To mark the paperback release of Forty Acres in the UK, Raven Crime Reads is delighted to bring you an exclusive Q&A with the book’s author, Dwayne Alexander Smith. As my review below testifies, this was one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read for some time, and effortlessly rises above the simplistic tag of ‘crime novel’ to something far more intense and compelling, reminiscent of the very best of American contemporary fiction. Read on to find out more about Smith’s motivation as a writer and his plans for the future…
When did you take the plunge, and first start to write this (Forty Acres) as a novel?
About four years ago I figured out that Forty Acres wouldn’t work as a screenplay. Well, my manager and agent helped me figure it out. They didn’t think that the idea was sellable as a screenplay. I loved the concept so much that I decided to do something that, up until that point, I hadn’t tried before, write a novel.
How different was the process for you to your day job, as a screenwriter?
Very different. I’ve worked as a screenwriter since 2001. I feel very comfortable writing screenplays. I was out of my element when it came to writing a novel. I approached the problem by reading lots of thrillers that were similar to what I wanted Forty Acres to feel. I also began writing lots of test chapters then giving them to my friends for feedback. Once I felt that I had captured the right pacing and voice, I began writing the novel in earnest.
The central conceit of the novel is so strong – so simple and bold – any idea or memory as to what it was that first triggered the idea for you?
Growing up in the Bronx, I used to spend a lot of time hanging out with my friends on the street, just talking and goofing around. One conversation I remembered was about how we would have fought back and kicked ass if someone tried to make us slaves. Later, when I began writing professionally I wanted to create a story that involved a modern black man who, by the means of time travel, is thrust into slavery in the past. So, Forty Acres really started as a science fiction story. Once I began trying to work out the plot the story slowly evolved into what it is today.
Do you think crime and thriller writers should aspire to tackle serious contemporary themes in their work?
Yes. I believe that the more relatable a story is the more gripping it will be for the reader. There’s nothing wrong with stories about super spies trying to stop super villains, but most people are completely removed from that world. The conflicts encountered by the protagonists in that sort of thriller have very little to do with real life. But a story grounded in real everyday issues has the potential to grab the reader on a gut level. They become a lot more involved because the issues confronted in the book are issues they deal with everyday.
It seems like you must have had a lot of fun writing the characters of Dr Kasim and Oscar, did you have any literary models (or film actors) in mind when you wrote them?
I could vividly picture the characters in my mind but I did not cast them with real actors, which is a technique that I often used in screenwriting. My favorite characters to write were Dr. Kasim and Carver. I really enjoy writing villains, especially smart villains. Perhaps there’s something wrong with me because when I read and watch thrillers, I often find myself rooting for the villain. I would love to write a story someday in which the villain wins. In real life villains win sometimes, why not in fiction.
And talking of villains, do you think we may see something more of ‘The Handyman’ someday?
Absolutely. I have a sequel to Forty Acres all figured out. So, if I ever have an opportunity to write it, the Handyman will play a key role.
What novel do you remember first really getting inside your head?
My influences are wildly varied. As a kid I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. Then I went through a phase of reading horror, then the classics. I guess the novel that touched me the most is Huckleberry Finn. While reading it I experience a wide range of emotions. That book made me laugh and cry and get angry. Just thinking about certain scenes in that book makes me tear up.
And you must have a favourite movie, or two?
I have loads of favorite movies. The list includes lots of Hitchcock and Spielberg movies. At the top of the list are movies like Shane, Rocky, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, West Side Story. Again, wildly varied.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Mark Twain, Stephen King, Nikola Tesla, Hitchcock, Muhammad Ali, Oprah, and John Williams.
And finally, what advice would you give to any young, unpublished thriller writers?
I meet aspiring writers all the time and I’m surprised by how few outline their work. When I ask about outlining I often hear things like, “well, I write out the beats but it’s not very detailed.”
I don’t get this. Well, actually I do. They are eager to start writing the book so they just jump in without a solid plan. Unless you’re a storytelling genius, I think this is a BIG mistake. When I decided to write Forty Acres I sat down and planned every chapter of the book. I figured out every moment. My outline even included some dialogue. For me all the hard work is done in the outlining. I apply the same methods to writing a screenplay. Because thrillers often have twisty plots, having a detailed outline is even more important. So, if you’re planning to write a thriller my advice would be to take a professional approach and plan every detail first. When you finally get to writing prose, you can stray from the blueprint now and then, some characters will demand it, but the outline will get you back on track.
Martin Grey, a smart, talented. young lawyer working out of a storefront in Queens, is taken under the wing of a secretive group made up of America’s most powerful, wealthy, and esteemed black men. He’s dazzled by what they have accomplished, and they seem to think he has the potential to be one of them They invite him for a weekend away from it all – no wives, no cell phones, no talk of business. But what he discovers, far from home, is a disturbing alternative reality which challenges his deepest convictions…
Although not ostensibly classified as a crime book, I was very keen to include this title as I believe that there are enough elements to fulfil the best of both genres; crime thriller and contemporary American fiction. Drawing on the theme of the continuing calls in present day America for some kind of reparation for the heinous period of American slavery, and the resonance of the falsely promised ‘forty acres and a mule’ for the emancipated slaves, Smith has constructed one of the most thought-provoking novels, with all the essential elements of a thriller, that it has been my pleasure to read for some time.
Martin Grey, a small time African American lawyer, wins a distinctly high profile court case up against a powerful and media savvy prosecution lawyer, Damon Darrell, finds himself quickly, yet mysteriously enfolded into Darrell’s immediate circle. This circle contains a small cabal of some of the most influential and successful black figures in society, and Martin, basking in the honour of being made an intimate of such a group, quickly forms an allegiance with them, despite certain misgivings when called upon to perform a strange act of initiation. Grey is then invited on a weekend of outdoor pursuits; a previous weekend of which resulted in the less than fully explained death of a former member of the group. As Martin witnesses the strange and disturbing events at the weekend retreat of ‘Forty Acres’, we, along with him, begin to bear witness to the twisted and insidiously violent events within its walls, all in the name of seeking vengeance for the sins of America’s past. Through the attempted manipulation of Martin by the cabal, and his refusal to simply see the issues raised in black and white (his name is Grey after all), he finds his highly developed moral barometer is increasingly threatened both mentally and physically…
This is not an easy read, being at times brutal and uncompromising in some of its more violent scenes. There is also an incredibly surprising and shocking reveal, as to the activities that take place within the grounds of the mysterious ‘Forty Acres’, that really pushes the morality issue to the fore. It is also a book that throws up a series of extremely troubling moral and ethical dilemmas, but at the same time steadfastly reminding the reader of the immoral period of slavery and the repercussions of this for generations of black Americans. I think this is most certainly a book that will leave readers with differing opinions and perceptions, and reading this as a white British person (with our own shady involvement in the slavery period) I would be interested to see how say, a white American or African American would perceive the issues raised. There were certainly periods of the book that challenged my own moral sense, and by taking some arguments to the most extreme degree, I found my views were increasingly in line with Martin’s as the book progressed. I think that the book was powerfully effective in highlighting the dangers of extreme beliefs whether they be affiliated with race, gender or religion, but equally how persecution of a particular group of exploited people is so easily ignored and not punished and can resonate through generations.
Smith keeps a tight rein on the build up of tension throughout, slowly accelerating the pace until the breathless denouement with Martin, and those closest to him, in imminent peril, so this more than qualifies the book as a compelling thriller. More importantly though, although not a comfortable read, the book consistently raises interesting and thorny issues in both its narrative and themes. I always enjoy books that challenge the complacency of any reader, and Forty Acres certainly achieves this. If, like me, you want a book that gets you talking, and results in differences of opinion, than this is certainly the book for you. I guarantee it will make you think, and stay in your head some time after you’ve read it. That’s the sign of a good book. Forty Acres more than fits the bill.
(Forty Acres is published by Faber & Faber and thanks again to Sophie Portas for the ARC)