15 October, 2013

#SpecialFeature :: My Life as a Writer: Craft and Stories by Timothy Jay Smith

Now Presenting:
*** SPECIAL FEATURE - October'13 ***


About the Author
Timothy Jay Smith lived in Jerusalem for two and a half years during the rollout of the post Oslo peace process, assisting Palestinian businesses regain market access. Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust leading to an international career that has seen him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through war zones, and stow away aboard a “devil’s barge” for a three day ocean crossing that landed him in an African jail. Smith's awards include the Paris Prize for Fiction, and the Stanley Drama Award. 

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When did you become a writer, or have you always been one?
I always enjoyed the writing aspects of school and work. At the university I chose classes that had term papers not exams at the end; and in my career, working as an economic development adviser in over 40 countries, I was required to write many reports. I was not a frustrated writer with a day job I disliked. In fact, I loved my work, and only quit when forced to because of health issues.

Fortunately, I had experienced some exciting times, so when I turned to writing, I had something to write. What times am I talking about? I was an adviser to Poland's Minister of Finance during the changeover from communism to capitalism. I was active in the 1970s community economic development movement in the U.S. I lived in the Palestinian Occupied Territories during the initial roll-out of the Oslo peace process.
I used to write letters to family and friends describing what I was witnessing, and people always wanted more. So, becoming a full-time writer about fifteen years ago was a natural evolution for me. Coincidentally, I had the idea for a story which I felt compelled to tell: A Vision of Angels. 

Though only recently published, Angels was my first novel. In the interim, it went through many drafts, and I have written another two novels, six screenplays and five stage plays. But it was the Angels story that convinced me to become a writer in the first place.

What is it about A Vision of Angels that is so compelling to you?
I suppose there are really two things. I had a unique perspective from which to tell the story, and I was emotionally moved by what I saw and learned in the Palestinian Territories. 

The story is set against the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and like my protagonist, I wanted to put a human face to it. Or I should say ‘faces’ because there are many sides to the conflict. In A Vision of Angels, I tried to give an equal voice to all sides, hoping it might contribute to a better understanding of the situation, and perhaps even contribute to the conflict’s resolution.

I often say that I was raised a Zionist, and it’s not entirely an exaggeration. As a kid, I spent as many waking hours as I could with a Jewish family next door. Over the next thirty years, I traveled in the Middle East, and ended up running a multi-million program to assist Palestinian businesses immediately following the 1993 Oslo Accord. So I had the advantage of these and many other experiences that let me see different perspectives sympathetically.

There were no epiphanies along the road, only a better understanding of the situation, and that’s why I hope Angels is as honest and objective as I have tried to make it.

How do you choose your titles?
They seem to come naturally, although they frequently evolve or change altogether.

Cooper’s Promise is a good example. Initially called Cooper’s War, referring to his inner struggle, at the last minute before publication I switched it to Promise. In the book, Cooper vows to save a young girl trafficked into prostitution, and most readers think that is the promise referred to in the title. It actually refers to a second promise he couldn’t keep earlier in his life, and he does what he does in my story to redeem himself for that earlier promise.

Your books are set in exotic places: Africa, Poland, the Holy Land, Greece. Why did you pick them?
In sixth grade, at a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for my school, I sat across the table from an “old guy” who was probably 35 years old. He told me he had been to 40 countries and spoke five languages.  On the spot, I decided that was the life I wanted to live, and I pursued it. That eventually led to a career in international development which took me around the world many times.

My first job out of college was in Greece. I was working for a sociology institute on rural-urban migration issues, and ended up living on Santorini for nearly two years before tourism there had really taken off. Each winter, for a couple of weeks, I was the only foreigner on the island—which is impossible to imagine now. I also lived for two years in Warsaw and later Jerusalem, and did a lot of work in Africa. So in a sense, the places picked me because I already knew them well.

How much of your novels are true?
A lot and not much. The basic plots are plausible but not based on real events. But within those stories, many characters, places and events are pretty much what I experienced.

For instance, what I call the “Catch 22” scene when Cooper is arrested is almost verbatim what was said when I was arrested in Senegal, down to my clinging to the doorframe crying for help as I was being dragged away. I had arrived as a stowaway on a boat from Cape Verde, where I was stranded for two weeks and hung out in a bar nicknamed Vietnam. That’s my model for the bar Cooper hangs out in—complete with a beaded curtain leading to the back rooms.

The same is true for A Vision of Angels. My job allowed me to cross borders, as can my journalist protagonist, and those incidents are pretty much how they happened. I arrived in Tel Aviv the day of the first suicide bus bomb in a two-and-half-year bombing campaign, and missed being the victim of one by a telephone call that delayed my going to the post office by a life-saving five minutes. I was there for Peace Now’s rallies and Rabin’s assassination. All these things provide both context and incidents that have worked their way into Angels.

How do you describe your writing style?
I tend to write in scenes, and that keeps the narrative fast-paced. At the same time, my work is character-driven, so that tips it towards literary fiction. I have done a lot of screenwriting, so that has influenced how well I write dialogue, and people tell me that is one of my strengths. My books have been called literary suspense or literary thrillers.

In A Vision of Angels, I tell the story from essentially the perspectives of four families whose lives I weave together. It’s a style and approach that I like, which I am also using in my new novel-in-progress set in Greece. But I took a totally different approach in Cooper’s Promise, where I tell the story entirely through the eyes of the main character. There’s not one thing the reader knows that Cooper doesn’t know because information isn’t coming from other sources. It’s a ‘closed mystery’ which is extremely challenging to write.

Did you study writing?
Not formally in the sense that I don’t have a degree in writing. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and I think that’s where I really learned to write. It’s always come easy to me. Once I became a full-time writer, however, I realized I could put together beautiful sentences and descriptions, but I didn’t know much about the craft of writing itself. So, I took week-long intensive workshops on subjects like POV, character development, story structure, and so forth.

The more I studied, the more I learned to respect writing as a craft. It’s not entirely innate. It’s like putting someone in front of a loom for the first time. Sure, he’ll be able to tie a knot or maybe braid a few strands of yarn, but he will eventually have to learn weaving to finish a rug. I had to learn something more than I knew when I started my first book.

I’m still learning. That’s the exciting thing about writing. With practice, it gets better.

Your plots are complex involving a number of characters. Do you outline your stories before you start writing?
I always have an idea of my opening scene and closing scenes, and then I begin to fill an outline with essential scenes, or scenes that simply come to me. For about three days I pace with a notebook in hand, just brainstorming my own story. Then I sit down, and put in order the scenes I’ve come up with. Then I start writing. As I write, I keep a notebook to one side, and as ideas come to me, I jot them down, in the process expanding my outline.

My outline is essentially my ‘beat sheet’, a term I leaned in screenwriting and have adopted for my novels. I list every action, and make a note when certain important things are said. Chronology is important in my stories. They take place over a few days only, and events and actions need to be carefully choreographed. 

Describe your writing habits. Do you have a schedule?
My schedule is that I wake up and start working, and I stop when I go to bed. Of course that’s not all dedicated entirely to new writing. I am also editing, marketing, writing blogspots, and doing everything else that is required of writers today. It’s all a labor of love, but a lot of labor nevertheless.

Do you have any pet peeves while writing?
It’s not exactly a peeve, but it is a necessity: I need to be able to close myself off in a room by myself. Even when I am home alone, I shut the door to my office.

Do you set a minimum number of words you write a day?
One. After that, I wish I could say 500. That was the goal for Hemingway and Graham Greene, but I definitely don’t achieve that. Some days I end up with fewer words than when I started because I’ve edited out some text. I plod through a story, editing as I go along, wishing I could quickly write through the story and get it all out there—but that doesn’t work for me. I’m the tortoise. Slow and steady, I get there.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I used to. I used to do a lot of things differently before and after becoming a writer. I used to listen to music but now prefer to work in silence. I used to be a morning person, but now prefer to work into the wee hours and skip the morning (I try to avoid any commitments before 11). It wasn’t like there had been a night owl inside me waiting to be born, things just shifted.

My hours really have changed. My low point each day used to be 4 p.m. Sometimes I’d even crash on my office floor for five minutes with my feet against the door! Now, as hard as I try, I can barely eke out creative new work all day, until four o’clock rolls around, and suddenly it all starts happening for me. 

Are there any occupational hazards to being a novelist?
Spending too much time in a room alone. Forgetting to eat. Late nights with too much wine. Visions of grandeur as in selling film rights. Fantasies of Oprah selecting my book. If you don’t have dreams (or delusions) as a writer, you might as well not even start. It’s far too hard to live on the reality of a writer’s life.

Writing-editing-marketing: which is the most difficult for you?
Without a doubt, writing. I sweat over every word. Editing is easy, and marketing is a natural for me. If I weren’t a writer myself, I would probably be a publicist. I actually like the idea of tracking down leads, contacting bloggers, and all the crazy stuff marketing requires these days; only it takes too much time when I would rather be writing.

What is the single most powerful challenge when it comes to writing a novel?
To work all day realizing that, at the end of it, with all the new paragraphs and edited words, I might only be 100 words ahead of where I was the day before—or even behind—and to know that I am going to be in that daily situation for the next two years minimum.


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