Just the facts...
Biography (by way of an interview)
Are you nuts?
On my better days, yes.
I mean, you left a perfectly good teaching job to move to London to start a writing career? Seems insane to me.
The school was on the brink of bankruptcy, and I was making all of $9200 a year. I knew I had to make my move then, because in a year there would be no more school. In a way I had it made there: I could teach anything I liked in my courses, Tolstoy and Nabokov stories, novels by Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry and Virginia Woolf—even a Ulysses seminar for juniors and seniors, which today would get me sent before a Republican morals committee, and I really liked my students. Most of them anyway. You know who you are.
But you took the leap.
This was in the late Seventies, when in order to get published you had to have an agent, but to get an agent you had to have been published, which left you feeling as if you were living inside a Kafka story. Occasionally I was able to get a New York agent to read (including, back when he was first getting started, the one I have now) and for a while I had an editor at Little, Brown eager to publish me, but she vanished. However, I was determined to become a writer. The British Home Office gave us permission to live for a year there, and each succeeding year we had to reapply.
We were able to live frugally, which is a euphemism for being dirt poor—paying around £20 a week rent, not owning a car, walking everywhere, eating very little. Museums were free (and warm; we were feeding an electrical meter back in our bedsit on ten pence coins, neatly stacked on top of it), theatre tickets were cheap, so we always had something to do, especially during what’s become known as the Winter of Discontent, a season of strikes, electricity outages and the threshold of Margaret Thatcher’s reign of terror at 10 Downing Street. That time is evoked very accurately in the recent film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Lots of brown and beige set against a kind of dishwater gray. That first year turned into five.
We moved around for a few years—London, Lyme Regis (where daily we walked the Cobb, made famous in the film of our neighbor John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman), then to Cambridge, where we remained for four years. There was no net to catch me, no other opportunities for me to fall back on. I had to become a writer.
Was it worth it?
Absolutely. I learned a lot about discipline, especially from British writers and actors, who viewed their work not as some painful inner journey but simply as what they did, day after day. I like the story about John Hurt, who was shooting a film in, I think, Canada. He was working opposite a young American actor, preparing to shoot a scene meant to show the aftermath of a foot chase. The American spent his break doing push-ups and jumping-jacks and working up a sweat, while Hurt quietly enjoyed a cup of tea and a cigarette. The director told them to take their marks.
John Hurt handed his tea to an assistant, doubled over, turned red and broke into a sweat. The American, who’d been beating himself up for the past ten minutes, was amazed. “How did you do that, John?” “Simple,” he said. “It’s called acting.” The preoccupation with all the angst and phony romanticism surrounding the writing process, bona fides for some trendy authors who all too often produce work of stupendous banality out of all their suffering, is just noise for the publicity machine.
And in England your career went nowhere, of course.
Well, not quite. It was really where I learned how to write, knowing that I had no other options, such as a teaching job, to fall back on. I worked at it constantly, day after day, and developed a discipline that I haven’t lost. But I knew that most British novelists, or at least many of them, also wrote TV dramas, radio plays and occasionally even stage plays and movie scripts. There were no defined borders for writers in Britain back then. So I wrote a fifty-minute TV play a few weeks before we arrived, and by the end of my first month there was signed with an agent to handle my TV, movie and radio work. That was a major step. Through her I had a connection to a London-based literary agent, as well. Which more or less sealed the deal for me. I’d made the right choice.
Did she sell the script?
No, but a lot of people in the business liked it, and I continued to turn out one-off TV specs fairly regularly. Beryl Bainbridge, an established novelist, who had her own success writing teleplays and screenplays, urged me to keep at it. Back then there were only three channels: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. There were several slots on both the state-owned BBC and the commercial-funded ITV for original plays, one-offs, and everyone was hungry for new material. It was the golden age of TV, which became a true writer’s medium, with plays and films by Pinter, Stoppard, Alan Bennett, Dennis Potter, David Hare, Howard Brenton, and many others. The directors were top-class: Lindsay Anderson, Stephen Frears, Alan Clarke—others too numerous to name here. And the actors would be drawn from the stage and cinema. There was really no clear division of talent or writers between the platforms. You were all in it together. It was tremendously empowering.
What happened with the books?
I continued to write a book a year, and it was only after we returned from the UK that my first novel—in fact the thirteenth I’d written—was accepted. It sold very quickly, a week or so after my agent in London had sent it out. The letter arrived from him the day before we were due to move back to London. My editor in London was convinced I was British, and thus he intended to put me up for all the awards limited to UK and Commonwealth writers, such as the Booker, the big one. Little did he know I was a Jewish kid from Yonkers. I’d simply learned the language.
This was which book?
The Man from Marseille, originally published by John Murray, at the time the oldest publishing house still in private hands, located in the same building where Lord Byron’s tell-all memoirs were burned by the overcautious founder of the firm. Once the book was out there was film interest. Dino De Laurentiis at Paramount was prepared to make an offer, but then so was an independent film production company who’d just wrapped their first feature starring a young actor named Liam Neeson. They’d seen my teleplays and wanted me to adapt the book. For my agent, that was the clincher, especially as two of the producers had established names in TV drama. As she said, neither she nor I would make much money out of it, but at least I’d write the script and be working for people who’d respect the work. And we might even get a good movie out of it. Names such as Jeremy Irons were bandied about for the lead role.
At the end of a year of development the project was dropped due to how expensive it would be to make. The settings range from Revolutionary Russia, to the South of France in the 1930’s, to Paris in the Occupation, to modern-day London. Lots of expensive old Hispano-Suiza convertibles and location shooting in Nice. It’s a tough book to adapt, because the narrator turns out to be not all that reliable, and much of the story is told in extended flashbacks. I wrote the novel in five weeks. The story seems to go one place, until you realize that what you’ve just read may all be a work of, well, fiction.
Like The Usual Suspects?
But different. I’d still love to see it filmed.
You still write scripts?
Absolutely. It’s a parallel career. I love writing them.
They anything like your books?
Nope. For the most part, completely different.
So what’s the origin of your new book Airtight?
Some years ago my wife and I were watching Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown on cable. I’d seen it before, but now something about these middle-aged guys getting involved with crime nicked a memory. I turned to her and said, “We never dug it up.”
Care to elaborate?
Don’t be ridiculous. People are still alive. Mostly me.
So is this autobiographical?
This is the one book most directly drawn from my own experiences, especially during the Sixties.
Stop a second. One of the big events in the novel is when the main character, years earlier in college, sees something you call the Clear White Light during an acid trip. Have you seen it?
Yes. What he experiences in the first chapter is exactly what I experienced, up until the moment when Rob enters the room. Then the fiction begins.
Except for the rest of the autobiographical parts.
Any details you want to share?
I’d have to kill you if I told you.
Let’s go back to the book’s origins. You were watching Jackie Brown—
And because I’d originally imagined Airtight as a movie, I wrote it as a script under a different title, sent it to a few people in Hollywood with whom I’d met and who already liked my work, and though they loved the concept, the idea of casting two leads in their late forties—for my characters are an advertising executive and a Manhattan attorney, both suddenly out of work and desperate for money in our current economic downturn—is never an easy thing, especially when your target audience is fourteen-year-old boys. Nowadays I’d pitch it as Mad Men meets Easy Rider. Don Draper and Pete Campbell as Wyatt and Billy.
But there are actors who—
And time has marched on, so there’s now Clooney and Pitt, for instance. They’re the same ages as my protagonists, and hardly seem decrepit. Anyway, I decided instead to write it as a novel, which really opened it up for me. I could delve into the characters of these two respectable guys, one from Scarsdale, the other from the Upper East Side, who shine their wingtips and become outlaws. I loved the idea of it. And all of a sudden it became very timely, what with the economic downturn and high unemployment affecting everyone.
Is this your first novel that could fit into a genre other than “literary fiction”?
Actually, most of my published novels play with genre to some degree. The Blue Hour is a dark, surrealistic thriller set in Paris based on the Orpheus myth; The Man from Marseille is a kind of detective novel in which the narrator investigates his own past; Body and Soul, a take on the darkly comic French roman noir, an experiment in improvisation, as the main character is a jazz pianist, but also a tale of how the West deals with Cold War emigrés; The Discovery of Light—a Barnes & Noble Discover Title—a contemporary thriller built around the paintings of Vermeer, about how something witnessed can be interpreted in a hundred different ways; while Breathless, also something of a mystery, is about the widow of a murdered man trying to get to the truth of his death. That’s a criminally long sentence, and I apologize for it.
Who originally published you?
The Man from Marseille was, as I said, published by John Murray, and here in the US by St. Martin's Press. Body and Soul was a Grove Press book, The Blue Hour was brought out by British American Publishing (and only missed being a Paris Review edition under that imprint, because George Plimpton found it "too lurid," which I thought should have served as a blurb for the book), and The Discovery of Light and Breathless were Both Viking Penguin editions. One of the great things about being with my current publisher is having these all back in print as a uniform edition.
It’s a tale of desperate men resorting to desperate measures. When I finished it what came to mind was the John Huston movie with Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. People scrabbling for their imagined salvation, increasingly at each other’s throats. But Airtight is also a study of memory and regrets, how we make choices in our lives that haunt us for years to come, so it’s a character study as well. For as the main character, Nick Copeland, discovers as he returns to his old college to dig up what he hopes will redeem his economic woes, true redemption comes from another place.
This is your first novel that could actually be called comic, even if the comedy is dark.
In a way it’s my most accessible and, oddly, optimistic book. It’s absolutely a moral tale. Writing it was a hugely liberating experience. Memory has always been a theme of my work, whether in screenplays or novels, and here I think it touches upon something universal—that as we move away from the past we lose sight of what once made us feel utterly, joyfully, human—this exuberance of youth, of feeling we’re immortal, invincible. And yet by going back to it we also see that our decisions have consequences, that what we once said or did thirty years ago still reverberates today. Nick and Rob in the novel relive that, and, for Nick at least, it’s like a kind of rebirth. It’s the pain of memory and the need to make amends that tugs on his soul. I think what powers the story is the fact that these two guys are reliving the renegade times of their youth. As I wrote it I remembered things I hadn’t thought about for years. Such as when I would— Nah, forget it. The statute of limitations hasn’t run out yet.
Name one thing you have in common with your protagonist Nick.
We both wanted to be rock stars. Otherwise he’s taller than I am.
(An expanded version of this originally appeared at The Nervous Breakdown in November 2012: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/tnbfiction/2012/11/j-p-smith-the-tnb-self-interview-2/)