A Peek at the Creative Space of Sherri L. Smith

Joining us this week for Creative Spaces is author Sherri L. Smith. Sherri is the author of Lucy the Giant, Sparrow, and Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. Her latest novel, Flygirl, was met with much acclaim earning a starred review from Booklist and being named to numerous “Best Of” lists including the 2010 ALA Best Books for Young People.

Flygirl is a historical fiction YA novel set in the Jim Crow era of segregation during the onset of WWII. The description from the publisher reads, “Ida Mae Jones dreams of flight. Her daddy was a pilot and being black didn’t stop him from fulfilling his dreams. But her daddy’s gone now, and being a woman, and being black, are two strikes against her. When America enters the war with Germany and Japan, the Army creates the WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots—and Ida suddenly sees a way to fly as well as do something significant to help her brother stationed in the Pacific. But even the WASP won’t accept her as a black woman, forcing Ida Mae to make a difficult choice of ‘passing,’ of pretending to be white to be accepted into the program. Hiding one’s racial heritage, denying one’s family, denying one’s self is a heavy burden. And while Ida Mae chases her dream, she must also decide who it is she really wants to be.”

I have to add my praise to the chorus–I read Flygirl recently and I couldn’t read fast enough for how much I wanted to find out what happened next. Smith makes this time period come alive and the story is chock-full of realistic, compelling characters. The tension of “will Ida Mae succeed in the WASP program?”, “how are her relationships back home going to be affected?”, and “will she be discovered as a black woman?” is absolutely riveting. Smith handles the complicated emotions and themes masterfully. What’s more, this is the type of novel that I close upon finishing (or put to sleep, in this case, as I read it on my Kindle) and rush to my laptop because her writing has inspired me to write. Flygirl is a book I highly recommend.

To learn more about Sherri L. Smith and her books, visit her website and her blog “The Middle Hundred”.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace varies from day to day.  For about a year, I had my own office—a two-room space with a desk and an armchair, a microwave for making tea and lunch.  

My old office.

It was lovely, but almost too quiet.  Now I roam around from libraries to coffeehouses, and then of course my own living room.  The sofa is as good as a corner office some days.

The cafe where I write.

Describe a typical workday.

My day is as varied as my workspaces lately.  I get up in the morning and force myself over to my exercise boot camp.  Then, after a shower and a little reading over breakfast, I do what I call “office hours.”  This means responding to emails and posting on my blog occasionally.  Because I’m on the west coast, I try to answer emails before noon so there is a chance that people will hear from me before the end of the day.  After all of this, I head out for lunch and do some long-hand writing at the table, usually somewhere in the sunshine.  Then it’s on to the library or whatever perch I choose for the afternoon.  I clock two or three more hours of writing, then I head home, hitting the grocery store or other errands on the way.  Dinner with the husband, TV or a book, more emailing and web surfing, maybe some writing or research, and bed somewhere between 12 am and 2 am (I’m terrible, I know).  Rinse, repeat.  Except for weekends.  Nothing gets done on weekends.  I take dance classes and act like I haven’t a deadline or a care in the world.  Until Monday, that is.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

My laptop.  I love it.  I’m a  fast thinker with terrible handwriting.  The idea that I can type just as a fast as I think (for the most part) is amazing to me.  I don’t know if I’d ever finish a book without Old Bessie here.  (I haven’t actually named my computer, but maybe I should.  It’s a Toshiba, so maybe Sheba works.)  

My armchair is a second.  It’s vital to have a reading and napping nook.  How else could you dream up a good story?  

My cozy reading corner.

I also have a little collection of Beastlies that I adore.  These are handmade plasticene creatures from a local artist and I love them because they are SOOOO CUTE!  They make me smile every single time I look at them.  

My Beastlies!
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I shop online.  Mostly window shopping.  It goes in cycles.  I open the document I’m working on, stare at it, open a browser, and surf.  Shoes, purses, travel packages, you name it.  Then I go back and forth between searching for the perfect blazer (do you know where I can find a forest green blazer with elbow patches?) and writing my novel.  It doesn’t look like a good process, but it’s mine and I love it.

What do you listen to while you work?

Currently I am listening to a mix of music from a friend of mine, about 18 songs I’m trying to choose a piece from to choreograph a bellydance.  It’s all over the place, from Beats Antique to the Gorillaz, and some more classical pieces too.  Usually I don’t listen to music, as it can affect my mood and hence my work.  But now that I’m in public spaces, I choose music over the snoring, cell-phone-using, wailing-child noises that somehow manage to invade a library.  I thought libraries were supposed to be quiet!

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

A good cup of tea, a cold juice drink. (I like to alternate hot and cold.  Very decadent.) And anything from chocolate covered raisins to crackers will keep me happy.  Chocolate helps, though.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Nothing.  I’m terrible at staying focused.  That said, if the story is really humming and I’m excited about the scene I’m on, I’ll stick with it no matter what.  The sky could fall and I’ll keep on writing.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

Both longhand and on my laptop.  I find that the different methods work well for different sorts of stories.  I find writing longhand works best if I’m working without an outline, because it gives me more time to ponder what I’m about to write.  It just has a different vibe to it.  Most of my work, however, is on the laptop.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I work off of an outline for novels, but not so much with shorter formats.  On long-form though, an outline is crucial for me.  I tend to start with an idea, title or image—something that sparks my imagination.  I’ll hammer it out into an outline, writing out full scenes or vignettes as they occur to me, for later use.  Once I have an outline, I start writing.  The muse leads me on both the outline and the draft.  To me, an outline is a roadmap in case I get lost, but it’s not the only way to get to “the end.”  Every step of the way I’m open to crazy ideas and innovation.  I try to take those new thoughts and work them into the outline, though, so I know where I am if things go . . . off.  Which can and will do.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Ah, to share with someone of my choosing, instead of the snoring guy in the library, or the screaming kids across the hall?  I would share my space with my friend Jason.  He has the ability to be both quiet and loud.  He’s also a funny, talented artist with an English degree so he’s a good sounding board.  If she could stand it, I’d add my other friend Karen.  She’s the most balanced person I know, so it would be good for me and Jason, terrible for her.  And if none of them were available?  I’d share my workspace with a small Russian cat circus.  They’d sleep a lot, and then get up and perform.  I could take breaks when they walk the tightrope and set out food for them.  It would be very symbiotic.  That would be cool. 

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard is:  If you want to write short stories, write short stories.  If you want to write novels, write novels.  The idea being there are no training wheels for a different format.  You just have to do it.  That’s probably the second best piece of advice I’ve ever heard.  Writers don’t talk about being writers, they write.  Therein lies the proof!


5 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Sherri L. Smith”

  1. Jeannie

    Off to a great start for the year. I enjoyed this interview. I haven't read her work, but I'm going to look for Fly Girl next trip to the bookstore!

  2. Rebecca Laffar-Smith

    I've just discovered your blog Jenn and I love your concept. I've often wanted to capture authors and ask these sorts of questions. Somehow I keep imagining there is a key in there to the ideal way to be a writer. But, what I get most from these sorts of interviews is a sense of the many different ways writers make it work and that it's vital to work in the way that works for me. 🙂

    I love Sherri's final advice. I've always thought of myself as a novelist but have recently considered exploring short stories. I keep getting held back by the sense that I have NO IDEA how to write a short story. It feels very different. Like Sherri's advice I know the only way to really get there is to start writing. I'll learn through doing, eventually. 🙂


  3. Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files)

    Thanks Toby! I loved FLYGIRLS so much, I can't wait to read more of Sherri's work.

    Welcome Rebecca! What you wrote captures one of the things I enjoy most about doing these interviews–it's a constant reminder to myself that there is no one way to be a writer. And it's funny but I had kind of the reverse experience as you. I started out writing short stories but I never really felt like the format fit me very well. What I wanted to write were novels, but for a long time I was too intimidated because, like you, I didn't think I knew how until one day I realized I didn't really feel like I "knew how" to write short stories either, but I'd still managed to write a few dozen of them. So Sherri's advice definitely resonated with me too!