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Catching up with Neil Smith

I’ve been a huge fan of Neil Smith’s for some time. In fact, I’ve had a literary crush on Neil since the publication of his stellar collection Bang Crunch in 2007.

Bang Crunch remains one of my all-time favourite short fiction collections. The stories have in spades everything I seek in good writing–humour, vulnerability, huge-hearted compassion, technical wizardry, and take-your-breath-away originality. On first read, I remember devouring the collection whole. And then re-reading each story again and again, before asking, somewhat impatiently, when the next Neil Smith book would come along. Well, gentle readers, that moment has arrived.

Neil Smith’s first novel, Boo, is no less audacious and tender-hearted than his stories. The book tells the story of thirteen-year old Oliver Dalyrymple–or “Boo”, as he’s called. It’s by turns a teenage detective story, an allegorical tour-de-force, and a compelling account of the realities of being thirteen and different in middle America. Boo has been a publishing sensation, coming out in multiple countries and earning rave reviews around the world. I was so pleased when Neil took the time out from an extremely packed schedule to answer a few questions about the book.

Neil Smith is the author of the recent novel Boo (Knopf Canada), which is being published in seven languages around the world. His first book is the prizewinning, bestselling story collection Bang Crunch (Knopf Canada). He has also translated Québécois author Geneviève Pettersen’s novel La déesse des mouches à feu, which will be launched in April 2016 as The Goddess of Fireflies (Véhicule Press).

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Boo is a remarkable novel, in both scope and emotional impact. How did the character of “Boo”—thirteen-year old Oliver Dalrymple—first come to life for you?

Oliver had a walk-on role in an earlier unpublished piece. I loved his voice so much that I decided to dedicate an entire novel to him.

The character is an amalgam of different people: me at age thirteen; the filmmaker, actor and screenwriter Mike White; an author of children’s book, Matthew Skelton; and Tillie Hunsdorfer, the teenage protagonist of the Paul Zindel play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

Today, though, when I think of Oliver, I no longer see the people who originally inspired him. Oliver has become a very distinct living, breathing person, whom I clearly see in my head and still worry about.

23012503Your first book—the spectacular collection of stories Bang Crunch (one of my all-time favourite story collections)—received remarkable and worldwide critical acclaim. How daunting and difficult was it to turn your attention to the novel form? Did you feel any pressure?

Yes, I did feel pressure. For me, writing short stories was a breeze. I hadn’t done an MFA or studied literature, and yet I placed my stories easily in literary magazines, signed with an agent, and sold the Bang Crunch collection to Knopf Canada. I felt as though I’d leapfrogged over other more experienced writers.

Well, the creative-writing muses punished me for being so frigging cocky. When I attempted my first novel, I got sucked into a quagmire. I struggled with plot. I wrote a four-hundred-page manuscript that I hated. I threw it in the rubbish and took over a year off. When I resumed writing, Oliver was there waiting to guide me. Boo took about two and a half years to write part-time.

Boo is set in a very specific historical moment—1979, to be exact, a time of disco, Donnie Osmond, and Charlie’s Angels. What kind of research was involved in making the novel true to its time? How enjoyable was that research?

I didn’t do much research because I grew up in America in the seventies and remember it in all its psychedelic and tacky glory. On my bedroom wall was a Farrah Fawcett poster alongside a Chewbacca poster (they both had nice hair!). The first album I ever bought was the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. I watched The Brady Bunch religiously and all its crummy spinoffs. I lived a year in Salt Lake City and knew far, far too much about the Osmond family.

During the editing of Boo, I did spend hours tracking down an image of an old box of Lucky Charms to verify the number of essential vitamins and minerals that the cereal contained in the seventies. I’d guessed at a number, but the copyeditor wanted proof. I hadn’t realized I’d need to fact-check a book set in an imaginary heaven reserved for thirteen-year-olds.

Smith BoeLike your short stories, Boo walks an emotionally taut, nearly heartbreaking line between humour and the dark, confusing undercurrents of adolescence. Without giving away too much of the plot, you address themes of alienation that many young people will relate to today, particularly those who don’t fit into the mainstream. How much did you mine your own experience of being young to recreate Boo and his thirteen-year old life?

When I was a kid, my family moved often. By age thirteen, I’d lived in six different places in four different cities (Montreal, Boston, Salt Lake City, Chicago). As a result, I was the perpetual new boy in class and an alien to my classmates. I had trouble making friends and instead befriended books (as many budding writers do). Oliver says he saw no use in fictional worlds; I, however, did. Boo is in fact a tribute to those books that helped me survive being thirteen. I even named heaven’s buildings and streets after characters in the novels I’d read as a teenager.

Oliver believes he’s self-reliant and needs nobody else, and I often felt that way too. I was and still am an introvert. Luckily, however, I didn’t suffer the extreme taunting and bullying that Oliver does in my novel. I was generally left alone.

Like Oliver, I was an obsessive-compulsive, straight-A eighth grader. I went through a period when I refused to use contractions in speech. I corrected my family’s grammar. But unlike Oliver, I was artistic and drew all the time (in fact, like his friend Johnny). In eighth grade, I read The Lord of the Rings and condensed the three books into a children’s picture book, which I illustrated.

Being an unabashed geek myself, one of the things I loved about the novel was Boo’s unquenchable thirst for facts—science, geography, history, linguistics—as a way of creating structure and certainty in his world. Where did all these factoids come from? Did you have cue cards or bits of paper lying around the room while you wrote?

Many of Oliver’s obsessions were mine, so I didn’t need cue cards. As a child, I had a very photographic memory (a talent that has sadly waned over the years). I’d memorize math problems, French verb conjugations, dinosaur names, Latin names for animals, capital cities, chemical elements, and on and on. As you say, these feats of memorization probably created certainty in my uncertain world.

My favorite description of factoids comes from the story “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel: “I remember only the useless things I hear—that Bob Dylan’s mother invented Wite-Out, that twenty-three people must be in a room before there is a fifty-fifty chance two will have the same birthday. Who cares whether or not it’s true? In my head there are bath towels swaddling this stuff. Nothing else seeps through.”

The novel has received early and widespread acclaim, and has been published already around the world. Any surprises so far in how it’s been received, by either reviewers or readers?

Boo is being published in Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Mandarin, and Portuguese (I’ve memorized the languages in alphabetical order à la Oliver). Since I also work as a translator, I’m thrilled to be collaborating with translators worldwide. The French, Czech, and Dutch editions come out in the next few months.

It seems that Oliver is breaking free from my imagination and becoming a globetrotter. The book was recently reviewed, for example, in the Irish Times and in Dawn, a newspaper in Pakistan. Very surreal.

Another surprise: many former students from Oliver’s alma mater, Helen Keller Junior High in Illinois, have written to ask whether I actually attended the school.

In Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart recently picked Boo for a special promotion to be held in February. A new trade paperback will be released at the time with a different cover design. Perhaps I can do readings next to the blood pressure machine at pharmacies nationwide.

Finally, we’re shortly about to head into the fall literary season. What are your plans for readings and events through the fall? Where can your many fans see you live?

In October, I’ll be at WordFest in Calgary on the 14th and 16th, at the Vancouver Writers Fest on the 21st and 25th, and at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on the 27th.

On October 29, I launch Boo in French in Montreal at a party celebrating the tenth anniversary of my amazing Québécois publisher, Alto. That same night, I’ll do a reading in English at Paragraphe bookshop.

In early November, the paperback edition of Boo launches in Britain. Later that month, I’ll appear at the Salon du livre de Montréal and the Salon du livre de Rimouski.

In February, I head to Mumbai, India, for a week to take part in the Kala Goda Arts Festival. I’m vegetarian, so India is my mecca.

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Find Neil Smith online.

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