Vern Smith talks about writing and his new anthology, Jacked.
Welcome to author Vern Smith! Thanks for taking the time to share your work with us!
Vern Smith is the editor of Jacked, a new crime fiction anthology (Run Amok Crime). He is author of the novels Under the Table (a payroll heist that takes place on a Hollywood North TV shoot, circa 1989) and The Green Ghetto (an urban western set in the most depopulated region of Detroit). His novelette, The Gimmick—a finalist for Canada’s highest crime-writing honor, the Arthur Ellis Award—is the title track of his second collection of fiction. His third novel, Scratching the Flint, will be published by Run Amok Crime in 2023. A Windsor, Ontario native and longtime resident of Toronto, he lives on the wild blue yonder of the Illinois prairie.
Tell us about your life outside of writing.
Well, before the pandemic, my favorite pastime was going to small bars to see loud bands and drink beers. Given the current state of things, I’ve withdrawn to my little oasis here in Illinois. I’m fortunate to work from a small home where I have a double backyard-forest inhabited by some creatures I’ve only seen on TV. Basically, I take care of them and they take care of me. The backyard is set up for them now. I stay out of there, other than to bring them food or to garden. They tend to eat everything edible and that’s perfectly okay, because I get to watch from the breezeway with my slightly feral rescue kitty and we enjoy the show. Over the course of the seasons, I see Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Buntings, Northern Flickers, Redwing Blackbirds and Goldfinches along with the daily assortment of Cardinals, Blue Jays, Rabbits, Possum, and sometimes Deer, Fox, and the odd Coyote. I never planned for my Carlsberg years, but the pandemic forced the issue, so I’m living a relatively wholesome life for the moment, other than happy hour.
Your new anthology is called Jacked on Run Amok Crime. It’s made up entirely of first-run crime fiction. Tell us about it.
While there is quite a bit of excellent genre work here, not every piece is what I would classify as genre. Beyond stories and novelettes revolving around fractured laws, we simply decided to chase the best crime fiction we could get our hands on, without concerning ourselves with what any of it would be about. Along with subs and obscure treasures we had in our back pockets, we auditioned some 400 works and ended up running 21. That meant each piece had to be very, very good, yes, but also singular in such a way as to give this book another gear.
In the end, we settled on five decades of authors from five countries who give Jacked range in terms of style, politics, sexuality, gender, experiences of people of color, war veterans, an actual cop, and people who might not have always followed the letter of the law. There’s obviously much more to them, as people and as writers, but I don’t pretend to know, which was sort of the point. Mostly, we were looking to discover authors who were at least new to us.
How about your own writing? Do you have a work in progress?
The closest thing to a work in progress—my pandemic project—is coming to print next year, so I’m pretty much focused on helping to guide that through the publication process.
In a nutshell, Scratching the Flint is a literary crime thriller that puts here-and-now into proper historical context by examining the lowest common denominators of policing. Set in (just) pre 9/11 Toronto, it’s the story of how conflicts of interest, casual racism, petty dissention, gatekeeping, and the slow death of information came to destabilize North American law enforcement, and, in turn, society. As much as it’s a crime story, it’s the story of institutional failure. For comic relief, I’m told I give you absurdities of the same. Look for it in early 2023.
What was the most difficult piece you ever wrote? What made it difficult?
Truth be told, everything about writing is difficult. In fact, if I was to start over, I might be a plumber, driving around in my big van, playing old-school country, and charging $99 an hour. It’s too late to do that, so I press on, doing the only thing I know, and so I write.
Though I’ve dealt with more heart-wrenching matter, the most difficult thing I had to write, in terms of dilemmas, was a newspaper series, back when I was still a reporter, about a labor hearing a long, long time ago. It revolved a Customs officer who learned about a police lookout for one of their siblings. As you might guess, the officer warned said sibling about the situation and was fired. It was difficult, especially as a young person, to tell the story, because there was a level upon which I could empathize. Put in the same situation, I think most people would be tempted to help their family member. At the same time, I think it’s fair comment to say that a public trust had been compromised and that other public servants may have been put in a bad situation. All that said, a reporter’s job was, and should still be, I believe, to keep themselves out of a news story and tell it like it is, so I just put my head down and did like so. While I always felt conflicted about that, I still think that I did the right and only thing I could. Objectively as possible, I told a story that the public had a right to know.
What sort of research do you do for your work?
Tons. As a fiction writer, I’m informed, to a certain extent, by my background in print journalism. I try to be as accurate as possible in terms of capturing time and place. Once I finish a draft, if possible, I go to where it is set and walk around, taking notes and pictures. I want to know where my characters work, sleep, and play. I research establishments to ensure they were in fact around during times in which my stories are set. Both my last novel, Under the Table, and my forthcoming novel, Scratching the Flint, are set in Toronto where I lived for 20 years. In both cases, I walked the streets and visited establishments, while also consulting Toronto police on matters such as weapon and vehicle specs, things like that. I’m prone, I think, to over-research, but that’s okay, because what I don’t use can often be worked into something else. Main thing is, when you read one of my books, I know what I’m talking about, and I like to believe that plays a key role in suspending the reader’s sense of disbelief.
Which books and authors do you read for pleasure?
Long before I immigrated to the U.S., I grew up in Windsor and spent a lot of time reading authors from across the river in Detroit, such as Donald Goines and Clarence Cooper Jr., which led to Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim, Roland S. Jefferson, and other great black American writers who I’m still catching up to. Also, I’m late to the party with John Rechy and just devoured a couple of his novels. But having a foot on both sides of the border, I’ve also spent a lot of time with Evelyn Lau’s early work, as well as Crad Kilodney, Stephen Reid, Dany Laferrière.
While I sort of fell into crime fiction as a result of being a newspaper and magazine reporter, I have several shelves and modest mini-collections made of up everything from fine literary fiction to CanLit to biographies, high-brow smut, and sports, so it’s whatever catches my fancy on any given day. A good book is a good book, no matter.
Is there an author who inspires you?
They all do. I admire anyone who has enough determination to finish a book and see it through. But I’ve always been incredibly fascinated by Himes’ difficult journey, and, in fact, I still don’t think he gets his due. I’m long on record as saying his novel Lonely Crusade is the most important American novel I’ve read. Not my favorite, just the most important. He managed to piss off everyone involved more or less equally, which, as a reporter used to be something one sort of shot for. That’s what suspended disbelief. Deep down, I believed Himes because he didn’t go easy on anybody, including himself. That’s what gave his work a ring of truth. I believedevery word. And for me, as a half-assed novelist in the here and now, I still return to that book when I find myself lost in a story. I know a lot of writers wouldn’t feel the same way. But I’ll put Lonely Crusade against anything on your bookshelf. I swear by it.
Was there a person who encouraged you to write?
My dad both discouraged and encouraged me. At first, he stressed how difficult it would be to be a writer. And though he’s long gone, I still remember that talk clearly. His main point was that a lot of people want to be writers, that it’s highly competitive. And indeed, I recalled that conversation often as I went through submissions to the Jacked anthology. There was an overwhelming sea of very, very good writers, and we obviously didn’t have spots for everyone. So I thought of that conversation often as I turned lots of very good writers down. And I thought about my own rejections, understanding them better. All that said, once dad knew I had made my decision, he was all in. And in 50 words or less, he told me exactly what I had to do, something I feel compelled to keep between the two of us. Still, it’s never been easy. And sometimes, late at night, I can’t help but wonder how things might be different if I was driving around in my big van, playing old-time country, and charging $99 an hour.
Jacked in Canada:
Under the Table in Canada:
The Green Ghetto in Canada:
“Jacked is chock full of white-knuckle stories to propel the reader along at a breakneck pace. Don't sleep on this anthology. It's well worth the price of admission.” —Eli Cranor, author of Don't Know Tough
“Reading Vern Smith is to be reminded that urban America is more than the sum of its con jobs; it is a texture built of rips and stitches, a circus tent under which some of its wackiest animators hold forth—from Phyllis Diller to Carl Stalling, from Erich Sokol to Ishmael Reed. The Green Ghetto is electric, eccentric, extracellular madness.” —Michael Turner, author of Hard Core Logo
“The Green Ghetto is a model for modern westerns. Witty and socially conscious, it’s a needed update for a genre that long ago rode off into a dire sunset.” —Nick Pearce, Broken Pencil
“A drag queen Cher sings ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’… Vern Smith does. Under the Table is a magician’s conjuring of 1989, an era of more innocent dangers, nuclear annihilation, say, or Billy Idol’s later output. With a plot as tight as a cock-rocker’s perm and dialogue so sharp you’ll be looking over your shoulder to see who’s talking, this is a novel of sass, heart, and the bemusement of being dealt a hand that looked so good you made the mistake of checking. Vern Smith is a rare combination of a true craftsman and a genuine entertainer.” —Tom McCulloch, author of The Accidental Recluse
“A snappy heist novel, set during the production of an out-of-control television comedy in 1989 Toronto, Under the Table is a clever noir that will keep ‘em guessing. Wickedly funny, you’ll laugh even though you know you shouldn’t. Much like the sketch show that it portrays, Under the Table entertains with dark humor, quirky characters, and celebrity appearances, while poking fun at the absurdity of societal constructs. Quippy and smart, Smith’s prose is electric and crackles across the page.” —Meagan Lucas, author of Songbirds and Stray Dogs