As an emerging writer, I’m always fascinated to learn more about authors individual writing journeys. Joy L. Smith’s debut book, TURNING, comes out Spring 2022. I was really excited to reach out to her since Joy’s book has similar themes to WHEN IT ALL SYNCHS UP, the book I’m currently querying – both center Black ballet dancers! Joy was kind enough to agree to an interview that was really illuminating and inspiring for me. Check it out below!
Author Bio: Joy L. Smith is Brooklyn and Queens, native and a true theater nerd, often found at Broadway shows and running through the Theater District with her twin sister. She is an assistant preschool teacher and has taught the love of books and reading to elementary schoolers. Joy has a degree in Human Development and Differences from SUNY New Paltz, and loves to write stories about Black girls who live in New York.
Maya: What first got you interested in writing? What were your early influences and which authors made you feel seen?
Joy: I first got interested in writing like most: through fan fiction. I used to write screenplays and stories about my favorite boy band, B5, with my sister. From there, I started creating my own stories and really got into it in high school, when a school project led by my freshman English teacher encouraged me to apply to a writing program called Girls Write Now. It’s a mentorship for NYC girls to be paired up with writers from various backgrounds. There I had three mentors, Radha Blank a screenwriter and playwright, Ibi Zoboi, YA author extraordinaire and Emma Straub author and owner of Books Are Magic. They all had a hand in shaping me as a writer and as a human in general. You don’t see yourself as a writer until other writers shine a light on you. Though now I truly love the works of Brandy Colbert and Elizabeth Acevedo, I often wish I had them to read when I was in high school.
Maya: When did you first get serious about pursuing traditional publishing?
Joy: If you asked me in high school when I thought I would be published, I would’ve told you before I graduated. Like what was even going through my sixteen-year-old mind? I was doing nothing to get published. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen. But it was my junior year of college that I started a manuscript that I thought, maybe yes, maybe I can do something with this. It was then I started to research querying.
Maya: Can you talk a bit about your writing history? How many books did you write and query before you were agented?
Joy: My writing history is very short. I wrote and queried one book. That’s TURNING, my debut. I realize I’m very lucky because many people write and query several books before getting representation let alone a book deal.
Maya: I would love to hear about how you found your agent. Any advice or tips for writers in the querying trenches?
Joy: I found my agent through DVPit! It was my first time pitching and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. When I queried my now agent, she was the first agent to ask me about my process for this book, and she wanted to understand me as a writer. I didn’t query too many people before her, but I knew she was different. It wasn’t just the words for her, it was me as a person. I thought that was special. She asked to speak with me on the phone, and she told me she wanted to do an R+R (a revise and resubmit) because she felt the story needed work, which of course I agreed to try. Lucky me, she loved my revised manuscript and offered me rep. My tips for querying are to make sure you have the best possible version of your manuscript and make sure your query letter is to die for. I got a lot of requests, and I think that’s because I spent a lot of time on my query letter. After that, make a list of appropriate agents. If you don’t think you’d want to work with that agent, don’t put them down. I got a lot of info from Query Tracker and general google searches. I appreciate agents with websites. Also if you’re on Twitter, it can’t hurt to look into people on there too. Talk to other writers if you can, ask them about their agents. There’s a lot of talk of “smacgencies” and “smagents”, so if you get a bad vibe or they ask for money, RUN. I did a lot of tracking of clients to see where their books sold. Not every agent has to have Big 5 clients, but their clients should vary where their work is.
Maya: Can you share a little bit about your editing and submission journey after you got representation?
Joy: After I did a R+R for my agent, I did another round or two of edits just to get it tippy top shape for submission. From there I did another R+R while on submission for an editor. And now edits for my now editor. So my story has been through A LOT, but it’s still the same great story that I fell in love with. I’m glad that the editors have managed to allow me to keep the story without changing it into something unrecognizable for me. Going on submission was a long process for me. It took 2.5 years before being offered a deal. There were a lot of nos and a lot of close calls, but it’s all part of the process. I’m so happy to have my now editor and imprint. Having a Black editor for my Black girl story is just so rare, so I treasure it, and appreciate that everything happens for a reason. I had to wait until my imprint was made for me to end up where I needed to be. It’d called submission hell for a reason, between the waiting and rejections it can do a number on your self-esteem. Even though I told myself rejections happens, it still hurts to think you’re not good enough.
Maya: What inspired you to write TURNING? Since I’m currently querying a book that’s also about a Black ballet dancer, I’m really curious!
Joy: What inspired me to write TURNING? Oh wow, I just really enjoy everything theater and arts related. I particularly love dance. Not that I’m a dancer because I’m a wallflower through and through, but I love ballet. I really do. It’s not something you see a lot of Black girls doing professionally. But I had this thought of a ballet dancer at the barre, and she was like me, she was Black. Then I got to thinking well, what would happen if she couldn’t dance anymore? Then that brought me to her being injured, and so and so on. My character, Genie, is magical in every sense of the word. She’s gorgeous, she’s talented, witty, hot-headed and so into herself, she’s really fun to write. But the more I wrote, the more it became a story about healing not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. It’s about the journey and testing your strength and forgiveness, and owning up to mistakes and friendships and love. As you’ve told me, your main character, Aisha, likes to choreograph and that is Genie too.
Black girls carry a lot on their plate and have a lot of responsibility. Act this way, teach someone about your hair or dealing with expectations that are so heavy. Black girls are generationally strong – we have to be – and we continue to carry all this weight that lots of people think it’s okay for us to hold. But when you think about choreography, you think of the control and responsibility it takes. Especially for something so technical as ballet, it takes a very special mind to handle that. Especially when you don’t have a lot of role models to look up to. So I love that Genie loves choreography and it allows her to have control and express herself. Be herself. And boss her friends around too, lol.
Also big in TURNING is disability. As someone who isn’t disabled, it’s a risk writing a story about something that isn’t one’s own voice, but I recommend sensitivity readers for sure. They really are invaluable and have helped me shape my story for the better.
Maya: I love that using choreography as a method of healing and reclaiming power is something that both our main characters have in common!
What advice would you give to yourself as a writer when you were just starting out?
Joy: Write as much as you can, I would tell myself. Finish as many projects as you can. Also don’t sweat so hard, don’t compare yourself to others. Things will happen for you when they happen.
Maya: What’s something great you read recently?
Joy: I’m really trying to expand my adult literature collection. I read a lot of YA, but I loved Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and I’m currently reading The Mothers by Brit Bennett and wow I’m soooo enjoying it! One day I’ll be brave enough to write adult fiction.