Maine Crime Writers recently sat down with Earl Smith, whose first comic-mystery novel, The Dam Committee, has just been published by North Country Press. Smith, who lives in Belgrade and is a retired Colby College dean, has written a tale of small town life and intrigue set in the fictional town of Belfry, Maine. The book has been endorsed by no less than three Maine Crime Writers.
So, Earl, what’s it feel like to have that first mystery novel published?
As I’m sure members of Maine Crime Writers know, the months, even years, of thinking about the day make it incredibly exciting. The visions of success are probably not healthy.
What kept you going for all the months of writing, with no guarantee of success?
The absorbing nature of writing fiction and my Golden Retriever, Nicholas, who demands regular writing time and exercises great discipline.
So Nicholas is a writer’s best friend?
See above. Anthropomorphizing is a speciality.
Your feel for small-town life in Maine is spot on. Have you always been an observer of human nature?
I have long been a close observer of other people. It comes, I suspect, from years of deanly observations of students at Colby. I am especially fond of the colorful and lovable characters found in the small towns of Maine — and rural places elsewhere.
Give us a quick synopsis of the plot of THE DAM COMMITTEE, if you don’t mind.
The plot has two prongs. Harry, the protagonist, is a tidy and fretful guy whose glass is usually half empty. One March night, he and his friend Nibber, who’s somewhat sloppy and whose glass is regularly half full, happen onto a murder scene at a house by the lake. On their way home, they stumble onto a suitcase full of folding money. Who murdered the drug dealer, Doc O’Neil? What becomes of the money?
While we have you, could you retell the story about the character with the deer-crossing sign?
The local game warden told me the story of the fellow who confronted him at the general store and complained of having deer-crossing signs on the road in front of his orchard. Said he’d put up with the signs for years and thought it was about time they were moved so someone else could deal with the gawdamed deer.
Great. Can you explain, to those of us who have not lived in a town with a dam, the significance of that device in the life of a town? And what research did you have to do to understand the mechanics of the gate?
In small towns with dams, water levels take second place to the weather in the matter of general conversation. The water is most always too high or too low and rarely just right. I learned about the whole dam business from a veteran Maine dam engineer who told me much more than I needed to know about Tainter Gates and spillways.
Okay, so once and for all, is Belfry modeled on Belgrade Lakes, which is, by the way, the model for On Golden Pond, right?
I stoutly deny that Belfry is Belgrade. What on earth are people thinking? Moreover, despite what the locals are saying, the characters in The Dam Committee are not people we know. (I wish someone would tell the local postmaster that, because he thinks he’s going to be wrongly depicted in the book and refuses to put up my mail.) This is a good place to repeat the disclaimer that appears in the front: “This is a work of fiction. The people, places, and events are all made up. Anyone who thinks otherwise, even for a minute, needs to lighten up.”
Now don’t you have a book event soon in the Belgrade Lakes? Is anticipation high? Has anyone snuck a galley into town?
No sneak previews. Bad enough that the synopsis, printed in Maine newspapers, has led to false speculation and great anticipation. I have ordered plywood for my windows.
Are you going with a bodyguard? Just kidding.
Nicholas, who persists in saying “I told you so,” has agreed to go with me.
You clearly love small-town life, with all of its idiosyncracies.
I do indeed.
Where did the idea come from to drop a suitcase full of cash into the midst of this community?
I needed to draw out the bumbling and naive nature of the two main characters. What better way than to give them a suitcase full of money?
I know you won’t answer this, but Nibber isn’t modeled on a particular person, is he? If not, how did you conjure him up?
That would be Nikolai “Nibber” Nasbroski. He’s a compilation of the most colorful, down and out small town critters I have known.
Okay, here’s the advice portion. You had never written a mystery novel and yet you got your first one published. Keys to your success?
I’m a splendid writer.
Thanks. That’s very helpful. You’ve no doubt been asked this before, but is there a sequel coming?
If you had to pick, what were the low and high points of writing and publishing THE DAM COMMITTEE?
The low point was when the first publisher declined. The high point was when the second publisher agreed.