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Dominic Smith: Australian fiction author

Dominic Smith is an Australian author currently living in Austin, Texas. He’s published three novels and his latest is Bright and Distant Shores. It follows the journey of an obsessive American collector who travels to islands in the Pacific to collect artefacts for an ethnographic exhibition. Set in the years after the Chicago World Fair, it chronicles the clash between modern and commercial America and the tribal Pacific.

In 2006, his debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Program, and received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, has been optioned for a film.

He currently teaches writing at Southern Methodist University and is on the graduate fiction faculty at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. 

Click play to listen. Running time: 30.32


Bright and Distant Shores

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Dominic, thanks for joining us today.

Dominic
It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me.

Valerie
Before we get into your latest novel, just take us back to when you first discovered that you enjoyed writing. More importantly when you decided that you could make a living out of it.

Dominic
Those are two different things. For me I had always kind of written as a kid, on the side. In high school I decided to kind of become more interested in language and discovered Dickens, and Shakespeare, and that kind of took my own writing in a new direction. I’d always kind of written as a kid.

Then when I was at university I started to kind of move in the direction of studying creative writing. That kind of, I guess, turned me into a more serious writer. I think I first came across the idea probably as an undergrad that there are people out there who are going to graduate school in creative writing and publishing novels. I think that was when I first began to get the idea that a person could become a writer.

So, making a living as a writer is a very different thing. I juggle my own writing with teaching, and occasionally some freelance writing. So, I think if you’re serious about wanting to make a living as a writer you have to be kind of limber, and look at it in a pretty pragmatic way and try to juggle multiple things potentially.

Valerie
Now we can all hear your accent, but tell us where you grew up.

Dominic
Right. Well, I grew up in Australia. I was born in Brisbane. Our family moved to Sydney when I was about two. We lived in the Blue Mountains for a while. Then when I was 19, in 1989, I got a scholarship to study in the US. So, I’m more or less, with a few years as an exception, I’ve more or less been in the States since 1989.

My father is American, my mother is Australian. I’m kind of trapped between two worlds in a bit of a way.

Valerie
With your first novel, tell us about how your debut novel came about, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. How did that come about? Some people their first novel it takes them 20 years to get there. Some people it takes them a year to get there. What was your gestation period?

Dominic
I was actually in graduate school for writing at the Michener Centre for Writers, here in Texas. I had a long standing interest in photography, and I was taking a graduate class in photography. We were talking about some of the early historical methods. I came upon this story about Louis Daguerre, who invented the Daguerre type, kind of one of the forerunners of modern photography.

There’s this story about him using mercury as the fixing agent in his process. There was widespread belief that he died from mercury poisoning and kind of had gone mad from mercury vapors near the end of life. I got really interested in this idea of Daguerre, and started digging in. I discovered there had only ever been one biography written about him.

As it turned out there was an archive at the University of Texas at Austin that had some of Daguerre’s original images. So, I trotted off to the archive and spent a couple of days looking at some of those early Daguerre types. There was something that really just jumped out at me as being interesting and kind of haunting about those images, and Mid-19th century Paris, and the idea of one of the inventors of photography going mad.

That spawned my research into his life and that period. I suppose from that moment on it was probably a two year process of research and writing before I had a draft of the novel.

Valerie
When was that?

Dominic
That was around 2003. One of the odd things about my writing career is that my first two novels were largely finished at the same time. There was some overlap. I’d been working on them a little bit in tandem. One was finished while the other one was kind of coming along. As it turned out I ended up selling them through my agent kind of both at the same time. They’d just published them a year apart. So, it was a little bit of an unusual circumstance.

Valerie
Tell us a bit about the second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous.

Dominic
The Beautiful Miscellaneous, unlike the first novel is contemporary. It’s not historical. It’s set mostly in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. It’s kind of within my living timeframe. It’s basically about the average son of a genius, who struggles to fulfill his father’s expectations. His father is a renowned physicist who has nearly won the Noble Prize several times.

It’s really about growing up 15% above average, and never quite living up to that genius father who looms above you.

Valerie
You worked on both of those at the same time. They’re both very different. They’re set at different times. They’re about completely unrelated stories, where I can understand how some writers they’re writing a couple of their books in their trilogies, so they’ve got the same characters. They’ve got the same themes. Was it difficult to switch from one to the other?

Dominic
Yeah, the way I would do it, I would kind of work on one until I got to the point where I was stuck, and then I would go and work on the other. For the most part I think I had- the first novel was close to being finished by the time I was kind of plunging into the second one. There were definitely days when I would work on one in the morning and then on the other in the afternoon, but they were kind of at different stages. It was almost like just kind of compartmentalizing the two novels in my own writing brain.

Valerie
Now do you do academic writing as well, because of your work at the university?

Dominic
I don’t really. I mean I published some criticism and kind of craft essays about some aspect of writing, and that’s about as academic as my writing gets. But by and large on a daily basis most of what I write is fiction.

Valerie
We’re very excited about your latest novel, Bright and Distant Shores. Tell us a bit about that, and how that idea came to fruition.

Dominic
In a nutshell it’s set at the end of the 19th century. It’s set partly in Chicago, and partly in the islands of Melanesia. The story line is basically about an obsessive collector, an insurance magnate in the 1890s, who sponsors a voyage into the Pacific to bring back some artifacts, and also some natives for an ethnographic exhibition. This is kind of the age of the early skyscrapers in Chicago, his insurance company has for the time the world’s tallest building. And so he plans to host this ethnographic exhibition on the rooftop of his new landmark building.

The story is basically this collecting voyage and this collision course between the people who go on the voyage and the people they bring back for this very odd kind of exhibition. It features a Chicago born trader, and then on the Pacific side it features a mission house boy, who the reverend he works for has just died. So, each of these young men are kind of flung out into the world in different ways. They end up on kind of this collision course in the novel.

Really the genesis of the story was a historical event that I heard about that concerned Franz Boas and the Artic explorer Robert Peary, where basically Boas had been looking for ways to study some of the Inuit cultures in Greenland. He spent some time up there, but Peary, who was a friend of his, took it upon himself to bring back six Inuits to New York for study when Boas was there as a curator for The Museum of Natural History. It was this very tragic story where these six Inuits were brought back and they essentially lived in the basement of the museum. Within a year five of the six had died.

There was a book published, and I discovered some New York Times archive articles about this story. I just got really interested in this idea of this complex relationships between museums and collectors, and tribal people when they’re brought out of their indigenous context.

Valerie
Have you been to Melanesia?

Dominic
Briefly, I mean very briefly. Most of the research that I did, because it’s kind of set in the 1890s, is lifted a lot from the observations of missionaries, and early- not even really anthropologists- but travelers who were through this period prior to 1900s. So, a lot of the research was in addition to corresponding with people and researching the botany of a particular island, or the fauna of a particular island. It was also about what was going on and what kinds of contact did these people have during that decade before 1900.

Valerie
When you do your research, particularly for the historical stuff, do you typically do the bulk of the research before you start your draft? Or do you research as you go?

Dominic
It’s a little bit of both. With historical research you have to get to the point where you know, I think of as like you have to know the nouns of the period. You have know what people ate, and what they wore, how they got around, and whether there were handsome cabs on Chicago’s streets in 1897, because otherwise you’re stopping every third sentence or so to look something up, and that becomes a very frustrating way of working.

I think you have to have a base level. But you get to a point where you have an idea of that, and it starts to come alive for you. Then you have to kind of, at some point, plunge in and not just get buried in the research and really focus on the story that you’re trying to cultivate.

I think it’s a little bit of both.

Valerie
It sounds that with your stories you start with that seed of an idea. Are you one of those authors that plots it all out? Or are you one of those authors that says, “Let’s see where it goes,” kind of thing? Or, something in between? How do you do it?

Dominic
It’s a little bit of both. I remember being lucky enough to be in a seminar with Peter Carey one time. He described it as before he sets out he needs to know- it’s like a mountain range- he needs to know what’s happening on the peaks, but what he discovers is in the valleys, in the writing. That pretty much sums it up. That approach of knowing more or less what I’m aiming for, but then you have to kind of leave room in the writing process to discover things in the writing itself, otherwise you’re just not going to be surprised. If you’re not surprised, there’s no way the reader is going to be surprised.

Valerie
Why do you write? What’s the joy in it for you?

Dominic
That’s a good question. That’s a hard one. For me, writing, it is work. There’s inspiration in it, but I think it’s a lot more the case for me that inspiration comes out of the work, rather than it drops out of the sky. So, I’m pretty disciplined about it. It’s deeply satisfying to create something out of nothing, to kind of create something that wasn’t there before. However flawed it is, or whatever things you wish you could change later, it is satisfying to kind of put something together in that way.

Valerie
What’s the most challenging thing when you’re writing a novel? What’s the hardest part of it?

Dominic
I think the hardest part is always- Flannery O’Connor has this phrase which he terms ‘the mystery of personality’. In some ways what I like about that is the idea that people are paradoxical, the core of consistency about them. There’s always this element that is elusive. Trying to capture and evoke it, and make your characters feel real and alive, and like people we know, that’s always challenging because they’re not cut outs. They’re real living presences. So, I think that’s definitely a challenge.

Valerie
What do you enjoy about teaching then? Because obviously you have been doing that for a while as well.

Dominic
Well, teaching- for some people teaching is kind of a totally separate thing from writing. It’s very different. Obviously when you’re writing you’re stuck away in a room by yourself. It’s a very solitary exercise.

For me, teaching writing is about bringing some of those ideas and some of the discoveries you’ve made out into the world. It gets you interacting with people. You get to talk about things that you’re passionate about. It actually fuels my writing in the sense that I get to go into a class room and talk about plot, or character development, or whatever it is, and I often find new discoveries in student work, or find new ways of looking at things based on a student comment, or student story or paper. So, there’s a sense of always evolving, and also being challenged. As a writer you’re constantly challenged.

Valerie
You’re at Southern Methodist University now.

Dominic
I also teach in a graduate program too.

Valerie
That’s in Austin, Texas. I understand that you went to the University of Iowa, so why did you move to Austin?

Dominic
It’s complicated. Southern Methodist is actually in Dallas, about three hours north of Austin. But I live in Austin. I’m up here for part of the week. I’m here as a visiting writer and assistant professor.

So, yeah, I graduated from Iowa, which has a great writing program, and that’s where I studied anthropology and writing as an undergrad. I really came to Texas for- I got a fellowship in 2000 to study at Michener Centre for Writers, which is kind of a three year MFA program in writing. So, that’s kind of how I ended up in Texas.

Valerie
I understand you do short stories as well, which is a very different process to writing a novel. It’s much quicker gratification, so to speak.

Dominic
Yeah. Yeah.

Valerie
What do you enjoy doing more?

Dominic
I think I’m much more of a novelist by disposition. The novel is a big enough container, it affords you a little bit of room for diversions, and sometimes those can be fulfilling for the writer. Hopefully they’re not too taxing on the reader. You probably have to reign yourself in

But short stories they’re such a short amount of space in which you have to evoke an entire world and a kind of dramatic moment. So, it’s very challenging. I prefer the novel. I really deeper admire people who are masters of the short story. I think it’s an incredibly difficult form.

Valerie
With the novel it obviously takes a much greater length of time. How do you maintain that motivation? When you’re writing do you have some kind of routine or ritual that you stick to?

Dominic
Yeah, pretty much. I think one of the things that you have to do as a writer is discover when your creative window is. For me, if you’re like me and you’re a morning person, you have to try to organize your life so that you can preserve your mornings. Otherwise, if I were to try to write after 8 PM at night I wouldn’t have a writing career. There’s nothing of me left in the evenings for the process.

Generally if I’m working on something I’ll work on it from, say, 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning and try to work from 2-4 hours, five days a week. I try to do that without distraction, without phone calls, without emails, and just basically a little bit lock myself away so that I can just focus on getting back into the work.

Valerie
Do you have a particular place that you write? Do you have an office at home?

Dominic
Yeah. Yeah, I have a study that is set up. Books are important. I have kind of all my books in there. Sometimes if I’m feeling particularly locked out of the process I might pick up a book of poetry and start reading just to kind of feel some engagement with language, as a way of warming up and getting back into the process.

On some level I think writing is muscular. If you’re a jogger and you don’t run for two weeks, and then you go back out there, it’s painful. Once you’re in kind of this daily habit of writing, I think it’s easy to just keep it up, and keep it going than it is to stop. Getting back into it is always very painful.

Valerie
When you come to an end of a book, I’m sure it’s quite a relief, but then you’ve got your next one to start on, is it hard to get back into it then?

Dominic
It is. It is. The Bright and Distant Shores, I’ve been working on it from the beginning, about three or four years. So, I’ve been inside of it for a long time. The first thing that happens when you go to work on something else is there’s this residue of the old novel that just clings to the writing. I think the first hundred pages of something new that you’re working on, you’re always constantly checking those phrases that feel too familiar. Things you’ve used before. You just kind of have to get that previous work out of your system. That takes a little while I think.

Valerie
Obviously you write fiction, but some of it’s based in history and facts. When you create your characters from nothing, or from not knowing them personally, obviously, how do you flesh them out in your head? Is it something that has to happen mainly at the start, so you know what they can do and are capable of? Or, do they develop? How do you actually get to know your characters, the main ones?

Dominic
That’s the big mystery. I think you have to have a strong enough sense of what kind of a character you’re dealing with before you set out, but by the end of a novel, at least the first draft of a novel you’re constantly discovering new aspects of them, or things come into question, or assumptions you had suddenly don’t seem reliable.

I think there’s a left brain and a right brain process here. The left brain you can think about a character as being made up of different aspects. Characters have psychology. They have physiology, and they have sociology; whether they grew up religious in the South, or they grew up agonistic in the North. All of that has a bearing on a character.

But then there’s this other aspect, like I mentioned with the idea of the mystery of personality. There’s an elusive part of human personality. It’s difficult to quantify. It’s difficult to get on the page. I think that’s the part you’re always pushing up against, trying to evoke it. Trying to understand it- what’s driving a person, why do they act in a certain way?

In some ways there’s some similarities with something like anthropology, because an anthropologist is looking at a situation asking, “Why do these actors do this thing?” “What’s the cultural map that makes them want to choose A over B?” A writer is doing something that’s a little bit analogist to that.

Valerie
When you are discovering those aspects of their personality, are you actually discovering them as you write, or do you think them through, and then write down what happens. Do you know what I mean?

Dominic
Yeah, I think it’s a little bit both. I mean I definitely keep a lot of moleskin notebooks about everything I’m working on in a novel. It’s kind of untamed chaos, but at some point I’m starting to filter notes into categories and into little sketches about a given character. So, there’s that kind of preparation.

Then I think as you develop a character, and as you’re writing, you discover moments that you had no idea were there. So, once you discover a moment that surprises you, it might change the way a character has to be written. So, you find yourself doing both. So, you’re preparing in advance, but then also allowing yourself to be surprised by what you find in the text.

Valerie
Now you said The Bright and Distant Shores took about three years. That’s quite a long time in life.

Dominic
Yep.

Valerie
By the end are you over it? Or are you a bit missing it.

Dominic
No, I’m definitely over it. I mean I think the funny thing is that, and something no one really tells you when you set out to publish a novel, is that by the time a novel is published it’s no longer such a living thing. It’s most alive for you when you’re writing it, when you’re burring into a first, or second, or third draft, or whatever it is.

You’re kind of over it, but then there’s this great thing where you’ve left it for a while and it’s about to come out and you have to think about ways to talk about it again. You kind of have- there’s some distance there, so you kind of go back to it with some fresh eyes. So, that’s kind of a nice place to be.

When you’re writing I think you’re completely blind to its flaws and its quirks. After a year or 18 months when it comes out, the time lag between when you sent it to an agent, or editor, and when it’s actually coming out- it’s a different thing, you’re a little bit more dispassionate about it.

Valerie
Are you writing your next book now?

Dominic
I’m thinking about it.

Valerie
Is it clear in your head- how far into thinking are you?

Dominic
Well, I’m circling around- I have some ideas. I’m usually driven by an idea, or a world, or a terrain that I’m interested in. I’ve had a contemporary novel and two historical novels, and this is somewhere in between. I’m interested in an Australian actor, a character who’s an Australian actor, who comes to New York City in the late 1950s, kind of at the height of kind of the Bohemian theme.

It’s a little bit about the artistic culture. There’s kind of some of the world of painters in there, and actors. But, it’s going to kind of start in the late ‘50s, I think and come through to a more contemporary time period.

But, it’s early days, and it’s kind of vague, but I just have some inklings of where it’s going to end up.

Valerie
Are you watching Rod Taylor movies?

Dominic
Right. No, it’s funny because with this book I had been reading a lot of archives of The Chicago Tribune, which in digital format dates back all the way to the 1850s, you can get access to. I’ve discovered that is a great writing tool, so I’m reading a lot of the village voice in archive form, although it’s not all online. But, there’s some great ways to try to, obviously, capture what a particular period felt like. Films is definitely a great way.

Valerie
What’s your advice to people who are listening to this and they’re budding authors, and they hope to one day, like you, have three of their books published? What’s your advice to them on what they should do?

Dominic
Well, I think the first thing is to make sure you keep writing. And, to accept that there’s a period, for almost all writers, of prolonged rejection. It’s just kind of part of the writing trajectory. So, not to be dissuaded by that.

I remember some advice that a writer gave me in grad school, a writer named George Saunders, an American writer. He said, “You have to discover the stories that only you can write.” I think what I like about that advice is that in writing workshops you come upon a lot of the same kinds of stories, or stories that feel familiar. When as a writer you start to really mine your own fictional terrain, and your own vision, and voice, and find things that are really unique to your background or aesthetic or whatever it is. That I feel like is an important moment. Trying to get there, thinking about what that would be, that would certainly be some advice I would give. And just to do the work and show up and then hopefully inspiration comes out of the work if you show up and do it.

Valerie
And on that note thank you very much for your time today Dominic.

Dominic
Oh thanks so much for having me Valerie, I appreciate it.

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