On a sunny and unusually warm spring day in Seattle, Dan Vyleta and I sat down with iced coffees and talked about his new literary genre-breaker. Smoke is set in an alternative vision of nineteenth-century England, where a person’s morality can be determined just by looking at him or her. Or can it...?
Vyleta speaks directly and with great enthusiasm, and our interview flew by. Here’s a selection of our conversation about goodness and righteousness, the challenge of marketing of a genre-spanning novel, and writing characters from the inside out.
Amazon Book Review: How would you describe Smoke?
Dan Vyleta: Smoke imagines a world set in the nineteenth century—Dickensian nineteenth century—but with one difference: If you’re bad, if you’re sinful or grow angry, or full of desire, or covetous, your body starts smoking. Smoke might come out of your ears, or out of your knuckles. You might exhale it in a plume. And it leaves a stain, soot. The elite has trained themselves not to smoke, so they can rule in total smugness because they’re “good.” It’s a story about social class, about self-righteousness, and what we do with it. And it centers on young people—teens, really—because when you’re seventeen, you start asking questions about your parents, you question why the world is made the way it is. And of course it is also an age of great passion, when you might become very angry, or covetous, or lustful. [Laughs] So it follows these heroes who are trying to figure out what smoke means.
So is a goal of your novel to encourage people to rethink how they look at their own world?
On one level it’s a tale. As an author, first you have to write the story and the characters. It’s not a book of lessons, because part of the issue is that this smoke thing is very complicated. But it explores how political order, economic order, theology, philosophy…how all these things interact. And I suppose it does ask questions about how we come to hold the beliefs we hold. How change might come about.
Why did you pick the time period of the nineteenth century?
There’s a quote in Dombey and Son, a Dickens novel—when he essentially says, Look at all the dirt and disease. But if you could make visible the moral disease this place is subject to, if you could see the tentacles reach up to the good houses, how frightened would we be? I read that, and I thought, “Yes, ‘What if?’ That’s a good question.” They were obsessed with fresh air and ventilation and disease in the mid-nineteenth century. The whole morality of disease was a very powerful idea at the time. And yet it’s a highly rational age—it’s an age of science. So all that complexity of the nineteenth century gave me a lot to work with.
How does smoke and soot affect the characters in Smoke?
The teens belong to the elites and go to a very fancy boarding school, and they are taught to be good. But the farther down you are on the social hierarchy, the more permissible it is to smoke because you can’t teach “those people” not to smoke. But what happens at a family dinner of among the so-called common people? Because they’ll ask hard questions about smoke too. They too have to intellectualize it and tell each other stories about it.
Once you finished putting Smoke down on paper, how much did you have to go back and revise?
I didn’t change all that much. I write very linearly. I need to feel the characters as they evolve emotionally. I always fear making characters tools for my plot instead of writing them from the inside and listening to the story they want to tell. So while I have some plot points that I plan out, I need the terror of the blank page and the belief that anything could happen, and I need to be able to surprise myself, otherwise the writing flattens. And that typically means that there is no going back.
It’s fascinating how different writers have different ways of writing, and even for one writer that way can change from book to book.
You have to listen to the project and what it wants. Your manuscript is your confidante, it’s your diary, it’s your enemy—it’s all these things. It grows. And once it has a certain amount of weight and momentum, it colonizes your mind. It’s very real to you. It’s one of the magical things of long-form fiction is that you live with it, sometimes for years, and it leaves an imprint on you.
Given that this is your fourth book, were there things you learned along the way that helped with writing this book?
Completing books gives you courage. Your voice changes book to book. You have to rediscover architecture, as each book works differently and has a different rhythm. Some may be written as if in a minor key and some may be more major. All the same, you figure out some baseline aesthetic points, such as Who am I?, and What for me is important to me in the storytelling? And I think that you grow more confident in these judgements, and you say, “Look, This is who I am and this is what I believe in.” And you might give yourself more license. This book especially was a joy to write. I really felt as though I took myself off the chain. The characters meant so much to me, and I wanted to spend time in their company. So the experience of writing other books gave me the confidence to indulge myself that way.
It’s a challenge to write something that’s not easy to put in a labeled box or on a specific shelf. But that’s how literature is transformed as well.
I have to say, my editors have to be great about that. If you asked me what genre Smoke is, I’d say I don’t know. It’s my book; genre is not how I relate to it. But my editors have been really great in saying that this is a book that works for many people in different ways, and we’re not going to hide that. In fact, we’re going to celebrate it.
What are you working on now?
No sooner had I finished Smoke than I realized that I was not finished. [Laughs] So there’s something in the works under the working name of Soot.
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