Sam Smith: Editor/Poet/Writer From The United Kingdom

Sam Smith:  Interview With An Editor/Poet/Writer From The United Kingdom

Tell us about yourself-where you are from, education or lack of, family roots, some background.

My parents met during WW2, my father at first a bomb aimer in a Lancaster and then a navigator on a destroyer in the Mermansk convoys. He was Lancastrian, my mother a village girl from Devon. After demob they began married life proper in Blackpool, where I was born in 1946. But very soon afterwards my mother yearned for Devon and we returned to her village, Stoke Gabriel, on the banks of the Dart estuary. I never really fitted in there, got moved from the village school, and then was one of the first batch of 11+ passes to get sent to a grammar school two bus journeys away. (See Hate Mail -  ) My mother ran a B&B, my father was a warehouseman/shop assistant and they couldn’t afford the school uniform. The grammar school teachers, still wearing gowns and mortar boards from their pre-war private school days, made it obvious they didn’t much approve of us poorly equipped lower class riff-raff foisted on them. Seems like I didn’t have much option but to rebel. Also seemed like those schoolteachers had a penchant for caning me. Despite holding some kind of record for school detentions and corporal punishment, I managed to come by 7 O-levels before being asked to leave. I’ve never been able to work out if I was actually expelled, but I was certainly told never to darken their marble doorstep again.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I had always enjoyed writing essays and letters, but hadn’t thought of myself as a writer until 1968. By which time I had, on leaving school, worked as a gardener, on building sites, joined the Merchant Navy at my parents’ behest (they wanted a career for me, but I met similar amounts of bullshit aboard ship that I had at school, and so, after a few adventures, was asked to leave and was shipped home), couldn’t stand village life, got in trouble with the police, moved to London, worked as a scaffolder, got laid off in the winter and the Employment Exchange, seeing my O-levels, sent me along to Imperial College, where I was taken on in their Computing Science department. The work suited – I had enjoyed maths at school, had been way ahead of my year when I left, had even been doing calculus – and at IC I rapidly rose from computer operator to Data Control manager. That promotion was in 1969. Meanwhile I had met a girl, been introduced to her family and friends, and had been living in Chelsea, where many of my new friends were artists and musicians. I had no talent for the visual arts and was no musician, but I did so enjoy their company.

While working at IC my nihilism had also got me involved in drugs, had got me hooked on methedrine, even to scoring their prescriptions off some Notting Hill whores. After a couple of bad experiences I realized where the addiction was heading and took myself away from London, got myself a summer job as the engineer on a Torbay pleasure boat, an old motor torpedo boat, and did my cold turkey. Then a heavy swell one day meant we had trouble berthing alongside so all trips were cancelled. A girlfriend who had come along for a trip across the bay – I’ve told of this so many times now that it’s become like someone else’s story and I have to convince myself that this really is what did happen – gave me her new-bought book to read while she wandered out to the end of the breakwater. I sat on a rock and read the whole of Henry Miller’s ‘The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder’ there and then. On finishing it I decided that if I could write something as good as that then my whole life too would have been worthwhile. If I could write something as good as that and touch someone never met, across space and time, as Henry Miller had just touched me then that would justify my having been alive. That was when I first realized that I wanted to be a writer.

Of course it took me another 23 years to see a single word of mine in print.

How long have you been writing? Elaborate, not just yes, no.

Since 1968. First was a couple of poems about an abortion, but what I really wanted was to write novels, to draw the reader into worlds of my creation. I had been raised in a very reactionary climate and I wanted to pass on the lessons I’d learnt in Africa and India, in the war between India and Pakistan – we’d been ferrying refugees - and the lessons learnt from all the many different people I’d met.  I wasn’t about to take up a monk’s existence though and I complicated my life around women. A junky girlfriend found me in Brixham and we ended up living in a caravan in a turnip field until I decided, again, enough was enough and told her that I was leaving. Whereupon she held up the local Woolworths with a pair of toy pistols. Another girlfriend inveigled me back to London and work at IC but I couldn’t seem to find space and time in which to write. So in 1969 I decided to run away à la Durrell to Cyprus and to write. I got a couple of poems out of the summer, but ended up spying for the Turks, drinking far too many brandy sours and fell out with my girlfriend. I returned that autumn to London and a very small room in which, at last, I began in earnest work on my first 3 novels. Then I stupidly got married. But I did keep on writing.

Have you always wanted to be a published writer? Elaborate, not just yes, no.
Yes. Although the act of writing does help in discovering my own thinking, from the very beginning I have intended my writing to be read. Else what’s the point? Writing is like speaking, is to communicate. Otherwise it’s no more than an old man muttering to himself. Writing doesn’t become real unless it’s being read by another. In fact just the thought of another person looking at our work can have us revising it. Which is why I don’t like anyone to read my work until it has gone through several drafts, with each draft being given the once over by an imaginary other.

In the every year of my 23 years of not being published at least one editor would be keen to take my work on. It got so that year’s MS would pass the 3 readers that most big publishing houses then had, get passed by the editor, and turned down by the sales team. I thought it my fate to be considered not commercial. Things came to a head when my latest novel, ‘Constant Change’, kept coming back by return post. That hadn’t happened to any of my MS for years, and I couldn’t see, aside from its being bigger than anything I’d written before, why it would be so summarily rejected. A local Arts agency had set up an MS reading service so I sent ‘Constant Change’ along to them. What I didn’t then know was that the people running the agency had set it up to assess local talent. Out of the two thousand odd MS mine was the novel with which they proposed to launch their own publishing house. We had many meetings, discussions. This was 1987. Come January 1988 they were ready to go. Only to discover that their backers had lost all their venture capital in the October ’87 crash.

At this point I decided that I had to have some work, any work in print. So I turned to poetry. Within a year I had several poems accepted by different magazines. By 1995 I had my first poetry collection, ‘To Be Like John Clare’, being published by Salzburg University Press. My second collection, ‘Skin&Bones’, by Odyssey Press a year later. And it was under the kind tutelage of Derrick Woolf of Odyssey Press that had me starting my own small press, Original Plus’ and magazine, ‘The Journal of Contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian Poetry’. My first novel, ‘Sister Blister’, was published by Online Originals  in 1999. By which time I’d done my first public reading on national radio as part of that year’s Forward Prize. Having been on the outside for so long and wanting now to be involved at every level I started my own poetry festival in Taunton. It ran for 3 years, may even be running still under a new guise. And by now I was receiving invitations to submit, had novels published by Jacobyte Books in Australia, BeWrite Books who were then in Germany, and Bluechrome/boho in Bristol. I thought I had it made.

When do you write? When do you not?

I prefer to write in the mornings. Andre Gide said that thoughts are like flowers, those picked in the mornings stay freshest longest. So when I was working I always tried to get jobs that involved shift work, and then I often volunteered for the unpopular afternoon/late shift. Probably one of the reasons my first marriage failed – mornings I was writing, afternoons and evenings at work. And by then, encouraged by favorable responses from editors - ‘This man can really write…’ a reader at Macmillans - if not acceptance I was well and truly the writer.

Nowadays I’ve usually run out of steam by early evening. But if my circumstances change… there’s probably no time I won’t write. When I had a cushy job in Nuclear Physics at IC I wrote my then novel on night shift. I’ve written on desks balanced on rubble in a half renovated house, on a desk made behind a wardrobe, even silently while nursing a blind man in hospital.

What resources online (include links and websites) help you most as a writer? What resources who you suggest for beginning writers? I consider this question important since all need new sources to help us find publishers, forums, etc.  

Having been writing for years, and managed without, I find that I don’t use many online resources for actual writing. Although I do consult the English Poetry Library’s listings when about to submit - .  The one forum I belong to is Bibliophilia - Unlike many forums it is well mediated, no tit for tat point scoring, offers constructive criticism and is generally supportive in all areas of writing, regularly lets one know what publisher is seeking submissions. Although I make little use of those suggestions as they are primarily for the US market.

Is being a writer/poet anything like you imagined it would be? Elaborate, not just yes, no.

No. When I first started I imagined publication within a year, not 23 years. And with publication would of course come great wealth. But then the writing took over, became important in itself, part and parcel of me. And when I did finally get published I was gratified to be on the receiving end of some great reviews. My poetry collection ‘pieces’ (K.T.Publications) was said to be ‘the best book published this [21st] century’. Another collection, ‘Problems & Polemics’ (Bluechrome/boho), also received fulsome praise. While my SF novel ‘We Need Madmen’ written some 20+ years before, won the 2007 Skrev SF prize, and my chapbook ‘An Atheist’s Alphabetical Approach to Death’ got placed in the top 4 of an erbacce press competition. My novel ‘Something’s Wrong’ (dpdotcom publications) got my writing compared to that of Dostoyevsky. I’ve also been taken on as poetry and fiction editor by small indie publishers. My words have found sympathetic readers on the other side of the globe. Which, for now, is enough.

Have you figured out a way of making money as a writer or poet? Elaborate, not just yes, no.

Afraid not. Mixed fortunes really. Some editing work has paid really well, while some publishers have gone bust owing me money. And now with the digital market and self-publishing muddying the waters I can’t see a way forward – so far as sales and making money goes – for some time to come. And I say this as both author and publisher of other peoples’ work.

What inspires you to write and do you remember the exact moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?

The exact moment was reading Henry Miller on Breakwater beach in Brixham. These many years later I seem to have so many projects on the go that writing has its own impetus.

Who are notable authors who have influenced your writing?

Henry Miller of course, but the pared down elegant style of some French authors especially. Colette, Francois Sagan. Poets would include Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, W H Auden, Norman MacCaig… But really there are far too many to list here. Just lately for prose I’ve been swinging between the extremes of Haruki Murakami and A S Byatt.

Do you follow a strict writing schedule or just write when the spirit hits you?

I write every morning for at least 2 hours. Rest of the day I may spend editing others’ work for The Journal and/or Original Plus; or on commissioned work.

What stimulates or motivates you to write: nature, human events, a little wine or vodka, or did I miss something?-this is a being honest with yourself question.

After all these years of trying to get it down right, and never being satisfied with the result, I think it is still injustice that moves me to write. For instance I dedicated ‘The Secret Report of Friar Otto’ to Dr David Kelly who died after trying to expose the falsehoods behind the WMDs in Iraq. The Friar Otto tale itself being of a loyal subject cynically used.

I find writing while under the influence of any narcotic very difficult. I’ve experimented with most narcotics and really it’s not a good idea to mix the two. Away from the page then a little alcohol can free up the neural synapses. But so can a walk in the woods.

Where/how do you find the most inspiration?

Life and books. For instance I based 2 poetry collections, ‘To Be Like John Clare’ and ‘Problems & Polemics’ on my work as a psychiatric nurse. But it wouldn’t have been half as good without my having read Freud, Adler, Jung, RD Laing and others. And while ‘The Care Vortex’ was based almost wholly on my work as a residential social worker, ‘The Secret Report of Friar Otto’ depended entirely on research. While my last novel, ‘Something’s wrong’ (, was based on my experience both as a psychiatric nurse and while watching a residential nursing home across from my then flat.

What type of stories, poetry, and/or fiction do you like to read, imitate, or write?

Easier to say what I haven’t thus far felt any urge to write – horror, zombie, vampire fiction. And with poems I shy away from rhyme. We’ve had a couple of scandals of plagiarism of late here, so imitation is pretty much a very bad idea. Emulation on the other hand…

Can you tell me what tools, resources, or how or your working to grow as an artist? What tools, resources, or how or you working to grow as an artist? Please list their names, websites and links. I'm looking to adding critical useful information to this page of the interview:

I’m afraid that, having been writing so long, the resources I still tend to go to first are hard copy books. I find most writers’ forums and workshops uncomfortable. So, sorry, can’t help you here Michael.

Like you though I have found – although I haven’t done it for several books now – but I did use to tape myself. There are recordings of some poems I did in a studio here -

If you had to choose, what would you say are the two best poems, flash fiction, or short stories you have ever written to this date? Would you like to share a link to those works-or send them the works themselves to my email? Send personal photo if available.

How does one choose? They are all my children. So I asked Steph, who has read all my work. For poetry she said ‘pieces’ was probably my best, and for fiction either ‘Friar Otto’ or the SF series ‘towards the unmaking of Heaven’.

What is your opinion on self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing? Please list for our readers the publisher(s), POD (print on demand) or self publishing you use or have used. If use have used traditional publishers who are they? Give us a sense of your personal experience and attitudes toward them. Please understand there is a difference between POD publisher who request money to publish you ie iUniverse, etc and those like and where you publish yourself and edit yourself. How do you feel about traditional publishers?

I think we’re very much in an interim phase with publishing. The novelty of digital, the sudden flood of self-published books, has left readers overwhelmed and publishers not knowing which way to turn. Publishers have had to cut back, have laid off editors before their sales people. Literature is consequently suffering. With even proof editors being laid off books having had only a spell-check run through, books are emerging from the biggest publishing houses full of off-putting typos and howlers. J K Rowling’s latest even.

Just these last few years I have had 3 publishers go bust on me. Even POD for them proving far too expensive to keep going and profits from digital not enough. The small indies, one/two people operations, are coming up with new models of publishing, and thanks to the net can be their own booksellers. I’ve been fortunate in finding one - - for my new novel, ‘Marraton’, due out some time in paperback and as an eBook some time this year 2013.

I’m grateful to another indie, dpdotcom, for having brought out my novel, ‘Something’s Wrong’. While, knowing that many publishers fight shy of SF series, I used Real Time Publishing to self-publish my 5 book series ‘towards the unmaking of Heaven’ -  

By what methods or sources are you trying to market your works with? Do you find marketing your works for exposure easy or difficult? Please list their names, websites and links.

Poetry I’ve found easier to sell than novels. Poetry just requires me to give readings, attend book fairs, etc., and face to face I can sell books. But there are so many fewer events specifically for novelists and those that do exist are taken over by the big boys. As for online I’ve found/observed that obvious self-promotion can be counter productive. But not having found an effective way of marketing my work I can’t really recommend anything. Other than, if you have the funds, get someone to do the marketing for you.

One of my new publishers, Endeavour Press (  ), has been picking up titles from a publisher gone bust and re-releasing them under new titles; and he concentrates almost exclusively on marketing. He took my ‘Marks’ re-released it digitally as ‘Hit and Run’ and it got to 15th in the Amazon charts -

Where can we find your works? Feel free to show links or websites.

Practically all my books presently in print, and some out of print, can be found on Amazon and other online retail sites. Or via my own new website -

We have talked about your professional writing career, but not about how your personal life reflects your writing. Tell us something about you personally, that the world can see in your writing.

A lot of that has been covered in my responses to the preceding questions. Suffice to say I’ve traveled a lot, have lived in different countries, had many different jobs even after I settled in Somerset with my present partner Steph and our daughters. Once the girls left home Steph and I have moved twice. One of the major influences would have had to be my 14 years working in the care professions.

New question – Did becoming a publisher/editor yourself change your approach to writing?

Very much so. Not so much with submitting poetry, but having worked as a fiction editor I can see how necessary it is to grab the reader’s attention and keep it. And to make the text as ‘clean’ as possible. Nothing more off-putting to an editor than overwritten, flowery writing. And no excuse for misspellings these days. When a rejection of a full MS can take months, if not years (and remember even with poems you are offering the editor of a magazine first serial rights, so any multiple submissions will probably get summarily rejected), take just that one more look back through the text to make sure that is how you will want it to appear. And always, but always, read the publisher’s guidelines. Otherwise you’re wasting your own time and the publishers.

Care to make any comments how this site can be improved or expanded?

Seems pretty good to me Michael. I especially like that it is not overcrowded. So many interview sites have so many authors on them all giving very similar answers to an identical set of questions.




  1. thank you for taking the time for some honest answers and sharing with the world.

    1. Sharing is all that my writing has ever been about. A commonwealth of writers, with emphasis on the wealth, and I don't mean monetary.

  2. I'm familiar with Mr. Johnson's works.
    thanks for the interview.
    Arthur C.Ford,Sr.,poet/editor

  3. Hi Arthur thank your for your comments, Michael Lee Johnson

  4. I've met Sam Smith at least once and he is barking mad. Or is that me who is crazy and he the sensible one? Anyhow, an intriguing set of responses, Sam, especially your early years that had passed me by. You didn't mention your ouevre, The End of Science Fiction - a detective determined to catch a criminal even though the Earth is doomed.
    Good on you for your frank confessions, which I'm passing on to the police as we speak. They have the time, it seems, to prosecute historical crimes such as yours - haha. Kidding, this time.
    We'll meet again.

  5. Thanks for the wonderful answers, Sam. I really enjoy The Journal. I hope to read your novel soon.


    1. Fascinating, Sam ... and you're only two years younger than me! It'll be good to know who I'm talking to next time I email you.

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