Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Q&A with Dominic Smith

Dominic Smith is the author of the new novel The Electric Hotel. His other books include The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Bright and Distant Shores. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and Texas Monthly, and he is on the fiction faculty in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Originally from Australia, he lives in Seattle.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Electric Hotel?

A: One of the things I'm interested in as a writer is what I think of as the gaps and silences of history. So when the Library of Congress put out a report about five years ago saying that more than 75 percent of all silent films have been lost forever, I was intrigued.

I kept wondering whether there was a lost masterpiece in all this vanished celluloid. And as I started to research the world of early silent film, I discovered that America’s first movie town was Fort Lee, New Jersey, not Hollywood, and that some landmark films were made before World War I.

This was the seed of the book, which tells the story of a lost silent film that ruined the famous French director and actress who made it. It also tells the story of the rise and fall of a film studio in Fort Lee.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between fiction and history as you wrote the novel?

A: I always want to get the details of a particular period right: what did people wear, what did they eat, how did they get around? This is all part of the scaffolding for the story.

At the same time, I need to be able to invent within this established framework. So, for example, the lost film in the book, titled The Electric Hotel, is a fictionalized version of a real short film that had a totally different subject matter. I always need that kind of freedom to invent for dramatic purposes.

Q: How much research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I spent about a year on the research and it took me everywhere from the cliffs of New Jersey (the term cliffhanger comes from the types of early reels they made out there), to a town in northern Italy that hosts the world’s largest silent film festival every year, to the Library of Congress film archive where old reels are stored in a former nuclear bunker.

What surprised me the most was that early silent films were never intended to be the jittery pantomimes we often conjure. That was mainly a fault of hand-cranked cameras and projectors. Seeing seamless early silent films was a startling discovery—they were so smooth and beautiful!

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: No, I never know how a novel will end when I start out. I head toward an idea and it changes many times before I get there.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel project that takes place in the world of abandoned and semi-abandoned Italian towns. It’s early days yet, but I did get to go see some of these towns last fall in Italy and it was fascinating. The novel is just beginning to take shape, which is always the most exhilarating and terrifying part of the whole process.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope readers will find the world of early filmmaking as fascinating as I do!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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