Hello, Mary, please introduce yourself and your books to help our readers get to know you.
Hello Judith. Thank you so much for interviewing me for your blog. I live in Dumfries & Galloway in south west Scotland. Of course, I couldn’t wait to get away when I was young and lived and worked in England, Pakistan and Afghanistan before returning home. I think being away for so long made me really appreciate what a beautiful part of the country this is.
So far, I have published one novel, one memoir, one poetry collection and one – the latest – a picture-led local history book. Now that Dumfries Through Time is out I’m going back to write a sequel to my novel, No More Mulberries – as long as I don’t allow myself to be side-tracked by other projects.
Please explain how you came to be a writer, what inspired you to write your book (s) and how long it took.
The people of Afghanistan, especially the women, inspired me to write both my memoir, which covers part of the time I worked there and my novel, No More Mulberries. I wanted other people to share my experiences and meet the amazing people I knew. For some reason friends seemed very reluctant to visit me in Afghanistan – I think they believed the entire country was one huge war zone – so writing the books seemed to be the best way to let them share the experience. Also, when I came home I found myself shouting at the television a lot when coverage of Afghanistan fell so far short of providing a half way accurate picture of what life for ordinary people living outside the main war areas was really like. I wanted to show that there is a different perspective.
What facets of your life, both personal and professional, are woven into your book, if any?
Lots! Although No More Mulberries is fiction and none of the characters are ‘real’ many of the incidents in the book are based on events I witnessed, heard about or in which I was involved in some way. For instance Miriam goes to work as a translator at a medical teaching camp, which is something I did and so I had lots of incidents I could use in the story.
Did you have any surprises or hiccups along the way during the book writing and/or publishing process.
I was also surprised – shocked, actually – at the response of some agents/publishers. They felt No More Mulberries was too ‘quiet’ for a novel about Afghanistan. More war, blood and guts seemed to be required and more, much more on the violence the women experienced. In fact, when the memoir was doing the rounds one person suggested I include a few scenes of women being beaten by Taliban soldiers. Now, I know this happened but I didn’t witness it – I’d left the country before Taliban came to power – and I was not going to make things up.
The original memoir, published as Before The Taliban: Living with War, Hoping for Peace and now re-published as Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni, was picked up by a small independent publisher at the end of October 2011. A couple of weeks later I came home to find the OH exhausted, with a pile of phone messages for me. All the publishers who’d previously turned it down suddenly wanted to talk to me! I stuck with the publisher who liked and wanted the book before 9/11. He subsequently went bust and I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d called back one of the other publishers. Would I now be rich and famous? Or would I be hating myself for re-writing the book to include lots of violence against women?
You say you’ve written a collection of poetry? Could you tell us a little about that, please, Mary.
Thousands Pass here Every Day is my first full poetry collection, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing (2012). The poems fall roughly into three sections: poems about Afghanistan; poems of family and memories and poems which focus on the environment and landscape.
I came late to writing poetry – apart from the dreadful, angst-ridden stuff many teenagers write. I knew they were dreadful and, although I always enjoyed reading poetry, I never attempted to write it again until I took a creative writing module. The tutor, Tom Pow, who is a wonderful poet, wouldn’t let me get away with not including poems in the portfolio so I had to try. I still remember my joy when I read out a poem (it’s called Hazara Jat and is in the book) and knew from the class response I had actually written a real, proper poem. I wrote more, started sending them out and having some published in various poetry journals encouraged me further. Finally, I had enough for a collection.
You’re a fly on the wall when readers are discussing your book. What would you hope to hear the say about it?
I really hope they would be saying No More Mulberries was a wonderful read – combining a love story with an insight into life in Afghanistan which surprised them.
Do you read your reviews and if so, how do you cope with a bad one?
I do read them, although not as compulsively now. When I received my first a 2* review on Amazon UK, I was devastated. The reviewer said my intent was to show how dirty and backward Afghan people are. I was so hurt because that was the last thing I wanted to do. I looked at his stats while doing this interview and I found I’m keeping excellent company as Diane Gabaldon and Victoria Hyslop also get 2*. A writer can’t please all readers! By the time I received my first a 1* on Amazon US I treated it as nothing more than a rite of passage. The four and five* more than make up for the ones whose review consists of “I couldn’t get into this book”.
What has been your best moment as a writer?
Two moments – the acceptance letter from the publisher. Opening the box of books, taking one out and enjoying the feel of it, the look of it, and the smell of it. I carried that book into every room in the house. It was like introducing a baby to its home!
What advice do you have for new writers?
Pay it forward. By that I mean support other writers as you would like to be supported. Maybe new writers taken on by one of the big 5 are well promoted (though I suspect not) and don’t need much help but most of us, either indie published or with a small independent publisher, need to get to grips with promoting our work. To do that effectively, it is better to have support from other writers – and to support them in return. I was very fortunate in being invited to join eNovelAuthors atWork, a group of indie writers who believe in paying it forward. It’s a bit like having your own street team.
Describe where you do most of your writing. What would I see if I was sitting beside you?
I sit at a desk which is falling to bits – but it’s the desk at which I wrote my job application for Pakistan, and my first books so I can’t get rid of it. The walls opposite and to my left are lined with books. The window on my right looks out on the main street of my wee town but I can only see the Solicitors Property Centre and the shop which sells sports goods, rooftops and hills on the skyline. If I lean over I can see the pavement and people passing by but I try not to look or I’d never get anything written.
Contact details and links:
https://marysmith57.wordpress.com This one is about dealing with my dad’s dementia
No More Mulberries: http://smarturl.it/nmm
Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: http://smarturl.it/dcbm
Thousands Pass Here Every Day: http://smarturl.it/tphed
Dumfries Through Time: http://smarturl.it/dtt