Bill Smoot: Author, "Love: A Story"

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Admission Statement: I am a writer of short stories and a new novel, Love: A Story. I also teach, currently in the OLLI program at UC-Berkeley and the Prison University Project at San Quentin. I grew up in Maysville, Kentucky, and received degrees at Purdue and Northwestern. I live in Berkeley, CA. -

How did you get into writing?

I became a writer in 1963, the day after the Kennedy assassination. I was a junior in high school, and after the principal announced on the PA system that Kennedy had been shot, a boy in my class said, “I hope he dies.” I could not rest until I had written a piece about that incident for the school newspaper. I still cannot rest, whether in journalism or essays or fiction, until I have told the truths I am able to discover.

I teach for the same reason: to lead students in pursuit of the truth.

I feel that teaching and writing chose me more than I chose them. They are a calling. I merely answered the call.

Career advice to those in your industry?

The realities of publishing literary fiction books are increasingly challenging. It’s a very steep mountain to climb. The number of works of literary fiction published and the number of published works bought and read have been trending downward. But committed writers today will do what committed writers have always done. They will write as best they can and hope for the best in terms of publication.

What is the future of your industry?

The challenges of publishing literary fiction are well documented. A few multinational corporations control most of the industry and the profit motive has evolved from an important goal, which it always was, to the only goal. But there are offsetting trends like small, independent presses. And literary magazines still thrive.

What worries me more than the big, bad corporations is the specter of our cyber-lifestyles luring people away from great literature—or eroding their ability to read it. I say this not only because I love great literature, but also because I have witnessed for five decades the ways in which great literature helps people grow—whether they are college-bound prep school students or convicted felons unsure when they will ever get out of prison. Gradual losses like that are hard to measure, and that makes them especially dangerous.

Also, great works of literature come to life only when we are ingest them in the deepest way. The classics need us. Music not heard or a poem not read ceases to be music or poetry. We are obligated to keep them alive—just as we are obligated to preserve the earth.

Only one thing is worse than burning books, and that is burning minds.

My other profession is teaching, and there, too, the challenges are well known. Aside from under-funding, a big problem is a reform movement which reduces education to perceived job training and which takes power away from teachers and gives it to administrators. The power of billionaires behind these reforms is a story that has been told, but too few people know it.

What is my greatest regret?

That I never became a father. Sadness over that is part of what fueled my novel, Love: A Story. The main character’s desire to be a father reflects my own.

What makes me the best version of myself?

Though it may not be obvious, writing and teaching involve two kinds of skills: listening and telling. As a teacher, I have to impart knowledge, to ask probing questions, but I also have to listen—to hear what they say and to hear what they don’t say. I have to sense how they feel. I have to know what they’re thinking. It’s the same as a writer. Thought I am telling stories, I have stories to tell because I have listened—to myself, to others, and to the wind. The Greeks’ metaphor of merely writing down what they heard the Muses sing reflects this. My modest successes are the result of good telling and listening.

What are my faults?

Some years ago I asked a friend what he felt my worst quality was. I thought he would have to think a while. But he didn’t miss a beat. “You don’t suffer fools gladly.”

He was right. With younger people or students of any age, I am a pillar of patience. But with peers and people in power, their faults feel like a hot coal in my throat. Sometimes I hide my impatience, but I still feel the burn. As a teacher, I have worked under school administrators I would like to tar and feather.

My blessings:

I am thankful for material comfort and good health. Beyond that, my greatest blessing has been to have work (teaching and writing) that feeds my soul. I loved my decades of teaching the best and brightest of the prep school world, many of whom were wonderful young people in many senses of the word. But in the past decade I have learned that there is also a coterie of “best and brightest” among convicted felons, and I have been fortunate to teach a variety of college courses at San Quentin Prison. The humanities is new to them and it is inspiring to see them discovering a world they did not know existed. Out of admiration and respect, I dedicated my new novel to my San Quentin students.

My Favorite Places/Destinations?

My own house, with my dog close by. I’m such a nerd.

A Day in My Life:

What is your average day?

Like a dog, I like a regular schedule, and now that I no longer teach full time, I have a lot of control over my days. I get up and cook five-grain cereal with fruit, squeeze fresh juice, and make coffee. I take my dog for a hike of 3-4 miles and then I write or prepare class. I like to write in the mornings. After lunch, I work some more and sometimes have a tennis game. If I’m teaching, my classes meet one or two afternoons a week. I check email and read things on the web, about half of which is time well spent. I don’t do Twitter or Instagram. In late afternoon or early evening I take my dog for a romp in the meadow. I read or write more if things are going well. Sometimes I have lunch or dinner with a friend. I love deep soulful conversations over a good meal.

What Else to Know?

Though I spend my writing time creating short stories (preferring the short run to a marathon.) I did write a novel, recently released: Love: A Story.

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