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Writing Through Time: An Interview with Sean Smith, author of Transformation Summer

Sean Smith 1

Sean Smith has written for a living for four decades, as a journalist and an editor/writer in academia. His work has ranged from covering town government and transcribing bowling league scores to writing about groundbreaking research to profiling firefighters, police officers, scholars, musicians, dancers, artists, sports heroes, and personalities like John Kerry and former Irish President Mary Robinson. Transformation Summer is his debut novel. Sean lives in the Boston area, where he is known to haunt Celtic music events and jam sessions, and is trying to get the hang of tenor banjo.

You can buy Transformation Summer here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

It wasn’t particularly difficult to come up with the title. The story, after all, centers around the narrator’s memory of the summer he was 16 and “Transformation” references the place at the center of that memory. Also, given that most of the book is set in the late 1970s/early 80s, the phrase “Transformation Summer” seemed era-appropriate.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I wholly rejoiced when I saw the cover. Ronaldo Alves, the Atmosphere Press art director, had given me some “homework” to help him and his team in coming up with options—for example, what are 10 nouns that describe the book?—and it was clear they paid attention to my responses and thoughts. I think this cover might’ve actually been the first among the 10 possibilities they sent along, and while I knew right away that it was the one I wanted, I felt obliged to check out the others, just to be thorough. But Ronaldo and crew absolutely nailed it.

It’s one thing to see the text laid out and formatted as a PDF, and it hits you: Yeah, that’s what the inside of a book looks like. But then to have it actually as a book, which you can carry around and put on your coffee table and show family and friends (“See? I told you this was really happening.”)—well, just outstanding.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I remember, as an elementary school-age kid, finding writing to be enjoyable or, at the very least, something I could handle pretty well. I was a good speller and competent at putting together sentences, so I guess you could say I had some good basics to work with. That’s not to imply that I breezed through every assignment, especially later on in school, but I had a certain confidence in being able to write.

And I often wrote for my own enjoyment, too. For a while, in elementary school, I wrote stories about fictional football players—I was a big football fan. When I was in middle school, I read—or rather browsed through—Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (mainly because of the references to Marvel Comics, a big pastime of mine), and tried to write a short story that was kind of in that vein. Around the same time, I also started writing a historical-fiction type account of a Woodstock-like festival, which I envisioned as a behind-the-scenes type of book, but I didn’t know anything about how rock festivals were planned, organized and run, so I only got through the first chapter. Oh well, I drew lots of pictures of rock ‘n roll bands for the “cover,” so that part was fun.

But my major writing activity outside of school as a kid involved making my own versions of Marvel Comics; and I don’t mean I made copies of real ones. I’d staple together 10 or 11 sheets of blank paper, then just start drawing and adding word bubbles and narration boxes. I got pretty serious about this: I wound up doing at least four comics a month—mainly Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, and The Avengers—from late elementary school into freshman year of high school. I suppose that all came in handy when I was a journalist and had to deal with deadlines. I didn’t sell them or show them to anyone; this was all for my own private enjoyment.

I found I liked the overall process of creating the comics, especially as I got older and started plotting them out in advance somewhat rather than just plunging in. And I guess you could say this was good practice for building plots and narratives.

I did move on from reading and making comics. My parents were always adept at finding books they felt would interest me in some way, such as Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowat), The Glory and the Dream (William Manchester), The Sterile Cuckoo (John Nichols), and several works of Richard Brautigan, like Trout Fishing in America, Confederate General from Big Sur, and In Watermelon Sugar. In high school, I took a whole course on Kurt Vonnegut, and I enjoyed reading him so much I didn’t regard it as “homework.”

However, as a kid I also read newspapers and periodicals avidly—mainly the sports section at first but gradually news as well—and over time I came to see non-fiction writing, i.e. journalism, as something that would best suit me. It took a while for me to hone in on that, but once I did I never regretted it.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I’ve been a professional writer from the beginning, in journalism and other non-fictional settings, so writing has always been my “day job.” Of course, I did work those summer jobs during high school and college we’re all familiar with, like unloading and stacking hay bales in an oven cleverly disguised as a barn, bussing tables at restaurants, or being music counselor at a day camp and teaching several dozen kids to sing “Beans In My Ears” (I’m sure their parents were very grateful). I spent about a year in the UK and Ireland, and to support myself I worked as a bartender—one of my ongoing tasks was to argue with a regular patron that, no, he wasn’t “owed” a free pint—a clerk in a Mac Fisheries grocery store, and a pot/dishwasher for a hotel kitchen in Edinburgh where once I actually got to eat haggis (it was…not all that bad). When I returned to the US, I worked for a year as a residence counselor in a group home for developmentally disabled adults.

Despite all these vocational gateways, though, somehow I went in for being a writer.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

Like many a writer, I’d wondered what it might be like to publish a book, but I had never held this up as something I absolutely had to do or else my life would have no meaning. Transformation Summer all started, believe it or not, with me getting a flash of inspiration while driving through the Berkshires on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and from then on, the process was really “Well, I’ve gone this far—might as well keep going.” The whole thing could have ground to a halt at any juncture, and there were long periods when my full-time job (and my part-time one) took over and I didn’t work on the story at all. But I kept finding ways to keep the thread going until one day I thought, “I feel like I’ve come to the end of this story.” Of course, it wasn’t THE end, exactly: I had three friends be my beta readers and give me some thoughts and suggestions, many of which I incorporated, and then I began sending out the manuscript to publishing houses, a few at a time every so often.

But then came the period when both my wife and my mother developed serious health problems, and died within three months of one another. Obviously, that was when everything else in my life just went to the background, writing included.

Finally, in the spring or early summer of 2022 I wondered if I’d come as far as I could where writing fiction was concerned. I’d submitted to a dozen or so publishers and either gotten rejected or no response at all. And I hadn’t written any fiction in many months. But ultimately I thought that there was no reason to stop trying to see if I could find a publisher, so I did another round of submissions, including to Atmosphere. And in August, five days before the Celebration of Life event I’d organized for my wife, Atmosphere sent me the acceptance email.

All along, especially when I was looking for publishers, I had prepared myself for the likelihood that nothing was going to come of this. It had started as a lark, really, and I tried to keep that in mind if I ever started to feel disappointed. But to have somebody say, “This is a book we feel is good enough to be published,” and then see the positive response Transformation Summer has received from friends and acquaintances as well as complete strangers—well, my life wouldn’t have been ruined if none of that had happened, but I’m quite glad it did.

I also have to add that another rewarding part of having my book published is that, re-reading it, thinking about it, and discussing it with people has given me some new or fresh insights: how I developed this or that character, for example, or some overarching theme I hadn’t considered before. I think that, even after you publish it, you never really finish writing your book.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

Since most of the book takes place in the 70s/early 80s, there’s a pretty obvious musical context. In fact, Cat Stevens’ music—notably “Peace Train,” “Moon Shadow” and “Baby It’s a Wild World”—makes cameo appearances throughout. There are also references to Cheap Trick, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Peter Gabriel, The Tubes, and Richard Thompson—who may not be familiar to many readers but is well worth listening to, so to my mind he would get at least two appearances on the soundtrack.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I’d hope people find something to connect with, to relate to: one of the characters, the period in which the story takes place, the struggle between teenaged Seth (the main character) and his mother, the fact that the memory of that summer’s events has come to be so important to adult Seth. I didn’t have some sort of “agenda” in mind when writing the book; I just wanted to show something of the human experience in a way that would feel universal. Added to that, I hope readers understand that I don’t necessarily have all the answers to questions that might arise through the characters and events depicted in Transformation Summer. Interpretations are welcome.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I have two other unfinished novels—one of which I started before Transformation Summer—and another one that I completed, but feel like I need to revise. Earlier this summer, I had a vague idea for a novel, and might explore that. Then again, I’m also wondering about perhaps trying to do a sequel, of sorts, to Transformation Summer—only focusing on a different character, and in third person. Of course, I still have full- and part-time jobs, so working on any of these projects could prove challenging.

I also play music in the folk/traditional vein, and enjoy collaborating with friends and acquaintances. No world tours to come—heck, not even sure there’ll be New England tours—but might be the opportunity for the odd gig or three. If I’m trying to write but keep hitting a wall and feeling unproductive as a result, I often pick up an instrument and tool around on that for a bit. Of course, the danger there is when I decide I’m going to re-learn that song I forgot or work on some tune I’ve been hearing in my head—I’ll look up and an hour, two hours have gone by.

How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?

Atmosphere Press has been very supportive and engaging. They gave me a role to play in getting the book ready for publication and release, and really made me feel like part of the process.

It’s easy to say “Don’t get your hopes up,” and I told myself that constantly through every stage right up until Atmosphere sent me the acceptance email. But you can’t help nourishing that little nugget of hope; we’re only human. So sure, keep that flame going. Yes, you should temper your expectations about publishing a book, but that doesn’t mean you should have no expectations at all.

In the meantime, be practical and do things that will help you at least learn something about yourself and writing.

I’m really an advocate of beta readers, and you should consider people you’ll trust to be thoughtful, critical and articulate as well as encouraging. I think three is a reasonable number, but have one be from outside your generation, because someone with 20, 30 years difference between you (older or younger) is apt to have a significantly different perspective on not only historical events but everyday facets of living. That’s a helpful point of view.

If—when—you receive a rejection notice from a publisher, and it’s not a canned response (as far as you can tell), write back and thank them for their consideration, and add that you’re grateful for any advice or insights they might have. You might get somebody who tells you that, much as they liked the book, they’re just not accepting any new manuscripts for the foreseeable future or that it’s not the sort of genre they publish—cold comfort, but better than simply being told (in so many words) that your book sucks.

You can buy Transformation Summer here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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Atmosphere Press is a selective hybrid publisher founded in 2015 on the principles of Honesty, Transparency, Professionalism, Kindness, and Making Your Book Awesome. Our books have won dozens of awards and sold tens of thousands of copies. If you’re interested in learning more, or seeking publication for your own work, please explore the links below.