Wednesday evening, join This Is Not A Reading Series, musical guests Stella Panacci and The Michael Brennan Band, and Toronto Star books columnist Phil Marchand as they celebrate the launch of Brad Smith’s newest novel, Big Man Coming Down The Road.
The novel concerns the last will and testament of Everett Eastman, who laves each of his children one of his companies: Ben receives an auto parts company, Ethan takes charge of a distillery, and Kick takes over a publishing company.
Smith is the author of numerous novels including Busted Flush, One-Eyed Jacks, and All Hat, which is being turned into a feature film.
There will be musical performances, prizes to be won, and an on-stage interview between Marchand and Smith.
The party starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Cadillac Lounge, 1296 Queen Street West. It is free.
In anticipation of the launch, Torontoist spoke to Smith a couple of weeks ago about his new novel, where he gets his ideas, and seeing his book go from the page to the silver screen.
Torontoist: You’re about to publish your fifth novel. How do you feel in the days leading up to its release? Are you excited? Nervous? I imagine you must feel like it’s a child about to go out into the world on its own.
Brad Smith: It’s always sort of…I don’t get excited. People always say, “Oh, you must get so excited.” I never have. Usually you’ve moved on to something else. [I’m] apprehensive, because this one is a bit of departure and you want to know what the reaction is going to be. You have your own feelings about it, but you never know…There are people who expected (me) to basically write crime novels after One-Eyed Jacks, and I haven’t written a crime novel – not really – since then.
So, are you going to be reading all the reviews and articles about the novel when it comes out, or do you avoid that kind of stuff?
My publicist sends me everything, so yeah. I know some people say they don’t read reviews, but I don’t personally know anyone who doesn’t read reviews (Laughs.)
The set-up for Big Man Coming Down the Road seems to be King Leer-ish. Where did you get the idea for the book?
Two things really. I had certain situations around me, friends, who have in recent years kind of gotten in weird situations with last will and testaments. And I always thought there was some fodder there for a little bit of humour…It’s very odd sometimes when somebody dies how people can change immediately. How people can undergo a total transformation of character. And the country music part…I thought about it when I heard Steve Earle in an interview call Shania Twain “the world’s highest paid lap dancer.” I’m a fan of real country music, Hank Williams and those guys…There’s obviously an element of that in the book.
A lot of your novels…don’t fit in with Can Lit. I think of you as having this Elmore Leonard thing. Do you feel like an outsider in the Can Lit community?
Well, I don’t really feel like I’m part of the Can Lit community. What’s the Groucho Marx line? I refuse to associate with the type of organization that would have someone like me as a member (Laughs.). I never aspired to it…. I think my books are heavy on plot, heavy on character, and that’s not something that’s Can Lit necessarily. Nothing against Can Lit. Some of the greatest literature in the world (is Canadian.)
How do you conduct research? I mean, what was the one about the Civil War?
So what do you do in terms of research for your books?
That was my favourite and probably will remain my favourite book to research to tell you the truth…. It was a really small thing that got that going. I noticed a Sotheby’s (auction) about six or seven years ago auctioning off a bunch of JFK belongings. Little things like humidors. And they sold his golf clubs. The pre-sale estimate was 25 to 30 grand. They sold them for $775,000. I remember reading that and going “What’s the obsession with owning things that belonged to somebody?” You could say he’s a historical figure, but he was also a romantic figure, too…People want to own just about anything ever owned by Princess Di, or next thing it’ll be people will spend a million dollars on something owned by Paris Hilton…That’s when I started thinking about this collectible society. I decided to write a satire on that. I tried to tailor it to the Canadian landscape. But lo and behold no one gives a shit about John Diefenbaker’s golf clubs. So I settled on Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest President, and you know, the Gettysburg Address, the greatest American political speech every made. I was a Civil War buff anyway. Or I thought I was a buff. And only when I started researching it I found out how little I really did know. But once I started researching it I just fell in love with it. I would jump in the car and drive to Gettysburg, which is only six hours from my house. It was really a treat to research. And the thing with the phonautograph, the recording thing?
That’s all completely fictional, obviously.
No. It’s fictional to the point that it didn’t happen at Gettysburg. This was the biggest eureka moment of my research. I was only going to have the collodion plates, and there’s a guy in Toronto who actually still does collodion plates, and he actually did a picture for me…So that was always going to be the thing, because there is only one picture of Lincoln at Gettysburg, and if you get a chance just Google Lincoln at Gettysburg and you’ll see it on the internet….The guy who spoke before him spoke for an hour and a half, then the photographer assumed that Lincoln would go on (for an hour and a half), and Lincoln spoke for a minute and a half. I knew it would be a big deal to have actual pictures of Lincoln at Gettysburg, but then I was researching and I came across this phonautograph thing. Leon Scott was a real guy. He did sell these things to laboratories in the 1850s. They could record sound…but they had no idea how to play it back. However he did, they know for a fact he visited Lincoln in the White House in 1863 and the rumour has persisted ever since that he recorded Lincoln’s voice, even though he couldn’t play it back, for posterity. And I talked to a professor in New York City…and he said to me, “That cylinder could be in the White House archives”. I said, “If it’s in the archives why doesn’t somebody go find it.” He said those archives are like the size of four football fields. He said, “If I had that cylinder today I could play you Lincoln’s voice.” So I’m looking for something to step the plot up a little bit and all of a sudden I come across this.
How long did it take you to write Big Man Coming Down The Road? What was your process?
First draft is pretty standard. It takes about four months. I write five pages a day. And then I edit that. Whether it takes four hours or seven hours, I make myself write five pages a day to keep it moving.
Were you on a deadline, or was this self-imposed?
Self imposed. I need that discipline. I can’t just write once in a while. That’s five days a week. As a rule, I’ll write one or two pages on Saturday and Sunday, just to make it easier on Monday. Then I set it aside, and I went to Nashville in between the first and second draft (to conduct more research.)
I’ve read that you work, or used to work, as a carpenter. Do you see any similarities between working with wood and working with words?
I’ve always said writing the first draft is similar to building a house.
How is the filming of All Hat going? And how involved are you in the process? How was adapting your own work?
The movie is finished. It was small budget. It was a twenty-seven day shoot. Adapting it…you have a lot of people inputting opinions on the script. You mentioned Elmore Leonard. I had a chance to talk to him a couple years ago and I said, “You don’t write screenplays anymore?” and he said no. I said why not. He said, “Because they drove me crazy.” I had a rule from the start. I said I’m not going to change the story, I’m not going to change the characters.
Did you have to cut any characters or change any major plot points?
No. No cuts. We had one idea to amalgamate two characters and it really wasn’t working. I think every character that’s in the book is in the movie. There’s a little bit of condensing…It’s pretty true to the book.
Is this the first screenplay you’d ever written?
No. This is the first one I’ve had produced, but I’ve written two original screenplays, one which is under option, and I’ve also written a screenplay for One-Eyed Jacks, which is under option.
Final question. What do you want to do next?
I want to start a book as soon as I’m done the publicity for this book. I have a couple of movie things under option that may or may not go within the next six or eight or nine months.