Facing Our Fears: An Interview with Curtis Smith by Jen Michalski

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Spiritual WritingThe Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest book is The Magpie’s Return, a dystopian-themed YA novel from Running Wild Press.

Jen Michalski: Congratulations on The Magpie’s Return! I’m always interested in a book’s journey. Can you tell us how you came to work with Running Wild Press?

Curtis Smith: I came upon Running Wild about two years ago. I had a story that kept asking to be longer and longer and soon it was too long for a lit journal. I saw a notice that Running Wild put out an anthology of novellas, so I sent it there was fortunate to have it selected. After that, I started checking in on their titles. I noticed they were getting reviewed regularly, and more importantly, their covers looked really cool. I’m a sucker for a good cover. I happened to have a new novel I’d just finished, so I sent it there, and in a month or so, they took it on.

JM: The book was eerily timely—there’s a period of being shut-in, civil unrest, an uprising of anti-science, super-religious populace egged on by an equally anti-science, super-religious president. I can guess at the inciting incident(s) for all those things, but was surprised the narrator, Kay, is a 14-year-old girl.  I know you have a son, but I also know you were a high school teacher for a stretch! What was it like to write through the perspective of Kay?

CS: Kayla opened herself to me during a later draft of the novel. At first, it was all third person, but by the time I got to the end, I wasn’t satisfied. I usually save first person for my creative nonfiction, but I went back and wrote the first few chapters in first just to see if I could understand her better. And when I did, her voice really came out, and I realized that if this was how I got to know her, then perhaps this is how I should present her to the rest of the world.

And yes, between teaching high school and college (and parenting), I now have 38 years of working with young people. I think that—for better or worse—the whole high school experience is still something I can relate to (or at least appreciate).

And as far as all of those elements in the story that seem timely, all I can say is unfortunately. I started this in 2015 . . . then came 2016 . . . and then our own shut-in and all the anti-intellectual weirdness of the past few years—and what had started as a kind of dystopian vibe quickly degenerated into current events.

JM: So this is your first YA novel—had you ever thought about writing one before, or did the plot dictate the genre? I just wrote a YA novel myself, and honestly, it was something I never considered doing; it just kind of happened that way—the plot wound up influencing the genre.

CS: I did start out with the idea of writing a YA piece. This is my 13th book—and I wanted to do something different. So, no, I’d never thought of doing one before. But you’re right—the plot did influence who I picked to be my main character. My initial thoughts were based in what was happening in Syria at the time—and I think to many, those events felt like they belonged to another planet. I wanted to take that sense of danger and upheaval and present it through the lens of an American teen. And as I wrote it, the whole YA feel slipped away, and I felt like I was writing my typical type of book—only this time with a young girl as the protagonist.

JM: That’s so weird that this started with Syria! But then again, Margaret Atwood wasn’t necessarily writing about America 2020 in The Handmaid’s Tale, either. There’s always two facets of book writing—what you want to write about, and who you’re writing to, in this case, young adults. Is there a lot of anxiety, in your experience as an educator, among this group about the future, or about government? Or did you find yourself writing for an audience you thought might need to understand what lies beyond the fragile membrane of democracy?

CS: I know some young people who worry about the state of affairs we find ourselves in—but I think most are so busy just getting by—be it in school or working or just navigating this life—that they use up their anxiety quotas in other ways. It’s us older types who should be anxious—and ashamed—by the state of our country. To be honest, I’m my own audience because I’m mainly writing to my own fears. I write about the things that keep me up at night. I worry about the undercurrents of fascism in this country—the anti-intellectualism and the tribalism. Usually my books focus on smaller, more personal worries—but this one found its way to the bigger issues that haunt me. It just so happened that as I was writing, the issues I was addressing in my fictional world were growing in the real world, and I think that helped feed what was finding its way onto the page.

JM: It was easy to relate to Kay because she felt so adult—she’s sort of like Charles Wallace in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. She was wise beyond her years. Why did you choose to make her a genius?

CS: I wanted someone who looked at the world both as a child and as an adult—someone who looked at it with a deep lens of pure, cold logic—yet who had roots of art and appreciation for life. I originally wrote the book in third person—but at the end, I wasn’t happy with it. So I thought I’d rewrite the first chapters in first person, just in an attempt to know the character better—and suddenly, Kayla’s voice came to me. It was a revelation—I knew her before, but now I heard her. And when I heard her—I heard the genius, but I also heard the young woman—and I think that helped her become whole.

JM: It was unusual to see the book sectioned into three different points of views for Kay: first, second, and third person, but  it worked! It shows a progression, a process of grief and how Kay tries to deal with her losses. Another thing I liked was is that, even in the middle of this dystopian nightmare, there are still YA themes of feeling like an outsider and finding acceptance among one’s peers. What was distinctly un-YA (although it’s certainly gotten more common after, say, The Hunger Games), is there’s a lot of violence, even death, The Magpie Returns. I mean, in short—it’s dark. Full disclosure: I had nightmares the night I finished it! You approach it unflinchingly. Did you always know you had to take the narrative in this direction?

CS: Sorry about the nightmares. It does get dark, doesn’t it? But as I was planning it, that seemed like the only way it could go. She was stripped of all she knew and loved . . . yet she survives only to have it all happen again. I wanted to have her lose everything but continue to fight. And in the end, she learns that, in the most elemental ways, she’s a bit like those she hates. The world can be both so nurturing and so cruel to children—and I think her experience covers both of these extremes. So much was out of her control that she reached out and controlled the little bit she could. The violence is a reflection of the world around her—and of the violence of which we’re all capable.

JM: Other than that, were there any other parts of the novel that really challenged you as s writer? Did you feel you had to add any new tools to the toolkit to tackle it?

CS: In your previous question you mentioned the point of view changes–that only came to me after I went back and rewrote the beginning to try to hear her voice. I wrote a book about Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five a few years ago, and in the course of writing it, I learned a lot about PTSD. And I know this character, with the breakdown of society and the violence that crashes into her life, had to have been absolutely rocked with this kind of trauma. So that’s the lens I tried to use with the switching of points of view—to use them to get inside her mind at a deeper level and have the reader feel the disassociation she’s experiencing. I think it got the feel across in a way I couldn’t have achieved if I’d stayed in the first person.

Another challenge was the last section. It was shorter than the others, a return to first person, but a dreamy first person (she’s had a serious concussion), and she’s addressing her parents, almost in a fever dream. It would be hard to pull off for 100 pages, but I enjoyed it—and I hope it brought the dreamy/nightmarish vibe home.

JM: How was your experience with Running Wild Press?

CS: It’s been great. Lisa Kastner and her team allowed me to have a hand in all aspects of seeing it from a manuscript to a finished book—and I’m really happy with the final product. And they’ve been doing a lot of innovative work to spread the word.

JM: It seems like everyone has had to be very creative with promoting books coming out this fall, not only because of the glut of books that were initially postponed because of COVID but also because of the limited in-person opportunities for readings, book signings, class visits, radio, and so on. Have you had to change your marketing strategy in any way, either because of the aforementioned issues or because of its YA genre? What have you learned and what advice do you have for writers whose books will be publishing in the coming months?

CS: I’m a planner—and I had a series of in-person events lined up for this fall back at the start of the year—but we all know how that’s gone. On top of it, I’m having a crazy semester with a couple overload classes plus my admin duties, so I’ve been pretty swamped. I’m in the process of making a video trailer for the book—and I’ve done some virtual readings, but once the dust settles, I hope to get out there more in the coming year. The book has had some very nice reviews—and I hope they can open a few doors to help me get the word out.

JM: What’s next?

CS: I’m plugging away at a new novel. It’s a crazy semester, but I’m carving out about an hour or so  a day. It’s another teen protagonist—a look into growing up among the poor and addicted. We’ll see where it goes.

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