Very Literary: A community blog

Small press book reviews and local author interviews

A Bit of Black Ink on Curtis Smith

Written by Kari Larsen, Community blogger | Nov 7, 2012 10:29 PM

I crossed paths with Curtis Smith online, even though we live within a half-hour drive of one another. A writer based in Hershey, participating in the same cozy literary scene as me, we also have common connections to presses based as far away as Louisiana. When he cited my academic grandfather (my professor's professor, John Gardner) as a formative influence, I knew this was a special case of the kind of connectivity enabled by the internet. Proud as I am of this, I am more so that Smith is a local author and that he obliged to answer a few questions over these past few storm-riven days.

You got your MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts! I have several friends who went there and one who teaches there now. How did getting an MFA factor into your development as a writer?

For me, it was a pretty important step. For five years, I wrote and published a handful of stories. Beyond core classes in college I hadn’t studied English or writing. I’m a high school teacher. In the early-to-mid nineties, school districts paid a nice percentage of tuition for grad classes, so I went and got a MFA.

I learned a lot about craft and style and was exposed to a lot of work I never would have read. John Gardner's Art of Fiction springs to mind. Mostly, I think of Kundera, Bowles, Salter, Boll, Glichrist, Beattie, Barth. The most important aspect for me was the atmosphere. On campus, I met people from all over the country. I understood that if I wanted my writing to get out there, I was going to have a lot of competition from folks who wanted the same things I did. This realization forced me to hold my work to a higher standard. I started asking myself tougher questions. I think that’s what helped the most.

Your new story collection, Beasts and Men, is coming out on Press 53 in the spring - what is it about and what has the process of getting that together been like?

Beasts and Men is twenty-some flash pieces and four longer stories. All but one have been previously published in lit journals including Los Angeles Review, Florida Review, Smokelong, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, Quick Fiction, Blip, Gargoyle, Wigleaf, Frigg, Artifice, Corium, Pear Noir!, and Night Train. When I was putting the collection together, it dawned on me that a number of stories involved interactions with animals. The title is from one of the stories: Beasts and Men.

For this book, the process was different from my previous books. I had been reading a lot of very, very short fiction - I enjoyed the compact, poetic nature of the form. At the same time, I got ready to toss thirty-some old notebooks taking up space in the basement. The notebooks were ten, fifteen, twenty years old and filled with fragments of old stories. Before throwing them out, I went through them and jotted down the images or lines that struck me. I used a small notebook and wrote a single rescued item at the top of each page. Later I came back and made stories from the ones that led me somewhere. It was a fun process.

You've published with Press 53 a few times, how is it to have that kind of relationship with a press?

It’s pretty cool. I appreciate having a press that likes my work. Press 53 really respects their writers- their editing isn’t heavy handed. The whole process - from story order to cover art to fonts - is a collaborative effort. In return, I feel very loyal to them - I’ll do whatever I can to help the title and help them see a bit of black ink. No one’s in this side of the publishing world for the money, and I feel a big obligation to make sure my titles at least break even.

How is being a writer in the Harrisburg area?

It’s been good by me. In the old days, perhaps one needed a local lit scene. With the advent of the internet and social networking, I don’t know if it matters where one lives anymore. Harrisburg is great, though - we have one of the country’s coolest bookstores with the Midtown Scholar. And I’m a tankful of gas from Baltimore and Philly and New York. It’s easy to fill up and do a reading and get back home all in a day.

Your other books - a novel, Lovepain, and an essay collection, Witness - are, respectively, forthcoming from Aqueous and released on Sunnyoutside. I want to add that I love those presses.

If Press 53 and Sunnyoutside and Aqueous were the only ones who published all my future books, I’d consider myself fortunate. I’d be honored to stay with them through the rest of my writing life.

Do you have any readings lined up in support of Beasts and Men or any work forthcoming in journals?

My calendar is loaded to support the cause. This spring, I have a couple readings in Philly and one each in Reading and Baltimore. I'll be doing book signings, too - one will be at the Midtown Scholar, also in the spring.

I've been lucky to be on a good run placing my stories and essays, so outside of those pieces, I don't have any individual pieces seeking a home in journals. As far as new work, I'm bouncing between planning a new novel and writing sketches for a nonfiction book looking back on my thirty years of teaching high school. I'm not sure what will become of these last two projects - we shall see.

Dear readers and Wayfaring Googlers, I hope you are not too laid under with Sandy, election fatigue, and imminent storms. Out of the goodness of my heart I hope you are not, but particularly because this weekend - Friday November 9 through Sunday, November 11 - is the Third Annual Harrisburg Book Festival at the Midtown Scholar! I will be on an unbeatable panel with Nathaniel Gadsden and Ann Elia Stewart (whose path I first crossed here on Very Literary) at 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 10 on Stage Two in the Scholar's new class room!

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See you then!

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