Phyllis Smallman’s first mystery, Margarita Nights, won the 2007 Crime Writers of Canada Unhanged Arthur award for best unpublished novel. Margarita Nights was also short listed by the CWC for Best First Novel of 2008. The second book in the Sherri Travis series, Sex in a Sidecar, came out in 2009. Two more books, A Brewski for the Old Man and Champagne for Buzzards, are waiting in the wings.
PDD: Tell us a little about how you started writing.
A bad case of insomnia led to my taking up writing. It was a time of big changes in my life. My kids were in university and, wide awake at three in the morning, I didn't want to think about what they were up to—ditto with the guy snoring beside me—and my own life was so boring there was nothing in it to think about, so I went back to a habit I had as a child, telling myself stories. When a friend asked what I was going to do with the rest of my life, I said, "I want to write." This was a long held dream and one I'd never spoken out loud before. My friend, bless her, thought writing was a perfectly normal thing to do. She even thought I might be capable of it.
PDD: It must be interesting to win an award before you’ve been published. You were short-listed for UK Debut Dagger in 2004 and won the Crime Writers of Canada Unhanged Arthur in 2007. How did those awards change your career?
What career? All I had was a drawer full of rejects—so many rejects I made a papier-mâché bowl out of them. Winning the Arthur Ellis award led directly to being published - as part of the Arthur Ellis award my manuscript was read by McArthur Publishing Company. It went to them in early June. In August I called to see if it had really arrived. “Oh, yes,” they assured me, “It’s in a box here somewhere. We’ll read it by September and get back to you.” In November I called again. “Oh, we’re going to publish it,” I was told. “It will be out in
the spring.” Welcome to the wonderful world of publishing. But I'm truly grateful to be published and grateful to the CWC for that award.
PDD: Publishing and marketing are changing so fast. What advice would you give a new author who is just starting out?
First let me say that I’m the wrong person to ask this question because my only view of publishing came from the movies and newspapers. I really knew nothing about the real publishing business and still don’t. For instance, I had no idea I would have to write my own blurbs for the books. I suppose I thought there was an editor somewhere responsible for bios and blurbs. I had about 24 hours to turn in my
first one and went totally blank so I called my friend who was my writing partner for Margarita Nights. In the middle of cooking his dinner he came up with most of that first blurb.
I think if new writers knew what awaits them many would drop out of the process. Only the truly perverse and committed would continue. Perhaps that’s true of all of the arts. I think of teenagers with garage bands. What are the chances of them making a decent living playing music? Or think of a teenage girl who wants to become an actress...too scary. Do it because you must, not because you want to have a career or make a living.
It's a huge ocean we are swimming in and right now I feel a little overwhelmed by it all so this is what I've decided works for me. I write for myself...well, and maybe the Vicar and the Duchess, two very odd friends, but mainly I write books that I would like to read. Marketing and publishing are outside my ability to control and it only gives me the heebie-jeebies when I try. Looking at sales numbers, praying for reviews and worrying about what others are doing adds nothing to the story between the covers.
I feel each new book is better than the last and that's where I want to spend my energy. I'm writing book number 6 now and have number 7 outlined. Will I see them published? I don't know. In that way I'm no different from any unpublished author. Should I stop writing because they might not be published? Not likely!
Today none of us know if our next book will make it into print. Best to just keep on writing, let the publishers do their jobs, the reviewers do their jobs and we’ll do ours. The rest is out of our control.
PDD: Tell us about your Sherri Travis series.
Sherri Travis is a bartender in an upscale beach bar in Jacaranda, Florida. Secrets have a way of unraveling over drinks and letting the truth seep out. Sherri pours the drinks and listens to the stories, trying to make sense of it all...an ordinary person coping with what life sends through laughter and tears. A bar, a beach and murder, does life get any better?
For more about Phyllis and her books, visit her website.