An Interview with Roger Arthur Smith

Roger Arthur Smith’s captivating debut novel, Echoes, which hits bookshelves in March of 2018, melds the supernatural with 1950s noir. We recently caught up with the author to learn more about the inspiration behind the novel, his writing process, and the real story behind one of literature’s most compelling crows.

Roger Arthur Smith


Baobab Press: Where did the inspiration for Echoes come from?

Roger Arthur Smith: The story begins with libraries. I love them–and book stores. I had already written a couple of essays about them and wanted to try one about the first library I ever went to on my own. I had some notion of compiling a book-place memoir.

My first library was the Mineral County Library in Hawthorne. I wrote a draft about my visit: gritty desert wind buffeting me on the way there, a pretty young librarian, my clueless wonder, my first library book (Dr. Suess’s One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish), and my pride in getting a library card. It was a personal essay, and when I read it through, it seemed awkward, flat. First-person point of view does not suit me. So I wrote another draft from a disembodied point of view. No good. The problem, I decided, was me, an average little kid. So I wrote a third draft from the point of view of the librarian, and I made the boy not me but a kid who is eerie and slightly unnerving to the librarian, who oversees the small building all alone on the desert’s edge.

That was more interesting. But why is this eldritch boy there? After several tries to answer that, I wrote the prologue about a girl who is kidnapped, abused, and killed. A victim of the worst human depravity. So I added another kid to the mystery, which suggested a sequence, which piqued a fantasy. If only there were more justice in the world than we humans can mete out on our own, something to stop monsters when we fail. A supernatural agency, for instance. A mystery requires an investigator. I introduced Will Dubykky. A supernatural mystery suggested a supernatural investigator, and so I made him one. Then I sent him on his way to figure out what was going on.

BP: Echoes has such a strong sense of place. What’s your relationship with the Nevada desert, and why was it important for this book to take place in this unique setting?

RAS: My family moved from a small town in Montana to Hawthorne in 1958. I was five. Hawthorne was like an outpost in a barrenness that was a shock to my parents, less so to my older sister, who made friends easily, and a wonder to me. It was the first time that I looked at things not just right in front of me or in the middle distance but as far as the horizon. It shaped my idea of landscape: long vistas, hulking mountain ranges, sunlight like an invasion, colors that ran from drab to crazed.

The Great Basin was not like anything I had seen, not even in horse operas: a vast, grooved saucer where not even the rivers escape. Hawthorne was not like other towns. It was almost surrounded by naval ammunition bunkers. Kids at school sometimes bragged (falsely) that they could spot mushroom clouds from the Nevada Test Site. Uranium prospectors hung around. A Korean war veteran sliced up his wife and daughter, who fled across the street to bleed in our living room while my father went to talk him down. In the sheriff’s office a deputy was examining a confiscated rifle when it went off; the bullet traveled across the street and killed a woman in her house. There were no speed limits; single-car crashes were more common than collisions. A minor earthquake. Hunting Easter eggs under a blinding sun on frozen ground. A flash flood that neatly sliced a highway. A dust storm approaching like some Old Testament plague. An prehistoric serpent that was said to lurk in Walker Lake. Going to school with Native Americans and African Americans, the first I ever met. Playing marbles with ball bearings. Catching lizards and horned toads among cast-off ammunition crates. Bouncing over dirt roads, my father driving his ’51 Ford pickup, to ghost towns on the hunt for treasure. Whacking cones out of piñon pines for their nuts.

The list could go on, but the point is that I accepted it all as normal. I’ve lived elsewhere in Nevada–Carlin, Yerington, Carson City, Reno–and those places expanded my view, but I was already primed to regard the state as a place of singular dangers, adventure, dehydrating beauty, mesmerizing distances, uneasy communities, precarious industries, fierce love of sports, contradictory weather, gambling (as well other vices, incomprehensible to a boy), and heedless freedom. I reveled in it.

Now, when a story idea comes, it arises from those circumstances. No other setting suits so well.

BP: What was your writing process like for this novel?

RAS: I wrote Echoes, as my wife’s uncle liked to say, for my own amazement. Definitely an amateur’s indulgence. So–I can’t recall now whether I was more astonished or more pleased–when Christine Kelly called to say that Baobab Press might publish it, I had a job of work before me to make it actually publishable. Many drafts followed, many comments, suggestions, and doubt from others. Whole sections that I had fun writing were ejected, such as a long excursus on the number 4 and another about crow behavior. Chapters did a square dance with each other. Characters’ names changed. Scenes appeared and disappeared until, I believe, the story began to hide from me, scared about what strangeness I might inflict upon it next. But with the steady care of my editors and a measure of useful skepticism from family, the story found a course that did not depend wholly upon my whims.

BP: Can you talk about creating the character of Jurgen the crow? Was he based on a relationship you have with a specific animal?

Although I have kept dogs and cats, I am not innately a pet person. I prefer wild critters, especially birds. Watching them has captivated me since childhood. The episode in which Dubykky meets Jurgen after he tumbles from a tree derives from something I witnessed. I wish I could claim that I struck up a friendship with that crow, but I was at my family cabin and left soon after. (The crow, a fledgling, might have been too embarrassed for overtures anyhow.) I wrote up a description and thought about how to use it in a fiction. This was while I was just beginning Echoes.

As a supernatural being, Dubykky has to have at least one endearing, human-like trait that does not involve people. Otherwise, he would seem a mere parasite, or maybe symbiont. So, as a pirate has his parrot, I thought, Dubykky should have his crow, and I arranged the meeting. Then Junior comes along, and the poor kid needs a companion, and Dubykky shows a laudable compassion in lending him Jurgen.

Every morning I feed crows on the parking strip outside my kitchen. Jurgen and Yuki (see Rogues). They are namesakes.

BP: How would you describe some of the underlying thematic issues at play in this novel?

RAS: Echoes deifies evil while casting it as an exclusively human failing. It is an offense to homo sapiens and nature. The more narcissistic a person is allowed to become, the more likely he or she is to turn into a predator, and predators derange community.

William Dubykky personifies the fantasy component of the novel. Nature dispatches echoes to kill predators and prevent further damage to society, and he acts something like their job performance monitor. Beginning before Echoes opens, however, and continuing through the series, Dubykky finds himself drawn into human-like relationships and thereby comes to act more human. So the novels propose this as a corollary to the evil-is-antisocial theme: the opposite of evil is not an abstract good; good emerges from engagement with others for common benefit.

In this light the courtship of Milton Cledge and Mildred Warden exemplifies a kind of goodness, while that of Matt and Misty Gans depicts its perversion. Hans Berger’s withdrawal from society has resulted from war, the great failure of social interchange, and is pathetic. Junior’s ironic tragedy is that he could never offer his gifts to benefit society: his sweetness, lack of guile, concern for those under threat, and wonderment.

Dubykky’s belief that he has a duty to kill surviving echoes conflicts with his growing attachment to them, Junior in particular. He follows supernatural rules that he comes to dislike and doubt. This tension runs through the series.

BP: Echoes is the first installment of a trilogy. Without any plot spoilers, can you give readers a sense of what they can expect in the books to come?

RAS: Dubykky grows more human despite himself. He has to. The long era during which beings like him wreaked vengeance on aberrant humans is drawing to a close. Human society has become so complex, so interconnected, so lacking in privacy, that by and large its institutions can perform the task that echoes are created for. Although he remains steadfast in tracking down the last new echoes, Dubykky is becoming redundant.

Reconceiving his role entails unforeseen obligations to both echoes and non-echoes. His days as a lone wolf end. I think I’d better leave it at that, or else where is the fun in watching Dubykky/Devlin/Dantlyng succumb to what have been impossibilities for half a millennium? Among them, commitment, even an abrasive love.

BP: Who are some of your major literary influences?

If influence is calculated based on how many times one reads something, then for me Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice place first and second by a healthy margin. I have also, as I aged, been a fan of Lewis Carrol, Mark Twain, Robert Heinlein, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Steinbeck, V.S. Naipaul, Roberto Bolaño, Tim O’Brien, John Connolly, and Pat Barker. They’re in addition to other Great Tradition authors that I read in college, but how deeply does stuff that you parse out for class dig its claws into you?

RAS: What are you reading right now?

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and John Daniel’s Gifted. That’s beside background reading for a writing project, such as The Roadside Geology of Nevada (Frank DeCourten/Norma Biggar) and Turn this Water into Gold (John M. Townley).

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