Novelist Neil Smith Crashed Into Writing

Canadian Neil Smith never imagined he’d become a professional writer. Sure, he liked writing and all, but dismissed it as a hobby – until his marvelous short stories started getting published.

It wasn’t long until an agent contacted Smith and persuaded him to publish a collection of nine thoughtful, profound tales, Bang Crunch, which Vintage Contemporaries recently republished in paperback form.

Our editor chatted with Smith this morning and got the scoop on his literary process, the inevitability of melancholy and how he discovered his own imagination. Read all about it, after the jump.

Andrew Belonsky: First of all, congratulations on the paperback publication of the book! That must feel great, especially with short stories, because they’re a pretty hard sell.

Neil Smith: Yeah, they are – they can be. I was surprised that the book was bought by so many countries.

AB: How many?

NS: Five- Canada, England, France, America and Germany. It’s been excerpted, as well. Some of the stories have come out in Russia and The Netherlands – much better than I thought it was going to do.

AB: How long did it take to complete this collection?

NS: About four years, but I was working part time on it. I have a full time job as a translator in Montreal, so I would do it in the morning sometimes, the evening, on the weekend. I originally didn’t expect to become a writer. I went into as a hobby. Then a few of the stories started to get published in magazines and one of the first ones that I wrote caught the attention of an agent. He asked me if I had a novel, and at that time I had not started a novel yet, just the stories.

AB: The entire collection is soaked in this melancholy – even the stories that end on a touching note, for example “Bang Crunch,” the titular tale, the reader walks away feeling maybe a little depressed, maybe a little nostalgic for something they never experienced. I’m assuming that’s something you went for intentionally. What is this fascination with depressive situations?

NS: Well, I think that the book balances the melancholy with a lot of humor. If I hadn’t done that, it would have been really depressing to read. I’ve always been drawn to black comedy and drama and that’s what I was trying to capture. I also wanted the stories to have varied tones – some of them are really quite silly, some of them are much more poignant, some of them are serious, but I wanted to use comedy throughout because that’s how I see life: melancholy with comedy. Even in a story like “Isolettes,” the first story – although it’s about a situation where a premature baby ends up dying, there’s comedy thrown in the mix throughout the story.

AB: I fell in love with Jacob – he’s such a great character. Is he based on anyone real?

NS: Not really, no. I think a lot of the time what happens with these characters is that I might start off basing the characters on what I know, but by the time I finish writing it, the person, the character has taken on other characteristics and becomes a fictional being.

AB: It’s interesting that you’ll start a character and they become something else. I had a conversation with another author recently who said something similar about how his characters took their own direction when he envisioned them doing something completely different. It’s interesting to me as a writer and speaking to other writers how our characters can become real. It recalls that old Descartian debate: “I think, therefore I am.” What is “am”? What is “being”?

NS: Right. When I start writing a story, I take a lot of notes and I have in my mind how a character is going to be, but as I work on a piece and it gathers strength, what’s surprising to me as a writer is the way that your mind works – the directions a story will go in that you may have not originally envisioned. You have to ask yourself where these ideas come from as a writer. Why is the story going in this direction when you wanted it to go differently? That’s one of the reasons I write: to discover my own imagination, to see where my imagination will take me.

AB: Do you feel like you’re channeling something?

NS: I don’t know. I’m not a very religious person and that sounds a little religious.

AB: Yeah, I guess, but if you get into the swing of things – I know that happens with me, the piece just takes over, you don’t even have to plan what you’re doing sometimes.

NS: Yeah, all the pieces start falling into place after I’ve been working on a piece. It suddenly solidifies and the structures becomes clear – the superfluous elements fall away and you’re able to concentrate on the kernel of truth in the story. I think that happens after you’ve been working on a piece for a while. I tend to do a lot of note taking before I start writing. I can play around with the elements of the story without feeling locked in. When I sit in front of my computer and writing the final version, I tend to weigh every word that goes on a page, whereas in my note taking phase, I can just let my mind wander to various areas and write down anything that comes to mind that could happen in the story. That’s what I’m doing at the moment for the novel. I’m playing around in my own head, obviously, but I never write stories about myself or about my own life. They’re always about other people. I find other people’s lives far more fascinating than my own. Writing is really an escape for me – it’s kind of like Halloween, where you get to slip into a costume for a while.

One of Smith’s stories involves a young man who collects butterflies. It’s called “The Butterfly Box” and leaves the reader wondering, “What the fuck just happened?” In a good way, of course.
AB: Are you an introvert?

NS: I would say so, yes. I work at home. I’ve never had a real job, to tell you the truth. I work as a freelance translator, so clients call when they need translation work. I don’t see very many people because I’m at home all the time. So, yeah, I would say I’m introvert.

AB: What about your childhood?

NS: I was an introvert then, too. I grew up in the United States, actually and moved around all the time. It was difficult to make friends if you change schools every year.

AB: Why did you move so often?

NS: My father was working as an engineer and he was transferred to various companies throughout the United States. We lived in Boston for a while and then we moved to Salt Lake City and Chicago and then back to Canada. So for a dozen years I was moving around all the time. Recently I moved from a house in Montreal where I lived for seven years and that was the longest time I’ve ever lived anywhere.

AB: Are you an only child?

NS: No. I had three siblings, but my older brother died a few years back, but I have a sister and a brother left. I wrote as a kid, but not with the intention of becoming a writer. I used to write comic books and I used to illustrate. I thought I would be an illustrator, actually, because I really like to draw. When I was even a teenager, I had an exhibition of drawings, so I thought that’s where I would go. Whenever I go to my publisher, I always like hanging around the art director’s office and see how he’s planning to cover the books.

AB: Would you ever consider doing an illustrated book?

NS: No. I don’t think I’m good enough, really. If it were to be illustrated, I would probably want a better illustrator. I started drawing really when I started university and I didn’t have enough time to devote to drawing. And then when I got out of university, I started doing freelance and left the art world behind. My interest in art comes through my writing, the story about butterfly boxes, that has an artist. The novel I’m working on now, one of the characters is an artist – there are several characters who are artists, illustrators.

AB: What’s the mindset for you stepping into a novel, a much longer narrative than pumping out a short story, which is far more contained?

NS: It’s terrifying. It’s the first time I’ve ever attempted anything so long, but I don’t think I’ll go back to writing stories. I think that if I’m going to have a career as a writer, I really have to work on a novel. Agents, publishers and editors all want novels more than short stories once you’ve had one collection. The publisher will frown upon you if you present another one, unless you’re someone like Lorrie Moore. There are a few exception to this rule, but very few. If that doesn’t work out, I don’t know what I’ll do, but so far so good!