Today I welcome author Timothy Jay Smith to the blog to tell us a little about his new release, A Vision of Angels. So without further ado....
I had a story to tell, and I had a unique perspective from which to tell it.
The story is set against the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and like my protagonist, I wanted to put a human face to it. Or I should say ‘faces’ because there are many sides to the conflict. In A Vision of Angels, I tried to give an equal voice to all sides, hoping it might contribute to a better understanding of the situation, and perhaps even contribute to the conflict’s resolution.
I often say that I was raised a Zionist, and it’s not entirely an exaggeration. As a kid, I spent as many waking hours as I could with a Jewish family next door. Over the next thirty years, I traveled in the Middle East, and ended up running a multi-million program to assist Palestinian businesses immediately following the 1993 Oslo Accord. So I had the advantage of these and many other experiences that let me see different perspectives sympathetically.
There were no epiphanies along the road, only a better understanding of the situation, and that’s why I hope Angels is as honest and objective as I have tried to make it.
2. Tell us a little more about A Vision of Angels?
In all my novels, I tend to take a story that’s normally treated like a thriller, but make them much more character-driven. That’s true with A Vision of Angels as well.
A terrorist attack planned for Easter Sunday in Jerusalem sets off a chain of events that weaves together the lives of an American journalist, Israeli war hero, Palestinian farmer, and Arab-Christian grocer. That sounds like a thriller, right? But it’s really about how their intertwined lives are profoundly changed.
3. Do you draw from personal experiences and/or current events?
Both. The basic plots are plausible but not based totally on real events. But within those stories, many characters, places and events are pretty much what I experienced.
For instance, what I call the “Catch 22” scene in my first novel, Cooper's Promise, when Cooper is arrested, is almost verbatim what was said when I was arrested in Senegal, down to my clinging to the doorframe crying for help as I was being dragged away. I’d arrived as a stowaway on a boat from Cape Verde, where I had been stranded for two weeks. I’d hung out in a bar nicknamed Vietnam, and that’s my model for the bar Cooper hangs out in—complete with a beaded curtain leading to the back rooms.
The same is true for A Vision of Angels. My job allowed me to cross borders, as does my journalist protagonist, and those incidents are pretty much how they happened. I arrived in Tel Aviv the day of the first suicide bus bomb in a two-and-half-year bombing campaign, and missed being the victim of one by a telephone call that delayed my going to the post office by a life-saving five minutes. I was there for Peace Now’s rallies and Rabin’s assassination. All these things provide both context and incidents that have worked their way into A Vision of Angels.
4. What comes first for you: plot or character?
This is my thinking process using the example of my current work-in-progress, a novel called Fire on the Island. I know Greece and a couple of islands very well (my first job out of college was in Greece), so I decided to write something set in Greece. One of the islands has had an arsonist, so I decided my story would be built around that. I needed a protagonist, an outsider who could stir things up, and I landed on Nick Damigos, a Greek-American FBI agent who goes to the island to assist the locals capture the arsonist.
So, I have a setting, story and protagonist, and I think about my opening and closing scenes, and then I begin to fill an outline with essential actions to get from beginning to end. For about three days I pace with a notebook in hand, just brainstorming my own story. Then I sit down, and put in order the scenes and actions I’ve come up with. Then I start writing. As I write, I keep a notebook to one side, and as ideas come to me, I jot them down, in the process expanding my outline.
Of course, to even get that far, I have to know a minimum about my protagonist. Who is s/he? What’s his/her role in the story?
Some years ago, I had this idea for a novel that would deal with both human trafficking and blood diamonds. In an earlier novel, I had created a white straight FBI agent and a black gay CIA agent who worked together to solve a nuclear smuggling case in Poland. I thought I might use them on another case, one dealing with diamonds and the other with trafficking, but as much as I tried to put that story together, it felt contrived.
Finally, I just decided to write a scene and see where it took me. So, I had my CIA agent walk into a bar in Africa, and he met Cooper Chance, an Army sharpshooter and deserter from the war in Iraq. That’s the first time I met Cooper, too. I hadn’t even thought of him before, not consciously at least. If you can fall in love with a character, I did with Cooper, and he’s my protagonist in Cooper’s Promise.
What happened to the CIA agent? He disappeared entirely.
5. Describe your writing style.
I tend to write in scenes, and that keeps the narrative fast-paced. At the same time, my work is character-driven, so that tips it towards literary fiction. I have done a lot of screenwriting work, so that has influenced how well I write dialogue, and people tell me that’s one of my strengths. My books have been called literary suspense or literary thrillers.
6. Do you set a minimum number of words you write a day?
After that, I wish I could say 500. That was the goal for Hemingway and Graham Greene, but I definitely don’t achieve that—and neither did Hemingway, who struggled to eke out 200. Some days I end up with fewer words than when I started because I’ve edited out some text. I plod through a story, editing as I go along, wishing I could quickly write through the story and get it all out there—but that doesn’t work for me. I’m the tortoise. Slow and steady, I get there.
7. How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?
In sixth grade, at a spaghetti fundraiser for my school, I sat across the table from an “old guy” who was probably 35 years old. He told me he had been to 40 countries and spoke five languages. On the spot, I decided that was the life I wanted to live, and I pursued it. So far, I’ve been to 98 countries, speak three languages reasonably well and a smattering of three more. I would call that childhood experience a defining “total impact” moment on my life. I also had a difficult relationship with my father, and that plays itself out in my novels.
8. How did you get started writing?
I actually started writing as a kid. In the fourth grade, I wrote my first play, a story about slavery and the Civil War. I remember I had slaves sneaking off into the night while others, around a campfire, sang 'Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen'. It got pretty good reviews!
I also remember starting my first novel in the sixth grade, which my mother quickly kiboshed by proclaiming that my opening scene was “dirty.” (I had a young couple on a blanket having a picnic in the park.) I wasn’t exactly sure what was dirty about it, but decided I better stop writing until I knew.
I am not suggesting that I sat around all my life wishing I had been a writer as my first career, because I never did. If that had been my wish, I would have done it. But there came a point about 15 years ago where some health issues made me seriously reconsider what I was doing, and frankly, I had achieved what I had hoped to achieve in my first career. So when it came time for me to set off in a different direction, writing came naturally.
I have never looked back. Before becoming a writer, I never especially envied a writer’s life, but I would have if I knew then what I know now. It’s been a great journey so far.
9. Without giving too much away, what’s your favorite part of A Vision of Angels? And Cooper’s Promise?
Angels has a couple of themes running through it, and reconciliation is one. Almost exactly in the middle of the book, during Seder dinner, an old painter tells his story of returning to the house he grew up in in Algiers before his family had fled. It’s really beautiful and based on a real story I heard. I have excerpted it on my web page (readers should scroll all the way through the first chapter to ‘Efrahim’s Story’).
My stories are fast-paced and dialogue considered good, but I love language, and try to write occasional passages that really use it grammatically, vocabulary-wise, and sensually. In Angels, there’s a passage I call ‘Jakov’s Sorrow’ and in Cooper’s Promise another called “Dance of the Black Lolita’. I’ll excerpt them both below, and add a fun opening moment from my novel-in-progress, Fire on the Island.
10. So tell us just a little about that new novel.
Fire on the Island is set in a Greek island village. My first job after the university was in Greece, and I have had a love affair with the country ever since – though this is the first time I have written about it.
It still has a thriller-ish element to it—an arsonist who wants to destroy a village—yet it’s filled with unforgettable characters (at least unforgettable to me because I have met every one of them): The Albanian waiter who gets set up to take the fall in an art forgery scheme. The deaf boy abandoned and never taught his own name let alone a language. The priest fighting his congregation’s sardine-laced halitosis. A femme fatale widow hot for any man. And Nick Damigos, my FBI Agent protagonist, whose own tragic experience with fire still haunts him.
11. What are your favorite books of all time?
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is one of the most brilliant books ever written. The structure, use of language, and use of a made-up language are all astounding. Other books I consider brilliant with images that still haunt me are: A Handmaid's Tale (Atwood), Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee) and The Road (McCarthy). I have read most works by Doris Lessing, my favorite being the The Diaries of Jane Somers; as well as virtually everything by Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham. Other favorites include the early works of John LeCarre, especially The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Christ Stopped at Eboli (Levi); A Lesson Before Dying (Gaines). Of course, The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell is simply brilliant and lush. I have read it twice already, and I have Justine with me to reread again.
A terrorist attack planned for Easter Sunday in Jerusalem sets off a chain of events that weave together the lives of an American journalist, Israeli war hero, Palestinian farmer, and Arab-Christian grocer.
Alerted to a suicide bomb plot, Major Jakov Levy orders the border with Gaza Strip closed. Unable to get his produce to market, Amin Mousa dumps truckloads of tomatoes in a refugee camp. David Kessler, an American journalist, sees it reported on television and goes to Gaza for Amin's story.
Hamas militants plot to smuggle a bomb out in David’s car and retrieve it when he returns home, but he’s unexpectedly detoured on the way. Meanwhile, a cell member confesses to the plot, and the race is on to find David and retrieve the bomb before the terrorists can.
Ultimately A Vision of Angels is a story of reconciliation and hope, but not before events as tragic as a modern passion play change the lives of four families forever.
Jakov’s Sorrow (A Vision of Angels)
The day’s withering light seeped into the kitchen. Jakov sat at the breakfast table staring at its hard white surface as he would search a palimpsest waiting for answers to be revealed. What could he have done differently? What could he have done for this day never to have come? His questions conjured a host of remembrances and what-ifs, but nothing that directed him along a new path or to a different destination. Had he been too lenient with Rachel, ever-ready to please his baby girl? Or absent too long during Mishe’s growing up years, allowing seeds of rebellion to be sown? Memories, snippets of conversations, vignettes of their childhoods and teenage years intermingled and coalesced, his chronological clock suspended as Jakov wondered if things would have been different if he had said that then, or been there when, or listened better or loved more, or or or…. All these fragments, these distilled moments that take on profound meaning in hindsight were nothing more than simple stitches in life’s whole cloth, and Jakov knew that each stitch he examined would be sewn and knotted again should time’s wheel reverse itself, for the unraveling in the present could not have been seen in the past. He was shaken to his soul by the certainty that their wretched fate was the sum of naïve actions.
Dance of the Black Lolita (Cooper’s Promise)
The power came on and the jukebox flickered to life, spinning a seductive beat. Lulay’s untrained body, still a girl’s body, still a body remembering before her bleeding had started, and she could almost see womanhood but hadn’t yet, that was the body that danced first, that found firm footing as she shook her glass at Cooper like a voodoo charm. Even the men slumped at the bar perked up for this dance of the Black Lolita. She rolled her chilled glass across her forehead, cooling that hot girl’s body, cooling scenes seen by a woman, and that was the body that danced next—her woman’s body. She swaggered into that woman’s dance, moving her feet to a second beat, shutting her eyes in remembrance of every ass she’d grabbed and every night she’d swallowed.
Skinny Dipping off Rabbit Island (Fire on the Island)
The sun dropped into the sea so fiery hot it could have boiled it. Stratis, putt-putt-putting along the rocky shore, was certain that it had. Every salty gust felt like the devil’s breath. Not even the splashes off the bow provided any relief as he wiped sweat from his forehead with a red bandana. Usually by sunset he was back in the port sipping an ouzo and recounting his day, but that day his small party had been big-time rowdy, taking their long time drinking GTs and skinny dipping off Rabbit Island. He didn’t mind so much—the two girls had nice tops—but the seagulls, in their own mating season, soon had enough of the interruptis intruders, and dive bombing them drove them away. Not soon enough for Stratis, nice girl tops or not. He had a date and was still thirty minutes from port. Oh well, what could he do? She’d wait.
Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. En route he’s found the characters who people his work—Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists. He hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that saw him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through war zones and Occupied Territories, represent the United States at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stow away aboard a “devil’s barge” for a three-day ocean crossing that landed him in an African jail.
Tim’s novel A Vision of Angels (under the title Checkpoint) won the 2008 Paris Prize for Fiction, and his first published novel, Cooper’s Promise, was selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Books of 2012. His first play, staged successfully in New York City, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award. He’s won numerous screenwriting awards, including winning several international competitions for his screenplay adaptations of A Vision of Angels and Cooper’s Promise.
Tim and his partner live in France.
Cooper’s Promise on Amazon
A Vision of Angels on Amazon