Meri Fatin [00:00:04]
Hi I’m Meri Fatin and welcome to Rare Air. Today, the melding of film and literature as we meet Australian American author Dominic Smith and hear about his most recent novel The Electric Hotel. Set around the birth of cinema as the Lumiere brothers sent commission agents around the world to demonstrate their cinematograph, it's worth remembering that the same Lumiere brothers predicted moving pictures would be a flash in the pan. Preservation of these films has been an issue. It was reported by the US Library of Congress in 2013 that 75 per cent of silent films made in the US between 1912 and 1929 had been lost. It couldn't have worked out better for readers than to have Dominic Smith feel the imperative to write about the era. Dominic's fourth novel, The New York Times best seller The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, won both Indie Book of the Year and the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Fiction Book of the Year in 2017. With an Australian mother and an American father, Dominic grew up here but has lived mainly in the US for his adult life. Dominic joins me from Seattle. Thank you so much Dominick.
Dominic Smith [00:01:13]
Pleasure to be with you.
Meri Fatin [00:01:15]
We spoke in person when you were in Australia recently. How did the rest of that tour go — that time in Australia?
Dominic Smith [00:01:22]
It was great. I mean it was a bit of a whirlwind. And to be honest I'm still getting over jetlag but it was great. I got to travel quite a bit on the East Coast and make it over to Perth and then down to Adelaide. And so it was it was great to connect with booksellers and readers at different kinds of events. So you know it's always a pleasure to kind of be back in Australia and I still have family there. So it's also an added bonus to be able to see my sisters and my mother when I'm back. Even if it was a little bit fleeting.
Meri Fatin [00:02:00]
I'm really interested in how much of a challenge it's been for you to gain traction as a writer in Australia. Even with your Australian connections, because this is actually your fifth book and I'm amazed that it's really only you you actually still having to work quite hard to kind of bring your make your name a household name essentially.
Dominic Smith [00:02:20]
Yeah I mean I don't know if it'll become a household name, we'll see. But what I tried to do with my books was kind of just, you know, be true to the writer that I wanted to be and write the stories that interested me and I would say that from my first two books there really wasn't a lot of interest from Australian publishers. You know I was kind of writing stories that didn't necessarily have an Australian tie-in and then with my third novel, Bright and Distant Shores, I did a couple things differently. One is, I wrote a book that included some Australian ties I guess. And I also took on an Australian agent in addition to my New York agent and that really made a big difference because I'd grown up in Australia. It meant that I could have a local presence, essentially, as if I were sending a book out in Sydney, sort of from the US. And so you know with (The Last Painting of) Sarah de Vos, that was a book that reached new audiences for me both in the US and in Australia. And I think that has generally helped to kind of get me more reach in both geographies.
Meri Fatin [00:03:44]
I find that really fascinating. I mean what I'm hearing you say is that it took having some kind of Australian connection in your writing for Australia to pay attention to your work.
Dominic Smith [00:03:56]
Yeah I mean it might have been a happy coincidence. I mean it was also timed with having an agent there who, um, my wonderful agent Gaby Naher is kind of extremely well plugged into the literary scene and so it's hard to say you know was that the Australian content or the Australian representation, but I did feel like with Bright and Distant Shores, I was coming back home in a sense. It's kind of about an ill-fated museum collecting voyage that comes out of Chicago and heads out into the Pacific Islands and there's one Australian character. It never really sets foot on Australian soil, but I think just coming back to the theatre of the Pacific, which is a place that is near and dear to my heart, made a difference and so the perception was that it was a book, a little bit more for an Australian audience.
Meri Fatin [00:04:55]
I'm also really interested in what sense of Australian-ness remains with you because my calculation is that you basically left Australia as soon as you were an adult and have lived pretty much in the US since.
Dominic Smith [00:05:08]
(laughs) Pretty much. There were a couple years in the 90s where I came back to Australia but for the vast majority of the last close to 30 years I've lived in the States and as you said in the intro, you know my father was American and so um, I… It's funny I identify culturally with so many things that I associate with Australia. You know, when I come back and I look at the Australian Bush and the foliage we have which is so different to the northern hemisphere. It feels very right to me. It feels like it's part of my childhood and part of my DNA. But culturally, the fact is I've spent more than two decades in another hemisphere very far from the places that I grew up in. And so it's a strange kind of dislocation, but one that actually I think serves the writing in some ways. I think it's interesting the way that being far away can actually put a geography in more focus in some ways, through something like fiction writing.
Meri Fatin [00:06:26]
I want to flip the idea of an Australian journalist asking you about your Australian-ness, when you clearly sound like (and it looks like you're DOING) all things American, because I wonder if, when you're talking to journalists from any other place in the world, if they're curious about why you would pull in this Australian connection into your writing.
Dominic Smith [00:06:44]
I think it does seem a little bit strange but I think when they make the connection that I was Australian-born, and raised in Australia, it starts to make more sense but I also think where we're moving into a world where people are fascinated about global stories as a renewed understanding of the way in which our individual histories and our genealogies are a product of a tapestry of different influences and different geographies and that’s certainly true in my family. So the idea of what constitutes an Australian, what constitutes an American, I think those edges are getting blurred and people are maybe becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea that we're global citizens. We have different cultural strands in our genealogies and in our DNA, and the kinds of stories that I want to tell reflect the way in which I feel that not only for myself but for my family and my ancestors, you know, they roved quite a bit over the globe so I'm drawn to stories that reflect that.
Meri Fatin [00:07:58]
Oh yeah. Very much so. Yes, you are. I want to ask you about the skill and the practice of your writing. I've spoken with many authors and I understand that anyone can write a book. But I don't believe for a second that anyone can write literature. And when I read your work I know it's a skill and/or a gift. So I want to ask you a little bit about where that began and how you finely crafted that over time.
Dominic Smith [00:08:24]
So I mean I started writing stories when I was pretty young, probably nine or ten and they were, you know, the typical kind of juvenalia, but it wasn't until I was an undergraduate. I had started a university degree in Australia, actually architecture. Then I got a one-year scholarship to study in the US and because it was for one year I thought, you know, I'll just study whatever and so I went back to my roots and my first love which was really the humanities and it included things like theatre and foreign languages and writing and after a year of that I had reignited some of my childhood passions and so I then transferred to finish a degree in anthropology and creative writing and it was when I was an undergrad at the University of Iowa, which has a very long and prestigious program in creative writing and so I was surrounded by graduate students who were talking about writing novels and who were having stories taken in places like The Atlantic Monthly. And this was the first time I was ever around aspiring and working serious writers and I started to think that maybe this was something I wanted to do. But it took me a long time before I thought that it was any more than really a pipe dream. And so about six years after I graduated with a B.A. in anthropology and a minor in creative writing, I applied to a range of creative writing programs in the US and one of them was a program in Texas that had been set up by James Michener and it was a three year fully funded MFA program and if you got in, basically you had a Michener fellowship and it was during that three year period where I took classes in the workshops but mostly I had three years to try to work out how to be a practicing writer. The thing that I really learned above and beyond the kinds of writers who inspired me and the kinds of stylists that I'm drawn to as a kind of point of study, was to set up the practice of writing; so, setting up a schedule and sticking to it. And that was a real turning point for me as a writer.
Meri Fatin [00:11:01]
So when you're being taught to write in this way, what kinds of conversations are you having with the person who's tutoring and mentoring you? I mean how how do they pull apart your work? Because I know YOU do this now as a teacher or you have done in the past.
Dominic Smith [00:11:16]
That's right. Yeah and I still do it. Well I think there's a big distinction between the way writing is taught or at least the kinds of conversations you have about writing through English literature study and literary criticism and as a working writer. The program I went to had a core of permanent faculty but mostly it had a kind of a series of visiting writers who would come for a semester at a time. So I studied with people like Joy Williams, Dennis Johnson and there would sometimes be short week-long kind of seminars with people like Peter Carey. And so I had this exposure to some of the best working writers in the world. And the conversations about writing are very much as you know ‘let’s look under the hood’ and actually look at a piece of writing in terms of how it works. And we're less interested in what it means in a thematic way and more like ‘how does the writer achieve this particular effect?’ What are they doing to create this sense of atmosphere. And so those are the conversations that stayed with me from my three years in that program.
Meri Fatin [00:12:42]
So that's the kind of thing you can go home and practice.
Dominic Smith [00:12:46]
Yes. And it really is about practice. I consider writing to be a lifelong apprenticeship. I don't think you ever really arrive as a writer. It's not like you write your fifth novel and now you've made it and now you know how to write a novel. You may know how to do the mechanics of the novel, but every book is different. And so you can in a practical sense when you're in a kind of immersive environment like an MFA program, you can try things on and usually short stories are a good format for that because you can fail early, which is good for a writer.
Meri Fatin [00:13:29]
I'm interested in that context about whether there are chunks of your writing within your novels perhaps (or elsewhere) that you're particularly proud of? The way that you've constructed that passage? And maybe it's something that nobody else knows. But it really means something to you.
Dominic Smith [00:13:47]
Yeah I mean an example of that is The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, the opening description of the painting, really is the narrative glue for the whole book and it actually came out of a failed attempt to write an entirely different novel about artists. I wanted to write about a school of painters who were in New York in kind of pre World War One the school called the Ashcan School, they painted these very kind of gritty urban scenes. And I had I'd been working on this novel for over a year and it just never had traction and almost in despair one morning I got up and just as a writing exercise wrote a description of a painting. I didn't really know where I was necessarily going whether it changed over time but more or less the germ of that description that's in the opening of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is what I wrote that morning. It’s a reminder to me of how sometimes your best writing comes after a period of what you see as failure and really failure is something that as a writer you have to embrace because it can come at different degrees of scale but it can mean that you kind of know you you batter at the doors of this thing you're trying to create and then you give up and a new approach comes to you and that's the kind of tailwind that you need to write the book that ends up being something that really coheres and that you feel proud of.
Meri Fatin [00:15:32]
Yeah very much. I am also aware that, because you talked before about some of the discipline that you learnt, studying creative writing, was about discipline in setting up your day and about I guess setting a timetable for yourself and I think The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was the first book you wrote without working a job as well. Am I right about that?
Dominic Smith [00:15:52]
Actually it was written entirely WITH a day job, so it wasn't until it started to make some traction, really after probably a year after it came out, that I kind of gave up my regular day job and you know, I still to this day I do a little teaching, I do some manuscript consulting and things like that. But that book was written largely between five thirty in the morning and about nine thirty in the morning five days a week. Okay so there was the discipline then. The fact that you would actually allocate that time each day. Yeah. And that was the discipline I'd developed over 15 years. I had two children fairly young. I had the demands of being a provider and a parent. And so out of necessity I had worked out a system if I wanted to write each day. And I realized that in order to write with some consistency and to be happy with the output I needed to do it early mornings before the work began.
Meri Fatin [00:17:00]
I also wondered, just when I was thinking about the writing of yours that I've read and about how much discipline and research goes into it. How much time do you reckon you invest thinking about the possible reception that whatever you're currently working on might get… and whether that even bothers you or sways you at all.
Dominic Smith [00:17:17]
Yeah probably almost no time. Which is not to mean I don't think about the reader. But I feel like a writer is a little bit prone to his or her own obsessions. And it's really hard to write a book that you're not obsessed with. I mean I've heard other writers call it like a three to five year marriage where you're just committed to this thing that you're working on and you have to be really smitten with the idea on some fundamental level. And so what happens for me in the beginning is there's a lot of pressure testing around the idea and I do think about who wants to read that. But generally I'm not making calculating decisions about the plot based on my perception of who that is. I think typically the writer is not the best judge of that. And ultimately you have to kind of write the book that you want to write and it's not ever going to be for everybody. Right. So sometimes it can really land and make a big splash and other times the audience is more niche and ultimately you just have to follow your instincts about what feels like the right “next book” for you.
Meri Fatin [00:18:47]
I think this is the perfect segue into talking about The Electric Hotel because I think it was partially at least, that stat that I mentioned in the introduction about the loss of silent film stock that was the impetus for beginning working on this book.
Dominic Smith [00:19:00]
Yeah that's right. And you know I think what happened for me was with the Sara de Vos book is that I realized that one of my enduring fascinations as a novelist, especially historical novels around the gaps and the silences of history. And so when I started to think about what did I want to write about next, I was looking for a kind of story that feels like it fills that void in some way. It answers that silence. And so that statistic you know I knew about the Lumiere brothers actually from an earlier novel, my first novel The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. But I didn't know much about it. And then when I read about that statistic it was really a moment where I thought that's three quarters of an entire body of work. And I thought about that in terms of, well, what if three quarters of all the books published in a 30 year time span, which is how long the silent era was, just vanished! What would we have lost? And that was the kind of spark and in a way, for every novel that I work on I'm trying to answer a kind of puzzle. And that was the puzzle. It was like, well what have we missed and what have we lost? And I really set out on this journey to try to understand silent film on its own terms and appreciate both its beauty and its limitations.
Meri Fatin [00:20:34]
And I think also something that you do really beautifully at the beginning of the book is bring into our consciousness what a shock it would have been for people to experience film for the first time.
Dominic Smith [00:20:44]
Yeah. Well, thank you. I mean I was really focused on trying to defamiliarize film in the book and make it make those first audiences and that first experience vivid and alive and not just merely a curiosity. And so to do that I spent a lot of time not only watching those very early reels but also reading the coverage of it, the way that it transformed the culture of the time, the way that people talked about it. And it's not just the little details like the train bearing down on the audience through the perspective of the screen and people getting on the floor, yelling out or whatever. It was also about the subtle little things in the frame that people found particularly mesmerizing. You know the leaves shimmering in the breeze or the waves rippling on the ocean. People couldn't believe that. It really felt like a window onto real life. And they were absolutely enchanted from that very first exhibition in 1895. I was looking online last night at the mechanics of the cinematograph because I was trying to figure out why, or the possible reasons why these films were really less than a minute long mostly weren't they? Yeah — they could have been longer. It really had to do with just how much celluloid they could fit onto the spool after it had passed through the camera projector. So the cinematograph was camera and projector but when it was in the projector mode, it really had to do with how much you could store on the spool at the end. There was a sense early on, especially given the mechanisms, that if you had too much it was going to create more instability and a big concern in early film was trying not to tear it, especially the Lumières had only two perforations per frame which meant that it was a little bit less stable than some of the later innovations but that was the primary reason.
Meri Fatin [00:23:09]
And then also, I mean this is part of the reason that so much of it has been lost, is because of what it was made of.
Dominic Smith [00:23:16]
Yeah exactly. So the celluloid nitrate was very flammable. It was also very prone to decay. So the reason we've lost 75 percent of these films has to do with not only neglect, which is a big part of it, but also studio fires. Thousands of films were lost, especially in the 60s. There are some more in the 90s and then there’s just the decomposition. So you know celluloid nitrate film will just decompose unless it's stored under very kind of strict conditions. So it's just dissolved in a lot of cases and you know attics and basements and archives and so there’s been a little bit of a fight against time. But also there hasn't really been a concerted effort until recently to save what's left and certainly if you go back to the post silent era there was a little bit of almost cultural shame, or just that people looked back on the silent era as if it was a novelty and not really worth preserving. Like it was just a stepping stone to sound. And so that was a big part of it as well.
Meri Fatin [00:24:33]
Yeah I was just going to ask you whether it has been valued properly over time and clearly the answer is No.
Dominic Smith [00:24:40]
No I don't think it has. Not until recently. I mean I think when this report came out from the Library of Congress that was a big wake up call for people and Martin Scorsese and people like that have done a lot to kind of evangelize the idea that this is you know our cinematic heritage and that's worth preserving and I think that that attitude is definitely a change. It's been changed for a while but certainly through the 50s 60s 70s maybe even a little bit later, that attitude was still lagging and although people might have paid lip service to the idea of preserving it, few people, were especially the studios, were willing to actually fund it. And that's really what makes the big difference.
Meri Fatin [00:25:26]
I love this story. Just going back to the development of the cinematograph because the Lumière brothers developed their idea from, I think it was their dad, who saw Edison's kinetoscope and went home with a message for his sons about how they could actually turn that into something better, wasn't it?
Dominic Smith [00:25:44]
So yeah the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, their father had seen Edison's kinetoscope I think at a World Fair somewhere. A World Exhibition. And essentially the kinetoscope was a peep show. You know you look through a viewfinder, you turned the handle, you basically cranked a little reel inside that was illuminated. Then you created the illusion of movement and it approximated cinema. But the key difference compared to the cinematograph was that it wasn't a communal cinematic experience. What we know of as cinema. And so these two brothers, who were already quite wealthy and established in the world of photography they'd made a fortune with photographic plates, put their minds together after their father had kind of described what this was and had even I think brought a sample of some celluloid that was shown through the kinetoscope. And they started to work on an invention that would project it onto a wall or onto a screen. Allegedly they modeled some of the spooling mechanisms on the feeding device that works in a sewing machine. They were used to inventing things and that was kind of the germ of the idea. And then by the end of 1895 they have a working prototype that they're ready to unveil to Paris and really to the world.
Meri Fatin [00:27:20]
And I was pondering the fact that when you invented something in those days you were very vulnerable in the sense that you had to be able to distribute the idea you had to share the idea with people who could help you distribute it. It was not something you could really keep secret. And the way that the Lumiere brothers did it and this is a solid part of the construct of The Electric Hotel, is that they had these agents who actually learned how to use the cinematograph, made their own actualities, and then went all around the world to tell everyone about it.
Dominic Smith [00:27:52]
Yeah that's right. And interestingly they were really interested in the Lumiere brothers. They didn't pay a lot of attention to the commercial copyright and patent aspects of it but they were really interested in taking this invention into the far reaches of the world. And because they hired these 24 or 23 or so concession agents to go into the far reaches of the world and because the cinematograph was camera and projector, they travelled with reels of the iconic sights of Europe but they also (and I think more importantly) could make films as they traveled and they tended to be people like, you know, the fellow who came to Australia, Marius Sestier, was a pharmacist previously, turned cinematographic concession agent and so he was very accustomed to handling chemicals and he was quite technical and so he had no problem working out how to develop the cinematograph’s celluloid as he travelled. Often though, these reels were sent back to Europe and sometimes they were shown in Europe before the people back in Australia or Cuba or wherever it was, actually got to see the local footage.
Meri Fatin [00:29:10]
Was it possible to copy them?
Dominic Smith [00:29:12]
It was! It was possible to copy them although the concession agents may have been limited in their ability to do that because of access to you know they could have gone to photographic studios and probably set up ways to do that, but they would have been limited by the local access to supplies and things like that. So in the case of Australia, Marius Sestier who came to Sydney in 1896, the very first film that he made in Sydney was really not seen in Australia for over a century just kind of almost through a historical accident because he sent the reel back to Lyon, where the Lumière brothers were based and it was shown in Lyon, it was shown in some other places but it never returned to Australia for a local viewing until many many years later. I think that kind of story was not uncommon among the concession agents.
Meri Fatin [00:30:17]
What was the film?
Dominic Smith [00:30:18]
The film was called I think Le Pateur? (NB “Patineur Grotesque”) Actually I don't remember the second part of it but basically it's a roller skater. It's a guy on roller skates in Prince Alfred Park in Sydney and there was a kind of trend in the 1890’s of burlesque roller skating which sounds super racy I know, but actually burlesque roller skating was really just a street performer, often a man, who would just perform for an audience on roller skates and this particular fellow has a hat on and a cigar and he's kind of in a big overcoat and he's flapping around as he roller skates and his big finale with a circle of people around him is that he keeps doing these pratfalls and then the final pratfall he gets up again and then he lifts his overcoat and you see a big white hand painted on the backside of his trousers. And so that was Australia's first film, I think closely followed by the 1896 Melbourne Cup so that those seem like you know fun and kind of cheeky beginnings to Australia’s film industry.
Meri Fatin [00:31:40]
So the man who shot that film, Marius Sestier is actually the inspiration for the main character in The Electric Hotel, Claude Ballard. Am I right about that?
Dominic Smith [00:31:50]
He’s a piece of the inspiration. My characters tend to be created out of different strands, but there is there's a piece of his biography and certainly the piece of coming to Australia. Sestier set up the Salon Lumière on Pitt Street in Sydney which was Australia's first cinema it ran for about six months. There's similar details that I have related to Claude Ballard, so he was a key driver in creating the character of Claude Ballard and in fact, years ago, I had published a story called The Projectionist that actually featured Marius Sestier in an imagined visit to a small outback town where he shows films to this town for the first time. So I knew about Sestier and I also wanted to revisit some of what he did while he was in Australia.
Meri Fatin [00:32:47]
That character, Claude Ballard has an extraordinary life and what I found really interesting about that is that unlike some stories I felt it was entirely plausible even though it WAS extraordinary and I wondered if you wouldn't mind sharing in your words a little of that story.
Dominic Smith [00:33:04]
Yeah sure. So we pick up Claude Ballard in the frame story of the novel in the 1960s and he's living out his 80s in this very rundown hotel in Hollywood called the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel and in real life this is the place that people like D.W. Griffith, who was kind of the father of the American film epic, died in total obscurity after the silent film era. So it felt like a good place to kind of launch the story and for us to pick up Claude Ballard and what happens is that we learn about Claude's career when a graduate student comes to interview him in the early 1960s and we learn that there is one remaining print of his kind of cinematic masterpiece which is called The Electric Hotel and we go back in time and we kind of relive Claude's career. So there is this early phase where he is the concession agent for the Lumière brothers, we follow him as he travels to America and to Australia and in America he meets and really becomes infatuated with Sabine Montrose, who is this iconic French actress. And she goes on to star in his films and then we also kind of enter a different phase of his life where he gathers up this filmmaking family. We have Sabine Montrose who's the star, we have Chip Spalding who's this pioneering Australian stuntman that he's gathered up actually in Tamarama in Sydney and then we have Hal Bender who is this kind of scrappy kid from Brooklyn whose family has run this novelty business and together they set up a studio in Fort Lee New Jersey. And one of the things they do there is they create what is really the first kind of feature length film and it's this dark melodrama of The Electric Hotel and then various things transpire. Edison is kind of hot on their heels in trying to preserve his own cinematic dynasty. And we pick up Claude in a kind of prelude to his days in his 80s at the hotel, on the battlefields of Belgium where he works as an early cinematographer filming battle scenes. And so he's had this you know this very kind of long and illustrious life. But there's also been quite a sad and kind of forlorn several decades at the end of it that is also kind of key to understanding who he is as a character.
Meri Fatin [00:35:53]
I was really fascinated about how you managed to develop that story where Claude ends up on the battlefields in Belgium because it was an extraordinary concept that ordinary men were given these jobs to go literally to the frontline to film what was going on. How did that even happen?
Dominic Smith [00:36:10]
So it was it was an interesting kind of collision of this world war and this new medium. So you know at the very beginning of World War 1 when Germany invaded Belgium there was a little bit of a free for all of journalists, newspapermen, cameramen and even what were called “war tourists” just literally descending on Belgium to try to see what they could of the fighting and of the invasion. And so in cities like Antwerp you know Brussels fell pretty quickly, in cities like Antwerp, basically everyone knew that the Germans would come for Antwerp, and that there would be a siege. People were kind of hunkered down in the hotels of Antwerp and it included amateur and professional journalists and cameramen. There was a guy that I got really interested in, Albert Dawson, who was among those early American cameramen. And he and some of his colleagues basically you know the issue was you could get the Belgian but you couldn't get to the front where the fighting was because the Belgian army had basically commandeered all of the old vehicles and all of the horses in the entire country. So all of these people were essentially stuck in hotels. And what Albert Dawson and some other folks did is basically they did a deal with the Belgian Red Cross, that in exchange for the proceeds from their newsreels, they would get access to a vehicle and actually be able to get around and shoot the fighting. And so I got really interested in that idea and the more I pulled on that thread, what I realized is that because America remained neutral for the vast majority of the war until 1917 there were some newspaper journalists and cameramen, cinematographers as they went by different names at that time, who were actually embedded with the Germans. And it was really the birth of cinematic propaganda. And what you saw even back in New York for the first part of the war in Germany had a kind of cultural office that was by and large designed to sway public opinion against America entering the war. And so I got fascinated with that story and I needed something for Claude Ballard that would offset his prolonged infatuation with Sabine Montrose. I didn't really want this to ultimately be a story about romantic love and how it might unravel. I wanted it to be deeper than that and more transformative for the character of Claude.
Meri Fatin [00:39:10]
Well you used “cinematic propaganda” to great effect in The Electric Hotel. Brilliantly well done. I do want to ask you one final question about research because I know that you watched around 100 silent films for research, so just a question I guess around the discipline of developing your research and taking it to a point where you feel like you can actually start to turn it into a fiction rather than just a collection of facts and pieces of information.
Dominic Smith [00:39:39]
Yeah I mean I think for for me the research is something I deeply enjoy but I also realize that the goal has to be finding a way to marshal the research into a way to tell a better story. And so there is a process of elimination where you're kind of discarding the 90 percent of things you know about the time period in favor of the 10 percent that actually reveal and animate something interesting. And then with this book I really had the goal of I wanted to fall in love with silent film and that meant I had to go to places like that town in northern Italy (Pordenone) that hosted a silent film festival every year for the past 30 years to kind of have that immersive experience. And I had to go to the Library of Congress and actually see films that had been restored and then exhibited with a live musical accompaniment. And I really wanted to have the visceral experience that was as close to those early cinema goers as possible and that ultimately is where I feel like the research has to take you. To a place where you feel some of that sense of being mesmerized like those earliest audiences and that's where I usually try to get to if I can with a lot of the research.
Meri Fatin [00:41:10]
Speaking of Italy I understand that you have a new inspiration in the abandoned towns of Italy.
Dominic Smith [00:41:16]
That's right. When I was in Italy for the film festival I started to get really interested in the phenomenon of abandoned and semi abandoned towns in Italy which is a phenomenon that's gone on for some time and it's not just the population and people moving to urban areas but it's also the fact that Italy is very seismically active. There's lots of earthquakes, there's lots of landslides. And so I've spent some time there exploring a few different towns and kind of thinking about a fictionalized version of one of these towns that I want to write about in which there were once 3000 people living in this town in the 17th century and today there are 10 full time residents. And the story of abandonment but also the story of the people who decide to stay in a town like that, against those kinds of odds, is really fascinating to me and it's early days but the material feels very rich and I'm excited to be working on it.
Meri Fatin [00:42:21]
I'll be excited to read it too because I know I've already told you that your writing was a new discovery for me when I came across The Electric Hotel and I've thoroughly enjoyed it. Congratulations on that book and on your prior work. Thank you for talking to me today as well.
Dominic Smith [00:42:36]
Thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure.
Meri Fatin [00:42:38]
Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel is published in Australia by Allen and Unwin.