I’m excited to bring an interview with Steven K. Smith, author of The Virginia Mysteries. Here are my reviews of Summer of the Woods and Mystery on Church Hill. You can also read Steven Smith’s guest post here.
You were a blogger before you were a middle-grade novelist. What made you want to chronicle your life in blog form?
I’ve always loved to write, whether it be putting an interesting twist on term papers in school, short stories, or poems. When we had our third son five years ago, things were crazy, but as a dad, I was so amazed by the unique privilege of having three boys. I’m sure I’d feel differently if we did have girls, but I really love being a dad to three boys. They fill our house with so much…material…that it just seemed natural to write about it. Their antics are sometimes funny, occasionally gross, and often sentimental, and it helps me to process my thoughts by writing them down, much like a journal. Making them public for the world to read is a bit different, and it took my wife a little time to get used to the idea, but I’ve heard from many readers that they enjoy the posts and that’s encouraging. I do wish I had more time to dedicate to it, but our family’s pretty busy. It’s so fun to look at a post from several years back and read what the boys were up to. A bit like looking at an old picture album.
What prompted you to start writing the Virginia Mysteries books?
I’m often the one who reads bedtime stories to the boys at night, and I started getting a pretty good feel for the books that the boys enjoyed. It’s so much fun to see them captivated by a good story. I was already blogging about our family, so I decided to try writing my own story to read to the boys at night. Once I had an open day on a business trip to San Diego, so I sat out on my hotel balcony overlooking the bay, where huge pineapple cargo ships were moving in and out. I wrote for about three hours in the warm California sun, and that turned out to be the first several chapters of Summer of the Woods. I read the chapters to the boys when I got home and they were so excited. Over the next year or so I added to it here and there when I had a chance, but over the holidays in late 2012, I really mapped out how this little story could turn into a book, and I finished off the rough draft that spring. I started researching the indie publishing options, and by summer I had published it under my own imprint called MyBoys3 Press. It’s been so much fun.
I’m a history buff. That’s one of the reasons why I love your books so much. You seem to be one too. Which time period in American history is your favorite? Why?
I’ve always enjoyed history, particularly as I have gotten older. I was a political science major in college, so I took a lot of history classes. The American Revolution stands out as my favorite, but there’s something compelling about the Civil War (which I’m honestly just learning more about now that I’m living in Virginia), and the turn of the 20th Century/Industrial Revolution as well. But our founding fathers are so impressive when you really start reading about their vision, determination and the risks that they took to get our nation off the ground. It seems whenever something huge happens, and certainly the beginning of America is one of the more amazing things that has happened in history, there is an unusual abundance of men and women of great courage, conviction, and insight that helps carry the movement forward. It’s inspiring to think that we can accomplish more than we imagine if we get off the couch a little more often.
Can you walk us through a typical day of your life?
That’s an interesting question. I find my days vary greatly from one to the next. My “day” job is running a sales team for an online medical education company, so I am either working from home or traveling for client meetings. One day can be very different from another depending on my travel schedule. Unfortunately I’m not one of those people who only need four hours of sleep, so from a writing standpoint, despite knowing that the “proper” thing to do is to write for a short time every day, I find it to be very hard with my family and work schedule. Maybe one day if I’m writing full time that will be possible, but right now is just a bit too hectic. Most of my productive writing time tends to be in the evenings after we get the kids to bed (particularly for blog posts). That usually means making a conscious decision not to watch TV at night. When I’m in book writing mode a few times a year, I do try to find blocks of 2-3 hours at a time on the weekends, on airplanes, in airports, and in hotels to plug away. But there are so many elements that go into releasing a book besides just the “writing” of the first draft—like editing, covers, marketing, events—that I find almost as fun as the actual story ideation and writing.
Name five of your favorite books.
It really depends on what category we’re talking about, so I’ll give you a few more than five with an assortment from kids’ books to adult. I have loved reading the picture book Room on a Broom to my kids over the years but we’re just about past that phase now. The Narnia books are awesome, I loved them as a kid and saved my original copies to read to my two oldest boys a few years ago. My favorite books growing up were Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Rascal. As a teenager I loved The Chocolate War. I read a pretty mixed batch now, from thrillers by Lee Childs and John Connolly, to anything from C.S. Lewis and Michael Lewis.
What writing advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Writing is an art, but it takes some practice and a lot of discipline. For me, writing has to have a connection with your heart and soul. I can’t paint or draw, and I’ll regretfully never be the front man for a band, but putting a story together is such an emotionally fulfilling experience. (Even before you start hearing from readers!) I think if you feel that something inside of you is waiting to come out, you need to go for it and see what happens. It may take a lot of work, and despite now having written several books, I feel like I’m just starting to figure some of it out. Until you start peeling things back, there’s so much that you just don’t know that you don’t know!
From an industry standpoint, I’m a strong advocate for indie publishing. This is a whole other conversation, but it is such an exciting time to be a writer. There are endless ways to get your words in front of readers. Print on demand, ebooks, blogging, podcasting, and many other evolving ideas have torn down the traditional walls, and I’m excited to see what comes next. Even for kids, while ebooks are not yet the norm, there is no telling what new technology, platform, or company might exist in 3-5 years that could radically change how kids access and engage with stories. Not long ago, if you wrote a book and you were fortunate to get it published traditionally, it would likely be off bookstore shelves in a few months and be out of print not long after that. Today books are evergreen – they’re available forever online in ebooks and print on demand. So I’d advise writers to have a long-term approach. Keep at it, try not to get too high or too low, and work at putting out the best stories you can in a professional way. Chances are you will be successful.
On your blog, MyBoys3, you often write about your life as a dad. Your post, Not a Suck Night, is a particularly poignant post about growing up. But I also think it’s a post that showcases determination, which is also a frequent motif in your books. Sam and Derek certainly show a lot of determination. What kind of role has determination played in your life? And what can your readers take away from Sam and Derek’s determination?
I mentioned it in my comment about history and our founding fathers, but I think determination is such a key in life. I’m finding that most of the people who are succeeding in whatever area of life you look at, one of the key factors is they’re determined. In parenting, you can’t give up even though it’s really hard. In a business, you need to risk the possibility of failure. In sports, you have to keep at it even if you strike out more times than you get a hit. We’re often facing tough choices that test our character, and my wife and I try hard to teach our kids to hold fast to what they know is right. I certainly fall short more often than I would like, but I try to use those times as teachable moments with my kids and demonstrate that striving for a goal is a worthy endeavor.
What is one thing you hope children will take away after reading your books?
I hope kids find my books exciting and get their imaginations churning. Stories are awesome vehicles to learn about themselves and the world around them. In my day job, we create online training programs to teach doctors how to better treat patients. We call it simulating real-life situations in a consequence-free environment. That’s what happens with a great book or a movie. They allow us to venture outside ourselves to another person, place, time or sticky situation and experience life in a way that we couldn’t do in the real world without potentially dire consequences. In my books specifically, I also try to work in fun pieces of history. I think history gets a bad rap as boring, but when you bookend it with an exciting mystery or adventure that kids can get into, it helps them understand the world in a whole new way, and that’s important.
Which books are you most looking forward to your sons reading? Why?
Probably some of the same books that I enjoyed. I try to resist the temptation to rush them into books or movies that they’re not ready for (like A Wrinkle in Time or Dead Poets Society). Ultimately, whatever they find that opens up their imagination will make me happy. My one son loves to read sports books. Another seems to like graphic novels. The delivery mechanism may change over time, but I don’t think there will ever be a shortage of great stories for them to wrap their minds around.
The Virginia Mysteries on Amazon
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