By Tiffanie Reynolds | email@example.com
“I’m always really moved to see how strong family ties can be. Even when your family members are driving you crazy, there’s this thread, I think, that runs underneath that you really can’t shake and that you don’t want to shake,” said Smith, adjunct English professor at Flagler College.
Her debut novel, “Heart of Palm,” officially launched on April 3. It talks about the strength of a family and the place that they are tied to, especially in the face of tragedy. The novel’s central character, Frank Bravo, has been stuck with his family in the fictional town of Utina, modeled after Palm Valley in Ponte Vedra, Fla., for his whole life.
Now, a developer has called to buy their house and land, but the family has to decide if they would be willing to part with a house they’ve been living in for the past 40 years. Couple that with a past death and relationship issues within the family, and a simple decision quickly becomes heavier and more complex than when it was first proposed.
Smith draws many parallels from her own family and life. Like Frank Bravo, she is one of three siblings, and, like the Bravo family, she maintains a close relationship with not only her immediate family, but her extended family as well. Growing up, they were a constant presence in her life.
At the heart of the novel, as well as a character, is the house that the Bravos own and live in. This house is modeled after her grandmother’s house in New Jersey, and one that she spent a lot of time in growing up. Smith describes it as a quirky house, with locked doors and some parts of it in disrepair.
“My grandmother’s house had bathrooms that wouldn’t work, and the solution they took was just close the door and don’t go in there anymore,” said Smith.
The quirky personality of the house stayed with her and became the inkling of an idea for a story. It wasn’t until she moved to St. Augustine that other events and places were able to turn that house into a story. One of the central points of the novel is taken directly from a story her husband told her: a family friend’s son’s death from a car hitting him on the side of the road.
“Somehow, all these different elements, the house, the family, and that tragic death, I just started seeing ways that they can be woven together and make a story,” said Smith.
Although the main setting of the novel is fictional, there are many details that are directly drawn from St. Augustine. Many scenes take place on North A1A, with other scenes set in Ripley’s and the Diary Queen on San Marco Ave.
Writing the novel was a process on its own. It only took Smith four months to complete a first draft, after the first 50 pages were picked up by an editor, but two years to edit and revise to its now published version. Her mother, an avid reader and writer, contributed to the early edits of the book, with her book agent giving her group critiques from the agency. But, with her editor, Amy Hudly, Smith went through six to eight revisions before the book was approved to be published.
“There were times when I was really nervous about if I was going to be able to do it. I was also worried about not wanting to be a ‘yes’ person. If somebody suggested that I change something, I didn’t want to make a knee-jerk change without really thinking it through. Luckily, I trusted all the people that were providing me feedback. And 99.9 percent of the time, when they suggested things, and I looked at it, I could see that they were right,” said Smith.
Writing a novel was something that Smith always aspired to do. But, she admits to not having the confidence to accomplish it until she was in her 30s. With the launch of the novel, she has already gone on tour in St. Augustine, Neptune Beach, Tampa, Coral Gables and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with stops in other cities in Northeast Florida until September.