In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–G.Bernhard Smith
Tell us about your fiction piece “Bliss” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
I have friends who own a boat. It is docked near the Raspberry Island Bandshell, a spot where many outdoor weddings occur. One day my friends told me they’d been sitting on their boat, watching a wedding from across the channel. Something struck me about that situation—the “then” juxtaposed with the “now,” and so I made that situation into a story.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
Many, many things excite me as a writer. Mostly how fiction is this wonderful mirror, this amazing reflection of what is real. How even the most fantastic and outrageous fictional portraits only resonate because some piece of that reflection strikes us as real and true, and maybe that made-up story makes us see something about ourselves or the world in a different way. What’s exciting is that fiction has this amazing reality-changing potential, and yet it’s something you hatch out of nothingness.
Turn off: fiction that fails to make me love a character, or a situation. I like to be intrigued by a story, to be able to understand the depth of a story, the importance of a character right from the beginning. I fire novels that don’t tug at me in the first hundred pages. The good ones I try to read slowly. I hate when novels or stories I love end.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Reading. Reading assignments my freshman and sophomore years of high school. In those two years I was “forced” to read Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, As I Lay Dying, The Pigman, Fahrenheit 451 and Red Sky at Morning among others. Lord of the Flies was the first book I couldn’t put down. I remember thinking about how magical a thing that was, how I couldn’t sleep before knowing what was going to happen, and how nothing at all had really happened because I was creating the images and characters and happenings of the story in my head as I read. I still find that aspect of story-telling staggering.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
My wife inspired me to write. She is such a great writer she simply made me envy her talent for writing. She was the first person in my life who encouraged me to pursue writing. My Hamline writing professors were/are my mentors. Specifically, Larry Sutin, Sheila O’Connor, Deborah Keenan, Patricia Francisco and Mary Logue.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I was a professional musician in New Orleans for about eight years following high school. I think what I know about music informs the prose I write at an almost atomic level. Word choice, flow, rhythm, sound, all important factors in limiting friction—limiting the reader’s desire to quit reading. When the words flow and form no impediments in the reader’s mind, there is harmony.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I struggle to write in first person. I rarely do it. I guess you could say that’s quirky too given how much popular fiction is written in first person. It’s so often the case that we write about tragedy, upheaval and inner conflict that I hate to place myself in the mind of my protagonist. Writing is so personal that it’s a hard thing to endure. It’s hard to splay yourself open and be as honest as you have to be to make that work. When I have done it in the past I’ve found writing in first person a very taxing experience. That said, it’s important to go there from time to time. Brutal honesty is a conduit to great art.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
Turbulent times fuel my writing. There is so much tragedy to draw upon as an artist. I think I become more prolific as the need to portray the toxicity of our current divide grows.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
People discovering themselves, discovering their potential as human beings, discovering what it means to be human. They learn about themselves, and I learn about myself by writing about them.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
I’m inspired by some experience I’ve had, some thought or someone I’ve met, a character or a predicament. That usually stews in my brain for a while, a day, a month, sometimes years. At some point the egg hatches and I sit down in my office to write.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’ve written mostly shorts of late. I like entering shorts in contests. I’ve entered two new pieces in some contests this summer. Although I haven’t won any I’ve placed near the top in some pretty notable competitions, and I feel very fortunate that most of my recent shorts have been published. I’ve got a half-written novel that I’m stewing over. I stopped in the middle because what the main character is going through right now is pretty intense. I decided I needed to write a short about his childhood, about events that might have made him the way he is now. It’s like I have to live in his shoes for a while more, understand him so that I can continue to write his future. I hope to pick the novel back up by the fall.
Bernhard Smith was a runner-up for the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Short Story Award and a finalist for both the American Fiction Short Story Award and the Faulkner-Wisdom Literary Prize. His work as appeared in American Fiction Volume 15, Printers Row, and the speculative fiction anthology Boundaries Without, among others. His work has also appeared online at Bull Men’s Fiction and www.sixfold.org. You can read more about his work on his website.