Author interview 162 – Rebecca Laffar-Smith


Rebecca Laffar-Smith

Australia

Age 9

Rebecca Laffar-Smith lives with her two young adult children and their rambunctious puppies in Byford, Western Australia. She is the author of three Y.A. titles and eight children’s books. When she’s not writing, she’s usually working within the book industry helping other writers, editors, publishers, and librarians. Rebecca is an experienced public speaker, workshop presenter, and events facilitator who raises awareness and destigmatizes the challenges of living with mental illness and disability. Her books inspire readers and writers to experience possibility and discover wonder.

Is goodbye ever truly the end?

Since the death of her mother, Sara Brooks has seen things. Things that aren’t really there. Or so she’s been told…

Desperate for a fresh start, Sara’s dad moves her across the country where a new life awaits. Between a new therapist,
a new school, new friends and the handsome boy next door, Sara tries to get back to ‘normal’. But what is ‘normal’ when you’re followed by ghosts?

Nightly visits from a 17th-century poet and the haunting melodies of a child guitarist make living an ordinary life complicated.

After Sara’s secret is discovered at a sleepover, she watches in horror as the fragile friendships she’s built fall apart. More isolated than ever before, she starts to wonder if perhaps she’s as crazy as everyone says. But when the boy she’s falling for is losing the battle against his own inner darkness, Sara can’t sit idly by.

Will she learn to trust herself in time?

Romelia:   WHAT IS A SIGNIFICANT WAY YOUR BOOK HAS CHANGED SINCE THE FIRST DRAFT?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  Spirit Talker went through a few different variations before I finally find the story that needed to be told. I originally began working on the book back in 2013 and at the time it was just the story of a teenage ghost whisperer. In the original idea the young boy, Bobby, was a victim of murder and my main character, Sara, was trying to help him find peace by bringing his murderers to justice. It was a fairly typical teen amateur sleuth with a psychic twist. But I could never get that story to work.

Over the years I tried different variations. I consider turning it into serialized fiction and giving it an episodic arc so that it became more like a teenage version of the Ghost Whisperer T.V. series but that didn’t work either.

It wasn’t until I realized that I needed to tell a story that was much closer to my own lived experience that I started to really find the story that needed to be told. When I realized that my stories tend to deal in neurodivergence or disability and mental health I realized that I was missing a key part of my author voice. That’s when the story started to come together. It stopped being about a murder mystery and became the story of a girl struggling to come to grips with herself. Struggling to trust her reality and the impact her gifts had on her world. When I leaned into my own lived experiences to tell a much more raw, real, and emotional story I hit on what the whole thing needed to be about. It needed to be about learning to trust yourself and use your voice to help others.

Romelia:   WHAT PERSPECTIVES OR BELIEFS HAVE YOU CHALLENGED WITH THIS WORK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  I think the biggest is that line between fiction and truth. One of the biggest challenges I have now when people ask me if this book is fiction is how close that that line it is between fiction and memoir. Sara’s story isn’t mine. Not completely. There are many aspects where our stories diverge. But there is also a great deal that comes directly from lived experience. Because I’ve identified so long as a sci-fi/fantasy author it has been difficult to step so close to what ultimately ventures toward literary/contemporary. And to then find the people who are willing to step that line with me to say, “Maybe ghosts are real.” Because it’s those readers who will be willing to take a chance. The paranormal readers who don’t mind things hitting close to home, and the contemporary readers who don’t mind things crossing the veil.

Romelia:   WHAT INSPIRED THE IDEA FOR YOUR BOOK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  I’ve wanted to tell the story of a teenage psychic for years. I’d really love to explore urban fantasy in that tone at some point, but Spirit Talker needed to feature much more of our real world because it was inspired by my own teenage struggles with mental illness and the ability to see spirit. Now that I’m doing a lot more mental health advocacy, I realized it was important not to hide the mystical aspects that can create muddy waters in traditional psychology fields. Because so many young people are struggling with their personal identity and trying to understand how they fit in the world. And some of us ultimately must embrace the fact that we don’t, yet, but maybe someday the world will change enough to embrace us. And I think writers play a part in making those kinds of changes. Fiction is a fantastic vehicle for creating empathy and open-mindedness.

Romelia:   HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BOOK’S IDEAL READER?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  I guess I’ve kind of already shared that. My ideal reader is open-minded. They’re willing to step into the unknown. To escape reality and experience possibility. While I wrote the book for my teenage self and the teenagers in today’s world who need to hear it, I’m finding adults engage with the story on so many levels because no matter how old we get I think many of us are still seeking to accept ourselves.

Romelia:   HOW MUCH RESEARCH DID YOU NEED TO DO FOR YOUR BOOK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  Lots and very little at the same time. The book is set in real-world places that are not far from where I grew up and where I live. I’ve spent time on the beach (foreshore) in South Perth. I’ve skated at the rink I wrote about. I’ve travelled on the ferry.

I’ve also sat in psychiatrist offices and psychologist offices and hospitals. The psychiatrist in the story is an amalgamation of several I’ve really known. And the attitudes to ‘hallucinations’ and mental illness and depression come directly from my own lived experience.

So does the experience of grief and loss and guilt. The friendships, the betrayals, and the struggles to be normal when world spins in chaos and crazy. It’s all lived experience. So I guess a lot of my research was just life.

But then there were the little things that weren’t. For example, I’d never been to the school I sent Sara to so I did some research, browsing maps and timetables and class lists and photographs. And had a fabulous beta reader who teaches at the school who could help make sure I didn’t make mistakes when I talked about it.

I also found myself down a research rabbit hole at one point because of Grayson, my 17th century poet. Because he’s real. Kind of. He’s based on the energy and history and what I’d read and researched about a young English poet, Thomas Chatterton, who tragically took his own live at seventeen, before he’d even begun to scratch the surface of what his writing could to do in the world and whose life and writing is still shared centuries later.

The research for this book is nothing like the kind I did when learning about ion engines and gravitational force for my science fiction books. Or about snake venom and archangels for the fantasy I’ve written. But it was still just as interesting and just as fun.

Romelia:   HOW IMPORTANT WAS PROFESSIONAL EDITING TO YOUR BOOK’S DEVELOPMENT?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  The editing process for any book is vital. I’m very lucky that after twenty years in the freelancing industry I have some friends who are professional editors and others who are fellow writers so a lot of my professional editing actually comes from my crew of beta readers.

Every book I write has been through two alpha readers, one of whom is dyslexic, and at least ten beta readers, two of which are professional editors, two of which are professional authors, and others who are experts in various fields related to content in the book. For example, for Spirit Talker, one was a teacher at the school (and English teacher I might add) who was keeping a special eye on continuity and accuracy regarding setting. Another was a nurse that works in the mental health industry.

I think it’s important that professional authors have a team to help them through the process. It’s important to have people who can be removed from the project enough to express an unbiased, objective eye over the work.

Romelia:   WHAT WAS YOUR HARDEST SCENE TO WRITE, AND WHY?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  There were two really hard scenes to write. Both are kind of spoilers so I’ll try to be brief with the what and why.

The first was a scene with Will, the boy next door that Sara is falling for. She has to trust herself and her gift enough to take action and she came upon a really difficult situation and had to be proactive. It’s an emotional scene but it’s also a world shifting one for both Sara and Will. But it’s difficult to write something so raw and sad and while it’s ultimately hopeful it was also one of the darkest moments of the book.

The other was right toward the end. And again, the scene was filled with joy and hope, but it was also rich with heartache. I cried through every moment writing it and I know many of my readers cry when reading it. No one wants to say goodbye to characters we care about.

In both cases, the scenes were hard to write because of how raw and real they were. I care about these characters and they were in pain. I was forcing them to sacrifice, which is where growth ultimately comes from, but it’s hard to put even fictional character through hardship because to really reach that depth you have to feel your way through it. You have to go through their pain to write it.

Romelia:   WHAT CHARACTERS IN YOUR BOOK ARE MOST SIMILAR TO YOU OR TO PEOPLE YOU KNOW?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  Sara, obviously. She’s the main character. Diagnosed with a mental illness and sees ghosts. So she’s most like me. But I also drew on people I knew for the friends she makes at school and the neighbor boy. I based the neighbor dad on Richard Castle from the Castle T.V. series. And as I said before, the psychiatrist is an amalgamation of psychiatrists I’ve known over the course of my life.

Romelia:   HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE THIS BOOK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  It depends how you count the time. Technically, this book took four months. November 2020 to February 2021. I wrote most of it for National Novel Writing Month in 2020. In fact, I wrote the majority of it live on Twitch with an audience, some of whom were reading along, others were writing their own NaNo projects.

But the original idea came in 2013. And I wrote a terrible 50K draft of an idea for NaNoWriMo that year. I could never make it work. It just wasn’t right. And although I tried different variations of the story in the interceding years nothing worked until I had the breakthrough about writing it closer to home. And then it came together very quickly.

Romelia:   HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE TITLE FOR YOUR BOOK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  I honestly don’t remember. It’s been Spirit Talker from the very beginning. Perhaps it was a play on Ghost Whisperer? But I’ve never really thought of the project by any other name. It’s almost as if the name came first. Which is something that sometimes happens with my projects.

Romelia:   WOULD YOU AND YOUR MAIN CHARACTER GET ALONG?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  I think we would. I was going to say that I feel like I’d be a great big sister for Sara but at my age I’m actually probably closer to her mother’s age. And you know, if Sara were my daughter I’d be really proud. There’s a lot about my own daughter that I see in Sara.

I’d like to think I could help her learn to love and trust herself. I’d want to mother lion her and protect her, but ultimately I know the whole point of the story we told together was in showing the world that she can protect herself. That she can advocate for herself. That she trusts herself. And I want that for all teens.

Romelia:   IF YOU COULD MEET YOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THEM?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  I think I’d give Grae the biggest hug in the world. He’s such a beautiful being and the magic he brought into Sara’s world was incredible. I wish there were more people like him. To him I’d say, “Thank you.” Not just for what he brought to Sara, but to the life and mischief and joy he brought to the story. I hope Sara and I repaid that magic in our gift to him.

Romelia:   WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS LIKE? ARE YOU MORE OF A PLOTTER OR A PANTSER?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  I’m most definitely a plotter. I experience a great deal of anxiety. If I’m facing a blank page I have full blown panic attacks so planning helps to ease the anxiety. It means I know what I’m facing when I sit down to write each day.

It also helps me create stronger stories faster, usually. Learning story structure and character arcs was a transformational experience for my fiction writing. We all have an innate sense of story having been raised in storytelling cultures, but being able to define that in a concrete way is truly empowering for writers. It helps us take charge of our stories instead of wandering into the dark with them.

Romelia:   WHAT DO YOU NEED IN YOUR WRITING SPACE TO HELP YOU STAY FOCUSED?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  A computer and background music (via headphones). I like working in Scrivener, but it’s not required. I do prefer having space on my desk because clutter makes me antsy. I also prefer the freedom of my laptop so that I can write anywhere. But all I need are the keys to write the words (I have dysgraphia so trying to write by hand is a nightmare!) and music to help me drown out the real world so that I can deeply immerse myself into the world of my story.

Romelia:   IF YOU WERE TO WRITE A SPIN-OFF ABOUT A SIDE CHARACTER, WHICH WOULD YOU PICK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  Readers would thrash me if I didn’t say Grae. And honestly, if I were to ever write a spin-off from this book it would be to explore his two hundred years as a ghost. Oh the adventures he must have had! The heartaches, the lives he must have touched along the way on the rare occasions when he found someone who could peer into his world or even when he had fun with those who couldn’t. It would be such a fun story to tell.

I also think it would be fun to follow up with Sara and Will. The romance that was burgeoning there was so young and fragile and I’d love to see where it would go in the years to come. Young love is difficult. It’s a rare and special thing for people to discover their soul mates at such a young age and I can’t promise that Will and Sara are their forever afters. But I like to make believe that maybe they are. And it would be really sweet to follow that and see who they become as they grow up.

Romelia:   IF YOU COULD SPEND A DAY WITH ANOTHER POPULAR AUTHOR, WHOM WOULD YOU CHOOSE?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  Wow, this is actually a really hard question. There are so many fabulous authors I’d love to hang out with. But then I also know that the day to day lives of writers are actually pretty boring so I imagine it’s not the kind of thing readers think would be awesome. Still, if I could hang out and chat books and author business with anyone I’d want to spend some time with people like Bella Forrest, or Leia Stone, or any of the dozens of Y.A. sci-fi/fantasy authors I’ve only had the chance to follow online rather than truly meet and greet. I’m always on the hunt for more friends who write in the same genre as I do. I love hanging out with writers of all types and have a fabulous community of writers locally but one can never have enough writer friends to hang out with.

Romelia:   WHAT IS YOUR SCHEDULE LIKE WHEN YOU’RE WRITING A BOOK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  There are two schedules. The one I wish I had, and reality. Ideally, when life is going the way I want and the world turns smoothly, I write every day. I wake up, get out the house to walk the dog, then settle in at a café for a few hours to get solid writing time before lunch. In the afternoon I deal with the minutia of author business, spend the evening playing games with my kids, and settle in for Netflix, Youtube, or a book at night.

Life is very, very rarely like this. I was blessed to have that reality in January and February of 2021 as I finished Spirit Talker. But the rest of the year has been absolute chaos. I juggle stolen writing hours around parenting my two special needs kids, taking care of my aging parents, full-time study, volunteer work, and the rest of life. Sometimes I’ve got in person events, sometimes I’m streaming online, sometimes I’m bed-bound with chronic pain or a bad Bipolar week. And when things aren’t going smoothly, I give thanks for the very rare moments when I can pull myself to my keyboard for writing without drowning in my emails.

I keep dreaming of more consistency. Of building better habits. Of the ideal days. But reality rarely meets those idyllic dream days.

Romelia:   HAVE YOU EVER TRAVELED AS RESEARCH FOR YOUR BOOK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  No, but I want to. At some point I want to travel to Ireland and I dream of writing Gaelic-inspired fae fiction and castles. Instead, I travel for public speaking which is the closest to travel for work that I get. But someday!

Romelia:   WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE WRITING SNACK OR DRINK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  Tricky question. I love coca-cola and chocolate but can’t actually let myself have either without it messing up my Bipolar. So lately, it’s a meal at a café and a glass of orange juice. And it’s so sad.

Romelia:   HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE WHEN YOU FINISH YOUR BOOK?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  Usually, I sit there in shock… “Finished” is an odd kind of word because there really isn’t an official “finished” stage. There are kind of several. You finish a first draft. You finish a first edit. You finish a final edit. And none of those is the same as the day you launch the book into the world which is another kind of “finished”. But even then, there’s so much more work to go. Right now, Spirit Talker was “finished” back in March, then I did layouts in August, and launched in October, but now in the months after launch I’m on the promotions circuit so it’s still not really finished.

But mostly, when I finish a final draft I sit there for a while in shock and just let myself absorb it. With this book there was also this overwhelming sense of pride because I could honestly say the book is the best thing I’ve ever written. I loved the story that evolved. I loved those characters and I truly believe I did their story justice. It’s not often that a writer can say that. Most of the time we do the best we can to tell the story the best we can but it’s never as good as what we wanted it to be. This time, it was, and so in that shock I felt a lot of pride and I let myself sit in that because it’s the best feeling in the world.

Romelia:   WHAT RISKS HAVE YOU TAKEN WITH YOUR WRITING THAT HAVE PAID OFF?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  I don’t know if I’d say anything has “paid off”. I guess with Spirit Talker the risk to get real with it had the pay off of leading to a book I’m truly proud of having written. It’s so authentically me and it’s the first time I’d really let myself get so close to the page. I had to open myself up for this.

But I’m finding that the more I grow as an author the more I’m giving myself permission to do that. And while it leads to authentic stories that I hope reach readers, there’s really no way to measure a pay off for that kind of thing. I think I’m still too fresh. Or maybe I measure success in ways that doesn’t translate very easily with the risks I take.

Romelia:   WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU GOOGLED YOURSELF AND WHAT DID YOU FIND?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  I’m blessed with a unique name so there aren’t any surprises when I Google myself. It’s all me and my books. Some of it’s about dyslexia advocacy, some of it’s mental health advocacy, but most of it is my fiction. I love seeing my TEDx talk come up in search results and it can be fun to look back on the interviews, new articles, and events I’ve done in the past.

Romelia:   WHAT IS YOUR KRYPTONITE AS A WRITER?

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  My desperate need for validation. I’m not the kind of writer who writes because I love it. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the actual writing part. The part of being a writer I really love is making a connection with readers. But that means there is a lot of heartaches, crushing doubt, and comparisonitis involved when I don’t feel like I’m reaching readers. When a new book doesn’t do as well as I’d have liked in a launch or when it’s been a while since anyone left a review or replied to an email, I start to feel lonely and isolated in my little writing world. I want my writing to make a difference in people’s lives, but it can be very difficult to reach people in our crazy busy world. So that need for validation, for feeling seen and heard, tends to wreak havoc on my ability to keep creating. If I can’t reach readers, then I can’t write. There’s no point for me unless there’s someone on the other end waiting to read my words.

Romelia:   TELL US SOMETHING FUNNY FROM YOUR ADULT LIFE.

Rebecca Laffar-Smith: On-the-spot comedy? Wow, that’s tough… I’m not a naturally funny person. Funny takes a lot of work. Oh! I know something funny in an ironic and pathetic kind of way that happened in my life this week. I cried watching people play dungeons and dragons. Crying is clearly something sad and not funny, but it’s funny to me because along with the laugh-out-loud moments I have watching them play, I truly connect with their characters so when they’re going through the hard times I cry along with them. It’s as good as a great book.

Romelia:   DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN A FEW SENTENCES. TELL US SOMETHING WE DO NOT KNOW ABOUT YOU AND SOMETHING YOU HATE ABOUT THE WORLD.

Rebecca Laffar-Smith:  This week I hate how unfair and blind the world can be. While these days most people know my own struggles with mental health and coming to a point in my life where I embrace my darkness (thanks TEDx for letting me share that vulnerability with the whole world!) many people don’t know how hard I still find it when advocating for my kids. As I mentioned before, I have two special needs kids. They’re growing up with my youngest becoming a legal adult next year, but in so many ways they both still need help and the support of a loving parent. They are my world and if everything else was gone my kids are what I’d cling to. I just wish there was more empathy and understanding in the world. Especially when it comes to neurotypicals looking into the lives and minds of people who are neurodivergent. I hate it when people try to tell us what is and isn’t our experience or our truth. Especially when what they say reveals that they haven’t listened. And even more especially when the people are people in power.

In Spirit Talker, I wrote about a psychiatrist who wanted to put Sara into a box that didn’t fit. His closed-minded perspective of how the world worked wasn’t open to alternate intepretations. Sadly the reality of “specialists” like this is still true. It wasn’t just in my teen years but even today people in positions of power create barriers to the help and understand people with disability need. We’ve created a world where deviations for “normal” have to fight a thousand times harder for the same rights as their “typical” peers. And it’s not fair.

Sorry, that’s more than a few sentences. But you got me into rant mode. That kind of unfairness is what I’d like to see a change in the world.

You can reach me online via email to admin@rebeccalaffarsmith.com or via @laffarsmith on Facebook and Instagram.

My author website is http://www.rebeccalaffarsmith.com

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