When I walked through the front doors of 4 Times Square and headed up to the DETAILS Magazine floor, all I could think about was how I had finally become Andy Sachs from The Devil Wears Prada: I was working at a fashion magazine but wasn’t thin or stylish like many of those that sulked through the halls. This could only mean that I would receive some jaw dropping makeover from one of the senior editors, right? Nope! That wasn’t it at all.
The literature placed on the up-for-grabs table was, however, a godsend. Each day, I would casually stroll by where books were left in hopes of finding something new to bury my nose into.
One of the first books I came across was Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, a Young Adult (YA) novel about a teenaged boy who realizes it’s up to him to save the world from “unstoppable” six-foot-tall praying mantises who only care about eating humans and having sex. I was swept away by the novel’s outrageous plot, the humor and, most importantly, the honesty in our narrator’s confusion about his sexual identity. After being swept away with a couple more of Smith’s novels, I reached out to the California-based writer to pick his brain and over a handful of emails, he gave such candid responses that were pleasantly refreshing. From the most influential person in his career (himself) to his lack of confidence, he doesn’t really hold back. For that reason alone, Andrew Smith is a total bad ass in my book.
HE might disagree but that’s okay. I’m the one writing the piece.
CALVIN WALKER: Can you recall the exact moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?
ANDREW SMITH: Not precisely. That is to say, however, that I can remember wanting to write stories, comics, picture books, and poetry going back to my earliest life as a child. And I always did write those things, too. By the time I was in high school, I was absolutely convinced that I would be a writer. I wrote novels then, too, which I compiled in stacks of those marble composition books. They were embarrassingly terrible, by the way.
WALKER: Where do you typically do your writing? At home, an office, coffee shops?
SMITH: Most of my writing is done at home, in my very messy office. This past year, however, I did a lot of writing in airports and hotel rooms, and a little inside libraries. I could never imagine getting anything done in a coffee shop, though.
WALKER: How do you organize your novels? Do you map things out chapter by chapter or do you let things happen even more organically?
SMITH: I do not outline. When I write, I start at the beginning and — very meticulously — I build from there until I’m finished. I don’t skip around, and I don’t “draft,” either. Sometimes, though, when I know something needs to work its way into the plot eventually, I will write myself a reminder note so I don’t forget.
WALKER: What specifically about the YA genre do you think has captured your attention?
SMITH: I suppose some people look at YA as an age level, but I do not. I do consider YA to be a genre–one that focuses on the essential experience, questions, struggles, mistakes, failures, and occasional successes of adolescence. I’m drawn to this exploration because it is so universal–it’s something that every one of us has gone through, as opposed to, say, being a monomaniacal one-legged sea captain, which not many of us has ever been.
WALKER: Whenever I write, I often feel like a fraud. Being a published author many times over, do you ever experience these types of thoughts?
SMITH: If you’re asking if I have doubts about what I’m doing or if I worry about my work being good enough, I always feel like that whenever I’m working on something new.
WALKER: That’s exactly what I was trying to get at.
SMITH: I think that’s a normal and good thing for a writer to feel whenever they’re working on something new. Especially in my case, because I do not have [critique] partners or beta readers, and nobody ever sees anything I write until it’s completed, so the lack of immediate feedback naturally causes one to feel like he’s walking on a frozen lake. But when you say “fraud,” it’s kind of like saying, “Here I am, a successful author, but I have absolutely no talent, work ethic, or ability, and I’m just swindling everyone.”
God! If I ever felt like that, I don’t know what I’d do. I’m a mess as it is with all my insecurities and self-doubts.
WALKER: So, do you have any rituals to help spark an idea or push past a tough moment?
SMITH: I run every day, usually four to six miles. I find that the vast majority of my problem solving comes during runs.
SMITH: This is an easy question that I’m going to answer as honestly as I can: I have been the most influential person in my career. Because when you say “influential,” you’re really talking about the person who most greatly affects the direction of the ship, in both positive and negative ways. I take complete responsibility for the successes, and blame for the mistakes and idiocy that have marked my journey.
WALKER: What do you find most difficult about the craft of writing and how do you push through those difficulties?
SMITH: The most difficult thing about the craft of writing is getting out of bed and starting your day. Writing is more dependent on self-discipline than on any of the obvious elements of craft, voice, and technique. If you don’t have a plan–a vision–for what you need to get accomplished next, and then STICK TO THAT PLAN UNTIL YOU ARE FINISHED, you may as well stay in bed and dwell on what a failure you are. Also, I hate caps-locks.
WALKER: In many of your responses, there is a fantastic sense of confidence. What’s something you would advise other creatives to do in order to help them push past their doubts?
SMITH: I think you may be mistaking honesty for confidence. I feel like I’m probably one of the least confident, most haunted by self-doubt people on the planet. On the other hand, I’m not afraid of speaking about most things honestly and openly.
Some of the most frequent comments I get from kids have something to do with asking if I’m ever embarrassed by writing about (fill in the blank), and, adding something like “I’ve never heard an adult talk about (fill in the blank) before.” I think both of these are great conversation openers for kids, because there are so many topics (especially dealing with sex, sexuality, self-image, etc.) that adults just want to avoid talking about.
WALKER: What’s the last book you read?
SMITH: The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner
WALKER: Who do you consider to be a brilliant author?
SMITH: Salman Rushdie
WALKER: What was the first book you ever purchased?
SMITH: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
WALKER: Writing makes me feel:
SMITH: Everything. If it doesn’t make you feel everything, then you’re doing it wrong.
This interview has been condensed. To learn more about Andrew Smith (and you definitely WANT to), please visit his official site HERE.