Ryan Lieske: Thank you for talking about your Reading Life with me, Veronica. Why don’t you tell the readers a bit about yourself first.
Veronica Smith: Thanks Ryan. I’m 51 years old and I live in Katy, Texas, which is just west of Houston. I’ve been married to my husband for 28 years. We have a 24 year old son who is writing his own novel. I do computer drafting for an engineering company and have managed to not get laid off during the oil crunch. I wrote my first novella, Chalk Outline, back in 2015 and self-published it on Amazon. I also have a novel published, Salvation, and over a dozen short stories in anthologies and magazines. I’ve always loved writing, even as a little girl. I had my first short story published in 2014 and I never looked back.
RL: What is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you? And do you credit it with forging your lifelong love of reading?
VS: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’ Dell. Island of the Blue Dolphins is the one that got me hooked. It started my love of books that involve surviving. That grew into my love of post-Apocalyptic. Because post-Apoc is the ultimate in survival books.
RL: What is it about post-Apocalyptic fiction that resonates with you so much? And about Island of the Blue Dolphins in particular?
VS: I think it’s the survival thing. Willing to do almost anything to survive or to protect those you love. Island of the Blue Dolphins was about a girl who survived. As a girl the same age, I could understand how she felt. I thought she was the bravest person I ever read about and I admired her.
RL: A lot of people tell me that, even if they were a voracious reader as a child, it was their middle-school and high-school years that had the most impact on the reader they are today. Would you say this is true for you?
VS: I’d have to agree with this. I read The Stand when it came out and I was 13 then. It took my favorite survival books and added the horror element, and then I was on my way. I devoured everything [Stephen King] wrote after I finished The Stand. Except for his newest stuff. I’m not as much crazy about his newer books.
RL: What is it about his newer work that doesn’t appeal to you? Was there a particular book that turned you off?
VS: I tried to read Gerald’s Game, and it was long and draggy. SPOILER ALERT!!!
I mean how long can you read a book about the main character tied to a bed? I kept waiting for something more interesting to happen and it really didn’t.
But now when I think about it, Gerald’s Game came out in 1992 and he wrote some great stuff after that: The Green Mile, Dreamcatcher, From a Buick 8. I loved Under the Dome, until the end. I just wasn’t too fond of the ending. So maybe it’s not his newer books I don’t like. Maybe I have some I can’t get into.
RL: Interesting to hear that about Gerald’s Game. I think it’s one of his best—aside from a denouement that perhaps goes on a little too long. But I liked for the same reasons you disliked it. I was fascinated by how he managed to keep me riveted to the story, even though it was one character in one location. If you haven’t read it since it came out, I would encourage you to maybe give it another try. It really taught me a lot about how to build suspense and keep a reader intrigued using very minimal material.
Speaking of this time period, were you one of those kids who went rogue from the curriculum and read whatever you wanted, sometimes even ignoring what was assigned to read altogether?
VS: Well, I did love to read so I was a “good student” and read what I was assigned, even if I had no interest in it. But I was a multi book reader. I could have 3-4 different books that I was reading simultaneously easily.
RL: Any of those you particularly enjoyed, and still enjoy?
RL: Reading is inherently a solitary activity, so did your reading life ever supersede or cause conflict with your social life growing up?
VS: I was and still am a solitary person. My husband is happy for us to go out with a bunch of people but I’m actually happier staying home by myself with either a book to read or writing my own.
RL: Since turning 40, and after buying a house last year, I’ve definitely become more of a homebody. But my girlfriend is just as happy as I am to sit around and read in silence. I say that that’s a pretty good test for a relationship: if you can both sit in a room with each quietly reading, and not get antsy.
VS: Oh I wish. My husband is not a reader. He’s not read either of my books. Sometimes I can get him to read my stories but most of the time he tells me to print them out and he’ll get to them. There are about eight of them on the coffee table in front of his chair currently. My son is the same way, but I use his new book as hostage. Haha. He wants me to go over his second book and I tell him that I will when he starts reading some of my stories. That’s only fair.
RL: Checkmate! I love it.
What new books, literary styles, or genres were you exposed to in college?
VS: I took a couple of college courses but I didn’t go full time and I’ve never gotten a degree. I began working right out of high school and learned on the job wherever I was.
RL: What are your formative bookstore experiences?
VS: B. Dalton was the big bookstore back then. Yes, I’m sure that dates me. They’ve been gone for a very long time. But I’d been buying books through the Scholastic program at school back in elementary school.
RL: Ah, Scholastic. That wonderful gateway drug. Do they still do those, I wonder?
VS: They did when my son was in school. He was a tentative reader when he was young. When Captain Underpants came out, people thought it was gross. But it got my son really interested in books. He read a lot after that until video games entered his life. And I just looked it up. Scholastic is still around.
RL: Did you find, as you grew older, that the books of your youth began to mean less to you? Or do you still enjoy all the types of books you’ve been exposed to throughout your life?
VS: I do tend to enjoy books that are darker and gorier now more than when I was younger. I actually would kind of like to re-read Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s been decades. Cringe? No, I never read Twilight! hahaha
RL: What drew you to darker, gorier books?
VS: I don’t know. I’ve always been a little darker than other kids. I felt an attachment to Lydia in Beetlejuice. I was a loner, a tomboy, and I loved to be scared. If they’d had goth back then I probably would’ve joined them. I’d been watching horror movies long before my parents let me. I always managed to talk the babysitters into letting me watch them. I guess I always wanted to see how much further a horror book could go.
RL: I was in love with Lydia when I first saw that movie in the theater. I think it set the stage for my later “goth phase.”
How has your reading life survived adulthood?
VS: I’ve always found time to read even though neither my husband nor my son are readers. That is until I became an author myself. I find less time for myself now. Like right now I’m working on my novel as well as a short story I want to submit. But I’m also beta reading for another author. I’ve been doing more beta reading than reading books that I bought. But I’m reading some great books and since I always review, I’m helping them out too.
RL: Any you’d like to mention?
VS: I beta read for Chuck Anderson, the author of the Black Irish series. He’s a fantastic author. His books are gritty and real with some sarcasm thrown in. Vampires don’t sparkle in his books! I love everything he’s ever written. He’s also a good friend of mine. I also beta for Kerry Alan Denney. He writes the most unusual books: he doesn’t keep to a theme, they’re unique.
RL: Currently, what types of books are you mostly drawn to?
VS: I love any kind of horror, extreme horror, splattergore, but my ultimate is post-Apoc of any kind. I prefer most post-Apoc with natural disasters or the unknown.
RL: What’s the appeal of extreme horror and splattergore? And are there a couple of examples of books in those “genres” that you could tell us about that you’ve liked?
VS: Wrath James White and Richard Laymon. Richard Laymon really got me started on the extreme horror. I think I’ve read just about everything he’s written. Wrath’s books took me in a direction I’d never gone before. When I first started reading his book Succulent Prey I was almost disgusted. But it was so well written I couldn’t put it down. As I kept reading I realized there was much more than just gore. It had a great story to it. I’ve gone on to read many of his other books as well. They are rough but they are amazing.
RL: Can you tell us about a book that really shocked or disturbed you, maybe beyond what you’re used to?
VS: I can’t think of a particular book that disturbed me but I have realized that while I’ve read books where children have been murdered, I can’t and won’t read where a child is being raped. I had bought one several years ago, can’t remember the name, and it was explicit with child rape. So I just closed it and found another book. That’s really my line there.
RL: Years ago, I read a book called Survivor by J. F. Gonzalez. It was about snuff films, and part of it involved an infant. That was all within the first 100 pages, and I was about to put it down, but I kept reading despite how repulsed I was. However, the second half of the book turned into more of a thriller, and was significantly less gruesome. I didn’t really care for the book, to be honest. But yeah, the first part of that novel turned my stomach. I also wonder if the makers of Serbian Film read it, because from what I hear there are similar things in the film (which I refuse to watch).
Ugh. I like to think I’m hardcore, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely found my limits. Then again, there is a scene in my forthcoming novel that some might think I went too far on. Oh, well. Anyway, moving on…how do you share your love of books with others?
VS: I loan and recommend book to others. I invite friends to others’ release parties. I got my cousin hooked on horror. She was into other genres but now I’ve turned her into a horror junkie!
RL: Yes!! Another convert! Thank you for doing the Lord’s work, Veronica!
VS: Yes, I even wrote her and her husband into my current book. Be on the lookout for Debbie Yurkovich-Barr! Haha. I’m also an admin for a very small Facebook group and we are about short stories. We post potential submissions, beta read for each other, pass advice around, or just talk about stories and ways to improve.
RL: I’m one of those people who reads several books at a time. I’ve been called a “reading polygamist.” Are you? Our are you pretty monogamous when it comes to reading?
VS: I can be reading a full size book at home and a different one at work, and sometimes squeeze in a short story in the middle of either of them. I am a two-timer when it comes to books.
RL: Now, I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” However, for want of a better term, what are your literary guilty pleasures?
VS: Post-Apoc is my “thing”. Not really a guilty pleasure because I don’t feel guilty about it at all. There is something appealing about starting over. No bills, no job, living off the land, etc. But since it’s fiction, that makes it even better because that kind of world would be hard to survive in. It’s great to cheer on someone who is surviving and even taking out some bad guys in the process.
RL: Ever since seeing Night of the Living Dead when I was 12, I’ve had many a “survivalist” fantasy. I came of age reading The Stand, Swan Song, Whitley Strieber’s War Day and Nature’s End… And I still have this secret fantasy of living like Dr. Robert Neville in I Am Legend. Before the shit hits the fan, of course. There is something compelling about the idea of losing all semblance of normalcy and comfort, and having to learn how to keep going. I always tell myself I’d be able to adapt and survive anything, but of course, if it ever became reality, who knows…
VS: I know there is no way I’d make it in a real Apocalypse. I’m out of shape physically and I’m a lousy prepper. We have bug out bags, but they are good for 3-5 days max. Being close to the Gulf of Mexico, we’ve stayed through several major hurricanes. Just in case one is so bad we don’t dare stay, we have the bags made up. But we are definitely not prepared for any catastrophic event.
RL: This one could apply to all art, really, but in terms of writing, what are your thoughts on “genre?”
VS: Sometimes I think I’m drowning in genres. When I was younger I could just say I liked Sci-fi and Horror but now there’s sub-genres within sub-genres. Our short story group just had a discussion about “speculative fiction” and how it differs from “science fiction.” I don’t think we ever really found the difference.
RL: I’m still trying to figure out exactly what “grimdark” is supposed to be.
VS: That’s one I’ve never heard. I’ll have to look it up. My novella, Chalk Outline, is a crime novel about homicide detectives in Houston solving murders with the “help” of a woman who can lie inside the chalk outlines and “see” the last few seconds of the victim’s lives. I had to put it in “Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense/Psychics” on Amazon. With all the different genres, I wasn’t sure which really applied to it. That seemed closest. In the past it would just be Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense.
RL: Are you a physical copy person, or do you prefer other ways of “reading” books, such as e-books or audio? Does the “delivery system,” as King calls it, matter to you?
VS: I love to have real books to get signed, but I find it much easier to use my Kindle. I love the ease of it. I can adjust the letter size to read easier. I can carry all my books on it at one time. And I have arthritis. It’s much easier to hold and just swipe or push a button to flip the page. Holding a book is harder on the hands. And I can’t do audio at all. I’ve given it at least four chances. For some reason when I hear a book and a male narrator does the female voice in falsetto just turns me off. I can’t listen to it. If it was more like a person reading a book and not so much doing a cast of characters I might be able to. I just haven’t found any that I can stand to listen to.
RL: Do you take a book with you wherever you go? Stephen King has often been seen at baseball games reading a book between innings or during rain delays.
VS: I take my Kindle if I’m going to the doctor, jury duty, or any place I would have to wait. I’m not a fan of baseball so if I had to go (yes, if my husband talked me into it) I’d definitely take my Kindle. I always take it when I go camping. I’m usually up before anyone else so I use that time to sit outside the camper and read in peace.
RL: What are your favorite books of all time?
VS: Swan Song by Robert McCammon—horror and post-Apoc all rolled into one—the ultimate favorite. Like I mentioned before, Island of the Blue Dolphins got me started. The Cellar by Richard Laymon got me in the direction of extreme horror. I love all his books and I’m sad that I never got the chance to meet him.
RL: About Layman…I have to admit, I just can’t get into his work. I’ve tried. And I feel weird about that, because I know he is a beloved figure in our scene. What would you recommend to me to read to help me appreciate his work more?
VS: As far as Richard Laymon goes it would depend if you like human monsters or real monsters. I started out with The Cellar which has real monsters. Of course as I read more of his books I realized that the human monsters are much more scary because they could be real. But if I were to suggest one I would suggest you try Endless Night. Not post-Apoc, but definitely survival.
Also, I’m a big fan of McCammon. What is it you like about Swan Song?
VS: First off I love the characters. McCammon didn’t pick tough people to survive in his book. A little girl, a bag lady, and a wrestler. You wouldn’t think they’d survive but they did. And if they can then anyone can. I have also read many other of his books. I’ve yet to find one I didn’t like.
RL: Lastly, just for fun, what is the one book―be it a widely lauded classic, or bestselling popular phenom―do you find absolutely unreadable?
VS: I’m going to get shit for this one. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. I saw the movie before I ever read the book. I loved the movie so much and the book was completely different. I finished but I struggled. Also The Dark Tower books by Stephen King. It took me three times to finish the first book so there was no way I was going to try the others. I honestly can’t even remember it. I’m looking forward to the movie though. I won’t have any preconceived idea of what to expect and I won’t be trying to compare it to the book.
RL: I love the Starship Troopers movie, but I’ve never read the book.
VS: Starship Troopers the book is nothing like the movie. There is a Juan Rico vs a Johnny Rico and there are bugs but that seems to be all I remember from it. Haha.
RL: Now, The Dark Tower books are like a religion for me. What was it about that first book you couldn’t get into or have you completely wiped it from memory? Honestly, the first book is probably the strangest in the series. The other books aren’t quite the same, and I think a bit more accessible. If you were ever curious, I would suggest forcing your way through the first, and then moving onto The Drawing of Three. If you like that one, then you’ll for sure be hooked. Just my two cents. Not judging at all, just interested to hear your take.
VS: As far as The Dark Tower, I can’t remember what I didn’t like. I bought it when it first came out. Couldn’t get into and put it away. Then forgot I had it and bought another one. Started reading and realized I had done this once already. I got a little further along then put it aside and … you guessed it. Lost that one too! Then I bought a 3-book package on the Kindle to try a third time. I managed to finish it but I just couldn’t bring myself to read the next two. I’ve heard from others that the first is the hardest to get into and I should give it another chance. Maybe someday.
RL: Well, Veronica, thank you for discussing your reading life with me. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
VS: I did! I have fun even though I had to stretch my memory back a few times. Haha. I don’t think I’ve ever had to remember so much of childhood in any other interviews. Thanks so much for the opportunity!
FIND VERONICA SMITH ONLINE: