Sunday, September 13, 2015

An interview with Lyme Regis author and creative-writing teacher Joanna Smith

Please tell us who you are and what you do?
I’m a teacher and writer – I’ve been teaching creative writing in Lyme Regis and Uplyme since 2008. I’ve written three films that were shot in Southern Africa and my book Lesser Known Lyme Regis was published by Roving Press last year. 

It’s a comprehensive guidebook to the town. Bee at Serendip suggested I should write it as she didn’t have anything up-to-date and reliable to offer visitors. I loved getting to know the town really well and interviewing people for the book – there are so many passionate and interesting people in Lyme. It took ages to write though as many of the best stories (anything to do with smugglers and underground tunnels and hidden chambers) were so hard to prove. I lived in fear of perpetuating myths. In a way, it was a relief to return to fiction! 

Where did your love of writing come from?
It’s hard to say! I started scribbling stories as soon as I could hold a pencil. Like most people though, I just stopped writing fiction as soon as I left school and poured all my writing energy into letters and journals and the odd newspaper article. It took me a couple of decades to get back to fiction.

What were you doing before you moved to Lyme Regis?
I did a degree in English Literature in London, a postgraduate degree in Education from Cambridge University and taught English in Tanzania and Leamington Spa before arriving in Mozambique in 1994. I stayed in Maputo for 13 years, teaching literature at the university, training teachers and writing film scripts. It was a really interesting and positive time to be there – when I arrived in the civil war had just ended and people were very keen to start rebuilding their lives. There was a great sense of possibility and so much to get involved in.

What was it like working in the film industry in Southern Africa?
I started writing English subtitles for the major film company in Mozambique and was asked if I’d like to try writing a script. What a dream. The company gave me lots of valuable feedback and were extremely encouraging – conditions that were perfect for waking up my dormant creativity. I’ve tried to replicate this kind of environment in my writing groups.

What inspired you to set up the Black Dog Writing Group?
I came to live in Lyme with my 5 year old daughter and so my first priority was to find work that fitted around her. For the first year I worked as a carer but missed being around people involved with books and writing. My main loves were teaching and writing fiction so I decided to put these together and teach creative writing.

How does one join the writing group? (is there a fee involved? and tell us about group/individual sessions?)
I currently run five groups and see some writers individually. I teach a structured course, introducing the elements of fiction such as plot, dialogue, point of view and characterization. We also work hard on developing a writing habit and ignoring the mean snipings of our inner critic. Creative writing is a wonderful subject to teach as people gain in confidence and ability remarkably quickly and the groups become very close. You get to know and trust each other very well when you share writing. I also see several individuals who can’t join a group or who are more interested in working on a specific project such as a novel or memoir.

How often do the groups meet?
We meet once a week. Every year I teach three blocks of ten sessions, following the school terms. I start a new group every January and then the group stays together. If anyone would like to go on the waiting list, all the details can be found on my website: Each block costs £100.

The writing group has released several books? (plans for anymore?)
I produce a book of Stories from the Black Dog every December. This year will be the 6th volume. All the students submit their best work:  it’s a real thrill for everyone to see their stories in print - and the book makes a very handy Christmas present!

Which three people would you most like to discuss literature with?
I tend to enjoy books by people I’d like to meet: wise people who I feel could teach me about life as well as literature. My current top three are probably Marylinne Robinson, Elizabeth Stout, Tove Jansson and Sarah Waters. (Sorry, Maths was never my strong suit.)

See Roving Press book page for information on Lesser Known Lyme Regis.

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