Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Alisa Smith on being inspired by strong female protagonists

The author of Speakeasy answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Alisa Smith is the author of Speakeasy. (Douglas & McIntyre)

Alisa Smith's breakout book, The 100-Mile Diet, explored what it takes to eat locally. Now Alisa has turned her pen to fiction. Her debut novel, Speakeasy, tells the story of Lena Stillman, an elite codebreaker who is successful in hiding her outlaw past until her notorious gang leader is sentenced to hang for his crimes.

Below, Alisa Smith answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Sharon Butala asks, "Someone once said to me, 'It's a sin not to write,' meaning that if you have the gift you do not have the right not to use it. Is writing something given to you by the gods and thus it is your duty to pursue and develop it?"

I've seen that the most seemingly gifted writers may not have what it takes to succeed in the end. Discipline, the capacity to learn and change — in the long run these qualities are most important. I once took a fiction workshop with Guy Vanderhaeghe and he said when he started writing he had a friend he thought the better writer. But that friend quit. I admire Vanderhaeghe's writing immensely and he is one of Canada's most acclaimed fiction writers. So the only sin is to feel compelled to the depths of your soul to write, and not do it.

2. Susan Juby asks, "What has been the most pleasurable or exciting moment in your writing life thus far?"

The day I discovered my great aunt had been a codebreaker in World War II, Speakeasy suddenly arrived in my mind. This was the female protagonist I'd been waiting for. There was a gang of bank robbers I'd discovered when reading old headlines in the Vancouver Province for another project and they had stuck with me. "Follow the woman" the headlines shouted when the cops were hunting the notorious Bill Bagley. This was the woman I needed: a woman who loved secrets, drawn to adventure and risk. Someone who always wanted to play the game big. Lena Stillman otherwise has nothing in common with my great aunt, but I'm grateful for the inspiration.

3. Jane Urquhart asks, "Should more dogs be the protagonist in serious contemporary novels?"

The Call of the Wild had a big impact on me as a child. Enduring suffering, learning to be free and independent — the right dog can have a lot to teach us.

4. Karen Solie asks, "Has a mentor or teacher profoundly influenced your writing or decision to become a writer? Who is this person and what have they taught you?"

Female characters who appeared to write their own stories influenced me most when I was a girl reading these novels. Anne of Green Gables, Little Women — they had something to say for themselves, and it made me want to find my own voice.

5. Vivek Shraya asks, "What is your favourite writing snack?"

Dark chocolate. Of course, that's my favourite snack whether or not I'm writing.

6. Matti Friedman asks, "In what way are your parents present in your writing?"

They shaped my worldview and made me who I am, which imbues every corner of my writing. Also, my father was very sick from when I was little and died when I was 12 years old. I think the absence of a parent made me feel more lonely, more like I had to depend on my own resources. These are useful foundations for a writer. I never had to paste labels on bottles like Dickens did, but by modern standards I was a child poverty statistic. Without my mother's strength and loving support, I would never have had the nerve to dream of writing.

7. Cea Sunrise Person asks, "If you had to choose, would you rather be poor and write masterpieces or be rich and write junk?"

Poor and write masterpieces. Basically, every writer I know has taken a vow of poverty to do what they love.

8. CC Humphreys asks, "If you were to get a tattoo that symbolized your writing, what would it be?"

A bicycle chain around my arm. I've done some long bike trips, but the symbol would apply equally well to writing a novel. The training period is long and intense, and then I wasn't sure I could make the distance, make the pedals turn one more time as I approached another summit. But I kept going. That's the only way to make it to the finish line. The end. And then you can have a beer.


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