On Writing: Interview with Curtis Smith

Curtis Smith's latest book is a simple and beautiful collection of essays called Communion. His stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals, and his work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing list of The Best American Spiritual Writing. I first met Curtis at Rosemont Writers Retreat and have become enamored by his beautiful prose, and his quiet dedication to the craft of writing. Curtis is a graduate of Kutztown University (Woot!) and lives in Hershey, PA with his wife and son.

Jim: There is so much I enjoyed about your essay collection Communion. The pieces are so quiet and personal. Did you set out to write an essay collection or was it only after submitting pieces that you realized you had this running theme?

Curtis: I didn’t set out to write a whole collection—that said, I tend to write in cycles, and most of the book was written in a span of about two years. This is my second essay collection, and I’ve discovered a different voice and tone in my nonfiction—and it’s a voice that’s seeped into my fiction as well. So I believe the style and tone provides a sense of unity.

The main running theme I imagined was observing my son leaving the self-centered awareness of a child and entering a more complex, scarier world of adulthood, a place where he realizes he isn’t the center of things and that the world can be filled with forces both wonderful and frightening. And this witnessing allows me to explore my own fears and joys through the lens he’s offered.

Jim: The book cover evokes Catholic traditions but the essays are really about Communion in a larger sense, how grace fills our lives in small, often ordinary moments. Are there any essayists or perhaps other writers who you think inspired you to write about this topic?

Curtis: I can’t say there were in particular—but I think there’s a lot of literary writing that deals with grace—with the communion of one’s awareness and the greater world that surrounds us. That said, I’d say in terms of tone and mood, I’d like to think my work lands within the realm of Joan Didion. I appreciate her work’s sharp images and the sense of passionate restraint.

I tend to write in streaks—I’ll write stories for six or so months, then return to a novel, then to essays. It’s just the way my mind seems to work—and the back-and-forth allows me to return to projects with a different perspective. When I’m in an essay writing mode, I find myself reading a lot of poetry. I enjoy the sparseness and beauty of poetry, the way so much is said with such economy. I’m no poet, but I hope that vibe finds its way into my work.

Jim: Being a father is one of life's greatest joys and you capture it beautifully. Has your son read the essays yet? If so, what does he think?

Curtis: He’s read sections—but not the whole thing. He’s OK with it—at least for now. I’m careful to tell my story—not his. I always want to respect him and his journey. I do my best to be as honest and truthful as possible when commenting on the things he’s said and done. I hope when he’s older he’ll see it the same way.

Jim: I read an interview in the Triangle where you discussed retirement from teaching. Is that coming soon or were you speaking about something farther on the horizon?

Curtis: I’m retiring this year. I graduated in 82 and started teaching right away. For the past 33 years I’ve been with the same district just outside Harrisburg. It’s been a good journey—and I’m incredibly thankful for all I’ve been able to do here. Turning 55 and having 30-plus years helps with the equations that impact one’s retirement. I’m going to do some adjunct work—I’m looking forward to that. I’m excited to start a new chapter—but I will also miss the work that has helped define me all these years.

Jim: You attended Kutztown University just a few years before I went there. What do you most vividly recall about your time at K-Town? And did you have an English or writing professor who inspired you?

Curtis: I grew up in the Philly area, so Kutztown, with its farmlands and buggies, was a bit of a shock, but I had a great time there. I played a lot of Frisbee, and I spent a lot of evenings in the library—kind of a weird combo, when I think of it. I was a special ed major, so I didn’t have too many English courses—but one of my freshman classes was with Harry Humes, who is a really wonderful and widely published poet. I’ve followed his career—he deserves some wider recognition.

Jim: Nice! One of the transcendent moments in my life was when Harry Humes entered on the first day of Creative Writing Class and read a Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?" I really enjoyed Communion and I know the Brandywine Valley Writers Group is looking forward to having you chat about the craft of writing. Thanks again!

Curtis: Thanks Jim.

You can order a copy of Curtis Smith's essay collection Communion directly from AMAZON.