Anthony Neil Smith writes extraordinary fiction -- the literary equivalent of garage rock.
Anthony Neil Smith seems to have an ordinary life, yet he writes extraordinary fiction, primarily in the field of crime, which is a popular genre for both writers and readers, essentially the literary equivalent of garage rock.
The trick, then, is distinguishing one’s voice amid a cacophony of competitors. One’s success is then measured by one’s goals, which are often adjusted as the game wears on.
Mr. Smith has figured this out. His creative agenda is both realistic and aspirational. This is a good if hard lesson for all writers: accept the wins as well as the losses, regardless of size or relevance in the overall scheme. That’s the so-called “secret" to both personal and professional success.
Given the fact that a man of your exceptional skills could probably excel in any literary field, what’s the personal as well as professional appeal of crime/horror for you?
It has always been the one genre that keeps my attention more than any other. From the first time I saw the Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators in trouble on the covers of those books, I wanted to tell stories like that. Then in college, when I discovered James Ellroy, George Pelecanos, and Flannery O'Connor, I knew that I wanted to make "art" with crime fiction.
Professionally, I thought I'd write some crime books, publish them with Big 5 publishers, and make a decent amount of money. But that hasn't happened. It's like all my crime novels are small press labors of love, although I wish I had a bigger audience. I want to tell stories that lots of people are interested in!
As Chair of the English, Philosophy, Spanish & Humanities Department at Southwest Minnesota State University - a title which is impressive on several levels, including it’s length - do you feel that creative writing can truly be taught beyond the basics of grammar, plot construction, character development, etc?
Yes, I believe writing is a craft that can be taught, just like carpentry. Some people get it more quickly, some never catch on, and some have to work very hard but still get there. I think character development leads to plot (since the plot is "what the characters want", basically) which leads to the little details. I've seen students who had no clue in one year start turning in amazing work a year later. Maybe there is a certain small percentage of "art" that can't be taught, and you either have that instinct or not, but I bet that's the exception. People are wired to tell stories. All people. Fiction writers just take it to the next level.
What are the distinct sources of inspiration and differing agendas for your two highly regarded series, Billy Lafitte and Mustafa & Adem?
Like his namesake (the pirate Lafitte), Billy is an outlaw. I wanted to create a non-sympathetic character you would still root for...but then you'd feel bad about it later. He's not a good person, even if he is pretty loyal and has a sense of right and wrong. I had been watching THE SHIELD, which is tremendous, but I always thought they shoehorned in Vic's family to show that he was still, at heart, a good guy. So what if we took that away?
The Mustafa & Adem series (well, two wildly different books, anyway) started with the real story of young Somali men in the Twin Cities going "missing", only to end up recruited by terrorists to fight in Somalia. It was a fascination and sad story, and I felt I needed to write about how one young man's decisions affected a family and community. So I worked on this a while, sending longer and longer outlines to my agent until he felt it was ready to go. So I wrote ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS and crossed my fingers, hoping that I was getting the feel of it right. I really wanted to tell that story because it interested me.
An agenda? Meh, not so much. I usually get swept up in some story or character and feel the need to tell it. I have to chase what interests me.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
Well, The Three Investigators series from childhood, which had working-class kids with a secret HQ in a junkyard. They didn't have boats and hot rods like the Hardy Boys did, the rich fucks. Nope, they were more like me, the suburban kids of the seventies and eighties. After that, it was comic books - Sgt. Rock, The Dark Knight, Elektra: Assassin - before I got into adult crime fiction. I used to get paperbacks from the K&B drugstore in town, or check out thick novels from the library and teach myself how to read those. I read big thrillers - Tom Clancy, Anne Rice - then James Lee Burke, and then I discovered two things during my senior year of college that absolutely set me up for life: WHITE JAZZ by James Ellroy, and the movie PULP FICTION.
There's also Flannery O'Connor, Chester Himes, James Crumley, and plenty more, but I know where the seeds were planted. I started sending out my first stories when I was 19. All rejected. It took until 1999 for me to get my first publication.
What’s next for you?
I hope more and more novels, with more and more readers each time. But who knows?
I just abandoned a book I'd gotten up to 48K words, because it felt all wrong. It was my second time trying to write it, but nothing gelled. So I dumped it. Now I'm very slowly working on a new one - a page a day, maybe two - that feels like a story I really want to tell, but I have to be careful to not rush it, not spoil it.
I don't really write short stories that much any more. If someone invites me to an anthology that looks interesting, maybe, but I prefer novels.
YELLOW MEDICINE and HOGDOGGIN' were just picked up by the French publisher Sonatine, so there is a whole new chance to impress a new audience. Hopeful.
Otherwise, I've got a great day job, great life in rural Minnesota, and we'll see what happens.
I’m staying tuned, à votre santé!