Thursday 9 July 2020

Blog Tour: Interview With Fire on the Island Author Timothy Jay Smith @TimothyJaySmith @lovebooksgroup

Today is my stop on the blog tour for Fire on the Island by Timothy Jay Smith. I have an interview with the author today and if you like the sound of that, you can click here to order your copy now. Don't forget to check out the other stops on the tour for more exclusive content and reviews.

Here's what it's all about...

FIRE ON THE ISLAND is a playful, romantic thriller set in contemporary Greece, with a gay Greek-American FBI agent, who is undercover on the island to investigate a series of mysterious fires. Set against the very real refugee crisis on the beautiful, sun-drenched Greek islands, this novel paints a loving portrait of a community in crisis. As the island residents grapple with declining tourism, poverty, refugees, family feuds, and a perilously damaged church, an arsonist invades their midst.

Nick Damigos, the FBI agent, arrives on the island just in time to witness the latest fire and save a beloved truffle-sniffing dog. Hailed as a hero and embraced by the community, Nick finds himself drawn to Takis, a young bartender who becomes his primary suspect, which is a problem because they’re having an affair. Theirs is not the only complicated romance in the community and Takis isn’t the only suspicious character on the island. The priest is an art forger, a young Albanian waiter harbors a secret, the captain of the coast guard station seems to have his own agenda, and the village itself hides a violent history. Nick has to unravel the truth in time to prevent catastrophe, as he comes to terms with his own past trauma. In saving the village, he will go a long way toward saving himself.

A long time devotee of the Greek islands, Smith paints the setting with gorgeous color and empathy, ushering in a new romantic thriller with the charm of  Zorba the Greek while shedding bright light on the very real challenges of life in contemporary Greece.

Here's that interview for you...

First question-bit of a cliche-how did you get into writing?

It’s not a cliché at all. I think every writer arrives at the craft following a different path.

I’ve always enjoyed the writing aspect of any job or task I had to do. I selected college courses that would require a paper at the end, not an exam. My love of writing probably grew from my love of reading. As a child, I was an avid reader, so it’s not so surprising that I wrote my first play when I was about ten years old, and started a novel when I was twelve.

As I got older, of course I had to think about what I was going to do in terms of a real job. From an early age, I developed a strong sense of social and economic justice, including organizing civil rights events in high school, and eventually devoted myself to a career working on economic development projects to help lower income people, first in the US and then internationally.

I’ve always been goal-oriented, and in that career, ultimately my goal evolved into designing and managing an overseas project that had some real significance. That happened. I directed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians after the start of the peace process. When that project ended, I was 46 years old and had accomplished what I had set out to achieve in that career. Anything else felt like it would be redundant.

I also had a story to tell. I had grown up a Zionist (though I’m not Jewish) and ended my career helping Palestinians. I knew, understood, and appreciated the many dimensions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and felt compelled to write about it. That became my first novel, A Vision of Angels. It’s a story about reconciliation which this excerpt (a story told at seder dinner) makes abundantly clear:

Do you write full time & if so, have you always done this?

Yes, I do write full-time, if you include all the tasks that go into writing: research, editing, publicity and marketing. It’s more than a full-time job. But as I mentioned earlier, I worked as an advisor/ project designer/finance analyst on projects benefitting low income people all over the US and in thirty-three countries! (I’ve actually been to 112 countries, many of them several times.) I rely on these experiences to find the stories and characters I want to write about. My more or less official bio describes it this way:

“Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. En route, he’s found the characters that people his work. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he’s hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that saw him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.”

Do you have a particular writing style or genre that you prefer to write?

I write what I like to read: books that combine suspenseful plots with interesting characters. But before I get even that far, I always ask myself: what do I want to write about in terms of illuminating issues that concern me? So I take an issue and decide how to best dramatize it—because ultimately, my storiers are about how a suspenseful situation affects the people touched by it. My newest release, Fire on the Island, is both an hommage to Greece (where I have spent cumulatively some seven years), as well as a story of how one Greek village is coping with concurrent fiscal and refugee crises—when an arsonist suddenly drops into their midst.

My style tends to be fast-paced, bright with dialogue, and not overburdened with too much self-analysis. Of my four published novels, three have been written from the POV of multiple characters whom the story brings together in a tightening circle or plot. The fourth, Cooper’s Promise, is written entirely from one character’s perspective, and you, the reader, only knows as much as he knows. In the first approach (an ‘open mystery’), the reader might know that there’s a boogie man in the next room before a character goes into it, but in the second approach (a ‘closed mystery’), you discover the boogie man at the same time as the main character. Both have their challenges and benefits, which is why I go between the two apporaches.

How much of you is reflected in your writing?

A lot, certainly when it comes to my protagonists. I can’t imagine any writer not agreeing that we constantly plumb ourselves, not always consciously, for almost every story and character we create. When I think about what a character might fear, or how s/he might torture someone, or what s/he might find annoying, of course it has to be organic to how that character has already been portrayed, but I also ask myself: what would I do? Or fear the most?

Cooper’s Promise is a good example of that. Cooper, a deserter from the war in Iraq who’s adrift in Africa, would like to go home but can’t because he knows he’ll be thrown in jail—and he’s highly claustrophobic. So am I.

But it’s more complex than that. I will probably botch retelling this scene in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, but it’s how I have always remembered it. Hesse’s main character enters the magic theater, and at some moment, a mirror shatters, and in each shard his character sees a different part of himself. Sometimes when I’ve written something about a character, I realize: that’s a shard from me. It’s an “Aha!” moment of self-recognition.

How do you develop your characters as you write? Are any of them based on real people?

All the major characters are inspired by people I know, and sometimes the minor characters, too. By inspire, I mean by a character trait, perhaps an attitude, or sometimes a particular voice. I don’t take them in totality. I take pieces of them—shards, like I described earlier—that I nurture and add to, until I have a fully developed character. As my story develops, that also influences how my characters develop.

What was the inspiration behind your book?

My first job after college was in Greece working for a national sociology research institute. Over the intervening forty-some years, I have returned to Greece many times, which has added up to my spending some seven years of my life in the country. For the last fifteen years, I have gone at least once a year to the island of Lesvos, which is where Fire on the Island is set. (Because of the pandemic, this is the first year I will likely not go to Lesvos.)

Several things coincided that gave me the idea for Fire on the Island. Over a period of several months, a real arsonist had set small brush fires on the northern part of the island. About that time, the refugee crisis escalated. I personally became involved in helping, but the real heros were the Greeks who, still reeling from a national fiscal crisis, pitched in with everything they had to help the refegees landing daily by the hundreds—and then the thousands—on their rocky shores. Fire on the Island is not a refugee story per se, but a story of how a Greek village manages to survive one catastrophe after another.

Except for a short essay about life on Santorini in 1972 [], I’ve never writen about Greece. Fire on the Island is my homage to Greece and the Greek people who have contributed so much to my life.

What is your writing process-do you plan it out first? Write a bit at a time?

First I decide “why” I want to write a particular story. In my first novel, A Vision of Angels, it was to portray the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a balanced way. The protagonist is a photojournalist who wants to put a human face on the intractable Middle East conflict. In Cooper’s Promise, at its heart is a story about human trafficking. A deserter from the war in Iraq vows to save a 14-year-old girl trafficked into prostitution to redeem himself for a promise he couldn’t keep to his sister earlier in his life. Once I know that much about a story, I can visualize opening and closing scenes, and I’m ready to start writing.

As I make progress, and fill out my characters and story, I keep notes that become the basis of a very detailed outline. It helps me keep track of what I’ve written, where I’ll find crucial events in my story, and what I still need to write. It’s an outline that is constantly evolving.

What kind of research did you have to do before/during writing behind your book?

So far, all of my novels are in international settings that I know well. Not just visited but know well enough to authentically characterize it. Of course, there are always things that I still need to research: historical dates and events, meanings of characters’ names, and other simple things for which the internet is perfect.

There’s one story I especially like to tell. My last published novel, The Fourth Courier, which I drafted and set aside before 9/11, involves smuggling a portable atomic bomb out of the failed Soviet Union through Poland to an unknown destination. I decided I needed to know how to build an atomic bomb—weight, size, basic design, fuel—and the internet wasn’t robust enough yet to provide that information. So, I called the U.S. Department of Energy, explained my project, and some young scientist—eager to share his knowledge—agreed to meet with me on the weekend at a coffeeshop in Rockville, MD. Our conversation started in line waiting to place our orders, and continued at a table where he spread out sketches of different designs for an atomic device, told me how much enriched uranium would be required, described the requirements of a detonator, and so on. For the same novel, I also managed to organize a private tour of the FBI’s training site in Quantico, VA.

It’s really unfathomable that I was able to do that kind of research. I think it would be impossible in today’s security-conscious world.

How much attention do you pay to the reviews that you get?

I read them, but I don’t fret about them. Most have been good to great, and I share them. It’s nice when a reviewer comments on somewthing, and I can say, “S/he really got it!”

Are friends and family supportive of your writing?


How do you feel leading up to your publication day?

In three words: frazzled, overworked, and exhausted. Despite having an excellent publisher and publicist, there’s still so much work for an author to do before publication. The internet provides an endless source of promotional opportunities. I tend to interact with book bloggers, and most things gay since I’m more attuned to that world. I’m also asked to respond to pre-release interviews, write pithy essays, and participate in some gimmicky stuff which is fun but still takes time. I start all of that stuff five to six months prior to publication. My publicist does the heavy lifting with the important media about three months prior to publication, but her efforts also generate follow-up tasks for me. The hardest thing for me is to find time to pursue new writing.

Which other authors inspire you or are there any you particularly enjoy reading?

Something very surprising happened with The Fourth Courier, my novel published last year, which has a straight protagonist, but also a black gay CIA agent who becomes the real hero of the story. The gay community embraced it for having a gay action hero, not a gay stereotype. In fact, that novel is currently a finalist for Best Gay Mystery in the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards!

When my publisher asked for my help in identifying authors to write blurbs for the cover of Fire on the Island, in which the protagonist is gay, I checked out past finalists and winners of the Lammy Awards, and discovered a whole slew of really fine writers. I’ve not read them all (yet), but I am enormously impressed with Leading Men by Christopher Castellani, a fictionalized account of the longtime love affair between Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo.

I’ve always enjoyed the books of Graham Greene, John LeCarré and Ernest Hemingway. Since reviewers have compared me to all three, I think it’s fair to say they inspired me. I love anything by Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek) and Robert Goolrick (A Reliable Wife), and anything non-science fiction by Doris Lessing. In the last few years, three books that completely knocked me off my feet were Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Illuminaries by Eleanor Catton, and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Finally...what are you working on right now?

I’m never at a loss for ideas for novels or essays. About 18 months ago, when I knew I was close to finishing Fire on the Island, I began to consider which book to write next. I’m 16th generation American, have always been proud of my heritage, have a great story in mind, but when I started to really think about it—to really sense it—I realized I am full of disappointment and anger about what has happened to my country. I didn’t want to be in that frame of mind for the next couple of years. So, I’ve shelved that book idea for the time being, as well as a dystopian novel set in Paris for the same reason: just too depressing. (Fire on the Island, by the way, is lighthearted enough to be the perfect balm for the difficult times we are living.)

I mentioned earlier that, for a couple of years, I was very active in helping refugees arriving in Greece, and I knew pretty much everything that happened to them from the minute they landed in their rafts until they reached their final destination somewhere in northern Europe. What I didn’t know was how they got to Istanbul and eventually onto a raft to make the crossing to Greece. I decided to find out, took two trips to Turkey, and am well into a novel about a young gay Syrian refugee struggling to survive in Istanbul. His main goal is to stay safe, but that becomes a challenge when, in the same 24 hours, he’s recruited by both the CIA and ISIS to be a spy.

Called The Syrian Pietà, it’s a very exciting piece of work on many levels. But that’s all I’m going to say about it.

About The Author

Tim has traveled the world collecting stories and characters for his novels and screenplays which have received high praise. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel. He won the Paris Prize for Fiction for his first book, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper's Promise "literary dynamite" and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012. Tim was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize for his short fiction, "Stolen Memories." His recent novel, The Fourth Courier received tremendous reviews. His screenplays have won numerous international competitions. Tim is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater. He lives in France.

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