On May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
This week we’re chatting with Cote Smith, author of One Story issue #118 “Hurt People” and the novel of the same name. The novel Hurt People expands on his short story, told from the point of view of a child living in the prison town of Leavenworth, as he idolizes his older brother, grapples with his broken family, and obsesses over the pool in his apartment complex—which is where the two brothers meet a mysterious stranger. Like the original short story, Smith’s novel is both grounded and suspenseful—true to its protagonist’s point of view yet imbued with poetry and tension. It’s a tricky balancing act that Smith pulls off with grace.
Jesse Hassenger: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Cote Smith: I was at home playing a video game on the couch. I couldn’t pause the game, so I helplessly watched as my guy got slaughtered while my agent told me my dream was coming true. I celebrated by hugging my wife when she got home. We might have gone to the local brewery.
JH: I heard that your book took sort of an unusual path to publication. What was that experience like for you as a first-time novelist?
CS: The book was rejected the first time around. I thought it was dead and began working on another book, writing 200 pages before my future editor called and revived Hurt People from the dead like Lazarus. Everything since that moment, even the difficult and scary stuff, like editing, has been amazing. I’m lucky to have worked with such an amazing agent, editor, and everyone else at FSG.
JH: Hurt People is a full novel version of your One Story piece, also called “Hurt People.” What made you decide to expand the piece into a novel, and what was that process like?
CS: I knew there was much more to the world that I wanted to explore. The short story only covers the brothers and the mother, and gives just a glimpse of Leavenworth. Having grown up in the area, I was very familiar with that world, and yet had never seen a prison town portrayed in a story or movie, at least not from a child’s perspective. I thought it was a story that deserved to be told.
JH: A fair amount of the dialogue in this book is between the two kids—brothers—and that dialogue drives such an important relationship. What did you do to get into that mindset?
CS: I’m a younger brother, so getting into the mindset came fairly naturally, particularly the ideas of the younger sibling idolizing the older, wanting to do whatever they do, and remaining loyal no matter what.
JH: Another small thing among many that I love about this book is the way it captures the way some kids can be absolute obsessed with swimming pools. Were you pool-obsessed as a kid? Any vivid pool-related memories you’d care to share as summer approaches?
CS: I was obsessed. My uncle had a pool with a diving board, and my brother, cousins, and I spent entire summers inventing crazy pool moves and games. We had a floating volcano that we used to play king of the mountain, where one person sat on top and the others catapulted at them from the diving board to knock them off. We strung a hose through pool noodles and had a person on each side of the diving board hold the line so we could compete in an ad hoc high jump contest. Looking back, I’m surprised no one was hurt.
JH: As a movie nerd, I have to ask: are the VHS titles you use in Hurt People real? I know I could probably Google this but I’d love to hear about your selection process—either in terms of choosing real movies, or in terms of making up movies.
CS: The VHS titles are not real, but they were very fun to write. They’re based on the terrible horror and sci-fi movies we watched as kids, movies like Critters, Ghoulies, and the entire Leprechaun series. Like the brothers in the book, we watched these movies when we were far too young. We would take turns laughing hysterically in the light, when we were together, and being completely terrified when it was dark and time for bed. It’s all fun and games until you’re trying to fall asleep.
JH: So if Lieutenant Lazarus doesn’t exist, can you maybe get a development deal have it made so I can check it out?
CS: I’m on it.
JH: What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball?
CS: This will be the second time I’m a debutante, so I’m assuming there’s some sort of special jacket, or at least a pin, that Hannah will present to me. I’m really looking forward to that.