"I wanted nothing to do with reality"

An interview with Christopher Smith, author of Salamanders of the Silk Road

On a warm autumn afternoon, I spoke with Chris about his recently released debut novel, Salamanders of the Silk Road. We chatted over Skype about publishing, mythology, journalism vs. fiction, and the writing life in general. Below is the transcription of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

From what I understand, the publishing process for this novel was a bit of a bumpy road. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

What happened was, I sent out submissions, and like a lot of new authors I started out with Random House and other big publishers. Then I started trying to get an agent, and like most new authors I had difficulties with that.

So I started over at the bottom and started working with independent publishers, trying to catch some interest there, and I pretty quickly found a publisher that was really interested. The weirdness was, after we got the contract signed and got pretty far into it, the publisher had some internal difficulties, and the entire staff walked out on them. And the editor that had been so excited and energetic about the book left. I had no idea what was going to happen to the project, or whose hands it was going to end up in, and the publisher of course was having a lot of difficulties re-organizing the staff. I didn’t hear anything for a long time, and finally I said, you know what, I want out.

Luckily they were gracious enough to let me get out of the contract, and so I had to start over again. I went to some websites, looking at some “Best Indie Publishers” out there, and one of them that came up was Lanternfish Press. So I submitted the materials to them, and Christine Neulieb [ed. Editor at LFP] jumped on it and it’s been great working with her ever since. We’ve really had a great relationship.

It must have been such an emotional bait-and-switch, to find an editor who was super excited about the project, and then have it fall apart on the publisher’s side.

When I got that first phone call, it was one of the greatest moments of my life. I was on Cloud Nine, we popped champagne, and then it fell apart. But we did it all again when Lanternfish came on board.

How much of Prester John’s mythology were you aware of before you chose him as your protagonist? How much of the actual mythology made it into the novel?

I was not aware of it at all, and that’s part of the reason he’s in there.

I’d started working on this short story about a couple who’ve decided to end their lives. They’re sitting in a hot tub arguing and trying to talk about it, and they’re trying to kill themselves but they can’t because they keep fighting with each other. They want it to be this nice, beautiful, romantic end to their lives, but they keep having these stupid domestic squabbles, and it’s getting in the way of this great end.

So that was the idea I was playing with. At the same time, I was reading a book by Daniel Boorstin called The Discoverers. It’s about human discovery and the voyages of discovery, and one of the stories he kept referencing were these letters of Prester John that were sort-of the pulp fiction of western Europe in the 1100s. These letters claimed that Prester John was this great Christian king of the East and would come save everybody, and his land was full of magical monsters and Cyclopes and all this crazy stuff. Well, I’d never heard of him, and I thought, what the hell, why have I never heard of this guy? Turns out it was all a hoax, so it doesn’t make it into many history books, and only people who really study history end up finding out about this guy. So, these letters started in 1100 AD, and he was still shown on maps in the 1500s in the middle of Africa, and I thought, well, if he was alive in 1100, and he was alive in 1500, why shouldn’t he be alive today – losing his job, on vacation with his wife in Florida, trying to kill himself? So once Prester John became the character in that story, everything exploded and it became a much more magical realist, surrealist-type story.

I hadn’t heard about him before reading the novel, and it got me very interested in both the specific myths and also similar characters who sort-of dance across history but aren’t necessarily in the spotlight.

One of the things Marco Polo was looking for when he went to Asia was the kingdom of Prester John. When Bartolomeu Dias went around the southern cape of Africa, a simultaneous, over-land expedition went across Asia trying to find the kingdom. People took this seriously; they really thought there was somebody out there, and it’s kinda cool because it did lead to a lot of voyages of discovery throughout that time.

So it was a serious thing, and that made it so much more fun to figure out. If this guy was supposed to lead this army of monsters across the Tigris River to go fight in the Crusades...well, obviously he didn’t make it. It’s this huge failure that lays on top of his life like a big, thick blanket, and I thought, what a great character. To have that kind of a failure on your shoulders for a thousand years – I love that idea.

You hinted at this already, but Prester John’s myths span all over the world and all across time. What kind of research did you have to do to help bring those settings to life?

Well, I wanted to do a helluva lot more than I did. I would have loved to have gotten a fellowship to go to Kyrgyzstan, watch kokboru matches [ed. Check out a video here], hang out in yurts and all that.

But most of it was just online research, and of course the Daniel Boorstin book was very helpful. As I was researching Kyrgyzstan and the culture – that’s where I ended up placing the kingdom of Prester John, which no one has been able to accurately place, but I decided Kyrgyzstan makes sense – I came across yet another legend, The Epic of Manas, which lives on today in Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan. It’s this epic poem that’s longer than the Mahabharata – it would take days, weeks to read all of it – and it’s about, essentially, the King Arthur of Kyrgyzstan. He’s supposed to unite the 40 tribes of Kyrgyz people and bring them power, and there’s all these mythologies associated with him.

So, in reading Manas, I found all kinds of references for how to build a yurt, the flowers of Kyrgyzstan, the animals native to that area. I pulled a lot of both the legends and the references to the natural environment into the story. It helped me understand Kyrgyzstan  the people and the setting.

Those are some pieces of research I did. If anyone has a fellowship lying around they want to hand me to go do some more research of Kyrgyzstan, I’d love that!

For your day job, you work in journalism. How has that side of the writing business prepared you for the writing and publishing of a magical-realist/surrealist novel?

I started in journalism basically because I realized that coming out the gate as a writer of fiction isn’t necessarily a good way to support a family. I had to figure out a way to pay the bills, I’d always enjoyed journalism, and I worked at the college newspaper, so I ended up going into it as a way to support both my family and my writing.

I ended up writing a column for a while called “Daddy On Board” as a way to get some creative energies out there. It was this parenting humor column that I wrote once a week for five years. It was good, I liked it, I had fun, and a lot of people liked it, but after writing that thing every single week for five years, I got towards the end and I decided I’d done it enough, and I wanted to move on to something else.

When I got back to fiction I was so done with reality. Before, I’d always written sort-of mainstream, realistic fiction, but [after the column] I had no interest in writing anything the slightest bit realistic. I wanted words to fly out of people’s mouths and crash against the walls. I wanted sentient water. I wanted grocery stores where the aisles are the Nine Levels of Hell. I wanted nothing to do with reality. I’d never written that way before – letting go of physical reality and letting emotion drive the physical is a really fascinating thing to me, and I had a lot of fun with it. It was a way, also, to make a clear line between what I was doing with journalism and what I was doing with fiction  it was easier to keep them separate if one was surrealist and one was, of course, truth.

I wanted to ask you a few questions about your writing process in general. First, how would you describe your writing process using only three words?

CS: Think, Craft, Inspire.

So, for Think, before I can actually write I have to find some way to process what I’m doing, to get ready to write. I can’t just come home from work, sit down at a computer and just start typing. I can’t go from having a conversation with my family to just sitting down and getting to work. I’ve got to have some sort of a break. What I tend to do is I’ll do some stuff around the house  I’ll fold laundry, or do dishes, or mow the lawn, or take a shower – something where my body is engaged but my mind can wander. That prepares my mind for doing something different. That’s critical.

For Craft, what I do to pick up where I left off  usually it’s something I already started working on – is I’ll read the last thing I wrote from the day before or the last time I wrote. I’ll read it as an editor, and I’ll edit what I’d previously written. That way I can go through an editing process, make it clean and better and improve on it, and then by the time I get to the end I’m ready to carry forward.

Then there’s the Inspiration part where I’m writing new stuff, and hopefully the muse is going to start working through me, and I can be inspired to keep going.

That’s how I do it. I don’t know if all writers use that process, but it’s a process I fell into and the way I’ve always done it.

I don’t think writing processes differ wildly, but they seem different across all sorts of writers. You mentioned going back to the previous day’s or previous session’s writing and actually going through it and editing. Do you ever find that it slows you down from getting to the endpoint? Do you find yourself being pulled back into the beginning of the story, having to re-write one part multiple times in order to get to the next part?

Sometimes, and I feel like it’s all to the good  it’s contributing to the story, and it’s work on the writing. Speaking as an editor, I feel like editing is just as much an important part of writing as the initial, creative first draft. Editing is part of the writing process. I might go in and say, Oh wait a minute, here’s a better way to do that, in review of what I wrote the day before. Or I might rearrange it, or put something else in there.

I was at the Southern Festival of Books, and Ann Patchett was talking about the process of writing the book that she just released. She said the first chapter is really, really good, because every time she would sit down to write, she would re-read that first chapter and she would work on it some more and some more and some more and so the first chapter ended up being really well-massaged, and really benefited from that process of re-reading.

If you could meet one of the characters from Salamanders of the Silk Road in real life, who would it be and why?

I think it would be the White Salamander. One of the characters in this book is this white salamander, and the salamanders communicate  I guess I want to say they communicate telepathically with humans, but it’s almost more emotionally. And this salamander, she’s the only real entity in the book who is truly compassionate and understanding and, really, just has absolute love for the people around her. Prester is emotionally crippled, Mina has all these issues, but the White Salamander is a truly good, wonderful “person”.

I really loved the character of the White Salamander, and I loved the voice she used: the coupled words, the noun-verb combinations. I think it really carried that, like you said, not-quite-telepathy but subconscious emotional connection.

I’d never really done that before. How do you convey a telepathic or emotional conversation where you’re communicating through feelings and not actually using words? That sort-of word jumbling seemed to be the best way to convey it, and it seemed helpful to have the salamander “talk” but not have that talk be interrupted or obscured by language.

A lot of writers have superstitions around their process. Do you have any?

Not really superstitions. I guess, like I said, I have to be ready to write, I can’t just sit down and do it. I knew one writer who I took creative writing classes with in college, and she had a handle near her desk  it was this old drawer handle, and she would grab it any time she felt like she was losing a handle on what she was writing. She kept it with her all the time. I’ve got a few objects and things around my writing space that I keep to inspire me, but not really as good luck charms. One of the things I do is I tend to grab things, almost like a cat, and bring them near my writing space on my desk. I used to smoke, and I’ve always needed to have something in my hands when I’m working, so I’ll have a paperclip or a hair clip or something that I’m fiddling with the whole time. It’s odd  I’ve evolved the things I’ve fiddled with over time, to have something to do with my hands if I’m just staring at the page for a while.

Do you write longhand, or do you compose on the computer?

On the computer. I did some writing longhand when I was in college, but I haven’t tried to write fiction longhand in a very long time.

Every now and then I’ll get inspired  I keep a notebook by my bed, you know, if you wake up and suddenly have to write something out, but it’s usually just notes, not actual fiction. I was reading something recently about William Gay, one of my favorite writers, and he did a lot of work longhand. I guess I’m so used to being able to edit as I go, I can’t imagine writing it all out. I wonder if that’s becoming a lost art. I don’t know. A lot of journalists I know now, reporters starting out, they don’t really write notes. They basically type directly into the computer, or they record it and then later type it directly into a computer. I’m like, How in the world are you doing an interview and you’re not writing down everything the person says? But they don’t write, they’re not used to writing things longhand or taking notes.

Interesting. We’re gonna start to lose how, in film and television, you can tell who the reporter is because they have their notepad out, and when they’re asking questions they’re writing everything down.

A lot of reporters I see now they’ll just hold up their iPhone, and then they’ll go back and transcribe the notes later. To me, that’s also a huge waste of time  it’s much easier to just keep notes as you go.

Is there a novel or an author that you really love or feel passionate about that you feel hasn’t gotten the attention they deserve? I know you just mentioned William Gay.

Yeah, he’s definitely who I would mention. He’s a Tennessee writer, who died about five years ago. To look at him, he kinda looks like a haggard, old, leathery, redneck guy. When I saw him, he was wearing a black cowboy hat and his face was all wrinkled up  a very quiet guy but incredibly kind. I saw him at a conference. I heard him read and I didn’t know what to expect, but he started reading this story, and it was just this wild dreamscape of language  I mean, really beautiful descriptions and everything  so I picked up one of his books and was stunned at how great his writing is. I like to underline good sentences, and in any book I’ll underline like five or six things, but here it was like every page  all these sentences, this wonderfully crafted stuff. And he was pretty much self-educated in the backwoods of Hohenwald, TN. He’s been called the William Faulkner of Tennessee, and has gotten some acclaim.

James Franco is supposedly turned on to him and is considering doing a movie on one of his books, so he may not be that unknown a few years from now as that project goes through. Really great writer, I highly recommend him.

That is all the questions I had for you. Thank you so much for speaking with me, and thank you for writing Salamanders!

Thanks a lot. It was a lot of fun to write, and I’m glad to share it with people!