Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Interview with Barry Smith, Author of "Only Milo"

Please join me in welcoming Barry Smith today. Barry is the author of "Only Milo." He is a professor at Emporia State University in Kansas and has also been on staff at New Mexico State University, Drake University, and at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, where he received his Ph.D. I was surprised to learn from the web site for "Only Milo" that Barry is a professor of finance, not English as I had assumed. He was born and raised in a farm in Iowa.

He has two sons and two grandchildren. "Only Milo" is his first novel.

This is the most unique book I've read in a really long time. Where did you get the idea to write the book in this style?
The writing style is not something I have ever used or even tried before. I also know of no other book written in a similar style. All I can say is that I went with Milo’s narrative voice, and this is where I was carried. You can see the voice develop throughout the book as Milo’s situation changed. Otherwise, I simply have to say the creative process took over.
It felt very comfortable to me right from the beginning, so I let it happen even though I knew the structure was unusual. I can still remember writing the first two-line chapter and thinking, “What are you doing???” But then I decided they were two really good lines and let it continue to flow without trying to put any limitations on the structure of the work.

Milo is such an interesting character. I couldn't decide if I felt sorry for him or horrified by him. What was your inspiration for him?
I don’t have any particular person who inspired him, but I do know this novel started flowing shortly after my kids brought copies of the first two seasons of Dexter for our Thanksgiving family gathering. In retrospect, I think that might have been a factor in how this novel evolved, but I really don’t know for sure.
I really like the fact that he has accomplished practically nothing in his life—to the outside world, at least—but at the age of 62 he finally grabs life by the throat and starts to take control of his own destiny. Of course, his method of doing so is a bit… unconventional.
"Only Milo" is really a commentary on the literary industry. Did you write from personal experience, research or is it strictly your own opinions?
Mainly my own opinions. In the academic world, I did have research data “stolen” by two of my Ph.D. program professors and received no credit when it was published. But most of Milo’s views were created during the writing process.
It should be obvious that the best writing is not often what gets published or read. Fame, wealth, celebrity and scandal are far more important factors and I think that is a commentary on society as much as it is on the literary industry.
I'm always interested in learning about authors' writing process. Did you have this book plotted out before you started or did you just have the germ of an idea and go where it took you?
I know exactly where this book originated, but I have no idea how it developed from there. I was in a diner in Pratt, Kansas, and for some reason ordered a Reuben sandwich. While waiting for my order, I began reading a Spanish novel that had recently been translated into English. When the Rueben arrived, it was horrible. I got home that night I wrote the sentence, “Maybe it was the SPAM Reuben sandwich” into a new writing file and below that sentence wrote the following: This is what I know about this work. The male narrator serves the SPAM Reuben to a woman who is not impressed. I think the book has something to do with the translation of a novel from Spanish to English.
IThe book says this is your first novel. You don't happen to have a stack of manuscripts in your closet, do you? Are you working on any thing new?

I have been writing off and on for about 25 years (mainly off) and have two old novels, written in the late eighties and early nineties, stacked in my closet. One of those is worthless, but the other one could be rejuvenated through a total rewrite – I like the concept and the opening couple of chapters. The remainder is no good.
I am in various stages of being barely started on four or five other projects. I have to decide which one makes the most sense to pursue at this time. They are all far more developed than Only Milo was (obviously) so the writing process will be different. In most cases, these works all have definite beginnings and endings, and I need to write the remaining 90%. I hope that process works. As I stated earlier, that is not how Only Milo was created.
I also have some ideas for a follow-up for Only Milo, but I am going to take that route only if the creative process pushes me there.
Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to get published?
That process is still evolving. I really enjoyed the accomplishment of writing a book I thought was interesting, unique and fun to read. I also enjoyed having the published work in my hands. I tend to be quite private and introverted in most ways, so I am not sure about everything else that follows – the readings and signings and other promotional activities. My primary joy was in writing and publishing the book.
I had no idea I would get something published before retiring from my teaching job, so that has also been a factor. I planned on finally getting serious about writing in another year or so. Now that I already have a book published, that process will also be evolving.
Who are your favorite authors? What's on your nightstand right now?
I have three favorite authors and have read everything they have ever published. Ironically, all three have new books coming out this fall, so you know what is (and will be) on my nightstand. Richard Russo’s book, That Old Cape Magic, just came in the mail this week, so I hope to start on it this weekend. Rick is an acquaintance from many years ago and Nobody’s Fool is one of my favorite books. John Irving and Anne Tyler are my other two favorites, and I have pre-ordered both of their new novels.
My all-time favorite book is The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.
I see that you've lived in the west and the east but keep coming back to the midwest. What keeps bringing you back?
It feels like home. I grew up in Iowa on a farm seven miles from the closest small town, and that experience shaped my life. I own an acreage in Iowa where I will move when I retire from my teaching job in the next year or so.
As a parent, grandparent, and professor, when do you find time to write? Do you have set hours to write?
I have never been able to be a “regular” writer – I have let a busy life get in the way. I have always assumed that was a major reason why I was not successful in the past. It was also part of the reason I moved to Kansas in 2006 – I was hopeful I could start new habits and write on a regular basis in preparation for my retirement plans to be a writer. That didn’t happen.
Instead, from June 2006 to Dec 2008, I did a bit of writing on two of the other projects I have on the back burner. In early January 2009, Only Milo started pouring out of me and it was primarily written in three separate “writing frenzies” that took place in January, March and June of 2009, and those form most of what turned out to be Parts 1, 2 and 3 in the book.
My conclusion is there is no one right way to go about it. I really admire friends who write almost every day, but so far, I have not been able to do that. I hope to in retirement, but who knows?
Thanks, Barry! Stayed tuned for your chance to receive an autographed copy of "Only Milo!"
For my review of "Only Milo" click here.


  1. I am not acquainted with this book, but the fact that the author is a professor at Emporia State - which is located only about an hour from me - immediately attracted my attention. I am very intrigued by his "unique" writing style and would like to check out the book.

    Thanks for writing and presenting such a great interview!

  2. Wonderful interview! I think you asked him all the questions I'd have wanted to know the answers to! I'm not much good at questions, so bravo! to you. And really interesting stuff about balancing the academic life and fiction writing, the writing process, etc. Great responses!

  3. i agree, good review. nice in depth questions. thanks.

  4. Superb interview! I love author interviews, well reading them, I have no idea what I would ask! It's so fun to get better acquainted with the authors that write the books I read!

  5. I have never heard of this book but I am completely intrigued about it especially after reading your interview. Barry Smith sounds like a very interesting man. Love that his favorite author is Richard Russo. I laughed out loud at the line he typed after the Reuben sandwhich in Kansas. Love that that was when he got the idea for the book!

    Great post Lisa!