MY INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR SHANE W. SMITH!
What’s your name and what genre would you consider your books to be?
My name is Shane W Smith, and I’m a graphic novelist. My books so far fall into one of the following genres: space opera science fiction; epic fantasy; zombie family drama; and post-apocalyptic musical adventure romance.
Tell me about your book. How did you come up with that (story, angle, idea)?
Every book comes from a different place. My first book, The Lesser Evil, was first conceived as a Dune clone that borrowed pretty heavily from Star Wars. My zombie family drama Undad was a thought exercise to develop the most ironic situation possible, and ended up being a book through which I channeled my experiences with parenthood and depression. And my most recent book, Triumviratus, was sparked by Keep Your Heart Broken, a song from the Rasmus’ 2005 Hide From The Sun album.
How did you get interested in writing this particular genre (historical novels, mysteries, sci-fi, children’s books, etc.)?
When I was studying creative writing at university, one of my tutors suggested I consider putting together a comic for the open-ended creative project in third year. He then let me borrow a huge stack of graphic novels, which included The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, and Grendel War Child (this last because my idea at the time reminded him of this book). I haven’t really looked back since that day (twelve years ago).
What kind of research did you do for this book?
Research is a funny thing. There’s the formal kind (where you need to read just enough about astrophysics to give up and go with pseudo-science wormholes instead), and the informal kind (where you just learn about people and their problems by listening to them and then shamelessly stealing their lives for your stories).
The formal kind is intermittent – the last formal research I did was reading a scholarly book that analysed the Gospel writings about the Easter resurrection, to underpin a chapter of Undad where our main character is losing his faith.
The informal kind is ongoing and permanent.
Can you tell me about your Series?
My longest running series is an epic sci-fi tale about a bunch of broken people trying to make sense out of their lives and dreams in a galaxy torn apart by civil war. The story is told in graphic novel form, and uses stark and striking black-and-white imagery to tell the story.
It’s a high octane dystopian political thriller that begins with The Lesser Evil, and continues with the Aurealis Award finalists Peaceful Tomorrows and The Game, and the epic anthology All The King’s Men. The final book in the series, entitled The Winds of Change, is in its early stages of planning.
The first two books were originally picked up by a Canadian publisher, but the rights recently reverted back to me, and at the moment, I’ve got them all out under my own imprint, Deeper Meanings.
Do you have a favorite book out of this series?
My favourite book in the series is The Game, for sure. I’m proud as hell of this book, and for how well it did critically (getting shortlisted for an Aurealis Award was a massive thrill). Also, the final chapter is still probably my best writing, and hits me like a truck emotionally whenever I re-read it.
Where did you get the inspiration/idea for your series?
Actually, The Lesser Evil began its life in 1999 as a novel. Shortly after seeing The Phantom Menace in cinemas, and feeling a little let down by some of its storytelling, I decided to try my hand at a sci-fi adventure of my own. I cribbed pretty heavily from the other sci-fi I was reading at the time, leaning particularly hard upon Frank Herbert’s Dune and Stephen Donaldson’s The Gap series. A million drafts, a dozen rejections, and more than a decade later, I transformed this failing novel into a graphic novel script, and it was picked up pretty quickly.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I read A Brief History of Time while I was neck-deep in the third draft of the novel. And that’s a book that you can’t read without a major mental commitment. But ultimately, I decided that the character arcs and personal stories were more important than getting the science spot on, so I pivoted cleanly to the space opera subset of the genre, where I wouldn’t have to do so much formal research.
Was it always meant to become a series?
I’m not sure what I intended way back in 1999 (I was only a kid then), but I started work on a sequel (that eventually became Peaceful Tomorrows) in about 2003. So even if my original intention was to write a one-shot novel, it wasn’t an only child for long.
What’s a typical working day like for you? When and where do you write? Do you set a daily writing goal?
I work in our garage, which we converted into a den a few years back.
I only write at night after my kids and wife are asleep. From 10pm – 1am is my writing time. I’d like to do more, but I don’t want to sacrifice family time, and I (unfortunately) have no way to give up the time I spend at my day job.
Sadly, there’s no magic formula for time management. Even the most productive person still only has twenty-four hours in a day. And my day – after full-time work, husbanding and fathering – sure didn’t contain twenty-four free hours. But I took a good long look at those twenty-four hours, and began to identify blocks of time that I could utilise better.
But that wasn’t enough. I needed to find more time to write… somewhere.
So, about six years ago, I took the drastic step of slashing my sleep. After my wife and kids have gone to bed, I stay up to work on my books. After some experimentation and conditioning, I managed to train myself to function well enough on 4-5 hours sleep per night. It wasn’t always easy, but suddenly I had regular time to write, and regular progress to celebrate.
Do you have a new book in the making and if so, what’s the name of your upcoming book?
I’m about to release an epic fantasy graphic novel called Triumviratus. It’s a 500 page full colour comic about jealousy, self-esteem, and three desperate people whose misadventures in love bring the entire world to its knees.
How important are character names to you in your books? Is there a special meaning to any of the names?
I don’t put nearly as much thought into character names as I should. My wife is a totally names-and-their-meanings buff and regularly chastises me for my carelessness. I sometimes just let her name my characters.
Where do your ideas come from?
It sounds like a cop-out answer, but they come from everywhere. The diligent author is ready to draw inspiration from anything they see. For example, a one word writing prompt (“beginning”) and a 2005 European rock song (Keep Your Heart Broken) combined unexpectedly at just the right moment to give birth to Triumviratus. Stephen Donaldson, I think, was using Wagner’s Ring Cycle as an inspiration for The Gap, but the final piece fell into place for him when he saw something (I forget what, sorry) in a public bathroom.
Is there a genre that you’ve been wanting to experiment with?
I’ve spent the last few years kicking around some ideas for a digital graphic novel that branches based on choices that the reader makes at key moments. The amount of work is staggering though, and the learning curve for coding that complex is equally daunting. Still, I’d love to be able to carve out a couple of years and really sink into that.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Publishing is the hardest part of writing. Developing a business brain is one of the hardest things for many creative (myself included) to do. I’m still wrapping my head around it all, and fitting the business into a three hour writing day is an ongoing challenge.
What do you think of book trailers? Do you have a trailer or do you intend to create one for your own book?
I love book trailers. Almost every one of my books has at least one trailer: https://www.youtube.com/user/ShaneWSmithWriter/videos. I really enjoy setting the images to the beat of a really stirring musical track, and I’ve gotten a good response from my fans, too!
What do you consider to be your best accomplishment?
Well, my kids take top billing in that arena, but in a writing sense, I think I might well be the only person in the world to get a comic published in a refereed academic journal. That’s a pretty cool feeling.
What’s the best thing about being an author?
Most of the lesson I’ve learned from writing are ones in which I come to understand the mysteries of my own soul a little better. I learned everything I ever needed to know from fiction – it’s the prism through which I understand the world. To me, it seems natural that writing stories would help me to understand myself and grow as a person.
For me, there’s no better way to figure out what I really think about a situation than to sit down and bash out a fictional narrative about it.
When I read back over my old books, I’m always a little surprised how actively my subconscious mind was shaping these stories. How they reflect (in a metaphorical sense) whatever issues or challenges I was facing in my life at the time.
And I’ve also changed and grown. Writing has given me focus and determination, and getting work finished and published is literally the only thing that was able to salvage the tattered wreckage of self-esteem that I grew up with.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years’ time, I’d like to be able to look back at a varied and successful writing career that has slowly worked its way up to being a self-sustaining and modestly profitable enterprise. I’d like to have worked as a writer in TV by this stage, and to have written at least one video game, and at least one published and well-reviewed novel.
Have you always liked to write?
Yep. My writing predates living memory – being a professional writer is the only ambition I have ever held for my life, and it’s the only thing I want to do. One of my earliest memories is putting together a short picture book with my dad when I was about three.
What writing advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Here’s one that’s a little unorthodox: consider adapting your work-in-progress to another form. If it’s a novel, make it a graphic novel. Or a song. Or a stage play. Even an experimental and highly figurative interpretive dance. My guess is that the second or third draft of this adaptation is going to reveal something that completely changes how you see this project.
This process will almost certainly unlock some fundamental truth about your work that you couldn’t see behind the trappings of its original form, and you will understand your own work immeasurably better. And that then when you turn that new product back into its original form, you’ll end up with something richer, deeper and much better than you started with.
And if you’re (understandably) baulking at the idea of completely rewriting your work: ‘adapt’ it into a pitch document. Distil your story down to a logline, a one-sentence summary, a very short theme/setting statement, and half a dozen one-sentence character profiles.
Turning a creative piece into a marketing document is a crucial skill for all creators to develop anyway, so this exercise is really serving two masters. And if you find that you’ve learned something new about your project by doing this, there might indeed be more for you to learn from a more daring adaptation.
Might be worth a shot. It certainly worked for me.
If you didn’t like writing books, or weren’t any good at it, what would you like to do for a living?
I really enjoyed the time I spent editing the All The King’s Men anthology, and responding to queries. I could see myself as an editor in a small-but-modestly-successful publishing house.
Do you read reviews of your book(s)? Do you respond to them, good or bad? How do you deal with the bad?
I read them, but I don’t respond to them, good or bad. I’ve seen too many good writers disappear down a bad-PR rabbit hole responding to reviews, and the common wisdom is to just leave it alone. If someone contacts me directly with feedback though (good or bad), I’ll always respond. Those direct lines of communication are the ones that writers need to keep open.
What are you working on now?
I’m putting the very last finishing touches upon Triumviratus, a 500 page epic fantasy graphic novel. We’ll be launching an exclusive, one-time-only premium hardcover print run on Kickstarter from July 3 – August 10.
Can you give us a few tasty morsels from your work-in-progress?
For sure. Here’s the entire first chapter of Triumviratus:
Why did you choose to write in your genre? If you write in more than one, how do you balance them?
I love the power of genre fiction (all genres) to identify and highlight truths about the human experience through allegory, in ways that literary fiction can’t credibly address directly. And that’s what I try to tap into with my writing. It doesn’t matter what genre I’m working in (and I’ve worked in several so far), because as long as I can use it to interrogate my experience of the world, I’m good to go.
Where did your love of books come from?
I guess it was my parents. Just as I’ve been writing since before living memory, so too have I been reading. We bought ungodly numbers of second-hand books at local book fairs and fetes, and I was never short of a new title to devour. Reading is one activity that was always encouraged when I was growing up, and I never went anywhere without a book in hand.
Do you have any favorite authors or favorite books?
So many. I love Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Shakespeare and Asimov, Steinbeck and about a hundred others. The most powerful book I’ve ever read is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and my all-time favourite is probably Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy both get an honourable mention here, because they’re the first ‘literature’ books I shared with my kids, and they are just superb books.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Both, I think. A really good writing session can leave me feeling totally spent, but really jazzed up and inspired at the same time. However, I once worked on a book for eighteen hours a day every day for almost a week, and that nearly broke me… so I guess the overall answer is that it exhausts more than it energises.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I like to work interesting themes into some pretty traditional genre stories. Until Santa Clarita Diet came along, I had the corner on contemporary zombie stories about family dynamics with my graphic novel Undad, but under the hood, it’s basically just a sitcom structure. In a lot of ways, The Lesser Evil is almost a retelling of Dune, but it’s a story about what it can cost to chase a dream. And Triumviratus has almost all the trappings of a traditional epic fantasy – a lengthy journey, magic, destiny, all that stuff – but it’s a story that goes pretty deep into matters of self-esteem and the work/life balance, two topics that traditional epic fantasy doesn’t really spend too much time in.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Making friends with other writers is one of the best moves I made. And I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that as easily in any other medium, but the comics industry has a very active convention scene packed full of other comic creators. I actually live in the same city as a couple of my faves: Ryan K Lindsay (who has been kicking amazing goals all over the place the last few years), and Tim Stiles, whose Gorilla My Dreams comic is one of the best Aussie comics I’ve read in years. Other creative people who effortlessly inspire me with their attitudes and output include musician James Flamestar and experimental artist Nick Delatovic. But I’ve made literally dozens of friends in the comics and writing world – most of which started out as professional connections – and I treasure them all.
Having that network means that you’ve got people to run questions past. And not necessarily questions that are directly about writing. Friends who understand the challenges of juggling multiple jobs and family life can help you to unlock a better, more productive life in general. And that certainly doesn’t hurt the writing.
But in a more direct sense, mates will help each other out. They’ll boost each other’s work to their own audiences. They’ll offer well-reasoned criticism and feedback. They’ll mention your name if the right opportunity crosses their path.
Just having folks alongside you as you all find your own ways into the industry is a tremendously inspiring thing, especially when you know that they’ll drop a ladder down if they get a chance (because they know you’d do the same for them).
If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?
Slow and Steady.
Where can your fans find you and follow??
I run a twice-monthly mailing list called Shane-Mail. Subscribers get a free book (or two), and regular updates. http://changetheworld.shanewsmith.com/
I’m also on the social media circuit.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ShaneWSmith.Author/
And I’m happy to answer emails at any time: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for taking your time to do this interview ❤️