Dominic Smith and the glow of the particular
The black Bakelite telephone on Dominic Smith's desk is strictly nonfunctional, except as a caution to double-check facts. It serves to remind Smith to take thorough care to get the materials of his period novels correct, although it is difficult to believe such a keen researcher could have slipped up. Nevertheless, when galleys of his first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, which traces the inventor's attempts to capture 10 perfect images using his patented (though deadly) photography technique, made the rounds, a shrewd reader noticed an out-of-place element in Smith's renderings of 1860s Paris: Bakelite.
"That early precursor to plastic wasn't invented until 1907, and I had it in Paris in the 1860s or 1870s," Smith says, still chagrined by the mistake. The phone remains as an injunction to vigilance, and indeed, it seems as if it could ring at any moment, bearing an admonition from Franz Boaz or Baudelaire or another historical figure of Smith's research. "If you want to write about 1850s Paris, you can't go back in time, but part of your job is to get the details right so you can create an atmosphere that's compelling and true."
Swap Chicago after the Great Fire for 1850s Paris and the sociological fascination with studying natives for the invention of the daguerreotype, and you have the coordinates of Smith's third novel, Bright and Distant Shores – well, sort of. Set at the tumultuous end of the 19th century, when wealth from magnates of meatpacking and insurance poured into Chicago, the book illuminates the city's hurry to culture itself. Hale Gray, an insurance tycoon attempting to build the tallest skyscraper in the world, commissions Owen, an itinerant demolition worker with a love of sailing and collecting, to bring him a family of Melanesian natives besides the kind of handicrafts and trinkets that collectors were fairly hoovering out of the South Pacific. Gray hopes to stage the Melanesian family in a World's Fair-esque demonstration at the pinnacle of his skyscraper – to draw crowds, to sell insurance, and especially to one-up his adversary in philanthropy, Marshall Field, whose $1 million donation to establish the Field Museum proves a showy but effective play for cultural capital.
An elaborately annotated handmade map of 1890s Chicago looms behind Smith's desk, period-accurate down to the photocopied images of each building, block by block, an initial step toward developing this rich world. "I was just getting so sick of not knowing where Adams Street was," he says. The rest of the details come from a fanatical devotion to what he refers to simply as "the nouns." "I remember E.L. Doctorow having this quote about historical fiction, the idea that you can 'lie your way to a greater truth,' but really what he was talking about is you can tweak history or you can tweak a year in someone's biography if you have some clear narrative purpose for it, but I think you can't fake what people ate, what they walked around in, what kind of transport they had. So it's the nouns of the period you've got to get right, and it takes a lot of time." His process mirrors the research Annie Proulx undertook to write her Wyoming stories: "She'd sit with the question: 'What kind of people does this place create?' That's not typically the way we think about character and place."
Smith takes up that question, focusing as well on what makes his characters a product of their time. He covers broad swaths of history gracefully by situating characters at perilous points of sweeping change; the concerns of the time are very much their personal concerns. Owen, orphaned in a house-wrecking accident, is the perfect man for Hale Gray to employ, not only because he's desperate to acquire a fortune so he can marry his fiancée, but also because his trade will soon be obviated by skyscrapers like Gray's. Addressing that character's development, Smith says: "I was interested in demolition when I started reading about the guys who were the house-wreckers of 1890s Chicago and how the emergence of skyscrapers changed their whole industry. In those days, it was before everything was replaced with derricks, and things were still being demolished by hand. It was a very tactile enterprise; you were literally carrying out pieces of granite and selling them to someone who wanted to use them for headstones."
Owen sails for the Melanesian islands even though he knows his fiancée would disapprove of collecting people along with knickknacks and gimcracks. The perfect salve for his conscience arrives in the form of Argus Niu, an educated, sermonizing former houseboy for a Scottish reverend. Argus is an august, Westernized native who actually wants to go to America. If this sounds a bit too ideal to propel a narrative, worry not: Complications abound. Argus brings along his sister, Malini, who is far less enthused about the Western world, even though her fate in her home, Poumeta, is shaping up to be somewhat grim, and the two will have to mimic discarded traditional ways in a flat-out racist sideshow upon arrival. This unique historical perspective saves Smith from his self- professed fear of drowning in the clichés of the sea voyage.
The Lady Cullion, after all, is most likely the last tall ship to make such a journey, and Owen is well aware of how previous visits from "clay men" such as himself have changed the culture of the islands. Instead of contentedly trading for beads, matches, and fathoms of cloth, the locals want only pigs, chickens, and guns. Watching from our vantage point in the present, there's a delicious frisson in seeing a world the instant before it dissolves into a more familiar, modern vision. At one stop on his trading mission, Owen surmises that "the white pimps and hagglers of Djimbanko were probably extradited French pickpockets who preferred their lawless island inferno to the prospect of returning to the barbarous streets of Paris."
With such rich interweaving, it makes sense that Smith conceived of Bright and Distant Shores as "a sort of intellectual puzzle: 'Well, how could you write a novel about anthropology and skyscrapers?'" These topics, after all, have been central to his studies, first as an architecture student in Australia and later as a student of sociology in Michigan and Iowa. Proximity to the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop opened Smith to the possibility of pursuing writing, which eventually led him to the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, which he credits for its financial support and, more importantly, its convivial atmosphere. In short, "it was bliss."
Taken broadly, Smith's studies and travels manifest in a reverence for language as a material that reflects its cultural origin. By way of example, he offers the word "antifogmatic," a snort of liquor meant to brace against the ill effects of working outdoors on a dreary day: "Where else except the 19th century do you have a name for a drink of liquor that you take in the morning before going out to work in bad weather in the fields? It's not only very, very specific, but it also gives you this little glimmer of a worldview – almost like 'there's this supernatural element that is stacked against me, and I have to brace myself to get up in the morning and go face it.'" Like a collector displaying a favorite find, Smith points out the fine-grained details that sketch the bigger picture. It's easy to see the potential for narrative in a single word when those glimmers of a worldview are stoked by Smith's careful attention.
"We know as fiction writers that we have to prospect for concrete, sensory, significant detail," he says, and as a metaphor for Smith's particular style of research, panning for gold isn't far from the mark. "My impulse is, I think, to always pay attention to objects and details as being not so much proofs – it's not like you're proving to the reader that this really happened, but [I'm] almost proving to myself that it really happened. If I can really see it, then I can believe in it, and from that place I can try to write characters who feel like they're of that world and that atmosphere."
Dominic Smith will read from Bright and Distant Shores at BookPeople Friday, Sept. 16, 7pm. He'll also appear at the 2011 Texas Book Festival in October.