Sherri L. Smith is talented writer who portrayed the complicated phenomenon of passing for white in the Black American community in her historical teen novel, Flygirl, about female aviation during World War II. In the grand tradition of Harlem Renaissance authors such as Nella Larsen, Sherri showcases the desires of a young girl to fly with white female pilots, doing whatever it takes to hold fast to her dreams despite the color line and sexism that blocks her.
I caught up with Sherri to discuss her process, how she constructed the novel, and her advice for aspiring writers.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?
I sold my first published piece to Cricket Magazine back in 1998 or ’99. My first novel sold a couple of years later. While that’s my publishing record, I’ve always been a writer. You can trace my crazy attempts at storytelling back to my elementary school days, with a trail of short stories and poems (and a couple of abandoned novels) up through my grad school years. Before I became published, I had about a million jobs — I worked on a few movies, moved into animation, and spent a few years developing stories for Disney TV animation. Then I took a job with a construction company so I could write Lucy The Giant. The next few books were written while I worked for a comic book company during the day.
I never really thought about “wanting” to be a writer. It’s always been a part of me, something I just do, whether it’s published or not. I love storytelling and I love reading, so it’s a natural progression for me.
Currently, I do write full time and have done so for about 18 months. I’m not sure it’s right for me. I’m by turns very social and very much a homebody. Working with other people satisfied the social side, so I was happy to go home and write or curl up with a good book. Now I crave those inane conversations I used to have with my coworkers,especially at the comic book company. Not many other people will talk superheroes and robots with me!
Can you give us a quick synopsis of FLYGIRL? How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Flygirl is the story of Ida Mae Jones, a light-skinned black girl who passes for white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a group of civilian women who flew military planes here in the states during WWII in order to “Free a Man to Fight” overseas. I came up with the idea for the book after hearing a Radio Diaries piece about the WASP on my local NPR station. The US military in the 1940s was segregated, and African-American women were not allowed into the WASP program because it was already too controversial (women flying military planes!!!). But as I heard the story of the WASP and the prejudice they faced, it made me think of stories my mother had told me, as a black woman growing up in New Orleans in the 1940s and 50s, and the challenges she faced. Ida Mae popped up from there, and the rest, as they say, is history. Or, in this case, historical fiction!
There are no typical writing days. I sit down at my laptop and work every day. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it doesn’t. You just have to keep at it. I work off of an outline, so I’ll spend days, weeks, or months dreaming up my story and writing it out in a three act structure. Then I tackle a few chapters a week until I have a first draft. Then I’ll outline that draft and start again until it’s as good as I can make it. At that point, I might give it to my husband or a trusted friend to read, get some feedback. Rinse, repeat again.
I write on my sofa, in the kitchen, in my car, at cafes. I’m like a Dr. Seussian “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” character. My first novel was written, in large part, on the backs of post-it notes and discarded Xeroxes while I stood at the copier machine.
My inspiration comes from everywhere. I listen to the radio, watch movies, read the news. I travel as much as I can. I people watch and eavesdrop. I ask questions of strangers, friends, on anything that interests me. All that data goes into the story machine and turns up sooner or later.
What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?
My path to publication was very fortuitous. The day I left Disney to write my novel, I heard from a fellow employee who was leaving to represent children’s authors. That was Garrett Hicks of Will Entertainment, who took me on as a client then and there. He waited patiently for me to finish my novel, and sold it in three months. He’s been my manager for the past ten years and four novels.
I will say, things got bumpy for me on the second novel. Some people call it the sophomore slump. I was just not sure what to write. What I was interested in wasn’t what the publisher wanted, and I spent a lot of time going nowhere. With some insight from my husband I landed on my feet and wrote Sparrow. I just wish I hadn’t taken so long to do it!
The most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for me is the time-to-market. If I sell a book today, it can still be up to two years before it hits the shelves. There are editorial notes and rewrites, then they have the copy editor pour over it with a fine-toothed comb to make sure all the facts are straight, the Ts crossed, etc. Then the production process begins—laying out the book, sending advance copies out for reviews, and getting the books printed and shipped. All the while they are getting folks interested in carrying the book, and deciding when it should come out—in time for Christmas? For summer? It seems like forever! By the time one of my books is in the store, I’ve moved on to the next thing and then some. That was not something I expected.
The two best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten were:
1. If you want to write short stories, write short stories. If you want to write novels, write novels. They are not the same thing. You can’t practice by baking cookies if you want to make wedding cakes. So you make some terrible cakes (or cookies). Don’t worry. They’ll get better.
2. A lot of people talk about being writers. Real writers just do it.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?
My favorite book when I was a kid was Charlotte’s Web by EB White. Past that point, the list of favorites grew so there are no other hands-down favorites — I love too many to choose. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Series and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles come to mind, as does Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie. Right now I’m reading the Felix Castor Series of books by Mike Carey. They’re paranormal detective stories, not meant kids. I picked them up because I was a fan of Carey’s work on the Lucifer comic book. Good, undead fun. Just what I like!
What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?
My next book is a new arena for me. It’s a speculative fiction fiction piece set in a not-so-distant future, called Orleans. You’ll have to wait to read it if you want to know more! I’m also returning to Hedgebrook next month. Hedgebrook is a fantastic women writers’ retreat on Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle. If you are over the age of 18 and a woman who writes (or if you know someone who fits that description), check out Hedgebrook. It’s a worthy organization. I’m heavily involved with the local alumni chapter here in Los Angeles. We’re organizing a bunch of career development workshops this April. Between that and the next book, my hands are pretty full.
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
While I believe in being part of a community of writers (because it helps to know a few people who are going through the same stuff!) I do not subscribe to critique groups myself. I think it’s a personal choice. Some people are devoted to their writing groups and can credit them with lots of help on their work. My experience, however, has been with groups where the skill and commitment level varied. If you want to be a professional writer, a group of hobbyists might not give you the input you need. So be sure you know how/what/and why everyone in your group is there before you sign on. That’s my two cents, at any rate.
Photo Credit: Author Website, Speak, Laurel Leaf