Valerie Joan Connors, Author


Discussion Questions - Shadow of a Smile


1. How is Meredith like her mother? How are they dissimilar? 

2. Describe the importance of music in this novel. Why did the author title the novel, SHADOW OF A SMILE

3. Why do you think Meredith’s grandparents keep Anastasia’s secrets? 

4. Do you think Meredith is angry with Anastasia? Would you be? 

5. This novel depicts romantic relationships in many ways: through Meredith’s grandparents’ marriage, Anastasia’s relationships with Tommy and Howard, and Derek’s relationships with Meredith and Vanessa. How does the variety of romantic relationships serve the novel? 

6. Discuss the settings of Wisconsin and California and their importance to the story. 

7. Multiple families are altered by Anastasia’s affair and secrets. Yet despite her mistakes, Anastasia is a sympathetic character. Discuss. 

8. Why does the author have Meredith follow in her mother’s footsteps along Route 66 rather than fly to California? 

9. How does the author use the parallels between Meredith’s life and Anastasia’s life to advance the story? 

10. Why do you think the cover image was selected? 

11. What does this novel say about forgiveness? What does it say taking responsibility? 

12. What do you think will happen to everyone? 

Author Interview - Summer 2014


1.      What sparked the writing of this novel?  

I started this story by asking a question often asked by authors.  What if?  I thought, what if everything you believed to be true about where you came from and who your parents are, turned out to be false?  I wondered how that might change you.


I also used the advice that authors are always given, to write what you know.  I was born in the Midwest, grew up on the west coast, and lived in Oregon, California and Washington.  So I wanted to include some of these places in the story.  I also crossed the country by car a number of times.  So I started thinking about how much fun it would have been to drive across Route 66 back when it was still fully intact.


So with the seed of an idea swimming around in my head, I realized that Route 66 begins and ends in two of my favorite places, Chicago, and L.A., and I loved the contrast between the harsh Midwestern winters and the continuous summer in southern California.  I also learned that many of the sections of Historic Route 66 don’t exist anymore, and that gave me the idea to have two characters crossing that same part of the country, thirty years apart.


Then I went to Google Images, because for me, photographs always spark stories, and I picked out the house where my protagonist would have grown up, and the California beaches where her mother would have lived thirty years before. I decided to set the contemporary part of the story in 1992, because while Google is an invaluable tool to the writer, it would also have made the story very short, had it been set in the present day.  In 1992, cell phones existed, but not everyone had them.  They were big and clunky, and the exception rather than the rule.  So that changed the color of a woman taking a cross-country car trip all alone.  Now you can Google anyone, and within minutes find out almost everything you could want to know.  But in the early 1990’s, it still required some legwork to track people down, and I didn’t want it to be too easy for her.  You know, force your character up a tree and then throw rocks at them…


2.      How is this novel different from your previous two?  

My first book, Give Me Liberty, was based on experiences my mom had as a single mother in the early 1950’s, when she left her violent first marriage and moved to New York with her three year-old son, at a time when women just didn’t do that sort of thing.  My second book, In Her Keeping, was inspired by a visit my husband and I made to a tiger sanctuary, and the little tiger cub that stole my heart.  Shadow of a Smile is the first book I’ve written deliberately, in that it wasn’t inspired by a life-changing event, or deep-seated memory.  


3.      What is most important to you as a writer, character/voice, setting, or language? Some combination? Does this change from book to book?  

All these elements are important, but in the end I think that the character/voice is the thing that draws people in, and makes them keep coming back for more.  I believe that readers want to spend their precious time with characters they can relate to, and love or hate.  Setting is important for both reader and writer.  The reader wants to enjoy visiting the fictional world the author has created, and the writer has to like the world a lot, because his or her commitment of time spent there is much greater.  But with setting, I also believe that less is more, because readers’ imaginations will fill in the blanks, and they will make the world look the way they want it to look.


4.      How do you find the time to write?  

I write in bursts that are often months apart.  My stories are always brewing in my head, but with a full-time day job, I have to wait until I have a number of days in a row where I’m not at work, and can immerse myself in the story and stay there for a while.  I use vacation time, holiday and sick time, to do big chunks of writing.  Then I edit on the weekends when I have smaller blocks of time.  But my first drafts are usually written in three or four one-week periods during which I work ten to twelve hours a day, every day, for as many days as I have available.  There may be month or more in between these periods of binge writing, where the story has to just simmer in my subconscious until I have another opportunity to spill it all out onto the pages.


  1.      What inspires you as a writer?  

Everything!  As I go through my daily routine, I encounter many things that spark ideas.   But I’m probably most inspired by photographs, places and music.  I’m also inspired by feelings that are evoked when I’m listening to audiobooks, which is the way I have to do almost all my “reading” while I commute to and from work.  The changing of the season, childhood memories, dreams and even smells all inspire ideas.  


6.      Who are some of your favorite authors?  

I love Stephen King’s writing.  I admire how prolific he is, but especially his skill in storytelling.  James Lee Burke has beautiful prose, and an uncanny way of combining gorgeous sentences with brutal, violent scenes, and I love the way his bad guys always have some weird physical deformity.  I also enjoy Anna Quindlen, Jodi Picoult, and Janet Evanovich, and I’ve listened to the audio versions of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged multiple times, because the stories are so rich.  Then there are my favorite local and regional authors, Terry Kay, Pat Conroy, Patti Callahan-Henry, Joshilyn Jackson, Haywood Smith, Karen White and Susan Rebecca White.  I’ll automatically pre-order anything these authors write.  I love detective stories too, and Dennis LeHane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series is wonderful.


  1.      What is the hardest part of writing a book, in your opinion?  

For me, the most challenging part is deciding where the story should begin.  With In Her Keeping, I missed it by only five pages, and was delighted when my editor finally pointed it out to me after I’d spent a couple years of tinkering with it.  With that book, I created a setting that I loved so much I didn’t want to finish the last chapter.  I wanted to stay there for a while longer.  So I suppose knowing where to begin the story and deciding when it’s finished are the hardest parts of writing for me.


8.      You are the President of the Atlanta Writers’ Club. How important is community to your writing?  

Belonging to a writing community has been invaluable to me.  As president of the AWC, many doors have been opened to me that I wouldn’t have known existed.  When I joined the Atlanta Writers Club I was trying to figure out the publishing business as I went along.  I’ve learned so many things since then, and made so many wonderful friends who all support my writing career, that I think a writing community is essential.  Publishing is a very difficult business, and I can’t imagine trying to navigate it alone.  It’s also very solitary work, and it’s nice to have peers who understand the process.


9.      For you as a writer, what has been different between your self-publishing experience and your traditional publishing experience? Were there advantages to each? Do different stories require different paths to publication?  

I self-published my first book immediately after finishing it, and just before joining the AWC.  I truly had no clue how to go about marketing it, and at the time I didn’t know anyone who could help me with it.  But that book was very personal, because it was a fictionalized version of my mother’s experiences as a divorced, single parent in the early 1950’s.  I didn’t like the idea of having an editor who didn’t know me, and who hadn’t known my mother, making plot suggestions about a story that had its basis in fact.  But as a result, I published the book without letting ANYONE read it first, which of course I now know was a mistake.  Still, I think that self-publishing was the probably the right way to go with that first book. On the other hand, now that I’ve had two books published with traditional publishers, I almost wish that I’d waited, and plan to re-release it after some rewriting and professional editing.  The benefit of traditional publishing is that you have a support team behind you, although in truth, most of the marketing and selling of the books still falls onto the author’s shoulders.


10.  Your writing career began late in life. Do you have any tips for those in a similar position?  

I believe what C.S. Lewis said: “It’s never to late to set another goal, or dream a new dream.”  I didn’t start writing until my early fifties, but until then, I think I didn’t have anything all that interesting to say.  I believe it helps to accrue some life history first.  Also, I think it was about that time when I began to feel like I could speak my mind without fear of other people’s opinions.  That’s the beauty of getting older.  But I like to think that my fifties aren’t really all that late in my life.  I like to think I could have another thirty years of writing, during which I could amass quite a significant body of work. I do wish I had started sooner, but for others in a similar position to mine, I’d say embrace it, and take advantage of your years of life experience.


11.  What’s next?  

At the moment, I’m working on a story about a woman who breaks away from her high-stress, fast-lane life in Washington D.C., and moves to a remote cabin the mountains to get away from it all.  There’s a pregnant, teen-aged daughter, a retired judge, an evil-ex husband, and someone who ends up getting shot to death on her property. With any luck, she’ll appear in more than one book, because as hard as she’ll try, she won’t be able to keep herself from getting involved when she gets an intuition she can’t ignore.  This book is still in its early stages, so it will be interesting to see what it turns in to.


I’d like to publish at least one book a year for the rest of my life. At this stage of my writing career, I feel like a kid in a candy store, because I have so many things I’d like to try.  I enjoyed writing Give Me Liberty, because I liked the research and the history.  I grew up romanticizing the 1950’s, but discovered that era was not all that great for women when you got down to brass tacks.  But I enjoyed writing about that period, and I’m drawn to the past, so I will probably write more historical fiction.  I’d also like to try writing a detective series, and a psychological thriller.  At some point I’d like to try my hand at memoir too.  My stories will probably all include a character that’s a bully, because I don’t like bullies, and I enjoy giving them a hard time. I also have a soft spot for animals, and others without a voice.  But what I’d really love to be able to do is write the kind of stories that inspire people to be better human beings; the kind of stories that linger in the reader’s mind long after the final page is turned.