Shelf Media hosts the annual Shelf Unbound Indie Best Book Competition for best self-published or independently published book. You can find the winner, finalists, long-listed, and more than 100 notable books from the competition in the December/January 2023 issue of Shelf Unbound.
Megan Barnes’ life is in free fall. After losing both her job as a reporter and her boyfriend in the same day, she retreats to Chicago and moves in with Helen, her over-protective mother. Before long, the two are clashing over everything from pro-choice to #MeToo, not to mention Helen’s run for U.S. Congress, which puts Megan’s career on hold until after the election. Desperate to reboot her life, Megan gets her chance when an altercation at a campus rally brings her face-to-face with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jocelyn Jones, who offers her a job on her PR team. Before long, Megan is pulled into the heady world of fame and glamour her charismatic new mentor represents. Until an anonymous tweet brings it all crashing down. To salvage Jocelyn’s reputation, Megan must locate the online troll and expose the lies. But when the trail leads to blackmail, and circles back to her own mother, Megan realizes if she pulls any harder on this thread, what should have been the scoop of her career could unravel into a tabloid nightmare.
About The Author: Maggie Smith
Maggie Smith loves a challenge. In a career that’s included work as a journalist, a psychologist, and the founder of a national art consulting company, in 2022 she added published author to her resume with the release of her debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, released by Ten16 Press. Raised in Oklahoma but a resident of Wisconsin since her mid-twenties, she relishes the supportive community of writers she discovered through the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and to give back, she hosts their weekly podcast Hear Us Roar where she interviews debut authors about their novel and their path to publication. There are now over 167 episodes available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, and I Heart Radio. Her short story, THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, appeared in the 2018 anthology False Faces and she’s a regular monthly blogger for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. She’s also on the board of the Chicago Writer’s Association, where she’s Managing Editor of their on-line literary publication The Write City Magazine. She makes her home in Milwaukee, WI with her husband Scott and her aging, but adorable Sheltie.
Interview with Maggie Smith
Tell us a little about your book.
MS: My novel can best be described as a braided tale of three generations of women: a world-famous journalist (think Diane Sawyer or Leslie Stahl) at the final stage of her career who’s in danger of losing everything because of a vicious online troll who accuses her of plagiarism; a newly minted politician in middle age running for Congress but also longing to reconnect with her estranged daughter; and the young investigative reporter, desperate to reboot her stalled career, who must choose between the two after she unearths a decades-old lie. It’s ideal women’s fiction/book club fiction in that it deals not only with relationship issues like friendship, romance, and family, but also many social issues facing women today.
While my novel explores the fractious relationship between my 25-year-old protagonist Megan and her 49-year-old mother Helen, it also examines how Megan becomes involved with an older mentor in her field (Jocelyn) who not only offers her guidance and the promise of career advancement but strokes her ego in ways her mother never has. I find it fascinating to write about how people we meet in the workplace can become so important in our lives and how the lessons learned as we pursue our careers can affect the direction our life takes.
What was your inspiration for the idea?
MS: I was at a week-long writing retreat in Door County Wisconsin and the first day we were given the prompt “I could never write a book about …” I wrote down “mothers and daughters” because I don’t have children of my own and I had a contentious relationship with my own mother who had died a few years earlier. But in playing around with the concept, I become fascinated by what would happen if a young woman just starting out, who did not want to pattern herself after her mother, encountered an older, wiser, charismatic mentor and the two of them formed a bond. The character of the mentor was inspired by Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Megan, the young investigative reporter, is loosely based on myself in my twenties and Helen, the mother, while initially based on my own mother, morphed over time into a distinctly different character, one who was much more accepting of other people’s value systems.
What was the experience of writing this book like for you?
MS: I started working on this novel before the pandemic and finished it during the lockdown. Since I had no experience writing fiction, I truly started at square one. I knew I wanted to write about three interwoven characters: a daughter, a mother, and a mentor but finding a strong enough plot to wrap around the characters was a huge challenge. At first, this was an adoption story—the mother character finds out she’s adopted and searches for her birth mother. One famous agent who read my early pages said I’d written a “secret baby story”, a popular trope in women’s fiction, and one he felt was overused. That sent me back to the drawing board to find a more complex and unique plot line. I also initially tackled three points of view – way too many for a debut author. Once I scaled it back to one, and amped up the careers for all three of my major characters, I was able to write the first draft in 3 months but it took me two years to get to that point.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing this?
MS: How hard it is to write a novel. I have read fiction all my life and never gave the authors enough credit for being able to spin a captivating story over 300+ pages. You not only have to have intriguing characters but also a fast-paced plot that will engage your reader, insightful things to say about the human condition, enough challenges and setbacks to keep the reader turning the pages, but also knowledge of scene and sentence structure, word usage, unique turns of phrase, and flashbacks. There’s dialogue that needs to sound realistic, emotional growth that needs to be shown on the page, and after all that (and numerous revisions) you’ve also have to go out and publicize your book as well. It’s the most difficult task I’ve ever done in my life and not for the faint of heart.
What is the one thing you hope readers take away reading this book?
MS: For the more substantive issues in the book, like prolife vs pro-choice, I tried to modulate the two characters on different sides (in this case Megan and her mother) so that by the end of the book, they each understand the other in a more nuanced way and hopefully, that also applies to the reader. I’m always happy when a reviewer mentions that, even when they didn’t agree with one of the characters, they were able to understand and respect their stance. As for the toxicity of the media, that’s also a fine line, because in effect what seems at first a vendetta to smear an innocent person winds up being the mechanism through which an important injustice is resolved. If there hadn’t been social media available, how much longer would it have been before that lie was discovered? I like to challenge readers to think about these and other issues, maybe even to discuss them in a book club or within their family circle.
I hope the reader finds herself thinking about how quickly we often stereotype others without truly understanding what has led to their behavior and second, how we often hide the truth to protect the people we love, only to wind up hurting them in the end. And finally, how time and age change us and shift our perspective and values.
What are you working on next?
MS: I’m 250 pages into my rough draft of a domestic suspense/women’s fiction titled Blindspot. The elevator pitch is: An ambitious district attorney hunts for the stalker threatening her and her teenage daughter, only to wind up arrested for his murder when he turns up dead. It’s got a fair number of twists and two big “did not see that coming” moments toward the end. As a plotter, I know where the story is going but will have to do several revisions to dig deeper into each character’s psyche. And like Truth and Other Lies, this one also has a strong throughline of a mother/ daughter love story
Article originally Published in the December/January 2023 Issue “2022 Indie Best Award Winners”