(WINDSOR, ON) – Arthur Ellis Award finalist Vern Smith is in Windsor on the last leg of a promotion tour for his new release The Green Ghetto. He’ll be hosting book signings today at Windsor Public Library and tomorrow at the Barrel House, where Smith will be teaming up with singer-songwrier South River Slim.
Set The Bar met up with Vern Smith at the Dominion House.
(Set The Bar) Are any of the characters in the Green Ghetto based on real people you’ve known?
(Vern Smith) This question comes up, and I appreciate it because I take it to mean that I’ve suspended senses of disbelief. By and large the answer is no. The exception is the Enid Bruckner character.
I had an encounter with a Toronto police officer in Kensington Market in the ‘90s, and she was so over-the-top tough it was kind of funny. I never forgot her and she sort of became Enid. Otherwise, the characters are informed by real people, their experiences, and my experiences with them.
Things I’ve seen through their eyes, heard through their ears, and smelled through their noses, but the people you read about here are not based on anyone in particular.
(STB) The locales in the Green Ghetto are exacting, did you do a literary pilgrimage before writing?
(VS) Yes, I was already familiar with a lot of locations, but, pre-2010, when I was knee-deep in it, I drove the whole book. Took pictures, notes, tested my directions. I tried to leave no stone unturned in this regard, lots of detail, and I think that, too, is part of the key in terms of suspending disbelief.
I’m not going to say I knew this place or that place like the back of my hand, but everywhere the book goes, I went at least one last time to feel the soil.
(STB) In a Who Done It, where the reader knows who done it, how difficult was it for you to convince readers to want to know how Mitchell got his crop back?
(VS) I’m laughing here because I think I wrote myself into some corners, then had to write myself out. Mickey Spillane once said to me that you should know the end before you start. That wasn’t the case here. I didn’t know how it was going to end until well into the process.
With all due respect to Mickey, who I greatly admired, I think not knowing how it was going to end actually helped in this regard. I literally got Mitchell into situations I had to get him out of if the story was going to carry on, so I think that worked in as much as how could the reader know what he was going to do next? I didn’t.
As for the wanting to know part, specifically, I think we all know what it is to lose things we value – whether these things be financial, emotional, vague, tangible and otherwise — so the part about wanting to take back what is ours, I think, is one of universal themes that the story taps into. In turn, I suppose, that made the reader want to know how it might be done, what it would take to get back something they lost.
(STB) Is Mitchell Hosowich the adult Holden Caufield?
(VS) It’s been a long, long time since I read Catcher, so I never thought of it that way. But now that you mention it, they share some reference points, specifically existing in a crowded, lonely place, the city.
Although Mitchell lives and works in a part of the city where people are pretty much gone, both have a dim view of their fellow humans, and both are certainly rebelling against accepted norms and authority. I think they’d have fun over beers if Holden could come up with an acceptable ID. Both take extreme exception to something scrawled on the proverbial wall anonymously.
I’m not protective of Mitchell, as Mr. Salinger was said to be with Holden. But all that said, Catcher in the Rye was and is an awfully important book. Mine’s been out of the box for about six weeks and they haven’t made it part of the core curriculum yet, so I should probably tread carefully here and leave it at that. All hail Mr. Salinger.
(STB) How long was the Green Ghetto in the research stage before writing? How long did it take to write once you got stared? What type of research went into writing the novel?
(VS) The research and writing started around the same time, about 2002, first as a short story, then it quickly grew into something larger. I was working in the gig economy for most of the time I was writing it. I’d get a few weeks to work on it here, a few there, but something was always getting in the way.
I thought I was close to done in May 2010, banging the keys, like I need just another 15 minutes, when the Program Director’s job at CJAM came through. After that, I didn’t touch it again until I moved to Illinois in 2016. At that point, I’d caught up to Mitchell in age. That changed things and that’s when I finally finished it.
Anyway, I never stopped researching, even when I wasn’t working on it, and then checking the research. But the bulk of the research was done on the road between 2002 and 2010, driving everywhere the story went. Taking the roads my characters took, eating at the restaurants where they ate, staying in the same hotels, and trying to see everything I’d seen before through their eyes.
(STB) Where did the concept for the Green Ghetto originate?
(VS) Three things lined up for me here in the wake of 9/11. One, I already wanted to write about the green ghetto, specifically the green ghetto of Detroit. Very little had been written about it, and I always felt the story is where everyone else is not.
Two, I wanted to write a western, for some reason, and if I was going to write a western, it had to be urban.
And three, there was a series of campy US public service announcements connecting small-time potheads to terror, so the stars and the sun and the moon lined up on those three things and sort of lit a fire under me.
(STB) Why did you wait 10 years before shopping your manuscript around?
(VS) I didn’t think that it was all it could be until 2017, and I was never in a hurry to publish it. I always felt that the further we got away from 9/11, the better. I felt that it worked best as a period-piece offering perspective and revolving around hysteria, and that hysteria would be the one constant forever making it relevant.
I believe it succeeds in showing how we got here from there in terms of things like the wars on drugs and terror. Even last fall, on the eve of legalization in Canada, there you had it, Trudeau and Trump signing a document to carry on with the war on drugs when we know, from a pragmatic bureaucratic point of view, that the policy does not work.
That’s my point of view. I’m not an activist. I’m a former bureaucrat. As such, I just want to see humane policy that balances out against the realities of governing, and we’re still not seeing that. In Canada, Trudeau has made things wildly big and complicated when we really have more important issues to deal with.
In 2002, it was oxycontin. Today, it’s fentanyl. Those are the substances we need to be on top of, but we are not because we’re too busy making laws that would see a 19-year-old face 14 years for smoking with a 17-year-old — hysteria.
That, I believe, is what makes a story set in 2002 so relevant today – hysteria.
(STB) Your publisher, Run Amok, say they were happy to have received your manuscript for the Green Ghetto. How have they been to work with?
(VS) Great. Run Amok’s ME Gary Anderson understood the story right away. He said it was about marijuana, but not really about marijuana, understood where I was going with larger universal themes, and had the right editorial vision.
By that point, I’d talked to a few people who’s vision I didn’t appreciate, so I was pretty quick to sign up with Run Amok, and I’m glad I did. I like what they’ve done with it.
(STB) How has the reception been on your promotional tour?
(VS) People at readings have been very educated on the issues at hand, asked good, challenging questions. They have understood the issue well beyond access and they are aware of continued funny business in all locales, Canada included.
That’s because they read. Mostly, they are tired of people lighting their hair on fire. They want good governance, and they are smart enough to know that they are not getting it.