Author: Timothy Jay Smith
Today, Norm Goldman Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest, Timothy Jay Smith author of Cooper's Promise: A Novel.
Good day Timothy and thanks for participating in our interview
Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background.
In third grade, my elementary school held a spaghetti dinner fundraiser, and by chance I sat across the table from an "old guy" -- probably in his 30s! -- who told me he spoke five languages and had traveled to over twenty countries. On the spot I decided that was the kind of life I wanted, and I set about pursuing it.
My travel lust goes back earlier than that. Every summer my family would hitch up a little green trailer behind our car and zigzag our way between California and Iowa, and I've simply never stopped traveling. I even managed to build it into my career.
Before I graduated high
school, I already had a career goal. It was the time of the civil
rights movement and I wanted to work in economic development to help
poor people, and so I did, initially all over the U.S. and later all
over the world. It was an exciting career that had me working at some
of the highest levels of government in the U.S. and abroad as well as
in some of the poorest and sometimes dangerous places in the world. I
left that career in 1997 to become a full-time writer. I had
achieved what had become an increasingly specific career goal -- to
design and manage a significant overseas project -- and it was time
to pursue something else. That something else became
I couldn't write stories like Cooper's Promise if I hadn't had those earlier career and travel experiences. Cooper hangs out in a bar/brothel, and that's the bar I hung out in when I was stranded for two weeks in Africa. Cowboy Mile is a street in Bangkok. The stewed bird fetuses? I had those before my own 'Catch 22' conversation and arrest in Senegal. The hammam? Transported right out of eastern Turkey and dropped into Langatown.
So how far did I travel after that fateful spaghetti dinner? I haven't quite seen the whole world, but I've been to 49 states, worked in over 40 countries and traveled to 96 total -- many of them many times. And I still travel. I split my time between Paris, Greece and Miami Beach, which are all writing destinations for me. Only once a year do I take a trip where I can't or don't write, but of course I am always collecting stories and ideas.
What’s the one thing other people always seem to get wrong about you?
That I am an extrovert. I'm engaging socially, I know that, but the reality is that I prefer my alone time. Also, people think I like constant change but I don't. Almost as soon as I get to a place, I develop habits and patterns, partly because I want to get to know shopkeepers and that's how to do it -- patronize the same places and chat it up. It's my way of creating a sense of community wherever I am.
Tell us your philosophy of writing. As a follow up, is writing a form of personal therapy? Are internal conflicts a creative force and how has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Writing is as much craft
as it is inspiration. It's also hard work and takes
discipline. I don't think you can be a good writer -- and
certainly not a successful one -- without all four elements being in
Writing is not consciously a form of personal therapy for me. I write because I love language and words and the art of storytelling. If I weren't a writer, I would be a linguist. I would study languages obsessively.
Why language? Why words? Because language is what sets us apart as a species. It allows us to objectify our surroundings, retain and retell history, and express our consciousness of our own existence. Without words we would only be able to express what animals can express -- fear, pain, alarm -- but we couldn't tell stories, relate history, build on one thing to progress and move on. We'd be doomed to repeating the same experience over and over again because we would have no way to convey prior knowledge. That's the beauty of language and that's why I write.
Is my writing colored by my upbringing and environment? Of course. Everybody's writing is. It's all we honestly bring to the page. The rest is make believe.
I notice you are a screenwriter. How different is screenwriting from writing a novel?
Very different. In a novel, you can get inside a character's head, wander off into some back story or subplot, or take a lot of time romping on the page with some beautiful language. Not on the screen. All the audience knows is what it sees or learns through dialogue; unless, of course, the screenwriter has used voice overs as a device to get inside a character's head, which can look like bad writing if not done well -- which basically means not using them to tell back story.
When adapting a novel to a screenplay, it's essential to find the single most important conflict, and have everything else, including subplots, support that central conflict. There's more play in novels which is why readers are often disappointed to see their favorite books on the screen. Sometimes entire subplots need to be eliminated because the overall story is far too big to fit on the big screen in two hours.
I've always been told that
I write visually and "in scenes", which is why I have found
it relatively easy to adapt my own work to the screen. Cooper's
Promise has been especially easy since the story is told only from
Cooper's point of view, and it's not long so I didn't need to cut
much. Apparently I did an okay job. The adaptation has won three
grand prizes and two first places in international competitions, as
well as distinctions for Best Original Drama and Best Male Lead.
An Oscar-winning producer and I are exchanging e-mails on some
changes he'd like to see in the screenplay, which are modest, so I'm
keeping my fingers crossed that something might come from our
discussion. If I sell enough books, I know Cooper is headed for
Anyone interested in hearing the first ten minutes of the screenplay adaptation professionally read can do so at: http://www.iscript.com/users/t.php?t=446
What inspired you to write Cooper's Promise: A Novel and how much research went into writing it?
In 2003, I set out to write a novel that would somehow illuminate the role of blood diamonds in Africa’s grisly civil wars. Less than a week before I was leaving for Antwerp, Belgium, the diamond capital of the world, I heard a story on NPR about human trafficking, which reported statistics so staggering that for the first time in my life I pulled to the side of the road to hear the rest of a story. By the time it was over, I knew I had to include an element about human trafficking in my new novel as well; and of course, trafficking in blood diamonds and trafficking in people often happen in tandem.
I like all of my work to have some political or socially meaningful element in it. Not a big heavy message but something that illuminates an issue through fiction -- or in other written mediums as well. I've also written some political theatre, and seven years ago I founded the Smith Prize for political theatre to encourage other playwrights to tackle the pressing issues of our times.
Why blood diamonds to start with? An Africanist friend had been encouraging me to write a story about blood diamonds, and that's how I first became aware of the issue. My trip to Antwerp was my first foray into that world, and with its port and red light district, it also became a great place to start my research on human trafficking. On the diamond front, I met with the detectives on the Diamond Squad and dealers who took me behind the scenes; and on the trafficking front with trafficked women and their rescuers at safe houses.
What is required for a character to be believable? How did you create Cooper Chance?
When I went to Antwerp, I had the notion that my protagonists would be a white straight FBI agent and a black gay CIA agent whom I had teamed up in an earlier novel. One would handle a diamonds case and the other trafficking, but every story I came up with to weave them together felt contrived. Finally, I simply wrote the opening scene I had always imagined: my CIA guy in a bar in Africa. And that’s where I met Cooper. He picked up Cooper: an Army deserter, sharpshooter, extreme claustrophobic and young guy lost in the world. I had found my character and after that the story came easily.
What's required for a character to be believable? Honesty.
Did you know the end of your book at the beginning?
Not for Cooper's Promise. For other novels, yes, I have had opening and ending scenes in mind before I started writing. They changed, of course, but I had some notion of them. I found Cooper in a different way and trusted my instincts with him. I had to create the circumstances of the story, but I let him guide it.
I consciously made this a closed mystery where the reader only knows as much as Cooper, and nothing else from another point of view. I think that adds to the tension, but even more important, it underscores another theme of Cooper's Promise; namely, that at its heart this is a coming of age story.
In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
I think the answer to that question varies greatly depending on if the material involved is non-fiction (stick to the truth), historical fiction (try to portray the truth), or fiction. As a fiction writer, you can also go too far and lose your readers. My job is to create a believable world, not necessarily a true world, but a believable one.
In the case of Cooper's Promise, I intentionally created a fictitious town in a fictitious African country. If I named a specific country, African specialists would be distracted by how accurately I was or was not portraying it. Also, I wanted certain elements in the my town -- church, mosque, hammam, diamond arcade, and wharf -- so I just decided to create my own town. All of the elements exist in West Africa, only not in the same town or configuration that I wanted.
What surprising things did you learn while writing your book?
How alive a well-written character becomes.
Where can our readers find out more about you and Cooper's Promise?
can find out more about me at my WEBSITE
For more on the Smith Prize, please visit the web page of the National New Play Network click on the 'programs' tab and scroll down to it.
Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
It's interesting how little the issue comes up that Cooper is gay. It's almost an aside in conversations and readers comments. I think that reflects how far readers have come since Annie Proulx's short story and film, Brokeback Mountain. It also means that I've succeeded in not making Cooper's sexuality the story. It's part of Cooper's story. His love interest is gay and that becomes an important subplot to the story, but Cooper's Promise is not a gay story per se. Like the characters in Brokeback Mountain, Cooper is a rugged hero with a tender heart. That's what people see and like about him.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.