By Rich Howells
July 2, 2013
As the author of five story collections, three novels, and an essay collection, with his work appearing in over 75 literary reviews, it’s easy to see why Curtis Smith was chosen to be the featured reader at this month’s New Visions Writers Showcase, but he also has a local connection that brings him back to Scranton.
The 52-year-old Hershey resident is from Philadelphia, but his family hails from the Electric City originally. An author of “literary fiction” with a keen “eye on the human condition” and its details, Smith recently finished his 30th year as a special education teacher at Lower Dauphin High School and will return to the area after 12 years to read pieces from his latest collection, “Beasts & Men.”
The Weekender asked him about his new book, his writing process, and what to expect from his reading on Saturday, July 6 at New Visions Studio & Gallery (201 Vine St., Scranton).
THE WEEKENDER: Why writing? How did you get started?
CURTIS SMITH: I just wanted to do something creative, and I couldn’t draw or paint, so I picked writing. I was doing some woodworking for a while, but writing was just a lot easier, a lot less tools and space needed for that.
I’ve been primarily a fiction person up until the past…10 years when I started writing non-fiction as well. I started out with short stories and then eventually started doing novels and then started throwing some essays in there as well.
W: What subjects do you write about, and have those subjects changed over time?
CS: I’d assume that things change as I get older and have different outlooks on things. Mainly I just wanted to write something that was engaging on a visual level, on an image-driven level, and also on a character-driven level. You think of a character or a situation, you kind of go down that rabbit hole and see where that takes you. The non-fiction is different. Usually with my non-fiction, I write about…how parenthood has changed my life and observations from that end of things.
W: A lot of your books are collections of short pieces. Do you prefer writing short stories or essays as opposed to full novels?
CS: I go back and forth. My standard is that I usually have three things I’m working on at a time. I usually have stories – or a collection of stories depending on how deep into the collection I am – a handful of essays, and a novel. And I usually rotate them as far what’s calling me at that time, and what my interest is.
Right now, I’m working on stories, but I hadn’t probably worked on stories in about a year or so. And I just got done planning out a new novel, so that kind of allows me to return to something with a fresh eye, I believe, and with a renewed sense of engagement. It’s worked well for me.
W: What is your writing process like? Does inspiration just have to hit you?
CS: Inspiration – I think it waits for you. Someone else just asked me this question, and I thought about it for a long time. Inspiration usually comes through hard work; you sit down and you write and something will click eventually, but I’m a pretty meticulous planner. I have a very set process. I outline and a brainstorm and I write longhand a first draft, and then edit it and rewrite it on the other side of a notebook for the second draft, and then I type, and then the whole revision process starts again. So I do have a pretty set process, and I usually have to be pretty planned, but within that plan, I allow myself flexibility if a story or a piece of a novel wants to go someplace else, I allow myself to follow that, but I usually need to have an endpoint in mind, at least to pull me through to get me started.
Usually for me the theme will come once I have a draft going, and then what I’ll do is I’ll go back and fit the draft to that theme… Sometimes it comes a lot easier, but usually it will come in through the draft and then you’ll go back and refit your wording and your language and your imagery to accent whatever theme is calling to you in that piece.
W: Tell me about your latest work, “Beasts & Men.”
CS: It’s a collection of 30 stories – 26 are what’s commonly referred to as flash fiction or short short fiction and four pretty long stories… I just kind of got in this groove of reading some flash fiction. I’d always written very short fiction along with very long fiction, and so I started revisiting some old notebooks of mine I was going to throw out, this whole big stack of notebooks I had, a couple boxes full. So I went through them and I found images that still spoke to me or sentences and I wrote them down and I developed a whole bunch of them into stories.
I went with “Beasts & Men” because that’s the title of one of the stories, but many of the stories also seem to have an animal somewhere in the background… It just seemed to pop up and run its course through it.
W: What do you hope that readers take away from the book?
CS: First of all, enjoyment, engagement – that would be my first. I pay super close attention to sentences; I’m big on the sentence, I’m big on the word choice. I think my writing tends to be more visually driven than anything else. I’d be happy if someone finished reading it and said, “I wouldn’t mind reading another book of his someday.” That would probably be the highest praise I could get.
W: What kind of work will you be sharing with the audience at this reading?
CS: I’m going to be reading pieces from the new book, from “Beasts & Men.” …I have maybe about 10 go-to pieces in the book, and a lot of times a couple minutes before I go on, I’ll make up my mind because I don’t want to read the same piece at three readings in a row.
I’m interested to see what the community is like up there. I haven’t been to Scranton in a long time. I’m trying to arrange it so my family can come with me and I can show them where grandma and grandpa grew up and tour around town. I’ve heard that the events here have been pretty well attended, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like.