“I learned the hard way that all details aren’t equal, that the important details are ones that also help to convey a judgment or mood or reveal character….”
We love it when good things happen for our contributors. And this month we celebrate Patricia Smith, author of “Holy War: Ramadan and race riots in a Senegalese marketplace,” which appeared in our “Hunt, Gather” issue and snagged a Special Mention in the 2016 Pushcart Award series. Smith has just published her first novel, THE YEAR OF NEEDY GIRLS, to critical acclaim. Naturally, we had to know more about the book and her process, so we asked a question or two …
“I can’t imagine my life without writing.”
How do you define “truth”? And what role does it play in your writing–your nonfiction, certainly, but also any other genre in which you work? How do you see your novel as telling the truth in some way?
I think all writers are working to reveal truth, but as an early writing teacher once said, some writers tell the truth better with a mask on. The goal of all writing, no matter the genre, is to reveal what it means to be human, so truth for me is getting at what something really feels like, what it really is, trying to convey its truest essence.
How do you determine something is worth writing about? For example, what drove you to write “Holy War”—and your new novel?
When I can’t shrug off an image or an idea, then it’s time to write about it. One of the images that stuck with me long after I left Senegal (in 1989) was that moment when I got off the plane in Dakar and saw all the Mauritanians crouched on the tarmac, their white robes billowing in the breeze like sheets. I knew I had to write about it. And then, after 9/11, I was compelled again in a more urgent way to get that piece written.
The novel had been brewing for a long time. I had been teaching 5th and 6th grade in Cambridge, MA in the 90’s and a young boy was kidnapped, sexually molested and murdered. My students were especially shaken by this murder, though we all were horrified and stunned by it. The killer turned out to be the boy’s next-door neighbor, and I was haunted by a “what if” question. I kept wondering what might have happened if the reaction to the murder had been an LGBT backlash, what that might have looked like, how that might have affected someone like me.
Your fiction and nonfiction alike are remarkable for their sensory description—readers can really see the world through which your characters move, and feel and smell it too. How do you select the details that will connect with readers, especially when writing about a place so foreign to them—such as Africa in Ramadan?
Thank you for that comment. I think I select the details based on what resonates the most with me—often that’s food! But of course, like all writers, the way to bring a place alive is through vivid details. I learned the hard way, though, that all details aren’t equal, that the important details are ones that also help to convey a judgment or mood or reveal character. Wasn’t it William Carlos Williams who said “no ideas but in things?” I strive for that.
How does your sense of truthfulness affect the voice in which you write a particular piece?
That’s a great question. For fiction, the answer might be easier. For example, to tell the right story, I need the right point of view, which will help determine the voice. For nonfiction, I find it’s a matter of stripping away, of creating the “cleanest” voice that I can, which I also think is the most honest. It’s funny—in a couple reviews of The Year of Needy Girls, my voice has been called “forthright” and I think that’s true of me in person, too.
When you were a struggling/dreaming new writer, what gave you inspiration and kept you going?
Aren’t I still a struggling/dreaming new writer??
I can’t imagine my life without writing. I’ve been writing all of my adult life and really even before that, and while my dream has always been to publish a book, I wasn’t always writing with an eye towards publication, at least not in those early years. I took lots of classes, attended lots of workshops—at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, at Cambridge Center for Adult Education, at Bennington—and then of course got my MFA at VCU —and I worked hard at craft, at shaping sentences, at learning about story.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers–in any form–and where did you learn that tip?
One of my professors at VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University, where Smith earned her MFA] was William Tester, and he said that one of the hardest things about being an artist is first believing that you are an artist. I think that’s true. By that I mean believing that you can be a writer, that the possibility exists for you. Of course, believing and then making it happen are two separate things, but I do think the belief first helps. Then, keep your butt in the chair and write!
Patricia (Patty) Smith is native New Englander whose nonfiction has appeared in the anthologies One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories; Tied in Knots: Funny Stories from the Wedding Day; Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing; One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Teachers Discuss What Has Gotten Better… and What Hasn’t; Salon.com, Broad Street, Gris-Gris, and So to Speak. She has been teaching young writers American Literature and Creative Writing at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, VA ,since 2006.
Readers lucky enough to live in Richmond, Virginia, can meet Patty at a VCU MFA Spotlight event on January 25, at 7 p.m. in Cabell Library. Here’s the full lineup:
(The Year of Needy Girls)
Lea Marshall (also a Broad Street writer!)
(Here is what I want you to do)
Katy Resch George