The second in my series of interviews with other middle-grade authors is Steven K. Smith, creator of the Virginia Mysteries Series, Brother Wars, and other books.
Steve first came to my attention when I looked up my own books on Amazon and kept seeing his smiling face under the header, "People who bought this book also bought . . ." Then I got to meet him and several other authors virtually when Steven started a "middle-grade mastermind" group that he invited me to attend. After hearing about his experiences as an independent author, I thought he would be a great person to feature here.
Who were some of your early inspirations as an author?
The biggest inspirations for me were books that I read when I was younger, things like the Chronicles of Narnia, Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, and those kinds of books. There’s something about books that you read when you’re in those years from 8-12. You’re filled with wonder and starting to explore and figure things out about the world and yourself. It’s a magical time, and books can play such a part in that. Even now as a grown-up, those are some of the books that were most impactful in my life.
How did you get started as an author? Did you start by writing books or something else?
My wife and I have three boys, and when my youngest was born about twelve years ago, I started a blog called MyBoys3 about being a dad to three little boys who were all five or under. I wrote a couple times a week about all our crazy adventures, changing diapers, pretending the UPS truck was chasing us, going camping, playing sports, and all kind of things. I always enjoyed writing in school, and my first job out of college was as a correspondence writer for the Pennsylvania State Legislature (extremely boring!). So, blogging got my creative juices flowing again after a long break, and perhaps most importantly, it also got me used to other people reading my words from the heart, which proved crucial when I started publishing books.
What was your inspiration for the Virginia Mysteries Series?
About midway through my blogging efforts, we moved from New Jersey to just outside Richmond, Virginia. I started making up a bedtime story for my two older boys about a couple of brothers who moved from up north to Virginia and started having adventures in the woods behind their house and looking for a treasure of valuable coins. It happened to be a lot like our house and woods, and the brothers started out a lot like my older two sons. I love history, and everywhere I went around Richmond seemed to be dripping with history. Sometimes it’s helpful to start writing about things you know and then see where things go from there.
How about Brother Wars?
Is this series at all autobiographical? Brother Wars started off as a short story called “Pitch Black Dark” about two brothers who lock each other in their dark basement. I got the idea when one of my son’s friends said he didn’t want to play in our basement when the lights were turned off because it was, in his words, “pitch black dark down there.” Which gave me an idea! I didn’t have brothers growing up, just a little sister who I thought was super annoying. But I certainly steal ideas and dialogue from things my kids say and do. I get a lot of positive feedback about the characters’ interactions feeling authentic, and I think that mostly comes from breathing it in at home all the time.
What draws you to write for middle-grade readers? Do you plan to write for other audiences too?
Like I said, middle grade books have always been special to me, but the fact that I have kids definitely influenced what I started writing. The fact that other readers have responded well to my stories took me down a path that I never expected. I also really love getting to meet and talk with young readers at schools and other events. Seeing the inspiration and excitement in their eyes and hearing teachers and parents talk about how a former reluctant reader is now devouring my books and excelling in school is a reward I’d never considered. I also have two books for adults: a parenting memoir (Splashing in the Deep End) that is an edited compilation of all my blog posts and a coming-of-age/contemporary romance called Harborwood that I published under the name Steven Sawyer. I haven’t had the time to focus on that aspect, but maybe I’ll add to it more down the line.
What motivated you to publish independently rather than going the traditional route?
I never really intended to make this a career, and when I started looking into publishing options, the traditional route seemed like it took way too long for my patience level. I enjoy the small business aspect of my work as much as the writing part. It’s a lot of fun to be fully at the wheel of my career, be able to track my progress, and not have to ask for anyone’s permission. I worked for twenty years at an Internet startup in Manhattan, so the entrepreneurial side of things was very interesting to me.
At what point did you realize you could do this full time? What was the tipping point?
Even after I started publishing, I thought success could look like letting me retire a year or two earlier on the back end someday. But surprisingly, people were buying and enjoying my books, and I got a bit hooked on writing them. Within a few years, it felt like I had two full-time jobs and wasn’t spending the time with my family that I needed and wanted to. So, three years ago, I made the leap and quit the day job. The first year was touch and go, and I was starting to think I might need to look for something else. Thankfully, the past two years have seen significant growth, so for the time being, I’m good! I tell students that I get to make up stories and talk about them, which is a lot better than a real job! I feel extremely blessed that things have worked out this way and hope that it can be an example to my kids and others that sometimes you have to take a chance and try something. I didn’t want to look back and wonder what might have happened if I’d given it a go.
What are some of the biggest benefits of being an independent author?
Being in charge, charting your own course, a greater financial upside, much faster timeline. I’d never had my own business before, and it’s a fun kind of challenge to know that things rest on me to get it done. The best approach is to try to make my books look, feel, and read as good as any traditionally published book. Readers don’t care who the publisher is; they just want a great book.
What are some of the biggest challenges?
It’s on me to get things done, which means if I don’t get it done . . . it’s on me! Especially when I started out, there was a ton of negative stigma about self-publishing. Much has changed over the past eight years as more and more people are going the indie route. I like to tell the story that early on, when I had only two books (and covers that I’d entirely or partially made myself), I approached the owners of a great local independent children’s bookstore in town and asked if they’d carry my books. They smiled and basically said, “Thanks, but don’t hold your breath.” I kept learning, writing more books, getting better covers, better editing, and spreading the word locally at schools and festivals. A little over a year later, the bookstore reached out to me and said that schools were asking about my books and wondered if I would be open to the shop carrying them and maybe doing a signing. That was a good day.
What are you working on right now?
I’m a few chapters in on my tenth book in the Virginia Mysteries Series. Despite many attempts to change, I tend to write in batches throughout the year, which means it always takes me a little while to get moving again and regain my drafting flow, but it’s starting to come around. This book will be tied into history around Virginia Beach and notorious pirates like Blackbeard who once sailed those waters. My last book was about civil rights history, so I wanted to do something on a little lighter topic this time. I try to remind myself that writing a book is a bit like fitting together a puzzle. You have to keep working on it a little each day, and gradually the picture comes into focus.
To learn more about Steven, visit his website or visit his author page on Amazon.
Brief thoughts and updates on writing, publishing, and life