Anthony Neil Smith is the author of many books two of which I have reviewed here: “Castle Danger: Woman on Ice” and, most recently, “The Cyclist”. Smith is also the Chair of the English, Philosophy, Spanish & Humanities Department at Southwest Minnesota State University. Smith answered some question via email.
David: Congratulations on your latest book, “The Cyclist”. That was a terrifying read. The book is much more a horror book than a crime book and its influences seem to come from horror movies. What were some of the influences (literary or film) for “The Cyclist”? Also, where did you come up with the germ of the idea?
Neil: I think that most of the neo-noir writers of this century are inspired by horror. I don’t think we can escape it. The styles bleed. What we think of as noir is a lot “worse” than what it had looked like during the Golden Age (if there ever was one). So I think torture-porn movies like HOSTEL and SAW play a part, and also the serial killer novels of Mo Hayder. As for the idea, I guess my love of cycling and my two trips to Scotland blended together in my mind. When we were driving around the highlands, at one point we got a little lost and ended up in the middle of nowhere, but there were a lot of trees around, making the path a little claustrophobic, and I immediately thought of the horrible things a crazy person could do out here in all that isolation.
David: In Ben Lelievre’s Dead End Follies review of “Castle Danger: Woman on Ice”, he wrote that it took “a little while to warm up” and then you pulled the rug out from under the reader. In “The Cyclist”, you point the reader in one direction and then everything changes, nothing is what the reader thought it was. Can you talk about setting up the reader’s expectations and then changing on a dime?
Neil: That’s the expectation of this genre (or any genre), seems to me. Movies, too. At the end of the first act, everything goes topsy-turvy and heads off in a different direction. Aren’t we all waiting for that moment? Maybe I try to avoid what that exact expectation is. Don’t want it to be too easy. It’s one thing to invert expectations, but what about perverting them? Is perverting a word? No one should read the book and think “That’s exactly what I expected.”
In CASTLE DANGER, I don’t want anyone to trust Manny’s voice too much, since he’s not so sure about his wants and needs anyway. I wanted the whole narrative to be shifting beneath the reader’s (and Manny’s) feet.
David: Genre vs literary. One doesn’t find anyone particular genre talking smack about another genre, but authors of literary fiction seem to revel in their disdain of genre fiction––Stephen King is a good example of getting the brunt of this. Since you are knee-deep in the literary world as a professor of English and a department chair, are the lines still drawn hard-fast between literary and genre fiction?
Neil: I want to say “not as much” because I know a lot of people who straddle the lines between those two areas, but I guess there will always be a thin hard line, but most of the younger generation of literary writers seems to accept and enjoy genre work, and appreciate anyone blurring the line. I know some crime writers hate the phrase “transcending the genre,” but I never mind it. After all, the main works of most genres that stand out and are the milestones are the exceptions. They end up becoming the roadmap for genre even if they deviated from the expectations of it. I tend to gravitate towards those people always trying to buck the genre while still being in love with it.
David: Are students more accepting of genre fiction than the professors?
Neil: Oh, god yes. My only disappointment is how much they lean on fantasy or sci-fi clichés. I would like to see some students try for something new, but I understand that they are just learning and need to go through those early phases. I don’t see as much love for the crime or thriller genres with undergraduates, though. They like epics.
David: I mentioned in my review of “The Cyclist” that you’re a bit prolific. You’ve had three books published in the last year. I’ve only read two of your books and I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of your work. What’s your writing routine like and how you generate so many words in an almost Stephen King-like flood? That’s the last Stephen King reference I promise.
Neil: I’m prolific? I feel frozen a lot of the time. I wish I could write two books a year, but I usually end up around one-and-a-half. I was on a strict deadline for the recent three from BE ebooks, and they were released quickly, so it’s all an illusion. I just abandoned one novel and am starting another, so it might be awhile before the next one. I’m amazed at King’s output and quality, even if I’m not a big King fan. I really only write about a thousand words on a good day, and I don’t write every day. I tend to get lazy. But somehow I’ve published 14 novels since 2005 (plus two novellas and a lot of short stories). I like to write in the mornings, between about 10 and 2, or during my office hours when things slow down at work. At the moment, I’m trying to do a page a day until I get some momentum. Just always moving forward.
David: In a recent interview with Tom Leins, you talked about that it’s okay to want to be read by the masses and that “The Cyclist” was a step in that direction. Any hints on how a writer can put food on their table and pay rent. How do you stay true to yourself and still reach for a mass appeal audience?
Neil: Get a job. Lucky for me I went to grad school, got a PhD, and became a creative writing prof. I love my job. That allows me a lot of time – since writing is part of the job – to work and always think about craft. My friends have had better luck with larger publishers. If I put the advances (very few of them) and royalties from my books together, I’d still have a lot less than some friends have gotten for two or three book contracts. It’s more like a bonus than a way to make a living. I heard that only 5% of novelists make a living at it, something like that.
Here’s home I stay true to myself and still reach for a mass audience: I don’t know. So far, I haven’t been very successful at it, so maybe I will never know how. I am still a student of bestsellers, trying to figure out how I can write a book *I* like that will also reach hundreds of thousands of people. My friend and longtime editor Allan Guthrie is always teaching me more about structure, plotting, and character in order to make a breakthrough book, but I always end up messing it up somehow. I get bored and just follow my own interests instead.
So I’ve got the freedom, because of my university job, to write whatever I want and find indie presses to publish them. It’s a great feeling. But I would love to find the story that would reach many more eyes.
David: Give me five books to read, genre doesn’t matter.
Neil: Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor, WHITE JAZZ by James Ellroy, THE REAL COOL KILLERS by Chester Himes, STAR TREK MOVIE MEMORIES by William Shatner, IGUANA LOVE by Vicki Hendricks.
Thanks for reading this interview with Anthony Neil Smith. Make sure you go and buy his books.