An Interview With Patty Smith
Patty Smith is a Richmond gem. In 2017, she published her novel The Year of Needy Girls and currently she teaches creative writing and English at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology. Below is a charming interview with Patty and a piece of her own creative nonfiction, written in 10 minutes!
1. What were the most difficult and most rewarding parts during the process of writing your novel, The Year of Needy Girls?
The most difficult and rewarding parts of writing my novel --- well, in terms of the actual writing, the most difficult part was probably first actually believing I could do it. I think that’s why it took me so long; I had to first believe that I could write a novel. And not just be physically and mentally capable, but I had to believe that I had the right to do it, if that makes sense. And of course, there’s finding the time to write, weaving that around a full-time job and other responsibilities, making it a habit.
So I think the most rewarding part was seeing the book come to completion. The day my first box of books arrived was incredible! Opening that box and seeing the books and then holding one in my hand—what a joy!
After the book came out, there have been so many rewards—all the people I’ve met, the book groups I’ve talked with, the opportunities that have come my way. It has been more than I’ve ever imagined.
2. What are your biggest sources of inspiration?
I tend to be inspired by real-life events. For example, in Needy Girls, the opening scene with Leo Rivera is based on something that actually happened. When I was teaching 5th/6th grade in Cambridge, MA, a ten-year old boy named Jeffrey Curley was murdered by his next-door neighbor, a young man who had also sexually molested Jeffrey before killing him. There was a lot of fear after that—for my students for sure, many of whom knew Jeffrey, and for those of us in the LGBTQ community who were afraid that Jeffrey’s death might (wrongly) cause a backlash against LGBTQ people. The backlash didn’t come, mostly I think because Jeffrey’s parents were so outspoken that of course Jeffrey’s killer wasn’t gay; he was a pedophile and there’s a difference. As a gay teacher, and especially as a young gay teacher, I carried a lot of that fear with me and wondered what if? What if Jeffrey Curley’s parents hadn’t been so generous and outspoken? What if they had called for LGTBQ people to be policed more closely? Removed from their jobs around children? And that was the seed of my novel. Right now, I’m working on a novel set partially in Cambridge, MA and partially in Senegal, where I lived and taught thanks to a Fulbright teacher exchange.
3. How does teaching creative writing to high school students impact you as a writer? How did your teachers impact the path you’ve taken as a writer?
Oh, such a great question! Teaching creative writing to the students at ARGS is such a joy and a real blessing. I learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me! It’s great to be surrounded by such creative thinkers and talented writers, and I’m lucky that I get to think and talk about writing all the time. That means I’m also reading about it all the time. And workshopping helps me to see what I’m doing or not doing in my own work. One particular thing that has inspired me from watching my students is to see their sense of play, their ability to not get bogged down by the rules too much. I think it has helped loosen me up and allowed me to play more, too. I also admire their generous spirits, the way they encourage each other and approach workshop from a supportive place.
I wished I had gone to a school like ARGS because I might have believed in myself from a younger age. I wasn’t ever encouraged to become a writer, although I do remember being told that writing was something I was good at. I might have been nudged towards journalism, and for a while, that’s what I thought I might do. I always had teaching as an interest, from a young age, perhaps just as long as I’d wanted to be a writer, so I’m pretty lucky in that I’ve seen my dreams come true. In college, when I asked my advisor (who was a writer) if he thought I should get an MFA, he said, “Go live in the world. If you find you can live without your writing, then so can the rest of us.” I think it was good advice, though perhaps I might have liked a bit more nurturing!
4. What aspects, to you, does it take to make a strong protagonist?
As you know, a strong protagonist has to want something and she has to be proactive about getting what she wants. A good protagonist can’t be passive. I am drawn to protagonists—and characters in general—who are very conflicted. I particularly like writing and reading about characters who struggle to do the right thing because isn’t that what we all struggle with? Good characters are multi-faceted. Even my character, Mickey Gilberto who is involved in killing and molesting Leo Rivera (this isn’t a spoiler; you know he’s guilty from the opening pages) is someone’s son and brother. I was happy when an early reader told me it disturbed her to find herself liking Mickey. I thought I had done my job.
5. Above all else, what is the most important thing any writer needs to know?
Hard work beats talent every time. A lot of people have talent. Not a lot of people will stick with it enough to 1) develop their craft; 2) finish. There’s an excellent essay that was given to me by one of my VCU professors, Michael Ventura’s “The Talent of the Room” – click here to read it.
Ventura argues that the biggest talent a writer needs is the talent of staying alone in a room. I’m a bit fearful of that these days, with all the technological distractions fighting for our attention. I think it’s a lot harder to sit, alone, and focus.
Of course, there are lots of ways of being a writer and not all of them include publishing. A life spent writing is a life spent noticing, a life spent awake, and that is a life worth living, no matter what other work you pursue. If you want to write, do it. Make it a priority. And read. A lot.
Offering: A Triptych
In my childhood bedroom that I share with my younger sister, a dry holy water font hangs above the light switch. The font itself is a small terra cotta cup and above it, a Hummel-like figure, a pastel version of a blond cherub, carved in two-dimension. The idea of holy water in my bedroom vaguely terrifies me, the idea that I need to bless myself before sleep, as if that ritual might ward off night demons.
So much can go wrong in the night. So much terror lurks in the room—beneath my bed, in my closet that houses the attic stairway, dark and drafty and inexplicably creaky at night, at least to my young girl’s brain as I lie there, wanting sleep, terrified of never waking up.
Religion seemed to me then a kind of shield against worldly terror. The rituals of Catholicism offered concrete methods to protect myself against—what, I didn’t know exactly— all that I couldn’t yet understand.
A memory. One day, when I am twelve, I am listening to the radio with my summertime best friend, Sharon. Back home in my non-summer life, I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t have one in my shared bedroom. I know nothing about popular music but I don’t want to admit to Sharon that I don’t know who Jim Croce is or Paul Simon, that I don’t know the words to Kodachrome or Bad Bad Leroy Brown. From this side of memory, I don’t remember which song Sharon and I are listening to. What I recall is the cracked pavement of the street, the salt air sticky with humidity, our bare feet, leathery-tough soles on asphalt, pebbles and sand between our toes. We might have been wearing our two-piece bathing suits, me already conscious of my body, my tummy, my largeness and lack of grace.
And the song, maybe it was Kodachrome, soundtrack of that summer, and I sang the chorus, my voice as unsteady as my thoughts about myself, but singing anyway, carrying the tune—when I hear Sharon, her voice sweet and high, singing something other than the melody, the first time I realize there were any other words, any other way to sing.
There is so much that is never said outright, at least not in my house.
How to be me.
The font, though empty, in spite of my misgivings about Catholicism even then, stays on the wall. I imagine a conversation something like this:
Me: What happens if I take you down?
Font: Nothing happens. You think I have that power?
Me: You seem to — you sit there and I don’t know, you seem to…
Font: Here’s what I think. You’re giving me the power. Me? I’m just offering. I’m here if you want me, but that’s entirely up to you.
I imagine a voice that is quiet, gentle.
It’s hard to know whether to follow the melody or not, to listen for those harmonies. But once I hear the other parts, I can’t not. I hear them everywhere.
What is offered doesn’t need to be chosen. There is a kind of grace that carries us through.
Short shorts, flash non-fiction, and bite-sized stories that make you hungry for more.
Life in 10 is home to writers of stories that are brave and true.
Take your story deeper with a L10 class.