Smith, Neil 1964-
Smith, Neil 1964-
Born 1964; partner's name Christian Dorais.
Home—Montreal, Quebec, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]
Author and translator.
First prize, Eden Mills Writers' Festival; Book of the Year citation, Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), and McAuslan First Book Prize, both for Bang Crunch.
Bang Crunch, Vintage Contemporaries (New York, NY), 2008.
Bang Crunch has also been published in French and German.
Canadian writer and translator Neil Smith's first collection of short stories, Bang Crunch, has been singled out for several significant honors, including the Commonwealth First Book Prize and a Book of the Year citation from the Toronto, Ontario Globe & Mail. "It's usual for debut writers to be hyped as major new voices, only to slip straight from the review pages into oblivion," stated Guardian contributor Michel Faber. "Neil Smith is one debutant who may scale the heights his publishers predict for him. Having turned to fiction ‘for a lark,’ he's been bemused to find all his stories accepted, published, shortlisted for prizes. His collection Bang Crunch, instead of being hawked around small presses in his native Canada, wowed international houses and was auctioned. According to his creative writing tutor (Smith attended just two classes), ‘he didn't realise what he was sitting on.’"
Smith's writing career started with the praise and encouragement he received from Connie Barnes Rose, a Montreal-based creative writing teacher of a class he took years before he published Bang Crunch. The organization of the collection of stories that make up Bang Crunch came about gradually during the five years it took him to write it. "Only after writing the first five stories," Smith stated in an interview for The Short Review, "did I see them fitting together within a book. I decided I wanted an eclectic book with a variety of colors and tones. I wanted my book to be like a compilation album where a sad song could follow a fluffier piece. I'd read too many books where all the stories seemed populated by the same protagonists or spoken by the same voices. I wanted diversity."
Despite the fact that Smith makes his living as a French translator, he writes his stories in English, partly because of his background—he spent much of his early life in the United States—and partly as a matter of choice. "When I started writing fiction," he explained to Adam McDowell in an interview for the National Post, "I thought, ‘The rest of my life is in French and I'm going to write in English,’ so I started reading [a lot] of English lit." Smith also had to discern how to present a story rooted in the French-speaking culture of Quebec, Canada, in a foreign language. Smith analyzes this issue in "Jaybird," a story about an actor working in the Montreal theater district. "I wanted to delve into francophone life in Montreal in a way you don't often see in Anglo Quebec literature," he told Ian McGillis in an interview for Montreal Review of Books. "It's a story that's almost exclusively about Francophones, but told in English. I deliberately didn't pepper it with italicized French expressions, or try to reproduce the phonetics of Francophones speaking English, because that wouldn't have worked for 66 pages. I've tried to write it as though it were a translation of a story originally written in French."
Critics praised Smith's debut collection. "Bang Crunch is a remarkably fresh and self-assured debut," declared Joel Yanofsky, in a review for Quill & Quire. "Whether he's writing about a teenage boy reluctant to admit he's gay in ‘Green Fluorescent Protein’ or an alcoholic failing as a wife and mother in ‘Funny Weird or Funny Ha Ha?’ or a little girl growing wise and decrepit before her time in the title story, Smith demonstrates the range of both his imagination and empathy. We're constantly puzzled by the damaged, dysfunctional characters in these nine stories; we're also struck by how we can't stop worrying about them." The collection "seems to promise a brand of fiction that's distinct from conventional CanLit [Canadian literature], with its focus on polished prose and psychological realism," wrote Toronto Star contributor Barbara Carey. Bang Crunch is "exactly what I hope to find when I pick up one of Knopf Canada's New Face of Fiction books," stated John Burns in a review for Straight.com: "[The book is] a preternaturally assured debut that makes me fall in love with fiction all over again." "There's plenty of spirited invention and solid storytelling packed into this debut," Carey concluded. "Bang Crunch? That's the sound of a talented new writer making his mark on CanLit."
Smith told CA: "Since I work as a translator, I'm constantly reading other people's work (in French) and interpreting it in my own words (in English). Eventually I decided to attempt writing without the crutch of somebody else's ideas.
"I draw inspiration from singer-songwriters like Jane Siberry, choreographers like Dave Saint-Pierre, illustrators like Edward Gorey, artists like Adolf Wölfli, scientists like Richard Dawkins, and grammarians like Patricia T. O'Conner.
"And, of course, I am influenced by fiction writers. Here are some of my favorites: Barbara Gowdy, George Saunders, A.M. Homes, Judy Budnitz, Aimee Bender, Douglas Coupland, Etgar Keret, and Mark Haddon, as well as two new faces, Heather O'Neill and Clare Allan."
When asked to describe his writing process, Smith stated: "I write a sentence. Rewrite that sentence. Rewrite it again. Rewrite it again. Rewrite it again. When I'm finally satisfied, I move on to the next sentence. In other words, I edit as I go. By the end of a writing day, I might have a page. The next day I rewrite that page. My progress is slow. I don't keep many notes. And I don't plan everything out.
"The most surprising thing I have learned as a writer is that my imagination is more vivid than I thought. But I don't believe a vivid imagination is unique to writers. I think mailmen, hairdressers, truck drivers, and fire fighters are just as imaginative. They simply don't spend the day putting their fantasies on paper.
"My main goal: to entertain. I also hope to surprise and to touch."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Advocate, March 11, 2008, review of Bang Crunch, p. 58.
Booklist, December 15, 2007, Whitney Scott, review of Bang Crunch, p. 23.
Books in Canada, May 1, 2007, Lyle Neff, review of Bang Crunch, p. 15.
Guardian (London, England), December 15, 2007, Michel Faber, "If Knitwear Could Speak …," review of Bang Crunch.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2007, review of Bang Crunch.
Montreal Review of Books, spring, 2007, Ian McGillis, "Bang Crunch: Neil Smith Crashes the Scene with One of the Most Accomplished and Acclaimed Debuts in Years."
National Post, June 7, 2008, Adam McDowell, "Lives in French, Writes in English," author interview.
Publishers Weekly, October 15, 2007, review of Bang Crunch, p. 39.
Quill & Quire, January, 2007, Joel Yanofsky, "Nice and Easy Does It: Neil Smith's Painless Path to Success," review of Bang Crunch.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 7, 2008, Ron Antonucci, "Bang Crunch Offers First Look at Neil Smith," p. E-1.
Toronto Star, January 21, 2007, Barbara Carey, "From Fanciful to Sober, a Real CanLit Departure," review of Bang Crunch.
Curled Up with a Good Book,http://www.curledup.com/ (July 24, 2008), Jeremy Hatch, review of Bang Crunch.
Neil Smith's Bang Crunch,http://www.bangcrunch.com (July 24, 2008), author profile.
Short Review,http://www.theshortreview.com/ (July 24, 2008), "Interview with Neil Smith."