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Interviews

Neil Smith

Note to Aspiring Writers

Neil Smith It’s always heart-warming to read about writers who toil to achieve their dream for years, persevere despite rejections, and subsist on scraps and minuscule fees, before finally breaking through to a wider public.

Then there’s Neil Smith, who is achieving literary stardom through decidedly unorthodox means. Tonight, the Montreal writer’s sixth-ever literary reading will be at Toronto’s Harbourfront, in the august company of Ireland’s Colm Tóibín and India’s Vikram Chandra. His highly original debut short-story collection, Bang Crunch, has seen him promoted as one of Random House’s New Faces of Fiction (the latest in a line including Yann Martel and Ann-Marie Macdonald), and it has received uniformly glowing reviews.

It would be tempting to envy Smith (who is 42 but looks around 15 years younger), but his soft-spoken, friendly, and guileless nature make this difficult. When I spoke with him at his publisher’s office in Toronto, he was happy to share the secrets of his success. Drawing on his experience, we present, by way of a public service, advice to budding Canadian fiction writers, in four easy steps.

1. Don’t be too driven

“I’m not one of these people who have always hoped to become a writer,” says Smith. “It wasn’t even on my radar for the longest time.”

Smith has been working as a freelance French-to-English corporate translator for 17 years. While he was intrigued by the idea of translating fiction, he balked at the woeful pay. Seeking a new challenge, he instead turned to writing.

“As a translator,” he says, “your springboard is this other text. In fiction-writing, you have a blank page, so I decided I should do something a little more daring.”

He enrolled in an evening workshop “for fun,” and incorporated research from his translation into his stories. One of his first, “Isolettes,” draws on a documentary on premature babies he translated for Radio-Canada.

“I thought, ‘What would happen if a woman who was already fairly detached had a micro-preemie?’ She works as a translator at home, by herself, like me, so she’s very isolated, as is her baby.” Smith constructed his narrative as a set of self-contained fragments: “The whole structure of the story was [about] isolating this woman from everybody else in her life.”

2. Novels are over-rated

The readership for short fiction has decreased dramatically since the form’s heyday, in the years before television. The 22-minute TV episode, theorists claim, long ago replaced the print story in slaking the public’s thirst for short, self-contained narratives.

“I don’t have a television,” admits Smith, with a laugh. “I know certain people don’t pick up books of short stories, but I certainly did. I love the conciseness.”

Smith’s writing instructor encouraged him to send his stories to magazines, and his talent shone through immediately: each and every one was published, and three of them (including “Isolettes”) were nominated for the Journey Prize. Agents and publishers began to sniff around, and once he linked up with agent Dean Cooke (John Irving, Guy Vanderhaeghe) a bidding war broke out.

“I thought it would be [picked up by] a small press,” Smith recalls, “and I was quite happy with that. I just wanted a good-looking book on the shelves. I was really taken aback when so many publishers made offers on the book, and even more so when it sold to the UK and the US. Even my agent, who’s been in the business for years and years, was really astonished.”

3. Don’t worry about “finding your voice”

Most writers are encouraged to develop a consistent style which gives them a literary identity (and, of course, makes them easier to categorize and flog to the media and the public alike).

“I didn’t want the book to be uniform or homogenous,” says Smith. “I wanted a real mix of different voices, and first-person, second-person and third-person [narration], characters who were older, characters who are children. I wanted something that was more eclectic than the same type of tone throughout.”

Smith’s narratives range from the conventional to the downright bizarre: the title story, told in the second person (as if the reader were the protagonist), concerns a girl who suffers from a syndrome that causes her to age and rejuvenate in cycles; “Extremities” gives us the alternating first-person perspectives of a pair of pink calfskin gloves in a department store and of the dismembered foot of an astronaut, lying in a suburban backyard after an air disaster. Clearly, Smith isn’t troubled by the hoary dictum, “Write what you know.”

4. Go against the Can Lit grain

“My editor was appalled that I hadn’t read Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant,” admits Smith. “He forced me to do it at the end.”

Although four of Smith’s books are set in Montreal, Smith’s combinations of the grotesque and the touching steer significantly clear of the earnest realism of stereotypical Can Lit; their only obvious predecessor here is Barbara Gowdy. Smith isn’t afraid to write about subjects that might be more suitable for the “weird news” section of a tabloid (“Green Fluorescent Pig” being an example), or to take humour into places where, theoretically, it doesn’t belong. Two of his stories, for instance, feature a widow who speaks constantly to a curling stone containing the ashes of her dead husband.

According to the New Face of Fiction, “You have to balance some of the hard-hitting stuff with some of the ‘human’ stuff. I was at an uncle’s funeral recently, and he was quite a racist, but very religious, and they [arranged for] a priest to read at his burial; it ended up being a black Catholic priest. We were all laughing over this.

“It’s a lie to believe that everything is bleak.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Feb. 7, 2007

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