Although most members of our Chapter are located in the NYC area, not everyone lives here. This week’s spotlight is on Stephanie Smith, a WNBA-NYC member who lives in Florida but maintains a connection to the city where she grew up.
Stephanie Smith took her PhD from Berkeley in 1990, and is a full Professor of English at the University of Florida. Examining the intersections of science, literature, politics, race and gender, her critical essays appear in such journals as Differences, Criticism, Genders, American Literature and American Literary History. A 1998 Visiting NEH Scholar at UCLA, she is the author of Conceived By Liberty (1995) and Household Words (2006), as well as three novels, Snow-Eyes (1984), The Boy Who Was Thrown Away (1987), and Other Nature (1995). She has held fiction residencies at Dorland, Norcroft, and Hedgebrook. Currently she is at work on a book about publishing and American letters, The Muse and the Marketplace, and has just signed a three-book novel contract with Thames River Press.
Hannah and Erica: Congratulations on signing a three-book contract with Thames River Press in London! Can you tell us about the project and how you came to write about this topic?
Stephanie: Thames River Press is a relatively small, new British press, and what caught my attention was that they said they were, “dedicated to producing original works of fiction and non-fiction. Our books are masterfully crafted and expose readers to the cultures of people from all over the globe, intriguing historical events, and important issues in today’s global society. We hope that between the covers of our books are not just words on a page, but experiences that all readers will find enlightening and enjoyable” — this is from their website.
I thought my three-book project fit this description nicely. WARPAINT, BABY ROCKET, and CONTENT BURNS each feature strong female protagonists who are engaged in social and political issues, deeply tied to their historical moment and to cultural production. The first book is about three women painters who are friends and sometimes rivals at a crucial juncture as one of them is diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. This diagnosis catapults all three into trying to come to terms with their careers, their history, and their losses. BABY ROCKET is about a woman historian who discovers upon her father’s death that he wasn’t her biological father, although he had led her to believe he was. As a consequence, she starts digging into her past, as she tries to come to terms with losing the certitude of her identity, only to find shocking secrets the family has covered up for 30 years having to do with NASA, child abuse and domestic violence. CONTENT BURNS is about two women who bear the same Puritan name, Content, and how eerily their lives, separated by three centuries, nevertheless parallel one another with respect to the repetitions of American historical trauma: both women survive a terrorist act that marks them for life, and both must try to understand what it means to survive such an event. My first Content survives the 1634 burning of the Pequot village near Mystic, CT and is made a slave to a New England family; she converts to Christianity, takes the name Content and marries an Englishman. My second Content, a relative of the first, survives the 9/11 collapse of the Twin Towers by accident.
What links the three books are strong friendships among these women, and some tough shared history. I write about women, mostly, and about what I want to explore and about the forces that shape my world: racism, class conflict, global conflict. What also links them is some of my own family history. Several family members are artists, I lost an Aunt to breast cancer, and one of my ancestors (James Avery) settled in Groton, Connecticut in about 1651. The Avery family lives in and around Groton today, and have been prominent in constructing the community there for three centuries.
Hannah and Erica: What are you most looking forward to in the upcoming publishing process?
Stephanie: I am looking forward to seeing these stories find the audience I know is out there and hungry. I have given readings before from BABY ROCKET and members of the audience have always begged to know when it was coming out in print, but in the United States I have been stymied. I’ve met with agents who were indifferent or wanted me to be a different writer than I am and publishers who told me the stories were too complex for a contemporary audience. I look forward to proving them wrong.
Hannah and Erica: What is your biggest guilty pleasure book?
Stephanie: Biggest guilty pleasure? Lew Archer novels. I love hard-boiled detectives, and Archer is among the best of them–but all the women characters in these books aren’t very complex. They are dishes and dolls. So I feel guilty about liking them. When I get too irritated by the dumb broads, I switch to Sue Grafton or Sarah Paretsky.
Hannah and Erica: How do you keep your creative muse alive and well?
Stephanie: Keeping the creative muse alive and well is a matter of grit, determination and time. I first published my fiction when I was only 21 in the early 1980s, and at that time, I wrote young adult fantasy and adult SF. But in my thirties, I wanted to explore other genres and other aspects of my intelligence–and so one thing I did was take a PhD at UC Berkeley. But the desire to grow was a form of commercial suicide, it seems. Over the years I’ve taken heart from writers whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet and to know: Ursula K. LeGuin and Vonda McIntyre were early teachers. I worked with Michael Cunningham at Provincetown and I had the unbelievable good fortune to meet and get to know Toni Morrison a little when she held office hours at the University of California Berkeley while I was a graduate student. I used to go by those office hours every week for a semester because no one else came to them! All of these authors have suffered set-backs, rejections, refusals, false-steps, and all of them reiterated the same thing: a writer writes. No matter what. I’ve had the good fortune to actually be friends with Ursula; her continued faith in me has proven a balm in hard times. So, no matter what, I have kept writing. I’ve also been fortunate to have had several residencies at artists’ colonies that gave me the time and space to get deeply into a project, the most recent being at the Hedgebrook Writing Residency farm on Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle. It is a beautiful, serene, wild place just for women writers and I fleshed out the shape of CONTENT BURNS there during the summer of 2011. Applications are competitive; each writer is assigned a lovely cabin to herself (I believe there are 5 of them on the 44 acres) to work in during the day. At night, the professional staff makes a communal supper and the artists get together to talk or whatever. It isn’t for everyone but if you are committed to silence and writing, it is heaven.
Hannah and Erica: What is your favorite part about being a member of the WNBA?
Stephanie: I grew up in and around Manhattan, so, even though I’ve not lived in the city since I was a teenager, NY still feels like home. The WNBA lets me feel connected to women in my ‘home’ from a distance, and allows me to feel part of a community of like-minded, determined and talented women.