M.F.A. Alumna Spotlight: Patricia A. Smith
November 12, 2019
Patricia (Patty) Smith is the author of The Year of Needy Girls (Kaylie Jones Books, 2017). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, Masters Review, salon, Parhelion Literary Magazine, Broad Street, Prime Number, So to Speak, Gris Gris, and in various anthologies. She received her M.F.A. at VCU in 2001 and teaches American literature and creative writing at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, VA. She lives in Chester VA with her partner.
In 2017 you released your debut novel, The Year of Needy Girls. Congratulations! In short, the story centers around Deirdre and SJ, an openly out couple living in a small town in Massachusetts, whose lives are upended when the murder of a 10-year old boy sends the community on, what some have termed, a “witch-hunt.” VCU News did an interview with you when it was released and you mentioned that when you were living and teaching in Cambridge, Massachusetts years ago, a young boy was abducted, sexually molested, and murdered by a male neighbor and there was fear in the LGBTQ community that there might be anti-gay backlash. How did you decide to flesh out this “what if” from your own experiences into a novel?
When I started writing The Year of Needy Girls, I originally was thinking about the ways homophobia could tear apart a family and I started writing with that premise. But I’d been living with the real story of Jeffrey Curley for many years, and at some point in the writing, I shifted to thinking of how homophobia might tear apart a small town, and his murder resurfaced in my mind. It occurred to me that I could use this murder as the backdrop for what happens to Deirdre. So while I had often wondered about the “what ifs” surrounding the aftermath of Jeffrey Curley’s death, it wasn’t until I started drafting the novel that I decided to turn to that particular incident and incorporate it into the novel.
You had been developing the novel for a while, when did you know it was time to push to finish it?
It’s true that I had been working on this book for a long time! I guess I finally got tired of always saying I was “working on a novel” and decided to finish it! One thing that helped was that I had been teaching Fiction I and II for several years at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, talking about my book, and I really wanted to finish it and demonstrate to my students that it could be done. There’s nothing like students to keep you motivated! I say this a lot, too — I think it took me a while to believe that I could, in fact, write a novel. There’s a little terror ever-present that keeps me, at least, still writing, because if I finish and then I put the work out in the world, what if everyone hates it? What if suddenly I realize I’m awful at this thing I love to do? If I don’t finish it, no one can judge me.
It’s interesting — in my 40’s, I had been cycling a lot and participating in a lot of long-distance rides as well as some sprint distance triathlons. I’m not remotely athletic and these events took a lot of training. Somehow, I had the will and desire to do it. So why couldn’t I finish my novel? I decided that if I could take this body and train so I could ride hundreds of miles or swim, bike, and run, I could certainly finish my book! Of course, the difference for me was that in those events, I had no hope or desire to win or even to finish near the top, so there was no pressure. I participated for the fun of it. Writing, though, was different, and I didn’t just want to put out a mediocre book, or worse, a bad one. But going through those experiences gave me the confidence to stick with it and push through.
You have been a teacher for over 30 years and currently work at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology. Does teaching literature and writing change how you write or develop your own work?
That’s a great question. As I just mentioned, my students have definitely inspired me (and I dedicated the book to them). Teaching writing definitely influences how I write, and perhaps most specifically, in the way I have tried to become less rigid about my own rules of writing. My students are freer and I have tried to adopt that approach from time to time. Teaching literature is really the opposite of what I do as a writer — even the way we talk about literature in class is really a whole different approach than how we think of our writing (and my literary arts students can struggle with that — for example, the notion of symbol and what it “means” in a piece of literature, something as writers that we’re not conscious of as we work). Of course, there’s a great delight in being immersed in reading and writing all day every day. That’s a huge bonus for me! And of course, the students themselves who never cease to inspire and amaze me.
You were already a teacher when you decided to go back to school: when did you decide to go back to school for an M.F.A. in Creative Writing? Can you talk a bit about your experience as a student at VCU?
I had been living in Cambridge, MA, teaching at the Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge Before that, I had taught at the Pike School in Andover, MA. Through it all, I had been writing, taking summer workshops (at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and Bennington among others). When a long-term relationship ended, I thought: why not? I was creeping up on turning 40 and I didn’t want to wake up one morning and have regrets. So I applied to a few programs and chose VCU.
I loved my time at VCU. I loved being with other people who cared about writing, with whom I could talk about writing and books. I loved being in a three-year program — it gives you time to breathe a bit and really develop your work. Getting an M.F.A. really speeded up the learning curve for me, which is what I tell folks who wonder if they should get an M.F.A. And my teachers — Marita Golden, Tom De Haven, Bill Tester — taught me so much. I repeat their words of wisdom in my own classes all the time! They were truly inspired in the classroom, something I try to emulate. And all the wonderful visiting writers we had! I loved it all. I never would have had that kind of experience had I not chosen to pursue an M.F.A. The workshops were demanding and helpful at the same time. I felt pushed and also supported (most of the time!).
You worked on the Cabell First Novelist Award with professor emeritus Tom De Haven the first year of the award. What was it like working on the award?
I loved the idea of the Cabell First Novelist Award and was involved from the very beginning. After that first year, I more or less took on the organizing role and did that for a couple of years until I left to teach at ARGS. While I was organizing the event/award, I had the privilege of working directly with the graduate student Fellows.
I loved everything about my involvement with the award! I loved talking with all the editors and agents, loved recruiting submissions at AWP, loved organizing all the volunteer readers. I enjoyed getting to know the award-winning writers and their agents and editors, and one year, I had the privilege of moderating the panel discussion at the evening event. On the 5th anniversary of the Cabell First Novelist Award, we presented our “findings” at AWP in Atlanta, talking about the trends we noticed in five years of reading for the award and providing insights about the publication of a first novel.
You remain involved and supportive of the Cabell First Novelist Award and bring the literary arts students from the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School to the Q&A and reading with the winners every year. The students also read and review some of the submitted novels and write evaluations. What do you see your students get out of the involvement/process? Do you still enjoy participating in the award?
My students get so much out of this! I’m not sure where to start. First of all — it’s such a huge benefit to be able to read both the submissions for the award as well as the winning book. My students see the wide variety of published first novels, and sometimes, that really encourages them. They see that it can be possible for them, too. Even though they are still young, some of them are quite serious about writing and wanting to publish novels, and participating in this event allows them to meet first-time authors (my students often remark how the award-winning writers are “just regular people!”) and read books, some of which are flawed. We only read first novels in my Fiction II/III class — the class that participates in the First Novelist Award. My students write 100 pages of a novel draft from September to May — or they work on a collection of linked stories — and I thought it was important to read other examples of first books. We read them for structure and inspiration, to see how others have tackled the big questions of timing and plot, to see what makes an effective first chapter, what makes us want to turn the page — or not.
And my students feel important, being part of the reading process to choose the winner. It’s an honor for them and makes them feel part of the literary community! Throughout the year, they write “novel analyses” for each book we read, so they’re prepared to do that by the time they complete reading their First Novelist entry.
And of course, they love attending the event! My current students have elected not to attend the evening event as it is being held on a Tuesday. In years past, it was held on a Thursday evening and the kids felt better about being out late and only having to get through Friday! Also, some of them live quite far from ARGS so it can end up being a very late night for them. Still, they get the most out of the author Q & A anyway. They love asking questions about the book and about the process of writing. It’s really the highlight of the year for us!
I, too, still love participating and am grateful that VCU has allowed me and my students to continue to take part in it.
You are very involved in the Richmond literary scene. What are some of the organizations you are involved in? What are some of your favorite events in the community?
There is such a thriving literary community in Richmond! We’re really lucky. Of course, James River Writers plays a huge role in that, and I love participating in their yearly conference each October as well as their monthly writing shows. A couple of years ago, I got involved in the organizing of RVA LItCrawl which has been a fantastic event, bringing together readers and writers in various venues most recently in Carytown. Another yearly favorite is Chop Suey’s Brew Ho Ho, held in conjunction with Hardywood Brewery and benefitting the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. Richmond Young Writers is an invaluable resource for young writers. Valley Haggard’s Life in Ten workshops are open to everyone, writers with lots of experience and those just starting out and they’re wonderful. We’re also lucky to have three thriving independent bookstores— Chop Suey Books, Fountain Bookstore, and Book People— all of which support local writers and provide the community with a variety of events and readings. Finally, of course, there are VCU and the University of Richmond who regularly bring in top-notch writers for readings; there’s such a wealth of opportunities here in Richmond and lots of ways to be involved in the literary community, either as a reader or writer.
Do you have any advice you commonly give to young or developing writers?
Read a LOT. Read widely! And try to develop a regular writing habit, whatever that means for you. Take advantage of all that Richmond has to offer— there are writing groups available via James River Writers (worth the membership fee!) — you can learn a lot at the writing shows if the conference is too expensive to attend. And there’s some age-old wisdom (not mine) which is to write the book you want to read. Or tell the stories you most want to read. The most important thing to do if you want to write is to WRITE. Make it a priority. You learn to write from writing.
What can you tell us about future projects you have in the works?
Well, I’m slowly working on another novel, right now tentatively titled The Girl from Casamance, but since I had “girls” in my last title, I’m not sure it’ll stay.
This book — so far — involves two plotlines. As I see it now, when the book opens, Fatou N’Diaye, a young Senegalese woman who lives in the Casamance region, is walking back from the village well when she sets off a landmine. She loses her leg as well as her ability to have children — a devastating development for a Senegalese woman. Accudyne Technologies, an American company that is getting out of the landmine manufacturing business, flies her over to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA for her rehabilitation — partly as a humanitarian gesture and a way to make amends.
The 2nd plotline involves Erin O’Rourke, a young American woman, an MIT-educated engineer, who works for Accudyne Technologies. In her opening chapter, someone sets off a bomb at the Head of the Charles regatta (loosely based on the Boston Marathon bombing) that kills Erin’s brother. As a way to cope with her grief, she volunteers for her company’s program and will be paired w/ Fatou. They’ll change each other’s lives in innumerable ways.
I’m also always writing essays and am toying with the idea of a memoir that I want to call The Wolof Chronicles — that explores who we are when we speak a different language. I also keep thinking about a collection of essays about teaching.
Thanks for catching up with us, Patty!
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