Tuesday, Jun 28, 2016
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Toledo-born bestselling writer Scott Smith talks about his craft

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Hometown boy makes bad?

Scott Smith thought so.

In a sense.

I spoke with the Sylvania-raised author (and Oscar-nominated screenwriter) of A Simple Plan on a Friday, and two days later, on a Sunday afternoon, I received an e-mail drenched in guilt: He hadn t given props to the teachers who inspired him at Sylvania Northview High School. He d neglected to mention Ms. Urbain, Mrs. Benya. He had forgotten Butch Graves, the swim coach; and Mrs. Steele, and Mr. Kocher, and Mrs. Hutchinson.

He d forgotten to mention how important reading Macbeth at Northview was to A Simple Plan. Oh, and how he owns the very worn copy of John Gardner s Grendel that had been assigned to him. And only at the end did he mention his latest novel, The Ruins his second, a bestseller last summer, coming to paperback in July (Vintage, 528 pages, $7.99). The guy is pretty modest.

No less than Stephen King reviewed The Ruins for Amazon; his chief criticism was that Smith doesn t write enough. No less than Ben Stiller, who once owned the film rights to A Simple Plan, developed The Ruins into a feature; it just began shooting this month, for release next year. Smith, 41, lives today in New York City. What follows is an abbreviated version of our chat.

Q: As well known as A Simple Plan was, I wonder if you ever feared that you would become known as the guy who never followed up on it kind of like the Ralph Ellison of thrillers.

A: You know, I don t think so. The weird thing about the time lapse between A Simple Plan [which was released in 1993] and The Ruins is I didn t really have a sense of time passing. I wasn t anxious on that level. People around me were more anxious.

Q: Time went quickly.

A: Time went by very quickly. I didn t have a sense like Oh my God, a decade has passed and I haven t written another book.

Q: But didn t you feel that pressure to perform, though?

A: It was weird. I d been doing a lot of screenwriting in between [books], and hadn t been sitting down every day to write prose. It felt so foreign to me, the whole way I wrote The Ruins, and even when I sat down to write it, I wasn t thinking I m writing a book, I m going to publish this book. I was just trying to wade into putting sentences together again and to see how that felt.

Q: I read somewhere that you worked on a book that ran like 1,000 pages, only to put it aside.

A: That was right before I did A Simple Plan. For four or five years I worked on something I broke through the 1,000 page mark and I was only a quarter of the way done. I was writing without an outline. It was foolish.

Q: What was it about?

A: This feud in a small town. I was trying to tell the story of everyone in the town, basically. It went from being a collection of short stories that would form a novel to a collection of novels that was unreadable.

Q: But it sounds Midwestern.

A: Definitely. I had [Sherwood Anderson s] Winesburg, Ohio in mind. Nice, short book, actually.

Q: A Simple Plan was set around Toledo, and The Ruins was set around Mexico. It s early in your career, but will you write another Ohio novel someday?

A: I assume so. It s embedded in my consciousness so deeply. I haven t been back in years but the percentage of dreams I have at night that are set in Ohio or about people I knew in Ohio it s amazing how firmly your childhood has a grip on you.

Q: Since we re talking summer reading today, let me ask: Did you develop reading habits at Northview High School?

A: I definitely remember books I read at Northview and authors I was exposed to that I would continue to read outside class time. John Steinbeck, the perennial high school author. I just tore through Steinbeck and I definitely feel shaped by that.

Q: Do you have any big summer reading plans this year?

A: Possession [by A.S. Byatt]. That s been sitting on my shelf a long time. And there s a new book, more a thriller really, from Barry Eisler, Requiem for an Assassin. He has this hit-man character, John Rain. I like his series.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.comor 419-724-6117.

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