Troy D. Smith was born in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee in 1968. He has waxed floors, moved furniture, been a lay preacher, and taught high school and college. He writes in a variety of genres, achieving his earliest successes with westerns -his first published short story appeared in 1995 in Louis L'Amour Western Magazine, and he won the Spur Award in 2001 for the novel Bound for the Promise-Land (being a finalist on two other occasions.) He is currently preparing to defend his dissertation at the University of Illinois Department of History.
Tell us about your new novel
Actually, I have two books that I am quite excited about; they’re very different, yet they’re connected in a way.
Cross Road Blues is out Feb. 24 from Perfect Crime Books. It is a crime novel, set among the community of black musicians in Nashville in the 1950s. The hero, Roy Carpenter, is a harmonica player who hooks up with a shady talent agent, a brilliant-but-crazy guitarist, and the girlfriend of a psychopathic criminal. He soon finds himself framed for murder and on the run from both cops and gangsters as he tries to clear his name.
Bound for the Promise-Land is due out soon from Western Trail Blazer. It’s a new edition of a historical epic originally released ten years ago. It follows the life of its hero, Alfred Mann, as he searches for the meaning of freedom. His odyssey takes him from slavery to fighting in the Union Army, enduring Reconstruction in the South and race riots in the North, a career as a buffalo soldier in the West, and reaches its climax in Cuba in the charge up San Juan Hill. One of the major supporting characters is the great-grandparent of the musician hero of Cross Road Blues.
How is this novel different than your previous novels?
Cross Road Blues is very different in that it is a crime novel, and has a 20th century setting. All my previous novels were either about the Old West or the Civil War (or both.) It’s also different in tone –I set out to create a noir tale. I got the idea from a short piece I did a few years ago about the history of “blues detective” stories –by Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, and so on –and decided to try writing one of my own.
The biggest difference between Bound for the Promise-Land and my other novels is that it won a Spur Award, a feat I’ve been unable to duplicate. With only one Spur I’ve been doomed to ride around in circles. It is unique in other ways, though. It is a big historical epic which is as much about the inner life of its hero as the action going on around him (of which there is a lot.) It was my attempt to both tell a compelling story and explore ideas and issues that are extremely important to me, especially freedom.
Why do you write westerns?
The easy answer: I love westerns. They were still a large part of the cultural landscape when I was growing up in the 70s. You could see John Wayne or Clint Eastwood at the movies, watch a new episode of Gunsmoke on TV, read new books by Louis L’Amour and Elmer Kelton, read comic books about the Lone Ranger, the Rawhide Kid, or Jonah Hex, play with your Johnny West action figures… heck, I’m not even sure if they still sell plastic cowboys and Indians sets at department stores.
The bigger answer: I like telling stories with lots of characterization and drama. I like to strip through the veneer and get to the primal aspects of my characters. The western is ideal for that.
When did you know you were a writer?
I should’ve known from the beginning. I was always telling stories as a kid. I wrote my own, drew my own comics… when the second-grade boys met on the playground with their Johnny West figures (those things were extremely popular in the early and mid 70s, at least in Tennessee) I’d often get frustrated as heck, because there’d always be bozos who wanted to just hold their Johnny Wests by the feet and clack ‘em together: “Now they’re fightin’!” No, no, no. They can’t fight until you establish their motivation. Sheesh.
When I was in my early 20s I was working as a “floor guy,” buffing and waxing floors (I actually started doing that when I was 15, and did it off and on for over 20 years.) I’d get locked up alone in these K-marts and Wal-marts at night, sometimes for 12 hours, and it usually took less than half that time to do the job. So I had a lot of time on my hands. I eventually ran out of things to read, and I started entertaining myself by imagining how I would go about writing a book. I started doing just that, for my own entertainment. It never occurred to me that I could actually try to get one published until I was working on my fourth one. By that time I was hooked.
What’s a work day like for you?
That’s a tricky question, because I am wearing a lot of hats right now. I am teaching history at the University of Illinois while revising and preparing to defend my dissertation; I’m on a tight deadline now, so for the next couple of months all my writing time will be devoted to the dissertation. Right now I have two days a week set aside just for writing; yesterday I worked four or five hours, took a break for family time and a little TV (Gunsmoke and Criminal Minds –nothing says family like murder and mayhem), then worked five or six more hours. Mondays through Wednesdays I am teaching, holding office hours, preparing classes, grading papers… and writing as I can in-between it all.
What’s a day off like for you?
Another tricky question. With the deadlines I have hanging over me I really need to be working ever day. When I lived in my native Tennessee I had a place back in the woods, and would center myself by communing with nature, hiking and so on, or going to one of the many big waterfalls or scenic overlooks that were around. In Illinois, not so much.
If you could be anything other than writer, what would it be?
I am a couple of other things now. I’m a historian –which is also writing, but of a different sort –and a teacher. In all my professional activities, though –novelist, historian, teacher –I’m a storyteller. I am also a chronic storyteller in my off-hours, as my beleaguered family will tell you (favorite quote from my daughter: Dear Lord, now he’s telling stories about telling stories!)
How do you define success?
If you can make a living doing something you love, without compromising who you are to do so; if you have people who love you, and a healthy amount of self-respect; and if you can do your small part to make the world a better place along the way…. Then buddy, you are a rousing success.
What’s next for you?
Once I get this dissertation defended, I have a whole slew of fiction projects lined up. New westerns, new mysteries, a little fantasy and horror. I can’t wait.
For more information about Troy's writing, visit www.troyduanesmith.com