Australian author Mark Smith lives on Victoria’s Surf Coast, where he writes novels and stories, and runs outdoor-education programs for young adults. His first novel, The Road to Winter (2017), attracted the attention of many literary judges and has since been adopted as secondary school reading here in Australia. Its themes of a dystopian future, survivalism, compassion and the struggle against injustice in its many forms are deftly packaged in a gripping and sparely written tale, with not a word too many. It’s almost poetic in its emotional intensity.
Hi, Mark, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Here’s a tricky question: what would readers never guess about you?
I hated reading when I was young! I know a lot of authors are brought up in houses full of books or they are turned onto reading by a sympathetic librarian, but at the age of fifteen I’d never read a book. I knew how to read, I just didn’t have the inclination. I was very much an outdoors boys and I always associated reading with being closeted indoors. Then, when I was fifteen, I had a horse riding accident that left me with a badly broken neck – so suddenly I had to spend a lot of time indoors. My mum was an avid reader and she got me started on books like Storm Boy and I Can Jump Puddles. Discovering reading could transport into other worlds and other people’s lives, I progressed quickly to Catcher In The Rye, Steinbeck and George Johnston. By the time I returned to school six months after the accident I had read about twenty books and my outlook on learning and reading had changed completely.
That’s a very extreme version of book love! Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Writing courses are hugely valuable. Though I have never studied writing at a tertiary level (a Victorian university rejected my application to do a PhD in Creative Writing last year because they didn’t consider twenty published short stories and three novels adequately met their selection criteria!), I have completed a number of short courses at places like Writers Victoria. As much as anything, I think they help expose the areas you need to work on in your writing. They are also valuable in creating writing networks that can support you through your successes and inevitable rejections!
Good grief! That uni needs to take a good hard look. I also love the Writers Victoria courses and have found them very helpful in practical ways, while my degree was helpful in craft ways – a good supervisor is worth a few thousand rejection letters! What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
No one wants to hear it, but there is no silver bullet, no secret to success other than hard work and perseverance. When I started writing I had stories rejected for twelve months before one was accepted. Other than that, my own mantra for writing is: “Don’t let the words get in the way of the story.” If you are writing to impress, you are probably not writing well. Also, draft and redraft until it is the best possible piece of writing you can produce then – and only then – send it out into the world.
I love that, thank you Mark. Very happy to hear it! You talk about perseverance – do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I like to get up early – about sevenish – and write for at least two hours before breakfast. I can generally bang out a thousand words, if not more, and it gives me time in the rest of my day to do other things I love, like surfing, riding, reading and planning for appearances and workshops. I am more clear-headed in the morning but I use the rest of the day to mull over what I’ve written. I do a lot of what I call writing away from the desk. This is just thinking through scenes and descriptive passages, considering how I might improve on them. I can do this while I’m riding my bike, surfing or walking the dog on the beach. When I get back to the desk the next morning, I know what I have to do to improve what I’ve written the day before.
I agree; a lot of writing happens inside your skull. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Because my first book, The Road To Winter, is taught in schools around the country, I love hearing from students who have discovered reading through my books. I like to tell them about how I was also a non-reader until I was fifteen. I also like the fact teenagers are brutally honest. On a visit to a large boys school a couple of years ago, a student waited back after my presentation to talk to me about The Road To Winter. I asked him what he thought of it. He replied, “Well, it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s not the worst!”
That’s high praise from a teenager, I suspect. How do you feel about reviews?
I know some authors say they don’t look at reviews and that they don’t take them to heart, but I think most do. Good reviews are great and bad reviews – of which there will inevitably be some – can wound. The best advice I ever got regarding reviews was that I should never take them personally. The reviewer is criticising your work, not you. And, in the end, it’s just one person’s opinion. This is particularly true of Goodreads reviews. Most are not from professional critics, just readers with an opinion. My favourite one star review from Goodreads was a short and simple one for The Road To Winter: “I hate it!”
Goodness, that is succinct. Has your work been compared to other writers?
Because I’ve written a YA dystopian series, my books are most often compared to John Marsden’s. To be honest, I am honoured to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. I was lucky enough to interview John at a festival last year and I found him to be a very humble and engaging man. He read my books in preparation for the interview and was very complimentary of my writing. My favourite comparison though comes from a review of my third book, Land Of Fences, by Fran Atkinson in The Age that said “…there is almost a Winton-esque lyricism when Smith writes about the big blue and the coastline that features regularly.” I am a huge Tim Winton fan and his writing has influenced me more than any other, so that quote now sits on the pinboard by my desk, for easy reference whenever I doubt my own abilities.
I agree with her – there is a very Australian lyricism to your books which is reminiscent of Winton. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
I started my career as an English teacher and I always had this little inkling in the back of my mind that I could maybe try writing. But, like most people, I didn’t do anything about it for years. I was in my fifties before I enrolled in a short story writing course taught by Emmet Stinson at Writers Victoria. Melanie Cheng was in the same class and we’ve been friends ever since. After lots of rejections, I began to get my stories published in a few journals and anthologies. But I still didn’t dare call myself a writer. Then I was lucky enough to win the Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize for a short story called Manyuk. With prize money of $10,000, it was one of the richest short story prizes in Australia. I didn’t realise at the time, but that’s as much as a lot of first time authors get as an advance on a novel. But, having won the prize and banked the cheque, I very tentatively started to call myself a writer. A three-book deal with Text Publishing confirmed it three months later.
Wonderful! How do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?
I don’t show my drafts to anyone until I’m convinced I need a different set of eyes to read them. For each of my novels I have sought the advice of my local bookshop owner. I took a risk and did this with my first book because I knew she would be a speed reader (and therefore get back to me quickly) and she knew the book trade intimately so she would be able to tell me whether the novel had legs or not. As our friendship has grown, I’ve also encouraged her to be utterly ruthless in her feedback. Her instincts have been spot on every time!
She sounds a treasure indeed. Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
The best thing about becoming a writer is meeting other writers. We are a pretty small community in Australia and we need to encourage and support each other. I go out of my way at festivals and gigs to introduce myself to the other writers and I try as much as possible to attend their launches and events. Social media also facilitates this interaction – follow your favourite writers and let them know you like their writing. I have “met” a large number of fellow writers on social media, some of whom I’ve yet to meet in person. Following them also keeps me updated on their new releases and the events they have planned around them.
I completely agree. The Australian writing community seems to be very supportive and I love interacting with fellow writers online … like right now! Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?
This is an easy one to answer because my first manuscript was picked up off the slush pile at Text. I knew nothing about publishers so I simply chose the one who published my favourite authors and sent the manuscript to them. Text have a house policy of all its employees reading off the slush pile on Friday afternoons. One of the senior marketers picked mine up, loved it and the rest is history!
That’s wonderful, and a great practice by a publishing company. I’m so glad that your book was plucked out of the slush because it’s marvellous. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Mark, and more power to your writing.