Saturday, October 30, 2010

Andrew Smith: In His Words

As a student in Western Connecticut State University's MFA in Creative and Professional Writing program, I have been afforded numerous opportunities the average pretend writer of the street doesn't get. One of these has been the opportunity to discuss writing with some amazing published writers. One of those writers, Karen Romano Young, who suggested this blog topic to me and is currently my mentor as I try to find my place in today's literary market, put me in touch with another such writer--Andrew Smith.

Through my connection with Andrew, I've been able to get my hands on and review The Marbury Lens in advance of its release, and have now even had the opportunity to interview the man, the myth, and the legend on life since returning from Marbury, writing, the YA market, and a bunch of other stuff and junk. So without further adieu, here is my interview with Andrew Smith, author of Ghost Medicine, In the Path of Falling Objects, and the forthcoming The Marbury Lens.

I know you've said that you didn't set out to be a young adult author. What do you think it is about your writing that made the powers that be classify it as YA?
To be honest, I wrote my first novel, Ghost Medicine, on a kind of a dare from a lifelong friend who is the published author of something like 20 nonfiction books. Although I had written numerous novel-length manuscripts in the past, I never thought about publication until I was challenged into it. So, when I wrote Ghost Medicine, which was a story I'd been thinking about for quite some time, I didn't think about genre or audience at all -- I just thought about writing a book that I would pick up and read if I saw it in a bookstore. When I finished the book and started thinking about finding an agent, I asked my friend to look over initial drafts of a query letter, and she said something like, "Oh... this sounds like YA. Be sure you query agents who represent YA."

Though you may not have gone into Ghost Medicine thinking YA, by the time you sat down to write The Marbury Lens, had that changed at all?
Well... yes and no. I had a multi-book contract with my publisher, and the books were already written and submitted. I was going through a time when I felt like I really needed to tell this story, so I sat down and began writing it. Without going into too many details, I will say that there are elements of The Marbury Lens that are intensely personal -- demons I felt it was time to exorcise.

I never thought anyone would ever pick this thing up as YA. In fact, I never set out thinking about publishing it at all -- it was more like a therapy trip for me. I mean... come on! This can't be YA, can it? Anyway, during the writing process, my editor, out of curiosity, asked me to tell her about what I was working on. So we spoke over the phone, and I told her this story -- The Marbury Lens. She wanted to see it right away.

I wasn't finished writing it at the time. I think I sent her about 150 pages initially, and I was certain she was going to say something like "What the fuck is this?" But, like I said, I didn't want to get it published, anyway, and we have a relationship, I think, that runs a bit deeper than just an editor/writer relationship, so I wasn't afraid of exposing my inner haunts to her.

Basically, she said give me this now. So I finished the book and gave it to her. Then I dedicated it to her. Nobody else would have ever gotten that thing out of me. I am terrified about it being published, too. I cringe every time somebody else reads it. I hate talking specifically about it. I sometimes think the book is trying to kill me.

How much thought, if any, do you give to your audience as you write?
I think about my audience constantly. It is an audience of one, and he is a picky snob when it comes to reading. He is not at all impressed by cookie-cutter novels and has absolutely no time or patience for things that are trendy.

Do you think that being a teacher influences your writing in any way? Do you have your students in mind to any extent while you're writing?
If you're going to have a day job, being a teacher is probably the best day job -- on so many levels -- for a writer. You get to hear so many stories every day, you stay in touch with the ways people actually say things, and there's gobs of time to write all year round. As far as having my students in mind when writing, I'd have to say no to that.

There is some "edgy" content in The Marbury Lens, including graphic, gory violence and a near sexual assault. Do you think this will increase it's appeal to young adults or make it harder for them to get hold of?
The "edgy" elements in The Marbury Lens weren't included to attract readership. If that were the case, they would be -- by definition -- gratuitous. I had a real struggle when writing the book about how far was too far, so I asked advice from a number of people, including teens, bloggers, teachers, librarians, authors, and booksellers. I wanted to know what other people thought about the inclusion of sex, violence, and swearing in a novel that is principally about teenagers. All of the advice I got made me feel a little better... that I wasn't committing some vast moral transgression by writing what I believe was honest prose.

I also thank all those people in the acknowledgments section of the book (and I happen to be blogging about that this week, too).

As for Freddy's assault toward Jack, did you ever consider going  all the way and having Freddy complete the act? Why did you not have the full act occur?
The human eye has a blind spot in it. The brain automatically corrects for this and fills in the missing pieces. I leave blind spots in my writing. For some people, these ambiguities are frustrating. Others are engaged by them. I do this intentionally, and it is not a mistake. How do you know Freddie didn't -- as you say -- complete the act? Because of Jack's denial of it? Do you think Jack would tell? Even his best friend? Why do you think so many of these kids who were victimized by priests never came forward for decades? Do you think there was some kind of hysteria or falsely contrived memory?

On the other hand, assuming your interpretation -- that the sexual nature of Freddie's assault (because it was a sexual assault, no matter how far he took it) stopped before a certain point -- does the limit of his violation in any way contribute to a lessening of the consequence to Jack, and ultimately to Freddie? These are just things that I wonder about, as a writer -- specifically what you say by NOT explaining something. Like the beginning of The Stranger by Camus. People have been arguing for decades what's going on there. Hopefully, people will be theorizing for a long time about Jack and Seth, about Jack's becoming a "monster," and about what he really does to those boys in the last sentences of The Marbury Lens.

The three novels seem not only different in subject matter, but almost completely different genres (especially Marbury which has a sci-fi side to it). Why do you think some authors are so attached to one genre, while you seem to move easily between different ones?
I don't know about the "move easily" part. I recently whined to my editor that it feels like I've been stuck in Marbury for the past 2 years. Thankfully, the next novel, STICK, is a postmodern thing with some experimental structuring in the narrative. So... different again.

Why do I think some authors are so attached to one particular genre? Well... the not-so-diplomatic answer is because they just keep telling the same story over and over. They just change the names and places. It's very easy, and it's low-risk, especially if you find some financial success and have bills to pay, so you look at what you produce as being little more than another day at the job. I know that might not be a very nice thing to say, but you asked what do I think. Just because I think it doesn't make it right or true. But I don't read books by authors who do that shit.

What was your experience like dealing with agents, publishing companies, and editors when working on The Marbury Lens? Did you have any struggles dealing with the racier issues, the switch to a sci-fi style novel, and the overall uniqueness of the plot and setting(s)?
Surprisingly, no. But nobody so much as whispered or hinted that I take out any of the sexual content or descriptions (Jack and Nickie have sex in the second half of the book, and it's pretty graphic), and I thought they were certainly going to ask me to reduce my f-bomb count, but they never went there, either. It amazes me what that number (the f-bomb count) turned out to be, because I don't notice them so much. But, trust me, there's a lot of fucking f-bombs in the book.

If you were Jack and Connor, would you be able to resist going back to Marbury?
Of course I would go back. How could I stop myself. I go back every night when I'm lying in bed, trying to go to sleep. That's what the book is really all about. It's not about putting on glasses and going into an alternate universe, it's about not being able to let go of things, revisiting the things that fucked you up, wondering about how things might be if you were born someone else, and all those issues are wrapped up nicely inside a thick coating of self-doubt, teenage rage about being ignored, the adolescent wondering about sexuality, if you're normal, being afraid of connecting with someone and exposing your vulnerabilities. Yeah... welcome to Marbury, Jack. And fuck you, too.

What are your feelings on the debate between teaching young adult to students and the importance of teaching them the literary canon?
Today's literary canon is more like a water pistol. So many of the good books have been replaced. But more significant than that is the idea that kids are no longer developed and encouraged through their adolescence to keep alive the love of reading that they had when they first began to read the simplest words. Kids love to read, and they will always love to read when they have choices presented to them by a knowledgeable and capable guide. Parents don't do this so much any more. I'm not bagging on parents, though. I can't even begin to tell you how many teachers tell me they "hate" to read, not to mention how many English teachers have never read anything that wasn't forced onto them by some institution or state agency.

Thanks so much to Andrew for his kindness and candid answers. Get yourself a copy of The Marbury Lens as soon as you can.


  1. Yeah, baby. Consider yourself tweeted.

  2. Yeah, there's nothing like an English teacher that hates to read. Kind of like an anorexic chef.