[img_assist|nid=676|title=Curtis Smith|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=151|height=113]Curtis Smith has the corner on the short story market. His fiction and essays have appeared in over fifty literary journals and anthologies, he has published two collections of short-short stories (Placing Ourselves Among the Living and In the Jukebox Light), and his third collection will feature both a novella and more short stories. He is also a novelist (An Unadorned Life), a special learning teacher, father of a four-year old and a husband.
Somehow, he manages to take on all of these roles and write short stories that Laurel Johnson, editor of The Midwest Book Review has said make his newest book, The Species Crown (June ’07, Press 53) “the latest literary gem.”
Other editors praise his ability to create a complex inner life for the individuals who lurch through his stories:
… Smith’s characters walk a thin line separating light and darkness, and when they stumble—as they invariably do—they fall into the dark side, into a world of hurt and crime—or worse. Men and monsters: we soon come to realize, there’s really little difference between the two. How easily his characters step into the shoes of killers, how perfectly they wear the skin of Godzilla. These are not tales to calm our jackrabbity hearts.
— Jim Clark, editor, The Greensboro Review
Recently, Smith gave Philadelphia Stories an inside peek into what allows him to move among his many roles while still remaining one of the most masterful story tellers of our time.
What is your writing process?
I bookend each day with writing time. I set the alarm early to get forty minutes or so of quiet time in the morning, and I try to squeeze an hour in at night. In between, I snatch what pilfered bits I can. The peripheral me leans toward the ragged – often late, forgetful, shirt untucked and hair uncombed – but the writing side of my life is strangely regimented, a Felix Unger resurrection, my compulsions meshing with notions of efficiency that probably make sense to me alone.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I believe writers are very similar to the types of people who spend long hours in their garages or workshops. We enjoy solitude. We can get lost in daydreams, in the imagining of what could be. The act of tinkering soothes some part of our brains. Through our days, we’re all bombarded by random stimuli, so much so that we can barely process it all, yet for some reason a certain image or notion becomes captured in our heads. Sometimes, I have to jot an idea down on the nearest piece of paper; most times a concept will bounce around my skull much like a hailstone in the clouds, a gradual growing and accumulating until it achieves some sort of critical mass. I’ll then write these bits down in a journal, where they’ll wait until I can find use for them.
Inspiration also comes from reminding myself of the rewards of discovery and immersion that wait in the whole process. When you ask the hard questions of a character you’ve created – what do they believe and why and what are they willing to do to achieve and defend these things – you’re also asking yourself. Being honest with a character, even if it’s a person totally unlike you, often entails being honest with yourself. It’s the whole examined life thing – it’s a wonderful benefit of the creative process.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
I don’t think the best writing advice came to me in terms of words – it was more subtle than that. In the mid-90’s I was enrolled in a MFA program in Vermont. I’d published a few stories in nice journals, and I thought I was on my way. But through the course of my studies, I got to know my fellow students and the faculty, and it dawned on me that there were a lot of extremely smart and creative people doing the same thing I was. And all of us were competing for a very limited number of pages available in literary journals and, even scarcer, book titles.
I think of those folks a lot now when I write. It helps me hold my work to a higher standard. I may create alone, but once my manuscript lands on an editor’s desk, it’s just one of many. This bigger view helps me to keep asking the tough questions of my work, and the manner in which I answer those questions may be just the little bit of difference that might help my piece stand out.
How does place influence your writing?
I grew up in Ardmore. I’ve worked for the past twenty-some years in the Harrisburg area. I lived a number of years in Erie. My whole family is from Scranton. So I feel as though all my work, whether directly stated or implied, is rooted in Pennsylvania. I love our climate, its seasons, its snowstorms and heat waves, its brilliant, crisp autumn mornings. I love the grays of a hike through winter woods. Even my stories that take place in different locations often feature transplanted Pennsylvanians. All the stories we weave need a backdrop, a Point A, a launch pad of details and sensibilities. Pennsylvania is my Point A.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Of the top of my head, I’ll go with Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Denis Johnson, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Ellen Gilchrist, and Rick Bass– although sometimes I read their work and then feel both moved and humbled, reminded once again of how much more I need to learn.
Aimee LaBrie’s stories have been published in many literary journals. She recently received the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, which will publish her short story collection in December. Aimee serves on the Philadelphia Stories Planning & Development Board.