Former head of Creative Writing at Northern Michigan U, John Smolens has published ten works of fiction, most recently Wolf’s Mouth, a 2017 Michigan Notable Book selection. Four of his earlier novels were reissued in paperback in 2017 by the MSU Press. In 2010, he received the Michigan Author of the Year Award from the Michigan Library Association. www.johnsmolens.com
Q&A with John Smolens
John Smolens will be presenting a session on writing a novel: “An act of faith, hope and stupidity: why we writing novels anyway.” We concur. It is a mystery, and we do it anyway. A short bio of John is on the CONFERENCE page. www.johnsmolens.com
How did you find your genre as a novelist? Did you experiment with others?
I like to think that I don’t work in “my genre”—or any genre, for that matter. The notion seems confining to me. Recently you see some novels described as “genre-bending”—something like that. I think most novels have been doing that for a long, long time. Crime and Punishment might be considered a “murder mystery.” But definitely not a “British cozy.”
That being said…
I realize that a reader is likely to think of some of my novels—The Schoolmaster’s Daughter, Quarantine, and perhaps Wolf’s Mouth—as “historical fiction,” while books such as Cold and Fire Point are “contemporary” stories set way up north. For me, that’s the beauty of writing novels. One can imagine how events unfolded on, say, the night before the battle at Bunker Hill, and also plunk a group of characters down in the midst of an Upper Peninsula blizzard and wish them luck.
What is your writing ritual like? Are you writing every day?
I like the word ritual. Has religious/spiritual overtones. I try to write every day, and the days that I don’t feel lost, soulless. The Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk claims in an essay called “The Implied Author” that days when he doesn’t write the world become “unbearable, abominable.” My ritual, such as it is, is to get up early…very early. I tend to wake up between 3 and 4 a.m. (I’m writing this at 4:29 a.m.) I work for several hours, often till sunrise, give our dog Sammy the breakfast he richly deserves (and insists upon), and then take what I call my morning pre-nap. On a good day I’ll be back at the desk again by midmorning.
Are you writing from an outline or are you more organic?
Never an outline. But I admire writers who can see and sketch out an entire book before actually beginning to write. I don’t know how they do it. Organic? I guess that word might apply, though it seems too clean, too healthy, and suggests all things lifestyle. I have a life, such as it is, not a lifestyle. My methods of composition are more dirty and very often repetitive, inefficient, and utterly exhausting. However, if you think of something organic as being nurtured in the earth, yes, I often feel I’m down on my hands and knees, rooting in the soil for something, anything that might eventually be edible. If I were a restaurant I’d be the farm to table sort, or what they call in Italy agriturismo.
What is the one thing you wish new novelists would take the time to do?
There are at least 101 things I would recommend (and have recommended during my years of teaching), but I’ll mention just three:
- Not just literature. Read history.
- Don’t be afraid.
- And don’t be so sure of yourself. Doubt and uncertainty are essential elements when writing anything longer than your name.
You have a new book. How does the process of promotion for this book differ from that first novel?
You’re talking more than 30 years, from my first novel to my next (my tenth) novel Out, which will be published in 2019. From 1987 to the present, virtually every aspect of publishing has changed, and it continues to morph at a greater pace. These days, the vast majority of novels are released with little or no “promotion”; there will be a brief description in the publisher’s catalogue and, if you’re lucky, there might be some advertising. Most likely “promotion” is the responsibility of the author. There are far fewer brick and mortar book stores than even five years ago, and far less space is now devoted to book reviews in newspapers and magazines. However, there are online reviewers and bloggers, and there are public libraries, which I think is one of the last bastions of civilization as we know it. If a decade ago I was traveling to a string of book stores, now I’m greatly appreciative when librarians network and help me set up a series of readings.
What keeps you coming back to do a new book after the last one is done?
Because I’m still breathing. My favorite response to the question “Why write?” comes from John Updike, who said, “Why not?” I think it applies to every book I write. But it’s also a self-serving impulse, because if I didn’t have a book to work on (I usually have several unfinished books going), then what would I be doing between pre-naps, naps, and post-naps? If one stops writing, the stories, characters, ideas don’t stop…the words will still keep coming, but they won’t go anywhere; they’ll just keep filling up my head until there’s an incomprehensible slurry of junk in there. Better to tap the source, let it out, and see what it looks like in the light of day. Annie Dillard in The Writing Life talks about the artist who said he painted because he liked the smell of paint. I like words and sentences and paragraphs; pages upon pages. They represent something that is not real, yet seems more real than real, more true than fact (usually). I also must admit that one of the first things I do when I obtain a book is press it up to my face and inhale. I like the smell of paper and ink.