Exclusive Interview with Author Timothy Jay Smith

You have a new novel out now, The Fourth Courier, set in Poland. What’s it about?

The Fourth Courier opens in the spring of 1992, only four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A series of grisly murders in Warsaw suddenly becomes an international concern when radiation is detected on the third victim’s hands, raising fears that all the victims might have smuggled nuclear material out of Russia.
Poland’s new Solidarity government asks for help and the FBI sends Special Agent Jay Porter to assist in the investigation. He teams up with a gay CIA agent. When they learn that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb is missing, the race is on to find him and the bomb before it ends up in the wrong hands.
My novels have been called literary thrillers because I use an event or threat—a thriller plot—to examine what the situation means to ordinary people. In The Fourth Courier, Jay becomes intimately involved with a Polish family, giving the reader a chance to see how the Poles coped with their collective hangover from the communist era.

How did you come up with the story for The Fourth Courier?

The Fourth Courier book goes back a long way for me. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Solidarity won the first free election in Poland in over sixty years. In the same year, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new cooperative laws in the Soviet Union, which was an area of my expertise. I was invited to the Soviet Union as a consultant, which led to my consulting throughout the former Soviet bloc, eventually living for over two years in Poland.
At the time, there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across. While on assignment in Latvia, I met with a very unhappy decommissioned Soviet general, who completely misunderstood my purpose for being there. When an official meeting concluded, he suggested we go for a walk where we could talk without being overheard.
I followed him deep into a forest. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. Finally we stopped, and he said, “I can get you anything you want.” I must have looked puzzled because he added, “Atomic.”
Then I understood. In an earlier conversation, there had been some passing remarks about the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal in Latvia, for which he had had some responsibility, and apparently still some access. While my real purpose for being there was to design a volunteer program for business specialists, he assumed that was a front and I was really a spy. Or perhaps he thought, I really did want to buy an atomic bomb!

Have you always been a writer?

In the sense of enjoying writing, yes. I actually wrote my first stage play in fourth grade and started a novel in sixth grade, but I didn’t become a full-time fiction writer until twenty years ago. The first half of my adult life I spent working on projects to help low income people all over the world. I always enjoyed the writing aspects of my work—reports, proposals, even two credit manuals—but I reached a point where I’d accomplished my career goals, I was only forty-six years old, and I had a story I wanted to tell.

What was the story?

For over two years, I managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians following the 1993 Oslo Accords. One thing I learned was that everyone needed to be at the negotiating table to achieve an enduring peace. So I wrote a story of reconciliation—A Vision of Angels—that weaves together the lives of four characters and their families.
If anybody had ever hoped that a book might change the world, I did. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to bring about peace in the Middle East, but I’ve continued writing nevertheless.

It’s obvious that you know Warsaw well. Other than living in there, what special research did you do?

Warsaw is a city with a very distinctive character. It’s always atmospheric, verging on gloomy in winter, and the perfect location for a noir-ish thriller.
I had left Warsaw several years before I decided to write a novel set there, so I went back to refresh my memory. I looked at it entirely differently. What worked dramatically? Where would I set scenes in my story?
It was on that research trip when all the events along the Vistula River came together for me. There was a houseboat. There was Billy’s shack, and Billy himself whose “jaundiced features appeared pinched from a rotting apple.” There were sandbars reached by narrow concrete jetties and a derelict white building with a sign simply saying Nightclub. Fortunately, Billy’s dogs were tethered or I wouldn’t be here to answer your questions.
My main character is an FBI agent, and I didn’t know much about it. A friend, who was an assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, arranged a private tour of the FBI’s training facility in Quantico. That was before 9/11. I don’t think that could be done now. Maybe for James Bond himself but not for a wannabe writer.
If I was going to write a novel about smuggling a portable atomic bomb, I needed to know what a bomb entailed. Weight, seize, basic design, fuel? How would a miniature bomb be detonated? So I blindly contacted the Department of Energy. I explained what I wanted and was soon connected to an atomic expert who agreed to meet with me.
We met on the weekend at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in Rockville, MD. We met in line and were already talking about atomic bombs before we ordered our coffees. He had brought basic drawings of them. He was an expert and eager to share his knowledge.
Can you imagine having that conversation in a café today, openly looking at how-to schematics for building an atomic bomb while sipping skinny lattés?

You’ve mentioned ‘scenes’ a couple of times. I know you also write screenplays. Do you find it difficult to go between the different formats or styles?

The sense of scene is crucial to my writing. It’s how I think about a story. Before I start new work, I always have the opening and closing scenes in my head, and then I ask myself what scenes do I need to get from start to finish.
I think it comes from growing up in a house where the television was never turned off. My sisters and I were even allowed to watch TV while doing homework if we kept our grades up. Sometimes I joke that canned laughter was the soundtrack of my childhood. I haven’t owned a television for many years, but growing up with it exposed me to telling stories in scenes, and it’s why my readers often say they can see my stories as they read them.
For me, it’s not difficult to go between prose and screenplays. In fact, I use the process of adapting a novel to a screenplay as an editing tool for the novel. It helps me sharpen the dialogue and tighten the story.

In your bio, you mention traveling the world to find your characters and stories, and doing things like smuggling out plays from behind the Iron Curtain. Was it all as exciting as it sounds?

It was only one play, and yes, I confess to having an exciting life. I’ve done some crazy things, too, and occasionally managed to put myself in dangerous situations. Frankly, when I recall some of the things I’ve done, I scare myself! By comparison, smuggling a play out of Czechoslovakia in 1974 seems tame. But I’ve always had a travel bug and wanted to go almost everywhere, so I took some chances, often traveled alone, and went to places where I could have been made to disappear without a trace.

It sounds like you have a whole library full of books you could write. How do you decide what story to tell and who will be your characters?

I came of age in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, so I developed a strong sense of social justice. That guided my career choice more than anything, and when I quit working to write full-time, it was natural that I wanted my books to reflect my concerns. Not in a “big message” way, but more in terms of raising awareness about things that concern me.
For example, take Cooper’s Promise, my novel about a gay deserter from the war in Iraq who ends up adrift in a fictional African country. It was 2003, and in a few days, I was headed to Antwerp to research blood diamonds for a new novel. I was running errands when NPR’s Neal Conan (Talk of the Nation) came on the radio with an interview of National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb about a project on modern-day slavery. It was the first time I heard details about human trafficking, and was so shocked by its enormity that I pulled my car off the road to listen.
I decided on the spot that I needed to find a story that touched on both blood diamonds and trafficking. When I went to Antwerp a few days later, I visited the Diamond District as planned, but also visited a safe house for women who had been rescued from traffickers.

In The Fourth Courier, you team up a white straight FBI agent with a black gay CIA agent. Even Publishers Weekly commented that it seemed like an ideal set-up for a sequel. Do you plan to write one?

Probably not. My to-be-written list is already too long.
I’m close to finishing the final edits on a book set in a Greek island village, which is more of a mystery about an arsonist than a thriller. I’ve already started a new novel set in Istanbul about a young refugee who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with ISIS. I’ve never written a novel set in the States but I have the idea for one.
To date, my books have been stand-alones with totally different settings, characters, and plots. I try to write what I like to read: smart mysteries/thrillers with strong plots and colorful characters set in interesting places. I suppose like me, I want my stories to travel around and meet new people.

You’ve had gay protagonists or important characters since your first novel over twenty years ago when gay literature had not yet become mainstream. How would you say that affected your choices as a writer, or did it?

Friends warned me that I shouldn’t become known as a gay writer because it would pigeonhole me and sideline me from consideration as a serious writer. At the time, I think the general public thought gay books were all about sex and more sex. Of course, already there were many emerging gay literary writers; it was more stigma than reality.
The world of thrillers and mysteries is still largely uninhabited by gays. Hopefully I am helping to change that. I also hope that my novels expand my readers’ understanding of homosexuality in the places where I set them. In The Fourth Courier, the gay angle is key to solving the case. In my other novels, too, the plot turns on something gay, and the way it does is always something that couldn’t have happened in the same way anywhere else because of the cultural context.

What do you want your readers to take away from The Fourth Courier?

What motivated me to write The Fourth Courier was a desire to portray what happened to ordinary Polish people at an exciting albeit unsettling moment in their country’s history. I hope my readers like my characters as much as I do—at least the good guys. The people are what made Poland such a great experience.
The Fourth Courier is my thank-you note to them.

(Extended interview below)


What made you want to become a writer?

A couple of things came together for me at the same time. I had a very exciting career working on economic development projects to help lower income people, first in the US and then internationally. My own specific career goal was to design and manage an overseas project that had some real significance. That happened. I designed and managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians after the start of the peace process. When that project ended, I was 46 years old and had accomplished what I had set out to achieve in that career. Anything else felt like it would be redundant. I also had a story to tell (and believed it might contribute to Middle East peace). I had grown up a Zionist (though I’m not Jewish) and ended my career helping Palestinians. I knew, understood, and appreciated both sides of that conflict, and felt compelled to write about it. That became my first novel, A Vision of Angels.

Do you write alone or in public?

Always alone with my office door closed. Even if I am home alone, I close my door. If the door to my room is open, I feel distracted and anxious.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?

I tend to write stories either from multiple perspectives, or only one perspective. With the former, readers sometimes complain they are initially confused by who’s who, but by the time they make the complaint they are already sorting it out. I wouldn’t call it tough criticism, though.

What has been the best compliment?

That readers have learned something about issues that motivate me to write my stories in the first place. When I am deciding what to write next, I always ask myself: what issue or concern or matter of social justice do I want to highlight. Then I sort out what plot best that lets me do that. I’ve written about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (A Vision of Angels), human trafficking (Cooper’s Promise), and the impact of the fall of communism on average working class families (The Fourth Courier). My next published novel will deviate from that formula somewhat. Fire on the Island is really an homage to Greece, where I’ve cumulatively spent about seven years. But I am already working on my fifth novel, The Syrian Pietà, about a gay refugee living in Istanbul who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with Islamic State.

What is the most amusing thing that has ever happened to you as a writer?

I can’t think of anything especially amusing. Now I’m worried about myself!

What do you love most about the writing process?

The words. I’ve always loved language. It’s what sets us apart from other species. We have a past and future that we convey through language.

Do you have a day job in addition to being a writer?

No. I work at writing full-time. I easily put in eight hours a day. During the day, I combine editing, marketing, research with everything else I have to do in life: shopping, exercise, running errands. By about 5 p.m., when I allow myself my first glass of wine, I try to put everything else aside and concentrate on new writing. Most days, I work until midnight. There are lots of things we have to do in life. I simply organize them all around my writing.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Neither. It’s how I want to spend my time. I watch very few movies, don’t own a television, and while I’m a social guy, I also try to make sure I don’t let socializing steal all my time—especially since I prefer to write in the evening.

What are some common traps for aspiring writers?

Loving your darlings too much. Trying to be too clever (it always shows). Not trusting your reader. Giving too much information too soon (always hold it back as long as you can). Giving someone’s backstory in one big dump. Ignoring the rule of Chekhov’s Gun. Wanting to surprise the reader with twists that ultimately don’t feel organic to the whole story. Resisting feedback.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

I’m not sure that it’s a question of ego per se. You have to have thick skin and be able to take critical feedback without becoming defensive or crushed.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

If you’re asking what weakens me as a writer to the point of destruction or impotence, the answer is nothing.

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

I laugh at my funny scenes, cry in my sad scenes, respond to my sex scenes, and choke up almost every time I give a reading. All of that emotion is in my writing. I’m passionate about what I write about. I can’t imagine being a dispassionate writer.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Writing is a craft that takes a long time to learn well. Be devoted to learning it. Don’t kid yourself that you’re better than anyone else and thus can break the rules because your greatness will shine so brightly that the whole world will recognize you for the great writer you are. Writing really doesn’t work that way.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Growing up, I was told my first word was “more”. I reached out my hand and said it. I’ve never really stopped asking for more. Not in an especially greedy sense, but in the sense that I want to experience as much of life as I can.

What does literary success look like to you?

Walking down the beach and seeing someone reading my book.

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

No. I see it as dedicated work. It’s emotional but it’s not a spiritual practice. You can’t imagine how I experience all of my stories emotionally. It’s what I hate the most about readings; that I choke up. I know my characters so well that even their most mundane traits or moments carry emotional weight.

What period of your life do you find you write about most often?

In three words: all of it. Writers constantly plumb their own psyches and experiences to create characters and situations. All of my life infiltrates all of my stories.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good or bad ones?

Of course I read reviews from such sources as Publishers Weekly, Booklist (American Library Association), Kirkus Reviews, and other prominent reviewers. After a book is released, I follow reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for the first couple of weeks, but not very carefully after that. Bad reviews? I shrug them off.

What is the most difficult part of your creative process?

The third rewrite.


What are five books you loved? For one of them, why did you love it?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Burial Rites by Hanna Kent
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
American War by Omar El Akkad
I loved The Luminaries. It’s set at a time and place I knew nothing about (New Zealand’s Gold Rush in the 1800s). Catton also took a style page from Balzac by having an introduction to each chapter alerting the reader to what is about to be reported. For example, one reads: “In which Charlie Frost forms a hunch; Dick Mannerling buckles on his holsters; and we venture upriver to the Kaniere claims.” It’s very clever, and eventually these intros are actually longer than the chapter itself.

What is a book you didn’t like, and why?

That’s easy. The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. It’s been years since I read it, but I still recall how nothing worked for me in this book. By the end of the book, all I felt I knew about the main character (Robert Langdon) was that he had a quirky smile. But worse, there were just things that stretched incredulity, and even in fiction things need to be somewhat plausible. At one point, Langdon just happens to have a friend who lives nearby and has a private jet that he flies to England—without paperwork, flight plan, or official clearance. In the real world, the military would’ve given chase and shot him down.

How did you first fall in love with books?

I suppose I have to give my mother credit for that. She was always reading, more often than not bestsellers, and claimed she had read every book in her small hometown’s library. In my hometown, the local library always had a summer reading challenge for kids, and I loved competing in that. But basically, I grew up in a household that respected education (my mother was the first woman in her family to get a college degree), and if you’re going to be educated, you have to read.

What book or books are you planning to read soon?

The Moscow Rules by Antonio and Jonna Mendez
I Will Never See The World Again by Ahmet Altan
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Maze of Cadiz by Aly Monrode

What book do you always recommend?

One book? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It conveys five stories about humanity at different moments in time: past, present, and the dystopian future. He even creates a new (and understandable) vocabulary for one of the stories set in the future. Brilliant.

What was your favorite childhood book?

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Do you have any favorite literary journals?

Not really. I don’t read much short fiction except for short stories in The New Yorker.

Have you ever read anything that made you think differently about fiction/nonfiction?

Yes, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Despite the title, it’s actually essays that, taken together, constitute a memoir. It made me rethink my notion of memoir. Memoirs have always struck me as a little boring (“first I did this then that”) or thinly veiled efforts at pop psychology. Chee tosses out the whole notion of a chronological memoir and doesn’t fall into the blame game of blaming parents or upbringing for everything that didn’t work out in his life. Instead, he chooses seminal events in his life (e.g., the AIDS crisis) that he describes from the perspective of how they caused him to develop as a person.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. People tend to think of Zorba the Greek when Kazantzakis is mentioned, but this book is equally as good and actually more powerful. It humanizes Christ in ways that make him more accessible and believable. I’m not a believer of any religion, but when I finished The Last Temptation, I recall putting it down and saying aloud, “If there’s one book that could convince me to be a Christian, it’s this one.”

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

I can’t think of one.

What book have you read that most influenced your life?

Hunger in America by Robert Kennedy. It converted me to a life dedicated to helping others.

Who are your favorite writers?

Robert Goolrick
John Le Carré
Graham Greene
Nikos Kazantzakis
Yasmina Khadra
Margaret Atwood
Isabel Allende
Ernest Hemingway

End of Interview


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 that people his work. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he’s hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that’s seen him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.
Tim brings the same energy to his writing that he brought to a distinguished career, and as a result, he has won top honors for his novels, screenplays and stage plays in numerous prestigious competitions. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel. Previously, he won the Paris Prize for Fiction (now the Paris Literary Prize) for his novel, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012. 
Tim was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. His stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award, and his screenplays have won competitions sponsored by the American Screenwriters Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Fresh Voices, StoryPros, and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/TimothyJaySmith
To purchase a copy of The Fourth Courier click here 


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