Dads' tour now over, Smith returns to writing novels

September 13, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Summer's over and it's back to work for mystery writer Martin J. Smith, author of "Time Release" and "Shadow Image." But it was a memorable summer for Smith and fellow writer Phil Reed, author of "Low Rider" and "Bird Dog."

Both men, both former reporters, have published two mysteries each. But the books weren't flying off the shelves and their publishers weren't spending a lot of time and money promoting the books.

"I have no illusions about where I stand in the food chain of the publishing world," said Smith. "At the bottom," he added.

"A lot of groundwork needs to be done before there's a payoff and building the audience is a stage you have to go through," he said.

Smith and Reed both live in Southern California. They met at a writers' conference and discovered they had a lot in common. So they decided to combine book tours and set out in twin minivans with their kids on a four-week, 6,500-mile, 10-state "Dads' tour" that included a stop at Davis' Capitol Crimes & Coffee and Dark Carnival in Oakland. Their wives met up with them at different points along the way. Their publisher paid for exactly nothing.

"But it was wonderful," said Smith, 42, a native of Pittsburgh, Penn. "I did about 50 events and took the kids camping in Yellowstone and to the Grand Canyon."

Smith says a number of small independent mystery bookstores exists and his aim was to do the circuit, meet the readers and the people who sell the books.

"Barnes and Noble may sell 35 copies of a title in a year, but a good independent will hand-sell 200 copies," he said. "You can't ignore the chains but the better way to build an audience is through target marketing." Smith says it's too early to say whether his summer's tour will produce big sales, but he's happy with the effort.

Now he's hard at work on his third novel, "Straw Men," which is due out this spring. This book is about an innocent man convicted of rape due to faulty eyewitness testimony.

"Everyone knows how easy it is to misremember something and interpret memories, but an eyewitness is still considered solid gold in a jury trial," he said.

He calls his three books the "memory trilogy" because each features Jim Christensen, a memory expert. In "Shadow Image," now out in paperback, Christensen becomes involved with one of Pennsylvania's wealthiest political families. But the family matriarch, a victim of Alzheimer's disease, knows an explosive family secret and has no control over that memory.

His first book, "Time Release," is about unfounded charges leveled in a case of repressed memory. He says at least 800 cases based on repressed memories have come to court between 1985 and 1995.

"People have been carelessly guided by therapists to believe in repressed memories," he said. "That may be fine in the therapist's office, but it's dangerous in a courtroom."

Smith grew up in Pittsburgh, and that's where his books are set. He went to Penn State and then returned home where he worked as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Press and wrote for the Sunday magazine.

"I was most comfortable as a feature writer, you know, trying to create literature in a tight format. You get a taste of the tools you use in fiction writing: pacing, structure, scene, characters."

But eventually California called. Smith came out to Orange County and decided that he liked it. The move was made in 1986.

Smith wrote his first two books in two years when he was working a day job as the editor of Orange Coast Magazine. His wife also was working full-time and they both pitched in to keep the household running and the two kids on track.

"So I made the time to write from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., then I got the kids off to school, went to work, and came home to write again. I had no life for two years but I had a book contract," he said.

Just about a year ago, he quit the day job and began free-lancing and working at home. He found out that a large part of his job as a writer would be self-promotion. That's where the Dads' tour entered the scene. But now he can get back to the main business at hand, writing.

"What I can control absolutely is the writing," he said. "Not the marketing, not the distribution, but the stories. And I'm having a blast because I'm doing what I want to be doing."

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