Author Interview: Sherri L. Smith


I’m so very pleased to present Sherri L. Smith today at Shelf Elf. Sherri has been touring about the kidlitosphere, chatting and schmoozing about her wonderful new YA title, Flygirl. Check out this schedule of Sherri’s interviews to find out more about the other stops on her Virtual tour. Now it’s my turn to chat with Sherri, which makes me happy, because I loved Flygirl. How much, you ask? Read my review.

Welcome Sherri!

What inspires you? (People / Places / Art / Music / Food)

The most random things give me inspiration—overheard conversations, my crazy dreams, obscure lyrics that push me to explain the story behind them. Flygirl was inspired by a story I heard on the radio, and stories my mom used to tell me about growing up in New Orleans in the 40s and 50s. I do a lot of observing and pondering, and a lot of random blather that sometimes takes shape as a story. It helps that I work around creative people and we tend to come up with strange ideas, and spin them into even stranger storylines. It keeps the creative juices simmering on the back burner, ready to dip into when it’s time to write.

Give us a glimpse into the oh-so-romantic day-to-day life of a writer. What’s a typical writing day look like for you?

I don’t really have a typical writing day, thanks to my day job and a pain of a commute. So, on a perfect day, I get up early, do some journaling, go to work, come home, make dinner, spend quality minutes with the husband, and around 10pm, I sit on my sofa with my laptop and write a minimum of two page, or a completed scene, or story beat. And I do a lot of web surfing and online window shopping. Rinse. Repeat (hopefully with less surfing and more writing as things progress!).

Best piece of writing advice you’ve been given: My mom bought me a used book on writing a year or so before I started my first novel. I flipped through it to a page that said something along the lines of “If you want to write short stories, write short stories. If you want to write novels, write novels.” I really needed to read that. It inspired me to go long form, instead of the years of inadequate short form dabbling I had been doing. And my first novel sold in four months.

Best piece of writing advice you would give someone: Don’t say you are a writer, show you are a writer. Write. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I lived with my brother and I was… underemployed, shall we say? I actually quit a desirable job at a big company and started temping so I could write. And my brother would occasionally ask me when I was going to get a real job again. I know he was just worried about me, but it drove me crazy—didn’t he believe in me? Then, one day I got so busy with actual writing, I stopped talking about it. He’d stick his head into my room each morning on the way to work to say goodbye, and I’d have my laptop in my lap, typing away. When my birthday rolled around that year, he gave me a lap desk and said, “I see you’ve been writing every morning, and I thought this would help.” It did, in more ways than one.

Flygirl must have required significant research. Could you tell us about that process? (Initial inspiration, where you started, surprising things that you learned along the way, how long it took…)

Flygirl was initially inspired by a Radio Diaries story on NPR about the Womens Airforce Service Pilots program. At the same time, the idea of a girl who has to pass in order to join popped into my head—probably from hearing stories of people who passed from my mother, who was born a few years before WWII in New Orleans. So, I bought a tape of the story, and started my research the way I usually do—with kids books on the topic. Children’s books are so much easier to read for a broad overview. Once I found the details that interested me, I moved on to adult books that gave me more specifics. The most surprising thing I learned along the way (other than the fact that the WASP existed at all!) was about another group of women in a similar situation—The Mercury 13. This was a baker’s dozen of female pilots who were tested and trained to be astronauts. As with the WASP, they had to be better than the men, tested harder, trained further—but to no end. They were never allowed into space. Most people know the names of at least a few of the so-called Mercury 7, the male astronauts who flew in the Mercury rocket—Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom and the like. But who can name any of the Mercury 13? For the record, they were: Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, and Wally Funk. Those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it. And, between the WASP and the Mercury 13, that’s just what we’ve done. Since I first started the book, a few great changes have taken place. There is now a national WASP museum in Texas, and a significant collection of WASP information at Women’s University in Texas, with websites attached where you can find a wealth of information about Nancy Cochran and her flygirls. As the lives of so many of the WASP come to an end, I am glad to know they will not be forgotten. We simply won’t allow it!

Nobody knows a character like the author. Tell us about Ida Mae. What kind of person is she?

Ida Mae is essentially a good girl, a goody-two-shoes even, who does something bad—lying about race and her family—in order to achieve her dream. She’s a not-so-simple farm girl who hungers for more than life was willing to give a black girl in South in the 1940s. She loves her family dearly but also lives to fly. The sky is where she feels the most free, but home is where she is loved. When those two desires are at odds, she struggles over which to choose. Her greatest assets are her believe in her dreams and herself. Her greatest weakness is not being able to live within the lines. Fifty years later, she might have done just fine. Or, who knows, maybe she would have wanted something else beyond her reach?

Your novel focuses on Ida Mae’s dream, her family history and her identity. You explore how sometimes where you come from and what you want from your life don’t seem to fit together. What do you hope readers take away from your book concerning this theme?

I hope that Ida Mae’s story makes the reader think about what it means to be who they are. There is a line in the movie Amistad where the main character, an African man forced into slavery says that, at this moment, he is the only reason his ancestors ever existed. There is a great honor and a weighty responsibility in that viewpoint. If your whole lineage culminates in you, what will you choose to do to add to that history, to improve upon it? Ida Mae finds herself in a position of denying it. What does that cost her? What would it cost you? It’s worth taking a little time to think about it. I hope my readers learn something about themselves when they do.

I also hope it encourages people to appreciate what they have. We have so many freedoms today because of the people that fought for them before us. And yet there are still people who feel that they must hide who they are, who they were in order to get what they want out of life. If the reader is one of those people, I hope that he or she might start to think of ways to express him or herself more truly. On the other hand, if the reader has contributed to the oppression of others—not an easy thing to admit, but we all have our prejudices—or stood by and allowed others to do so, maybe they will walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and learn some compassion. We’d all be the better for it.

Flygirl is filled with gutsy girls who know what they want and dare the world to stop them from reaching their goals. When you were a teenager, were you a gutsy girl? What did you hope to achieve more than anything else?

I just asked my husband if he thought I was a gutsy girl. The look on his face tells me no. But he qualified it with a “sometimes…?” As a teen, I’d say, more than being gutsy, I was my own person. I did what I thought was right, regardless of what the other kids believed. And that made me lonely sometimes. But I’d rather be alone and respect myself, then standing in a crowd and feel ashamed. What’s weird is, I have no idea what my biggest goal was when I was 19 (Ida’s age at the beginning of the book). I think I was just trying to make it to adulthood, that fabled time when I’d be on my own and life would really begin. Ha! I’m still trying to make it to adulthood, but fortunately life picked up and got interesting somewhere along the way!

What is something you hope to accomplish as a writer in the future?

I love a challenge when I write. I always want to be trying something new, to see if I can do it. I try a new format, a new concept with each book—point of view, tense, etc. My previous novel, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, takes place in one day because I was impressed by Hemingway’s For Whom The Bells Tolls taking place in three days and wanted to try a compressed timeline. I want to write science fiction. And fantasy. Those were my bread and butter growing up and I want to work in those genres. I was, quite frankly, a little horrified when my first book turned out to be contemporary fiction. And the next one, and the one after that! The great news is, my next book will be speculative fiction, which is just the brand of SF I do best. I’m world-building right now and loving it! Ooo! And I want to see if I can write a book a year, or two books a year. Wouldn’t that be great? So much fun, and such a sense of accomplishment! I suppose it would be cool to be on the NY Times Bestsellers list. That might mean I was actually making a living as a writer, which would be an accomplishment, indeed!

Thanks so much Sherri for letting me be a part of your tour!

Thank you, Kerry! This has been a lot of fun.

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