Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, Lyle Blake Smythers – Lyle Blake Smythers is an actor, writer, and retired librarian in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. Since 1976 he has performed in over 130 stage productions, including three appearances at the National Theatre.
Thanks so much, Lyle, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
Lyle Blake Smythers: I was extremely interested in adventure stories and monster movies as early as elementary school. When I was in the sixth grade I was a big fan of the adventure novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, his Tarzan books, the John Carter stories set on Mars, and the Pellucidar books that took readers to a strange world at the Earth’s core. I started writing my own story, entitled Expedition into the Unknown, a highly derivative work that took some men in a giant Devil Drill to the Earth’s core for adventures among strange people and monsters. It was not terribly good but I had fun with it. When I got to junior high school I said, “This is awful” and abandoned it. Since then I have been preoccupied with making my own stories.
JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
LBS: After the science-fiction adventure novel I have mentioned above, which was never finished, I tried to write another one set in a remote valley in Africa, filled with strange creatures and primitive people. This was another Edgar Rice Burroughs rip-off, with elements of Tarzan. I worked on it in seventh and eighth grades and abandoned it as well. My high-school attempt at a novel was an Agatha Christie type murder mystery, large weekend party at a house in the country, etc. Also left unfinished.
My first finished novel was a short realistic children’s book about a bully and a bright boy’s attempt to organize an army to fight him. I wrote it during the first year I was out of grad school and working in the real world as a children’s librarian. It had problems with its tone and the voice of the narrator, and my attempts to get it published did not succeed.
After quite a few years of directing my creative energy into acting, as opposed to writing, I returned to my scribbling and wrote a heroic fantasy/swords-and-sorcery adventure, a mélange of Michael Moorcock, Peter S. Beagle, and early Ursula K. LeGuin, entitled Feasting With Panthers. This is notable for two reasons. It was my first published novel, and it was my first work featuring major characters who were gay and gay romantic and sexual relationships. It came out in 2012. Since then, my ideas and themes have centered around fantasy with gay aspects and elements. These are the subjects that fascinate me and make me want to write about them.
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
LBS: The aforementioned Feasting With Panthers came out from Pink Narcissus Press in 2012. This is the blurb I like to use for it: A warrior poet rescues an acolyte from a false religion, beginning a fantasy adventure involving magic, monsters, blood, revenge, treachery, homoeroticism, a false quest, one-eyed men, giant mutant owls, and large intelligent cats that appear to understand English.
JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantster?
LBS: Most definitely a pantser. I know where I want to go, what the high points are going to be, but not how to get to what lies between them until I start writing. This helps me maintain the excitement inside me as I create. Detailed outlining, which works for some, only saps my motivation. Why write the whole thing if I’ve already written the outline? Ha.
JSC: Do your books spring to life from a character first or an idea?
LBS: The idea first. I am a plot kinda guy.
JSC: What is the most heartfelt thing a reader has said to you?
LBS: A dear friend wrote this about the book we are discussing here:
Mr. Smythers’ most seductive creative gift is that of creating worlds that no matter how unusual (“Panthers”) or how seemingly familiar (“Sin”) that feel incredibly real and vivid. He does this not by burying us under details that take away from the story, but with casual asides from the characters that hint at entire aspects of that fictive world, which give it the solidness of a land that we’ve not yet visited but which we have heard tell exists. It’s a subtle skill, exercised by a confident, talented author, and it only makes his fantasies richer. “Death by Sin” is a very original genre piece; a love child born of Chandler and Lovecraft, as narrated by a supernatural and somewhat more badass Noel Coward. You probably haven’t read anything like it, and any lover of urban fantasy should check it out.
JSC: What are your least favorite parts of publishing?
LBS: That would be the ongoing fight for visibility, for readers to find your book and know that it exists.
JSC: What were your goals and intentions in “Death By Sin,” and how well do you feel you achieved them?
LBS: It is a blend of dark fantasy, New Weird, and urban detective noir. A little China Mieville, a little Jeff Vandermeer, a little Philip K. Dick, a little Raymond Chandler, in a realistic, complex, real-world setting combining elements of both science fiction and fantasy.
As an urban fantasy narrated by a Philip Marlowe-Sam Spade type of private detective from a noir film or novel, who happens to be a supernatural being, it is a substantial departure from the heroic fantasy that was my first book. It contains plot elements that have been in my mind for a long time: the sex drug, the mystery-thriller played out in a speculative-fiction frame, the criminally insane super-villain who is reminiscent of Fu Manchu. I’ve wanted to use all these ideas for decades and never got around to putting them together. Injecting a healthy dose of gay stuff into the mix seemed to do the trick.
JSC: Who has been your favorite character to write and why?
LBS: The Death by Sin narrator, Finn, is a smartass who challenges authority and insults people left and right. Friends who have read both Feasting With Panthers and Death by Sin say that the hero/main narrator is obviously me. I agree. I like to base physical descriptions of minor characters on people I know. My friends are invited to get the book and look for themselves in its pages.
JSC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
LBS: A newspaper reporter. Reruns of the old Superman TV show were being shown every afternoon after school and I was inspired to be Clark Kent.
And now for Lyle’s new book: Death By Sin:
Finn M’Coul, the hero of Irish mythology, is assigned a new case by his boss Viledark, a monstrous hoglike being and an immortal shapeshifter. Together they run a private detective agency on Capitol Hill in modern-day Washington, D.C.
A retired general has hired them to find his missing nineteen-year-old son, who appears to be involved with a new drug. Shotweed increases the male orgasm many times, in both duration and intensity, and is on the rise in the local gay community. It is highly addictive and may be fatal, and it only works on gay men.
Finn’s search leads him to a psychotic supervillain who is unleashing deadly mischief for his own perverse entertainment. Drugs, monsters, and a man with a hook stand in Finn’s way as he works to save a beautiful boy and others like him.
We were interrupted by someone whistling the drum solo from an Iron Butterfly song. I looked across the turbaned tombstones and saw a man standing over by a stone crypt candelabraed with dead vines.
Short and skinny, dressed all in gray, liver-colored spectacles. Greasy black hair and oily skin the hue of strong tea. Red pear-shaped lumps on his cheekbones. Acne on the throat, where you don’t usually see acne. He looked as slick as overbuttered toast.
The whistling dribbled away. “I know you,” he called to me in an adenoidal voice. “You’re the White Stranger.”
Thalia murmured, “Is that one of the names you answer to? You have so many names.”
“Where did he come from?” I muttered, maybe to her, maybe to myself. Certainly not to this fine specimen, who was too far away to hear.
He started oozing our way, both hands in his pockets. He had the air of a drunk trying to walk steadily and just barely succeeding. Finally he stopped, close enough that he could have sprayed us if he had vomited. He was cloaked in the smell of blasted clay and freshly shattered flint and the sulfur of struck matches. I thought that I might vomit myself.
“Can we help you?” Thalia was dangerously polite.
“My name is Waxpool. I have a word of advice for your Hibernian friend.”
“We shiver in anticipation.”
He turned his dirty lenses to me. “Stay away from General Scarlett. Far away.”
Slowly I took out my cigar case and selected a Charlemagne. I fired it up and puffed with practiced serenity, holding it in my left hand. “Do you have a dog in this fight?”
His ghost of a smile showed yellow teeth. “We do.”
“I’m afraid I can’t stay away from the General. He’s giving me money.”
“Probably more than you can imagine.”
“I can imagine quite a lot.”
“In any event, I only take orders from my boss.”
“What a pity.” He took his left hand from its pocket and brandished a black object about the size of my cigar. It looked like a Mont Blanc pen that had been melted down in a blast furnace.
I sprang to my feet. My right hand went to his wrist and my left hand jabbed the Charlemagne into his face. A squeal of pain and indignation squirted out of him as he fell back. I waltzed him backwards and threw him down on the grass.
He dropped the pen thing and I kicked it out of his reach. Then I leaned over, snatched off the spectacles, grasped his head firmly in both hands and looked into his algae-encrusted eyes. Their green murk contained a red spark of defiance.
“Who are you working for? Who’s the ‘we’ you mentioned? Talk to me.”
He struggled, trying to break my grip and reach the pen. “No! I won’t! No! I won’t! No! I won’t!”
His tone of conviction and the repetition of three times made my decision easy. “You think you’re such a scary dangerous Devil Bat, don’t you? Here’s what I do to bad bat boys.”
I tore his head off and lobbed it across the churchyard, where it hit a crazily leaning cross and bounced out of sight. I looked down and saw that I had gotten a gout of blood on my sweater, one of my favorites. I have a lot of green sweaters, but still … The day was losing its enchantment.
Thalia was looking at me calmly. She had seen me do worse things. “Was he human?”
“Yes. I can tell by the smell of the blood.” I kicked the body and turned my back on it. “You’d better move along before somebody comes. They can’t contain me but they could arrest you.”
“All right. In a minute. You want to leave that device with me? I know someone who might know what it is.”
“If I knew what it was called I could ask the Salmon.”
“If ifs were skiffs we’d all be sailors.”
I smiled and said, “What did you mean, I have so many names?”
She opened her shoulder bag and took out a notebook. “I’ve been meaning to share this with you. You call yourself Finn M’Coul.” She spelled it. “But you turn up in some databases as Finn MacCool.” She spelled that.
“Some people can’t spell.”
“Also as Finn McCool.” She spelled that.
“A common variant.”
“And as Finn MacCumal.”
“And as Fionn MacCumhaill.” She spelled that.
“That’s me too.”
“And as Fionn Mac Cumhail.” She spelled that, putting in the space.
“That’s me too.”
“And as Fingal.”
“Lacks the elegance of the others, doesn’t it? That’s the one that means White Stranger.”
“Any connection, linguistic or otherwise, to all those movements called the Fenians, appearing in different countries and different time periods over the past couple of centuries?”
“I can’t be held responsible for what others do.”
She took a long look at Waxpool’s headless corpse. “Just for what you do.”
“I do what I do.”
The banshee cry of a police siren rose from a block away.
“We cannot beg for pardon,” I said.
Lyle Blake Smythers is an actor, writer, and retired librarian in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. Since 1976 he has performed in over 130 stage productions, including three appearances at the National Theatre. He has published fiction, poetry, satire, and literary criticism in Manscape, FirstHand, Playguy, The William and Mary Review, Insights, School Library Journal, and Children’s Literature Review. His novels include Feasting With Panthers, Death by Sin, and Worms of Sin. A former children’s librarian, he spent the bulk of his professional career at the Library of Congress.