A Conversation with Julie Smutko Daugherty


Julie Smutko Daugherty’s self-published debut novel novel The Corner Stone, might wind up shelved in the romance section of your local bookstore, but it could just as easily be found tucked under in the science, and/or dysfunctional families areas.

It’s this ability to defy classification, combined with Daugherty’s skill at creating complex, believable, and multifaceted characters that make her story so incredibly difficult to put down.

At the heart of The Corner Stone lie Asher and Brooke, two diamond obsessed college students on a collision course with romance.  However, Asher’s introverted manner and his tense family dynamic threaten to derail their chances at happiness at nearly every turn.  While helping Brooke work on her Master’s project, Asher stumbles upon an exciting new scientific theory about diamonds that could change the world, but would this change be for the better?  Read our full review here.

What follows below is a spoiler-free discussion with Ms. Daugherty about her debut novel and the inspirations behind her writing.

Julie Smutko Daugherty earned a degree in biology from the University of California, San Diego in preparation for her first career as a biomedical writer. While writing and philosophizing have remained her passions, her second career is centered around kids, the PTSA, and the dishwasher. Julie lives in Pittsford, New York. (official bio)

TE: Who is Julie Smutko Daugherty?

Julie_Smutko_DaughertyJSD: Wow.  Right out of the gate.  Julie is someone who, though she is unaccustomed to referring to herself in the third person, has always had a life that looks quite pretty on paper, though it is actually held together with scotch tape and sweat.  But as she is an open book, anyone who takes five minutes to get to know her smells the sweat pretty darn quickly.

TE: How did you first get started with writing?

JSD: In elementary school in Tucson, Arizona, there was an annual writing project, “Young Authors,” (complete with prizes) every spring.  We even bound our stories into books that could be checked out in the school library.  In first grade I wrote a story about cowboys eating a rattle snake which I quickly came to be embarrassed about.  Years later I learned the practice was not uncommon: lesson number one in taking creative risks.  I can remember winning the contest a couple of times, but I was distracted by other areas of concentration for many intervening years.

TE: Where did the idea for The Corner Stone come from and what are the details behind the email that appears in the novel’s preface?

JSD: Dad will send me interesting scientific findings he comes across, and I try to do the same. In the summer of 2008, my family had been on a trip to an observatory in Oregon, so I was mulling over the speculated age of the universe. Since nobody can honestly put billions of years into a concept they can wrap their head around, I decided to translate what I was reading into a timeline from zero to 100, where zero was the Big Bang, and 100 is present day. That’s when I found a recently published article on diamond matter that shifts the supposed beginning stages of life on earth back significantly. Diamonds, which have been universally revered for thousands of years. Diamonds, which, for generations, helped Jews preserve wealth when they endured persecution and uprooting. Diamonds, our strongest connection to the first signs of life on earth. I contemplated all these connections, with a dash of personal history, and the backbone of the story began to take shape. So, of COURSE I had to share my enthusiasm with Dad – my science nerd idol.

TE: How long did it take to write this story and what ultimately drove your decision to self-publish the novel?

JSD: I spent about 9 months researching (VERY part time) the scientific aspects of diamonds, the history of diamond mining, marketing, etc., then wrote (again, part time) for a little over a year.  I received substantive comments from Jackie Rubenstein, a friend who offered very thoughtful feedback, and spent another 6 months re-writing the manuscript – mainly adding to what was there, but also some fine tuning.  All in, we’ll call it two and a half years.

I shopped the novel to agents for fully two years, regularly seeking advice for a good query letter.  Ultimately, I believe the uniqueness of the content made it hard to market, but being a self-described whore for closure, with many, many commitments in service to others that trump my pursuit of fame and fortune, I figured I would put my little story out there and hope for the best.  It is an industry in flux, that is for certain.

TE: It seems like it would be a bit of disservice to label and market this book as a straight-forward romance novel. How do you describe it to others? Where do you think it ultimately should be shelved?

JSD: It’s very gratifying to hear this feedback!  I have been told that my characters are the greatest strength of the book, but that said, I believe it is too plot driven to fit into a “literary fiction” realm, nor is the science fantastical enough to be thought of as “science fiction.”  For a while I thought “women’s fiction” might suit it, but I’ve had very favorable feedback from men as well.  So, now we know what it is not…  What’s left?  As non-descript as it sounds, I believe “Commercial Fiction,” is the best bet.  I have also heard a term, “Upmarket Fiction,” which is perhaps even better so that readers understand there are some challenging portions, but not of the highbrow literary variety.

TE: The story tends to walk a tightrope at times between the spiritual beliefs and comforts embedded in religion, and the cold, hard facts that science offers up. Personally, do you have a tendency to lean to one side or the other? Did your personal beliefs make it difficult to write any particular part of this story?

JSD: No, here I must admit to very openly sharing a personal belief system.  I have a background in science.  Science satisfies, gratifies, and intrigues me.  But what I feel is often lost on scientifically-minded people is that science is merely the act of progressively improving our description of the natural world around us.  Science did not create this world.  Science is merely describing this world.  Anyone close to science must acknowledge its PROFOUND evolution in even the last 200 years, let alone since its advent.  Forces are at play that we don’t understand.  I allow for the possibility that science may one day be the breakthrough to greater understanding of those forces.  But in the meantime, it is ungenerous to entirely discount the spiritual/religious realm.  I don’t personally ascribe to any given doctrine because in my experience, to do so inherently discounts others.  But the smartest people I know keep an open mind – acknowledge the limits of their understanding.  And that is exactly what I always strive to do.

TE: The character of Asher, his complex family dynamics play a crucial role and add highly realistic depth to the story. How much were you able to draw upon personal experience to help accurately capture this tension?

JSD: I believe Sylvia, Asher’s mother, is the character of greatest interest, and after careful consideration I must admit that I believe subconsciously I have drawn parallels to my Grandma Smutko.  She lost both immigrant parents at an early age, married painfully young, and made some misguided parental decisions in the spirit of doing what she believed was very best for her children, based on her limited tools.  Nearing death, she told me nonchalantly, yet with purpose, that my grandfather was the first person on Earth to tell her he loved her.  Poignant.

Of late, the universe has been reminding me that everyone has legitimate reasons for being the person they are.  While painting fictional characters, I felt that providing that backstory added to their authenticity.

TE: What are you currently working on?

JSD: The only thing that pours out of me on a regular basis is the weekly PTSA newsletter I write as the middle school chairwoman.  However, I have several projects cooking in my head, which is absolutely how this one started.  The first is another novel which would be even more rooted in biology as pertains to human coupling (and I choose that word over “mating” for a reason) and another is a series of essays akin to “Lives of a Cell,” [Lewis Thomas] exploring traits and behaviors in our present-day culture that hearken to our more primitive relatives.  I know it sounds dry, but I can’t write anything without injecting a certain amount of humor.

TE: Who influences you most as a writer?

JSD: Tough one.  As someone who, literally, never even took a creative writing class, I feel I am not worthy to discuss the writing of my literary heroes in the same sentence as my own writing.  So, that said, I’ll freely admit to a respect for Dan Brown and his level of research and intertwining history and art into his work to make a thoroughly engaging read.  If I could reach a fraction of his popular appeal, I’d be thrilled.  But my favorite writers, the people whom I am in awe include Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Franzen, and a shout-out to an old friend, Anthony Tognazzini.  These are writers whose mastery of language, whose turning of phrase never cease to delight and astound me.

TE: What was the last great book you read?

JSD: Since my name is not Sophie, I offer the following: “The Corrections,” [Jonathan Franzen] for language, “The Statues that Walked,” [Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo] for content; “The Glass Castle,” [Jeannette Walls] for message, and the Harry Potter [J.K. Rowling] series for story.  Who doesn’t love a good story?

Julie Smutko Daugherty’s self-published debut novel The Corner Stone is available for purchase in paperback or electronic format from Amazon.com.  You can follow Ms. Daugherty on Facebook at The Corner Stone.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.