Q&A with Shelby Smoak
April 2, 2013
Shelby Smoak’s book, “Bleeder: A Memoir,” narrates his college struggles as a severe hemophilic who contracted HIV via a blood transfusion. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as Northern Virginia Review, Cucalorus, Juice, The Crutch, New Thought Journal, Cities and Roads, and Coastal Plains Poetry. He was awarded a Pen/American grant for writers living with HIV. He lives with his wife and teaches writing in Northern Virginia.
- Téa Obreht, “The Tiger’s Wife”: I thought the leap of imagination here absolutely transfixing. It was so incredibly playful and fun and just a great story.
- Stephen Greenblatt, “Will in the World”: Although this biography of William Shakespeare leaves much up to speculation (“perhaps” this and “maybe” that), it’s incredibly informative and just all around a well-written work. Do you have to be a Shakespeare scholar to get this? No. But knowing a few of the top plays (Hamlet, King Lear) helps.
- Thomas Hardy, “Far From the Madding Crowd”: This is just a really great story with finely drawn characters. I’ve read other Hardy and this one is the latest. Each time, I find he’s an author I hate I haven’t gotten to before.
- James R. Gaines, “Evening in the Palace of Reason”: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment: This really great and wonderful history can be loved on the one hand for its brevity (unlike so many other histories), but on the other for itsfinely told narrative. The author’s use of counterpoint to contrast Bach and Frederick the Great is wonderful, and along the way you get a keen sense of history.
- T.C. Boyle, “The Women”: This fictionalized version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s several marriages is ultimately a captivating account of this larger-than life architect. Boyle’s narrative choice of telling the story achronologically especially heightens the turn-the-page quality of this work. This book is well-written and well-worth reading.
What was your favorite book as a child?
When I started reading books longer than standard picture books, I was drawn into fantasy. Of these my favorite book [and the one I read multiple times] was Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”. The story kept me coming back for more, but I remember thinking at the time (and still think now) about the the work’s profound concept of time. I still have the contrasted images of time engrained in my memory: (1) one the linear and standard view of time akin to a piece of straight string (2) the other, the curved view of time where that same piece of string is then curved so that different points at the beginning and the end of the string then touch.
Have you been to the D.C. area before? If so, what is your favorite thing about it?
What I love about DC: I actually live just across the river in Arlington, and I can’t get enough of this city. The access to so much free art and history is incredible. I have always thought the Library of Congress the most beautiful building I’ve walked through, and just to be able to go in there and work and write is inspiring. In fact, I applied for my library card and did some of Bleeder’s final revisions in the Jefferson Room. Now, when I’m on breaks from teaching, since I’ve now toured most of the galleries and museums, I return and take one of their free tours, especially at the National Gallery of Art, which updates their tours weekly. The Gallery tours are led by experts in the field so you get an in depth lecture based upon a period of art history or an individual movement and/or artist. In the last year, I’ve taken a tour on the Italian Renaissance, the Impressionists, and then a tour solely devoted to Monet. Inevitably, this information somehow makes it into something I’m working on, whether by direct mention of the artwork or simply as a means for metaphor.
What is the most difficult, or challenging, aspect of being a writer?
Finding time to actually write.