Debut author profile: Nina Smith
Each month I hope to profile a debut author or short story writer who has featured in Friday Night Fictions. This month, it’s Nina Smith, a WA writer who appeared in the August edition.
Her novel, Hailstone, is an action-packed romp with a gun-totin’, pill-poppin’, alcoholic, ex-evangelical lesbian on the loose. I spoke to her about religious cults, creating her novel in CreateSpace and gothic bellydancing (I dare you to try it).
Do you remember the moment when you decided you wanted to be a writer?
To be honest I don’t think it was ever something I decided; it simply was the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life. I was writing stories in early primary school, and my first novel at the age of 14. That, as I recall, was the most awful romance featuring guys on horses, and the heroine doing a lot of swooning, yelling and panicking. I’ve still got it scrawled in pencil in a notebook hidden away somewhere! At 15, my English teacher suggested I study creative writing at university, which was exactly what I ended up doing.
What inspired you?
I draw inspiration from things that transcend words, like music. Sometimes I get novel ideas in dreams. Sometimes it’s from observing everyday life and the way people interact with each other. To me, stories are whole concepts as much as they are a series of events. Sometimes I will find a whole novel in a stark landscape, or a feeling in a song.
My book and yours share some common themes: religion and betrayal. Why were you drawn to investigating the dark side of church life and a preacher on the edge?
A lot of Hailstone was inspired by churches I came into contact with in my teenage years. Those teenage years were a stormy time, when I put a lot into religion, only to find there were aspects of it that absolutely alienated me. Since then I have had an enduring fascination with cults and the way some religions try to control people — not to mention the ways people rebel. Religion in general is a huge influence on the state of affairs in the world today, and we see it making people do crazy things. I wanted to explore those issues of control, of rebellion and most of all of fanaticism.
Hailstone is written in rapid fire, short sentences. Are you attracted to the crime genre?
To be honest, I haven’t read a lot of crime. My first love is fantasy, but every now and again I need to leave fantasy alone and write something completely and totally grounded in the real world, that’s all action and fast-paced. I love to read thrillers, and when writing them, I like to keep everything as tight and grounded as possible. I think however my day job as a journalist influences me here, as that has trained me to write in a way that wastes no words.
The title is an evocative one. Why did you choose it?
Funnily enough, the title came before the book. It occurred to me while driving one day that Hailstone would be an awesome name for a city, and that was where the story started. I like the name because hailstones, while not a natural disaster, are a force of nature that are incredibly destructive but also quite common. They suggest parts of life that are destructive but so ordinary people simply don’t pay any attention to them.
I was really drawn to both the cover and synopsis of your book. How did they both develop?
The synopsis was a result of days of writing, re-writing, occasional temper tantrums and then more re-writing. I find it so much easier to write a whole novel than a few paragraphs about it! In the end, once I had distilled the most basic elements of the story — the gun, the church, the father — I was happy with it.
The cover was really interesting to put together. The model is a rather gorgeous woman I know who agreed to dress up and wander around our closest city with me one Sunday afternoon being photographed. That image is one of the last we took, and it was so perfect; the expression on her face, the way she held her keys, everything about her fit the character of Mags McAllister perfectly. I wanted to add something to it, though, so I went to the local wreckers and took photos of smashed windscreens. One of these images I overlaid, then put through filters until I had what I wanted: the feeling that I was looking through a smashed windscreen, watching the person who had smashed it storm away. To me it conveys the desolation, the anger and the brokenness of a woman who is trapped in an abusive cycle.
Your protagonist is a pistol wielding, valium-popping, alcoholic, ex-Christian lesbian. How did you uncover her? Did you do any research:-)
Ha! I might have ‘researched’ some things, but not others, in my miss-spent youth. I chose aspects for the character that were diametrically opposed to the environment she was in. I have to say, though, I’ve previously observed the children of authoritarian figures sometimes take such paths.
What were your favourite books to read as a child?
Everything I could get my hands on. I particularly loved the Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody and the Vicky Bliss series by Elizabeth Peters.
You used CreateSpace to publish your first book? What was the process and would you recommend it to other authors?
CreateSpace was a brilliant experience. The program takes you step by step through uploading your text and your graphics and making sure everything is formatted correctly before you order a proof copy. (I picked up a lot of things in that proof copy that I missed on the screen.) You can price your book yourself, order as many or as few copies as you need and it is listed on Amazon.
I highly recommend CreateSpace if you want to get your book out there, so long as you are: a) able to pay for an editor and cover designer; or b) have the skills to do those things properly yourself.
The end product is beautiful and professional, and having control over every step of the process is a fantastic thing. The one thing you have to be aware of is that once you have your published product, it’s up to you to market it, which is a whole other journey to set out on.
You live in WA. What is it like to be a writer there? Is there a writer community where you are?
Western Australia is a very isolated part of the world. I think it is because of that, that communities of like-minded people tend to be very close and supportive. There are some amazing writers out here, and a great network of people, organisations and festivals.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the process of writing your first novel, that you wish you knew at the beginning?
Apparently its not a convention any more to put three spaces after every fullstop. That’s made editing some of my earlier efforts an exhausting process!
You describe yourself as a gothic bellydancer. Tell us a bit more…
Gothic bellydance is a branch of the amazing and diverse art of bellydance that explores the darker sides of life, human nature and music through bellydance. It is a beautiful practice where the costumes are mostly black, a little bit red (no hot pink!); the music is often industrial or dark — Rammstein, Tool and Nine Inch Nails are popular choices, along with bands like Maduro and Solace. It is a theatrical form where you can explore characters such as goddesses or demons, dance out your emotions or create a piece that is intense, confronting or dangerous. I love this form as it allows me to tell stories with my body and my dance in the same way I tell stories with my words.