Profile: Ashley Smith

All The King’s Men is being written by an incredibly talented and diverse team of writers from around the world. The stories in the anthology are informed by their unique perspective on the world, and their own fascinating experiences.

We here at anthology HQ want to celebrate these writers and their experiences. We not only want to support their other creative endeavours, but we also want to give you some insight into them as people and as creators, and to give you a chance to follow these great writers beyond this anthology.

Today’s featured writer is Ashley Smith, a writer based in the USA.

Please tell us about yourself.

Hi, I’m Ashley! My first name is the most popular name for girls born in my year, and my last name is the most common surname in the United States, but I like to think I’m original, anyway.

I’m a twenty-four-year-old children’s librarian. I love cats and eat way too much ramen, neither of which is probably healthy long-term. My favorite genres to write, in no particular order, are fantasy, comedy, adventure, drama, mystery, and school life, but I love mixing and matching and trying new things. I also have a strong passion for anything Victorian, including Gothic horror, steampunk, gaslamp fantasy, etc.

How long have you been writing?

Starting out, I was a reluctant reader and needed supplemental instruction. Once I got the hang of it, though, you couldn’t stop me from reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. Writing came with that same eagerness, and the first story of mine that I can remember is a tall tale I wrote when I was in third grade. It was about a man named John and his giant cat who helped save a trapped submarine by making a chain of octopuses and using their suction cups to pull the sub free.

Fifth grade is when I really started getting into writing. For class, we had to write a desert island survival story after reading Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, and I remember becoming really invested in mine, writing far more than my classmates and lamenting the fact that I didn’t have the time to finish it the way I wanted. Later that year, I wrote a book of animal poetry, inspired by a project my older sister had been assigned. By sixth grade, after much praise and encouragement from my family and teachers, I’d decided that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I’d also developed quite the little ego, something I (thankfully) grew out of toward the end of high school. That’s when I took my first creative writing class and learned to look at my writing more critically. Admittedly, it’s been a lot harder for me to just let myself write freely since then. I’m still trying to teach myself to loosen up my inner editor!

Who is your favourite writer, and why?

I’m positively enamored with the Victorian and Romantic writers. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are two of my favorites–they’re so witty and were socially far ahead of their times. Dry humor and social critique can be difficult to pull off, but these two managed to strike a perfect balance every time, and that’s something I strive for in my own writing.

Lately, I’ve been reading mostly middle grade fiction and comics (and middle grade comics). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll are classics and favorites of mine. Neil Gaiman has the enviable talent of being able to write for adults, teenagers, and children (sometimes all at once), so I love going into his works never knowing what to expect. I’m a huge fan of graphic novelist Jun Mochizuki, and her Pandora Hearts – a beautiful, intricate, and haunting tragic fairytale – is my favorite work of literature of all time. Mochizuki is a masterful storyteller who I’ve personally learned a lot from, and I love the way her artwork can be evocative, enchanting, inspiring, and disturbing all at once.

I’ve also been avidly following the web comic Bastard by Carnby Kim and Youngchan Hwang, which is about the tormented son of a serial killer. I went into it expecting chills and thrills–and I certainly got them–but was totally blindsided by the raw human drama and superb character development. My favorite graphic novel for young readers is Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova, which manages to be cute, clever, funny, and charming without talking down to the reader, which is something I’ve found a lot of middle grade books struggle to do. I once had the pleasure of meeting the author, and she’s truly a talented and inspiring creator.

What can you tell us about your writing process? Do you approach each project in the same way?

It’s a mess, an absolute mess! I haven’t had a good system in place since I just let loose as a kid, so everything I write these days ends up being really sporadic and disorganized. My piece for All the King’s Men, for example, began its written life on my phone’s notes app before leaving tracks over word processing documents and blog drafts. Scenes were written completely out of order and put together piecemeal without any transitions, which I had to fill in afterward.

A lot of my writing gets done on my phone, actually. I hate pen-and-paper writing because my hand cramps up after around two pages, and my handwriting is atrocious, anyway. Typing it all up is a huge time drain for me, too; I’m no good at doing it efficiently. My phone is sort of like what a notepad is for other people. I’m slow at typing on the tiny keyboard, which makes me less likely to go back and obsess over every sentence I’ve written. It’s also portable, so I can write on the go or in bed at night if I’m suddenly struck with inspiration.

As for brainstorming and story creation itself, I can take inspiration from just about anywhere–a news story, an offhand comment made by a stranger, a lyric in an otherwise mundane song. Usually, I’ll come up with either a character or a scenario and then work to fill in the other. I’m a strong believer that plot and character are intimately related–two halves of the same whole. A character influences her circumstances, and her circumstances influence who she will become.

Your story in All The King’s Men is a prose story entitled Jagged Edges. Can you please tell us about the story, where it came from, and what it means to you?

The story was inspired by a prompt on the All the King’s Men website about a man with no memories escaping from a facility while carrying a deadly secret that not even he’s aware of. The premise was dark and had the potential to carry a good mystery, and since I’m so fond of Gothic horror, especially with a modern twist, it clicked with me right away. My older sister is studying medicine, so medical horror seemed like suitable backdrop to set it against.

The characters and their relationship were inspired by a lot of different sources. I was reading the middle grade novel Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson at the time. It’s the story of a scavenger girl who encounters and ends up caring for a young, amnesiac noble. I found the friendship that develops between the two girls, who come from vastly different backgrounds and harbor their own dark secrets, beautiful and, at times, haunting. The characters in my story are significantly older, but I wanted to capture that same innocence and passion for human companionship, and for that reason, I put them out in the wilderness, away from society and in the center of their own private world. Gender became a part of that equation when I decided to make the two main characters male. In modern Western culture, there are a lot of things that two men aren’t “allowed” to do that two women can get away with. A big taboo is showing physical affection, especially in a nonromantic context–touching, hugging, hand-holding, etc. I wanted to challenge the perception that those acts are somehow “wrong” when men do them. Ultimately, I decided to leave the nature of the relationship between Seven and Rourke ambiguous so that readers were free to draw their own conclusions.

You studied creative writing at university. Did you find it rewarding? What was the single most important lesson you learned while you were there?

I definitely don’t regret it. I think I really started to come into my own style during my time in the program, and it was a great experience meeting and working with so many other writers from a multitude of different backgrounds. I think the most important thing I took away from the program is the arsenal of tools I now have to critique and talk about writing and art in general. That’s been really helpful in taking apart writing, both my own and others’, to see what works and what doesn’t.

You’re an aspiring novelist. Do you have a novel on the go at the moment?

I do! My current project is a young adult horror-comedy novel about a skeptical girl who transfers to a high school for the supernatural. Once there, though, she finds the students aren’t exactly what she was expecting–the vampire is cheerful, the incubus is distinctly unsexy, and her roommate is literally a witch. The novel is an affectionate parody as well as a deconstruction of the popular magical school and paranormal romance genres. It’s been a fun challenge trying to integrate and balance the silly-versus-serious tone I’m going for while also telling a good and engaging story.

Are you working on or planning anything else?

I have a historical alternate universe novel on the back burner at the moment that draws inspiration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and I’ve had a multi-volume fantasy series brewing in my head for several years now, based on a dream I had when I was fourteen. I’d also love to eventually be able to work on something nonstandard, like a comic, visual novel, or video game.

Where would you like to see yourself and your writing career in five or ten years’ time?

This is such a hard question for me to answer since I’m really focusing on the day-to-day right now. I hope I’ll have at least one book published within the next few years. But I also hope something spontaneous will present itself to me in the meantime – kind of like how All the King’s Men did!

We here at ATKM HQ think Ashley is a writer worth following.

Ashley invites readers and editors to contact her via email.