Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Jack of All Trades and Master of One

Internationally acclaimed novelist and poet Sam Smith could well be the guy who delivers your milk in the morning, whitewashes your garden shed or gives you change for the one-armed bandits on your next seaside holiday.

Sam Smith is a Jack of All Trades and master of one … literature.

In the market driven publishing world, even the biggest talent isn’t always rewarded with big bucks and, although critically acclaimed the world over as a novelist and poet, Sam is one of those great creators who have been forced to self-subsidise their art.

The midnight oil in his garret has been paid for from his wages as a milkman, a psychiatric nurse, a scaffolder, a social worker, a gardener, a computer operator, a sailor, a laboratory analyst, a painter and decorator and even, most recently, the change-maker in a seaside penny arcade.

For thirty years, no job was ever too mean for Sam as he paid the household bills, raised a family of three daughters … and struggled after hours with what he has always considered his ‘real’ work.

Now, with fifteen published novels to his name and almost as many poetry anthologies, as editor of two prestigious poetry journals and as a sought-after speaker and reader at literary events in tiny towns and huge cities all over the UK, Sam – even with a Booker Prize nomination and several major awards under his belt – is still willing to earn his right to be read by the sweat of his brow.

Meantime, though, royalties start to accumulate as more and more titles are added to an impressive list by this tireless and prolific author.

His novels include Sister Blister (Online Originals and now in hardback), Paths of Error (Jacobyte Books, Australia; a trilogy of three novels), We Need Madmen (SKREV Prize for Science Fiction 2004), Towards the unmaking of Heaven (Jacobyte Books, five-part SF series), the BeWrite Books titles, The End of Science Fiction, Marks, Porlock Counterpoint, The Care Vortex and Sick Ape, and his newly released historical novel, The Secret Report of Friar Otto (Boho Press). His non-fiction work, Vera and Eddy’s War is published by BeWrite Books.

Countless individual published poems by Sam Smith have been read around the world, but his sole-authored collections include: Problems and Polemics, apostrophe combe, Rooms and Dialogues (all Boho Press), Pieces (Kite Publications), John the Explorer (Gecko Press), Skin and Bones (Odyssey Poets), and To Be Like John Clare (Salzburg University Press).

He is Editor of The Journal (formerly The Journal of Contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian Poetry, Associate Editor of The River King Poetry Supplement (Illinois, USA) and publisher of the small press Original Plus.

And he’s a big name on the World Wide Web … which takes some doing when you’re called Smith!

But even this impressive pedigree doesn’t mean Sam can scorn the day job quite yet, even at the age of sixty.

He said: “If you can put someone off writing, then you’ve done everyone a favour, but those of us who were born to write will not be discouraged by any of the many obstacles in our paths and we’ll do everything necessary to be able to keep body and soul together and let us carry on with the main job.

“It’s not always easy. Some of the jobs I’ve had to hold down have been exhausting, mentally and physically. But I’ve always managed to get over that. When I get down to my real work, I’ve just cleared my mind and got on with it.

“The main thing is creating and getting your written work out there where it can be read and where it will survive long after you’ve collected your last pay packet.”

And the creative juices were flowing even when Sam was tinkling along in a milk float or handing over coins for the one-armed bandits in an amusement arcade. Those he met in his work-a-day jobs inspired characters, scenes played out before his eyes formed the basis of story lines in his novels, real life prompted feelings and ideas for his poetry. “My life experience pervades each piece of work,” he said.

Even in flights of fancy like his The End of Science Fiction, set during the last week of mankind’s existence, his plots utterly suspend disbelief and his characters are so real and down-to-earth, they might just have called by to borrow a cup of sugar.

Asked about where else he mined ideas, he said from his home in Devon, England: “Anywhere, anytime. I got the idea for ‘Pieces’ whilst climbing Cader Idris. ‘Sick Ape’ came out of reading Russell Hoban's ‘Turtle Diaries’. ‘To Be Like John Clare’ and ‘Problems & Polemics’ grew out of my work as a psychiatric nurse.

“‘Sister Blister’ also came from there, but also from my fascination with the life of John Clare; along with the idea that I like of two sets of people working against one another without knowledge of one another – as in ‘Porlock Counterpoint’, which grew out of my work with self-harmers. ‘Care Vortex’ is a fictional documentary of my time working with children in so-called care.”

Sam’s books don’t conveniently fit any publisher’s neat genre pigeonholes, one reason he believes why he was left hanging wallpaper when more commercially minded authors were slapping down the deposit on their first yacht.

He said: “I don't like being slotted into a genre. For instance ‘The End of Science Fiction’ is a whodunit set at the end of the world. At least I thought it was. One reader said that it was more a philosophical treatise. Try to label that!

“The problem with not wanting to be contained by any one genre is that publishers don't know how to market the books. So much easier for them if it fits a category defined by retailers. I’m probably shooting myself in the foot insofar as the more unimaginative publishers are concerned, but I must say that I do like a story to build itself, to be true to itself; and I am loathe to betray it by making it fit a genre. A book written with genre in mind too often reads as if false.

“The business is tremendously sensitive to market forces and money is spent where it’s most likely to earn a financial return. As a small press publisher myself, I am keenly aware how effective/ineffective any attempts at promotion can be. Without a huge budget, and depending on the author’s own promotion of their work (which is still probably more effective than any small press or e-publisher can do), sales are only ever going to be, at best, in the hundreds. To get beyond the thousands requires advertising budgets beyond the funds of most ebook and small press publishers.

“So you either tailor your work to suit the major publishers’ marketing people and make a mint, or you are true to your own work and content yourself with a much smaller return … even if it means you must subsidise your writing with full time jobs.

“What drives me to break new ground with my books is the realisation that the marketing boys are always a step behind. Market research tells them what the public have been reading, not what they will be reading. So they look for another Harry Potter, not for the truly original that the public don't know they want until they see it. 'Twas ever thus.”

As huge manufacturers start to see the potential in ebooks and invest millions in the development and serious launch of dedicated one-function reading devices, Sam sees a new frontier opening up to him and other authors reluctant to squeeze themselves into moulds for the convenience and profit of industry giants.He said: “Ebook publishing, because of its low production outlay, allows publishers to take chances on those books that don't fit any category. It's the reading public who have to catch up with epublishing. And they will, but it is slow. Amazon is really helpful here in that people are getting used to ordering books online and are starting to browse online publishers and to order POD books. That will help acclimatise them.

“Ebooks, though, are waiting still on the technological breakthrough that will make access to them universal and affordable and the reading of them convenient and comfortable. This year, there seems to have been great headway made in this direction by one leading Japanese company … but we still need to see the price come down before the revolution will really be underway.

“Although they keep a pretty low profile on the possible shape of things to come, the big, mainstream traditional publishing houses obviously take ebook potential seriously. All publishing contracts now contain a clause claiming electronic rights.

“Another benefit of ebooks to the author and the reader is that, because of electronic storage and POD technology, print runs are shorter. Also no book need ever go out of print again. Already I've bought books which were out of print until adapted to POD.

“The best aspect of current movement and changes in the publishing industry, counting in all the online and small press publishers, is its diversity; and, especially with regard online publishers, the sense of an international community, all concerned with promoting what they believe is the best of their literature.

“Also, I’d like to see a more critical attitude to web publishing. Some writers seem to want to belong more to a club of writers-who've-been-rejected-and-so-let's-publish-and-praise-each-other's-work rather than seriously attempt to improve the quality of their writing.

“I think new, easier and cheaper means of broadcasting literature will have an impact; but the commonality of culture requires a mass media, of which bestsellers are a part. So there will continue to be the big players with their big budgets promoting what they hope will be bestsellers (and there is a point where a bestseller becomes a bestseller because it is a bestseller). There are no statistics yet that I have seen that regularly tell us what is this week's bestselling ebook.”

But whatever direction the industry moves in, Sam will be there. Even though currently busy with a move from Devon to pastures new in Cumberland, he has several works in progress.

He said: “I do at least four longhand rewrites of an original handwritten draft before ever I approach a keyboard, so I don’t actually even have to be plugged in to be hard at work. There’ll be something new ready for submission just as soon as I get my feet under a new garret table up north.”

And has Sam got a new day job lined up yet?

“I’m open to offers,” he said. “If needs be, there’s little I wouldn’t do from nine-to-five to be left free to carry on with my real work.”

Interview by Alexander James

Interview first appeared in Twisted Tongue Magazine

Read an excerpt from The End of Science Fiction

Click here for Sam Smith's biography

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