This week I’m turning over the blog to an author writing about a region of the world I find particularly fascinating, Israel and the Gaza Strip. First, a brief synopsis of Timothy Jay Smith’s novel A Vision of Angles before we move on to the questions.
A Vision of Angels – Synopsis
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.
Questions and Answers
1. Did you always want to be a writer? If not, what else would you have done?
I wrote my first play in fourth grade, 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!
In the sixth grade, I started my first novel, an effort 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.
That same year, 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.
I ended up having an amazing career. Half was spent working throughout the U.S. on War on Poverty-type programs, including working with the White House; and the other half was spent largely advising developing countries on programs to help the poorest of the poor. For a couple of years, I was an adviser to post-communist Poland’s Minister of Finance; and later, I ran the first multi-million program to assist Palestinian businesses.
I loved my work. I didn’t resent it because it kept me from writing. Writing simply became the obvious thing for me to do when I had to make some major life changes for health reasons. But without my earlier career, I couldn’t write the books I write.
2. Are you self-taught, or did you study writing in school?
As a kid, I was always a reader. In fact, I consumed books. Apparently my mother had, too, when she was growing up in a small town in Iowa. She claimed she had read every book in the local library; and while I didn’t quite do the same thing in Palm Springs, I must’ve read nearly as many books as she did. Certainly more stage plays. The local bookstore couldn’t stock the shelves fast enough for me.
I never took a writing course before I dedicated myself to writing, but I certainly did afterwards, and I think they are essential. For several years, I took an annual week-long workshop in writing: character development, POV, screenwriting, play writing, and so forth. It’s a craft that has to be learned. If I sat down in front of a weaver’s loom, I wouldn’t know where to start weaving. The problem with writing is that it’s easy to fill a blank page without knowing what you are really doing.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. How do you feel about self-publishing?
The short answer is:
I started out as a self-published author, approached it strategically, and soon landed a traditional publisher for a two-book deal. So, self-publishing launched me.
The longer answer is:
I have written four novels, five screenplays, and five stageplays. Along the way, I have won a dozen Grand Prizes or First Places in writing competitions, and placed in over 70 more. I never sold a novel, despite having prominent literary agents in both London and New York.
My novels weren’t commercial enough, the publishers said. They were too literary to be a thriller but too thriller-ish to be literary. Bookstores wouldn’t know which shelf to put them on, and customers wouldn’t buy them because their genre wasn’t clear.
I decided to prove them wrong.
I self-published Cooper’s Promise in January 2012 with the clear intention of wanting to get noticed and picked up by a traditional publisher. That meant I had to sell books and get reviews, and getting reviews as a self-published author is extremely tough. That’s understandable. The number of books are overwhelming, and there are few gatekeepers for weaning out the bad from the good. So I approached the challenge strategically.
I had two novels ready to go, and chose Cooper’s Promise over my actual first novel, A Vision of Angels, precisely because it had a gay protagonist. I knew the gay community would ‘forgive me’ for being a self-published author in the sense that it might take a look at my novel—and it did. Using the internet, I reached out to the gay community worldwide, and within weeks I had reviews, book posts, and sales on four continents. Straight press picked me up, too; and Kirkus Reviews, calling Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite,” selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012.
And I got noticed.
By spring, I had a two-book deal with Owl Canyon Press, a literary publisher out of Boulder, CO. We pulled the self-published edition of Cooper’s Promise from the market, and brought it back out as a new book six months later. A Vision of Angels will be released in July.
6. What are your thoughts on marketing and social-media?
It is an overrated necessary evil. I’d rather not spend time doing it, but I do, and ultimately it’s begun to feel like a creative experience. I am also learning how to use it more strategically. Basically, I think you have to try to get your work noticed in as many places as possible, and social networking as a whole is simply one of them.
7. 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.
8. How important is it for you to keep your life as a writer and your private life separate?
It would be impossible. My life is all about writing. Where I travel, what I read, how I spend my days – these are all defined by writing. To become a full-time writer was really an incredible life-changing experience.
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 war zones and Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-days crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.
If life were a sport, Tim’s life would qualify as an extreme one, yet he’s managed most of it by working with people in personal, even intimate, settings. His professional life took him from the White House corridors to America’s harshest neighborhoods, from palace dinners to slum pickings, and these experiences explain the unique breadth and sensibility of his work.
Tim brings the same energy to his writing that he brought to a distinguished career, and as a result, he’s won top honors for his screenplays, stageplays and novels in numerous prestigious competitions; among them, contests sponsored by the American Screenwriters Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode Island International Film Festival, and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute. He won the 2008 Paris Prize for Fiction and his first stageplay, which went on to a successful NYC production, won the very prestigious Stanley Drama Award.
Excerpts from A Vision of Angels:
All of Chapter 1 can be read at: www.timothyjaysmith.com/novels/a-vision-of-angels/a-vision-of-angels-excerpts/
This excerpt comes from near the end of the book:
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.
Excerpt from Cooper’s Promise:
Handing her the water, Juma gave her a look that asked if everything was all right, and she said something that amused the barman and made him shake his head. Lulay took a mouthful of water, and leaning her head back, gargled it before swallowing. She took another sip, and swiveled on her heels, legs akimbo, zeroing in on Cooper. She always knew where to find him. She had Cooper radar, and she knew he’d seen her walk out with her john. She puckered her mouth like she was going to send him a big kiss with lips newly painted crimson, and instead squeezed out an ice cube like a turd into her palm.
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.
When the lights flickered off again, Lulay rescued another cube from her glass and dabbed her neck with it like wet kisses washing away the johnny slobber. That cube melted fast, so hot was her little body; the next cube pressed to her face hardly touched her cheeks before turning into ersatz tears.
Again an animal cry threatened to escape Cooper’s throat, so tormented was he by her wretchedness, and he pushed through the beery couples until he stood in front of her.
She held out her glass to him. “Do you want some ice water, Cooper?”
He shook his head no. What look Cooper had on his face, he couldn’t say. Despair? He felt it. Fear? Impotence? Determination? He felt them all.
“Why did you start wearing lipstick?” he asked.
“Juma gave it to me.”
“Did you have to put it on?”
“You don’t think I’m pretty?”
“I think you’re prettier without it.”
“He didn’t hurt me,” she said, and when Cooper asked who, her eyes landed on her last john. He was swilling beer at the bar and exchanged no notice of recognition. “I talk-talk him into using one. That’s why he takes too long. It slowed down his come-come.”
“How did you convince him?”
“I told him it makes men bigger.”
“That’s good,” Cooper said, chuckling appreciatively. “I hadn’t thought of that strategy, and it’s a good one. Men always want to be bigger.”
“Men are big enough,” she said, not having to look too hard to find several leering at her. Everything was emerging on Lulay all at once; hips, lips, tits all getting fuller and rounder and making her more and more desirable. “The next time he’ll hurt me,” she said. “It takes him too long and he has to pay more. It’s too expensive not to hurt Lulay.” She reached into her glass to retrieve the last ice cube and slipped it into one of his many pockets. “Free me, Cooper,” she said, and left him to go back to work.
With her tears melting in his pocket, Cooper watched the girl push her way to the bar. She didn’t need to try to seduce, she did so naturally, and she brought every man around when she slammed her glass of ice water on the long counter and said, “Make it a double” as if that African beauty knew a good time.
She brought Cooper to his knees, and on his soul he swore he’d set her free.