We kick off The Book Diner Interviews of 2017 by talking to Rebecca Ann Smith whose fascinating novel, Baby X, was published last year to great reviews. She hilariously likens it here to Gone Girl, but with more breastfeeding! I got to know Becky (as I call her) as we are both part of the Beach Hut Writers group based in Brighton.  This broad collective of writers from all genres and at various points in their career has given me the great pleasure of meeting lots of fabulous fellow scribes and I really think you’ll really enjoy getting to know Becky and her amazing mind here.


Welcome to the Book Diner! Can we take your order – coffee, tea or soda? Eggs sunny side up or over easy? Home fries, French toast or biscuit?


Thanks very much! I’ll have scrambled eggs please, and an enormous cup of milky coffee. [A girl after my own heart – I’ve never met a latte I didn’t like!]


Can you tell us about your latest project?


My first novel, Baby X, is a psychological thriller about motherhood, technology and medical ethics. The book was published in June last year by the small press, Mother’s Milk Books.

Here’s the blurb:

Alex Mansfield, the doctor leading a groundbreaking project to grow a human foetus in an artificial uterus, has gone on the run and taken the newborn baby with her. While the child’s parents wait anxiously for news, and the world’s media clamour for answers, Alex’s colleagues are shocked by her actions. Has Alex stolen the baby, or is there another motive behind her disappearance?

Baby X weaves science and medical ethics into an intimate thriller; asking questions without offering easy answers. [It sounds great to me!]


What inspired you to write it? Where do you generally draw your ideas from?


I found the experience of becoming a mother both fascinating and disorientating. When my eldest child was about a year old, I wrote a weird little science fiction story about a doctor caring for a foetus in an artificial uterus. The experience of writing it was so intense it kept me awake at night, so I decided to work it up into a longer story.


Perhaps a different kind of writer would have put their experiences into a very different sort of novel. A poetic, literary novel, charting the moment-to-moment emotional journey of those first few days. But I’m not that sort of writer. If I was going to write a book about becoming a mother, it would have to be the sort of book I like reading: a psychological thriller with a twisty-turny plot, danger and adventure, and maybe even some unexplained, magical realist elements thrown in for good measure. It would have to be thrilling, scary and suspenseful, like Gone Girl, or The Girl on the Train, but, you know – with more breastfeeding. [Ha, ha, ha – that should have been the blurb!]


Can you talk to us about one or two of the characters from your latest work? How do your characters emerge?


There are two main characters in Baby X – the doctor, Alex, and Karen, the baby’s mother. The voice of spiky, clever Alex was easy for me to find, but Karen’s character took me a lot longer.


What kind of writing process do you have? Are you very disciplined in terms of having a set work routine and doing a lot of planning, or are you more of a pantster? (You fly by the seat of them – Zinkologism.)


My writing schedule changes as my family changes and grows. When my kids were babies, I used to carry a notebook with me and scribble any moment I found myself free – I’d go out for a walk and sit down on a bench to write when they fell asleep in the pram.

Nowadays, the juggling act involves a ‘proper job’, work to promote Baby X, and a lot of family responsibilities on top. So at the moment, I’m getting up very early in the morning to work on another novel.

My process has also changed over the years. Early drafts of this book were allowed to evolve as I followed my imagination wherever it took me. I became more of a plotter as I reworked the material.


Do you write longhand or on a computer or both? Do you believe that writing method makes a difference to style?


I used to write longhand, but now I mainly work directly onto the computer. I sometimes take a notebook away from my desk if I need a change or I’m particularly stuck.

I’m not sure how that influences my style – good question though, I’ll think about it.


How do you approach research?


I did a lot of research for this book. I read books on genetics and the bioethics of the trade in human gametes (that’s eggs and sperm).  I also read about psychology, mainly attachment theory. I read a lot online about fertility medicine – both about the causes of infertility and the therapies and techniques which are currently available.


I went down a lot of internet rabbit holes following things that interested me – for example, there’s a strand in Baby X about media intrusion and I read a lot about the Leveson Inquiry as I was researching this.

I’m quite fortunate in that I’ve had quite a lot of experience reading and parsing academic and scientific papers, so I wasn’t intimidated by the science.

I already knew quite a bit about trimesters, crying babies, mastitis, nappy changing …


How do you deal with autobiographical elements in your work? Do you worry about offending people or baring your soul too much?


Before Baby X was published I worried a lot about what I might be giving away about myself. Which is ridiculous really, because the content isn’t directly autobiographical at all.

I also worried a LOT about who the book might offend, how it might be taken out of context, what people might think of me for writing it … Actually, the response I’ve had has been fantastic, with most readers very positive about the story, the characters and how I’ve handled the more controversial themes.

With hindsight, I can see that my anxieties about being misconstrued pushed me to work hard on honing the material and ensuring that all the science was rock-solid.

If anything, the book I’m writing now is even more controversial! So I’m sure I’ll have my late night wobbles about this one too.


What’s your editing process?


I tend to splurge out a first draft of whatever I’m interested in, without worrying too much about where it’s all going. Which means that my editing process involves a lot of reworking and rewriting, hacking into the first draft in order to find the story.

I’m much more rigorous about structure at this stage and use a spreadsheet to map everything out. I’m also becoming much more exacting about analysing individual scenes to make sure they drive the story forward, keep up suspense and have clear turning points.

Reading aloud for a final polish has been helpful too – it’s time consuming, but it helps me to have confidence in what I’ve written.


Name one book you wish you had written and explain why it’s fabulous.

 Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favourite books. My ambition for Baby X was to combine serious ideas about technology, society and feminism with a good story full of suspense and tension, the way Atwood did in that book – although I know I’ve got a long way to go before I can claim to write as well as her.


What advice would you offer to writers just starting out?


It’s worth sticking at it. And if you can get someone who knows what they’re talking about to give you advice – whether it’s on your work itself, or on your career – it’s worth putting your ego to one side and listening to what they have to say.

I suppose it’s about having the right mix of self-belief and humility – the self-belief to keep going if you don’t immediately get what you want and the humility to take genuinely helpful criticism on the chin and learn from it.


It’s about having the right mix of self-belief and humility – the self-belief to keep going if you don’t immediately get what you want and the humility to take genuinely helpful criticism on the chin and learn from it.


What would you say are the toughest things and the best things about being a writer?


All the self-doubt is tough. And a string of rejections can be hellish. Connecting with readers has been an amazing experience and definitely makes all the hard work worth it.

The best thing about writing is the work though, isn’t it? Those quiet moments of complete absorption in a story, when it feels like it’s unfolding in front of your eyes …


The best thing about writing is the work though, isn’t it? Those quiet moments of complete absorption in a story, when it feels like it’s unfolding in front of your eyes …


 How do you deal with the Inner Critic who likes to tell us our work is worthless?


I used to think this would get easier, and in some ways it does, but my unhelpful inner critic still raises its ugly head now and again. I don’t think there’s a lot of point in trying to reason with it. I try to ignore it and keep working. If that doesn’t do the trick, I get out and get some exercise.


What are your feelings about the growth in self-publishing? Would you advise emerging writers to self-publish or pursue a traditional book deal?


It can take a very long time to get a traditional book deal. Although each draft of Baby X took me about 6 months to write, I spent years trying to find a traditional publisher because that was the goal I’d set myself. I’d probably have given up sooner, but I kept get encouraging comments from agents – for example, saying they’d like to see the book again and advising me to rework it. Which I did, several times over, before I finally found my publisher, Mother’s Milk Books, an independent small press.

Of course, making submissions to agents and publishers takes time because there’s lots of waiting for people to get back to you and there were times when I stopped working on Baby X altogether to focus on other projects. Overall, I think about nine years elapsed between having the original idea and publication. [I started Welcome to Sharonville in 2002 and it was published in 2014, so mine is a similar experience.]

Having said that, the process has resulted in a much leaner story and I’ve learned a hell of a lot along the way. I enjoyed being edited and the support with cover design and marketing has been invaluable. Having a traditional contract also meant I didn’t have to shell out for editing, design or print and I even got a (small) advance. Although, of course, my share of the profits is limited to my royalties.

I can see now that my first version of Baby X wasn’t ready for publication and I’m proud of what I’ve managed to achieve through all the rewriting, even though it was a hard slog at the time.

I’m not ruling out the possibility of self-publishing other books in the future. I’ll see what happens.


If you could choose to have a different creative gift, what would it be?


Both my kids are fantastic dancers and I really envy them that! [Cute!]


What plans have you got for future projects and events?


The novel I’m working on now also centres on a big ‘concept’, this time for a YA audience (although I’m hoping adults will read it too).

It’s the story of Anna, a normal fifteen-year-old girl obsessed with friends, clothes and boys, who lives in a world where there are three genders: male, female and a ‘third sex’ of second-class citizens, which she and her friends call the ‘herms’.

When Anna gets involved with one of the herms, it challenges everything she and her community believe about themselves, about sex, gender and normality and it leads to a violent and disturbing conclusion.

The book also grapples with contemporary issues including pornography, body image, the sexualisation of young girls and the role of social media in young people’s lives. [This sounds amazing!]


Where can people find out more about you and your work?


I’ve got a website and blog at www.rebeccaannsmith.co.uk and you can find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/rebeccaannsmithauthor/.

I’m also on Twitter where I use the handle @beckysmithhurst.

I’m always up for chatting with other writers on Twitter – it’s one of my favourite procrastination techniques.


Do you have any questions for The Book Diner?


I’m looking forward to hearing more about Sharon’s coaching and mentoring work. [Have a look here!]


Thanks so much for joining us – please call again!


Thank you for having me. The scrambled eggs were delicious!


You’re welcome! Check out another Book Diner Interview next Thursday!