Dominic Smith, a 2003 alumnus of the Michener Center’s MFA program in writing, was born in Brisbane and grew up in Sydney, but his education and work have taken him far from the continent since—he earned his B.A. in Iowa and worked in the dotcom boom in Europe before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for graduate school. Smith seems to have found Texas to his liking, though, and has stayed in Austin for more than ten years now.
After graduating with one completed novel, “The Beautiful Miscellaneous,” he won a prestigious Dobie Paisano Fellowship and spent six months completing a second novel, “The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.” Both were sold in 2004 to Atria (Simon & Schuster), who published them in reverse order, “Mercury Visions” being touted as his debut, followed by “Miscellaneous” in 2007.
“Miscellaneous” is a contemporary tale, the story of the average son of a genius physicist who develops a form of synesthesia after an accident. The novel explores how the character comes to understand his own mind and deal with his father’s demanding expectations. It has been optioned by Southpaw Entertainment, with Smith adapting the screenplay himself.
In “Mercury Visions,” Smith shows his gift for capturing another time and place. Photographer Louis Daguerre slides into a madness caused by exposure to mercury vapors, and determines to capture ten final images before he dies. The novel expertly conjures Paris in the 1800s and the historically accurate, though fictionalized, life of Daguerre, creating what Kirkus Reviews called “a compelling psychological study, a thoughtful tracing of the birth of a new art form, and an atmospheric portrait of 19th-century France: impressive on all three counts.” The book was selected for Barnes & Nobles Discover Great New Writers Program and received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.
In his third novel, “Bright and Distant Shores,” Smith returns to the 19th century—1897 Chicago this time, where a gilded age magnate competes in the race to build the city’s highest skyscraper and erect on its rooftop a spectacle of South Pacific natives. It is his first novel to be published in Australia, where it’s been received with critical praise and two national literary award nominations.
“Smith’s novel is an atmospheric, meticulously observed period drama from a footsure and stylish writer with a fine sense of narrative pace,” says “The Age,” Melbourne’s daily, which has shortlisted the novel for its Book of the Year Award. It was also shortlisted for Australia’s prestigious Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction.
Smith launches the book’s U.S. release this week with a reading and book signing at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 16, 2011. He answered a few questions for ShelfLife@Texas about his research for the novel and its reception in his homeland.
What was the genesis of “Bright and Distant Shores”?
It was a story I heard about the arctic explorer Robert Peary and the anthropologist Franz Boas, who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1897, the year my novel begins, a family of six Greenland Inuit disembarked from a ship at a dock in New York City while a curious crowd of thousands looked on. They had been shipped to the city under the care of Peary at Boas’s request — he had asked Peary to bring back a single native so the Inuit could be studied “without fear of frostbite.” Peary took it upon himself to bring back six Greenlanders instead of one, and the Inuit were housed in the basement of the museum. Within a year, all but one had died of tuberculosis, and the sole survivor, a boy named Minik, was adopted by a museum official. The bodies of the dead were turned over to a medical school for dissection and the bones were later returned to the museum. The bones sat in a drawer at the museum until 1992, when they were returned to Greenland after a journalist exposed the situation. Minik returned to his homeland in 1909 but later came back to the United States, only to die in the flu epidemic of 1918. This tragic story got me thinking about the troublesome relationship between museums and the people and cultures they catalogue.
Is it true that you took a crash course in sailing to get the nautical lore right for the sea voyage that takes place in the novel?
It is true, and my wife can vouch for what a disaster that was. I had read all I could about 19th century tall-mast sailing and had struck up an email correspondence with a sailor named Jonas Collins, who was circumnavigating the globe alone in his 35-foot Pearson Alberg sloop. He would answer my obscure questions whenever he got Internet access—for example, how long would it take to sail out to a remote island like Tikopia from New Guinea outside of monsoon season? Even though I knew the factual ins and outs of sailing, I felt afraid of betraying what a landlubber I was in the novel. So I enrolled in a sailing course with a private instructor. Flash-forward to my first time renting the boat alone and deciding to bring my wife along so I could show off my maritime prowess…we nearly collided with the dock, the boom nearly hit me in the head, and I sat by the tiller yelling instructions in a way that brought Ahab to mind. My wife was a good sport about it all, but she suggested — quite diplomatically — that I should invite one of my male friends to go along next time. I haven’t been on a sailboat since.
You do a lot of research for your historical novels. What’s the oddest thing you discovered about the 19th century or the settings for the novel?
The 19th century abounds with oddities, one of the reasons I find it a deep well to draw from in my writing. Consider the Chicago meatpacking tycoon who tried to dynamite a freighter’s way out of frozen Lake Michigan one winter, or the use of the word antifogmatic for a drink of liquor taken in the morning to brace oneself against bad weather, or the fact that Harper’s and other serious magazines published articles that profiled the emerging skyscrapers in Chicago and New York, asking questions like—How Will High Altitude Affect Business Acumen? These were, in the 1890s, buildings of not more than 10-25 floors. The 19th century is full of gripping philosophy, words, but also lots of whimsy. I feel right at home there.
You haven’t really taken Australia as a subject for your fiction thus far. As you look towards other projects, does the book’s tremendous reception there make you rethink this?
I’ve published one short story that takes place in Australia and the current novel has an Australian sea captain — the son of a freed Tasmanian convict — but that’s as close as I’ve gotten to staging fiction on the continent. I’ve had an idea for a while about a novel set in Australia during its early period, but so far it’s escaped my grasp. I’m working on something now that features a school of New York painters of the early 20th century, but then I’m determined to make the Australian idea come to life. I was in Australia for about a month earlier this year and it was very gratifying to see my work getting a warm reception there. I’ve spent half my life in the United States, but culturally I still feel very connected to the place where I grew up.