Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
I’m Anthony Neil Smith, at some point along my forties.
Fiona: Where are you from?
Originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I’ve now lived in Minnesota for the last twelve years.
Fiona: A little about your self (ie, your education, family life, etc.).
I’m a professor and department chair at Southwest Minnesota State University, and I’ve written about a dozen crime novels, including YELLOW MEDICINE, ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS, WORM, and my latest, CASTLE DANGER. I am married, and we have two needy dogs and two weird cats. I like Mexican food (and drink) more than I should.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
The first of the CASTLE DANGER series, WOMAN ON ICE, has just been published by BE E-books, a new e-original imprint of BasteiLubbe, a German publisher now reaching out to the English-language market.
It’s about a young cop in Duluth, Minnesota obsessed by a frozen body found in Lake Superior. What at first looks like a woman turns out to be a man, but before anyone can find out more, the body—along with the cop’s partner—break through the ice and disappear.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve been writing crime fiction since second grade, when I discovered the Hardy Boys, and later, the even better Three Investigators series. Along the way, I wrote a little of everything—stories, sci-fi, comic books, songs—until coming back to crime fiction in college and beginning to seek publication when I was about nineteen. It took a few years before getting my first short story published, but after that, the acceptances started coming in more and more.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
A long time ago, definitely when it became obvious in school that my English teachers were always pretty impressed. But it really started to sink in when I took a creative writing workshop in my senior year of college. I had avoided them, thinking I would probably not measure up. But I finally took one, and it turned out I was one of about three people in the class who really had what was needed to stand out. So I ended up aiming for grad school in Creative Writing at University of Southern Mississippi, where I studied under Frederick and Steven Barthelme until I finally got a PhD. Those guys really shaped me into a much better writer and reader.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
I won’t count the ones before PSYCHOSOMATIC, which was my first published novel, because we all have embarrassing attempts stashed away in the back of the closet. But while out with friends one night—one of them being fellow crime writer and now comics writer Victor Gischler—during grad school, Victor got inspired and wrote down a sentence on a cocktail napkin and passed it around. After someone else turned it down, I took it and said, “Okay.” It was the first line of my next short story. I went home that night, drunk, and wrote a page. Over the next several days I finished it, then sent it to Blue Murder Magazine. They published it, and so I wrote some other stories featuring a couple of side characters from that story. After a few of those, I thought, “I have a novel here!”
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I saw a cartoon in a magazine, like an old still from an educational video, with the word PSYCHOSOMATIC! stamped across it. And since the novel deals with a quad amputee with phantom itches, I thought it was appropriate.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
I think I distilled a lot from the best noir writers, trying to cut my work down to the bone, but I also liked the “jangled nerve” writing of Ellroy’s LA CONFIDENTIAL, WHITE JAZZ, and AMERICAN TABLOID. Steven Barthelme once said my sentences were like some broken pieces nailed back together, which I took as a compliment. I’m always aiming, though, for a style that will attract the most readers because I want to be read! So I keep trying to rid myself of bad habits and tics. But then again, that’s where the fun is, in all the bad habits.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
For CASTLE DANGER, I would say that I *tried* my best, as I always do, to put myself into the head of someone who is not really like me—in this case, a confused young cop who goes on to consider transitioning into a woman—and research what that must feel like. While some people might steer clear of the attempt, I just end up following where the characters lead. I only want to write about characters that interest me, so they can’t all be like me. So I can’t really say this is “realistic” or based on my life, except for the settling, which is my favorite place in the world—Duluth and the North Shore of Lake Superior are where I want to retire one day. Absolutely gorgeous.
I do notice that many of my protagonists want to “start over” in life, or run away and be someone else, so maybe there’s always been a part of me that thought that, too.
Fiona: To craft your works, do you have to travel? Before or during the process?
I usually write about places I’ve been and know reasonably well, although that’s changed with a few recent books. WORM takes place in Williston, North Dakota, but I wasn’t able to visit. I watched a lot of great videos on YouTube from oil workers there. And ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS has sections set in Somalia, which I couldn’t visit, but I did my best to make those section feel real via research. I won’t claim that those are the most successful attempts, though! At the moment, I’m working on a book set mostly in Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands, which I’ve visited twice now. I definitely love Scotland and hope to visit and write about it some more.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Most of my covers have been designed by the amazing J.T. Lindroos (https://jtlindroos.carbonmade.com/), including my favorite, WORM, which was hand-drawn with Sharpies.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I tend to let the readers figure that out on their own. I definitely care about story and characters more than message. Sometimes, I end up learning a lot myself; like with CASTLE DANGER, I learned a lot about what a transitioning person must be feeling while going through the process, or how frightening it must feel to share that with people in their lives who might hate them for it. But they have to be who they really, deep inside, know themselves to be.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favorite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
I don’t like to mention the new writers simply because there are MANY of them, and I don’t want to leave anyone out, and I always get mad when they leave me out of their lists, so…
But my favorite writers, or at least the ones that shaped me most of all—are James Ellroy, James Crumley, Flannery O’Connor, and Chester Himes. They all have a sense of the absurd that I hope comes through in my work. I like it loud and scary. BIG. Other big influencers—James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, and George Pelecanos.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author.
Thankfully, I had encouragement all along the way from teachers and friends, and I had amazing teachers in grad school. At my PhD defense, Rick Barthelme told me he was pretty impressed with my interest in crime fiction, which he didn’t quite understand at first, but he encouraged me to go for it. So that helped me a lot, since most of grad school concentrates on “literary” fiction and literature.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Ha! There was a time when I hoped it would be. I had dreams of six-figure advances on New York publishers. Buuuuuuut, that didn’t happen. Luckily, I love my work as a writing professor, which is my actual “career” now—I’ve been teaching for over 15 years—and writing is a part of that, but not the main thrust. I suppose I’m just not a bestselling sort of guy. Instead, I write novels that a pretty devoted cult following buy from smaller presses. It’s a bit of a glorified hobby.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Hm…I’d make it better. I don’t know how, but I’d find a way. I was under a pretty tight deadline, and I’m happy with the book, but there are always things that could’ve been made better. In the second CASTLE DANGER book, quite a lot didn’t go the way I’d originally planned, which is fine because that happens a lot during the writing, but I wish I’d been able to make a few things go the way I’d intended. But the book didn’t agree with me.
Fiona: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
I learned about the trails, tribulations, and also the joy of trans people discovering who they really are, and how it feels to dedicate themselves to the process. I will never know firsthand how it all really feels, but I tried my best to understand through the journey of my main character, Manny.
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Yikes. Loaded question! For CASTLE DANGER, the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. I can’t imagine anyone I’ve seen from Hollywood being Manny. Might have to be a newbie.
But for my Billy Lafitte series (starting with YELLOW MEDICINE), I would want either Johnny Knoxville or Sam Rockwell.
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
Either do it a lot (and read a lot) or don’t do it at all. Seriously, it’s a bruising business. Be prepared to fight a lot of demons and have all your expectations dashed again and again. But if you get a book published, that’s always something they can’t take away from you.
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
Thank you, everyone. I am frequently feeling down about how my “career” has turned out so far (I’d like more readers on a larger platform), but my readers make me feel like a “real writer” instead of a middle-aged guy who often forgets to clean the cat box on time.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I’m always reading two or three. I just finished ORPHAN X by Greg Hurwitz, and I started GANGSTERLAND by Tod Goldberg. But I’m always reading THE FORCE (Winslow), UNSUB (Gardiner), and BLACK WIDOW (Daniel Silva).
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Maybe not the first I read, but the first to make the biggest impact on me, the one that made me want to write: The Hardy Boys, THE GHOST AT SKELETON ROCK. On the cover, the boys are in a small plane that’s on fire and heading towards the sea. Will they escape? I *had* to know! So I checked it out in second grade and worked on it for weeks (the librarian thought it was more a fourth grade level book, but I persisted).
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
So much makes me laugh—I’m a Monty Python sort of guy—even though I’m also pretty melancholy. Dave Berry books, The Simpsons, my wife singing little songs about our pets. As for crying, seeing animals get hurt, sad songs, and sometimes, just the mixed-up chemicals in my head telling me I need a good cryfest.
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would love to meet? Why?
I already got to meet James Crumley in a bar in Chicago, where we talked about his time in the Army. So that was one dream fulfilled.
I’m always a little “star-struck” around writers I like, and have made an ass of myself in front of a couple at Bouchercon (I was so nervous when I shook Walter Mosley’s hand, I told him I loved him), but if I could spend a couple of hours with James Ellroy and pick his brain, that would be my writerly dream.But I fear that he would do his usual goofy routine, I’d get pissed, and we wouldn’t part as friends. Oh well.
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
I grow hot chilies—habaneros and ghost peppers—and turn them into salsa. I play guitar (used to do this more, but notas much lately). I like tequila and mescal, and I like to make Mexican dishes whenever I can, especially carnitas or barbacoa. I’m also a fan of Cajun and creole food.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I’m a bit fussy with TV and movies. So many of my friends are much more into shows and films than I am. I get bored so easy with most of the prestige stuff I’m “supposed” to like, or that everyone bandwagons on, but I end up preferring THE AMAZING RACE or THE GONG SHOW or BIG BANG THEORY. And I really can’t stand the obsession with comic book movies and TV lately.
But I loved THE SHIELD, which had a near perfect ending. I have watched THE ROCK about fifty times (love Nic Cage). I will watch THE SIMPSONS thousands of times and still laugh. I’m also one of those writers heavily influenced by PULP FICTION, so, yeah.
Fiona: Favorite foods, colors, music?
Orange is my all-time favorite color. I love Mexican food, Cajun food, and good ol’ steakhouse slabs of beef.
I’m all over the place musically. I grew up on seventies rock, loved hair metal, especially Van Halen and Cinderella, then switched over to alt-country. But now I feel very eclectic, listening to a ton of different Pandora channels on shuffle while I write or drive.
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
I think about this a lot, because I’m always thinking about quitting writing, even though I’m pretty sure I never will…at least until no one wants to publish my stuff anymore. So I would continue being a professor, maybe try to become a dean. I would keep growing chilies. I would still read a ton of crime novels. And I’d probably worry about things a lot less.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone?
Name and dates. As long as it tells people how much I loved my wife Brandy, and how much she loved me, that’s all I need.
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
You can follow me on twitter: @anthonynsmith
Or find me on Goodreads, where I still keep a little blog going.
Or befriend me on Facebook, if you look me up.
And then there’s the Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Anthony-Neil-Smith/e/B004FRQDDW/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1