Thinking about the end of the world and the routine of “work”
By Monica Prince
Nancy Smith is featured as one of the incredible contributors in the inaugural issue of the SFWP Annual, a new release from the Santa Fe Writers Project whose debut on October 1 in print and eBook format everywhere books are sold showcases some of the excellent work highlighted in past issues of the SFWP Quarterly, SFWP’s online literary magazine that has been running since 2002.
Her Annual-featured short story, the end-of-days consideration “Nightfall,” was first published with Issue 7 of the Quarterly in the fall of 2016. The story follows a man in Los Angeles faced with the end of the world. What does one do when the sun is burning out and the world knows it only has 8 days left?
Monica Prince of the Santa Fe Writers Project asked Smith a few questions to help us learn more about Smith and her work.
Monica Prince: Where are you from? Where do you live now?
Nancy Smith: I grew up in Idaho and I went to college in Seattle, so I have always loved the northwest, especially the mountains and the rain. I have also lived in a few other places, including San Francisco and New York. I currently call Bloomington, Indiana home, so I have been wandering around the country for a while, which seems to suit me pretty well.
MP: What is your educational and work background? Have either of these had an impact on your relationship with writing? Is writing a full-time job or do you balance it with another vocation?
NS: Writing fiction is not exactly a full-time job (wouldn’t that be nice, though!), but I do spend my days doing lots of other kinds of writing and research as a PhD student. I am currently pursuing a PhD at Indiana University, where I study human-computer interaction. I have been a designer for many years, and I have always had an interest in creative writing, so somehow, I manage to make time for it along with my career. I have been lucky enough to spend most of my career working in publishing, where I get to combine my love for both writing and design. Currently, I work as a graphic designer at the Indiana University Press, and I quite enjoy being surrounded by bookish people all day.
MP: How did you first get involved with writing?
NS: I’ve always been an avid reader. Weekly trips to the library are some of my fondest memories from childhood. I was drawn to writing because what language is capable of capturing inspires me. Not only do I love stories and the other worlds that open up in books, but I am truly captivated by words themselves. I’m the sort of person who saves sentences. I write down words and phrases and bits of conversation that I encounter throughout the day, and I did that a lot when I was younger. As a teenager, I filled notebooks with quotes and snippets from this and that until I finally decided that I wanted to put my own words together into stories.
I began to dabble around on my own, but it really wasn’t until I pursued my MFA that I began to take writing more seriously. I received my MFA from the University of San Francisco in 2011, and my time there was incredibly formative in terms of my creative writing. I love the community of writers in San Francisco, not to mention the abundance of independent bookstores. It’s a very supportive city in the sense that writers are very welcoming and open about their work. It was the first time I ever felt like I belonged somewhere and that I had found my people.
MP: What are you working on now?
NS: Right now, I am tinkering away at a novel that I began during my MFA. It has changed a lot in the years since. So much so that I wonder if it can even be called the same book. But the seeds of thought were started there, so despite some gaps in the work, I still think of it as the same project. Like “Nightfall,” it takes place in the near future and imagines a world affected by climate change. In subtle ways, it envisions what will likely happen to the landscape if we continue this course. Despite those dystopian undertones, the book is actually about the way disease and genetics can play a role in shaping our relationships. I suppose the book is also about the ways in which we reconfigure the family we’re born with and create families of our own choosing along the way.
Of course, I always have a few short stories in the works, and recently, I have taken up writing poetry. This is a new form for me, and it has been exciting to challenge myself with something unknown.
MP: Who are your favorite authors?
NS: It’s so hard to choose favorites, but people who continue to influence me are Maggie Nelson, Aimee Bender, Anthony Doerr, George Saunders, and Anne Carson, to name a few. As I am making my way in the world of poetry, lately I’ve been drawn to Claudia Rankine, Kay Ryan, Eileen Myles, and Kaveh Akbar. A recent book that I think is brilliant is Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. I was drawn to the book, naturally, because I grew up in Idaho, but the language is just exquisite and I was so captivated by this story, I read the whole thing while holed up in a cabin in Kentucky over the course of a few days. It was a wonderful experience.
MP: How would you personally describe your writing style? What is your writing process like?
NS: My process always begins with a character. I spend a lot of my time thinking about the people around me, people from my past, people on the news, and even other characters from books and movies. I’m a very character-driven reader as well, so I think that tends to be my point of attachment with a story. All of the qualities people carry with them—and they are infinite—are so remarkable, and I enjoy capturing those idiosyncrasies in my writing. My process is a bit different for each piece, but the one thing that remains consistent is that I spend a long time thinking before I put anything down on paper. Ideas float around for a long time before they feel fully formed enough to put into a story, but once the idea amounts to something, I tend to write first drafts very quickly, and then I spend a long time revising at the sentence level until it feels complete.
MP: What inspires your writing? What interests you?
NS: The everyday world inspires me. A lot of my work engages with big issues, such as the environment, but I rarely ever begin with the big stuff. My stories are often inspired by small moments, little things that I have noticed while going about my daily life—in the grocery store, while having dinner with friends, sitting at the coffeeshop, playing with my dog—this is where stories are born in my head. I am deeply interested in relationships. I can’t think of a story that I have written that doesn’t somehow explore how a person relates to the people around them, whether that is friends, lovers, parents, children, siblings, or anything in-between. Relationships are often at the core of my work.
I am also extremely fascinated by work. I once had a writing teacher tell me that what matters most to my characters is their vocation. In some sense, this is true, but I have a very broad definition of “work.” Work, in my life and my fiction, is anything that fills one’s time. It may be a job, paid or unpaid. It may be a hobby. It may be drudgery or it may be a life’s passion—what we do with our days is what interests me.
MP: “Nightfall” works under the premise of the last eight days before the sun goes out. What drew you to this idea? How do you think this story enters the conversation of the “doomsday” atmosphere many feel after a large-scale tragedy (mass shootings, natural disasters, etc.)?
NS: I spend a lot of my time thinking about the end of the world. In fact, my dissertation is about the relationship between technology and the environment. My research is about robotic animals and the potential futures that might arise if we replace animals with machines. So, my academic life is pretty sci-fi already. It’s no wonder this thinking has seeped into my fiction as well. One way that I hope “Nightfall” fits into some of the broader doomsday narratives that are so prevalent right now is that despite the fact that the sun is slowly fading away, the focus of the story remains on the narrator’s everyday life. In the midst of what is usually portrayed as chaotic or destructive, he goes about his work, carefully delivering ice cream, until the structures that support the work finally disappear and that is no longer possible. Throughout the story, we see other characters doing the same, simply going about their lives as they always have and trying to find some purpose in those last days before the world goes dark.
MP: What was the research process for “Nightfall”? How did your characters reveal themselves to you in your writing of this piece?
NS: I wouldn’t say that I did a lot of specific research for this story, especially because I didn’t go into a lot of the details around this event. I purposely left it vague because I wanted to focus on the characters’ lives rather than the scientific implications of the sun going dark. However, there are small details that give some shape to the event, such as how long a redwood tree or a ladybug generally lives. These are simple, factual details, but I hope they give a sense of the way things are often thought about from a biological or ecological perspective, though we might not generally give much thought to how long a redwood tree has been around.
The characters then emerged around this idea of limited time. I began to think what one might do in this situation. How do we experience time? What do we do when we know it’s running out? How might a few days unfold for this person? As it happens, his wife leaves him abruptly, and he’s left with his dog, his job, and his neighbors, so the story follows those everyday paths.
MP: What genres/forms do you enjoy writing most?
NS: I enjoy writing literary fiction, though I hesitate to define exactly what that might be. I’m very interested in science fiction and I often include fantastical elements in my work, though I would say despite some of the more absurd elements that I introduce in my writing, the narratives usually remain firmly grounded in reality. I like writing that is playful and imaginative. At the same time, I can be a very serious person and I am drawn to writing that makes me think about, or re-think, the world around me. If all those things can be combined, that’s when writing can be magical.
MP: What do you feel are the benefits of an independent press?
NS: There are so many benefits of an independent press, not least of which is the fact that this is often where the very best and most adventurous writing is published. Independent presses seem to be willing to take more chances on work that may not be able to find a home elsewhere. One of the saddest things that I encounter in publishing is the notion that a book must fit into a “sales category” or be somehow pigeonholed to fit into the consumerist structures that dictate book publishing. This means a lot of work that blends genres, or aims to integrate elements of style together in unique ways can be rejected because a publisher doesn’t know “what to do with it.” Independent presses can largely work around this problem because they aren’t so constrained by some of the financial structures that influence big publishers. They are freer, in a sense, to publish work based on quality, not on possibility of sales; though one certainly hopes we can publish great writing and also make some money along the way. Independent presses are essential in opening possibilities for us to think of literature on its own terms and to expand our very definition of storytelling.
MP: Do you have any advice for other writers?
NS: There is no particular way to become a writer, and certainly no wrong or right way to do so. I’m still figuring all of this out as I go, and so are most of the writers I know. There will probably always be (maddening) conversations that promote this path or that, to get an MFA or not. But none of that really matters. If you love writing, keep writing. Get better at it. And keep sending your work out. I had an instructor once tell me that you should aim for 100 rejections a year. This is a number I still don’t hit, but I hope to someday be sending out enough work to get there. Being (and becoming) a writer is a process of constant adaptation and perseverance. I always thought I’d have a novel published by the time I was thirty. Well, thirty came and went, and I am still working on my novel. What I have learned is that the goal itself was arbitrary and was always subject to change. What is still important, and what has always been important, is the work.
Visit Nancy Smith at her website, where you will find links to her published writing as well as more about her research surrounding technology and humanity. Follow her on Twitter @somequietfuture as well. Smith’s quiet yet captivating short story “Nightfall” will make you reconsider the end of the world, and you can support the SFWP Annual online at Amazon or at a bookstore near you.
Smith’s work can be found in many journals and literary magazines, including The Rumpus, Seattle Weekly, Your Impossible Voice, and others. She received her MFA from the University of San Francisco, and is currently completing her PhD at Indiana University. Though she’s lived all over the northwest, Smith currently calls Bloomington, IN home, where she works, researches, and writes about the ways the world is going to end.
Monica Prince is the 2017-2018 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in poetry at Georgia College & State University, and her BA in English Creative Writing at Knox College. She currently writes and reviews for the Santa Fe Writers Project, as well as reviews and edits for Aquarius Press. Her work can be found in MadCap Review, The Sula Collective, The Shade Journal, Texas’s Best Emerging Poets, TRACK//FOUR, and others. Her choreopoem, Sestina: A Black Woman in Six Parts, will premiere in April 2018 in Selinsgrove, PA, where she teaches, writes, and performs. Keep up with her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.