Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is happy to shine our Friday spotlight on Thriller writer Timothy Jay Smith. Timothy, Can you please tell us briefly a little about yourself and your writing?
Before I quit working to become a full-time writer, I had been around the world a few times—literally. I was an economic development advisor on projects to help lower income people, and the people I met fill my books: Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists. In general, I take a suspenseful plot, and hang personal stories on it. So while I write thrillers, they’re not just plot-driven, but show how ordinary people are affected by traumatic or dangerous events.
Where can people find your work? (Besides Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester –though they should totally check here first!)
My latest novel, The Fourth Courier, can be ordered through any independent bookstore (it’s distributed by Simon & Schuster). It’s also available through Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, and the publisher, Skyhorse Publishing. My first two novels (A Vision of Angels and Cooper’s Promise) are generally available from the same sources and their publisher, Owl Canyon Press.
How can we follow your work and share your awesomeness?
One of my next challenges is to update my web page, but there’s still good information there: www.timothyjaysmith.com. My Facebook Author page (www.facebook.com/TimothyJaySmith/) is really the best way to stay current on my writing activities as well as other projects in which I’m involved, such as the Smith Prize for Political Theater.
For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you write? What can readers expect from The Fourth Courier?
Readers can expect a fast-paced story with unexpected but plausible twists, and a host of colorful characters. I only write about places I know well, which means having spent a lot of time in a place, so there’s a real sense of authenticity. As the American Library Association wrote, “Smith [has crafted] a show-stealing sense of place…” In the same review, the ALA commented that I had “skillfully bridged police procedural and espionage fiction.”
My writing is spare, and because I’m also a screenwriter, I rely a lot on dialogue. Though my books are thrillers, the stories are equally about the people involved. For instance, in The Fourth Courier, the protagonist, who’s just gone through a nasty divorce, has an affair that lets him get to know a Polish family struggling to survive in the turmoil caused by the collapse of the entire system that they knew.
What kind of research went into writing this book? What is your favorite research story?
The Fourth Courier book goes back a long way for me. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Solidarity won the first free election in Poland in over sixty years. In the same year, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new cooperative laws in the Soviet Union, which was an area of my expertise. I was invited to the Soviet Union as a consultant, which led to my consulting throughout the former Soviet bloc, eventually living over two years in Poland.
At the time, there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across. While on a short assignment in Latvia, I met with a very unhappy decommissioned Soviet general. When an official meeting concluded, he suggested we go for a walk where we could talk without being overheard.
I followed him deep into a forest. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. Finally we stopped, and he said, “I can get you anything you want.” I must have looked puzzled because he added, “Atomic.”
Then I understood. In an earlier conversation, there had been some passing remarks about the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal in Latvia, for which he had had some responsibility, and apparently still had some access to it.
Some years later, when I decided I wanted to write a novel portraying what that era of such great upheaval—politically, economically and socially—meant to ordinary people, I already knew it had to be about a nuclear smuggling racket. It had been dropped in my lap!
But there was even a better research story.
If I was going to write a novel about smuggling a portable atomic bomb, I needed to know what a bomb entailed. Weight, seize, basic design, fuel? How would a miniature bomb be detonated? So I blindly contacted the Department of Energy. I explained what I wanted and was soon connected to an atomic expert who agreed to meet with me.
We met on the weekend at a Starbucks forerunner in Rockville, MD. We met in line and were already talking about atomic bombs before we ordered our coffees. He had brought basic drawings of them. He was an expert and eager to share his knowledge.
Can you imagine having that conversation in a café today, openly looking at DIY schematics for building an atomic bomb while sipping skinny lattés? I’m even incredulous that it happened.
What character did you love or hate the most while writing? And why?
I actually like all the characters in my books, good and bad. Most are based in part on someone I’ve met, or put together with bits taken from many people—and I’m one of those people. I constantly plumb myself and my life as I create characters and stories. I imagine most authors do. Sometimes it’s done subconsciously, and I love it when that leads to an “Aha!” moment—that instant of recognition—when I realize what I’ve done.
What draws you to the particular genre or style that you write? What do you think draws readers to these kinds of books?
I write what I like to read, which are relatively fast-paced yet character-driven. Stated in a different way, I like thrillers and mysteries that are significantly more than plot. Not message-driven but something that opens my eyes to someplace new or gives me a new sensibility. To me, it makes it a much more interesting read if it’s not just car chases, and my readers have told me that they think so, too.
In the thriller and mystery genres, it’s common for an author to create a series with the same character. It’s called franchising and can be commercially very successful. In fact, Publishers Weekly’s review of The Fourth Courier concluded with, “Sharply drawn characters, rich dialogue, and a clever conclusion bode well for any sequel.”
Will I write a sequel or a series? It’s a question I’ve often been asked, and the answer is, not likely. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world, living and working in a few places for a couple of years, and I want to draw on those experiences. So far, my novels have been set in Israel/Palestine, West Africa, Poland, Greece, and in-progress: Istanbul. I also want my stories to have varied plots and characters to deal with different themes. So all my novels are standalone in different foreign settings, more or less in the vein of Graham Greene.
What piece of advice would you want to share with other writers?
Writing takes a real commitment. It’s not a hobby, and it’s definitely not a get-rich-fast activity. It’s a craft that takes constant fine-tuning because it changes the better you get at it, and it changes with you. Unless you’re one of the most famous authors out there, depending on where you are on different projects, a lot of your time will not be spent writing, but editing, rewriting, marketing, and marketing some more.
What question do you wish interviewers would ask you, and what would the answer be?
I’ve only been asked the question once, on a radio interview, though I’ve thought about it many times. The show’s host commented that thrillers all seem to have three elements: a car chase, blood, and naked bodies. Did The Fourth Courier? I said it did with the caveat that the car could only putt-putt along so it didn’t exactly qualify as a chase.
Then the radioman asked, “What’s in your story for women? It sounds so masculine.”
Women read more fiction than men, but thrillers have always been considered the men’s
fiction domain. I have feminist friends who have never read my books because they are classified as thrillers, albeit literary thrillers but nevertheless (in their minds) violent and gory.
I think of my stories as exciting, sensitive and compassionate. In Cooper’s Promise, the biggest-hearted soldier you can imagine risks everything to save a 14-year-old girl trafficked into prostitution. Fire on the Island is driven by a matriarchal family. The Fourth Courier reveals what life was really like through the hopes and fears of the women in the family, such as this passage:
“She started peeling onions, listening to a Mozart sonata that Tadzu had memorized the prior spring. She remembered how the mourning doves had cooed on the window’s ledge as she listened to him practice. She peered out the window into the gelid twilight. When the weather warmed enough to call it spring, she would open the window and strew breadcrumbs on the ledge, hoping the doves would return. She imagined them, gray and plump, pecking at the crumbs, occasionally splaying their tail feathers in a gluttony-induced courtship dance.
“Alina started to slice an onion. Her eyes stung, and she wiped away tears with the backs of her hands. Again she looked out the window, imagining the cooing of the doves. Of course she hadn’t heard them. Only silent snow steadily layered the ledge.
“She cut into a second onion and wiped away more tears. Just as she hoped the doves would return, she worried they would not. All her hopes, it seemed, were only her worries reversed. She sliced another onion and another, letting the tears run down her cheeks.
“Listening to Mozart, she cried.
“Listening for the doves, she cried.
“Listening to her own hopes, she cried.”
So yes, in The Fourth Courier and my other novels, there are dead bodies, threats, some violence but nothing gratuitous, and other brutal scenes. But the characters are real and developed so much so that you can empathize with the bad guys without condoning them.
What else can we expect from you in the near future?
When my agent at Trident Media Group negotiated a deal with my publisher, it was a two-book deal; or, more precisely, it gave the publisher the right of first refusal on my next book. I submitted that second book (Fire on the Island set in Greece), about two months ago, and while my agent responded favorably, I heard nothing from the editor until yesterday. She wrote she loved it and would love to see it as a TV series! That definitely brightened my day! In Fire on the Island, an FBI agent, investigating an arson’s threat, finds himself in a Greek island village rife with conflicts, some dating back generations, any one of which might compel someone to exact vengeance on the whole community.
I’m actually well into a new novel, The Syrian Pietà, about a Syrian refugee barely surviving in Istanbul, who’s recruited in the same 24 hours by both ISIS and the CIA to be a spy. It’s all told from the refugee’s perspective and it’s turning into a very exciting story. Lots of fun to write.
What is/are your passions when you’re not writing? How do you make time for your non-writing hobbies/things you love?
Most days, I swim for exercise, run essential errands, and otherwise I am at my desk writing or working on writing-related stuff. I’ve always loved to travel (I’ve been to over 100 countries, many several times), and I take a couple of ‘exotic trips’ a year to places I know I won’t be able to write. I also go to Greece once a year, the same village, and the same apartment where my desk is waiting for me. It’s not really a holiday. I just switch my location but do exactly what I do at home.
I don’t really have hobbies per se, but I do have projects. The reason refugees show up in a couple of my books is that I provided a lot of assistance to them on the island of Lesvos at the peak of the crisis in 2015/2016. In a very small way, I’ve supported a youth sports program for refugee kids in Istanbul. As a paper (ab)user, I’ve decided to plant trees by the thousands, and together with friends, planted 5,750 trees in Tanzania in the last two years, plus brought water to two villages. Fifteen years ago, I founded the Smith Prize for Political Theater to support emerging playwrights willing to take on the pressing issues of our time.
So maybe no hobbies to distract me, but lots projects!
What does your writing space look like? What do you need to have around you while writing or editing?
It’s not a matter of needing certain things around me (though depending on the time of day, I always have a cup of coffee or glass of wine at hand), but I do need a space where I can close the door. Even if no one else is home, I close my office door. As a kid, it made me feel safer, and that has stayed with me all my life.
While you’re writing, do you prefer music, silence, other? Please elaborate!
It’s changed for me over time. I’ve always found music with lyrics distracting while I’m writing, but I used to listen to solo jazz piano (e.g. Keith Jarrett). Over time, that’s changed, and now I work in silence. The one thing that would drive me crazy would be the sound of a television droning in the next room.
Writers very often have furry or feathered or otherwise non-human companions to “help” them through their work. Do you? What do you have? How do they “help” (or, “not-help”) with your writing?
We had a Dalmatian for over 16 years. (A French Dalmatian, for those who might know the sub-breed.) The most endearing dog in the world. (Everybody else: it wasn’t your dog but ours!) If I ever lived again where a dog could run free, I’d get another, but that move is never going to happen. Alas.
Do you have any favorite foods or drinks that must be in the vicinity (or must be avoided) while you’re writing or editing a piece of work?
Black coffee until 5 p.m., then wine until I go to bed, which is usually around midnight.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned, thus far, in your writing career?
Swim every day. It is the best thing to protect your back if you are in a chair all day.
Also, consider/listen to/don’t freak out at any and all advice, and then select wisely. Learn from craft advice. Pick carefully from stylistic advice.
Are there any groups, clubs, or organizations that you would recommend to other writers that have helped you in your career?
All my life, I enjoyed the writing part of anything I did. In college, I tried to choose classes that required an essay or report at the end, not an exam. I actually wrote my first stage play when I was ten years old and started a novel when I was twelve, but I was never encouraged to become a writer, so when I went to college, I didn’t pursue an MFA or take any writing classes for that matter. But I was always an avid reader and that gave me a firm grounding in storytelling: structure, pacing, dialogue, and vocabulary.
At forty-six, when I left my career in international development to take up writing full-time, I decided to get some formal training through week-long writing workshops. I attended several, but the ones that really stood out were offered by the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. I also took two excellent screenwriting courses at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, ME.
I would have welcomed a chance to join a serious writers group to share and comment on each other’s work, but the two I tried were disappointing. In the first, one guy would share what he had written on an envelope in the bus coming to the meeting! In the second, for weeks on end, a woman returned with the same few paragraphs, having only added or deleted a few commas. So the workshops proved to be the most reliable sources of valuable feedback.
When I started looking for an agent, I joined Publishers Marketplace and signed up for the “Deals” newsletter that came out every few days. That alerted me to literary agencies I wouldn’t have known about, and identified agents representing books that were comparable to my own work.
I’ve also found Poets & Writers to be a valuable resource, especially its list of writing competitions. I have relied on it for years.
Thanks so much for all your great advice, and for spending so much of your time with us, Timothy!