THE COLUMN

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“IT’S ALL WRITING. IT’S WHAT I DO.”

An Interview with Naomi Gladish Smith

 

On your website, you mention your Swedenborgian background. In this context—and more broadly, could you tell us about your childhood and formative years?

My father was the minister of a small Swedenborgian congregation in England for twelve years and all but the oldest and youngest of his six children were born abroad. Only my first four and a half years were spent in England, however, and my memories of that time just before World War II are simply flashes of half formed pictures—our maid washing the big black ‘pram’ (baby buggy) in preparation for the new baby coming to our house (a “blue baby” who died when my mother went into early labor)—a neighbor threatening our little dog Betty for chasing his sheep (did I really see this or just hear grown ups talking about it?)—going down to the cellar for air raid drills and after the all clear getting candy as a prize for being good. More fragmented memories—of the trip back to America from England—the train ride to Ireland—boarding a huge ship mid-ocean, a ship packed with refugees who petted and spoiled us—seeing red eyed women and grim, solemn men, French passengers who’d heard that France had fallen to the Nazis.

Then—weeks, months, years of the family shifting from place to place in the United States. Living with relatives, then in a cottage in Michigan while my father traveled on pastoral trips, an Ohio apartment where my father struggled unsuccessfully to accommodate to his new parishioners, with relatives again after my father had to resign his pastorate, this time outside a small Illinois town where he found a job at the local munitions plant making bombs.

Unaware of what was surely a time of heart-wrenching despair for my parents, I enjoyed a childhood not too different from those around me. But it was different. After the war, on Chicago’s south side, I discovered our religion was not like my friends’. I envied my Catholic friends their big, ornate church, Dixie’s modest, Methodist one, even Beulah Temple with its flashing neon sign at the end of our block (though none of my friends went there and when my sisters and I did venture inside we found the minister played a guitar during the service!). On Sundays we took a streetcar and then the subway to worship in a house that despite it’s neatly lettered sign and stained glass front window was just—a house—where the resident minister and his family lived upstairs. Sometimes when my father had an invitation to preach we took a streetcar, the subway, then a bus to a pretty little church in the suburbs, but mostly it was the house-church in the city where we prayed. Yes, we were different, but as I grew older I realized the main difference wasn’t church buildings, it was our religion itself.

Which works—of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or art—do you recognize as your strongest influences? Why?

I’ve been influenced by great writing (positively) and by the not so great (sometimes it’s useful to see what doesn’t work). Like all writers, I read omnivorously. When I was a kid it was fiction, first just about all the books in the children’s section of our local library, then any I could sneak from the adult section. After I’d been caught several times trying to check out adult books, one of the librarians told the front desk she’d given me permission to do so. Nowadays I read a lot of non-fiction as well as fiction, especially biography. Samuel Johnson said a biography should “tell not how any man became great, but how he was made happy; not how he lost the favor of his prince, but how he became discontented with himself.” Think about it.

So my love of books was and is one of my strongest influences. But let’s not forget the people in my life—my parents and siblings who always had their noses in books, dear Miss Bland, my library co-conspirator, and oh, my uncle Dick, whose three published books showed me that people just like you and me could be writers.

You have gone through several stages as a writer, from mystery writing (Buried Remembrance)—to essays and short stories published in periodicals—to your three novels about afterlife, to your most recent memoir about your father, V as in Victor. Could you say a few words about each of those stages in your writing career?

Since I enjoy mysteries, I thought I’d sit down and write one. So I did. Sent it to a publisher and while it was being considered started another one (the first of many printed rejections came before I’d finished). Rejections became a rather discouraging habit until finally one was accepted and I’d been asked for another. Unfortunately, while this was in the mail the publishing house was sold and started doing “men’s adventure” rather than mysteries.

For years, while I continued writing but not selling mysteries, I was also writing essays and short stories that appeared in venues such as the Christian Science Monitor, JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) and various magazines and anthologies. I can’t emphasize enough the encouragement the acceptance of these short pieces gave me. Affirmation is important to everyone; to this writer it was a beam of light in a darkened room.

So I plowed ahead until one day I thought of using what I’d learned writing mysteries to tell a story with a completely different setting—a story about people set in the world we enter when we die. It was accepted and I wrote two more novels set in the spiritual world, one of which was a finalist in the USA Best Books 2011 in the Visionary Fiction category.

V as in Victor is another story, but more about that later.

You indicate Swedenborgian beliefs as the inspiration of your novels The Arrivals, The Wanderers, and The Searchers. In what way are these books “Swedenborgian”?

They are Swedenborgian in that the ideas of the eighteenth century scholar, philosopher and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg are incorporated into the books, though none of the characters in The Arrivals and The Wanderers are Swedenborgian and the only individual with a Swedenborgian background in The Searchers is flawed to say the least. There is no proselytizing in the novels and certainly no theological conversations. These novels are simply enjoyable stories that may give the reader a few things to think about.

Could you please describe the aspects of the Swedenborgian faith and/or identity that are most important to you as a person and writer?

My writing is tremendously impacted by the basic beliefs of my religion—the idea that people of every religion who try to live a life according to their beliefs are part of God’s universal church—that angels are men and women who have lived a life according to their beliefs on earth and will continue to live useful lives to eternity—that married couples who truly love each other will live as husband and wife in the next life—that we can choose either to examine ourselves and with God’s help put away what we know to be wrong and live according to the ten commandments (a version of which exists in just about every religion and belief system), or we can choose to put our own needs above all else and attempt to dominate those around us—that though we all have good and evil within us, during our life we form a basic love that we take with us to our next life, a love that is either one that will enable us to live in harmony with others (you could call this heaven), or a love of power and dominion that makes us seek the company of those like us (what we might call hell).

In addition to their Swedenborgian inspiration, could you talk more about each of these novels, The Arrivals, The Wanderers, and The Searchers?

The Arrivals is about a group of people whose plane crashes in Lake Huron. The story follows nine passengers who think they have survived, but find they are in a world between heaven and hell where each discovers what kind of person he or she became because of choices made during his or her life on earth. The Wanderers tells the story of several Americans who happen to die on the same day in different European countries. They leave the hospital-like setting where they awaken and set out together to explore the new world in which they find themselves. And in The Searchers a desperate young man takes his own life only to discover that the afterlife offers its own challenges, struggles, and opportunities.

The memoir about your father, V as in Victor, is a remarkable book, in that it depicts the life of a person trying to pursue moral and professional ideals against tremendous odds. How was the idea of this book born?

When my father was in a nursing home I discovered three boxes of letters in my parents’ basement, letters sent to him from 1929 to the 1950s and carbon copies of his own correspondence. They not only contained astonishing things I’d never known about, they gave an insight into the strengths and weakness of this very ordinary, yet extraordinary man. Reading the letters, arranging them, taking notes, and finally doing the writing took some twenty years, years during which I was also writing essays, short stories, and novels.

What is the significance of V as in Victor to you personally?

Quite simply, I felt called to write it. As I read the letters I felt not only a great sympathy for my father’s struggles to remain true to himself and his religion, but a growing appreciation of my mother. But more than just the story of a family, I think V as in Victor gives a fascinating picture of another time and place—of life in America during and after the Second World War.

You have worked on three sub-genres—mystery novel, spiritual novel, and memoir. From your experience, how different was working on each of those books?

It’s all writing. It’s what I do. And I learn from each genre as I experiment with it.

What are your current literary pursuits/plans?

Mostly it’s just the short stuff these days. Occasionally I’ll get the urge to start a novel, but at my age (don’t ask) the prospect of investing a couple of years on a project is daunting.

How do you assess today’s literary market?

While the major publishers are pretty much closed to a writer without an agent, many smaller, independent publishers are open to a good query and good writing. So I’d say today’s market is open; craft a good query and send it to an editor (an individual, not a generic ‘to the editor’).

Who are your favorite writers (what are your favorite books)—and why?

Like many other readers, my very favorite writer is Jane Austen. Every couple of years I read her novels and enjoy them each and every time. Just recently I read a book written in 1965. Jane Austen: the six novels by W. A. Craik is a carefully written critique of J.A.’s writing and a marvelous read. I promptly went back and read what I had considered one of Austen’s ‘lesser’ books and discovered a new appreciation for it. Jane Austen writes of ordinary, fallible humans, heroes and heroines you enjoy learning about, supercilious or downright nasty people you wouldn’t want in your life but whom you understand. I thank her for letting us enter her world.

What advice would you like to give to fellow writers and those who contemplate a writing career?

First, get a day job. Until you write a best seller you’re going to have to have an income from something other than writing novels. Many writers teach, some are journalists, some wait tables or work in beauty parlors. And while waiting to have your novel accepted, try writing smaller pieces—articles for your neighborhood newspaper, essays, poems, whatever. The important thing is to set aside time to write and do it. And then send it out. Sounds self-evident, but your work isn’t going to see the light of day if it is in your desk drawer.

My final advice? Go For It!

August 4, 2016

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Copyright ©Joanna Kurowska. Any content from this website may not be reproduced without permission.

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