Sean Smith: novelist, journalist, part-time Celtic musician, and Bostonian. A four-decade writing career, from the mundane to the extraordinary. “Transformation Summer” marks his debut novel, showcasing his love for storytelling (seansmithwriter.com).
1.If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
2. Our memories are often critical to how we shape ourselves. What memories inspired you to start writing “Transformation Summer”?
My inspiration for the book didn’t come from a memory, exactly. What happened was, I came up with the setting – the Toward Transformation camp – and then I started to think about what kind of place it would be and what kind of impact it might have on people who have attended it regularly. I started to remember the experiences I had as a teenager at a youth program I went to very often; usually one weekend a month, or perhaps every six weeks. I thought of the camaraderie I formed with the other kids and how, within the formal structure of the youth program, we created our own informal set of expectations, behaviors, activities, customs, rituals, etc. – perhaps a game that some of us would always play, or music we would listen to on the stereo, or private conversations I would have with individual friends.
I feel that this youth program functioned as an “intentional community,” a place that had its own ecosystem, with shared values, beliefs and purpose, where we would step away from the wider world for a couple of days. And I imagined Toward Transformation in the same vein, except that it wasn’t associated with a specific faith or religious group, or a life philosophy or professional development approach of some kind. The people who attend Toward Transformation simply share their knowledge, skills, etc., with one another.
So I thought, “What would it be like for a young person, in the midst of a troubled period in his life, to go to such a place? What might he find there, what might he take away from the experience?” And clearly, Seth – the main character – was very much affected by that visit to Toward Transformation, and is still sorting out what it all meant.
3. “Transformation Summer” might seem to be a fictional autobiography where you tried to balance the identity of the character Seth and your own. What are the similarities and differences between you and him?
Well, Seth and I both experienced the separation and divorce of our parents, but I was very young – not even in elementary school – when it happened. Seth is close to the end of childhood when the split occurs, but it’s traumatic for him nonetheless, and part of this has to do with his self-identity: He prides himself on having some expertise and insight on relationships – his friends seem to believe this, too – so not seeing this break-up coming makes it all the more difficult for him to grasp, and he estranges himself from his peers.
I didn’t experience any of that, because my parents’ separation and divorce happened so early on. I just grew up with it as an accepted fact of my life. Seth, at least for a while, thinks that maybe he can somehow keep the split from happening.
I do think that almost every novel or work of fiction has at least some autobiographical dimension to it, but I was very self-conscious about making Seth too similar to me. In general, I’d say he’s more headstrong than me, especially when he tries to understand what kind of place Toward Transformation is: I didn’t want him to be passive or accepting, so he really has his eyes and ears open and questions what he sees and hears.
But you know, people are just people. Seth wants to be loved, to have friends with whom he can share the deeply personal sides of himself; I did, too, when I was his age and still want that – don’t we all?
4. The book details transition and transformation through youthful experiences and learning with unfamiliar people, environments, and especially ideas, all of which are contributing factors to self-introspection. Can readers undergo that kind of process through this book?
I don’t want to give the impression that I wrote “Transformation Summer” with the intention of it being a self-help kind of book advocating a particular life philosophy or personal-growth experience. I think people can read the book simply for what it is: a story, a fictional memoir. That said, however, somebody reading it might recall having had an episode in his or her life similar to what Seth has gone through, and how being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people may have – directly or indirectly – helped him or her get through a difficult period or simply offered a new outlook on life. As an author, I certainly want people to find a connection with the book, whether through the story or its characters.
The thing is, as we see, Seth’s experience at Toward Transformation is not so clear-cut. There are some immediate benefits, obviously, but even years later he’s still trying to figure out what happened and why he still thinks about that summer. I don’t necessarily have all the answers to the questions Seth – or anyone reading the book – has, and different people may draw different conclusions. Which is fine with me.
5. One important feature of “Transformation Summer” that we see through Seth is how teenagers can be alienated not just from their family and friends or their environment, but themselves. Have you ever faced alienation during your adulthood?
It’s interesting: We see or hear the word “alienate” a lot in the media or everyday discourse, but in your posing the question I felt compelled to look up its actual definition, which is “to make indifferent or hostile” or “to cause to be withdrawn or isolated from the objective world.” That’s a pretty big range of emotions and responses, especially if we’re talking about being “indifferent” as opposed to being “hostile.”
For simplicity’s sake, let’s use Seth as a model for alienation. Have I ever felt angry or bitter toward somebody to the point where I felt closed off from them? Unquestionably. In some cases, there was reconciliation, and the relationship was even better than before; in other cases, the alienation never ended. Have I ever been at odds with myself such that I felt I couldn’t relate to the rest of the world, especially family and friends? I may have, but not for very long. Perhaps it was more self-pity than self-alienation.
What we’ve come to understand over time is that teenagers tend to have a lot of difficulty in understanding and processing strong emotions (not that adults don’t have that trouble, too, but it’s more pronounced among teenagers). In Seth’s case, his alienation from his parents, and his mother in particular, has become a shield, a barrier: At the beginning of the story, he’s barely communicating with her. But he’s so intrigued and fascinated by Toward Transformation that his alienation, almost against his will, begins to dissipate. Which suggests how much he wanted to be free of that negativity.
6. One of the most compelling features of this book is about the evolving and natural bonds that the characters develop through their interactions, beliefs, and purposes. These bonds also create a “We feeling” based on the true fraternity. What kind of bond do you share with your characters and the book?
Once I had a feel for the characters and who they were, I truly enjoyed having them in my life while I continued to write the book. As I came up with situations, plot twists and narratives, I had to really think hard about how the characters would each react, what they would say and do. In some cases, I felt like I had to give some more depth to the character: Morgana is a good example – at first, she comes off as obliviously and unintentionally comic, but I honestly started to feel bad for her, so I decided to give her another dimension. Rafe is another example: He’s a jokester and something of an iconoclast with a strong personality who’s the self-appointed “leader” of the camp’s younger generation, but Seth (and we) come to understand what’s underneath all that bravado.
I didn’t realize this until much later on, practically just as the book was about to be published, but I think the character I feel the best about is Seth’s mother, Joanne. She seems to grow the most over the course of the story. Early on, she describes herself as “just” a wife and mother, as if she lacked any kind of useful perspective or insight. But over time, she becomes more self-assured and confident about herself.
When I was done with the book – that is, after I’d finished some revisions of the original draft – I found that I honestly missed having them in my life. I suppose I could write a sequel.
7. Writing this book must have been a difficult journey for you, as during this time period you lost your mother and wife, and faced challenges due to the COVID-19 environment. What motivated you to work on your book during these personal battles?
The book was actually finished well before my mother and my wife entered into their most serious, and ultimately fatal, health challenges; I finished the first draft right around the time my wife received her cancer diagnosis in the summer of 2018, and I spent about a year reworking the manuscript. In late 2019, I began sending the manuscript around to publishing houses, but as my mother and wife’s respective situations grew increasingly dire, I really didn’t think much about the book at all. Intermittently, I would reflect on the fact that I hadn’t been writing fiction at all for some time; this was saddening, but I didn’t dwell on it for very long, because there was too much else to think about.
Finally, in mid-2022, several months after my wife’s death – and about a year after my mother’s – I decided I might as well try sending the manuscript out again. My attitude had always been that if someone is actually interested in it, that would certainly be wonderful, but I never counted on this happening. So it was quite a surprise when Atmosphere Press subsequently contacted me to say they wanted to publish “Transformation Summer.”
As for the impact of COVID, my office shut down for about five months in the spring and summer of 2020, and I worked from home during that time. While I did miss my colleagues and my work environment – I’ve been there for more than three decades – it was lovely to be home with my wife, who at the time was doing quite well. Where “Transformation Summer” was concerned, I found that COVID was affecting the small, independent publishing houses I thought would most likely be interested in the book; some publishers said they weren’t accepting any submissions, or warned that they wouldn’t be able to respond for a long time.
So while I don’t directly associate the writing phase of “Transformation Summer” with these personal tragedies, they certainly form a significant backdrop to the overall period in which the book took form.
8. Journalism has profoundly shaped your perspectives and ideas about the contemporary world, but how does it impact your career as a writer?
Journalism is, of course, a discipline with a distinctive set of methodologies and practices that guide how a writer conceives of and formulates a story. Furthermore, the journalist has to understand that the publication for which he or she writes has its own unique editorial mission as well as target audience, and this is critical in deciding what to write about and how to write it.
For example, if you work for a newspaper that focuses on news, events and people in a small New England city, your readers expect to see mainly stories that have to do with their community. So you’re not going to write about some popular new show on Broadway – unless, that is, you can find a connection to your target community: Maybe a native from the area is part of the cast, or works behind the scenes as, say, a set designer or in the costume department. But you’re not really writing about the show, but about the person and his or her involvement in it.
I didn’t have to worry about any of that when I started writing “Transformation Summer.” I didn’t have a “target audience” in mind at the outset, although I was pretty certain it wasn’t going to be children or young teenagers. It was only when the book was in production that I had to think about whom would likely be most interested to read it: middle-aged or older adults; people interested in personal growth experiences; parents of teenagers.
As a journalist, you know you have a very limited opportunity to engage newspaper readers: If you don’t give them a good, solid idea of what the story is about in, say, three or four paragraphs or 250-300 words, you’ve probably lost them. With a book, however, readers are likely to be more indulgent. They go in expecting that it may take a chapter, perhaps even more, before they really get what the story is about.
Now, writing fiction can definitely feel liberating: You can create your own universe and the people, places and events in it. But to my mind, anyway, this universe does have to make sense; it has to have some continuity and integrity. So I found some practices I’ve used as a journalist were helpful in writing “Transformation Summer.” Even as I explored the ideas for the setting and characters, my journalist self would interrupt with thoughts like “OK, how does this camp function? Who organizes and runs it?” or “What do we need to know about this person? What are his or her important qualities?” And because it’s incumbent upon a journalist to be economical with words, sometimes I’d go back and look at what I’d written and think, “OK, those five paragraphs are pretty lengthy. Let’s see if I can cut it down to two paragraphs.”
9. “Transformation of Summer” is a must-read book for all generations because it highlights evolving human psychology and how we perceive the world through the meanings, memories, and beliefs we hold. What was the transformative stage in your life that holds great significance for you?
When I was 21, I spent nearly a whole year in the UK and Ireland, doing an independent, for-credit study on the revival of folk music in that region. This was a form of music I was personally interested and involved in, and going to its place of origin was a tremendously exciting opportunity. I was able to meet many performers whose work had inspired me and I attended some memorable events. Unquestionably, this experience contributed to my growth as a musician and broadened my knowledge and understanding of the music that I loved.
But there was far more to this experience than musical enrichment. I was thousands of miles from home and family, and I had to find work to support myself, as well as organize and take responsibility for my life to a degree I hadn’t before. While overall I was successful in completing my project and being independent, on a more personal level I also encountered significant disappointments and setbacks.
So, even as I could take satisfaction in having stayed abroad and finished my study, rather than deciding to give up and go back home, I also had to reflect on decisions or assumptions I made that, perhaps, had contributed to the dubious circumstances in which I sometimes found myself.
I can’t say I was a completely changed person, or that I suddenly became a mature adult. There were still more life-shaping experiences ahead of me. But that year definitely was transformative in showing me what I could be capable of accomplishing if I put my mind to it.
Seth’s sojourn at Toward Transformation is certainly transformative for him, at least in the short term, and he’s still working on what the longer-term implications are.
10. You were selected for the Gold Book Award from Literary Titan, an organization of professional editors, writers, and professors. What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book? What are common traps for new authors?
To some degree, I think your experience in working on a book depends on what else is going on in your life, such as whether you have a full-time job, are married or in a committed relationship, have kids, and h in general how busy – and potentially distracted – you are. Having a physical space for yourself in which to work is helpful, even if it’s a semi-organized desk in a crowded room. You can make an appointment – a specific day and time – with yourself to do “book stuff” if you think that will help, but I found that I worked best when I actually felt inspired and enthused to write something.
So then the question becomes, “How do you find or cultivate that inspiration?” For me, it was a matter of being in situations where I could let my mind run free, such as walking home from work, doing a chore, waiting for a bus – I waited a long time before getting a smartphone, so I guess that cut down on distractions.
All told, it took me probably a year-and-a-half to finish the first draft of “Transformation Summer.” I wasn’t in any hurry. Sometimes many weeks would go by before I would work on it some more. But I knew when I had reached the end, or at least “an end” to the draft.
That’s when I started the next phase. I recruited three friends to be my beta readers, and told them to be ruthlessly critical as needed, and not to hurry. They did a fine job. All told, the beta reading phase – sending them the text, getting back and integrating their suggestions – took about a year. That’s when I felt ready to send the manuscript around to publishing houses.
And, as was the case all along, while I thought about how exciting it might be to actually publish a book, I never counted on it happening. So perhaps the best advice I could give is, yes, you should temper your expectations about publishing a book, but that doesn’t mean you should have no expectations at all.
“Transformation Summer” by Sean Smith is a gripping tale of adolescence and personal growth. Seth’s life is in turmoil as his parents separate, and he’s dragged to the transformative camp against his will. Surprisingly, he finds friendship, love, and challenges that haunt him for years. Smith’s novel is a poignant exploration of memories and their lasting impact on our lives. Dive into this captivating journey on Amazon and discover the enduring power of youth.