Arts & Culture News

C.W. Smith and His Angsty Teens: Dallas Writer Releases New Novel, Steplings

SMU students may remember C.W. Smith as the curmudgeonly creative writing prof who had permanent dibs on a particular wooden chair in Dallas Hall; others know him as the mentor and ally who helped them find their voice, or who simply told them for the first time that they were good at something.

Smith left SMU this spring to pursue his own writing full-time and to enjoy a bit of the sweet life: traveling with his wife, Marcia; caring for a disabled -- but adorable -- geriatric pooch; kayaking up a storm on White Rock Lake; and endearingly ranting about local Realtors' jingoistic insistence that his lawn bear an American flag each Fourth of July. Former students held an impromptu retirement soiree at Ozona Grill and Bar (where Smith had historically held the last class of each semester), and if the turn-out was any indication of his influence as a teacher, Smith left a lasting impression on more than a few grateful SMU grads.

Smith has worked as a freelance film reviewer for the Observer and has also freelanced for other less-sophisticated (we kid, we kid) publications such as Esquire and Texas Monthly. As an artist, he has produced nine novels, a collection of short stories and a memoir, and has been honored with a host of prestigious awards, including most recently the 2011 Lon Tinkle Award for "sustained excellence in a literary career" from the Texas Institute of Letters. Smith awaits his newest release, Steplings, which hits stores tomorrow, September 29. Be sure to RSVP for a reception, reading and book signing beginning at 6 p.m. tomorrow evening at DeGolyer Library on the SMU campus.

Steplings details three days in the lives of 19-year-old Jason and and 11-year-old Emily, children from strikingly different backgrounds, united both in the new home their parents have formed together, as well as their own respective desires to flee it. When the pair decide to do just that -- inadvertently and unknowingly eliciting an Amber Alert -- their impetuous hitchhike across Texas results in an even more dire situation for Jason, now legally an adult, and already awaiting a court date for assault charges stemming from an accident and its subsequent misunderstanding by an injured party.

As Jason spirals, we readers witnesses his naive attempts to heal overwhelming depression with love, substance and music, and we wonder helplessly at the grief-stricken young man's succession of bad decisions. Along the way, the precocious and charmingly "truculent" Emily finds, too, that home is not always where one has last left it. However, Steplings is not merely a coming-of-age novel -- while we see Jason and Emily come to terms with lives that neither have chosen, it is too the story of young people encountering seemingly insurmountable class systems that affect who they can and do love, as well as their options and futures.

If one were to highlight only one of Smith's talents as a writer, perhaps what stands as the best representation of his work and the clearest example of his artistic capacity is his ability to draw a reader so fully into his creative world that they are, at the concluding lines, loathe to leave it at all. Readers will find themselves worrying after Smith's protagonists long after the last page is turned, restlessly concerned for the dear souls of the very real young people -- a generation in combat boots -- who unknowingly and unintentionally inspired this all-too realistic contemporary tale. Steplings is the reflection of a true Texas writer who sees through hungry eyes both the paling dim of Dallas from its outskirts, and the brightest lights of an Austin stage.

We got our grubby paws on an advance copy and sat down recently with C.W. Smith to learn more from the man, himself. See our interview after the jump.

You've written about young adults before in Country Music, Understanding Women, and Gabriel's Eye. Why did you choose to write about young people again in this new novel? I like young adults; otherwise, I wouldn't have taught them for so long. Also I liked being one. But when you're young your torments are also heightened, intense, imprinting themselves on your lifelong memory. I've never set out to write a Young Adult novel; my idea of my audience is always someone who might like the kind of story I'm writing, and that always includes me. This book probably is a cross-over, especially now that YA books have widened their audience by including more realistic material, the problems and issues, from the world at large.

What were the challenges of writing about "today's youth"? Has your college teaching informed your understanding of them? Trends and fashion in popular culture are short-lived. My story's set in 2003. I had to research which bands or singers or celebrities were popular, as well as keep in mind where we were then in the whirlwind of technology: for a poor kid like Jason, cell phones were still a bit exotic, and iPods were only on the horizon. That's always tricky. I think what I have learned from a couple decades of being around smart young adults is that, for the most part, they're just like every other generation: They ache to find partners, dream of a glorious future, seek adventure, love their families and friends.

Thematically, class conflict often appears in your books. The story seems to sympathize with both of the sides that it presents: We see Jason's agonizing failure to fit into [his girlfriend] Lisa's affluent circle, and yet we also are made to understand Lisa's humiliation and heartache at having a role in a "trailer trash soap opera." The plot based on a rich girl whose family rejects the poor boy she has chosen is, uh, I guess you could say "well-established." I chose that conflict partly because I could remember the emotions of it, but also because for 10 years I've watched young men and women die needlessly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they seem to be from blue-collar families, for the most part. I've not known a single one of my students to join up -- they were college-bound from the time they were born.

For a kid like Jason, crippled by depression from losing his mother, lacking a role model for a professional life in his family, broke and in trouble with the law, joining the Army seems a good solution to his problems. And it's not Lisa's "fault" for getting a full ride to UT Austin because she's smart and a hard worker. It's not her "fault" her father's an orthopedic surgeon and Jason's dad is not. I have just observed over the years that the destiny of poor kids seems to be to stay poor, and the destiny of rich kids seems to be to stay rich. Poor kids have to do something extraordinary to raise their status; rich kids only have to avoid mistakes, and when they make them, they usually have a net beneath them.

You write about alcoholism and drug abuse experienced primarily by your blue-collar characters. Did you find it problematic assigning this condition to them rather than the novel's more affluent families? I was drawn to Burl's struggles and admired his fitful victory over his demons. But once again I think that in some way this is part of my thinking about having money or not having it. Children raised in poor families don't have access to the help that affluent families give their children. I kept thinking that if Jason were a son in Lisa's family, he'd have been sent to rehab in a private hospital, perhaps, or his depression would've been caught and diagnosed early so that he didn't try to medicate himself with street drugs. Sure, kids in affluent families fall victim to these struggles as well, but they have a better chance to overcome them.

Why did you include an Amber Alert in the story? By implication it seems to critique a culture in which even truly good young people are not allowed to make stupid mistakes. I wasn't thinking so widely as that. I was interested in how the unexpected fact of their kids being missing suddenly opens up a conflict between Burl and Lily that thrives on their basic lack of knowledge about each other as a newly married couple. Jason's prior behavior, his history of violence, have provoked Lily's fear for her daughter's safety and a piercing guilt about having made a new home for Emily that now seems woefully unsuitable and maybe even dangerous. The "amber alert" is what should've gone off in the heads of the bride and groom before they got hitched.

Now that you are retiring from teaching do you think your process will change? Do you follow a daily writing regime or wait until inspiration hits? When you write a novel, you can't rely on waiting until inspiration hits. The secret that most experienced writers understand is that inspiration usually comes after you've started writing, not before. If inspiration were a prerequisite to my sitting down every day to work on something as long as a novel, the book would never get written. When I'm working on a book, I sit down almost every morning and work on whatever scene or chapter is up for drafting or revision. If I'm lucky, I'll get warmed up while I'm working and will begin to see things I hadn't imagined before, new possibilities, a riff with a sparkling metaphor that wants to run, a surprising snatch of dialogue that reveals a heretofore unseen or unknown aspect of a character.

But it does seem accurate that you take inspiration both from your personal experiences as well as what we all see in the daily headlines. Definitely! I always think that for most writers the work comes from a fusion of three things: What Is, What Was, What If. The original notion for Steplings actually came from a case of a campus "squatter" -- a homeless young adult who was living in nooks and crannies and was mooching meals from other students and from the break room leftovers from meetings, etc., but all that remains of that idea is the night that Emily and Jason spend in the UT Austin library. That the idiotic war in Iraq was, has been, still is needlessly taking the lives of young less-than-affluent Americans was another inspiration. And my own experience as a lovesick teenager and as a parent of "troubled" teenagers also went into the mix.

Would you say that the novel's setting in Dallas and Austin works on a metaphoric level? You obviously know both cities very well, but each seems to represent more than a mere location. Being familiar with places allows you to nuance some of the underlying thematic strains. In this case, my choice of Mesquite as a setting for Jason's and Lisa's lives was related to my idea of class awareness and consciousness and the way I feel that subtle conflict permeates our lives here. In a way, like Oak Cliff, it's the anti-Dallas: Nothing about it would conform to the out-of-towners' popular conception of what Dallas stands for: glitz, conspicuous consumption, objects that allegedly testify to success, the prosperity gospel. Mesquite's a blue-collar town. The Sanborns are blue-collar folks. As for Austin -- well, Austin is the California of Texas, the hip place, the music and movie mecca, where the promising gather to forge their sterling futures, a future that is not in the cards for Jason. Not incidentally, both Emily and Lisa move comfortably about in it while for him it's like a foreign country.

Jason's finally finding a "good" song title ("Next Best Thing") gave me goosebumps. You wrote about musicians in The Vestal Virgin Room, too. Do you think the creative process is similar for songwriters and fiction writers? That Jason longs to be a working singer/songwriter might well be a stand-in for a young novelist's yearning to make his mark upon the world. As I said, the torments of being young are etched deeply in the psyche. But it also seemed important to give him something positive, something that he found value in that might sustain him when he is failed by other people and by the vagaries of circumstance. I couldn't reproduce his melodies on the page, but I hear them in my head. I enjoyed seeing the lyrics of his songs pop out of his head; they were often a surprise to me. What he does with his guitar at the end of the novel sort of broke my heart, though I understood and approved the rightness of it.

Steplings is available September 29, 2011. Join Smith for a book signing, reception and reading at DeGolyer Library tomorrow evening (September 29) at 6 p.m.

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