Sunday, January 22, 2012

Interview with Wendell and Muriel Smith - Part 1

In the next few months I'll be posting the writing of my father. As we clean out his bedroom we collect his work, which takes various forms: typed stories, hand-written pieces on lined paper, ideas on index cards, file folders and manilla envelopes with full-length manuscripts, college essays, printed articles. All of it analog, nothing in digital form. Which means it needs to be digitally archived, either transcribed, scanned, or photographed.

Among his papers are: issues of Driftwood, a monthly poetry anthology form the 1940s in which he published early poems; two novels; a book-length exegesis of an ornithologist; type- or hand-written journals detailing the years he met my mother (I found the very entry where he talks about their first date! He was smitten from the first.), a joint journal kept by both my parents during their honeymoon when they drove from the East Coast to California to spent six months atop a mountain where they were employed as fire lookouts, and his journal of the family's move from Pennsylvania to Cape Cod in early 1961.

There are also boxes of family photographs. I don't know if other families took as many photographs in the early mid-twentieth century, but cameras must have been yearly Christmas gifts for the Smith family. Dad was also a painter and illustrator. Aside from his love of birds, he took to doing watercolors and charcoals of beloved Cape Cod themes, adding his spin to light houses and crashing waves and soaring seagulls. He sent me cartoons when I was in college; he was influenced by Trudeau's Doonsbury comic. So I will post some of his artwork here as well.

It all amounts to an archive whose breadth and depth my father only occasionally hinted at during his later life. Wendell was a WWII glider pilot, a used book dealer, a writer, nature lover, a father of four kids, husband of almost 60 years to Muriel, herself a writer and book lover.

To get things started, I'm posting part 1 of the transcript of a recorded interview with both Wendell and Muriel Smith, when they lived in Florida, on Anna Maria Island, May 25th 2009. I'll post part 2 in the next few days.

Topics discussed: writing, reading, agents, literary influences, growing up during the Great Depression, WWII, living on Cape Cod, raising four kids to be readers and writers, buying and selling used books and antiques, how the Internet changed everything, the benefits of writing long hand, publishing cartoons in the New Yorker, publishing articles in Classics Illustrated, and meeting Kurt Vonnegut.

Dell Smith, son, interviewer.

Dell Smith: So, we’re here with Wendell Everett Smith and Muriel Phipps Smith. And we’re just going to be talking a little bit about writing and Smith family writers. (To Wendell) You grew up in New Jersey.

Wendell Smith: In Morristown.

Dell: You weren’t born during the depression, but you were a kid during the depression.

Wendell: Right.

Dell: So that must have had a bit of an impact on growing up and the way your family—

Wendell: Well it did, but you know, you’re a kid. You don’t really know. We weren’t starving to death or anything.

Dell: It was just the way it was.

Wendell: Yeah. Used to be, guys would come down the street and they’d knock on the door for something to eat, you know?

Dell: Yeah. Would you give it to them?

Wendell: Oh yeah. Sure.

Dell: Well, Morristown was a pretty nice town. Not a bad place to grow up.

Wendell: Yeah, it was a good place. We lived close to all the schools. The little elementary play yard backed up to our yard.  Then, the next block over was the secondary (school)…I went there as fifth, sixth, seventh grade I guess. Then the high school was two long blocks up the other way, I never rode a school bus.

Dell: Right. You always walked to school.

Wendell: Yeah. Often I’d walk home for lunch. And it was a pretty nice neighborhood. We had probably a dozen or more kids. You know, you could play with kids. So, it was a nice place to grow up ‘cause there were a lot of kids around. There were woods near there and you could go off in the woods and play.

Dell: Now was this the house I remember going to visit grandpa at? Is that where you grew up? Or is this another house?

Wendell: Well I think when you visited grandpa it may have been in Madison because they moved down there. So, I don’t think you ever saw our house in Morristown which was on Early Street. And then there was a pond where you go skating in the winter, you know. And that was fun. And then there was a public swimming pool. A little bit farther on. But I rarely went there because there was still a lot of polio scares. So you didn’t go to a public beach very often.

Dell: Was this during the ‘30s?

Wendell:  Yeah, ‘30s and ‘40s. Polio was cured, I think, in the ‘40s. And then suddenly that wasn’t a problem.

Dell: So, now what came first: going in the Army or going to Cornell? Did you start Cornell and then go into the Army?

Wendell: Well I graduated from Morristown High in 1941. And then that fall I went to Cornell. The war started in December of ’41, so I stayed in Cornell through the next spring, summer, and then in the fall of ’42 I enlisted in the Army Air Force as an aviation cadet (where he became a glider pilot). But I wasn’t called up until that winter of ’42 I guess it was. And then I stayed in the Army until the fall of ’45 (when) I went back to Cornell as a sophomore.

Dell: That must have been interesting to start school as a freshman and go away for a few years, and go into training and go overseas and then come back.

Wendell: Yeah, it was. After the war all the guys that had been overseas came back and it was sort of a mixed group of guys.

Dell: Were you on the GI bill going back to school?

Wendell: Yeah. (Laughs.) That was very good. It really was.

Dell: Did you major in writing at Cornell? Or education?

Wendell: No. I majored in English. I probably should have taken teacher’s courses. I should have taught, but I didn’t. Well, I taught in a private school for a while. But private school didn’t pay much. Remember, Muriel?

Muriel Smith: Oh yes.

Wendell: I mean, they didn’t…in a public school you got a pretty good salary. And retirement pay. But I didn’t get that. Obviously.

Dell:  When did you start getting interested in writing? Did you write as a kid? I know you published some articles and you did some technical writing.

Wendell: I guess always wanted to write and I majored in English and did as much writing as I could at Cornell. I did some writing after that. But nothing really came of it, you know?

Dell: Well you published some articles back in the day.

Wendell: Yeah, I did some of that.

Muriel: You wrote two novels.

Wendell: Couple of novels. And some short stories. I guess I was most successful at writing short, humorous pieces.

Dell: You had a couple cartoons in the New Yorker.

Wendell: Yeah.

Muriel: You have to show Dell the comic strip that you showed Cindy and I recently.

Wendell: Yeah I did write some comics. Well, comic book scripts. I did that for a while. But it really wasn’t anything great as far as writing is concerned.

Dell: Well it sounds like you’ve always done some writing of some kind. Different types. Long and short pieces.

Wendell: Yeah.

Dell: Do you still have the two novels that you worked on?

Wendell: I think so, yeah.

Muriel: The first book he wrote was his college novel.

Wendell: Yeah.

Muriel: Did you write one about Duckwald? (The name of the mountain lookout where they lived and worked during the months following their marriage in 1952.)

Wendell: I think I did, yeah. When we were out in California, we kept a log. A journal of what we did on the mountain. I still have that around.

Muriel: If you ever come across that I’d like to read it.

Wendell: And I did sort of keep a journal on the Incredible Barn.

Muriel: I don’t remember that. I’d like to read that, too.

Wendell: Yeah.

Dell: Didn’t you both put together a newsletter later on when you lived in Brewster?

Muriel: He did.

Wendell: I did. I used to sell Gladys Taber books. She became sort of a specialty of mine. I thought, well she wrote these sort of country essays. So I started to write (an essay) once a month and called them the Smith Country Letters. And I had a whole list of Gladys Taber customers, see, so I queried a lot of them. Showed them what I was doing. I had about twenty-five people I would send my little newsletter to.

Dell: So you sold subscriptions.

Wendell: I did that for about two years, but then it was kind of a chore and I really wasn’t making that much money on it so I decided to call a halt to that.

Dell: I remember that. That was in Brewster. Sunsmith House.

Muriel: I remember when he cranked it out on the mimeograph machine.

Wendell: Remember the mimeograph machine?

Muriel: Clunkity. Clunkity.

Dell: I remember I could hear it downstairs when you ran it upstairs. You did a lot of writing, not only on the country letters but on the used book catalogues you sent out. You had to write descriptions for all the books (listed in the catalogue).

Wendell:  Yeah, I would send a list out.

Dell: I would call that technical writing. You still do that, you still come up with descriptions for your—

Muriel: Well, it’s funny but sending out the list was almost like doing eBay. I would just have like a hundred items to list (she sells antiques). And he’d do the same thing with books. And we’d send these lists out. And I had a pretty good customer base. I had a lot of customers that were very good customers. And I lost all of them when I went on the Internet.

Wendell: The Internet changed everything, you know?

Dell: Well, you gained new customers even if you lost old customers. And it probably gave you a bigger exposure. Anyone in the world could find you.

Muriel: Yes. But it’s not as personal. The other thing was quite personal. You got to know people.

Wendell: Well the book business changed completely with eBay. Used to be, the AB Bookman's Weekly came and give these long lists of what dealers wanted and you’d (send out a) quote here and there. But eBay just wiped all that out. It’s a funny thing.

Muriel: But you do sell quite a few books on eBay. I think you do pretty well.

Wendell: Yeah. They have to be pretty special though, you know?

Muriel: Yeah.

Dell: I’m curious about the articles that you wrote. Did you target specific publications and say I can write an article for this magazine a certain way?

Wendell: Well…I had a few places in mind that might take something like (something I wrote). But it was strictly on spec, in a way. You know. I would write short history pieces. I found them the other day…

(He gets out of his chair and walks off to look for his writing.)

Dell: So you went and got some pieces of writing. A comic strip.

Wendell: When I was living in New Jersey I was going to sort of syndicate articles—little stories—and I would send them out. I had three or four papers that would take them. (He shows me a file folder of clippings.) Anyway, these are little newspaper articles.

Dell: (Looking through clippings.) From New Jersey?

Wendell: Yeah. In fact, I had several of them in Classics Illustrated. And I wrote a couple dozen of those, but it kind of petered out because I couldn’t get enough papers.

Dell: When did you start collecting books? Was it when you had an antique shop in Orleans (on Cape Cod)?

Wendell: Yeah. When we got the Incredible Barn. We put antiques in and I said, maybe I’ll sell some books.

Dell: And the rest is history.

Wendell: That’s right. You were a little kid then.

Dell: I was. And you also love to read, and you’ve passed down your love of books and reading and writing to your kids.

Wendell: Who are now stuck with it.

Dell: Who are now stuck with the reading and the writing. I mean, I for one love to buy books and look for books and I still like buying used books. Obviously something rubbed off. And I mean, you do it for business but there must be a part of you that loves books in general.

Wendell: Oh yeah. Well, it’s the search. And the fun of looking for them.

Dell: Do you have specific types of books that you always look for?

Wendell: Good non-fiction that interests people. You can buy books that are general (interest), but the ones that are more valuable are specific, even a little pamphlet might be more valuable than a great big book.

Dell: Specific to a time? Like a piece of history, or a specific topic? Or regional?
(Wendell goes to get some books.)

Dell: He has a stack of books in the corner that are priced and have descriptions on them.

Wendell: (Looking through his stack of books) This one’s on Colt revolvers. Now that’s very specific book that interests gun people. The more specific (the book) is, the more valuable. But then of course you look for first editions. Because that’s where you really can make some money if you happen to find some good ones. Like everything else the market is not very good at the moment.

Dell: But if you do find something that’s worthwhile there’s always a market for (it).

Muriel: How about the Rex Stout, things like that, you found recently?

Wendell: Yeah. Good, early mysteries, (like) Rex Stout.

Muriel: First editions.

Dell: Do mysteries sell well?

Wendell: Well, the early ones. There’s such a glut of mysteries these days, but the early ones, they’re sort of classics.

Dell: Does non-fiction sell better than fiction?

Wendell: Off hand, as a general rule, I’d say non-fiction sells (better).

Dell: Yeah, I think it’s the same way with new books too. Who are some of your favorite writers?

Wendell: Well, of course I like some of the humorists. I like Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse. James Thurber. E.B. White; wonderful writer. Yeah, they’re some of my favorites. Of course they’re not valuable at all, really.

Dell: A good Thurber may be, once in a while.

Wendell: Yeah, it would be. I like Virginia Woolf. I like her.

Dell: Do you ever find any Gladys Taber books anymore? (Wendell specialized in her books.)

Wendell: Not too often. They’re not quite as valuable as they used to be because so many people have either got them or (don’t know her). A few of her (titles) are pretty valuable, but by and large they’re not really that valuable.

Dell: Was she very well-known beyond New England?

Wendell: Oh yeah, she has, oddly enough, a fan club that has about 500 members that meets and they talk about Gladys Taber like she’s still there. But she’s been gone for 30 years (Editor’s note: she died in 1980 at age 81).

Muriel: Tell him about when they met.

Wendell: We had a sort of an open house (for the Gladys Taber fan club) in the Sunsmith House (Editor’s note: The name of the antique and book shop my parents owned for about fifteen years in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Brewster, MA), down (in the back yard) we had the tent up and we served them and all these crazy women came.

Muriel: The point was, they were buying books in the shop upstairs.

Wendell: Yeah, that too.

Dell: What do you think of all your kids turning out to be writers?

Wendell: Well I think it’s wonderful. I wish you’d all get your novels published.

Muriel: They will. They will. I feel they will.

Wendell: Well, Laurie’s got something out (to agents and publishers). And Cindy’s got two or three novels. She’s going to hit one of these days. She works at it like crazy. (Wendell and Muriel have three daughters, my sisters Robin, Laurie, and Cindy.)

Muriel: How about (points to me).

Wendell: And, yeah the son.

Dell: The son.

Wendell: The good son.

Dell: Yeah, I think we’re all bit by the writing bug to one degree or another. Thanks to you guys. Somehow you came together; two separate people. And you created some writing nuts.

Wendell: (Laughs) Well, I’m supposed to be the writer but (points to mom) she’s good, she’s very good.

Dell: That brings us to Muriel...

Stay tuned for Part 2!


Robin said...

Dell -- This is wonderful! I never knew you interviewed Mom & Dad in 2009. There is so much good stuff here. I like learning about all of Dad's writing projects. Can't wait to read the next installment!

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Robin. Yeah, I had the tape and started transcribing it last fall. Makes you wonder how many takes Uncle Bob recorded of our family.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Okay, this so made me cry.

Thank you for taking the time to interview Mom and Dad and transcribe all they said and print it here. :)

Looking forward to more!

Javed jahangir said...

Dell, this is really nice, actually sort of got me a little choked up for some reason.


Liz's Mom said...

I love this. It is touching and lovely and very very sweet.

I love your sisters! I think it is wonderful that you and your sister are all writers.

You write with such grace and charm. What a great idea to do these interviews.

greg said...

Dell, I really enjoyed this! Nice to hear his voice again>