Today I am interviewing Vern Smith, who LitReactor recently crowned “a new crime-fiction intelligentsia.” Smith is the author of the novel, Scratching the Flint, just released by Run Amok Crime. He is also the author of the novels Under the Table and The Green Ghetto. His novelette, The Gimmick—a finalist for Canada’s highest crime-writing honor, the Arthur Ellis Award—is the title track of his second collection of fiction. A former investigative journalist, self-described political hack, broadcaster, and caddy (yes, golf), the Windsor, Ontario native and longtime resident of downtown Toronto now lives on the outskirts of Chicago, which is where I caught up to him to talk about his new novel and the state of policing, as well as his process, Thomas Pynchon, Artificial Intelligence, Joe Strummer, the Hays Code, and his brand new Chinaski Award.
Question: What is the genre of your novel? And how do you unpack it for people?
Answer: Scratching the Flint is a hardboiled literary crime thriller that puts here and now into proper historical context by casting a harsh light on the lowest common denominators of policing. Set in (just) pre-9/11 Toronto, it’s the story of how conflicts of interest, casual racism, petty dissention, gatekeeping, and the slow death of real information came to destabilize North American law enforcement, and, in turn, society. As much as it’s a crime story, it’s the story of institutional failure. For comic relief, I’m told I give you absurdities of the same.
Question: Indeed, they say it’s Pynchon-esque.
Answer: They say—I have no idea what they are on about, and that’s the beauty of it. Upon the release of all three of my novels, someone has invariably mentioned Mr. Thomas Pynchon and I in the same breath. I feel myself get hot and blush every time, because Mr. Pynchon is seriously accomplished and I haven’t read any of his works. Whenever I say that, people are quick to tell me which of Mr. Pynchon’s books to read first. I mean no disrespect whatsoever and intend to correct the issue when things wind down in a few months. While that’s going on, I do believe in reciprocity, so maybe someone aware of Mr. Pynchon’s whereabouts could tell him which of my books to read first. Now that would be a community service.
Question: Over the years, your name has also been mentioned in the same breath as Phyllis Diller, William S. Burroughs, Quentin Tarantino, Elmore Leonard, Jim Dodge, and Ishmael Reed, among others. What do you make of all that?
Answer: First off, I’m terrified of Ms. Diller rising from the ashes and ripping my face off. I like to have a good time, yes, but I’m not a comedian and I can’t carry her cigarette holder. As for the rest, I haven’t read some of them, either. Still, while that’s all valuable for blurbs, which do sell books, something we need to do, I have not accomplished even a sliver-of-a-sliver-of-a-sliver-of-a-sliver of what those artists have accomplished. So again, I feel myself get hot and blush. I guess people need to pigeonhole matter—me too, as much as I try to avoid it—and that’s fine because they’re usually trying to express that they like the book, which is all I can reasonably hope for. But I don’t deserve or desire to be anyone other than myself, and I like to believe that makes my work singular, however it is pigeonholed.
Question: What inspired this novel? How did it come about?
Answer: It’s a collaboration between my younger self and me as old man Smith. The story started round about the turn of the century when I was reporting on crime in Toronto, then forgotten during my most-excellent adventure in broadcasting. I found it in a box of manuscripts when I was piecing together my short-fiction collection, The Gimmick. At that point, Scratching the Flint was a 27,000-word novella, a mystery. I decided that I liked it and put it aside while I finished other projects. When I returned to it, I further decided that I don’t write mysteries. I write crime. So I made adjustments that way, which gave me an opportunity to flush out my criminal characters, because I didn’t need them hiding the in shadows anymore. But what really inspired me to get down and finish this story was the news coverage of anti-police actions from about 2016 to 2020. Let me be clear: Plenty of individuals on the ground protesting were talking about all the things enabling police policy and behavior—not the least of which was U.S. private-prison interests donating large to both parties long before and through the 2020 election. Little of that was being reported because it is impolite to talk about where political parties here get their money. Instead, the news coverage across North America sort of degenerated into vague platitudes roughly translating into “bad cop, no donut.”
As a former crime reporter in Toronto, I knew, frustratingly, that the reality was deeper, and I felt Scratching the Flint was already tracking towards becoming a useful document of institutional failure when I found it, so I just let myself keep going in that direction until the final cut hit 70,000 words and change. While I did not cherry-pick the future, hindsight most definitely gave me a focus for the things that were of chief importance in the first draft, the things that made the story plausible in the first place.
The complicated reality is that, for all the media’s bluster, we still haven’t earnestly got down to even talking about how to change the ways our political bureaucracies operate around policing and related matters in terms of money, power, and race, as well as influence over policy, procedure, and institutional culture. In short, we should be very interested in police malfeasance, yes, and we should be just as interested in what informs and enables the same. I like to think Scratching the Flint helps square that up.
Question: Could you tell us a little bit about the heroine and/or hero of your novel?
Answer: While a fair number of readers have expressed a vague desire to pal around with Mitchell Hosowich, the main protagonist in my first novel, The Green Ghetto, there are no role models, saviors, heroines or heroes in any of my novels, I’m pretty sure. For me, they make it difficult to blur the lines between good and bad, and I like to see those lines blurred. So, what we have here is an aging black fraud detective, Alex Johnson, trying to keep a leash on his mouthy young white partner, Cecil Bolan, who’s childhood friend has just been mocked and executed. While I had no end of fun spending time in their heads, listening to them argue over music, relationships, clothes, decorum, socio-political matters, and police issues, the sober matter here is that our political bureaucracies have historically provided the necessary camouflage for cops like Alex and particularly Cecil to operate. In other words, on both micro and macro levels, it’s no mistake that either made detective, let alone cop, but it is absurd. They are who the power structure wanted and that is why they were protected. That’s what makes their story plausible in 2001 and relevant today. Given Cecil’s age, he is likely still in the police system and making the news for all the wrong reasons. To a certain extent, he was and is representative of a police subculture. So long as he’s still there, Scratching the Flint is the story you get, and that’s a story lacking justice. Don’t anyone put that on me. Put that on your elected representatives.
Question: Can you tell us about some of your other published novels or work?
Jacked, the crime fiction anthology I edited and curated, just won the Chinaski Award from the Independent Fiction Alliance. So please raise a short glass of port to the 21-derful authors of Jacked and my colleagues at Run Amok Crime who made it all happen. And please grab a copy for yourself to see what all the fuss is about. The reviews of these 21 authors are through the roof.
As for my own work, Under the Table, my second novel, is a payroll heist set on a Hollywood North TV shoot, circa 1989. I was briefly a production assistant during my second youth and that’s what inspired the book. Hook of it is that Hollywood North grunts used to be paid in cash at the end of their shoot, so that put a great deal of hard currency in one place at one time, sans security, which paves the way to the payroll heist.
My first novel, The Green Ghetto, is set in the most depopulated region of Detroit. And so, crime-fiction collides with an urban western when a dope-growing, mail-order cowboy gets caught up in the war on terror in post 9/11 Detroit. Old-time country musicologists will love it, I think.
My novelette, The Gimmick, introduces readers to Alex and Cecil, and that’s the title story of my second collection of fiction, which came out on the first official day of the pandemic in America.
Otherwise, I did a handful of chapbooks in the ‘90s, two of which were collaborations with the great Toronto pop artist, Joey DAMMIT!. I’m proud of those, as I am of the lost wrestling zine I did with a future NHLer in the ’70s. And I lovingly refer to my first collection of short fiction—it’s really a naïve novel in stories—Glue for Breakfast, as my disco album.
Question: What are you working on now?
Answer: Other than beating the drums for Scratching the Flint, I sort of went over the dark side after editing Jacked. Gary Anderson, the ME at Run Amok, was pleased with the way that turned out, so he made me Editor at Large, which, as I’ve said, essentially makes me a glorified manuscript scout, so I’ve already brought in some new titles and I’m aiding and abetting our fab editor Krysta Winsheimer, the unsung hero of Jacked, in helping to guide some of our new books through the publication process. We’re wrapping the guts on A Good Rush of Blood by Matt Phillips, and I just saw the first cover mock-up from our man at the border, Garth Jackson. That’s going to be a great Run Amok Crime title, and readers will thank Krysta for having the foresight to bring that one in. Look for it in the fall. A couple months from now, you’ll see a novel from Aaron Jacobs called Time Will Break the World. A long-time fan of Aaron’s, I’m looking forward to that as I haven’t seen it yet. Otherwise, I will be co-editing a yet-to-be-announced anthology on a separate press and I’ll have news on that down the pipe.
Question: What made you start writing?
Answer: I always seemed to have an aptitude for skills that don’t pay well enough, and most everything I’ve done up until now—journalism, backroom politics, and broadcasting—relied on my ability to write. Even caddying—which is probably the favorite of all my jobs—relied on my ability to do research, anticipate weather and wind patterns, take notes, document, measure, and communicate my findings in short order. But I didn’t really get serious about writing fiction until I was trying to impress an artsy academic feminist who took me to a depressing East German film round about the turn of the century.
Question: Did it work?
Answer: Yes. We’ve been sleeping together ever since.
Question: What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?
Answer: As someone who made major life decisions at 15 on the basis of Joe Strummer lyrics, I’m not sure answering this would be entirely responsible, but what the hell? You asked.
First off, while I do not wish to discourage people, you must have your eyes wide open, especially if you’re just starting. Know what you’re getting yourself into before you leap. Given the rapid progression of AI, for instance, I can confirm—as someone who read 400-some short-story subs last year—that you will be competing against “content-technicians” who are leaning on machines for editorial input well beyond spellcheck. And as much as the odd La-La Land talking head is blowing AI off as no biggie, it is being actively deployed and refined. So, you know, have a plan to deal with that as an ethics matter and stick to your plan.
In order to do it like so—if that’s consistent with your goals—you just need to follow mom’s advice. She would always tell me, know who you are and know what you think, and she still says it. I didn’t entirely understand what she was on about until maybe the last 15 years. And if there’s ever a time when that’s important, particularly as a writer, it’s now. Societies across the spectrum are demanding a certain amount of sameness, hence Hollywood’s lust for AI which, according to my sources, will further sanitize stories, and if you disagree on one thing—just one thing—someone’s going to displace their dookie and everyone’s going to cry. So, you certainly want to be human enough to hear out reasonable people who disagree with you, and you want to challenge yourself, learn from those conversations, and take something to metaphorically chew on as you evolve. Otherwise—and I don’t care what side you’re on—you’re probably roughly the same kind of jackass you’re complaining about.
All the while, if you’re going to write something singular, you will need a vague yet tangible foundation to keep your feet on the ground. So yeah, other than to suggest that my American friends might want to unlearn parts of the Hays Code that somehow seeped into their psyches, yuck, I would defer to mom here: Know who you are and know what you think. Worst case, that advice will keep you somewhat sane in a world that is so clearly otherwise.
Question: Where and
when will readers be able to obtain your novel?
Answer: If your bookstore doesn’t carry Scratching the Flint, please tell the manager to get on it. Otherwise, here are four ways to buy it online:
Comments or questions for Vern are welcome!