driving home, I wearily (and obsessively) went over all my ideas for new books, discarding them as the same old boring Stuff. I asked myself what I’d write if the only goal was to entertain myself.

Okay, I’d write about someone with a background I know intimately. A mixture of rural and suburban southern. With a big, diverse family. Okay. I want this to be a romance. So what about the hero of the piece? All righty, he comes from the opposite side of the tracks. And only the heroine of the book appreciated him, when they were children.

Suddenly I heard her. As I drove home in the cold early-spring dusk, this yet-to-be-named woman started telling me her story. She was colorful, she was southern, and she spilled her guts without a shred of hesitation. I knew her. I knew her people. I knew how much she grieved over the boy she’d loved as a child. I didn’t know what had happened to him yet, but I knew it had been heartbreaking.

Writer pals of mine have often said they “channel” characters. Meaning, I assume, that the writer simply types while the characters tell her the story. I’d always envied my pals, because my characters had never chatted with me that way. Oh, we’d have short conversations at times, but nothing serious. . .

Until this woman started telling me all about herself, her family, her town, and the love of her life. I rushed home, sat down with a notepad, and started sketching out plot and character details. The woman’s name was Claire Maloney. Her family heritage was Irish, from way back. Her Georgia town had been settled by Irish immigrants in the early 1800’s and to this day most of the oldest families had Irish surnames.

Her love was named Roan. Roan Sullivan. She grew up respectable and rich; Roan grew up disreptable and dirt-poor. But he loved her and she loved him, as children.

I cranked up my laptop computer that night and started typing Roan and Claire’s story, just putting it down the way Claire kept telling it to me. I worked for 36 hours without sleep. My husband got out of bed a couple of times during the night to peer at me and ask what I was doing like a crazy woman, but I couldn’t close my eyes. I’d finish a scene, go to bed, but just lay there “hearing” the next scene in my mind. So I’d get back up. A few days later I told my agent I was working on something I considered special. She was just relieved to hear I was writing – I’d been seriously considering tossing in the towel and taking up knitting (or that K-Mart job my devils kept promising.)

When the book was half-finished my agent persuaded me to send it to her and my editor at Bantam. Mind you, no one had any inkling about the story, plot, or whatever. And no one knew the book was written in first person, an approach I’d never taken before, and one that many people in the romance and women’s fiction market consider a big turn-off.

I shipped off the book’s first half with a feeling of calm fatalism. I loved the book. I believed it was the best work I’d ever done. Even if it never got published it would still be, to me, my best book.

Lo and behold, my editor agreed with me. “More, please,” she wrote on the card that arrived with a dozen roses.

Two months ago, A Place To Call Home hit the bookstore shelves. It is my first hardcover novel, and the reviews have been uniformly terrific. Sales are brisk, booksellers love the story and are hand-selling it, and Bantam has gone back to press for a second printing.

On television the other night I saw an interview with an author who just published his first novel to great acclaim. He spent years writing the book in his spare time, but he said he never expected to sell it. “My only goal was to write a book I could be proud of,” he said. “Even if the finished manuscript ended up in a box in my basement.”

I loved that sentiment. If I’d thought twice on that March night two years ago – if I’d started asking myself whether anyone would buy my story idea – I might never have written the book. The little devils would have taken charge and clobbered Claire and Roan into silence.

But this time, the devils got the clobbering. For now, at least, I’m in charge.

Author Terry Stellini’s ( letter to author Deborah Smith about her Quickie. (Terri’s original article for All All About Romance can be accessed here):
Just reading your piece in All About Romance made me want to cry.

I am a writer myself and have a big family and know about the little devils that whisper in a writer’s ear. . . many times I have thought about giving up writing so I could get a real job a pay a few bills. . .wow. . .would my husband love that!

But, instead. . .I find myself giving little things up like my Noxema and a sharp eyeliner pencil, not to mention thick white cotton socks (mine have all worn thin) and an outfit that doesn’t shout “Sure She Loves Retro”.

Seriously, writing is so much fun and the beautiful things that come from the process are enough to make me even give up toothpaste if it comes down to it. My new book is due out the end of this month and I’m hoping it does well. It’s only my third little story but I feel very close to it. . . .

So, congratulations on A Place Called Home. . .and enjoy flicking the little devil buggers (not boogers) off your shoulder!!!!

Find links to Deb Smith after our DIK Review of When Venus Fell