Three women, two secrets, one lie — a Q&A with author Maggie Smith

The clever title says it all: “Truth and Other Lies,” the tightly plotted, lively paced debut novel from Wisconsin author Maggie Smith, explores how our individual biases and lenses influence our perspectives of the world around us. Smith examines themes of generational feminism in the #MeToo era, mentorship, power, politics, journalism, social media and ethics. Perhaps more interestingly, the story is never didactic—Smith’s characters often make surprising choices that still manage to feel accurate, nudging us to push back against the binary politics and groupthink permeating our culture today. This brings an authenticity to each of the three main characters: Megan Barnes, a 25-year-old pro-choice, out-of-work reporter suffering a breakup, forced to move back home to Chicago with her mother de ella; Ella’s Megan’s mother, Helen, an anti-abortion activist who is suddenly running for US Congress for the political party on the opposite side of Barnes’ believes; and Jocelyn Jones, a world-famous journalist whose career and legacy are threatened by an increasingly reputable online troll.

“Truth and Other Lies” was published in March 2022 by Waukesha’s Ten16 Press. Although this is Smith’s first novel, the Milwaukee resident has long been immersed in the world of women’s fiction. She hosts the “Hear Us Roar” podcast for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, serves as managing editor of “The Write City Magazine” and is a board member of the Chicago Writer’s Association. Before launching her writing career, she was the founder of ArtSource, an art consulting company that was acquired in 2017. She also has a Ph.D. in psychology, which clearly comes through in her nuanced characters and how each they justify their reasons for doing what they do.

Where were the seeds of this story born? What was the hook and what were the questions you wanted to start exploring?
The seeds of this story came from a writing prompt in a workshop — “What could you never write a book about?” I wrote down “mothers and daughters” because I had a contentious relationship with my own mother and I haven’t been a biological mother (although I helped raise step-children). But when challenged to explore that idea, I can remember making three circles labeled daughter, mother and mentor, and thinking back to when I was searching for a role model in my early twenties.

Kirkus Reviews called this “an engaging and topical tale of politics and journalistic ethics with a feminist slant.” Is that what you were going for?
I’m not a writer who starts out with an “agenda” — I’m not interested in being a spokesperson for a cause. What does interest me is writing truthful stories about adult women who hold strong beliefs that guide their actions and who are successful in their careers. I want to explore the challenges women face in today’s world, and I since I was writing this during 2018-2019 and the mid-term elections, issues affecting women in this country like reproductive rights, equal pay, representation in politics and the #MeToo movement came to me as ways to illustrate this.

Which of the three characters came to you first? And how did you decide each person’s relationship to those themes?
I wrote this novel three times — that is, three entirely different “plots” — but the character of Jocelyn Jones was there from the beginning. In the first two books, she was a famous feminist (like Gloria Steinem) and the plot revolved around adoption. The character of Helen was the baby Jocelyn had given up as a pregnant teenager and never revealed. Later I decided instead to make Megan the central point-of-view character, and to have the plot revolve around the crucial decisions we make in our twenties about who we choose to pattern our lives after. That’s when it became clear I needed more clearly-defined characters for the mother and the mentor — they needed to be more polar opposites in terms of their value systems and their personalities so that Megan would have more difficulty choosing between them.

You said you wrote this in 2018-2019 but it didn’t come out until March 2022. Readers often don’t realize how long the process of writing, selling and publishing a book can be, but these themes still feel timely. When did the story come to you and when did you write it?
As I indicated above, I began to write a version of this novel in 2017 but it wasn’t until spring of 2019 that I wrote the version that’s out now, so the issues I explored were happening during the time I was writing. I had initially queried agents, received rejections, and ultimately signed with a small press in late fall 2019 only to have them go bankrupt six months before my publication date. Luckily, I was able to pivot, sign with another publisher (Ten16 Press in Waukesha) so I only lost a year.

Has anything changed for you about this book or your relationship to it, now that it is out in the world? Has anyone’s response to the book made you look at it in a different way or think about things you hadn’t yet?
And it is. Great question and one I haven’t been asked before. I’ve done quite a few podcasts and I’ve been surprised how often I’m asked whether I had any trepidation about taking on “controversial” topics. I guess I hadn’t realized how hesitant people have become about talking about substantive issues in their novels. My position is I write adult fiction. My ideal reader is socially aware, intellectually savvy, grown-up in her approach to both family and friendships. She knows our country is dealing with heavy issues that need solving and she’s not afraid of a little controversy. In fact, she looks for books that treats her like a grown-up and feature flesh-and-blood, realistic characters grappling with the same issues she is. There’s nothing I like better than reading a review where the reader says they were able to understand even the characters they didn’t agree with. To me, that’s exactly what I was hoping for.

The title—great title, by the way—probably says it all. What did you want to explore about that line between truth and lies and the role each plays in our culture?
Webster’s dictionary added the term “fake news” in 2017, right around the time I started this novel, and unfortunately it’s become an accepted part of our culture these last five years. When I was searching for a title, I listed words in a giant document, each one relating to the general themes in the book and of course, the words “truth” and “lies” were on that list. I’m also a fan of wordplay so I liked the juxtaposition of the two and the implication that sometimes one person’s truth may actually be a lie as well.

And I played around a lot in the novel with the concept of secrets. If you choose not to share a secret, should that be considered a lie? In this story, there are examples of secrets being kept for a variety of reasons: to not hurt someone you love, to hide something you’re ashamed of, to advance your own agenda, to paint yourself in a better light. If you choose to not reveal a secret, is that necessarily a bad thing? Where do privacy issues come in? Are we always obliged to reveal everything that has happened to us? A novelist’s job isn’t to provide definitive answers, but to raise the questions. Hopefully, that’s what I’ve done.

Do you have roots in journalism or politics? What is it about the current state of either that made these realms the perfect set-up for the themes of feminism and mentorship and truth that you wanted to explore?
When I first went to college, I was in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, just as Megan was. I wound up switching majors and eventually getting a Ph.D. in psychology (great training for a novelist, by the way). But yes, journalism has always been an interest of mine and investigative reporting in particular. It’s a sacred profession, one that in the past has attracted the best and brightest writers in this country. It’s been disheartening in recent years to see how often journalists have abandoned ethical considerations of truth and fairness and returned into propaganda mouthpieces for people in power, be they politicians, corporate leaders or celebrities. So having both my protagonist and her mentor de ella be journalists and the mother be in politics gave me a chance to examine how challenging it can be to maintain an ethical stance in those professions and how pressures to succeed can test a person’s character.

You’ve learned from and supported so many other authors along the way with your various roles as a podcaster, blogger and editor. Is there anything that writing and publishing your own book taught you that you didn’t realize before?
I can’t say I was surprised at anything I’ve experienced during the publishing process because as host of the podcast “Hear Us Roar,” I’ve interviewed over 100 different debut authors and heard all kinds of horror stories. I knew poorly-written books often made the best-seller lists and beautifully written books had trouble getting published; that “luck of the draw” occurrences are a part of life and the publishing industry is no different. I was prepared for the fact that my book would get its fifteen minutes of fame before the readers moved on to the next bright shiny thing, so I just sat back, enjoyed the ride and took satisfaction in the fact I’d brought my story into the world. I know readers will find my novel, enjoy it, and recommend it to others.

This book has deeply personal themes for you, as debut novels often do. Now that you’ve written this one, do you feel room has been made to explore new themes in your next book?
I’m working on two at the moment. The first is a women’s fiction/psychological suspense story about an ambitious district attorney who is hunting down the stalker threatening her and her teenage daughter, only to wind up arrested for murder when he turns up dead. Its overall theme is revenge and it’s still in the first-draft stage. And just last week, I had a new idea for a novel involving a step-mother and step-daughter and a kidnapping in Cancun. I’ve begun fleshing that one out in outline form to see where it goes. Its theme is what constitutes a family. So yes, new ideas — but they both have a mother and daughter relationship at the core.

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