Kev’s Author Interviews Presents…
I was born on the island of Islay, home of some of the best whisky in the world but moved to the mainland to Dumfries & Galloway when I was seven. Finished school and had the longest gap year in history which lasted about 30 years while I travelled a bit in Europe, lived in England where I worked in a factory, was a child-minder and then went to work for Oxfam UK before a chance holiday in Pakistan led to a job there followed by a job in Afghanistan. I returned to Scotland when my son was five and when he started school I finally went to university.
I had started selling articles while working abroad and have continued as a journalist – sometimes freelance, sometimes staff – ever since. ‘Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women’ (a title which seriously curtails tweets) is a memoir from my time in Afghanistan. I wanted to write a novel and worked on what became No More Mulberries while doing a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Glasgow University.
Kev: Tell us more about your book, Mary.
No More Mulberries, is not my latest book, but is perhaps the one which is most important to me.
No More Mulberries is a novel set in Afghanistan. Scottish-born midwife, Miriam loves her work at a health clinic in rural Afghanistan and the warmth and humour of her women friends in the village, but she can no longer ignore the cracks appearing in her marriage. Her doctor husband has changed from the loving, easy-going man she married and she fears he regrets taking on a widow with a young son, who seems determined to remain distant from his stepfather.
When Miriam acts as translator at a medical teaching camp she hopes time apart might help her understand the cause of their problems. Instead, she must focus on helping women desperate for medical care and has little time to think about her failing marriage. When an old friend appears, urging her to visit the village where once she was and her first husband had been so happy, Miriam finds herself travelling on a journey into her past, searching for answers to why her marriage is going so horribly wrong.
Her husband, too, must deal with issues from his own past – from being shunned by childhood friends when he contracted leprosy to the loss of his first love.
Kev: Who or what influenced you to write it?
The women of Afghanistan were the main influence both for this book and for Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women, which is an account of my time working in Afghanistan. I was there for several years, from the year the Soviets left right up to when Taliban were at the gates of Kabul. I was with a small health organisation, working mainly with women living in rural areas and women who had fled from the bombing of Kabul. These women were not, as the western media tended to portray them, passive victims, repressed by their menfolk. I wanted people in the west to meet and get to know the women who became my friends. I write the non-fiction book (at their request, I might say) and then, thinking that not everyone will pick up a non-fiction book, I decided to write the novel.
Kev: Did you do any specialised research for your story?
I have always kept a diary recording day-to-day happenings so I had a lot of material but I did have to research to check facts about political leaders, the chronology of events and be sure I was describing the correct way to prepare for Islamic prayers.
Kev: What challenges did you face while writing the story?
The character of Iqbal challenged me! In fact, he made me write a different book from the one I’d set out write. Mostly, the story is told from Miriam’s POV and Iqbal was not being shown in a good light at all. Then, he started muttering in my ear demanding his side of the story be told. As soon as I gave him his voice, I began to understand a lot more about him and why he acted the way he did. I think the reader can have much more empathy with him now.
Kev: Who is the protagonist?
Kev: What would you say is the protagonist’s greatest weakness or obstacle and why?
Her main problem was not letting go of the past – and of viewing that past and her first marriage through rose-tinted glasses.
Kev: What would you say is the main antagonist’s greatest strength?
Kev: Could you provide a short passage from your book to give us a taster?
On moonless nights…Constellations her father had taught her to recognise when she was a child – Orion, the Plough, the Sven Sisters – demonstrated proudly that here, they possessed far more jewel-bright stars than she had ever seen in Scotland. Tonight, though, the moon, almost full, had risen dimming the stars’ brightness, silvering the jagged peaks of the mountains that kept the valley safe. ‘Our moon,’ she whispered. ‘Oh, Jawad, what have I done?’
‘Miriam?’ She jumped at the sound of Iqbal’s voice close behind her. Had he heard her whisper?
She turned to face him relieved to see he was smiling. ‘Children ready for bed?’ she asked. ‘I’ll go say goodnight to them.’
He shook his head, coming to stand next to her, saying softly, ‘Ruckshana’s already asleep. Farid is learning his spelling for tomorrow.’ He reached for her hand. ‘Miriam, look, I suppose I should have mentioned it to you – cancelling the boys’ lessons.’
‘Mentioned it?’ She snatched her hand away, the need for calm forgotten. Tilting her head to look up at him, she asked, ‘What about discussing it with me?’
Kev: Do you use some kind of formula when you write?
Not really. I have a rough idea of how the story will unfold – but that, I’ve learned, can change from my original idea.
Kev: Preference for writing: Day or Night?
Late evening and if it’s going well then I will happily write into the night. I’d love to be one of those writers who can get up at the crack of dawn and start putting the words down. Not going to happen.
Kev: What is your editing process?
Get the story down first – though I do often edit what I last wrote before continuing. I do think, though, I need to get it all written before starting on the proper edits. I’ll rewrite (more than once) before letting anyone else see it and then send it to a professional editor.
Kev: Who creates your book covers?
The cover of No More Mulberries was created by a graphic designer; the cover of Drunk Chickens, which is published by a small independent publishing company, was created in-house.
Kev: How do you promote your work?
How long do you want this interview to be? Talking about promotion could be an entire interview on its own. Okay, so, first, find nice bloggers like you who want to help promote indie authors!
I belong to a wonderful group called eNovelAuthorsatWork. The founder of the group, Jackie Weger, has gathered together around 50 authors who all believe in paying it forward. This means when any of us has a sale promo on or has received a great review we will share to our respective followers on social media. We share any info we find which might be useful to others in the group. The website (http://enovelauthorsatwork.com) is an amazing resource for indie writers with information on promotion sites which really do work, reviewers, articles, blog posts. Any indie author wanting advice on promotion should check it out.
I blog about writing-related things on a blog shared with four other writers in the UK. I use social media but I also use local media.
Kev: What advice would you offer to new authors?
Pay it forward. If you want support to promote your book, repay the favour. If you find a review blog which agrees to review your book, have the courtesy to read the reviews of other authors’ books. Engage with people – don’t just get your book reviewed and disappear. If people comment on the review, reply to them. Build relationships. We are all in this together and should support each other.
Kev: Which two social media platforms do you use the most and why?
Facebook: http://on.fb.me/1v1de29 and Twitter:https://twitter.com/marysmithwriter
I like them and am learning, slowly, to use them more effectively. I still have a long way to go, though. Facebook is a brilliant way to keep in touch with friends in Afghanistan and although I post stuff about my books I use it much more as a social medium.
Recently, a presenter on BBC radio emailed to ask if I’d come in for an interview about my latest book (a local history book). I asked how he knew about it and he said he’d seen my tweet, clicked on the link to the blog and read it. Result!
Kev: Do you have a website? I do, though I’m ashamed to say I don’t update it as often as I should. www.marysmith.co.uk
Kev: Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think I’ve wittered on more than enough, Kev. Thank you so much for interviewing me. I really appreciate it.