Dwayne Alexander Smith on the magic in the details

This week, to mark the end of our How to Write a Book series, we have a daily Q&A with a debut author

Author Dwayne Alexander Smith. Photograph: Gordon Chou

Author Dwayne Alexander Smith. Photograph: Gordon Chou


Dwayne Alexander Smith is a screenwriter and author living in Los Angeles. Forty Acres is his first novel.

What was the first book to make an impression on you? It’s a tie. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I read both in elementary school. Both filled me with wonder and caused me to fall in love with fantasy and science fiction.

What was your favourite book as a child? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I can still recite most of the Oompa Loompa rhymes from memory. A book that I read over and over.

And what is your favourite book or books now? My favorite books are Huckleberry Finn, Grapes of Wrath, The Three Musketeers, and Dune. Pretty standard picks, I know. But I love them.

What is your favourite quotation? “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” From Huckleberry Finn. When Huck Finn decides to save Jim.

Who is your favourite fictional character? I’m also a screenwriter. I love film and books equally. If I had to pick one fiction character I’d have to say Indiana Jones or Shane from the movie of the same name.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author? I have to admit that I’m not familiar with enough Irish authors to say which is underrated. The ones I’ve read, like CS Lewis, Shaw, Swift and Stoker are pretty highly regarded. I have heard people knock Bram Stoker,and I’ll admit that Dracula is a challenging read, but that book established one of the greatest fictional characters ever. The way Stoker expanded upon vampire mythology is pure genius.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version? I like holding the book in my hands. I like the feel of turning the pages. I like feeling the weight. I like the smell of books.

What is the most beautiful book you own? I don’t really own any beautiful books. All of my books are well used. I have a coffee table book of old boom boxes from the 1980s. I guess that would be closest.

Where and how do you write? I have a home office, which I rarely use. Writing is so lonely. I prefer a space where there’s people around but no ambient music playing. Lately I’ve been writing at a coworking office space in Santa Monica. For a monthly fee you get to write in a pretty snazzy open-office environment.

What book changed the way you think about fiction? I’m not sure what you mean by this question. Different books expose me to different ways to tell a story, but I don’t think any has changed the way I think about fiction. I have very strong opinions on how certain stories should be told to be the most effective, and I’m sticking to them.

What is the most research you have done for a book? Forty Acres is my first book so it’s the only book I’ve ever researched. The research was interesting because I learned a lot about American slavery that was never taught to me in school. I’m writing a crime thriller now and I’m doing tons of research on police procedure and specifically how the NYPD functions.

What book influenced you the most? Stephen King wrote a book called Salem’s Lot. Certain scenes scared me so much that I didn’t want to sleep in the same room with it. I remember being blown away by how that book affected me psychologically. I was envious and wanted to learn to write something that would get into the reader’s head as well. I wanted to make my readers’ hearts pound. From the reactions I’ve read to certain parts of Forty Acres, I think I have achieved that.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday? Not sure about this. All the books I’d want to give a friend’s kid could be given much earlier in life.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young? At first I had no answer to this one, but then it struck me. Freakonomics by Dubner and Levitt. That book has some awesome and very useful insights to everyday life.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author? Well, I’m all about the big idea, especially when it comes to breaking in. An amazing original idea will knock down a lot of doors. If you’re just pounding out another murder mystery or spy thriller, you have to ask yourself, what makes my story better than the other 300 that are out there. I’ve wanted to write a novel for a while but it wasn’t until I came up with the idea for Forty Acres that I felt confident enough to sit down and write one. The reactions to the idea behind Forty Acres were off the charts. I gambled that if I wrote it at least a few publishers would have a similar reaction.

What weight do you give reviews? That depends . . . I love the positive ones but I’m actually more interested in the negative ones. I’m curious to know specifically what didn’t work for that reader. I also want to gauge if their gripe is legitimate or if they just didn’t get it.

Where do you see the publishing industry going? I don’t know a hell of a lot about publishing, I’m far more knowledgeable about the movie industry. I have noticed that publishers have fully embraced the digital distribution of books, which is great. Bookstores are an endangered species here in the United States.

What writing trends have struck you lately? The whole self-publishing thing is really amazing. I have a friend who has a new career as a self-published author. I also think it’s cool that self publishing creates a huge marketplace for shorter fiction.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading? I’ve learned that it really takes very little to ignite the imagination. Just a few carefully chosen words can evoke fantastic worlds and amazing characters. This is something the movie industry needs to understand. CGI cannot compete with the human imagination. In fact it’s far less interesting. The worlds I’ve dreamed up in my mind with the help of great authors blows away anything Hollywood has ever done.

What has being a writer taught you? Magic is in the details. Anyone can do the broad strokes. It’s the details that will set you apart. Actually, this applies to anything in life.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party? Dumas, King, Herbert, Twain, Steinbeck, Dahl, Shakespeare, Dickens, Follett, Bradbury, Serling.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read? Hmmm. I can’t remember the specific scene but I remember laughing the hardest while reading Huckleberry Finn. I was laughing out loud on the subway and people were staring, and I didn’t care.

What is your favourite word? Fiasco. I love it so much I want to write a book so I can use fiasco as the title. I want to name my kid Fiasco but I’m afraid it might curse him or her. The word fiasco makes me smile because for me it evokes hilarious chaos.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject? I want to set a story against the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Kind of how James Cameron used the sinking of the Titanic as a backdrop. The story behind the bridge’s construction is full of drama and death and it’s an interesting period in New York City history.

Take the first step to your debut novel with the Irish Times How to Write a Book series.