When I started this interview series as a way to support other authors four years ago, did I ever think that I’d reach the milestone of publishing 100 interviews? No, I did not. But here we are, and I’m thrilled that the author who lands in the 100th slot is women’s fiction author Maggie Smith because she works tirelessly to promote other authors herself. In connection with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA), she runs the Hear Us Roar podcast, and she’s an active member of the WFWA social media community, always offering advice and championing the cause. In addition, she blogs for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and serves as managing editor for The Write City Magazine. Maggie’s thought-provoking debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, released last week, and the publisher’s book description says its for “readers who love Jodi Picoult’s topical plot twists and Liane Moriarty’s character-driven novels.” Having read the story myself, I can attest that it’s a fast-paced, intriguing tale of friendship, secrets, and more that truly helps broaden readers’ minds. As I’m sure you can imagine, Maggie’s time is often spoken for, so I’m so grateful for the moments she’s given to me in this interview.
Christina: Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, Truth and Other Lies. Three strong, distinct women lie at the heart of the story. Who inspired these characters?
Maggie: The character of the mentor, Jocelyn Jones, came first. The initial inspiration was Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Meryl Streep created such a memorable icon with that performance that it always stuck in my mind. From there I wanted to explore the dynamic between a young woman named Megan on the cusp of adulthood, making major decisions about her life, and being influenced by two separate role models—her mentor, who is a famous journalist who seems to have the perfect life, and her helicopter mother Helen, who has always been not only over-protective of her daughter but one whose value system is diametrically opposed to Megan’s on all the major hot-button issues of the day. Initially Helen was based to a large extent on my own mother but she morphed over time into a distinctly different character, one who was much more accepting of other people’s value systems.
Christina: Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book, “An engaging and topical tale of politics and journalistic ethics with a feminist slant.” Did you set out to write a book with a “feminist slant”? What does the word “feminist” mean to you?
Maggie: I’ve always considered myself a feminist, though that term has gotten trickier to pin down in the last few years. For me, it’s summed up in Megan’s explanation to her ten-year-old neighbor Mateo, when she says “A feminist is someone who says girls can be anything they want to be. In fact, it’s against the law to treat them differently.” I was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted in terms of a career, and I definitely identified with the second wave of feminism in the sixties with Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, and the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. I’ve lived a somewhat unconventional life, not having children, moving away from my family of origin once I married, founding and growing my own business. I didn’t set out to write a feminist book per se, but as I began to delve into the issues inherent in the story, those themes emerged and seemed to offer dramatic fodder to point up the differences between the women, not only because of values but also because of their difference in age.
Christina: The book touches on several heavy themes—abortion, the toxicity of social media, sexual harassment, motherhood, and more. How do you balance these themes so that the reader isn’t weighed down by them?
Maggie: Some of those topics occur in only one scene—for example, sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement—although I’ve been amazed how often that is mentioned in early reviews. I tried very hard to not necessarily take sides but to use the situation to reflect how different women react. For example, during a lunch in which an older gentleman is obviously behaving in a predatory manner toward Megan, she is incensed, ignores him, and tosses away his business card. Jocelyn, on the other hand, flirts around with him and urges Megan to use his interest to advance her career. What was important to me in that scene was not to make a stand against sexual harassment so much as to point out the generational difference in the two women’s reactions, which helps us see how an older generation dealt with such issues compared to what we see today in millennial’s attitudes.
For the more substantive issues in the book, like pro-life vs pro-choice, I tried to modulate the two characters on different sides (Megan and her mother) so that by the end of the book, they each understand the other in a more nuanced way and hopefully, that also applies to the reader. I’m always happy when a reviewer mentions that I’ve written a story where, even when they don’t agree with one of the characters, they are able to understand and respect their stance. As for the toxicity of the media, that’s also a fine line, because in effect what seems at first a vendetta to smear an innocent person winds up being the mechanism through which an important injustice is resolved. If there hadn’t been social media available, how much longer would it have been before that lie was discovered?
Christina: Is Truth and Other Lies the first novel you’ve written? If not, how many other drafts exist on our computer or bookshelf, and will those other novels ever see the light of day? If yes, what surprised you in the writing of the novel or in the publishing process?
Maggie: I wrote another version of this novel. And I don’t mean just notes and jottings, but an entire 325-page novel. The three generations of women and their respective roles (mother, daughter, mentor) were still there, but the mother was named Anna, the daughter was Lily, and all three of them were point-of-view narrators. The death of Anna’s father was the inciting incident because that’s when she discovered she was adopted and sets out to find her birth mother, who turns out to be Jocelyn. Lily played somewhat of a minor role—she went to work for Jocelyn and so was a kind of go-between to bringing the connection to light. It has crossed my mind to resurrect that story somewhere along the way.
I hired a developmental editor who said the coincidence of Lily going to work for her own grandmother was too big to swallow, and I needed to reimagine the entire plot. Of course, I didn’t want to since I’d been working on that iteration for over two years. But once I decided to change it all around, I wrote the version on which the current novel is based in about four months.
As to what surprised me about the publishing process, I’ll say what everyone says—how long it takes. And I didn’t even go the agent/publisher route but went straight to signing with a small press, which sped up the journey considerably.
Christina: In a former life, you were a psychologist. How do your experiences in that profession inform your writing?
Maggie: That’s a hard question to answer about myself, but I’m sure there is a part of me that has an intuitive sense about what makes people tick, what drives them in terms of needs and emotions that I bring to my writing as I’m developing my characters. I definitely tend to write people who ring true and have deeper motivations going on beneath the surface, ones that aren’t immediately apparent.
And part of my “author platform” is I’m a podcaster for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. I definitely think in that venue my training as a psychologist helps me be a good listener and pick up on comments the author makes that often yield interesting insights about both their process and them as a person.
Christina: On Instagram, you talk about secrets, and how “Every woman has a secret she hides from the world.” Do you have any secrets you’d be willing to share with your readers? If not, what is one secret Megan might still hold onto that readers don’t know about?
Maggie: I guess my biggest secret right now (that I’m willing to share!) is how little writing I’ve done in the last year. I have a second book in the works that’s more of a women’s fiction/domestic suspense but I guess COVID fatigue set in because I made very little progress on it during 2021. But I do intend to start back up once my debut has been out in the world for a couple of months.
As for Megan, I’ve always speculated she might have had a scare when she lived in New York, a week when she suspected she might have been pregnant and what that would mean in her life before testing negative. If so, that would lend a layer of meaning to Chapter Twelve during the scene between her mother and her where she reiterates her belief in a woman’s right to choose.
Christina: We have to talk about pets! You have a dog, Colt, and then you recently agreed to foster Hunter, an experience that didn’t work out the way you anticipated. Did you have an inkling when you agreed to foster him that you might “fail” at it?
Maggie: Unfortunately we had to send Hunter back to the shelter because he turned aggressive and began tearing up credit cards, Kleenex boxes, baseball caps, and my husband’s high-grade earphones. He even tore the cover off one of my books! And he kept pouncing on Colt, who at thirteen years old, is really slow on his feet and about half-blind, so we felt he didn’t deserve that in his “golden years.” Despite our best efforts for two months, it wasn’t enough to overcome what must have been some abuse in his background before he came to us. Thankfully, he’s been adopted by a couple with a teenage son (and a cat!), and hopefully he’ll be very happy there.
So we’re back to just Colt, who’s a cute little sheltie. We had another great dog, Ginger, also a sheltie that we raised from a puppy but unfortunately we lost her to cancer a few years ago. We had actually adopted Colt as a companion to Ginger, so best laid plans. But I appreciate having Colt by my side when I’m at work on my writing. He’s a loyal companion.
Thanks to Maggie for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.