portrait Jack Smith

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 198 ~ November, 2013

Jack Smith is author of the novel Hog to Hog, which won the George Garrett Fiction Prize (Texas Review Press. 2008), and is also the author of Write and Revise for Publication: A 6-Month Plan for Crafting an Exceptional Novel and Other Works of Fiction, published earlier this year by Writer’s Digest Books.

Jack Smith

Jack Smith

Over the years, Smith’s short stories have appeared in North American Review, Night Train, Texas Review, and Southern Review, to name a few. He has also written some 20 articles for Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, as well as a dozen or so pieces for The Writer.

He has published reviews in numerous literary journals, including Ploughshares, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, American Review, Mid-American Review, and the Iowa Review.

Smith taught full-time at North Central Missouri College for some 24 years, and  has also served as Fiction Editor for The Green Hills Literary Lantern, an online literary journal published by Truman State University, for over two decades.

Derek Alger: You were the new kid at school quite a bit during childhood.

Jack Smith: That’s right. My father worked for a shoe company, making his way up from blue collar to white collar positions — and he was transferred a lot.  We lived in a number of small towns in Missouri mostly, but also for several years in southern Illinois.  This meant continually starting over, which I found something of an adventure.  But the downside was having to start friendships from scratch, and as anyone knows, there are well-established cliques to break through.  And unless you’ve got real charisma, or something quite unique to play off of, who are you?  But even so, I tended to like those moves, to new and unfamiliar terrains.

DA: Did writing come early to you?

JS: It did.  I tried to write a short novel back in high school.  I can’t recall the title or anything about it, but I know one thing: it was decidedly amateurish.  By the time I got to college, I realized I wanted to be a writer.  I was still writing amateurish stuff, but no matter — I knew this was something I wanted to do.  I had it in my blood.

DA: Where did you go to college?

JS: Three places for my undergraduate years.  I spent my freshman year at Cape State College, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, now Southeast Missouri State University. Then, because my father got transferred, I ended up at Hannibal La Grange Junior College for my second year, and then I transferred to the University of Missouri-Columbia.  Initially I intended to be an engineering major, then decided on a math major — and finally a philosophy major.  But I also took plenty of English courses.  I chose philosophy because my grades were good in it, and I really liked to pursue ideas.  Novel-wise, I was particularly interested in Sartre and Camus.

DA: You did a stint in the Navy.

JS: In the middle of my junior year at the University of Missouri, I decided to drop out to do my two years required active duty in the Naval Reserve.  I ended up going to Vietnam for the first year and was stationed on a repair ship anchored five miles out in the Mekong Delta.  I was a third-class personnel man, typing and filing.  I really didn’t like the Navy much because of the regimentation and because of the close quarters on the ship.  I needed some space.  I ended up mining my Navy experiences for my M.A. creative thesis — one experience in particular:  raising a flag for some sort of military ceremonial event.  The wind was particularly bad that day, whipping around furiously, and I managed somehow to get the flag at half mast, upside down.  Imagine an Admiral seeing that.  I was viewed as having a bad attitude, and I’m sure that was true, but it didn’t account for what happened.  I wasn’t brash enough to put on that kind of show — just clumsy.

DA: You took a break before continuing your studies.

JS: When I received my B.A. in philosophy, in 1969, I wasn’t sure what to do.  I had no prospects for a graduate program.  Things were tight back then in philosophy graduate programs, which I was seriously considering, and so I decided to get a job.  I landed a job as a bond underwriter for an insurance company, in St. Louis.  I found it utterly mind-numbing — that daily grind a real soul killer.  I looked forward to the time I could blast out of there and go to graduate school.  I was writing a lot, and I decided on a creative writing concentration.  The days seemed interminably long at that desk job, and I really abhorred that Musak elevator music they piped in —  obviously meant to manipulate the hirelings to whistle along while they mindlessly worked away.  I eventually quit, but not to go to graduate school  — I got a job at a drug company fanning labels with lot numbers.  Talk about depressing work — I didn’t make it past the three-month probation period.   I got fired on a Friday the 13th, of all dates.  Clearly I wasn’t right for that job.  After that, I couldn’t find another job in St. Louis — but that was good, I soon decided.   It was like I had been spit out of the system, and I was glad for it. It was good to get forced to go back to school.   I got serious about taking the GRE, applying, and all that.

DA: And then off to graduate degree.

JS: I went to the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette — now University of Louisiana-Lafayette.  I took my M.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing.  My creative thesis drew upon my experiences in the Navy as well as that insurance underwriting job.  It was a satire, though not great on craft, and rather self-absorbed.

DA: You continued on to get your doctorate..

JS: I took my Ph.D. in American literature with my dissertation on Henry James.  I chose James because I wanted to do a dissertation on a major figure, and I also liked his cosmopolitan subjects and voice.  I really enjoyed James’s American/European theme in such works as “Daisy Miller,” The Portrait of a Lady, and The Ambassadors.   I loved his psychological realism and the complexity of his style.

DA: How did you come up with the idea for your novel, Hog to Hog.

JS: I live in a rural area where locals in charge of economic development tend to go for undesirable land uses such as mega corporate hog farms, waste dumps, and prisons.  I see it as capitalism run amok.  I wanted to write a satire on this, and I did so in Hog to Hog, where a local entrepreneur, Dick Columbus, brings in a waste facility, a prison, and an ATV training facility called Four Wheeler University.  FWU soon hosts a major ATV event called Wheeleroo!, which brings in 300,000 ATV enthusiasts, causing environmental destruction and significant noise pollution.  The major problem to solve in writing that novel was the point of view.  If I chose a protagonist who was educated and who could see the folly in such ill-advised land uses, then clearly the novel would be heavy-handed, with the protagonist viewed as a stand-in for the author.  So ultimately I decided on an insider, Bernie Sapp, who believes in the system but is beaten by it — namely by Columbus, a wily exploiter and plunderer.  It came as a very pleasant surprise when Paul Ruffin at the Texas Review Press called me, in Feb. 2008, and told me that the novel had won the George Garrett Fiction Prize.  I think a contest may be my best way to go.  Novels like mine — mostly iconoclastic — have a hard time in finding a publisher.  Satire is hard to get published unless you’ve already got a national reputation.  But at a contest, the work’s marketing potential isn’t a priority.  The emphasis is on quality of treatment.

DA: You found a home teaching at North Central Missouri College.

JS: I taught full-time at North Central Missouri College from 1983 until 2007, when I retired.  The bulk of my teaching load over those years was English comp, but I also taught literature, creative writing, philosophy, and ethics.  Since 2007, I have continued to teach philosophy and ethics as an adjunct.  Over the many years I taught, I always tried to find time to write, and I did find ways, but with a full load it was certainly difficult.  I will say this: It can be a grind teaching English comp, but even so it’s not like the dull, mindless work of a low echelon worker in a business office, or at least it’s not to me.  As a teacher of comp, you are at least dealing with an area you like, even if the students don’t care much about it—which is often the case with required courses.  But in most classes, you do find a good student or two, and that’s a bright spot.

DA: Your experience as a fiction editor has given you invaluable insight into the craft of writing.

JS: I’ve served for close to 25 years now as Fiction Editor of The Green Hills Literary Lantern, an online literary journal published by Truman State University.  It comes out once a year, in July.  We’ve published a number of fine writers like DeWitt Henry, Geoffrey Clark, Walter Cummins, the late Ian MacMillan, William Eisner, and Karl Harshbarger.  Reading work from fine writers like these has certainly brought me closer to the craft of fiction.  As does reading fiction that is flawed in several ways.  I will say this, if a story has promise, I will suggest changes and go through several drafts, if it takes this, to see a story in print.  This is certainly a learning experience for me, and I hope it’s a beneficial one for the writer.

Write and Revise for Publication: A 6-Month Plan for Crafting a Publishable Novel and Other Works of Fiction

Write and Revise for Publication

DA: Now you have come out with a creative writing book, Write and Revise for Publication: A 6-Month Plan for Crafting an Exceptional Novel and Other Works of Fiction.

JS: I thought about such a book for some time.  I enjoy commenting on craft, and  I’ve written a lot of reviews.  This is a book geared to writing literary fiction, though certainly writers of popular fiction can find plenty that applies to them too.  My approach in this book is to advocate creating a first draft that is the work of the imagination, not worrying about getting it all right.  And then, in subsequent draft, begin the real work of revision.

DA: You stress the importance of revision.

JS: It’s important that writers know that top-notch storytelling is not achieved the first time around.  Unless you’re a Mozart of fiction writing, you certainly should not expect to gun out a pitch perfect first draft.  Most of the chapters in my book deal with the revision stage. I include a chapter on various revision strategies, and then I move on, chapter by chapter, covering the various elements and techniques of fiction.  The goal is to turn an initial draft into a story with compelling characters, a tight plot, and a strong style.  I make the point early in the book that writers must be readers, and I draw upon a lot of published short stories and literary novels.  All in all, as I say in the book, “Writing is a complex act, one that calls upon all the powers of our creative resources, imagination, and intellect.” Imagination isn’t enough; careful revision must follow, but it mustn’t damage the imaginative levels of the work.    

DA: What are you up to now?

JS: While writing my book on craft, I also completed a short novel, plus finished a full-length novel shortly afterwards.  Though I’ve had some really favorable responses to these two novels, there is always room for additional revision and fine-tuning.  They’re on the back burner at present, though, while I’m working on a historical novel, which is taking a lot of research and planning.  There may be a few satirical thrusts in this new novel, but it’s not a satirical work, and that’s a switch for me.  I’m having trouble finding my voice, but I’m hoping with enough revision, I’ll discover it.  Writing a historical novel is a real challenge for me, and I certainly respect writers who can do it well.