Salamanders of the Silk Road just came out in September. We're excited to catch up with author Christopher Smith. If you're in Nashville on November 13, join us for the official book launch at Parnassus Books!
Hi, Chris! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, there’s approximately three of me. I’m a dad and a husband. I live in Clarksville, Tennessee, just north of Nashville, with my wife, Kate, and our two daughters. My son is in his first year at college, and we—or rather, she—homeschooled him all the way through, not for religious reasons but because she wanted to. The girls started public school last year and are loving it, and Kate’s now working a great gig as a state librarian in Nashville.
I’m also a journalist and editor. Off and on I’ve flirted with the idea of just being a full-time writer (I also buy lottery tickets), but for now I use my word skills to pay the bills working in newspaper journalism. I found the best way to both have time to write and make enough money to support my family was to go into newsroom middle management. I don't wear suspenders, but I do tend to walk around the office with a cup of coffee.
And I’m a writer. I’ve been writing fiction or dabbling in poetry since high school, and it’s the closest thing to effective therapy I’ve experienced. When I don’t write fiction, I become an unpleasant version of myself. I’ve been trying to find success with that for decades, and only now have I started to break through; I’m excited to see what happens next. So, yes, there’s three of me.
And tell us a bit more about the legendary character you’ve brought to life: Prester John. Who is the real (?) Prester John?
Prester John is the most important historical figure you’ve never heard of. Quick version: In the 1100s, messengers appeared in the papal court to report on a so-called Prester John who promised in his letters to bring an army of monsters to fight in the Crusades. He claimed to have led an army to the Tigris River but turned back when the Tigris didn’t freeze to allow him to pass over. This mysterious Christian empire of the east was supposed to be filled with magical wonders and strange creatures, and the published and recirculated letters of Prester John grew in length and popularity in Western Europe as a sort of pulp fiction over the next couple hundred years. The legend was taken seriously enough that it inspired expeditions, including those of Marco Polo and Bartolomeu Dias. A byproduct of early cartographical confusion resulted in the kingdom moving from central Asia to Abyssinia. Into the mid-1500s, cartographers continued labeling central Africa as the kingdom of Prester John.
How did Prester John become the protagonist in Salamanders? What's it like to get into the head of a character who is immortal?
I’d been working on a short story about a man and a woman having a long discussion in a hot tub. They’d decided to kill themselves, but they were having an ongoing series of arguments, so the man couldn’t kill his wife because he wanted to kill her out of love, not out of anger. At the same time, I was reading Daniel Boorstin’s nonfiction work The Discoverers, and it was rife with references to Prester John. I’d never heard of him. I asked everyone I knew, and only three knew of Prester John: a friend who’d read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, another who was a deep fan of Fantastic Four comics, and my wife, who’d read about him as a little girl in a mysterious legends anthology that she still has. So I thought, this is a great character who needs deeper treatment—plus, if he were alive in 1100 and still alive in 1500, he’d surely still be alive today. And maybe he’d be arguing with his wife and finally contemplating suicide. So Prester became the man in the hot tub, and the story blossomed into a novel.
I had a lot of fun handling the immortality part. Early on, as he’s getting accustomed to his unique perception of time, he loses track of it, and some of my favorite passages are of him standing on a hillside for months at a time, watching his horse dying of starvation, an apple tree blooming, and the stars, which he mistakes for meteors flashing across the sky. But later in the story it gets deeper, with Prester coming to terms with everything that’s changed in the world and in himself, and with how gloriously he’s failed to deal with all of that.
What writers have inspired and influenced you? Are there particular authors that you enjoy reading or look up to as a writer?
For story, Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, maybe a bit of William S. Burroughs. Gaiman is brilliant at creative storytelling, at taking the fantastic and sometimes ridiculous and turning it into something poignantly beautiful. For tone, I like the poet John Berryman and Morrissey. Listening to The Smiths touches me in a place that just compels me to write. For style, definitely William Gay. I could read him every night for the rest of my life. He was a self-educated Tennessee writer who could spin these dreamscape paragraphs about wilderness hollows under a low-hung sky and the musky smell of sex amid the dust of red clay. You just want to underline everything.
What is your writing process like? How and when do you find time to write around your other obligations?
The first draft of what became Salamanders was written when I was working the night shift and we had three small kids we were homeschooling. My wife would go to the YMCA in the mornings for a 45-minute workout. She’d put our daughters in the nursery, and I’d take my son with me to a coffeehouse across the street that doubled as a Wiccan/spiritualist bookstore. I’d buy coffee and he’d get hot cocoa. He read Lord of the Rings and I wrote the novel for most of a year in those 45-minute spurts. Later, as the kids got older, I renovated part of the basement to create a man-cave, and that made things easier. I also write on vacation. I wrote a few chapters in an actual Florida beach house in between spurts of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. You can and should force yourself to write. But if you don’t, eventually you write when you need to write. When I need to write, I find time, and it has to happen. If it didn’t, I’d probably take up smoking meth or something.
You spend an enormous part of your professional life writing. How is writing creatively different from what you do at your day job?
Journalism writing and editing for me is like an artificial, hollow version of what I do when I’m writing fiction. It’s like the difference between playing a video game and actually driving, between cheap domestic beer and a craft ale, between masturbation and sex. I’m good at journalism, and writing or editing a news story can satisfy the urge, but afterward, I’m simply satisfied. Done. There’s none of the deep fulfillment that I get out of writing fiction, at least when I’m hitting on all cylinders.
A good example of this: I started writing the novel after writing a weekly parenting humor column for five years. I enjoyed doing the column, but those five years of writing about reality absolutely propelled me into surrealism. I was so done with reality, I was ready not just for fiction but for sentient water that struggles when you gargle, for words that crash onto the floor in a rainstorm, smashing an alphabet soup of letters on the ground, and for constellations that fight in the sky and sulk at sunrise. Holding back on fiction for so long, I think, made me a better writer, or at least made writing a lot more fun.
Where can readers visit you on the internet?
You can find me at www.salamandersmilk.com!