Follow Me Down is a rare find—a gutsy, visceral, and beautifully crafted psychological thriller from a talented new author. Chevy Stevens, bestselling author of Never Let You Go and Still Missing, sat down with debut author Sherri Smith to talk about her novel and writing during the long Canadian winter.
Chevy Stevens: In Follow Me Down, Mia Haas is a troubled woman forced to return to her hometown in North Dakota after her twin brother disappears and the body of his high school student is pulled from the river. The story has everything I love in a dark and twisty psychological thriller: complicated family dynamics, small-town secrets, fascinatingly flawed characters, and lots of surprises. I’m not the only one enthralled. Diana Chamberlain said, “This engrossing page turner will keep you guessing right up to the delicious ending” and Publishers Weekly called it an “unsettling crime thriller.” They got that right!
When I read an early copy of Follow Me Down a year ago, I instantly knew this book was special and wondered about the author. How did she get so good? Who is this amazing fellow Canadian writer? Recently Sherri’s editor asked if I’d be willing to ask Sherri some questions, and I jumped at the chance.
Sherri! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this with me. It’s exciting to be on the other end of an interview. First off, what is your background? Did you go to university? Or the school of hard knocks?
Sherri Smith: Wait. Before I answer that, I need to ask, is this really happening? Is Chevy Stevens really interviewing me? I need a moment pull my fan-girl self together, so please hold on a sec.[Long pause, full of calming breathing-techniques or maybe hyperventilating. It’s always a fine line.]
Ok, I’m here. I’m here. Thank-you so much for that lovely introduction!
So yes, back to your question. Definitely both. I did go to University but it was a few years after high school. I knew it was something I was paying for myself and so I worked and saved some money first.
Turned out though, I was really bad at saving money and even more accurately I didn’t make enough money to save, since I lived on my own and had a very crappy job. So when I finally made it to University I had to continue working thirty-plus hours on nights and weekends. It wasn’t pleasant and I should have only taken courses part-time, but at this point I was a in a big hurry to get a degree because I felt so behind and old (which now seems ridiculous.) In the end, I was pretty proud of myself when I graduated with an honors degree in Literature and Politics. I promptly resumed working at a slightly less crappy job but at least I had better critical thinking skills.
CS: I think it’s fabulous that you got a degree—and worked so hard for it. I never went to University but I always wish I’d had that experience. Maybe when I’m older! Speaking of experience, many authors have a couple unfinished manuscripts or even completed drafts that never ended up going anywhere. Do you have any books hidden in drawers?
SS: I definitely have some unfinished drafts, but they’re each probably under twenty-five pages. So I either give up way too soon, or know when to quit. Depends on the day.
CS: Maybe you could turn those into short stories one day! You know, with all your free time. Ha. You live in Winnipeg but your book is set in North Dakota. I loved the richness of your small-town setting and how it played a part in the story and the character’s lives. How did you decide on your location? Canada versus the US?
SS: It was for entirely selfish reasons. I needed an excuse to go down to Target in Grand Forks. So I’d tell everyone I was ‘researching,’ but I was really at Target, oh and at Gordman’s. I love that store.
CS: That is an absolutely brilliant reason for choosing a setting. I have to admit I picked Seattle for my next book because I love visiting the city. Great minds think alike. Maybe we’re related? Mia and Lucas are twins, and obviously share a strong bond. Do you have any experiences with twins? Or naughty teenage girls? Because you have a few of those!
SS: I don’t have any experiences with twins. But absolutely some mean-girl stories from those awful middle school years. There was one girl, who was particularly sophisticated in psychological warfare. I think she provided the foundation to write a lot of wicked characters (so a big thank-you to her for murdering my self-esteem in 9th grade, it’s come in handy after all!)
CS: Ugh. I think we all have our mean girl stories. I remember a few from my high school day, and those events can haunt you for a long time, which brings me to my next question. Your character takes a lot of prescription medicine (or NOT prescription) and I’m curious about your research—it was so well writtenJ
SS: Thank you!
I’ve been asked that a lot lately, always with a certain amount of suspicion. So I will take the opportunity to clear the air, I am not personally a pill-popper.
I researched Mia’s pills use, mainly by lurking in a lot of online forums where people freely discussed their drug use. How it made them feel, what they recommended to one another and what one might want more of and why. That definitely helped get an idea of the physical and mental sensations certain drugs might bring about. A pharmacist at my local Safeway also helped me out with my sketchy questions about certain medications, their effects and what you could and couldn’t mix, (this was of course, after establishing I did not need an ambulance.) She was great!
CS: Well, you did a fabulous job. It’s obvious you did a lot of work to bring these characters to life. They were so vivid and three dimensional. How long did it take you to finish Follow Me Down? Do you think the long, cold Winnipeg winters helped?
SS: It’s hard for me to pin down the exact timeline, since I had such a meandering start. I think it took two years at least, and then another year of edits. This was my first thriller and the learning curve was huge. I spent a lot of that time also reading as many thriller novels as I could, trying to understand why certain books worked for me and others didn’t.
And yes, the winter absolutely helps, because there’s literally no reason to leave your house, and in turn, your desk.
CS: Now that your book has been published, what has been your biggest surprise? Is it everything you thought? I know this isn’t your first book, but your first in this genre. Anything different?
SS: The biggest difference from when I last published is the huge presence of book bloggers. I’m just in awe of how supportive they are and how integral they’ve become to the promotional side of the industry.
As well, the expectation for a writer to participate in social media is much bigger, which hasn’t come easy to me. My social media age is like ninety years old and sharing unsolicited information about myself still feels odd but I’m getting the hang of it.
Lastly, the thriller community is also so much more supportive of one another and that’s been the best surprise in all of this.
CS: You’re right. The thriller community is amazing and I’ve made a few wonderful friends. When I’m not working, I love looking at vacation rentals on VRBO and planning dream holidays for all of us. What is your favorite method of procrastination?
SS: Oh good question. I love that you plan dream holidays! So much better than what I do, which is aimlessly knock-around the Internet. I read articles I don’t need to read and forget about them fifteen minutes later. I search for used vintage furniture. I look for answers to random thoughts, like what was that actor’s name, was she/he in that other thing I watched, or what is the exact altitude of Santa Fe, New Mexico. If I feel sick in any way I put my symptoms into Google and get really scared by what comes up. I also like to do online jigsaw puzzles, (yeah, I know, nerd-alert but at least I will know how to handle myself if I end up in a senior’s home) because it gives me something to look at, other than staring at font that does eventually blur together if I stare at it too long.
For this reason, I will disable my Internet for long stretches out of the day if it gets too distracting.
CS: Ha! I love all of those and will probably try a few on my next bout of Internet procrastination. (I’ve never tried online Jigsaw puzzles!) Writers are known for their strange quirks and superstitions. I need the same keyboard and have several of them stashed in the closet in case they are ever discontinued. I also use ear plugs and can’t write if a door is slightly open beside me. Do you have any writer quirks?
SS: What keyboard do you use? I need a new one! I don’t have any superstitions, I don’t think? As for quirks, I know a lot of writers listen to music to draw them out of dry ruts, or to keep the energy up from all the sitting writing requires, but I watch comedians. A few snippets on YouTube and the fog lifts. (Trying to make one another laugh, ranks highest in my family as demonstrations of love so I get some good material there too.)
CS: I’m obsessed with a Microsoft Wireless Comfort 5000. Like me, you have a young family. I get asked often how I balance it all (not very well) and I only have one child. What is your system for getting your work done while still managing to be an awesome mom, who goes to dance class with her daughter. I’ve seen the video, remember!
SS: Ahhh, yes. The video. (Who knew one could use a helmet in a dance class?!)
Trying to balance it all is hard. Having kids certainly changes things. I army-roll to my office now, so my children don’t see me, that’s mainly how I still get things done. Actually ‘office’ is way too lofty, I work at a desk crammed in my son’s nursery, far too close to his cloth diaper bag. I’m also constantly lured away from writing by my four-year old daughter’s pleas to play a variety of imaginary games, in which she controls everything and I am forbidden to go off script (future writer?) But aside from space issues, continual distractions and the emotional tug-of-war kids can put you through; I think having children has actually made me a more efficient writer.
First off, I drink less, and so I’m hung-over less. Plus I’ve set out boundaries and a schedule, that have forced me to get things done, rather than flitting around all day without restriction. I can’t wait for inspiration to make an appearance; I have to chase it down. So I like to get up really early, get as much done as possible before my mom-guilt wins out and I put what I am working on behind me for the day.
CS: Your daughter sounds a lot like mine. It’s her Universe and she’s very clear about that. I think the only place we can control anything is in the pages of our books. Can you tell me anything about your current project? What aspect of it excites you the most?
SS: My new project is another suspense novel. I don’t want to say too much about it at this point other than it takes place at a wellness retreat, and involves psychotropic tea and murder. It is the most intricately plotted thing I’ve ever attempted and so I’m excited to find out if all those jigsaw puzzles will pay off!
CS: It sounds riveting and I can’t wait to read it! I really appreciate you answering all of my questions. I know you are a busy woman. It’s always so fascinating to me when I get a chance to look inside another writer’s world. Thank you for sharing yours with me.
SS: And thank you for the interview! It’s been such an honor.
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