Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre (including humour and non-fiction) author Allen Smith. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Allen. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Allen: I’m a freelance writer living in Vail, Colorado. My writing journey started more than 25 years ago when I was dug into my master’s thesis, “The Relationship Between Glycosylated Hemoglobin and Plasma Lactate Accumulation in the Type II Diabetic During Sub-maximal Exercise.” Whew… After writing about blood for a year and a half, the playful side of my writing reared its ugly head. I made up a series fictional masters thesis, “authorized” by the head of the department, printed them on his letterhead and posted it for all the graduate students to see. Sample thesis topics included, “The Effect of Underarm Hair in Bulemic, pre-menstrual Female Gymnasts Competing on the Balance Beam,” “Pole Vaulting – A Brief History of the Sport During the Wartime Falkland Islands” and “Blood Doping During Transcendental Meditation – Does it Help?” You get the idea…
Morgen: My goodness. What a wonderful brain you must have. 🙂 You write non-fiction, please tell us more about that.
Allen: My writing pokes fun at virtually every aspect of life, but particularly things we can’t do anything about but think we can. I’ve struggled with learning how to speak a foreign language, getting tossed off an online dating website and even imagined what it would be like if I gave up completely on dating and married myself. All of the sad results have been published in my most recent book, “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain” (Authorhouse, 2011). While I try not to hit below the belt or attack anyone while they’re down, there isn’t much else that’s off limits.
Morgen: The joy of self-publishing. (I’m self-married too :)). What have you had published to-date?
Allen: I’ve been writing seriously for the past 8 years. Part of that time I was a busy commercial writer, with thousands of articles published in print and on the web. The rest of the time I’ve written comedy and satire. I published my first book, “Ski Instructors Confidential – The Stories Ski Instructors Swap Back at the Lodge” in 2004 and have sold it all over the world. My second book, “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain” was published in 2011 and continues to be a popular read. I’m also a bi-weekly columnist for The Vail Daily in Vail, Colorado.
Morgen: Regarding your self-publishing, what lead to you going your own way?
Allen: Writing and publishing has changed dramatically over the past 5 to 10 years. When I started working on my first book, I didn’t think it had the market to be picked up by a traditional publisher, and quite frankly, didn’t want to go through the effort of finding one. I self-published my second book in 2011 when things were infinitely easier. The entire book was edited, assembled (including cover design) within 6 to 8 weeks. But, that was because I was unbelievably organized. The publisher also pointed me in the right direction when I began marketing it.
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Allen: Both of my books are available in both print and ebook formats. Despite some people’s opinions, I think ebooks are here to stay and will revolutionize the way people read and learn. I live in a very remote section of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and am a voracious reader. My Kindle is a lifesaver because it takes too long to order books. The only regular books I buy are the ones that aren’t available electronically. But, I love both.
Morgen: I think they’re revolutionising already (I love ‘real books’ and the Kindle app on my iPad). Did you have choose the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Allen: One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you DO have complete control over the titles and covers of your books. For the first book, I depended heavily on the input of my editor and publisher for the title, cover design and format. I took much more control over the process for my second book. I was lucky. I knew from the beginning, exactly what I wanted the title to be and the cover to look like. I was looking for a combination of a cover design and title that when placed on a large table in a bookstore, would leap into potential readers’ hands. I think I accomplished that. After all, when you see a book called, “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain,” you just have to pick it up, don’t you?
Morgen: I do. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Allen: I’m currently working on my third book, which will be a compilation of my Vail Daily Columns. Titled (at the moment) “Without Fingers,” continues where “Grandma” left off. It’s a collection of 60, 1000 word columns that attack just about everything from migrating hair loss to what it would be like to be sent to Purgatory. I’ve had some interest from literary agents, so I may end up going a different publishing route than before.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Allen: I try to write every day, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t get to it. I’m pulled in a number of different directions and am spending an inordinate amount of time marketing “Grandma” and my first book – always popular during ski season. But, I’m also a heavy user of social media, so at the very least, I manage to slip in a few jibes to my friends on Facebook and Twitter. It keeps my fingers and mind lubricated.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Allen: It varies by piece. Writing some essays are like pushing a boulder uphill – it takes me weeks or months to complete them. Others are dashed off in less than 30 minutes. At any rate, I let both steep over time and constantly re-visit them. Each time I do, it usually results in an improvement. The story that started “Grandma,” a true story I called “Expelled from Match.com” was in the works for almost 4 years before it was finally included in the book. And, if pieces are going into a book, I always hire an editor to look at it objectively and make suggestions. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a gentleman who’s been a professional comedy writer and written material for Jay Leno, so he’s usually got something beneficial to add.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Allen: Believe it or not, I do a tremendous amount of research for the comedy pieces I write. For instance, I had an idea for two articles about what happens when you get sent to Purgatory and later, when you’re reincarnated as another entity. I spent an entire week reading what rabbis, priests and theologians thought the two were all about. I think the validity of the material made them much funnier pieces than if I had just made it all up.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Allen: I try to write every piece as if it’s being submitted for a Pulitzer Prize. It has to be well organized, grammatically perfect and of interest to the reader. However, when I’m compiling a collection of stories for a book, some always win out over others. Some may not be suitable for print for a PG-13 audience. I NEVER throw anything away. Sometimes I’ll dissect old works to create new ones.
Morgen: My clichéd heart sinks whenever an author tells me they delete something. I’ve kept everything because you never know… and I’m older / wiser to know what’s ‘wrong’ with them. Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Allen: I’ve done both – it all depends who I’m writing for. But, I always like to have someone or something to write for. It keeps me on track and prevents procrastination. Most of the commissioned work I’ve done has been for commercial clients. The first writing job I ever took was the hardest one I’ve had. The editor gave me 400 (yes, that’s 400), 500-word technical pieces (descriptions of printed circuit boards, capacitors, pressure resistors and the like) written by engineers whose first language was not English. I had to re-write 7 of them a week, keeping the same word count, subject content, while adding powerful SEO keywords. It was the greatest experience of my writing life.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Allen: The only rejection I really count is from The New Yorker Magazine. Even though it was a great piece, I knew I didn’t stand a chance competing against Woody Allen, Jack Handey and David Sedaris. But, I’ll keep trying!
Morgen: Please do. I’m a firm believer that there’s a place for everything (as long as it’s well written of course). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Allen: Up until recently, I have not had an agent but hopefully, that may change in near future. I recently received a request from a literary agent to take a look at my new manuscript. No matter what some people say, or what you read, I believe that literary agents are essential to getting noticed in the right places. They have connections I’ll never have. After all – that’s their job. While I still think a writer can have measureable success without one, it’s pretty tough to circulate with “the players” if you’re not well represented.
Morgen: Fingers crossed for the agent. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Allen: Part of my marketing strategy for “Grandma” is to get my name and face recognized and familiar with the reading public. For instance, take Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry. Many people will buy ANYTHING that his name on it simply because it was written by Dave Barry. That’s an enviable place to be.
Morgen: What’s your favourite favourite aspect of your writing life?
Allen: After the writing experience itself, it’s fun to receive feedback from others about your work. I write a regular column in a local paper, so I’m always getting feedback (whether I want it or not) and occasionally some great ideas for future columns. In a small town, it’s kind of nice to be a minor celebrity.
Morgen: Sadly I live in a big town 😦 but I’m working on getting out there 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Allen: One of the goofiest things I’ve every heard is for writers to “find their voice.” What baloney. If there is such a thing, your voice emanates naturally after writing hundreds or thousands of articles – even emails or social media posts. I’ve discovered that I have two voices – one for serious, commercial writing and one for comedy writing. I can turn them on or off just like speaking two foreign languages. The secret is to write A LOT, get your work published somewhere and keep persevering. Your voice and writing habits will develop themselves.
Morgen: Absolutely. If you had to choose a single day from your past to re-live over and over, what day would it be and why?
Allen: That would be the day before I was born. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the last day of my life that I truly had nothing to worry about.
Morgen: That’s really sad. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like? One of my favourites comes from Woody Allen: “My only regret is that I wasn’t born someone else.”
Morgen: Woody Allen isn’t the cheeriest of people is he? I love being me. 🙂 Do you write fiction? If so, are there any differences or similarities between writing non-fiction and fiction?
Allen: Within the realm of humor, I write both fiction and non-fiction. I base both on a kernel of fact. Writing humor pieces around something that actually happened can often times be easier than writing pure fiction. But, writing fiction gives the writer license to take off and go wherever his imagination takes him. For instance, I wrote two pieces for “Grandma.” One, called “Sticky Bomb Threat Foiled” was based on fact and was about a group of middle eastern terrorists who threatened to blow up a commercial airliner with bombs made from liters of Diet Pepsi and Mentos candy mints. Another, called “For Better or for Worse” was a pseudo-newspaper piece that described a man’s frustration with the entire dating scene – so he married himself. Both stories were based entirely on what could be fact – even using real names of department heads. The results were hilarious.
Morgen: Do you have a favourite book that you’ve read?
Allen: My favourite book is David Sedaris’ bestseller, “Me Talk Pretty One Day” where he struggles with annihilating the French language in French class. Forced to jettison their native languages, the students try to describe the meaning of Easter and is the funniest thing I’ve ever read.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Allen: I get my best ideas for stories either on my morning walk or in the shower. As a result, I’m very fit and clean. All I need is a kernel of an idea that I heard on the news or something someone said. Then, I’ll try to give a document a working title – which usually changes before I’m done. At the bottom, I’ll rough out some basic ideas. When I wrote a piece concerning all of the stupid sports that have tried to be part of the Olympics, I did a lot of research and jotted down the finer points at the bottom of the page. With enough thoughts and high points, the article almost writes itself. Of course, having a fertile imagination never hurts, either.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Allen: I like to use characters out of normal life – the everyman. People sympathize with them. I often choose characters from various ethnic backgrounds, depending on the story. For instance, Jewish folks have had (and continue to have) such a struggle with life, it seems like everything they do is a big deal – perfect for comedy. That’s one reason why Woody Allen uses them so often.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Allen: I enjoy writing in both first and third person, equally. When I write in the third person, I tend to be more careful, so as not to upset anyone or any group. But, if I’m writing in the first person, I tend to write self-deprecating pieces – no holds barred. I have no one to upset except myself. That’s what made Rodney Dangerfield so successful.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Allen: I’m a voracious reader – not just humor, but all kinds of books. But, I focus a lot on the writers I respect the most and study their writing as if it were a textbook. What works, what doesn’t? I’ve learned over the years that I can read a book by someone who’s very successful and not particularly care for their work. Other, lesser known writers have me in stitches. You have to read books, websites, blogs, everything. There’s some great undiscovered talent out there.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Allen: Writing is changing rapidly. Even during the period between my first book (2005) and today. Almost anyone can get published today, somewhere. However, I still think that editors and publishing houses are looking for the next great talent. And, the writer has to have developed professionalism, dependability and flexibility to be successful. A lot of people can write, but they can’t deal with the rest. Once time I had an opportunity to do a 2-minute interview on NBC News in Denver. I got bumped THREE times, had to drive over 250 miles, round-trip and rent a hotel room at my expense. But it was worth it. The exposure and sales were tremendous. A good writer has to be talented with words and dependable.
Morgen: And determined. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Allen: Much of what I’ve written is available on my website, www.snowwriter.com. I also have three Facebook pages and am on Twitter and LinkedIn. My books are for sale at your local book retailers (have them order it if it’s not in stock), on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-million, Goodreads and all the usual places.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Allen: One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is writing is hard work. But it can also be fun and very rewarding. I recently had someone come up to me and tell me that they saw “Grandma” discussed on ABC’s The View. Wow… what a jolt to hear that your work has made it into primetime television. On the other hand, it’s solitary work, filled with rejection and usually not much money – don’t quit your day job. But the best advice I can offer has come from others: Never give up. Never, never, never, never give up.
Morgen: Absolutely. Thank you, Allen.
I then invited Allen to include an example of his writing and he said, “this is an excerpt from “Expelled from Match.com.” This is part of the ACTUAL profile I published on the popular online dating site – and the one that got me tossed off…”
Last year I enrolled at Match.com using the pen name of “MrMarvelous” just to see if there was anyone out there as desperate as I was to meet their perfect mate. After blowing off an entire day’s work perusing the women within 100 miles of my zip code, seven major metropolises and all of the neighborhoods I’ve ever lived, it became readily apparent that of the 40 million single men and women who subscribe to on-line dating services, most are looking for the same thing – and their profiles reflect it. So, to leverage myself against my male competitors and attract more than my fair share of the lovelier sex, I decided to create the following original member profile to flaunt my rapier wit. After all, isn’t that what women want: a man with a sense of humor?
I work as a telemarketer for a cemetery. Calling people at dinner time to discuss their immediate plans after death has helped me immensely with the online dating scene. After working at “Plots ‘R Us” for six months, I’ve developed a thick enough skin to allow me to work through all of the hate mail and death threats that I’ve accumulated at Match.com.
About me and what I’m looking for:
My therapist tells me that I’m a mystery wrapped in an enema. I’ve been told that I’m good looking, sexy, have great legs, am fun to be with and an exceptional wit. But that might have been just to get me to eat my peas.
I spend most of my time outdoors and love to travel. Not having a place to live will do that to you. I love exercise and enjoy a good chase from the police on a warm summer evening. My special lady has to be tall, smart, of good child-rearing stock and have wide hips as I intend to have a ten or fifteen kids once I get off of the anti-depressants.
and a synopsis…
In his latest tour de force, Watching Grandma Circle the Drain, (published by AuthorHouse), award winning author Allen Smith wrestles with the challenges everyone faces – dating, sex, enduring his first sigmoidoscopy, health & fitness, making money, advancing technology, fast food, getting old and great jobs that don’t require a college education – without pretending for a minute to have any solutions.
Watching Grandma Circle the Drain leads off with “Me No Speak Good Mexican,” and describes his struggle to learn Spanish – even after taking 4 years of it in college and wasting an entire summer in Mexico. Smith then lays into the myths behind online dating in, “Expelled from Match.com,” lamenting how he was tossed off the popular dating site – not once, but three times – as he tried to rise above the heap of 40 million other randy men and women. Some of his pieces like, “The Breast of Times,” “The Great Sperm Audition,” “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain” and “Intercourse and Horneytown” will entertain and inform the reader about the things least on their minds. Others, like “Fun with Telemarketers” and “Speed Dating Cougars and MILFS,” take aim at some of the more manageable problems of the world – the ones we wish we knew how to solve.
Allen Smith is an award-winning writer living in Vail, Colorado. He has been featured on NBC, ABC’s The View, TV8 Vail, Plum TV16, and published in The Writer Magazine, The Denver Post, The Aspen Times, LIVESTRONG.COM and is currently a columnist for The Vail Daily. Smith’s first book, “Ski Instructors Confidential-The Stories Ski Instructors Swap Back at the Lodge” (2005) is currently in its second printing and sold around the world in bookstores and on-line. His second book, “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain” was published in 2011. For more information, please visit http://www.snowwriter.com.
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