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‘I Wanted to Understand Money and as a Writer I Had Zero Clue’

So Alisa Smith quit journalism to be an accountant and spy novelist. Smart move.

By Isabel Ruitenbeek 16 Apr 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Isabel Ruitenbeek is a soon-to-be journalism graduate from the University of King’s College, in Halifax. Find her on Twitter @izzy_ruitenbeek.

Alisa Smith is a freelance journalist turned accountant and fiction writer. She’s also the co-creator of the 100-Mile Diet, which started as a series in The Tyee and went on to become a book, TV show and global phenomenon.

And to those who fret about figuring out their life’s path — like me — she’s a relief and an inspiration.

Doublespeak, which launches at the Red Truck Beer Company on April 27, is Smith’s second novel, a sequel to 2017’s Speakeasy. Both novels take place around the Second World War and feature Lena Stillman. Like Smith, Lena is a woman whose career has taken a sharp turn. She’s a tough-as-nails codebreaker who used to rob banks with an infamous gang during the Depression. In the books, Lena must constantly balance her position in the espionage world with her secret lawbreaking past.

Lena is the definition of a strong female lead, and Smith was influenced as a girl by books like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, where female characters seem to write their own stories.

“They had something to say for themselves, and it made me want to find my own voice,” she told the CBC in 2017. She cites her strong mother, and her father’s death when she was 12, as reasons she felt she had to develop her own resources. That fierce independence comes across in Lena’s character, and in Smith’s own travels down different career paths.

Smith’s early investigative work for The Tyee delved into child labour laws, drugs and politics. It’s hard-hitting and aimed at holding the powerful to account.

When she and her partner, James MacKinnon, started writing the 100-Mile Diet series in 2005, the tone changed. The diet plan was to only eat food produced within 100 miles of the couple’s Vancouver home, which they did for a full year. Their anecdotes about a year of local eating are honest, casual and, above all, human. They chronicle the good times alongside the bad, the gourmet feasts alongside the countless potato-based meals. Doing the best you can, they show, can be revolutionary.

Meeting Smith, the facets of her diverse career come together. She’s warm, laughs a lot and loves to write. But when she talks about her transition to accounting, she talks about wanting to understand money and those who have it — the powerful.

In a full circle moment, The Tyee spoke with Smith — who wrote this site’s first-ever article back in 2003 — about her latest novel and her winding career. It’s been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Why did you dedicate Doublespeak to your great-aunt Sheelagh who was a codebreaker in the Second World War?

Smith: She worked in radio intelligence, at the base in Esquimalt and also I think in Port Grey, but it’s a bit controversial in the family how codebreaker-y her work was. That’s what my mum told me, that she’d gotten the story from my great-aunt. By the time I spoke to her she was starting to have dementia, so I asked her about it, and she said, ‘Who told you that?’ in a very suspicious way that made me think she really did do the codebreaking. Her son thinks she more did radio signals work, which still is an intelligence-gathering function, because they’re counting the number of Japanese planes and where they are in the Pacific and all that. So, it definitely was intelligence work.

That’s interesting family drama. I read a little about her, she sounds like a total badass either way.

I heard a story at her funeral; it was just last year. Her son said she was on leave during the Second World War, but her papers had run out, so she was supposed to be back at the base, which is actually a pretty bad offence if you’re in the military. She recognized the guy that was manning the gates and distracted him and sweet talked him, and he didn’t look at her papers. I’m pretty sure she was a spy.

How did she inspire you?

She was just a very strong woman. Like my grandmas, and the women of that generation that went through the Second World War. My grandma on my dad’s side, she was in the women’s navy in the U.K. She considers herself to have served even though in Canada we don’t think of women as having been soldiers, because they couldn’t technically be in the military. She performed all the duties of a military person — the uniform, the barracks life, she loaded bombs onto planes — for the whole duration, ’39 to ’45. The war totally changed her, made her a very independent person as well. My great-aunt seemed to be that kind of person too. I really admire those women, and it’s sad that most of them are gone now. 

Doublespeak is set just after the Second World War, and Speakeasy takes place during the war. Writing historical fiction well must take a ton of research. Does it feel similar to how you approached journalism projects?

It does, and that’s I think why I love historical fiction. Even though fiction is super fun to write, I like being grounded in the facts. I feel very comforted when I have my stack of 15 Second World War books sitting beside me. I’m actually trying to make it as realistic as possible, with occasional poetic licence to make the plot go how I want it to go. I would say 85 per cent of the backdrop is very, very historically accurate. The date of a battle, or things like that, is all very carefully put in sequence. Even the types of characters — there are so many madcap people, especially who got drafted into the spy services. They were like, ‘Well, you’re maybe a bit too weird for the regular military, but you’re really smart and good at math, so maybe you’d like to be a codebreaker.’ There are some really odd characters, even stranger than some of the ones that I created. Sometimes life is too strange to make into fiction. 

How is writing fiction different from writing journalism?

When things are not real it’s infinite what you can do with it, especially during the editing phase. That’s when it can be on the overwhelming side, like when an editor asks about killing this character or introducing a whole other character, or changing the plot in this whole other way? It’s like, ‘Oh really, are you serious?’ They can’t make you do that in journalism. Although I guess they could say, ‘This person in your story is not what we’re looking for, we need someone else to represent this idea.’ In that way, it’s similar.

I’ve heard that women writers get asked this question more than men, because there’s a sexist assumption that women are less able to imagine things outside their own experience, and they tend to write more autobiographically. I’m still curious though, is there any of you in the character Lena Stillman?

I think any fiction writer puts little bits of themselves and people they know in every character. In a way it’s kind of like a psychological deconstructing exercise. There are pieces of me in Lena, but there are also pieces of me in Byron or Bill. That’s how you relate to the world, through reactions that you have had to things or people close to you. There’s no one character that’s me or that’s someone else that I know. It’s little fragments of reactions to things or the emotions that you have when something happens. That’s what I’ve felt the most powerfully, so that’s what I’ve put into my characters, and I hope that feels powerful for the reader as well. But it’s not at all autobiographical. 

Do you find yourself learning things about yourself as you write the characters?

I do, because I’d say I’m not someone who stops to analyze my emotions or reactions to things a lot in my real life. So, when I had to do it for my characters and put pieces of myself in them, it was a good learning experience. Although I don’t know if anyone would say I’ve become a better person from it, I hope so. 

Can you touch on the transition into your current work in accounting?

I was a journalist and I got very interested in writing fiction, but fiction is not a good way to pay your life expenses. I’ve also always been very interested in the idea of where does power come from, why do people have power, how do they keep it, what do they do with it? For me, power is money. I wanted to understand money better and as a writer I had absolutely zero clue about that. I decided to study accounting, so now I work in the finance industry, and it’s a totally different scene from journalism but very interesting.

With the 100-Mile Diet, it seemed you spent a lot of energy focused on food justice and sustainability. Why turn to the financial sector as an outlet for your concern for the public good?

When I talk about accounting, I want to understand how financial structures work, how people use them. If you read the news, it’s all really business news. The richest people in the world and how they control corporations, so I’m just very interested in stuff like that. 

When was the moment you decided to focus your energies in the financial sector?

I guess it was after the 100-Mile Diet project was over. It actually restored my faith, if I’d ever lost it, in regular people and how good they are, how good-hearted a lot of people are. Touring the 100-Mile Diet project took me to very small towns and rural corners of Canada and the U.S. Particularly in the U.S., I had a stereotype in my mind of what a Republican voter might be. I’d be talking in the Rust Belt and there’d be these incredibly sweet people saying, ‘Our towns are dying, and we want to revive our local economy.’ They seemed very caring. We met one family whose son had been in the military and really scarred by that, and becoming a local farmer was restorative for him. That was really inspiring.

I felt that people want to do the right thing, and these were people of humble means. It seems to me that people who want to do the right thing usually are the people of humble means. Maybe they have less to lose or something. On the flip side, you get into big business and big money, and that’s where you find the greed and the lack of ethics. There are two different jobs in the world: there’s supporting those good people, and then there’s understanding the not-so-good people. It was a gradual process of change.

Does your work in the financial sector inspire your fiction writing at all?

Anytime you meet new types of people it inspires fiction writing. I’m involved with a whole different set of people then I was when I was a freelance writer, so it’s interesting to me. The personalities and what drives people, it’s very different than what I’m used to, so that’s interesting to me. 

Did you start writing fiction before you went into accounting, or did it happen at the same time?

Somewhat before. I started Speakeasy in 2011 and went back to school to study accounting in 2013. 

For a lot of people, changing careers like you have is scary, but you’ve said that you’ve never regretted taking a risk. Where does that fearlessness come from?

Probably from my mother, because she grew up in a military family and they moved all the time. For her change wasn’t at all scary, in fact it was what she craved. It was a little bit jarring sometimes, because we moved a lot, changed schools a lot. But I also came to see that as normal and not something to be afraid of. That’s given me a lot of flexibility in later life, to do whatever I want to do and not be scared of change.

James MacKinnon is your partner and was your writing partner during the 100-Mile Diet project. What is your creative relationship like these days?

We’re very supportive of each other, but we tend to work on our projects fairly separately. We learned from working together that writing a book together is not good relationship therapy. Better to keep your stuff separate, but we’re very proud of each other’s achievements and still look at each other’s work. 

You wrote the first piece for The Tyee back in 2003. How does it feel to be interviewed now for the site, as a fiction writer?

I feel very proud of The Tyee. The Tyee’s probably been one of the most enduring news sites on the web really, besides the pre-existing major outlets. It’s really an impressive achievement. Kudos to The Tyee. 

What about you, does it feel weird to be on the other side of things during an interview?

From the 100-Mile Diet, I got used to doing so many interviews. It definitely felt strange at first, I was like a deer in the headlights. It took a lot of getting used to, but that’s also been good personal development. Doing so many public talks made me more comfortable doing that, more comfortable giving interviews. But I always have been a private person, so that takes some getting used to, opening up and having it be about me. I like it being about other people. 

Doublespeak will be launched April 27 at 7 p.m. at Red Truck Beer Company, 295 East 1st Ave, Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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