David C. Smith - The DMR Interview, Part Two

Part one of this interview can be found here.

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It seems that you were writing regularly up until 1983, but for three decades after that very little new work appeared. What was the reason for the inactivity?
I dropped out, plain and simple, because I felt I was basically a failure. I’d worked very, very hard to turn out a lot of paperback originals in a concentrated amount of time, but nothing kicked in after that, what they call the “breakout book” or something of that nature. No offers from the movies; no sales in Europe except for the Howard pastiches, which were solely due to Glenn Lord’s efforts. I’d written the Orons and the trilogy in the space of a year and a half—the equivalent of nine standard-sized novels, because the trilogy is very big—and nothing came of it. I was burned out. I’d gone into writing fiction thinking that if I wrote good stuff and had an agent, I could at least make a modest living. How naïve can a guy be? There are so many other elements that go into it, many outside your control.

Anyhow, I’d gone part time on my job and wasn’t hired back full time, even though my understanding with my boss was that he’d do so. I was working in advertising at the time. So in a fit of pique, I quit—with nothing to fall back on. I found work in a small print shop, but my second wife was the one mainly paying the bills. I left the agency representing me at the time, which was just as well because they were becoming more interested in selling romance novels. I pitched some other agents, such as Richard Curtis, but they all turned me down. So it goes. I have never had the knack of writing at the commercial level; I’ve really tried, but it’s apparent that I’m one of these oddball writers who kind of goes off on his or her own and doesn’t fit the profile of a self-supporting, professional commercial writer. I felt at the time that I was suffering from a kind of nervous breakdown; since then, I’ve been diagnosed with severe depression and am being treated for it, so that’s more likely what was going on.

I made my peace with the fact that I’d basically put in 12 years of productive writing, from about 1971 to 1983, which is Fritz Leiber’s yardstick for a writer to turn out his or her peak work, so that was that. I wound up teaching English to adult ed students, wrote an English grammar textbook based on the handouts I  created for the class, then doing more copywriting in an advertising department, working as typesetter, and finally wound up where I should have been all along: in the editorial department of a scholarly medical journal, first on the staff of Neurology in Cleveland, then with The American Journal of Ophthalmology in Chicago, and finally as managing editor of The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. I loved it; I was in my element; I worked with the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with, total professionals who were as persnickety about editing as I was. I’d still be there if the board of directors hadn’t decided to outsource the editorial department to a for-profit publisher.


One of the few releases during this time was the small press publication Engor’s Sword Arm (1997). There’s not a lot of information about it on the net. Can you give us some details? Are there any plans to reprint it?
I’d first written the story—it’s novella or novelette length—at the request of a guy in Texas who was going to launch a fantasy magazine named Csendres. I’m sorry now that I’ve forgotten his name. This was in 1977. He liked the story, but the financing for his project fell through, something like that. So the story sat for years until Morgan Holmes decided that he’d like to publish it as the initial offering of his own small publishing venture. I polished the story, and Morgan got Rick McCollum to do artwork throughout. He published it in a faux pulp style. The staff editor at Neurology and his wife, who had a computer at home then, did all of the typesetting and page layout, which was gracious of them, and fun for them, too. However, it’s never sold very many copies. I thought about including it in Tales of Attluma, but the collection is already quite long, and Engor is a novella.

Last year you published a critically acclaimed biography of Robert E. Howard. How does yours differ from previous Howard bios, such as Mark Finn’s Blood & Thunder?
I decided on a direction reflecting my background in scholarly editing and publishing as well as my experience as a fiction writer, and took the approach of one experienced writer looking over the shoulder of another fiction writer. I proceeded step by step through Howard’s career, rereading everything that I could, and putting it in the context of what a young writer would experience as he learns his craft and becomes a professional. That’s why I subtitled it A Literary Biography.

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The idea for it came from Bob McLain at Pulp Hero Press, and when I decided to take up the project, it was because I could go into detail about aspects of Howard’s work that I really wanted to emphasize—his writing style, or styles, because the guy was so intuitive and gifted; his verse, particularly; and his historical fiction, which to my mind had so much influence on his Conan stories.

And even though I’m the guy who wrote it and am responsible for every word in it, I relied upon the research done by all of the good Howard scholars we’re familiar with. Nothing from de Camp’s book, which is useless. But Mark Finn, Rusty Burke, and Rob Roehm all answered queries from me, which helped enormously. Patrice Louinet couldn’t because he’s working on his PhD at the Sorbonne, but as you see, I sure relied a great deal on his scholarship. Mark and I agreed from the beginning that his book and mine would serve as bookends. His can’t be improved on as a study of the man’s life; I took the English major approach from the other end and went in depth into the quality of the words and stories. And Rusty kindly read through the whole blessed Word doc and kept me honest in a few spots where I went outside the lines, for which I am grateful.

I knew from the beginning, too, that I wanted to include Donald Sidney-Fryer’s insights into Howard’s poetry and Charles Saunders’ insights into Howard’s racism as a man of his place and time. I’ve known each of them for decades, and clearly they were very generous in helping me out and adding value to the book.

You were the guest of honor at Howard Days this past June. Had you ever been before? What was the experience like?
I’d been to Howard Days once before, in 1996. Of course, it was different then—much smaller and more intimate, and Glenn was there. But in terms of being guest of honor, I’ve never had an experience like that before. I’ve always felt that I’ve kind of been on the sidelines of things since dropping out years ago, but I was treated like the man of the hour there for that weekend. The wonderful thing for me was meeting and staying with the Baums and shaking hands with people I’ve admired for years. I even signed copies of my old books that some of the guys brought with them. Needless to say—although I’ll say it—I am enormously proud of winning the Atlantean award and of being so welcomed by the fans and folks of Cross Plains. Wow.


Tell us about your latest story, “Twin Scars,” which appears in Warlords, Warlocks & Witches. Is it connected to any of your previous stories in any way?
It’s an Attluman story, of course. I introduce a couple of new characters. There’s a young warrior who could be a young cousin of Oron’s, I guess. But the thrust of it was to write about a pair of characters who are basically each other in different bodies but kind of the same in their souls, although their life experiences are very different. Those are the scars, those are the symbols. I’d tried that with Akram and Nidyis in The Shadow of Sorcery, and it kind of worked, but not completely, I don’t think. So here I have the young fighter beginning to make his way in the world paired with a witch who’s a bit older and more experienced. That’s sexy, and it’s also intriguing. My stories, as I said, are always kind of cinematic and dramatic, and that’s become more the case with every story I do. Drama is scenes and characters; with major characters, I ask myself, Is this someone that an actor would want to take on? Is there enough here for an actor to find something to work with? I think I have it with these two, or the start of it. Maybe it’s the start of a series.

Name one newer and one older book you have read and enjoyed recently. (“Newer” meaning from the past year or so, and “older” meaning written before 1980.)
Right now, as far as fiction goes, I’m having a grand time reading James Reasoner’s Outlaw Ranger series and taking my time pleasantly going through Jason Waltz’s Crossbones and Crosses anthology. Also in the stack are Fred Adams’ books, which he does for Airship 27; the guy has so many characters going, I can’t keep track, and they’re all good reads. For nonfiction, it’s current events and history books. Other than stuff written by friends of mine, I don’t read any fantasy; keeps my imagination fresh and original not to.

Older books? I have the complete short stories of Flannery O’Connor on the table that I’m going through and appreciating the way you’d enjoy a good meal; it always helps to return to writers who were pretty much perfect. And after that, the Modern Library edition of Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. And I must admit that whenever I have a few empty moments, I will pick up the Iliad or War and Peace and reread passages that I’m already familiar with. You can’t do better than those two, although if I want to watch a movie, it’s Hitchcock or Scorcese.

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Any final words?
Well, now that I’m retired, or semiretired, I have time to spend on writing projects, time I didn’t have before. Bob McLain just brought out Dark Muse, a thriller I wrote years ago and whose publication was botched by the original small publisher. The same with Waters of Darkness, which I cowrote with Joe Bonadonna. Bob will be releasing that. This one I actually wrote way back in 1978 in hopes of its being a sequel to The Witch of the Indies. The Witch of the Indies never earned out, of course, so this script just sat there for years. It starts out strong but soon peters out. Joe liked it, though, and had some ideas on where to go with it, and he really brought it to life. This one, too, was originally published by Damnation Press, but it’s back in our hands now and in Bob’s hands, so it will be coming out soon in a revised and polished edition.

Then there’s Tales of Attluma, which will be here soon. I’m now finishing Sometime Lofty Towers, which I think of as “literary sword and sorcery” because the emphasis is on the characters and the writing. I’m trying to become as good a writer as I can. But it’s heavy on violence, let’s not kid ourselves. Follows two former mercenaries who get caught up in a resurgence of the old border wars because a wealthy woman wants to expand her land empire. I think that S&S has a lot in common with Westerns. Of course, it can harken back to legendary material, but as fiction written in modern times, many of these stories, for me, at least, echo the tales of the American West, the frontier. I say that because I feel that as a genre, S&S can go in as many directions as the Western or detective fiction or suspense fiction. It can’t stay in the 1930s or 1940s or 1970s. And the worst thing we can do as writers it to approach S&S fiction as derived from Dungeons & Dragons and those kinds of games. That’s a dead end. They are essentially war stories or Westerns, experience at that level.

I just finished revising a project dear to my heart, a murder mystery that cuts back and forth over a century from Chicago in the 1910s, when silent movies were made here, and the present, as the great-great-nephew of a famous silent movie star tries to find out the facts of her disappearance in 1920. I love the early movies, so this was a very self-indulgent project. I don’t know if Bob McLain is going to feel that it’s right for Pulp Hero Press. If he doesn’t, I’ll just keep circulating the Word doc around to my friends, who know me and put up with me and like this story.

I’m also midway through a novel-length version of Coven House, which as a short story was published in the last issue of Weird Tales. But the real stuff will be the reprints of all of the Oron stories, including Shadow, which Bob intends to bring out beginning next year.

And I still intend to find time to freelance as medical editor, too.

Thanks, Dave, for answering my questions in such detail. And thank you, the readers, for checking it out! You won’t want to miss Dave’s story in Warlords, Warlocks & Witches, so be sure to grab yourself a copy!