A Conversation with Author N. K. Smith

N.K. Smith is the author of Ghosts of Our Pasts and the Old Wounds series. I sat down to chat with her about her upcoming novel Hollywood Lies.

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Lissa: I teased you about it after the Texas Book Fair: my mother bought your Ghosts of Our Pasts and it made her cry. And she’s an avid reader who doesn’t weep often over a novel. How did it affect you, emotionally, when you were writing that book?

N. K. Smith: Ghosts of Our Pasts is a book I had to write in order to purge certain emotions within myself. Most of my writing stems from a cathartic need, but Ghosts of Our Pasts was something I’d been thinking about for years.

Writing the manuscript put me in a near constant somber mood. There was a ton of research to do. Much of it wasn’t “needed” per se, but I was driven to read everything I could. However, my research didn’t start with writing that novel; likewise, it didn’t end there. Every spring, every year, I feel pulled to read massive amounts of books on the subject it tackles. I’ve always been a researcher. I love doing so, but with this, there is a deeper need to wrap my brain around these events, and I don’t think I’ll be “satisfied” with the knowledge I possess of it. There is always more to learn.

Lissa: I’m a researcher, too. Even when it’s something as simple as saying a character is walking uphill or downhill, I have to make sure it’s correct. It’s something that worries me; I have a historical novel coming out next year, and I’m certain I made all sorts of mistakes. And, of course, I’m driving myself nuts by reading additional material and thinking, “I was wrong about that!” or “I should have put that in the book!”

Did you feel sort of a duty to do right by it, not only as history, but as a tribute to the people who lived it?

N. K. Smith: I think anytime you’re dealing with something that actually affected something, you have a duty to get it as right as possible. There’s plenty of opportunity to make mistakes and I know I’ve made them within the book, however, I’m pretty sure the mistakes are more in character thinking rather than facts.

Lissa: What made you focus on Hollywood for your new book?

N. K. Smith: Believe it or not, this story has been in my head for a while, but when I used to think about it, it wasn’t this particular moment in Cole’s life. In my mind, she’s always been a Hollywood star, so it was her story that dictated the setting.

Lissa: Did you reach the moment that you’re referring to in this book’s storyline, or is there more to come?

N. K. Smith: No all my previous thoughts into this world were about Cole before the events in the book. I don’t think there’s more to come with Devon and Cole and I’m not sure people would be interested in a Cole-centered prequel.

Lissa: You never know… Look at the way Diana Gabaldon’s characters have taken on a “life” of their own and spawned spin-offs, prequels, and side-quels (is that even a word?).

N. K. Smith: I’m not opposed to making it into a series. In fact, there’s a few stories already bouncing around in my head for “side-quels.” (I like the word. I think we should make it a thing. J) I would love to write the Cole prequel, but I don’t think it’ll happen. I do have a few other characters I’d like to bring out. It would be a series in theme.

Lissa: I just got the ARC for Hollywood Lies today; what drew you to the first person, present-tense style for this story?

N. K. Smith: It’s what I tend to write it nowadays. I’ve tried going back to past tense, but there’s something distant about that storytelling. I like first person present because when you read it, you are with the characters as they travel through life. It’s not just a report of what happened.

I like all types of voices though, so who knows what I’ll use in the future. This is just what’s comfortable for now.

Lissa: I agree; there’s an immediacy and intimacy in first person that you don’t get in any other style. I’ve only tried it with one short story, but I found it very difficult.

It seems to be very popular these days. Why do you think that is?

N. K. Smith: I find it very fresh, and it’s possible other writers and readers do as well. Almost everything is difficult the first time you do it. I used to get thrown back into past tense all the time. It still happens, but it’s less frequent. When I first read this style, it took me aback and I actually had to intellectualize the choice. I don’t remember the book, but I just thought: I can’t read this; the characters are doing this NOW.

Pretty silly and I got over it. Then I saw how interesting and beautiful it can be to be right there with the characters instead of feeling like I’m sitting in a room and they’re telling me about something that happened the other day.

The funny thing is, I’ve tried to write in both first/past and third/past recently. I’ve done it effectively in the past; but I had to go back and rewrite in first/present because it didn’t feel right to me. I’ll probably continue to play around with voice, but for now this feels right for me and the characters.

Wikipedia commons, by Oreos
Lissa: Did Hollywood Lies present a research challenge for you?

N. K. Smith: This was not a research heavy book for me. I had to research places but not a lot of other things. In that regard, this was an easy book to write.

Lissa: I suppose anyone who reads stories about Hollywood has been “researching” the lifestyle for years.

N. K. Smith: Our Hollywood elite are the closest manifestation of royalty we have in this country, so we’re inundated by the culture from the time we’re young children. My kids know of celebrities that astound me. They’ve never seen their movies or shows, but they know the celebrity’s name, what they look like, and, in a lot of cases, who they’re dating or friends with. It’s a bit crazy.

Lissa: The royalty description is apt. Back in the Tudor days, long before Tumblr and Twitter, the average person knew as much about the lives of the nobility as the nobility themselves. It seems to be somewhat of an inborn trait in humans. We need to have “rock stars” we all admire and gossip about.

In this respect, celebrities lose their humanity and become screens on which we project our own desires and fantasies.

N. K. Smith: Gossiping might be the oldest hobby known to man. I don’t think gossip is bad, per se, but I think some can go over the top. With the Tudors (and any royal court), royalty was something to aspire to. I don’t think many peasants were thinking, “Damn, what a gorgeous ball gown,” while they toiled in the fields and gleaned their modest dinner. It was more the other “lesser” nobles who had the time to gossip and plot and hero worship those with the highest power.

As we know, it was this gossiping that allowed some of the very least ladies and lords to rise in power. They learned the game, not only by watching the royals every move, but also by listening to the words of their rivals and friends.

I think it’s fascinating. I doubt whether I could survive at court. I also doubt that I would be happy being turned into a modern day soap opera, like our current “stars” are. I mean, it’s one thing to read a celebrity news article about a movie premiere and learn that this person is now dating that person, but it’s entirely different to have these people’s lives splashed all over. I mean, how many pictures do we need to see of this celebrity getting out of a car? Or going into a building? Or drinking coffee. Most of them never look happy, and I believe if we love someone we should want that person to be happy.

So if I love a celebrity so much, I should make choices, no matter how small, to enable them to be happy. Which means not being the reason the photogs take the picture.

photo by Robotclaw666
I’m not always good about it. Sometimes headlines draw me in and then the guilt comes L I totally agree with your last sentence: celebrities lose their humanity and become screens on which we project our own desires and fantasies. They are like our walking, talking unscripted soap opera. Let’s tune in tomorrow to see what she’s wearing! And what kind of coffee he’ll get on Tuesday.

It’s a distraction from our lives. I don’t begrudge anyone that. We all need distraction; I just feel bad for those who unknowingly signed up to be the distraction.

Lissa: You started out in the Twilight fanfiction world as I did. Has watching the craziness surrounding the films’ stars, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, made you look at Hollywood, and the lives of actors, any differently?

N. K. Smith: I’ve always thought the lives of Hollywood stars are different than what is portrayed in the media. When Good Will Hunting came out, it was big headline news that Matt Damon and Minnie Driver fell in love on set. Their relationship drove people to the movie theaters. “Let’s go see these beautiful people fall in love…for real.” It’s like another form of entertainment within the context of the movie/movie-making.

Lissa: There’s this odd level of voyeurism we have with celebrities. It’s why reality TV is so popular, and it makes me think a show like The Truman Show really would be a smash hit, if we put a popular celebrity in the camera’s eye every day.
It has to be a surreal experience for a celebrity when people approach them as though they’re old friends because the fan feels they know the celebrity from studying details of their lives in interviews and such.

N. K. Smith: I loved The Truman Show for emotional way it portrayed celebrity life. Sure, he didn’t know he was being filmed, but that movie got the underlying emotions right (imo).

photo by christopherhar
Then a few months later, a break up happened and rumors circulated about publicists leaking Matt Damon and Minnie Driver's whereabouts to the press (OMG, what did the world do before Twitter?). Then America’s Sweethearts came out and while it’s a comedy about the most beloved actors hating each other (if I’m remembering it correctly), it gave me pause to think about the fact that actors are commodities. Our celebrity culture wants them to be bought, sold, and traded for our own personal distraction and enjoyment. I started to think about what if the greatest Hollywood couples really hate each other, but their movie contracts extend well beyond the moving wrapping.

Lissa: I’ve read a lot about Old Hollywood under the Hayes Code, when actors had to hide their true private lives from the public. They usually had a “morality clause” in their contracts which would spell the end of their career if they were caught doing something “immoral” in public. This led to situations like that of Marlene Dietrich, for example, who played the dutiful, loving wife, though her husband lived in Europe with another woman, while Marlene herself had a long string of lovers. And also the gay actors, who found themselves forced to marry to protect their image. 
photo by Tela Chhe

Back then, the press colluded with Hollywood to present the image the studio wanted. When the studio system fell apart, the protection did, too, and the paparazzi were spawned.
Now, fans seem to feel an ownership over celebrities and thus entitled to know what they’re doing. They get indignant if the celebrity seems to be trying to hide something about their private lives. And trying to preserve their privacy only makes the press dig harder.

N. K. Smith: Again, I think Hollywood stars are the closest to royalty we get in this country. We have a similar interest in the President and the First Lady, but since JFK and Jackie, that passion has waned (but I’ve seen it pick up with the Obamas).

I agree with you about reality TV thriving because of our voyeurism. I’m as guilty as the next person for wanting to watch The Real World or something similar just to see how other people live. I don’t think it’s wrong, per se, but I think when left uncheck it can have horrible repercussions. I remember Princess Diana’s death. I was horrified that it happened like that, and yet, there are very few laws to protect our public figures from intrusive media.
photo by Todd Huffman

I understand the photographers are just doing a job. I don’t necessarily fault them. If there wasn’t a demand for it, they wouldn’t do it.

Lissa: It sets my teeth on edge, though, when I see the paparazzi taunt an actor to try to get a rise out of them, and thus a better picture. It must take superhuman effort on their part not to react.

N. K. Smith: It breaks my heart, honestly. These people are a commodity. They cease to be people in opportunistic photographers’ eyes. I think there’s a line of respect that can be crossed. It probably isn’t always crossed. There are probably plenty of respectful photographers, but the ones who yell horrible things at these fellow human beings just make me sad. It has to hurt, to some extent, for a stranger to use intimate details of your life (that were pried away from you and are no longer private or intimate) to get a reaction because a snarl, the middle finger, the f-bomb, or a fisted hand sells more photos, more papers, more Hollywood news shows, etc.

photo by  by jonrawlinson
It wasn’t the Twilight actors who first put this idea in my head, but I don’t think many people can help but be exposed to their very public relationship. Even when they don’t want it to be public, it seems to be owned in the public realm. The craziness with the Twilight actors made me feel more sad for them than anything else. I keep thinking about how beautiful your life is during the early twenties. The discovery of the world, your place in it, and of love. Theirs have been very public. I know nothing about what goes on between them, I just feel saddened that whatever it is, is played out for the enjoyment and distraction of the public. I actually try not to click on any article that features them (outside of career news).

Lissa: I’ve pitied them so. They can’t go to the grocery store without a camera there to record it. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with people waiting outside your house 24/7 to get a pic of you walking the dog. For me, there is no amount of money that would compensate for that loss of privacy.

N. K. Smith: I think the job should come with warnings and red neon signs. Or perhaps a reverse “This is your life” scenario in which the person can see what their lives might become and what they’ll be giving up.

Wikipedia commons, photo by Justinc
Lissa: Do you think most actors do understand it, or is it one of those things you have to experience before it truly sets in? How do your main characters feel about what they’ve given up?

N. K. Smith: I think it’s a “Be careful what you wish for” type of thing. At least for my characters anyway. I think some celebrities thrive on it and others…not so much. I know that even though I understand that it happens and I think I know how I’d handle it, I don’t think I’d really know until I experienced it.

For my characters, it’s a mixed bag. Some thrive, some buckle under the pressure, some are resentful, and some are quietly resigned to it.

Lissa: Your bio says you like to write early in the morning. For me, it’s in the wee hours of the night. What’s your writing process like?

N. K. Smith: Well, to be clear, I like writing any time of day, I just only have time for it in the mornings. My process is pretty simple. I think about a story for a few years and then one day actually write some snippets down. They sit in a binder for a few months or perhaps a year until I’ve added more and am ready to sit down and write (or research).

My daily writing process includes a word goal. When I’m actively writing a manuscript, my goal is 1500 words a day. Typically I write in linear fashion, not jumping in the narrative too much, although there’s always that scene that comes toward the end that I have to purge from my mind onto the screen in order to keep it from getting lost.

I have about an hour to an hour and a half of quiet time a day with which to write, so I load up on coffee, turn on my laptop and let myself go until the absolute last minute. It’s hard to stop writing there, so I usually keep tons of paper around me and I record voice memos in the car during my commute. Then I organize all the notes in the evening and set myself up for a productive morning.

Lissa: Wow, you’re very organized. I have the story in my head and a few notes here and there, but that’s it. Any notes I have are on scraps of paper stuffed into my pocket when I don’t have my notebook handy, and they’re usually very cryptic bits of text I thought would trigger my memory. I just found one a bit ago: “Tell Carly nothing.” Well, okay, because I don’t know what I wasn’t supposed to tell her.

N. K. Smith: My notes have all spent time wadded up in my pockets, too. J

Lissa: Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you write? If so, who is she? What do you want her to feel when she turns the last page of your novel?

N. K. Smith: The ideal reader is me. I’ve read books since I was very young, and I think most of the people who pick up my novels are book-lovers like me. I want the reader to turn the last page of my novels and be slightly sad that it’s coming to an end, but be satisfied with the distraction and enjoyment they got for the past hours, days, weeks (or however long it took them to read it).

Lissa: That’s a lovely way to look at it. 

Did you have a writing mentor?

N. K. Smith: Not really. I know that’s painfully boring.

Lissa: I don’t have one either, though lately I’ve been latching on to a few other writers, like the hatchling in Are You My Mother?

Do you have any betas or pre-readers? I’ve only recently got to the place where I can share my work with others before it’s ready to post/publish.

N. K. Smith: I’ve had several through the years, and I’ve trusted them completely. Right now I’m very dependent upon their schedules. My main pre-reader has such a great eye for fiction. She has an amazing way of analyzing things.

Lissa: Where do you think you have the most room to grow as a writer? Looking back over your past work, how do you think you’ve grown the most already?

N. K. Smith: I think I have the most room to grow and have grown the most already in overall storytelling. It’s an art. I think I’ve come along way with tightening up the narrative to avoid digressing into scenes I may want to write but have nothing to do with the overall story. Also, in the past I would include tidbits about other characters but not follow up on it, so it left the readers wondering why I even bothered to mention it. For example, in My Only, Adam’s brother Aaron is an insomniac. I included it to show that he wasn’t perfect as Adam tends to make him out to be. I included it to show that he struggles with life as well, but some readers were upset (and rightly so) that I didn’t ever follow up or do anything with that information.

I wouldn’t do that now. I’ve learned the importance of providing details on a need to know basis. I should’ve explained the insomnia better or not put it in at all. I’m currently composing a follow up novel (in my mind) that will delve into it, so I’m glad it’s there, but I should have made it more meaningful.

Lissa: I have a problem with that, too. I used to correspond with a published author who told me I had to cut ruthlessly. If it can be cut without changing the storyline, it has to go. I’ve been known to wheedle with my editors to try to save a scene I really like (“It has loads of historical detail necessary to understand the time period!”) but I eventually admit they’re right and delete it.

As Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.”

N. K. Smith: I think Faulkner said it first J, but I don’t exactly believe in that advice. I think hurt your darlings fits me better. Another writer once advised to take the best line in your manuscript and cut it. I think that’s b.s.

Lissa: I think I understand why they’d give that advice: it’s being willing to sacrifice anything necessary, even your favorite part, for the sake of the story’s overall strength. It’s true we can be a self-indulgent lot. We tend to fall in love with our own creations. Which is necessary, of course; if you don’t passionately love your own story, no one else will, either. And yes, sometimes love means sacrifice. But I don’t think unnecessary amputation, just to prove you can do it, is productive.

N. K. Smith: I think the advice of “take your best line and slash it” isn’t productive. I think better advice is “ask yourself if this scene needs to be here. Does it advance your characters? Does it show something new? Is it relevant?”

Cutting good things is bad. Cutting bad things is good. But most of all, if it feels like it needs to be cut, do it. If it doesn’t, keep it because it’s meant to be there. It’s important to intellectualize the process and not do anything blindly.

I rewrote a scene because after it went through several edits and I read it for the fifth or sixth time, I decided the way it was written complicated the characters and the stories in a way I didn’t want it to. It wasn’t the best scene and it wasn’t the worst scene, but I think in taking out some complications, I made it better and that made the whole thing better.

I’m not opposed to cutting lines, scenes, or concepts when it’s right for story.

I’m all about cutting as long as it makes sense to cut it. I feel like I’m already minimalistic anyway and I’ve become so accustomed to not wasting time writing something that won’t fit in that I cut it before it hits the screen.

I still feel that some background information is needed. I’d still keep the insomnia, but I’d explain it better.

Lissa: Do you have any scenes you’ve deleted from the book, but kept aside?

N. K. Smith: I have no deleted scenes from Hollywood Lies. I did my best not to write anything that didn’t advance the story. I did do some significant additions and rewrites of scenes.

I read a lot of books on the art of storytelling and writing. Some provide advice that I think is incredibly subjective, but others provide actual science of why and how people read and interpret data.

Lissa: I’ve never read a book on writing. I’ve read articles with tips for improvement, but I’ve never had any classes or studied the craft, beyond reading other fiction books and admiring the way the author designed a particular element of the story. I try to learn from them in that way.

What was the best book you ever read on the subject?

N. K. Smith: I think this ties into your question of writing mentors. By reading books on the art of storytelling and writing, many successful writers, editors, and agents are my mentors. Most writing books are written by people who have had a great career within the publishing or entertainment industry. In this way, they are all my mentors.

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron is the best one I’ve come across so far. It’s not just stories from her career; she pulls together neuroscience to explain why stories are so meaningful to cultures and how to harness the power of the evolved brain to create a compelling story.

The best thing about being a writer is improving my writing and getting better. It’s fun, and when I re-read what I wrote in the past, I’m really proud of the growth I see.

Lissa: I’ve seen some writers who take down their first works or re-write them. But I see them as milestones.

Are there any pieces you’re particularly proud of?

N. K. Smith: There are plenty of stories from fandom past that I’m proud of, but none I’ll mention. I wrote this beautiful descriptive scene once for a writing class in college. I’m still proud of that piece. I won second place in an collegiate writing contest for a sad, sad story called Last Dance published in a college magazine. I’ve written a very well-received novel under another penname in a COMPLETELY different genre. I’m incredibly proud of that as it told a historical story from a perspective most people don’t know exists.

Lissa: You have to know this mysterious revelation is going to drive your fans bonkers.

N. K. Smith: A few already know, but sometimes it’s good to maintain a little mystery. It might not always be a mystery, but for now, I enjoy the separation of the two worlds.

And I’m really proud of a new novel that will release in August called Are You Mine?

Lissa: You’ve just backed your car into that of a witch and she’s put a curse on you: you can only eat one food for the rest of your life. What do you choose?

N. K. Smith: Probably kale. It has everything you need to stay alive. I’d get super tired of chewing it though. L

Lissa: Oh, dear. You’re terribly practical in your choice. I would have chosen pizza or cheeseburgers or something tasty like that, and then probably died of malnutrition. 

N. K. Smith: I am a practical person in almost all ways. I can’t afford to be otherwise. J

Thanks for the discussion, Lissa. I’m looking forward to your Tudor novel!

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