Friday, December 18, 2009

John Smolens

John Smolens is the director of Northern Michigan University's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. He is an acclaimed short story and fiction writer, the author of one collection of stories and three novels.

From a Q & A about his new novel, The Anarchist:

1. What inspired you to write THE ANARCHIST?

Curiosity. There was an element of mystery about the McKinley assassination: repeatedly, historians have said that there was so much about Leon Czolgosz that was unknown, and that appealed to me as a fiction writer.

2. What was your research process like?

I started work on The Anarchist more than five years ago. My tendency is to circle an idea, try to view it from various perspectives (this is probably why most of my novels are told from several points of view). Naturally, the research involved a great deal of reading—histories, biographies, memoirs, newspapers, anything that seemed relevant. In order to find certain material I traveled to Buffalo and Chicago, where I visited libraries and museums. Newspapers were particularly helpful because they chronicle how Americans reacted to the McKinley assassination at the time. When such events are rendered in history books, they're rather distilled and drained of their emotional impact; however, reading, say, a September 7, 1901, edition of the Buffalo Currier provides details that convey the grief, fear, and anger that engulfed the nation immediately after the president was shot. Newspapers also provide a greater sense of the period; advertisements and articles totally unrelated to the events surrounding McKinley and Czolgosz offer invaluable context—you learn how people dressed, what they ate, what things cost. Furthermore, the prose style employed in newspapers, which was often quite formal, shed light on how people thought. Also, in Buffalo I went to an exhibit which displayed memorabilia from the Pan-American Exposition and was able to see the pistol and handkerchief that Czologosz used—the gun was remarkably small, and the burn hole in the handkerchief brought home the absurdity that this assassination attempt was successful.

My research also led me to subjects that, at first, seemed only remotely connected to the story I was writing, and yet as the novel took shape I realized they were essential to the book. I read books on the history of gun powder, the invention of the electric chair, the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886 (which had a great influence on a generation of anarchists), and orphanages in the early twentieth century. I collected maps, postcards, and old photographs. Buffalo, like so many other American cities in the first years of the twentieth century, was being inundated with immigrants, desperate for work; crime and prostitution were rampant. And, of course, I read a great deal about the Erie Canal.

3. How much of the story is historically accurate?

Most...[read on]
Visit John Smolens' website and blog.

Read about John Smolens’ novel Cold as The Great Michigan (U.P.) Novel.

--Marshal Zeringue