Author Interview: Jennifer E. Smith

Hello Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me. 🙂

1. First things first: how did you take up writing?

I don’t remember ever taking it up; it was just something I always did, something I always loved. For as long as I can remember, I kept journals and scribbled in notebooks and told stories. I knew early on that I wanted to be a writer, though I never really thought of it as a career. Growing up, becoming an author seemed about as likely as becoming a ballerina or an astronaut, and I never could have imagined it would actually be my job. So I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am now. But even if I hadn’t ever been published, I know for sure I’d still be writing, because it’s just something I love to do.

2. What was your very first attempt at creative writing?

In fourth grade, I won a school-wide creative writing contest for a story about a girl and a horse (of course!). My parents and I got to travel down to the University of Illinois for a writing workshop, and there was an awards ceremony where they put a gold sticker on my story, and in all that excitement, I definitely caught the writing bug.

3. Where did you get the ideas for your stories?

It really depends on the book, but I tend to start with a “what if?” scenario, usually one that comes about as a result of a big change. I’m kind of obsessed with moments in time that act as hinges, days where there’s a really clear split between before and after — where yesterday, your life was one way, and tomorrow it will be entirely different. So I’m always looking for stories that capture that.

4. What in particular gave you the idea for Windfall?

I’ve wanted to write a book about the lottery for a long time because it’s such a perfect representation of the themes I’m most interested in: fate and luck and chance. But I could never quite find my way into it — for a while, I thought I’d write about two families who lived next door to each other, and the way things shift when one of them wins the jackpot. But somehow, that just didn’t seem compelling enough. Then one day, I was in line at a bodega behind a young guy who was buying a big stack of tickets, and just like that, I knew exactly what the book would be.

5. And what about your other novels — The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and The Geography of You and Me especially, since we love those two books a lot!

Thank you — that’s so nice! The idea for Statistical Probability came about, unsurprisingly, from an experience on a flight I once took. I was on my way from Chicago to Dublin, and was sitting next to an Irish man who was reading a book I’d recently finished. We started chatting and ended up talking for much of the flight. It wasn’t anything romantic — he was much, much older — but it was nice to talk to him, and it made the hours pass quickly. When we got to Dublin, we were in separate lines for customs, since he was from Ireland. I think we both assumed we’d see each other on the other side, so we didn’t exactly say goodbye, but my line ended up being really slow, and when I finally made it through, he was gone. It made me think about the fact that you can spend seven hours talking to someone and never even know their name, which is where the idea for the book really started.

As for Geography, that one came about in two different ways. The book begins with a massive blackout in New York City, which is loosely based off the one that happened in 2003. I was in the process of moving here at the time, and in many ways, it’s what made me fall in love with the city. So I’d been wanting to write about that for a while. And then I was also interested in exploring the idea of a long-distance relationship. There’s a line in the book that goes, “How long could a single night really be expected to last? How far could you stretch such a small collection of minutes?” I wanted to see what would happen if I brought two characters together, and then — after a brief, but very real connection — pulled them apart again.

6. Do you have particular schedules or writing routines when it comes to your work?

I wish I had a better routine! I try to write a certain amount of words a day, but if it’s not working at all, I don’t force myself to sit there and bang my head against the computer for hours and hours. And on the flip side, if it’s going incredibly well, I’ll cancel my plans for the rest of the day and go with it. So my routine ends up being a little haphazard, though most days it works out somewhere in the middle, and I manage to get a decent amount of words down and chip away at the book a little at a time.

7. If your story got turned into a movie, who would you like to see star as leads?

This is always so hard to answer! Honestly, I don’t think much about specific actors, but I’d so love to see one of my books make it from the page to the screen. It’s a long process, but several of them are in development right now, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

8. I know it’s hard to pick — but which of your novels has been your most favourite till date?

I’m obviously very fond of all of them in different ways, but I’ll always have a soft spot for The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, which changed my life in many ways, and also Windfall, which I’m especially proud of because it was so creatively challenging. But I love the others too, of course!

9. Do you have any particular authors who inspire your work?

So many! Too many to name. I grew up falling in love with books that are sad and sweet and full of heart, like Bridge to Terabithia and Where the Red Fern Grows and Tuck Everlasting, so those had a huge impact on me. But so did a lot of other books. I was also an editor for many years, and you can’t spend that much time reading other people’s work without it making your own better. I can’t overstate how much I learned rom my years in publishing, and now that I write full-time, I still try to read as much and as widely as possible. I’m a firm believer that it’s the best education you can get as a writer.

10. What would your advice be to aspiring authors?

Well, aside from reading a lot, I’d say my biggest piece of advice would be not to worry about failure. It can be hard to see at the time, but it’s often just a turning point. I wrote two novels before my first one got published, and both were roundly rejected. But I wouldn’t have ever written the next book if not for what I learned while writing those. And then my first two books that were published hardly sold any copies. But if I hadn’t written those, I wouldn’t have gained the experience I needed to write my third book, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, which was the first one of mine that had any real success. Now, when I look back, I still can’t believe that after all of those failures and setbacks, my first instinct was to sit down at my computer, open up another blank document and start all over again. But that’s what I did. And I’m so grateful for that now. Often, what seems like a failure is actually just a stepping stone on the way to the next thing. But that’s only if you keep moving forward.

Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to us!

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