The first thing people notice when meeting best-selling author Haywood Smith is her warm smile and positive energy – which is remarkable considering all that the 63-year-old has been through. For instance, her husband of 30 years became engaged to a stripper – while they were still married. Plus, she’s battled chronic pain most of her life.

Haywood has a genetic disorder: Her body produces too many T cells when exposed to yeasts, molds and fungi. As a result, her immune system goes into overdrive, causing an inflammatory response affecting her joints and pituitary system.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that Haywood got a correct diagnosis – chronic fungal arthritis as a result of a T cell receptor defect. Her inflammatory condition has caused joint pain and destruction since she was 12. By age 57, she had endured 26 surgeries, including double-knee and double-hip replacements.

Haywood likens her life to living in a Stephen King novel, which she thought was normal till she started using her experiences in her books. She seems to take life’s adversities in stride, with optimism and wit. Already the author of six successful historical romance novels, she decided after her divorce 11 years ago to never read or write a book that didn’t make her laugh and feel good. So she began writing humorous novels targeting baby boomer women, which won her loyal fans and commercial success. The Red Hat Club (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) made The New York Times best-seller list.

On the heels of the release of her latest novel, Out of Warranty (St. Martin’s Press, January 2013) – about a woman with a rare disease who marries for health insurance – Arthritis Today sat down with the Atlanta-based writer to explore what makes her tick.

Arthritis Today: What’s your secret to happiness?

Haywood Smith: First and foremost, I trust God to provide. Then I work my hardest to make lemonade out of lemons. I focus on the blessings, not the imperfections. So I choose to live with joy, in gratitude. Humor is a powerful healing and teaching tool, too. My grandmother told me a long time ago, “You can laugh or cry – take your pick.” And I take a shipload of antidepressants, of course.

AT: How was growing up with your condition?

HS: People teased me, but I was too stubborn to give up trying to be “normal.” When my joints wouldn’t cooperate, I pushed myself till I could do things the other kids did – ride a bike, roller-skate, water-ski. Reading became my refuge, and I read everything I could get my hands on.

AT: Anything you couldn’t master?

HS: Hitting a baseball and snow skiing. When I wore my new jeans to the slopes for my first attempt at skiing I fell every time I tried to get up. I promised God I’d never put on skis again if he’d get me to the bottom of that icy slope in one piece. God kept his side of the deal, and so have I. But when I got to the ski lodge, I found everybody counting the blue marks I’d left on the slope and laughing.

AT: How were you finally diagnosed?

HS : I was bitten by a rabid raccoon five years ago. I got really sick after the massive doses of antibiotics I had to take with the rabies treatments. In my case, candida (a fungus) had gotten into my lungs and sinuses. An [ear, nose and throat doctor], Dr. Donald Dennis of Atlanta, figured out why. He has been researching this condition [an inappropriate immune reaction to fungus] for 30 years.

AT: How do you treat it?

HS : I reduce the inflammation in my body. First, I had my house properly mold remediated with a nontoxic, citrus-seed fungicide. And I give myself shots twice a week. The shots work as long as I keep to my high-protein, low-carb diet, with no sugar or simple carbohydrates, which feed the fungal infections.

AT: How does your diet help?

HS: Food allergies are common with this condition. Tests revealed I was allergic to most of the healthy foods I’d been eating, including beef, black pepper, broccoli, rice, soy, oats and wheat. So I took the foods I had left and devised a four-day rotation diet to keep from becoming allergic to those, too. No sugar, either, because it feeds the fungal infections.

AT: How do you like your new joints?

HS: They’re fabulous. Wish I could have had them done sooner, but back then, the knees and hips weren’t as durable as today, so they wanted to wait as long as possible. The only drawback is the TSA musters up Homeland Security the minute I get out of my cab at the airport..

AT: Tell us about Out of Warranty.

HS : It’s a social satire. My fictional heroine is a 55-year-old widow with my condition who goes broke from her medical bills and decides she has to remarry for better health insurance. She ends up settling for a one-legged curmudgeon with the same condition and great health benefits, and the two live happily ever after in separate bedrooms.

AT: Any personal romantic ambitions?

HS : Heavens, no. My life is full, and so are all my drawers and closets. And I live across the street from my son, my amazing daughter-in-law and my four grandbabies.