Anthony Neil Smith
Who are you? Where are you from? What are you working on these days?
Yet another novel about an asshole. I don’t know why, but I find these asshole characters interesting. I’m not even sympathetic towards them, but I am very curious about how their minds work. Anyway, this one is about an asshole state trooper in South Dakota, which is our nearby neighbor (I’m in Southwest Minnesota), a fascinating state to me because they still swear by the cowboy, Wild West ethos.
Anyway, I’m Anthony Neil Smith. You can call me “Neil.” I’m originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, not far from New Orleans, but I’ve lived “up north” for the last nineteen years – three in Grand Rapids, Michigan and sixteen in rural Minnesota.
What do you hope to accomplish as a writer?
If someone thirty years ago had told me, “One day you’re going to be a cult crime writer,” I would’ve said, “I’m good with that.” I’ve wanted to be a crime writer in some form or other for most of my life since discovering the Hardy Boys in second grade. I wish there were still a big pulp novel market, because I loved going to the drugstore to spin the racks full of hard-boiled books. I mean, I thought I’d have published with a larger publisher and have a lot more readers than I do now (it’s a small cult), but there’s still time. So I want to keep writing dark “exploitation” noir/crime/pulp novels with some literary bling and a wink. Writing the stories I want to tell and having people want to read them – eager to read them – is what drives me.
Who are some of your influences? How have they influenced your work?
After the Hardy Boys, I found the series The Three Investigators, which was a huge influence. While the Hardy Boys had a lot of money, boats, hot rods, and motorbikes, the Three Investigators were kinda normal middle class kids with a club house in the junkyard. I could relate to that.
After that, I read the classic hard-boiled guys like Chandler, Hammett, Ross Macdonald, etc. I read a lot of comic books – Frank Miller’s Batman, and The Shadow, Sandman Mystery Theater. I loved weird artists like Bill Sienkiewicz, Miller, Kyle Baker, and Mike Mignola. I guess I always leaned away from realism.
But really, it was finding James Ellroy’s White Jazz that knocked me over. I didn’t know you could do that sort of style in crime fiction. I’d only seen it in lit fiction. Reading this around the same time as seeing Pulp Fiction cemented the rest of my life. This was what I was going to do. From there, I devoured Pelecanos, Mosley, Himes, Crumley, James Lee Burke, Vicki Hendricks, and hundreds more. In grad school, I studied under minimalist greats Mary Robison and Frederick Barthelme, and short story genius Steven Barthelme. All three are huge influences on me.
What are some writing tips you’ve received over the years you feel have helped you improve your writing?
Rick Barthelme was really into film when I was there, and he pushed this “fast and dirty” aesthetic in which the story was more important than being all “literary.” Writers would spend all this time on the sentences, which is fine, but they did it at the expense of the waking dream Gardner talks about in Art of Fiction. Good writing is an illusion that makes the reader forget there’s a writer pulling the strings because they’re swallowed up by the characters, the voice, and the story. It’s only at the end when they think about who wrote it. If a writer is too interested in wowing people with their lines and vocabulary, it becomes, “Look how smart of a writer I am!” which throws the reader out of the perfect dream state. Any hint of a writer toying with the reader’s emotions, or treating their own characters like puppets, makes us look to the writer, not the story.
Something else: character versus plot? Character is plot. They are not separate. Plot is simply motivation for the main character. What does the protagonist want and how do they go about trying to get it? That’s the plot.
Last: always be interesting. Never be not interesting. And learn what “interesting” means.
What are you currently reading? How’s it going—recommend, or no?
I’ve always got so many books partly read, reading some at different parts of the days. My current Kindle reads are Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe Lansdale, Hard Times by Les Edgerton, who is like family to me, I’d say, plus some ARCs and sneak peeks from friends and other writers. On paper, The Thief by Fuminori Makamura, and some Louise Erdrich and Joyce Carol Oates stories for this fall’s fiction class I’m teaching. “Fleur” is a damned fine story by Erdrich.
If you had the chance to see one musician/group live in concert, living or dead, who would it be and at what point in their career would it be?
Hmm. Well, I’m not the biggest fan of live music – the venues are usually uncomfortable, too big or too small, the sound sucks, and the band plays too fast, can’t hit the right notes, or stretches it out for far too long. The only concerts that lived up to my expectations were from opening bands: Primus opening for Rush, and Alice in Chains opening for Van Hagar.
I always enjoy the albums more, but that’s because I’m a recording nerd. I had a four-track as a teenager and wrote a lot of songs, recorded a lot of the parts. My dream job other than writer would be record producer.
So, if I could have a small club audience with Lyle Lovett and a tiny band, around the time of my favorite album of his, The Road to Ensenada, that would be a dream.
Or a chance to see Johnny Cash backed up by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for the Unchained sessions. Wow.
What should we look for from you in the near future?
My next novel is The Butcher’s Prayer, which should be out from Fahrenheit 13 in the next few months. It’s inspired by a true crime from the 90s down on the Mississippi Coast. I used to go to the same Pentecostal church as the killer in the real case.
Then there’s Murderapolis, my attempt at an epic Don Winslow or Richard Price style novel, also from Fahrenheit 13, as well as the next installment of the Slow Bear novellas.
After that, I’m crossing my fingers for exciting news soon. The story “Trooper” in Pulp Modern is a taste of the current novel, and I hope some sort of magic and luck comes together to find it a great home.
Anthony Neil Smith is the author of quite a few crime novels, including the Billy Lafitte series, Slow Bear, All the Young Warriors, and the forthcoming The Butcher’s Prayer. He is a professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. With Hunter Hayes and Victor GIschler, he co-founded the late great crime zine Plots with Guns, last seen being buried in the backyard of editor Sean O’Kane. Smith likes Mexican food, Mexican beer, habaneros, rock guitars, cheap red wine, and exploitation flicks, especially Italian. He has three cats. He is mourning his dog Herman C. Smith (2009-21 RIP), who was a very good boy.