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The literary odyssey of Neil Smith

Richard Burnett
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Richard Burnett

Bestselling Montreal author Neil Smith has been down this road before: In 2007 his internationally-acclaimed collection of short stories, Bang Crunch, was hailed as the best book of the year by the Washington Post and the Globe and Mail. His second book, a novel called Boo, came out last spring and has been published around the world, in Czech, Dutch, German, Mandarin and Portuguese. Boo –about a young science geek named Oliver Dalrymple who finds himself in a heaven reserved exclusively for 13-year-olds– comes out in French on Oct. 27. I sat down with Neil this past summer just as the rave reviews for Boo were starting to come in, and found him to be modest, thoughtful, engaging and delightfully gay.

When you were younger, when you were a kid and a teen, how much did your family move around? 
Constantly. I never went to the same school two years in a row. By the time I was 13, I had lived in Montreal, Boston, several places in Massachussets, Salt Lake City and outside Chicago. I was the perpetual new kid who never had any friends, and so I befriended books. By the time I was 13, books were my best friend. 
 
You once noted about that transitional age 13-15, that is when our imaginations are wildest. What kind of memories do you have of that transitional stage of your life?
Thirteen was the age where I was able to merge myself most into fictional worlds, where I could believe that when I closed a book, the parallel universe, the fictional world, was more real to me than what was going on in my life. I think as you get older that ability wanes. For me writing fiction is a way to recapture that ability, to fall into an imaginary world like Alice in Wonderland. That’s why I write. Books were my salvation, and writing Boo is my way to pay back, my tribute to those years. 
 
How much of yourself is there in Oliver?
I think Oliver is an extreme version of what I was. But I also borrow from other people I’ve met and other characters in literature. But once you borrow from all these different elements and mold them together like clay to make this new figure, he ends up taking a life of its own. So I don’t think of him as me.
 
In real life, when you were around Oliver’s age, I understand your brother died of an overdose. How did that affect you, and your perception of the afterlife?
When I was growing up my sister tried to kill herself and my brother overdosed on heroin in his early 20s. So for the book I wanted the lightness of childhood balanced with some of the darkness I had experienced as a young teenager, and meld those two worlds. I grew up an atheist, my parents are agnostic atheists, I was never baptized, I never went to church, I had no religious education whatsoever. Then at age 11 I found myself living in Utah where everyone is hyper-religious and I began thinking about the afterlife. But when you have no religious education, your view of what heaven is is much different than the Bible. Your imagination is allowed to go in all directions. I imagined heaven had these big housing projects. I thought more and more about death and the afterlife after my brother killed himself. I kept dreaming of him coming back –people live on in your imagination. So the idea of death and the afterlife haunted me then. 
 
Who do you see reading this book?
Young teenagers. The publisher sees it that way too, although they are marketing it as an adult book that they want younger people to discover. I recently talked to high school students in Moncton about my work and they complained some of the books they have to read at school they don’t relate to because they are set so far in the past, or have themes that don’t touch them anymore, like The Outsiders or even To Kill a Mockingbird.
 
Oliver gets bullied in school. What was your experience like?
We all were, but I wasn’t tortured like many others.
 
Did you know you were gay growing up?
I did not. In fact, I dated girls in high school, I had a girlfriend from the age of 14, I slept with girls, and I don’t think I came out until my mid-twenties. 
 
Was that a big revelation to yourself?
Yes. It was when I fell in love with a man that I changed. 
 
Do you believe sexuality is a very fluid thing?
Yeah. There is certainly a spectrum, certainly from what I’ve experienced. What was it like to experience the international success of Bang Crunch?It gave me confidence to write another book. And with Boo now being sold around the world, that has really given me confidence and the financial means to take time off (from translating) to write (another) book.
 
Did the success of Bang Crunch make things easier or more difficult for you writing Boo?
When you write a book of short stories, you’re always expected to follow it up with a novel. So I had to write a novel and I didn’t know how. I had to teach myself how. 
 
Eight years ago I asked you if you are a gay author, or an author who happens to be gay. You replied, “Am I a redheaded writer or am I a writer?” I’d like to ask you that question again.
I don’t know, I never get invited to the gay stuff! We’ve tried to get coverage in gay magazines in the past but it’s been impossible. I’m still a writer who happens to be gay. There are no gay characters in this book, and the book I am thinking of writing next has no gay characters either. Bang Crunch had some gay characters. I’m just happy to come up with an interesting idea. 
 
You and your husband Christian have been married since 2004. 
And we’ve been together 18 years. We are married, but it’s not important in our eyes, we did it for (practical) reasons.
 
Do you think gay people have become just like everybody else?
I think we are more like everybody else than we have ever been before, but we are still like nobody else. You notice that especially when you go into smaller communities, like the time Christian and I went to breakfast in our hotel in New Brunswick and there were 75 straight couples and us. We were the only two men sitting together. Then you really notice you’re a minority. It’s not like living in Mile End, the neighbourhood where I live in Montreal. I am so happy I moved back to Montreal because I missed living in French, and in Montreal you can be whoever you want to be. 
 
 
Boo is available in all bookstores. The French version comes out on Oct. 27.
 
Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at http://montrealgazette.com/tag/pop-tart 
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.