I hate almost everything in my Twitter feed. I mostly go there just to annoy myself when there’s not enough anger in my day already, but every so often a wee gem crops up in the form of a particularly amusing tweet, a great pic of a shark, or an interesting new connection. Anthony Neil Smith was one such connection. We share a publisher in Bastei Entertainment and, as I discovered in the course of this interview, we have the same scalpel-sharp editor, Allan Guthrie. I know most of my Smorgasbord guests in real life and I look forward to meeting Neil the next time he comes to the Highlands.
Hi Neil, after I invited you to take part in the Smorgasbord, I discovered that you are the author of Sin-crazed Psycho Killer! Dive, Dive, Dive! I couldn’t resist a title like that and downloaded it to my Kindle straight away. Was it as fun to write as it was to read?
Yes, incredibly fun to write. I think I stole a lot from Event Horizon, but that was the fun of it. War is Hell, after all. The title was inspired by men’s magazines of the 50s and 60s, before Playboy. Most of them had tough guy war stories in them. The only real issue is that I wrote it so fast and loose that it has a major error in it (I won’t tell you what it is) and lots of smaller ones. True pulp.
I picked up on a couple but it was such a fast and entertaining read that it didn’t matter. Let’s get serious for a moment. Tell me about the evolution of the author, Anthony Neil Smith.
It started with the Hardy Boys in second grade. The librarian let me read it because I wanted to check it out so badly, even though I was a bit young. Then I discovered The Three Investigators series, even better than the Hardy Boys, and I knew I wanted to write. Between then and college, I swerved between wanting to be a lawyer, a computer geek, a comic book artist and writer, a rock star…but I eventually came back to my first love, sending out my first short stories when I was 19. Then I read James Ellroy’s White Jazz and was blown away. I didn’t realize you could do that in a crime novel. So I focused on creative writing classes, then grad school, where I received a PhD in creative writing, and now I’m a professor and a cult crime writer.
Having written noir crime, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and now, unexpectedly, historical fiction, I’m all over the book shelf. I think I’m correct in saying that you have specialised in dark crime books, but have you ever been tempted to cross genres? Is there a romantic comedy lurking in the heart of ANS?
I don’t think there’s a romantic comedy in me, no. Mainly, I think plotting is my weak spot, so it helps to have the crime or investigation aspect to centre on. I am interested in making sure each book feels different from the last, even if they are all dark crime. I also don’t think I’ll ever write fantasy or sci-fi.
Your latest book, The Cyclist, features a Scottish character. What’s your connection to Scotland?
I love Scotland, have been there twice, and I want to go again. I’ve long admired Scottish writers, made friends with quite a few crime writers of there, and I love the land and history as well. The beer, the haddock, the Highlands, the accents, all of it has had a big impact on me. I had a Scotsman, Allan Guthrie, as my agent, who then became my publisher for five books, and is now my editor at BE. He’s been my anchor in this business for a long time.
How would you describe your writing style?
Broken. One professor once said it felt like my sentences had been splintered apart and then nailed back together in a weird way. I just want it to be as “voicey” as possible, so that it flows in someone’s mind better than it does on the page.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
For me, it’s the fact that it takes a long time. I get impatient. I always do the math and think, I should be able to write a book in three or four months. But it always takes eight to ten.
And the easiest?
Not “easy” easy, but I think first chapters are not as hard as some people make them out to be. I love writing first chapters. It’s a new world, new characters, new possibilities, and I’m ready to let them all live in my head for a long time. I like the challenge of coming up with a great first line and last line for that first impression. All The Young Warriors is my best first chapter, I think. Everything worked, and it was a great hook for the story.
What were you like at school?
Like, middle school and high school? Awkward. Never comfortable in my own skin. College was a little better. It wasn’t until grad school that I felt I’d found my place.
But earlier, I at least think I was funny. I was always drawing, which impressed a lot of other students, but I never had a lot of friends. Always shy, with a close circle of them. And now I teach in front of full classrooms and read in auditoriums just fine, but I still hate calling people on the phone.
What are you working on right now?
I took a long time off after The Cyclist (five or six months) but finally rediscovered a story, based on true events, of someone I knew back in my church days – a guy who seemed like he’d turned his life around for good, but who later killed a man and chopped him into little pieces to get rid of the evidence. I found a way to get into that story as a novel (because I just can’t do it as true crime. That’s not me), and it’s coming along well, I think.
That sounds interesting. What has been your best writing moment so far?
The entire process of writing All The Young Warriors was a blast. From the outlines to the final product, everything was right. I really had high hopes for that one as far as finding a larger publisher, but we had a couple of close calls only. One editor originally wanted it, then changed his mind three weeks later (which was the WORST moment of my writing career). So instead, Allan began a digital publisher called Blasted Heath, and I decided to take a chance with them.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Don’t do it. There are already too many of us.
Kidding, kidding. The best advice is to read a lot of stuff you love to read, then try some literary fiction from the last fifty years, then read Chekov’s short stories. Find people who will give you a good read, usually other writers. Grow a very thick skin so that criticism doesn’t get to you as much (because it will always get to you a little bit), and be prepared to wait.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the young ANS?
That’s a tough question. Probably to not get so anxious about the future. Take things a little easier.
Who would play ANS in the film of your life?
He’s older than me, but I’d still go with Sam Rockwell. He is also who I would want to play my series character Billy Lafitte (with Johnny Knoxville a close second).
If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
My dad. He died when I was ten, and he was larger than life. Always smiling, always laughing. He missed out on the path I took in life, and if he had lived, I think I would’ve gone a different direction. I would like to hear what he thinks of me now – a professor and writer. We’d spend the day cruising the coast in his old Chevy van, listening to seventies rock bands.
Nice. A few short questions to finish. Favourite book:
White Jazz by James Ellroy. Wouldn’t be here without it.
Very tough one. But this week, it’s Walter Mosley.
Mexican. Tacos and burritos. Very spicy.
Pulp Fiction. I saw it the same year I read White Jazz, and together, those cemented my choice to be a crime writer.
What are you reading right now?
The Cuckoo Wood by M. Sean Coleman, and The Room of White Fire by T. Jefferson Parker.
Thanks Neil, it’s been a blast.
Follow Anthony Neil Smith on Twitter.
The Cyclist by Anthony Neil Smith was published by Bastei Entertainment on 8 May 2018.
Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.