An interview with Book Prize Judge and Award-winning Writer, J. Eric Smith
interview with Ashley Holloway
Ashley Holloway (AH): Firstly, I would like to congratulate you on winning the 2023 Unleash Creatives book prize contest with your short story collection, Ubulembu and Other Stories. One year on, how are things going for you with regards to writing? Are you working on anything new?
J. Eric Smith (JES): Thank you for the kind congratulations, much appreciated, and thanks as well (and again) to Unleash Creatives for honoring my work. Writing is going very well one year on from Ubulembu's selection as the 2023 Book Prize winner. My writing partner (Jim McNeal) and I are in the final research/writing stages of a nonfiction book under contract to Agate Publishing (Chicago) titled Crucibles: History's Most Formidable Rites of Passage. This is our second book project together, following and building on 2023's Side by Side in Eternity: The Stories Behind Adjacent American Military Graves. We'll be submitting the manuscript to Agate on or around April 1, with a target publication date in early 2025, and we're beginning to develop proposal ideas for our third book project together. I also "un-retired" as President/CEO of a nonprofit research trust called TREE Fund in early 2023, returning for seven months to my former salaried role to help the organization through an unexpected leadership transition period. That engagement involved a lot of professional writing on a variety of technical and fundraising topics, so it was nice to deploy those chops again after a few years away from that sort of work. I continue to write fairly regularly on my own long-running website (jericsmith.com), primarily using it for travel writing and criticism (music, films, books, etc.) in recent years. Finally, I have a complete poetry manuscript and a collection of essays that I spent much of 2023 editing; I am now shopping them to find their best publishing homes.
AH: While there is no universal piece of advice that can help writers "make it," if you were to offer one pearl of wisdom you have learned through your writing career, what would it be?
JES: Be a word hoarder and keep all of your written works, even ones done just for your own edification, even ones that you may not consider successful (in their time), organized and accessible in whatever format(s) work well for you. You never know when an opportunity, or an idea, or a partnership, or a project may emerge where such set-aside works-in-progress could be of value to you, or to prospective employers, publishers, or readers. Some of the stories in Ubulembu were over 20 years old by the time they saw publication with Unleash Press, who provided the right place and the right time for them to finally emerge into the public domain. And that's not the first time in my career when pieces have laid below ground for many years before coming into their full flowering, so retaining a well-organized vault of fragments and partials and pieces with no apparent purpose has been a practice with multiple, tangible benefits in my own experience.
AH: As the Editorial Director of Unleash, I can say with great confidence that we have some incredibly strong finalists again this year. How will you approach the judging for this book prize contest?
JES: Having spent many years as a working critic in a variety of creative fields, I'm fairly comfortable with the seemingly unpleasant experience of ranking diverse and disparate works hierarchically, even when all of the contenders are fine and accomplished pieces in their own standalone rights. I know many people are uncomfortable with such comparative analysis and "X is better than Y, which is better than Z" decision making, but I'm an inveterate list maker, so that comes somewhat naturally to me, temperamentally speaking. In my critical process, I tend to apply both external/objective lenses (i.e. how do works fit into the environments around them, and how do creators bend, amend, or extend those environments) and internal/subjective lenses (i.e. how do creators deploy craft in an original fashion, and how successful are they in building immersive and internally-consistent experiences with said craft). I deeply love written language, and am always most impressed when writers with distinctive voices are able to deftly communicate in ways where the story told and the language used to tell the story are inextricably linked, creating a complete package that is greater than the sum of its constituent parts, whatever those parts may be, and whatever may have been built with them.
AH: What kind of professional or personal experience do you think would help emerging writers achieve their publishing goals?
JES: Having the opportunity to write regularly in a "day job" is a tremendous way to train the creative muscles for the more personally resonant works that many of us wish to create. You don't have to be a communications or journalism professional by title or training to make the most of the writing opportunities that your work may present to you, if you keep an open mind and fairly value the words and works that you may be creating on a day-to-day basis as part of other core assignments or responsibilities. Those types of experiences teach us how to write for others, how to engage with diverse audiences, how to capture and present positions, and how to shape narratives, and how to be efficient in our communications. I also believe in the power of hanging a shingle in public that says "I AM A WRITER" before you may actually have the traditional C.V. entries to affirm such a self-definition. If you don't believe that you are a writer, then others won't either. I know many people might disagree with me on my next point, hewing as they do to a "never give anything away for free" rubric, but since the dawn of the web circa 1995, I have highly valued writing what I want to write when I want to write it, then using my website as a public platform to display my chops, so that when opportunities have presented themselves, I've had a strong, stable, and long-running platform that affirms my ability to write well, and to write regularly. I view that as something of a portfolio collection, an investment in time and energy with no immediate discernible financial return, but which creates opportunities for engagement that otherwise would not exist, and serves as an excellent networking tool with others in the creative fields of interest to me.
Buy J. Eric Smith’s award-winning collection, Ubulembu, here.