Charlie Smith, Novelist

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.


Charlie Smith

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.

Review: Silence

The film Silence has been in theaters, lately.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I decided to read the book, Silence, on which it is based. The author, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996) was a Japanese author who wrote from the rare perspective of being a Japanese Roman Catholic.  During World Was II, he worked in a munitions factory. After the war, he briefly studied medicine.  He lectured at several universities on the craft of writing, and he took a particular interest in French Catholic authors.  Ill health troubled him for much of his life.  His work was dominated by a single theme: belief in Christianity.  It has been said that Endo was a ‘Japanese Catholic author’ struggling to ‘plant the seeds of his adopted religion’ in the ‘mudswamp’ of Japan.


Shusaku Endo

Silence is the story of a Portuguese, Catholic priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who volunteers to go to Japan in the 17th century to minister to Christian converts and to discover why his colleague, Christovao Ferreira, another Portuguese priest, has reportedly apostatized.  The background of Silence is historically accurate.  Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by the co-founders of the Jesuit Order, and the religion found favour with the Japanese court for the next sixty years.  However, the hostility of English and Dutch Protestant missionaries and the desire of Shugun Icyasu to destroy Christian influence in Japan led to ruthless attacks on Japanese Christians, many of whom were tortured, burned alive, or forced to apostatize – renounce their faith.

Rodrigues makes the long sea voyage from Portugal to Japan in the company of another missionary priest: Father Garrpe.  On arrival, and escorted by a shifty Japanese peasant named Kichijiro, they are placed in a remote hut above a Christian village.  As the story unfolds, Kichijiro becomes a surrogate for Judas Iscariot: admiring Rodrigues and helping him, but also so tempted by the reward in silver for leading the Japanese officials to a priest that he succumbs to the temptation.  Kichijiro goes through repeated episodes to apostatizing and then returning to his Christian faith, claiming that he is too weak to resist torture.  The strategy of the Japanese official who is the chief persecutor, Inoue, is to use the Christian peasants as hostages to wring an apostasy from the priests.  With the priests eliminated, the religion will disappear.  In one scene, watched by Rodrigues, three Christian peasants who have apostatized are wrapped tightly in reed blankets and dropped off a boat.  Father Garrpe tries to swim to their rescue, but all four drown.  Rodrigues had been invited to save all four if he would just put his foot on a plaque on which there is the face of Christ.  The psychological torture continues: Rodrigues is kept in prison, un-harmed on meager rations, but exposed to the suffering of Christian peasants.  Ferreira appears, and advises Rodrigues to take the right way out: simply trample on the image.  Rodrigues spends the rest of his life as a comfortable captive, performing translations and writing anti-Christian essays at the behest of his captors.

Silence is not an enjoyable book, but it makes one question one’s own beliefs and assumptions.  The title refers to the silence of God in the face of so much suffering.  How can that be?  And yet, Rodrigues is frequently confronted with mental images and the words of Christ.  The definition of Christianity seems to be based on the concepts of the Japanese oppressors: a flame of strange faith, driven by priestly ritual, which contradicts the warm, comfortable ‘mudswamp’ of Japan, and that a coerced apostasy extinguishes that faith.  I, personally, am not at all comfortable with this definition, which seems far too limiting.  Moreover, given that one of Endo’s objectives as a writer was to introduce his faith to his country, this definition seems unlikely to attract many adherents.  The central messages of Christianity are obscured in the focus on what is faith and the complex role of Judas, and, by extension, on the roles of Pontius Pilate and Herod.

The Daily Telegraph calls Silence, ‘A masterpiece.  There can be no higher praise.’  I disagree.  I would call it, ‘a fine, and thought-provoking, historical novel’.  Some of this divergence in opinion may be a function of timing.  Silence was first published in 1969 (in Japan), and at that time it may have caused something of a sensation.  But for me, now, it seems a dated classic, but still well worth reading.  I didn’t find the prose to be captivating – more ordinary – though perhaps this is the translation.  But, for example, I cannot blame the translator for the inclusion of the phrase ‘a number of” three times in the space of half a dozen lines.

Audio e-Books

There is an article in the December 2016 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine which caught my eye.  Entitled ‘Engaging Readers Through Sound’ it is written by Cameron Drew, who is Vice President of Publishing, Booktrack Ltd.  The article says that he is a veteran of the publishing industry with extensive experience in online retail and B2B commerce publishing.  Booktrack is based in Auckland, New Zealand.


Cameron Drew

I quote from the article:

“When we first began pioneering an immersive audio-enhanced experience at Booktrack, independent authors and publishers were among the first early adopters.  Independent publishers know what it’s like to navigate challenging environments, and they know how to stay focused on providing the best possible experience to readers.

“Booktrack is a reader-focused platform that allows users to dive deeper into the narrative worlds through the addition of a synchronized, movie style soundtrack.  As users read their favourite books on our platform, our technology tracks their reading speed ans enables ambient noise, sound effects and background music to play at precisely the right points in the text.

“It’s something new on an industry that loves tradition.  It’s prefect for publishers and authors who want to offer their readers something more than text but don’t want to take anything away form the beauty of the written word.  Because the soundtrack enhances a reader’s sense of place rather than taking them our of the narrative, Booktrack actually improves reader engagement and enjoyment of the text.  The Booktrack versions of titles aren’t meant to replace the paper-based versions, or even the straight e-pub versions.  The Booktrack experience is not for every reader; it reaches the readers who are ready for something outside the norm.

“The platform is also designed to be accessible to publishers and authors at all levels.  Self-published authors who want to try their hand at soundtracking their own work can use our creator tool for free to create a Booktrack version of their work.  Some authors have taken to using Booktrack as a promotion tool by embedding a Booktracked version of the first chapter of their work on their website.

“For our premium content from our publishing partners and top indie authors, our trained sound engineers create fully customised soundtracks.  Publishers and authors review the soundtrack at several points throughout the production process to ensure the soundscapes we create match the mood, tome and lot of the story.

“We currently have more than 200 premium titles for sale across all genres, half of which came from partnerships with top independent publishers including Sourcebooks, Skyhorse, Orca Books, Mighty Media, Light Messages, and Canelo.”

When I first read the article, I had the mistaken impression that Booktrack was repeating the written word – like an audio book.  Actually, what is added on the soundtrack is music or sound effects.  The soundtrack is ‘synchronised’ to the reader’s speed by the rate at which he or she is turning pages, and the soundtrack can be re-synchronised to the text by touching a word in the text.  The wearing of head phones may be an advantage for some readers in that ambient noise is excluded.  Use of the technology is free to authors, but I suspect that a finished book can be sold only through Booktrack to their 2.5 million ‘engaged readers’.  If an author wants to to have Booktrack add the soundtrack, they say they will do it at an average cost of $1000.  Reportedly, Booktrack has 20,000 tracks from which to choose.

A clever idea.  I have no idea how it works in practice, or how well it will sell.