Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Timothy Jay Smith

Timothy Jay Smith has traveled the world collecting stories and characters for his novels and screenplays which have received high praise. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel. He won the Paris Prize for Fiction for his first book, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012. Smith was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize for his short fiction, "Stolen Memories." His screenplays have won numerous international competitions. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater. Smith lives in France.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

When I had the basic premise of the story—an arsonist threatening a Greek island village—the title came fairly easily to me. (The titles for my other novels have as well.) Anyone browsing books would likely guess it’s about a fire on an island. Why a fire or which island? The subtitle that my publisher added—A Romantic Thriller—conveys the idea that there’s an element of suspense, but nothing too dark.

What's in a name?

I pay a lot of attention to names. I always look them up to learn their origin and meaning. If the meaning is completely wrong, then I usually opt for a different name. Fire on the Island is inspired by real people and places. In real life, one of the principal female characters was introduced to me many years ago as the ‘the real Shirley Valentine’—a bored British housewife who travels to Greece and falls in love with a Greek fisherman, which is essentially what Shirley has done in my book. In the book, her granddaughter, Athina (meaning: goddess of warfare and wisdom) is a firebrand feminist, so the name suits her. If I need a name for a scurrilous priest, it’s always Father Alexis, an unsavory priest from my childhood. So there’s a lot in a name, but it comes from many places.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Not much. By my teenage years, I already had the travel bug, and Greece was one of the countries I knew I wanted to visit. (I actually moved there the month I turned 21 to start my first job after college.) I had always been an avid reader and writer. I wrote my first stage play when I was ten and started my first novel when I was twelve. As a teen, I already knew that I was gay, but it would surprise me that I am writing so openly about it because I grew up in a very repressive atmosphere. For any “extras” in life, I’d started working when I was twelve, so the teenage me might be surprised that I had managed to travel the world and write about exotic places.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I don’t start a new work until I have a core story (maybe no more than a logline), a main character, and can visualize both the beginning and ending. That gives me the emotional arc of the story. (I wait until I start writing to discover my characters’ secrets and personal arcs.) Once I’m into the writing, things might shift a bit. In another book, A Vision of Angels, I added a prologue to ramp up the tension from the beginning. In Fire on the Island, I always knew the book would open and close with Dingo, the dog.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Most of my characters are pieced together from people I’ve met, including myself. In Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, there’s a scene where Harry, his protagonist, enters the Magic Theater and sees different attributes of himself in the many mirrors that are hanging everywhere. In my mind’s reconstruction of that scene, the mirrors shatter, scattering across the floor, each piece reflecting different aspects of Harry’s personality; or more broadly, aspects of all our personalities. I pick and choose the pieces I want, and inevitably, a lot of those pieces come from me. That’s why I always say, there’s a lot of autobiography in all my stories.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’ve always been a political animal. Since high school, which for me coincided with the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements, I’ve been keenly aware of issues of social justice and equity. I pursued a career in international development motivated by that awareness. As a writer, when I start a new piece of work, I first ask myself what’s the issue I want to write about, and then I craft a suspenseful plot to illuminate that issue without it being heavily message-laden.

When I started Fire on the Island, Greece was in the throes of a major financial crisis, and the influx of refugees was clearly becoming a catastrophe. I didn’t want to write about either event directly. Instead, I wanted the book to be about how ordinary Greeks were coping with the dual crises, and in the process, write an homage to Greece for contributing so much to my life.
Visit Timothy Jay Smith's website.

--Marshal Zeringue