What fun to interview a mystery novelist who also loves to dance and sing! Not to mention that Penny lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Below are Penny’s responses to my interview questions, followed by her bio, website, buy link, and BookBub info.
First off, congratulations on your new release, Sunset West- Guns, Grit and Gossip, a sequel to The Last Legwoman—A novel of Hollywood, Murder…and Gossip. Can you tell us about the novels and what inspired you to write them?
As a very young writer I landed the plum job of “legwoman” or assistant to the country’s then most widely read Hollywood gossip columnist. She was grounded, fair and generous and espoused that even gossip should be treated as ethical journalism. But the experiences I enjoyed for nearly a dozen years were the stuff of young people’s dreams and often surreal. I never lost the wonderment. Also, my “boss,” ultimately writing partner, had a huge presence in our industry and world. We often wondered, what would happen if she suddenly wasn’t there. Passed on, became ill, quit. Decades later, that question would occasionally emerge. I thought it would be fun to revisit the days and imagine the world without the star gossip columnist.
Given all of your experiences assisting a Hollywood gossip columnist, how much of the life and experiences of your protagonist, Meredith Ogden, are based on your own?
Many of the experiences Meredith encounters were inspired by my own, but, thanks to the wonder of fiction, I can enhance the drama or pathos and create the characters that would have made them more poignant. Life in Hollywood is really a culture and a journey all its own.
Did you find it easier or harder to write the sequel to your first book? Any plans to continue the series?
Sunset West, the sequel, was many times easier to write. It told its own story. Possibly because I gave it the time and focus. The original book The Last Legwoman was about 27 years in the making. I started writing it on an early MacBook during ferry rides to and from work in downtown San Francisco – mostly to pass time and engage my mind. When I retired from Hawaii Pacific University three years ago, I pulled out the drafts and then had to reimagine, recast the stories and springboard off older work. I thought the story would end at the end of the book, but it didn’t. Sunset West just evolved.
You came to fiction writing fairly recently after a distinguished career as a journalist, author of best-selling tourism books, and marketing professor. What drew you to fiction writing?
Telling stories has been my style and perspective even as child writing, and as a teenager reporter for a local newspaper. I flirted with fictional short stories and during my late-in-life PH.D. program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, all my requirements were fulfilled except one class credit. A well-known Southern author Doris Betts taught undergraduate fiction writing so I met with her and begged to enroll me. “But you’re a doctoral student,” she countered. So I literally got down on bended knee and pleaded. She relented. It was eye-opening, not only by experiencing the difference between journalistic style and fictional style. I was surrounded by idealistic, incredibly creative young people who taught me so much about imagination.
How have you found the process of writing fiction different from writing nonfiction?
As Doris used to admonish, “Make this about the characters and the story not just the facts – how you WANT it to play, not about the only way it SHOULD play out.” I still remind myself that if an element or action is logical and works in the storyline, include it. It doesn’t have to have a confirming citation or footnote.
A related question: In retrospect, what do you wish you’d known when you started out writing fiction that you know now?
Simply to sit down and write. Focus. Let the story and characters unfold. Too much developmental oversight can often stifle the fun and creativity of the piece. I guess it’s letting go of the journalistic control.
Another related question: What advice would you give to journalists and nonfiction writers thinking about making the jump to writing fiction?
Start small. Write short stories, use some of the events you would enjoy writing about and focus on a single element. Imagine the information as if the lead character were relating it to someone rather than outlining the facts. Join a small writing group for support and fun feedback. Then write. Just write.
What are you currently working on writing-wise?
I write for several magazines—one in California and a couple here in Hawaii. I cover topics from cultural events to summer beverages to serious health care support subjects. But my mind always conjures the next life adventures of Meredith Ogden to be followed in the next book. I think fiction writers become one with their key characters.
You live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, Hawaii! When you’re not writing, what do you especially enjoy doing?
I’m a lifelong dancer from classic ballet to jazz to hip hop. At my age, and in Hawaii where more classical forms of dance for adults are somewhat limited, I now spend my time in hula and Zumba. I also sing with the amazing 100-person Windward Choral Society that was to have brought Hawaiian symphonic music to Carnegie Hall in May of 2020, but…well, you know, the Pandemic. So we still meet and rehearse weekly on Zoom – waiting for the chance to harmonize in the same room. I paint and participate on the Board of Directors for a couple of arts organizations.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books—or questions I didn’t ask that you wish I had?
I’d like to revisit the comparison of journalism and fiction writing. I’m so grateful for my journalism training and experience. It has served brilliantly in all forms of writing—business, legal, technical, scientific. Blank pages and deadlines are not frightening – they are the beginning of the project. And there’s an organizational composition logic that becomes almost instinctive to good journalists. We tend to envision the whole journey as the story is still unfolding. One news writing class for any would-be writer is invaluable.
Thank you so much for visiting, Penny!
Penny Pence Smith, author of the newly released Sunset West—Guns, Grit and Gossip (July 30, 2021) began writing professionally as a teenager for the local Indio, California, daily newspaper. Later, after college graduation, she covered the entertainment industry as a movie magazine editor, as assistant (“legwoman”) for a well- known gossip columnist, feature correspondent and bureau manager for the New York Times Special Features Syndicate, and as correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter. With a Ph.D. in communication, she managed advertising and marketing consulting agencies and has taught journalism and communication at UNC Chapel Hill and Hawaii Pacific University. Guns, Grit and Gossip is the much-awaited sequel to The Last Legwoman—A Novel of Hollywood, Murder and Gossip. Penny’s Under a Maui Sun and Reflections of Kauai were best-selling tourism books in Hawai.
Author Page on BookBub for news about future Meredith Ogden adventures and other books: bookbub.com/authors/penny-pence-smith.