A Conversation With Martin J. Smith

by Claire E. White

Award-winning journalist and author Martin J. Smith, 42, is a veteran journalist and magazine editor. He has won more than 40 newspaper and magazine writing awards, and four times was nominated by his newspaper for the Pulitzer Prize. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he began writing professionally while a student at Pennsylvania State University in the late 1970s. His
Photo of Martin J. Smith
15-year career as a newspaper reporter took him around the world, from the rural poverty of Southwestern Pennsylvania to Nevada's Mustang Ranch bordello; from the riot-torn streets of Los Angeles to the revolutionary streets of Manila; from pre-glasnost Siberia to the new frontier of cyberspace. He currently is editor-at-large of Orange Coast magazine in Orange County, Calif., a regional monthly magazine he edited for four years.

His Anthony Award-nominated first novel, Time Release (Jove, 1997), featured memory expert Jim Christensen and examined the volatile issue of repressed memories against the backdrop of a sensational product-tampering case. The story, set in Pittsburgh, was conceived as the 10th anniversary of the infamous Tylenol killings neared and inspired by a rash of repressed-memory prosecutions during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those cases caused considerable controversy in the psychological and law-enforcement communities. In Shadow Image (Jove, June 1998), a sequel inspired by the plight of former President Ronald Reagan, Christensen is drawn into the labyrinth of Alzheimer's disease and a complex web of lies created by one of Pennsylvania's wealthiest and most powerful political families. The story begins when family matriarch Floss Underhill apparently attempts suicide just as her only son begins his ascent to the governor's mansion. Smith currently is working on the third book in his "Memory Series." He lives with his wife and their two children in Southern California, where he remains part of what he feels is an often overlooked minority -- the Soccer Dad.

Martin spoke with us about how he made the transition from journalist to popular novelist, how he created his popular hero, Dr. Jim Christensen, and how he survived this summer's Dad's Tour.

How did you get your start as a journalist?

When I was a sophomore poli sci major at Penn State University in 1975, I stumbled into the offices of The Daily Collegian, the student-run daily newspaper, and submitted a column I'd written. I don't remember what it was about, or why I thought I could write, but I'll never forget the sights, sounds and smells of the place. Old teletype machines clattering away in the wire room. Chain-smoking news editors barking at underlings. People talking about the world in a way that seemed so connected and important. I changed my major to journalism the next day and never looked back. After graduation, I worked at a small paper north of Philadelphia, The Express in Easton, Pa., then moved to The Pittsburgh Press a year later. There, I covered a little of everything, from night cops to courts to politics and the state legislature. My final job there was writing for the paper's Sunday magazine, and that was the time I discovered my love for longer, more narrative writing. I later moved to The Orange County Register in Southern California and worked another nine years before returning to magazine work as editor of Orange Coast, the monthly lifestyle magazine of Orange County. I feel privileged to have made a living for so long as a newspaper reporter. That career took me all over the world, taught me all sorts of survival skills, and forced me to overcome my natural instincts to be an introvert. It also exposed me to people, places and ways of life I would never have seen before.

As a journalist, you did a lot of traveling. What was the most affecting or moving story you covered?

My favorite moment was probably calling my wife, Judy, from the Mustang Ranch bordello in Nevada (where I was working on a story, really) to wish her a happy Valentine's Day. But the most affecting story, I think, was the chance to be in Manila during the People Power revolution of 1986. How often does one get the chance to see millions of brave souls rise up and seize destiny? The government of Corazon Aquino may not have lasted, but the way she ascended to power seemed rare and pure and wonderful. At that moment, anything seemed possible.

How did you first get interested in writing fiction?

In the early 1990s, after maybe 15 years in newspapers, I began to realize there were big stories that needed to be told, but which couldn't be told effectively in a newspaper or even a magazine format. Sometimes fiction is the only way to get your arms around an issue as complex as the one that intrigued me most back then -- the phenomenon of so-called repressed memories. That's what led me to write Time Release, which was conceived in 1991-1992.
Cover of
Time Release by Martin J. Smith
Two things were happening at the time that greatly influenced the story. The first was the tenth anniversary of the infamous Tylenol product-tampering killings in Chicago, which remains one of the great unsolved mysteries in our culture. The second was the rash of repressed-memory prosecutions taking place around the country. The best-known of those was the George Franklin case in Northern California, where Franklin's daughter suddenly remembered her father killing her playmate 20 years after the fact. She took those memories to police, and the DA prosecuted Franklin for the killing. (The conviction was later overturned on appeal.) There were hundreds of similar cases involving so-called repressed memories between 1985 and 1995, and most of them didn't survive appeals. That struck me as very significant. So I combined those two ideas into a story about a cop who feels that the son of the prime suspect in an unsolved product-tampering case is repressing memories that might finally break the case and stop a new rash of killings, if they could only be recovered. If any trend in recent years demanded skepticism, it was the sudden legal credibility being given to an unproven psychological phenomenon that many respected scientists regard as hogwash. My own feeling is that memories are incredibly fragile to begin with, even traumatic memories that are etched most deeply into the brain. They're not like mental videotapes of past events; they're more like shifting sand. They're influenced by prejudices and past experiences and the opinions of other people. And those changes begin to happen right away. Any police officer, prosecutor or defense attorney will tell you that. Twenty years after the fact? Should we as a society be sending people to prison, or to death row, based solely on something as delicate and unreliable as eyewitness memories? I don't think so. I have no problem convicting people when the corroborating evidence is clear and strong. But look at all of the capital cases overturned in recent years after DNA evidence proved the convicted killer innocent of the crime. The overriding issue, I think, is the incredible weight that juries give to testimony from traumatized victims and eyewitnesses. It's much less reliable than forensics, for example, and yet, as we saw most vividly in the O.J. Simpson case, people are very suspicious of forensics. How do we counterbalance that?

How has your journalistic background affected your fiction writing?

Journalism gave me a license to ask questions, to pursue my obsessions, to draw conclusions based on reported facts and telling details. I use all of those skills in writing novels, and I hope they add to the depth and clarity of the stories I tell.

What has surprised you most since you first published Time Release?

I wasn't totally prepared for the overwhelming need to support the book in the marketplace. At my level, an author that simply writes books won't last long. The beginning crime-fiction author today has to solicit cover blurbs, develop mailing lists, promote the work to booksellers and generally handle all aspects of marketing, media and public relations. None of that was part of my author fantasy, but it's reality for most anyone who wants to make a career writing novels. Early on, I adopted a no-whining rule and decided to cheerfully pitch in to support my books. But that sure does cut into my writing time. I also was surprised by reader reaction to the product-tampering aspect of Time Release. I thought I'd written this rather nifty book about the unreliability of memory as a gauge of truth. Turns out, I also wrote a scare-the-bejabbers-out-of-you-when-you-walk-through-the-grocery-store book. I intended the product-tampering stuff only to support the bigger story about memory, but it apparently succeeded as a plot unto itself.

Let's talk about your new book, Shadow Image. What was your inspiration for this story?

When Time Release was done, I felt like I'd opened a door into an issue -- how memory is used and abused in criminal justice -- that had
Cover of
Shadow Image by Martin J. Smith
a lot more dimensions. I also felt like I'd created a character, memory expert Jim Christensen, who was uniquely qualified to deal with certain types of crime stories. So as I began Shadow Image in 1994, I decided to continue Jim Christensen into another story. That was about the time Ronald Reagan publicly disclosed his Alzheimer's Disease. He wrote a letter to the American public, then, BOOM, he disappeared from public life. Why? Because someone who knows a lot of secrets might be very dangerous if they're no longer able to control their memories. They're not dangerous to themselves as much as they are to people in whose interest it is to keep those secrets quiet. I wanted to create a character -- Floss Underhill -- who mirrored Ronald Reagan's dilemma, and the plot of Shadow Image grew from that.

The book gives a lot of detail about Alzheimer's Disease and painting as therapy for the disease. How did you go about researching this issue?

I spent several days with an art therapy class at the John Douglas French Center in Southern California. I wanted to see firsthand what an Alzheimer's day-care facility was like, and to spend time with the patients so my Floss Underhill character wouldn't come off as a stereotypical "victim." I also wanted to understand the role of caregivers in families affected by Alzheimer's. Finally, I drew upon the research I did while working on newspaper and magazine stories about an art program called "Memories in the Making," which uses art to help Alzheimer's patients reconnect with lost memories. What researchers have discovered through projects like "Memories in the Making" is that art enables Alzheimer's patients to reconnect with memories which the patients no longer can articulate. Language is the brain's most highly evolved form of communication. But with a second-stage Alzheimer's patient like Floss Underhill, for example, the brain doesn't reliably process the information she needs in order to carry on a conversation. Alzheimer's has left her brain this weird jumble of disconnected wires and phantom thoughts. It has devastated her short-term memory and she has no context for a lot of her long-term memories. She remembers things, the emotions still exist, but she doesn't know what they mean. Art, on the other hand, is a much simpler kind of communication. It doesn't rely on short-term learning and memory. It taps directly into motor skills and emotions. Images bubble up randomly and find their way onto the canvas. Sometimes they have deep meaning, sometimes they don't mean anything. But when you understand those images in the context of the patient's life, the messages often are profound.

Shadow Image raises some really controversial issues (such as the rage of a long-time caregiver), yet manages to avoid preaching - was that intentional? How did you approach writing about these issues?

I try to develop stories that first entertain, and then illuminate. Crime novels that never flirt with life's Big Questions don't interest me much. In the same way, novels that are overly preachy and obsess about the Big Questions don't interest me much. The trick is finding the right balance between drama and social significance. Your question underscores one of the pitfalls of writing this kind of book: There's a real danger of falling in love with your research and social insights and losing sight of your mission -- to tell a story in which the suspense rises steadily and dramatically until the climax. If you bog readers down in information or heavy-handed preaching, you jeopardize the pace. So I try to slide information and commentary into the story in the most entertaining way possible.

The character of Carrie Haygood , the chief investigator for Pittsburgh's Child Death Review Team was very interesting. How did you create Carrie? Do you think we'll see her again?

Carrie is an up-from-nothing, Oxford-educated, middle-aged black woman who has what she calls "the worst job in the world" -- reinvestigating child deaths in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to make sure the "accidental" death of certain children were not actually the result of abuse or neglect. Her mission is pretty dramatic, and is based in part on the work of a similar task force in Los Angeles County. I loved her character from the moment she appeared on the page, and would love to someday build an entire book around her. My challenge right now is this: Have my skills as a writer evolved enough that I can credibly write Carrie Haygood's point of view for 500 pages? If I do that book, it'll be a special challenge for me. I want to make sure I'm up to it.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania really comes alive in your books. What do you find most intriguing about the city?

I know Pittsburgh very well, having grown up there since age 7 and worked there as a newspaper reporter for seven years after college. It's one of those indelible places that I will always carry around in my head, so it
"You'll never find the time to write fiction. You have to make the time. The only difference between writers and aspiring writers is that writers write."
was an obvious choice of where to set these memory-series books. But I also think a setting has to be more than just a stage upon which your characters play out their story. Raymond Chandler set an example that any writer would be wise to emulate, but no more so than Louise Erdrich with North Dakota or E. Annie Proulx with Newfoundland. In good fiction, place has to serve the plot, but that doesn't mean it's any less important. I've always felt that a story's setting should add tone and context and metaphor to the central theme. In my case, the main character is a memory expert and is by necessity always dealing with things that happened in the past. I wanted a place whose past is filled with possibilities. Pittsburgh offers that in spades. For example, the city exists because of a dramatic geographic accident -- the confluence of two great rivers to form a third. In Time Release I used the place where those rivers come together -- the Point -- as the place where readers first meet Sonny Corbett, the pivotal character in the book. Similarly, in Shadow Image, I've created a third-generation family which, like the Carnegies, Mellons, Heinzes and Fricks, derive their wealth and power from one of the city's early industrial barons. Even though the Underhills are entirely fictional, I hear a lot of people say that they're very familiar and real.

Let's talk about the hero in both Time Release and in Shadow Image: Jim Christensen. How did you create Jim?

By accident. The original main character of Time Release was a cop named Grady Downing, who was obsessively trying to solve a decade-old product-tampering case. His theory was that the youngest son of his primary suspect was repressing critical memories of the crime, and he kept going to this memory expert, Christensen, for advice about how to get the memories out of the kid's head. But Downing was a tricky character and not well-suited for the hero's role. I needed a more sympathetic main character, and Jim fit the description. He's a single father of two daughters who lost his wife to tragedy. He struggles with life's daily aggravations and his own sense of loss, while at the same time trying to build a healthy relationship with another woman. I think those aspects of his character are just as important as his expertise. Once I switched their roles and put Christensen in the lead, the story fell into place.

Jim's relationship with live-in love Brenna Kennedy plays a key role in Shadow Image. How do you see their future together? It seemed a bit unclear at the end of Shadow Image.

I left their relationship somewhat unresolved at the end of Shadow Image because the book tested them both. Jim suddenly saw a side of Brenna that seemed unforgivably selfish, and he forced Brenna to confront that in herself. If she hadn't done so, she would have been unredeemable and readers could fairly question Christensen's judgment for staying with her. In the final chapter, I wanted to show them licking their wounds, but both having grown through the experience. Brenna has resisted all of Jim's overtures toward marriage even though she agreed to move in together and combine their families. That issue probably will come up more forcefully in the third book as I explore Brenna's personality in more depth. It's a complicated relationship, and I think it requires a complicated resolution. What that'll be, I'm still not sure.

Tell us about your tour this summer. What was the strangest thing that happened to you?

The tour become known as the Dads Tour, and it was wonderful. I spent four weeks on the road with my two kids, and with fellow author Philip Reed and his two kids. We rented a couple of really obnoxious minivans and drove 6,500 miles in a counterclockwise loop around the West, hitting bookstores, doing newspaper and radio interviews, generally trying to make as much noise as possible about our second books, my Shadow Image and Phil's Low Rider. We met a lot of booksellers and fans, generated a lot of interest and pretty much had a blast. The strangest thing? It was pretty strange the way bugs and wildlife all over the West considered my minivan a great place to commit suicide. The front grille started to look like a Jackson Pollock masterpiece even after my 6-year-old son Parker pried the dead hummingbird from the headlight. Although he washed his van twice, Phil refused to let me wash mine. "You can't wash it now," he said near the end of the trip. "It's like folk art."

What prompted you to shift from being the Editor of Orange Coast magazine to writing novels? How did you make the transition?

It was a gradual transition. I started toying with fiction while
"The beginning crime-fiction author today has to solicit cover blurbs, develop mailing lists, promote the work to booksellers and generally handle all aspects of marketing, media and public relations. None of that was part of my author fantasy, but it's reality for most anyone who wants to make a career writing novels."
still a newspaper reporter, taking classes, attending workshops, gathering the tools I needed for writing novels. I literally took the magazine job the same month I was offered a two-book contract based on the synopsis of Time Release. It all came together in September 1994. I wrote the first two books while I was editing the magazine. At the end of that two-year grind, something had to give. I decided to focus on the books and spend more time with my family. The skills I learned as a magazine editor have served me well on the marketing end of things. Magazines like Orange Coast live or die based on rather slippery concepts -- cover design, typography, public perception, news worthiness, relevance. I developed a real appreciation for the difficult task publishers face in getting their work noticed, and I've used a lot of those lessons to help my books reach a wider audience. When I offer an opinion on cover design or typography, I think my editor listens because she knows I speak from experience. I don't always win those arguments, but I also don't think the opinions of most authors get that same level of attention.

What do you like most about living in Southern California? Do you ever miss the East Coast?

For me, the cultural diversity of Southern California is endlessly fascinating. I'll never forget my first lunch here during my job interview at The Orange County Register. I went with another reporter to a taco stand near the newspaper. A kosher taco stand. Run by a Vietnamese family. I was hooked. I miss the sense of permanence I had in Pittsburgh. I miss the old bathroom fixtures in the ancient house we had there. I miss the row-house front porches there that allowed you to see what everyone was doing all up and down the block. I miss having a spooky old basement. I miss working in a city and feeling it move all around me. I miss people who have a strong sense of where they belong in the world.

What are your favorite ways to relax?

A moonlit walk on a deserted beach. An invigorating run followed by a hot-oil massage. Good conversation with positive people. What's that? No centerfold in the Internet Writing Journal? Never mind. Just give me a hammock where I can spend some time with the kids.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

There are so many good ones I hate to exclude anyone, and my tastes often run to literary fiction. But I'll name a few crime writers from whom I've learned specific lessons. I admire James Ellroy for the sheer power of his writing. I know we write in the same language, but reading him is like reading English on steroids. Thomas Harris does psychological suspense better than most. Mary Higgins Clark is great at pacing. No one can touch Elmore Leonard for dialogue. And I love the depth of Michael Connelly's characters. I still consider myself a student of the genre, and I try to learn from the best.

Do you participate in any writing groups? How helpful are they?

I'm in two different groups. One group is made up of the people with whom I took my very first short fiction class at the University of California, Irvine, in 1988. We stopped paying tuition 10 years ago, but we still meet once a month. That group includes school teachers, a retired aerospace worker, a publishing executive, a playwright -- a very diverse group of mostly nonprofessional writers. But they're wonderful readers. The other group is mostly former journalists with whom I've worked in the past. The feedback I get from each group is invaluable, as well as the mentoring I get from my agent, Susan Ginsburg. When I turn in a book, I feel that it has been well-vetted by readers whose opinions I trust and respect.

What is your advice to aspiring journalists?

First, get it right. That takes solid reporting, which takes hard work and considerable skill. Second, make it fair and compassionate. That comes with experience.

What is your advice to aspiring fiction writers?

You'll never find the time to write fiction. You have to make the time. The only difference between writers and aspiring writers is that writers write.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced in your career as a fiction author?

I struggle constantly with plotting, which probably seems odd for someone who writes fairly complex plots in a plot-intensive genre. But while writing is a natural process for me, plotting isn't. It's work, and it doesn' t get any easier. My goal is to become invisible; I want to write books that flow so effortlessly for the reader that they don't seem plotted at all.

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