It’s a November evening in Montreal, and Neil Smith is returning a favour. His first book, the short-story collection Bang Crunch, is due out in a couple of months, and he’s talking to a creative writing class led by Montreal author and teacher Connie Barnes Rose. Smith took a writing workshop with Rose six years ago, and he thanks her in Bang Crunch’s acknowledgements for “egging me on,” for being the first person to encourage him to send his stories out. Now Rose’s current students are asking the kind of cart-before-the-horse questions – bidding wars? foreign rights? movie rights? – that you’d expect from a room full of aspiring young writers who are just inexperienced enough to be nursing some improbable notions. Like thinking you can make a big splash in this country writing short fiction.
Smith is generous, if a bit generic, with his advice. Still, he tells his audience pretty much everything he knows about becoming a writer. The trouble is that what Smith knows about becoming a writer has virtually no relation to most people’s reality.
That’s because he is about to make that big, improbable splash. Three publishers bid on Bang Crunch – including a large multinational and a mid-sized Canadian firm – with Random House’s Knopf Canada imprint eventually winning out. Knopf is publishing Smith under its “New Face of Fiction” campaign for 2007. The book has been sold to Vintage in the U.S. and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the U.K. And Heydey Films, the producers of the Harry Potter series, have inquired about movie rights. All that’s left, Smith jokes, are the Bang Crunch action figures.
Tall and clean-cut, Smith, at 42, looks unfailingly like the boy next door. He is modest, practically to a fault. The first time Rose praised his work in class, she remembers, he seemed surprised. “I think he didn’t realize what he was sitting on,” she adds. In fact, the first four stories Smith ever wrote ended up published; the very first, “Green Fluorescent Protein,” was shortlisted for the 2002 Journey Prize. He’s also had stories in the 2004 and 2005 Journey Prize anthologies.
But if all this couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, it also couldn’t happen to a more unlikely one. Rose’s writing class was only the second one Smith ever took (it was the last, too), and he took it when he was 36. Born in Montreal, Smith grew up in the U.S., where his family moved from city to city. He came back to attend university and never left again; he lives in downtown Montreal with his partner, Christian Dorais. Fifteen years ago, Smith started his own translation business, taking on corporate and government clients, such as the CBC and the NFB. “I do a lot of writing as a translator, but it’s not very creative work,” Smith tells me before his talk at Concordia. “I really decided to take a writing course the way someone would decide to take basket-weaving or yoga, as a one-time thing. I never thought about being a writer or getting published. I had an evening to kill.”
Now, Smith’s spare time is spent trying to figure out how and why all this has happened. “It’s odd – freakish, really. I didn’t expect any of it,” Smith says. “Everyone told me it’s hard to just get your stories accepted by magazines. Then everyone said it’s impossible to get an agent or a big publisher for short stories. As for selling a story collection abroad in the U.S. and the U.K., forget it. But it’s all happened: every step has happened and happened rather easily, almost embarrassingly so. I guess I’m due to be hit by a bus.”
Smith is not the only one in shock. Just listen to his agent, Dean Cooke. “Unfortunately, one of our jobs is to be brutally realistic, and given the common wisdom about story collections and their place in the market, we told Neil we’d probably have to take his manuscript to a smaller press,” says Cooke. “So how surprised were we when we discovered that we were going to auction on this title? Surprise barely covers it. Foreign sales was another shock. That’s just not supposed to happen.” Smith signed with The Cooke Agency after being recommended by a mutual acquaintance.
Of course, there’s an explanation for Smith’s inexplicable success. He’s just good. Bang Crunch is a remarkably fresh and self-assured debut. Whether he’s writing about a teenage boy reluctant to admit he’s gay in “Green Fluorescent Protein” or an alcoholic failing as a wife and mother in “Funny Weird or Funny Ha Ha?” or a little girl growing wise and decrepit before her time in the title story, Smith demonstrates the range of both his imagination and empathy. We’re constantly puzzled by the damaged, dysfunctional characters in these nine stories; we’re also struck by how we can’t stop worrying about them.
Smith is not just a natural, he’s a kind of literary chameleon. He adopts the voices of men, women, and children with equal ease. His freshness and authenticity has impressed everyone who has come across his work so far. Rose calls each of his stories a “gem… consistently publishable.” Michael Schellenberg, Smith’s editor at Knopf, was initially impressed by how “the stories felt fully formed.” And Ron Eckel, who sells foreign rights at Random House, didn’t have to do any selling with Bang Crunch. “My focus was on the book as a book,” Eckel says. “I was able to go to publishers in the U.S. and U.K. and say to them, with absolute confidence, ‘Trust me.’ I just told them, ‘Read it.’”
I also know how it feels to be instantly and unexpectedly wowed by Smith’s writing. Four years ago, serving as a mentor for the Quebec Writers’ Federation, I stumbled across a two-page excerpt from a story about a young woman unable to bond with her premature infant. It was dark and funny. And the question its author asked in his accompanying cover letter – “Can I be dark and funny?” – was both naïve and superfluous. Of course he could be. He already was. That story, “Isolettes,” opens Bang Crunch.
I’m also thanked in Smith’s acknowledgements – “for mentoring.” In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I didn’t do much. Mostly, I just warned Smith about obstacles and disappointments which have yet to materialize, and I watched with pride and, I’ll admit it, some envy (bidding wars? foreign rights? movie rights?), as he’s gone from strength to strength.
Smith doesn’t need a mentor any more, but I still can’t help worrying about him. Most writers in this country survive because they can stick it out, because perseverance will usually trump talent. Writing is a vocation, or at least it better be. For Smith, it’s not – at least, not yet. He still wonders what might have happened if those first stories had been rejected. “I wouldn’t have been surprised or disappointed. But I also might have stopped there,” Smith says. “If it hadn’t happened easily, I might have given up. I’d be taking that basket-weaving course now.”
Smith isn’t quitting his day job as a translator, but he has started working on a novel, which he describes as “a futuristic Hansel and Gretel tale.” He’s determined to finish it, though he admits he’s worried about “overcoming his fear that the second book won’t be the piece of cake the first one has been.”
Assuming it does go well, the novel is up for grabs; it’s not part of his contract with Knopf. Bang Crunch is a one-off, rare for a first story collection, according to his agent. “I didn’t make the standard speech to Neil that I make to most short story writers. I didn’t tell him he needs to write a novel,” Cooke says. “I just said these stories are so good we want them on their own.”
Smith’s talk to Rose’s class goes smoothly – piece of cake, you might say. The students are wowed. Later, I ask a few of them if they were either daunted by what Smith said or jealous of his success. Neither, they say. Instead, they tell me about writers and publishers who show up on Career Day and always say the same thing: it’s practically impossible to become a writer. This was different, they add, this was inspiring. They look at me, I realize, like they’re looking at an old face – bitter, discouraging.
Smith’s face is new, although these days he’s having some trouble keeping a dazed look off it. It’s as if he’s trying to answer the question posed in the title of one of his own stories. Is all this funny weird or funny ha ha? Both, probably. Either way, he doesn’t seem to mind hearing that an inspiration is just one more thing he is about to become.