Ellen Smith, Author
Before I started writing fiction again, I tiptoed my way into a few groups online for writers. In one of those groups, I met Ellen Smith. My first impression of Ellen was that she was nice. And not just regular nice, but one of those people who oozes genuine give-a-damn about complete strangers.
My gut wasn’t wrong, either. I’ve watched Ellen selflessly support fellow authors and friends and offer kind words of encouragement where she can over the span of five years. She’s smart, articulate, and a fan of Project Runway. She’s also the person who offered the most helpful, most kindly-worded criticism as a beta reader for Adrienne’s Awakening.
And like any writer with intense curiosity, I’m excited to ask her lots of intensely personal questions and post it here for everyone else to read! I’ve disguised the whole thing as a way to help spread the word that book two of her Time Wrecker Trilogy is available for purchase.
So let’s dive in.
Real quick, let me tell you about book one of the trilogy, Every Last Minute.
We meet Will and Mara Sterling, a young couple who met in college through a nightmare experience that has permanently changed both of them. As survivors of a campus shooting in a world similar yet different from ours in 2011, Will and Mara are offered the chance to rectify (this is where the title for the trilogy comes from) their lives through a timeline rectification. The United States Department of Justice gives them the choice to travel back in time to the moments just before the gunman opened fire. The hope is that the gunman will put things right this time.
But “time wrecking” as it’s dubbed by its critics is highly controversial because of the extensive ramifications of such altering a timeline. Is any one person’s life or well-being worth the possible negative side effects? Is altering their timeline worth the risk of them never meeting, never falling in love?
The nitty-gritty about the trilogy.
Mindy: Time travel is one of my favorite topics in sci-fi. But it’s complicated. How are you tracking all the possible changes and ramifications from altering a timeline across three novels as you write?
Ellen: And telepathy is one of my favorite sci-fi subjects! I love your writing, so I feel especially honored to be on your blog. Thank you for interviewing me!
As for tracking time travel…I have a ridiculously intense system of notebooks, calendars, and trifold boards I use to keep everything straight as I write the series. The facts that don’t change—such as character names and location maps—are all kept in one binder, so I can always go back and reference them. Everything else is written on Post-It notes so I can move things around as I write each draft.
M: As authors, we don’t always get what we want in our stories. Sometimes our characters take us on an unexpected journey. Without giving any spoilers away, would you say you got what you wanted from Will and Mara’s story in book one and book two?
E: Eventually, yes! Will and Mara both really struggle with situations that aren’t black-and-white. Will tends to oversimplify until he’s caught up short, and Mara overthinks until a decision must be made. Their personalities often complement each other, but they definitely feel their differences in Books 1 and 2. Since the books are told from both Will and Mara’s perspectives, it took a bit of work to get the growth I wanted from each of them!
M: Will comes from a very conservative background whereas Mara comes from a political family. What baggage do they both bring to the relationship as a result of their upbringing?
E: Will craves the security that his family finds in their community and their faith. He wants to have the conviction that they have, but he doesn’t feel honest whenever he tries to “go along to get along” or profess something he doesn’t quite believe. Will is often conflicted between the sense of duty he feels for his family and his need to forge his own path.
On the other hand, Mara’s family has been in the public eye due to her father’s political career. As a result, the Gaines family’s inner workings are very image-conscious. There’s a lot of focus on protecting their reputation and trying to live above reproach. Mara’s feelings are often disregarded and her needs pushed to the side. She wants someone to walk with her through the what-ifs instead of handing her a to-do list.
M: The relationships we see as children impact the way we approach relationships as adults. How do you think Will and Mara’s relationship is impacted by what they saw modeled to them?
Will’s father walked out on the family when the kids were very young. Growing up as the oldest son of a single mother, Will is extremely conscious of how his father’s betrayal affected the whole family. Will’s guiding principle as a young man is that he doesn’t want to be like his father. He feels a great need to protect Mara and “fix” things for her.
Mara’s parents, on the other hand, have been married for a long time. While there are few obvious disagreements between her parents, there isn’t much love, either. Mara hopes for a marriage like her paternal grandparents’. Her grandmother is a gentle and affectionate woman, but she was also a feminist ahead of her time who insisted on being a full partner in her marriage.
M: If Mara could tell us one thing before we read book two, what would it be?
E: Oh gosh, she’d probably be too flustered to say much of anything! There are a lot of moments in Book 2 where we see Mara at her most emotionally vulnerable, and she’s still learning how to let her guard down. So she’d be rattled for a bit and eventually end up quoting Ian Maclaren: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
M: Will is a school teacher with campus shooting trauma as part of his background. How did you research the possible effects that would have on him in his career?
E: I used to be a teacher, too! I didn’t teach the age group or subject that Will does, but I know how incredibly emotional it is to prepare for the possibility of an active shooter. Even if it’s just a drill, even if there was a concern and then it turns out that there was no danger—that feeling of looking around the classroom and waiting and imagining how you’ll keep your students safe—it stays with you. I read a lot of first-hand accounts from survivors of school shootings and made myself really sit with those feelings as I imagined how Will would react to different scenarios with his principal, with his students, and with his coworkers.
A few invasive personal questions because inquiring minds need to know.
M: You’re a freelance education writer, an author, a wife, and a mom to young children. How do you find time to take care of yourself, and what does that look like for you?
E: I’m a huge introvert, so I recharge through alone time. Some nights I need to just go to bed early or sleep in on the weekend. I’ll also call a friend, take a long bubble bath, or have an at-home date night with my husband. This is such a challenging time and our little family had a lot to balance even before the pandemic hit. My husband and I really look out for each other and make sure the other one is getting enough rest and downtime as well as enough time to work.
M: This year has been something else. What has changed the most for you as a result of the pandemic?
E: We’ve been lucky to stay healthy and employed through this roller coaster of a year, so thankfully our biggest change has been lifestyle. For a very brief time before the pandemic hit, our little ones were all in school (at least part of the day) and I was the only one working from home. Since March, everyone’s been working and learning from home, and we’re pretty limited in how much we can get out and around other people. It was a big adjustment to figure out how to make sure everyone could get the time and space to do what they needed and also just process the stress and worry we’re all feeling.
M: Writing and publishing fiction isn’t easy. It’s not something people do just for giggles or to pass the time. How did you know that you needed to write fiction?
E: I couldn’t stop! I love to dabble in all sorts of different arts and crafts, but the one constant in my creative life is writing stories. I could have an idea for a craft project or a recipe and totally lose interest before I gather up the time or materials to make it happen. If I get an idea for a story, though, I can’t rest until I’ve carved out some time to write it out.
Help me be a better writer, Ellen. Spill your secrets!
M: What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve found, heard, or been told about writing?
E: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” –E.L. Doctorow. There is a lot to plan out and keep track of when there’s time travel involved in a series, but the actual writing is very much like taking a long road trip. I have a general expectation of where I’ll end up and what roads I’ll take, but there’s bound to be some detours.
M: Writing fiction is scary. There’s a particular vulnerability to it that is hard to explain to non-writers. How much of Ellen bleeds out onto the page?
E: It’s so funny, because I tend to keep things pretty close to the vest in real life. But writing is different. A lot of times when I read over a draft that I’ve written I’ll think, “Nope, not real enough,” and make myself go back and dig deeper. The events and characters in my books are figments of my imagination, but I tap into the emotion behind some of my own experiences to bring them to life. I think that people find their common ground in sharing those really vulnerable feelings, so that’s what I try to bring out when I write. If I can’t relate to the characters in a very real way, I know I can’t expect readers to connect with them either.
M: You’re not officially an author until you get a bad review, right? How do you deal with bad reviews?
E: I read bad reviews of my favorite books, actually! It’s good for me to remember that not every book is going to resonate with every reader. If I remind myself that there are people who seriously dislike the same stories I absolutely love to read, it puts it in perspective for me.
It also helps to talk with other writers! We all know what it’s like, and it’s great to have people to talk to at every part of the writing journey. Thank you again for interviewing me, Mindy! It’s always great to talk with you!
You can read Will and Mara’s story for yourself.
You can buy the e-book and paperback on Amazon.
Ellen Smith is the author of Reluctant Cassandra (2015), the Channillo Series Ghosts of Eagle Valley (2015), and two books from her Time Wrecker Trilogy Every Last Minute (2017) and Any Second Chance (2020). She lives near Washington, D.C. and is a fan of Bad Girl Creek by Jo-Ann Mapson, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin to name just a few of her favorite books.