For most of his first five decades, Andrew Smith resisted being a published author. Since the release of his first novel, Ghost Medicine, he has more than made up for the delay: he’s published 10 novels in seven years, a bounty that includes Grasshopper Jungle, which won a 2015 Printz Honor and the 2014 Boston Globe-Honor Book Award, and his forthcoming title, The Alex Crow (Dutton, Mar.), which has already received three starred reviews.
In just a few years, especially since the publication of his breakout book, Winger (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Smith has earned a reputation for writing vivid, unclassifiable stories that careen into the darkest, most profane chambers of the teenage soul.
“He thinks differently,” says his agent, Michael Bourret, v-p of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. “The connections that he makes and that he draws between disparate things are unique. As a result, he does things that no other writer does, but that is everything YA literature should be.”
Though his name might not suggest it, Smith is the child of immigrants, the first child in his family born in America. His father and mother met in Trieste, a city on the Adriatic coast near Italy’s border with Slovenia. “It is funny, but growing up, I knew kids in Trieste whose family name was Smith who couldn’t speak one word of English,” he says. His Italian relatives have enthusiastically embraced his work, even though they haven’t been able to read much of it. “They are so excited because I finally have a book [Grasshopper Jungle] coming out in Italian,” Smith says. “I just hope they skip the page where I made those comments about the Italian army.”
When he was born, the Smiths were living in California, northwest of Los Angeles. At Newbury Park High School in the 1970s he worked on the newspaper, intent on a career in writing. He majored in political science with a minor in journalism at Cal State–Northridge and graduated with job leads in hand. He quickly realized reporting was not for him.
“It just wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do,” Smith says. Instead, he hit the road, spending most of his 20s at odd jobs in far-flung locales: loading bananas and unloading cars as a longshoreman, and working at a chemical mill, in bars, in liquor stores, as a security guard, and as a musician.
When Smith’s wanderlust subsided he took a job in the early 1990s teaching high school. His main duty these days at Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., is teaching AP economics, but he also teaches English to non-native speakers, which is where he found the inspiration for 15-year-old Ariel, the main character in The Alex Crow.
“Three years ago, we started getting a significant number of students from Syria during the height of the civil war, especially a lot of families with teenage boys who, if they didn’t get out, would have been conscripted into the army or by one of the rebel groups,” Smith says. “Working with these kids made
me wonder about the experience of escaping violence, leaving everything to get to a refugee camp, and finding yourself in a California high school, all within a few days or weeks.”
Like many of his previous novels, The Alex Crow is about more than one thing. Smith’s interests are wide-ranging and eclectic. Ariel’s account of a summer camp for “tech detox” alternates with subplots about a mad bomber, a depressed (bionic) crow, and diary entries written by a doctor aboard a ship trapped in the ice on a 19th-century expedition to the North Pole. It works as science fiction, a polemic about the horrors of war, and a wicked satire. PW’s starred review called the novel “audacious”; Booklist dubbed Smith “a spiritual heir to Kurt Vonnegut.”
It’s heady praise for Smith, who hasn’t quit his day job and might never have been published at all had he not reconnected with a classmate from the Prowler, his high school’s student newspaper, who had become a published author herself. He had been writing all these years, but never made a serious effort to find a publisher.
“I think what he said when he first called was, ‘Well, I’m glad one of us did it,’” recalls Kelly Milner Halls, author of dozens of children’s nonfiction titles. “I was astounded that he had not pursued writing, so I asked him, ‘Where’s the novel?’ and he admitted it was in a drawer. I told him, ‘Get it out. We’re going to get it published.’”
Smith had questions and concerns that Halls was in an excellent position to answer, having long worked as YA author Chris Crutcher’s assistant. “He thought there were a lot of limits in YA. He said, ‘I want to be able to swear in my books,’ and I told him, ‘You can.’ Actually, with the years he had already spent working with teenagers he was the perfect candidate to write YA.” Halls read a synopsis of Ghost Medicine and outlined the next steps for Smith to take. Feiwel and Friends published it in 2008.
“All the help I could give him wouldn’t have been worth anything if the novel wasn’t any good,” Halls says. “But it was.”
Halls recalls the teenage Smith as “incredibly hardworking and ambitious,” and those traits are still evident in his workaday routine. He rises at 3 a.m. to run a few miles in the mountains of northern Los Angeles County, where he lives with his wife, Jocelyn, his daughter, Chiara, horses, chickens, dogs, and cats. (Son Trevin is a senior at UC-Berkeley.) It’s a winding 25 miles down a two-lane mountain road to work. He tries to get some writing in before the first bell rings at 7 a.m.
Perhaps another secret to his productivity is one that he admits infuriates other writers: he does not believe in drafts. “The whole idea that you’re just going to slog through and get something down and not worry about making mistakes, is just not possible for me,” Smith says. “If you built a house like that—just throw it up and then go back and fix it—that’d be an intense waste of time. I aim at being meticulous from the ground up so when I put the last nail in, it’s ready to send off.”
Also, he does not watch television. “I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the shows people are always talking about on social media. I know there is a Dr. Who, but that’s all I know.”
He does not let his writing life seep into his classroom. None of his books are on display, although he has signed books for students who have brought them in to be autographed. “My students do read my books and a few of them are probably a bit starstruck,” he says. “But I have also heard a student say, ‘Did you know Mr. Smith wrote that?’ and the other one say, ‘No way!’ and watch it evolve into a huge argument.”
Burnout is not yet an issue for Smith: “I really love teaching and I really love my students,” he says. “They have so many stories to tell and such varied perceptions on the world. As a writer, it’s like going to a well every day that I can drink from and obtain all these ideas.”
With so many years as a teacher, he is also able to take time off to tour, as he will this spring to promote The Alex Crow. Penguin is calling it the “Keep YA Weird” tour, aimed at celebrating the literary experimentalism that is a hallmark of Smith’s work.
What he does plan to change is the two-books-a-year pace he’s been on. He considered quitting altogether in 2011, stung by the infamous Wall Street Journal article, “Darkness Too Visible,” in which the writer Meghan Cox Gurdon singled out Smith’s third book, The Marbury Lens (Feiwel and Friends, 2010), about the kidnapping and near rape of a boy, as one of “the book industry’s ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers.”
“He was extremely hurt by it,” Bourret says. “He seems like such a tough dude and his books do have a lot of darkness in them, but he’s really a very sensitive guy who cares deeply about children. He’s been a teacher his whole life, so that particular criticism—that his books would actually harm children—was really painful. He made a decision not to write any more or, at least, not to write for publication.”
There was also this: as a teenager, Smith had been kidnapped himself. “It’s hard to talk about,” Smith says. “I don’t like to talk about it because it still affects me. Yes, it was an absolute stranger, and, yes, it’s taken my whole life to process it.”
He did indeed keep writing, producing Grasshopper Jungle, a novel about three friends who inadvertently unleash an army of sexually ravenous monster-sized grasshoppers on their small, dying Iowa factory town. He intended it to have a readership of one person: his son, Trevin, who was away at college and asked Dad to send him whatever he’d been working on. Bourret talked Smith into letting him read it, too.
“I know he wrote it almost as a way of exorcising demons,” Bourret says, “but I told him, ‘This can’t be a book for just you and your son. It just can’t.’”
Smith was home alone, folding laundry, when the Printz committee called to announce they had chosen it as an Honor book. Sony bought the movie rights last March; Edgar Wright (The World’s End) has signed on to direct.
Smith has a second 2015 book, a sequel to Winger, coming out this fall. There’s no talk now about quitting. “When I write, I always start off by asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he says. “I’m not writing so I can be a published author. I’m writing for those risk-takers in the reading audience who will gravitate toward my kind of story. I’m writing to get them out of their comfort zone, maybe get them to try something a little different.”