Neil Smith was a late bloomer. “I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties. A university professor told me I’d need to study literature before I could write. Since I would have preferred to commit hara-kiri than go back to school, I didn’t attempt any writing for a long time.”
When he finally started writing, however, he proved the professor’s wisdom dramatically wrong: the first story he wrote was accepted for publication and nominated for the Journey Prize—Canada’s most prestigious award for short fiction. Several of his following stories were accepted for publication as well, two more were nominated for the Journey, and before long Smith had a deal with Knopf for a short story collection with international distribution. The collection, 2007’s Bang Crunch, won the McAuslan First Book Prize, was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and was named a Best Book of 2008 according to The Washington Post, among others.
Now 45, Smith lives in Montreal, where he works as a translator. He was able to take time out of his work to correspond with writer Stephen Thomas over email.
Steven Thomas: I remember reading something David Foster Wallace said about the reception to his novel Infinite Jest. I think it was Charlie Rose asking him how he felt about the success he’d garnered, which had been considerable, and he said something like, “You know, no matter how successful you get, it never lives up to the grand world-shattering images/ambitions you had for yourself.” Do you feel the same way?
Neil Smith: Today I got a fan email from a girl in England and a message from a publisher in Italy who might put Bang Crunch out in Italian. Unlike Mr. Wallace, I’m very satisfied with that kind of success. I’m not after world domination. I’m not after fame or the Nobel or even the Giller. I’m far happier getting an email from a girl in London who liked the book.
I haven’t read Wallace, but Bang Crunch just came out in Germany, and a reviewer there mentioned the resemblance. I should read him.
ST: It’s interesting to me that you started writing relatively late. I wonder how you feel about your “career” as a writer, or, from a more personal perspective, how you feel about what you want to accomplish as an artist before you, you know, die. Do you think about these things?
NS: I have a hard time looking beyond the next book. At the moment, I just started working on draft two of a novel. My goal at this point is simply to finish my novel and publish it with the same publisher, Knopf. I do think commercially. Bang Crunch has been published around the world. I want my second book to please, say, my German publisher and my British publisher. I want the second book to attract even more readers than the first. I want commercial success simply because the resulting money enables a writer to write more books.
ST: I’m curious about the actual process of being a writer in Canada. Do you maintain your own website?
NS: Yes, I put together the website. I didn’t have a site when the Canadian version of Bang Crunch came out. But my American publisher recommended a site.
ST: Your story “Jaybird” depicts a competition of sorts between the protagonist and his friend, Dany. Do you feel competitive about success with friends and ex-lovers, or even current lovers, or boyfriends, or partners, or whatever, in the same way?
NS: Luckily none of my exes are writers! I’m sure that the competition would kill me.
When I wrote “Jaybird,” I didn’t actually know any other writers. But I did know about the world of actors and theatre, thanks to a friend who worked for a talent agency. I did imagine, though, that backstabbing and envy existed in the writing world, too.
When I went on tour for Bang Crunch, I started meeting other writers. I must say that the ones that had achieved the most success—Barbara Gowdy, Elizabeth Hay, Miriam Toews, Vincent Lam—turned out to be the nicest people. That said, I did meet one successful writer whose head was the size of hot-air balloon.
ST: Are you friends with other artists and writers? That is, do you feel like you’re involved in any kind of literary scene on a personal, day-to-day level? And more broadly, do you feel involved in some kind of Canadian literary scene (as the Toronto literary scene is satirized in Andrew Pyper’s mystery/thriller The Killing Circle) or in the state of fiction in Canada?
NS: I haven’t read The Killing Circle. I must admit that any book that focuses on writers would probably bore me. I don’t know much about the Toronto literary scene given that I live in Montreal. I don’t think that there’s a scene in Montreal. The anglo community is too small here. I live in the same neighbourhood as Heather O’Neill, Rawi Hage, and Madeleine Thien. So maybe we can start our own scene!
I don’t follow the state of fiction in Canada. I feel out of the loop most of the time. Not to say that I don’t enjoy Canadian fiction. In fact, I’m defending Jessica Grant’s whimsical novel Come, Thou Tortoise in The National Post’s Canada Also Reads competition.
ST: Are there any other Canadian writers that you follow?
NS: I’m fanatically obsessed with Barbara Gowdy. She’s one of the reasons I started writing. I love how that woman puts together a sentence, a paragraph, and a story. I also adore Douglas Coupland. I think he’s undervalued. His novel Eleanor Rigby is one of the most touching novels I’ve read. And funny and bright. I wish he’d win a Giller.
ST: It’s interesting that you mention Barbara Gowdy. Total tangent, but I’ve been thinking lately about weird sex in Canadian art, and Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look on Love seems like a great example. It seems like there are few interesting wide-ranging phenomena for an ambitious artist to get into in Canada, and so we turn inwards and try to extremify sex.
NS: What I liked most about Barbara Gowdy’s short story collection We So Seldom Look on Love is the normalcy. The book makes all these characters—a girl who floats, a mortician who has sex with dead men, a woman who wants to change into a man—seem so normal. The extreme nature of their lives seems much less extreme once we look really closely on love, as the title suggests. Rather than turn away from the things that revolt or frighten us, Gowdy takes a magnifying glass to them to understand our reaction. As a result, these things become much less revolting and frightening. She’s the kind of writer who enjoys putting herself in other people’s skins. In other words, her work is not autobiographical. In her novel The White Bone she even puts herself in the skin of elephants.
I’m not interested either in writing about myself. Recently the CBC asked me to write a true first-person story to post on its website. I declined because I’ve promised myself I’d never write a story about myself, especially not in the first person. I’d be more interested in writing about the life of a potted plant.
ST: When I was reading Bang Crunch, one of the things I kept thinking about was whether or not the main character was gay, and whether or not the location of the story was or was not Montreal, where you live. Is there any particular way you can articulate your aversion to writing about your own life? In your interview with Xtra, the interviewer said, “Smith made the conscious choice—refreshing for a new writer—to stay away from autobiography.” Is the general scorn of writing about your own life part of your aversion to it, or do you have your own reasons?
NS:I’m not opposed to people writing about themselves, but I think their life has to be pretty interesting for this to work. Take, for example, Dave Eggers’ memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. His parents died within two months of each other and he had to bring up his eight-year-old brother himself. Pretty interesting story.
Still, I’m more impressed by people who use their imagination to come up with something completely different.
I never write about myself for a few reasons: I want to escape my own life when I write; I want to see where my imagination will take me; I consider it unfair to write about my family and friends without their consent.
ST: Regarding gay characters and Canadian setting specifically, do you think about being accessible to a broader audience, be it straight readers or American readers? I’m writing a novel right now in which the central relationship is a gay one. Because I’m not gay, there’s this whole other issue of writing a different sexual orientation. Do you worry about writing straight characters convincingly?
NS: I imagine that you’re talking about “Green Fluorescent Protein.” The main character is probably gay (although maybe bi, for all I know). The city in the story is Montreal. In other stories, however, the city is more ambiguous. For example, the town in “Scrapbook” is a more generic place. The same goes for the title story. Writing about Montreal raises the whole language conundrum. How do you portray a bilingual city accurately without writing in both languages?
I do think about commercial prospects when I write books. My new novel, for example, has only American characters. Canada isn’t mentioned at all (maybe this is heresy). I’m hoping for universal appeal.
I don’t worry about writing straight characters convincingly. After all, I’ve gone out with girls in the past. Plus, I’m around straight people all the time. Good for you for writing from a gay guy’s perspective. I’m no expert in gay lit, but my favorite gay novel is Fruit by Toronto writer Brian Francis.
ST: Sometimes I get the sense that Montreal is a better city to be a writer in than Toronto. I think Sheila Heti wrote her only novel while living there. Yann Martel lives there (according to an outdated website). What is it about Montreal and writing?
NS: I have been asked this question before, but unfortunately I can’t compare the two cities because I know virtually nothing about Toronto. Don’t you have the cafe life on Queen Street West?
I loved Sheila Heti’s Ticknor. For some reason, reading that novel really relaxes me. It’s like yoga. Yann Martel, by the way, left Montreal years ago to live in Saskatoon. I also loved Life of Pi (I’m a sucker for any story starring animals). Also, his parents translated his book into French. How sweet is that!
ST: One more thing I wanted to ask you: are you able to read anything else when you are working on a project, or are you more of a dabbling reader when you are writing? Do you live your life differently when you’re deep into creating something?
NS: I understand your not wanting to read other people’s writing while working on your own project. There’s always the risk that other voices will infiltrate your own book or short story. But I find other books inspiring, even when I’m deep into my own book.
At the moment, I’m reworking my novel. So even when I’m grocery shopping or jogging on the treadmill or brushing my teeth, I’m thinking about the world I’ve invented in my novel. I’m trying to solve problems in the plot or characterization. It does become all-consuming at times.
Because my new book features only young characters (all age 17 or under), I’ve been rereading novels like Lord of the Flies and The Chrysalids. I even read Harry Potter for the first time.
I don’t think that writers—particularly those of us just starting out—should worry about being overly influenced by other writers. A writer naturally finds his own voice over time.
Stephen Thomas is a writer who lives in Toronto. You can read his fiction on his website, thestephenthomas.com.
Neil Smith is a writer who lives in Montreal. His website is bangcrunch.com.