Dominic Smith on 'The Beautiful Miscellaneous'
Dominic Smith has traveled an interesting path to the publication of his second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, which hit shelves earlier this month. Leaving his native Australia in 1989 to study architecture at a small liberal-arts college in Michigan, Smith settled in Austin nearly 11 years later, abandoning both architecture and then a doctorate program in anthropology along the way before eventually earning an master of fine arts degree from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.
It was during his time at the University of Iowa, where he received his undergraduate degree in anthropology, that Smith discovered the university's famed Writers' Workshop and entertained the idea for the first time that he could actually be one.
"Up until that time," he says, "it seemed a naive childhood fantasy."
His decision to pursue writing as a vocation seems to have paid off with the publication of the elegant The Beautiful Miscellaneous (Atria, $24), which tells the story of Nathan Nelson, the average son of a genius particle physicist. Samuel Nelson believes his son must be destined for greatness, but despite all his efforts to coax out Nathan's hidden talents, the boy remains ordinary.
Then, when Nathan is 17, he's in a terrible car accident that leaves him in a coma. Upon awakening, Nathan discovers that his brain injury has resulted in the onset of a rare condition that allows him to memorize vast pieces of information: entire city phone books, dictionaries, and so forth. This newfound ability restores Samuel's hopes for his son, who is sent off to an institute in Iowa for savants, prodigies, and neurological misfits in the hope of finding an application for Nathan's amazing memory.
"I've always been fascinated by near-death experience, in part because I had a lot of accidents before the age of 10," Smith says. "These include a near drowning, a fire starting directly below my bedroom in our apartment, and a steak knife went into my left eye when my sister and I tried to pry open an old, rusty tool chest that had been undisturbed in the garage for years. I was grateful to make puberty and have had very few accidents since."
With an ear for language and a gift for lyrical prose, Smith has written a novel that investigates love and loss, success and failure, the nature of genius, and particle physics. It is ambitious, especially when you consider that this is really Smith's first novel. The Beautiful Miscellaneous began as Smith's thesis for the MFA program. The title comes from a grad-school experience.
"Some friends and I had jobs during law school finals as exam proctors," he says. "I had been working on my novel for over a year but had not yet found the right title. We were standing in the offices of the law school sorting through exam booklets and putting them in alphabetical order. On the wall there were calendars posted for each semester, and above them were big labels for 'fall,' 'spring,' and 'summer.' Then there was another heading for 'miscellaneous' right next to 'summer.' My friend Jeff Wait made the joke that Texas has a terrible summer but a beautiful miscellaneous. I immediately knew that was the title for the book, and it fit perfectly. Because the central character, who has the ability to memorize lots of useless information, ends up learning how to tame the chaos and befriends 'the miscellaneous.'"
As he was nearing graduation and preparing to send the manuscript out to potential publishers, Smith was awarded the Dobie Paisano Fellowship, which included a six-month stay on J. Frank Dobie's 250-acre ranch outside of Austin. There Smith threw himself into work on another, completely different novel, emerging with not one but two completed manuscripts.
Both were purchased and scheduled for publication, though the manuscript written on the ranch, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre (see the Chronicle's review), was published first.
"It was a strange experience, having my second novel published first," Smith says. "I think I've given up on trying to figure out the world of publishing. ... The average, middle-class, educated person reads two or three works of fiction a year, and most of those are going to be airport novels. So when you find readers who really like good literature and don't mind working at it now and again, they should be enshrined, because they're the people who buy the books that sustain a lot of writers' careers. If you're not writing bestseller kind of fiction, you desperately need those people."
With the publication of The Beautiful Miscellaneous, Smith will be embarking on an eight-city book tour to promote his novel.
"It is completely humbling and exciting at the same time," he says. "Publishing is still really about hand-selling. If you make an impression on someone who owns or runs a store, not only are they going to have you come back and read, but they'll spread the word on your book."
Smith, whose interests include spending time with his very active 11- and 8-year-old daughters, movies, live music, and walking the greenbelt, says his typical day begins very early, with him sitting down to write for two to four hours, starting at 7am. After that, he spends part of the day reading, often doing research for whatever project he's working on.
It was his love of research and curiosity about physics, a subject Smith claims he did not know much about beforehand, that led him to create the world of The Beautiful Miscellaneous.
"The challenge in writing about physics was finding the stuff that was metaphysical," he says. "The deepest questions in science are big, unknowable topics."
The novel also seeks to investigate the tenuous nature of father-son relationships. According to Smith, for sons, our fathers are our first living example of what it means to be a man in the world.
"There are so many things we take away from it," he says, "and whether it's all positive or, like for most people, a mixed bag or completely crazy and dysfunctional, you can't ignore the power of that relationship. In ways, Nathan is looking for the key to unlock the mystery of his dad. But you realize there is no key; people are mysterious. Sometimes no matter how hard you try to understand somebody, they are full of paradoxes and conflicts."