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Neil Smith

Website: BangCrunch.com

42-year-old Montreal-based Smith works as a translator. He took a writing class to fill some time and was apparently amazed that everyone thought his stories were great. “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.”

Short story collections

Bang Crunch (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Dec 2007) 

Reviewed by Sara Crowley

Interview with Neil Smith

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Neil Smith: About five years. At first I was writing very sporadically with no aim to become a writer. But after a few stories got published in magazines and nominated for prizes, agents and publishers began asking to see a manuscript. Then the writing became more serious and more frequent. I finished the final two stories in Bang Crunch after signing my contract with Knopf.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

NS: Only after writing the first five stories did I see them fitting together within a book. I decided I wanted an eclectic book with a variety of colors and tones. I wanted my book to be like a compilation album where a sad song could follow a fluffier piece. I’d read too many books where all the stories seemed populated by the same protagonists or spoken by the same voices. I wanted diversity. In his review of my book in The Guardian, British writer Michel Faber called Bang Crunch “magpie-like in its influences.” I love this idea of a magpie collecting disparate objects.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

NS: My goal was variety, so I excluded any story in which I repeated myself. I made one exception: two of the stories (Green Fluorescent Protein and Funny Weird or Funny Ha Ha?) share the same characters. I kept both stories but allowed this double-dipping only once in the book. Bang Crunch kicks off with Isolettes because I wanted a piece showing both sides of my writing: the humor and the darkness. As for the order of the other pieces, I avoided clumping together the serious stories or the fantasy fiction. I also separated the two linked stories. Finally, the 65-page novella needed to conclude the collection as a kind of bookend. My editor and I both drew up separate lists for the order of the stories. Our lists ended up being almost exactly the same.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

NS: To me, “story” is a way to reveal truth through lies. The best stories do this. They may be completely fabricated, but they expose a truth about our world.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

NS: This may sound narcissistic, but I try to please myself. I’m my reader. I want to write books I’d enjoy reading. If I love my book, I expect others might fall in love with the work. But I don’t need to click with every editor, every reader, every critic. Some can loathe my book provided some are smitten.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
collection, anything at all?

NS: If a reader has really liked my book, I want to know what other books he’s loved. I figure that he and I might be on the same wavelength and that I can learn from his bookshelves.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

NS: I could never picture people reading my book until I started getting emails from readers through my website. I’m so touched when people take time to send me encouragement. I think all writers, particularly younger writers, need these little pats on the back. Otherwise you spend your days isolated, making up things in your head, and you wonder why you don’t have a real job like your mailman, your barber or your vet.

TSR: What are you working on now?

NS: A novel about the afterlife called Heaven Is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens. Although I’m an atheist, I’ve always been fascinated by heaven. My novel centers on a 16-year-old boy killed in a shooting rampage at his school. He ends up in heaven living in a housing project reserved for the murdered. I recently published an essay in Esquire online about my next book. The first chapter is also posted on a site called Five Chapters. You can link to both through my website.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

NS: AI recently reread All the Anxious Girls on Earth by Zsuzsi Gartner because my French publisher is thinking of translating the book into English. Zsuzsi Gartner has worked as a journalist and book reviewer for years. Her writing is everything I adore: surreal, colorful, zany, touching. She’s working on a second collection now. Can’t wait.

I read Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. One of the funniest and saddest collections ever. The book is as good as her movie, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and similar in tone.

The third book—the 20th edition of a Canadian anthology called The Journey Prize Stories—comes out in October. I’m lucky enough to be among the three writers choosing the work to go into the book. I’ve just finished reading the 75 submissions and come across some wonderful stuff.