Anthony Neil Smith is one prolific writer. You blink and he’s poured another novel for your pleasure. He doesn’t churn his novels out, he puts in the blood and other bodily fluids into his work. The Chicago Tribune noted that “Smith writes with force and clarity.”
But I’m going to dock him some points for sticking the middle finger to one of my rules. Bastard.
A friend of mine doesn’t read fiction, paraphrasing Frank Skinner about it all being made-up and he has no time for any of that. What words do you have for such a philistine?
There’s a lot more bullshit in nonfiction than fiction. The “all made-up” part is what allows us to tell the truth. It’s a really funny thing, that need to know “it really happened” for someone to care about a story – one of the reasons people cited reality TV as such a huge genre, but seriously, how real is it? Editing? Playing to the camera? I bet you get more reality out of scripted drama, even in sci-fi and horror, than in reality TV.
What must a protagonist have to make you read on?
Well, they can’t be boring. Sometimes, even “extreme” can be boring. So what’s not boring? A point of view I can immediately relate to. They need to be messy (psychically, I mean), not too cut-and-dry good or bad. You know how some people in life make you care about them and others, you could give a cold shit? Same with protagonists.
Do you need a likeable protagonist?
Nope. Just need to be able to see the purpose at the center of that character, though. Empathy. Charisma. I always loved Vic Mackey from The Shield, except for when they tried to shoehorn in some cliché family guy qualities – he was doing it all for his kids! Meh. Maybe he was, but it never seemed the right fit to me. But then again, mayhem for the sake of mayhem is boring, too. So somewhere in-between, something…meaningful rather than likeable.
I have very much wanted to write a book based on a story I read about a K-9 cop who got drunk and was caught on a cell phone video beating the shit out of his dog. The dog survived, the cop, I think, lost his job, and of course lost the dog. And yet…I always wanted to do a first-person novel where that guy is trying to redeem himself. He knows he fucked up. He misses that dog badly. (I am a very devoted pet dad, so believe me, I feel the anger that everyone else feels about this dickhead times a thousand).
And every time I bring it up, it’s immediately shot down. Guy beats a dog, no one would ever ever ever want to read about any sort of redemption for him. And to me, that’s the challenge of it. I wish I could write that book in a way people would stick with him all the way through, even if they despise him. At least there would be something there to make his story compelling. But also, what a fucking asshole.
Name a great novel or movie, and what they do for you.
I usually talk about how White Jazz really freaked me out and made me seriously want to become a crime writer for certain after reading just a few pages. But then again, Black Betty by Walter Mosley made me a fan of his for life. It was the first Easy Rawlins I read, and that thing just burned. It made me go reach back for Chester Himes, who wrote even crazier things. That one-two-three punch of Mosley, Himes, and Ellroy around that particular time of my life (mid-90’s) set the stage for taking my already rabid interest in crime fiction (since The Hardy Boys) to the next level, which I guess is full-on addiction.
What makes you throw a book out the window?
When Jack Reacher discovered his dead brother in Killing Floor. (I kid, Lee Child. Kudos to all his success. Cheers!)
Lack of pace, lack of voice, getting bogged down in the “prettiness” of the writing rather than telling the story as it should be told. The author either underestimating the readers, or overestimating his or her own intelligence and needing to show it on the page. “I’m a smart writer!” No, the best writers make me forget about everything outside the story, which is harder and harder to do the more you learn about writing. It’s a grand illusion. That’s more impressive than “Look at my awesome words!”
Do you grit your teeth all the way to the end of a dodgy novel?
I give up on a lot of novels. Sometimes I go back to them and find they were better than I thought. But many times, I just give up for good. I was reading a recent big-time thriller that everyone was raving about, and I hung through until nearly the end, but I was bored silly. I don’t know, I just didn’t care about the protagonist, and it seemed so…quiet. I didn’t feel many thrills for a thriller. But hey, it made all the money, so what do I know? I quit about 50 pages from the end. I just stopped caring.
What gets you writing? A great novel, maybe? Something you saw on the street, or on TV? Something else?
It usually starts with a scene, like someone doing something awful. Why? Who’s the victim? Or just something that makes me wonder: I passed through a small town in Minnesota on my way somewhere and immediately thought of Billy Lafitte, riding back into Minnesota through this town on a badass motorcycle. That was all I needed to start the sequel to Yellow Medicine, Hogdoggin’. And even then, I got the word ‘hogdogging’ from a Mississippi news report about people letting their dogs loose on hogs, ripping them apart, and I thought it described the novel pretty well. So, I think visually. Like film, the iconic image. Then I play the “what if” game that carries me to the idea.
What did you learn about writing from the last book you wrote?
I don’t know yet. I heard a story about a gang shooting in North Minneapolis where something like forty-eight shots were recovered, and a grandmother died in the crossfire. That started the wheels spinning. I wanted something in that world, but I’m not a part of that world. I also wanted the protagonist to be a high school teacher. So I’m nearly done with the book’s first draft, after which I’ll need to clean it up and make changes. The majority of the characters are African-American, and I’m a white guy, so all I can hope is that I did the best I could to tell the story that came to me. I’m hoping I’ll have some writer friends let me know before I show any publishers. But as I was thinking of the protagonist, I just knew he had to be Somali-American for it to work. Minneapolis is a huge center for Somali culture in America.
What’s your next book, in 30 words or less?
I hope it’s the one I just described, which I like to say is “The Untouchables X Dangerous Minds” in North Minneapolis. The next one to actually be published is a novella from Fahrenheit Press called Slow Bear. This is another one where I went after a story about someone unlike myself – a Native American ex-rez cop (he was introduced in my book, Worm) who has made a huge mess of his life. Look for it in early 2020.
And fuck your 30 words. I didn’t count.
Where can readers connect with you?
I’ve got a simple website, anthonyneilsmith.com, which I’ll update when the next book comes out. But mostly, find me on twitter (@anthonynsmith) or Facebook.
Thanks, Anthony, despite you abusing the 30 word rule, you damn beast.