Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Five Minutes with Clint Smith

Today I welcome Clint Smith to my spot. He's one of the contributing authors published in the Something Wicked Volume 2 anthology. Tell us a little about your short story.

The story Double Back was a workshop piece I drafted for a university creative writing class in the winter of 2009. During the first few days of that course, I was sizing up my peers, trying to gauge who was going to write what that semester.  I admired (and still admire) the methodic short story writers—Tobias Wolff, Dan Chaon, Cheever, James Lasdun, Lauren Groff, Marlin Barton, to name a scant few.  But I identified more with the scholarly work of ST Joshi and the craft of scribblers like Dan Simmons, Joe Hill, Norman Partridge, Joe Lansdale, and William Browning Spencer.

After a few workshops, it took little time to register that I might end up being the only horror writer in class.  And I was.  I won’t say the pieces I produced for that class were unpopular; but I think they were a bit too strange for both the academes and my fellow campus comrades.  To put another way, it was clear I was a writer for the "pulps," not the "slicks," and that suited me just fine.

Regardless, I submitted my modest tale to a magazine in South Africa in June, 2009. Then I moved on to drafting different material, and the story faded from my radar. That’s until I got an e-mail from Joe Vaz announcing that my story Double Back would make an appearance in the new incarnation of his publication, Something Wicked, Volume 2.

Double Back is a love letter to the spirit-of-Christmas-past portions of A Christmas Carol paired with a reverent nod to Dostoevsky’s The Double, and his illustration of Ivan Karamazov’s encounter with the devil in book four of The Brothers Karamazov.

What gets you writing? Tell us a little bit more about your approach.

In part what gets me writing is the compulsion of exploration and challenge—exploration in the sense that, when I isolate an image or idea, and a challenge in assembling a premise or story “shape” that I’ve never constructed before.

The stories I’ve produced in these past few years have had a strong auto-biographic bend to them. Not unusual for many writers. But I’ve really tried to make an effort to dismantle to those composites I’ve known and those characters I’ve been. The most instinctive thing for me to do is isolate a trait that unsettles me from my past and place it on a collision course with an issue that I dwell on now—the responsibility (or lack thereof, as the case may be) of  fatherhood, substance abuse, war, fidelity, infidelity, the fragility and stamina of family. These are not special or novel notions to discuss; but more than anything, I do the best I can to create centrifugal cores my material to give it some gravity, and often that process elicits writing that is inexorably adorned with elements quiet horror. I’d like to utilize the medium and traditions of horror to not only repair the past but fortify the future.

Short stories seem to be your thing. What do you think are particular challenges associated with the form? As for longer works, do you have anything planned? 

In a word:  backstory.

Lately I’ve really tried to examine how to better weave background elements into the wider fabric of a short story.

Last year, in a column for Poets & Writers Magazine, Benjamin Percy discussed the A-B-D-C-E method for structuring stories: Action, Background, Development, Conflict, and Ending. And just like many horror films contain a “monster problem” (see Jason Zinoman’s wonderful book Shock Value for more on this), many short stories have a background problem, or at least a background placement problem.  I really admire Téa Obreht’s chilling short story The Laugh—that’s a really impressive example of well-crafted distribution of backstory.

As for longer works, I’m currently drafting a longer work that may very well emerge as a novel (if I can refrain from prematurely steering my characters toward the safe harbor of a short story’s conclusion). But a different sort of longer work is scheduled for 2014. I received word last winter that my short story collection, Ghouljaw ahd other Stories, will be released through Hippocampus Press sometime next year.

What's the one short story you keep going back to (we all have them), and what makes it stand out above all the rest? 

Funny you should ask.  I just finished the final draft of a story I first penned about four years ago. Corbin's Gore is the title I settled on, although there’d been dozens between interceding drafts. I kept returning to this one because I never felt that I’d provided enough thematic insulation to send it out. There were elements and set pieces that (to give a wink to Nabokov) I didn’t want to lose to the darlings of oblivion, but I also knew it’d take some interaction with these characters and circumstances I’d neglected.

I’m not sure that Corbin's Gore stands out from the rest of my work, but there was a I needed to take the story more seriously because of the potential that I had a lot to lose—that the characters had a lot to lose.

What scares you?

Henry James said that a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.

And what scares me most is something bad—bad—happening to my kids.  I think what scares me more than anything is not providing a safe enough world for my kids. Clearly, there’s no defanging the world (nor should there be), but my fears habitually return to the self-conscious compulsion that I’ll miss something, that I’ll neglect my fatherly vigilance and something will be lost. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to assist my kids (or any kids for that matter) in coping with the chimera of life, and by writing about what I’ve experienced, I’d like to think that the craft provides some resistance and guidance for when the “bad” moments inevitably emerge.

When you write, that reflective radar is constantly rotating over the illuminated grid of your life. Hopefully, nothing is lost.

Clint Smith Fiction:  clintsmithfiction.com
Clint Smith’s Amazon.com Author’s Page

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