Spotlight: Helen Smith


Day job: I’m a full-time writer.


Private passions: They’re rather tame, I’m afraid – I like reading and knitting.


What do people get wrong about you? They think I’m an exciting creature who would never sit at home reading or knitting.


What do you like best about belonging to 26? There are some interesting people and some interesting projects – for example 26 Treasures.


You’re one of the writers in the 26 Treasures of Childhood project. Tell us a little about your own object and your poem. My object was a magazine from 1972 called Children’s Rights. When I thought back to my school days in 1972 I remembered the walk to and from school, and I remembered that it always seemed to be sunny. I was very pleased with the poem I came up with.

You write novels, plays and poems. Do you have a favourite writing form? How do they each inform and influence one another? I find novels easiest to write and I have had more success with that form than with any other, so I’ll say that writing fiction is my favourite. I use imagery and symbolism in my writing, and I try to be concise, so although I write very little poetry nowadays, there is something poetic about my prose.

What advice would you offer other 26ers wanting to become full-time writers? If you have a job or a steady income from freelance work I’d suggest trying to reduce your hours, if possible, while holding onto that work for as long as you can – writing full-time doesn’t pay very well unless you’re writing for TV. There are a lot of very poor novelists and playwrights around, and it can take a while to find an agent and then a publisher. You need to give yourself as much time as you can to write, without having to waste any of that time worrying about paying the bills.

What’s your favourite piece of advice for good writing? I think you should ignore what everyone else says and trust your instincts. A lot of people who give advice about writing have never even been published, and if you read interviews with famous writers they seem to have wildly disparate processes anyway. I’m not sure that you can tell anyone how to be a good writer. But if you write to a standard that pleases you, using a process that suits you, then if you can’t be good, at least you’ll be happy – so I’d suggest people do that.

Tell us about your new book The Miracle Inspector It’s a dystopian novel set in London in the near future. England has been partitioned and London is an oppressive place where poetry has been forced underground, theatres and schools are shut, and women are not allowed to work outside the home. It tells the story of a young couple, Lucas and Angela, who decide to escape from London – with disastrous consequences. I was inspired to write the book because I had been volunteering as a writing mentor with exiled writers in London through an organisation called Freedom from Torture. I wondered what it would be like if I had to leave London because it was no longer safe. Who would help me? Where would I go? What would the reception be like when I got there? That was the starting point. It became a surreal story with some funny lines in it, so although the subject matter is quite bleak, it’s an enjoyable read. I’m very proud of The Miracle Inspector – thanks for asking me about it.

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