Believe it or not, some of us writers aren’t entirely all about our own writing. People like Mary Smith, with hearts of gold, use their skills to help others see the greater good. Smith, having worked for an international health organization and having collaborating on personal stories with other artists and communities, is a postcard for giving through your craft.
We were honored to sit down with her and hear what she had to say! Check out the interview:
You’ve lead a rather unique life. You’re from Scotland, but you lived and worked for a health organization in Pakistan and Afghanistan for 10 years. That’s about as different as you can get in terms of culture and climate. What inspired you to make this journey?
Believe it or not, it kind of all happened by accident! I was given the opportunity to go to Pakistan with a couple of Pakistani women who were going to see their family. While there, I visited the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre in Karachi which was part-funded by Oxfam in the UK and I’d been given an introduction to Dr. Pfau who was the main organiser. I spent three days seeing many aspects of the work, meeting patients and staff and was bowled over by everything I saw. I said I’d love to be able to do something to help and Dr. Pfau suggested I stay and set up a health education department. I pointed out I had no medical background but she dismissed this by saying they would teach me everything I needed to know about leprosy. When I returned home from my holiday I couldn’t settle, even though I loved my job with Oxfam, and eventually one night when I couldn’t sleep I typed out an application letter. I fully expected to be told they had filled the vacancy but, instead I received a letter asking me to come as soon as possible. I did—signing a three-year contract.
I loved Karachi even though it was huge (its population then was more than double the population of Scotland!), noisy, dirty and hot. I established the health education department, appointed a local counterpart to replace me and also set up a local fundraising department. It was not always easy, especially in the beginning, but I never regretted my decision to take the job. During the three years I was there I met a number of young Afghans who were training as paramedics and leprosy technicians before returning to Afghanistan to open clinics. I was persuaded to help with their studies and we explored Karachi together and they talked about their homeland with such love and longing I knew I had to see it, too. When my contract ended, I signed up again but, this time, to work in Afghanistan, where I focussed on mother and child care projects.
There is something about Afghanistan and its people that gets under the skin and never leaves you. And although on the surface it would seem to be culturally very different from Scotland, the more time I spent there, the more the differences disappeared. We are people – we all laugh when amused, cry when hurting or experiencing loss, want our kids to be happy, fall in love— and out of love—and live life as best we can.
Along the way, I met and married, Jon and our son was born in Pakistan before we all moved to Afghanistan.
How has your time spent between two cultures influenced your writing? Do you find that it’s changed how you approach your subjects or choose your projects?
My experiences living in Pakistan and Afghanistan have hugely influenced my writing. I was so excited by all I was doing and seeing and learning I wanted to let people back at home, who were not going to see for themselves, experience what life was really like in those countries. Writing seemed to be the way to do it. I particularly wanted to let people see that life for the majority of people in these countries is not the way our western media portrays it. I write a nonfiction account—Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni—then, as not everyone reads nonfiction, I decided to write a novel with a British protagonist married to an Afghan doctor.
You’ve worked on several collaborative projects with communities and artists, many of them focus on collecting personal histories, as well as a memoir, Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni, which tells personal stories from Afghan women. Why do you feel it’s important to preserve these voices and tell these stories?
When I wrote Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni I felt it was vital that readers had the opportunity to ‘meet’ some of the women with whom I’d lived and worked and hear their stories. Most of the books I read about Afghanistan hardly mentioned the women, who tended to be depicted as shadowy creatures with no voice. It was some of the women who encouraged me to write about them, to give a bigger, more honest picture of them
I’ve loved working in collaboration with artists and believe it is important to preserve the personal histories of people living and working in various communities. On one project, looking at forestry, I interviewed people in a village which had been specifically built to house forestry workers in the 1950s—only two people living there still worked in forestry. One had planted the first trees, then harvested them 40 years later using a two-man band saw then a chain saw, which he thought was the last word in technology. His son-in-law told me there was no point in interviewing him as he sits in a cab and presses buttons on a computer to fell trees. He only touches a tree if there’s a problem. If these stories are not preserved now they will be forgotten and a part of our history be lost.
Putting Women in the Picture was a project which involved collecting stories from women in a rural part of Scotland. They always started the interview by saying I should talk to their husbands as they had lots of stories. I did get the women’s stories and when they saw the exhibition they were amazed to find their stories were meaningful and important to the many people who came to see it – they walked out six inches taller than when they came in!
You’ve also written a poetry collection called, Thousands Pass Here Every Day. Can you tell us a little bit about your poetry and what inspired you to write this collection?
I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry but came late in life to writing it (apart from the dreadful angst-ridden stuff many teenagers write). I took a creative writing module and was very reluctant to try my hand at poetry but it was a course requirement so… A few weeks in, I read my homework and realised I had written a real poem! After that, I kept on writing. The collection has some poems about Afghanistan but also poems about the landscape of South West Scotland and about childhood and family. I still write but don’t yet have enough for another collection.
What authors have inspired you or your work?
Oh, goodness, this is one of these questions I find impossible to answer. Poetry: Seamus Heaney, Norman McCaig, Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead and Jane Kenyon for starters.
Novelists: Nadeem Aslam—I loved his Maps for Lost Lovers, which is beautifully written—Kamila Shamsie. Closer to home: Kate Atkinson and Margaret Elphinstone who writes historical novels.
What do you think is the most important part of a story?
For me, it is the characters. I don’t need dramatic plots if the characters are ‘real’ and I’m living their lives alongside them for a while.
What lessons have you learned the hard way?
The next book will not be any easier to write than the last one!
How was the publishing experience for you? Did you go it alone or did you get help?
I’m a hybrid—some of my books are traditionally published, some indie. When I started out indie publishing was looked down on as being for people who couldn’t find a publisher. I kept sending out those first three chapters and synopsis (all done by post, not email) and they kept coming back like they were on a bit of elastic. I received lots of ‘rave rejections’ full of praise but… I was also told my book was too quiet and needed to show more violence against women, which publishers and agents seemed to think was rife in Afghanistan.
Now, I’ll stick with the trad route for poetry and for local history books but I will publish anything else independently.
What have you found to be the best way to market your books?
Local publicity and word of mouth are great and I make good use of local newspapers and radio. Promotion sites are the indie author’s best friend and I use of them as much and as often as I can. Author interviews, guest posts on blogs all help. Being generous and supportive of other writers also helps. I am a member of a fantastic group of indie authors, called eNovelAuthorsatWork. It was set up by Jackie Weger with the express intent to ‘pay it forward’. We support each other by giving a shout out when anyone has a book on promotion, we exchange information on promo results, ask and answer each other’s questions on marketing, cover design, formatting—everything. The site has some really valuable information and resources accessible to everyone.
How do you find your courage? A lot of new writers are scared of putting themselves out there to be judged. So much so, that many of them never even take the first step. What advice would you give to them?
Go for it! If you want to write, then write. But don’t do it if you think it will lead to fame and fortune—do it because you have stories to tell and want to share them.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’ve been commissioned with a photographer friend to do another local history book showing places as they used to be and as they are now. It’s going to be on my home town so it should be fun. But my main project is to produce a book based on my blog about caring for my dad who had dementia. The blog is My Dad is a Goldfish; dealing with dementia.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers?
I suspect I have rambled on for far too long already. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to talk about my work.