I’m always interested in other writers: what motivates them to write as they do, and their techniques. My high school alumni magazine has an interview with Charlie Smith (class of ’65), who has written eight novels, a book of novellas, and eight books of prize-winning poetry. He has won the Aga Khan Prize, the Levinson prize, the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His writing has appeared in magazines and journals such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s, The New Republic, the New York Times, and The Nation. He lives in New York City and Key West.
His latest novel, Ginny Gall, is the “story of Delvin Walker, and African-American born in Tennessee in 1913. Young Delvin loses his mother when she flees their home after being accused of murder; is taken in by the kind and literate Cornelius Oliver; has to hightail it out of town after a skirmish with a white boy; and rides the US railroad system in a bid to find a home, a place, his life. The novel sprawls across the America of Jim Crow and the Great Depression, steeped in segregation, violence and destitution of the era, while vibrantly capturing the making of a man – and a writer.”
Smith is asked about the origins of the story: “Well I’m not really a writer who forecasts his novels; I just start off writing. But this novel does have a faint template: there are certain skeletal bones that reference the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama in 1931, nine young black men who were pulled off a train, accused of raping a couple of white women and thrown into prison. Those facts were more than I usually have to go on when I start writing.
“One of the things I wanted to do was write an imagined biography about a young man in peril in the South, the extreme difficulty that someone can find himself in – not of his own making – and how he responds to it. As far as the character being a writer, it wasn’t something I thought of before I started the book, but as I moved along, I found myself interested in the side of Delvin that would culminate in someone who was becoming a writer. So I went along that way, and that’s what followed.”
Smith is asked: “Even the bleakest parts of the book had this sort of light shining on them because of the way you used your language. Did you maintain that language to show how Delvin’s mind works?”
“Some of that is simply the way I write. I write pretty dark books – but this one is very light-spattered despite all the trouble and grief – it’s kind of a square dance compared to the books I usually write. But the juxtaposition of dark and light is an important part of how I approach a novel, and some of these decisions are intuitive decisions, they’re not something I organize ahead of time. So the lightness you’re referring to is somewhat characteristic of how I write novels, but it’s also characteristic of this particular person – Delvin Walker – of how he experiences life.”
I must say that I’ve found it beneficial to lay out an rough outline of a novel before I start writing: who the characters are, where and when the action takes place, and the message or point of the story. It seems to me that Charlie Smith had done exactly this when he says “an imagined biography about a young man in peril in the South, the extreme difficulty that someone can find himself in – not of his own making – and how he responds to it.” I agree with him that what happens in the story isn’t planned in advance. It evolves from the characters and the message of the novel. I usually write a more detailed outline of each chapter before I begin writing it, and this will be a listing of events and reactions to them. But while I’m writing a novel, the plot and the characters evolve over time. For example, when I’m about halfway through, I begin to get a sense of how the story will end. I also agree that the use of language is very important in setting the mood of the story, which changes as events unfold. Language is also vital in creating distinctive characters.