Saturday, January 28, 2012

Interview with Wendell and Muriel Smith - Part 2

Muriel Smith, 1948
Part 2 of my interview with my parents, Wendell and Muriel Smith. The saga continues...

Dell: That brings us to Muriel...

Wendell: Right.

Dell: (to Muriel) You also grew up in New Jersey.

Muriel: Yes.

Dell: Morristown.

Muriel:  Yes.

Dell: During the Depression. Would you say the Depression affected the way you grew up? How things were?

Muriel:  Well, it may have affected us but I don’t think so. My particular family. My father had just opened his first auto supply store (Dean Phipps Auto Stores). About 1923 or something. By the time the Depression began at the end of the 1920s, he was doing very, very well. And that was the kind of business that flourished during the depression.

Dell: Sort of a do-it-yourself. Instead of buying a new car you would buy the parts to fix the car you had.

Muriel: Yes. Apparently he was very good at what he did, and so my particular family…my father wasn’t out of work or struggling at all. I remember though him coming and taking us into New York. The day. Anne (Muriel’s sister) and I. I was just a little kid. I was probably around seven, eight years old. And he took us down to the Bowery and showed us the lines of people, the men going in to get soup. Soup lines. To show us what the Depression was like.

Dell: Well there must have been kids at your school who were affected.

Muriel: There were. And my sister took me down the street and around the corner down into the woods. And there was a camp of hobos right along the railroad tracks. These were men who had lost their jobs. And they were living in these outdoor camps. Traveling on the train. They hop the trains. Go where they hope to get a job. (My sister) took me down and showed it to me. It was unbelievable, these men standing around, sitting around. Waiting—

Dell: That’s when you understood a little bit better—

Muriel: I didn’t understand too much. I was pretty young. I was about six in 1933, and that was about the middle of the Depression. It ended with the second world war. And then the country started mobilizing for war and everything speeded up, and everybody got jobs.

Dell: You went to Connecticut College. You went for education?

Muriel: I majored in education. Child development. I was trained to teach nursing school and kindergarten.

Dell: Was it after school that you were a draughtsman?

Muriel: Oh, that was my last job. When I met him (points to Wendell) I was a draughtsman. My first job was teaching in a private school in Madison. I taught kindergarten. And then my second job was teaching first and second grade in a private school in Florida.

Wendell + Muriel, July 1967

Dell: So you moved to Florida?

Muriel: My mother and I went down there for the winter. And then I came back from Florida, and a friend of mine worked at Bell Labs. When I was teaching school I was making $25 a week. And I’d give my mother $10 for rent. So I ended up with $15 a week. Well, it was a lot of money in those days, but it wasn’t that much. So this friend at Bell Labs she said, “You know, they’re hiring at Bell Labs and they’re paying big money.” She was making a $100.00 a week.

Dell: Wow.

Muriel: So I marched myself down there and it turned out I knew the man who was the personnel director. He was a father of a friend of mine. He interviewed me and I got the job. So then my friend Anne Ackerman was working in a bank and she wasn’t making much money and she went down and interviewed and got hired. They were hiring women to be draughtsman and do electric schematics. Which is a certain kind of a drawing. And they hired maybe ten girls.

Dell: Was this during the war?

Muriel: No, the war had ended. But they were still doing war work, because it was the cold war.  We were working on Nike.

Dell: What’s that?

Muriel: Some kind of a missile thing. We were working on such small little parts that I have no idea what the whole thing was. So the ten of us, maybe there weren’t that many, maybe six of us were given a six week course on how to do this.

Dell: Yeah, you didn’t have experience.

Muriel: None of us were draughtsman. And the course was given down in Murray Hill where the biggest Bell Labs place was and while I was taking that course, I don’t know if he remembers this, but that’s when I met Wendell.  (After the course ended) we went back to Bell Labs in Wippenee and they had a whole room of us girls at our drafting tables doing these schematics. We knew just exactly what to do.

Muriel on the Hudson River with her father, Dean Phipps

Dell: And you met Wendell during this time. You had both grown up in Morristown but you had never met.

Muriel: No, but my sister knew his brother and I think his father was our insurance agent. I had never him. But my mother and I moved into an apartment in—

Wendell: Jacob Ford Village.

Muriel: Jacob Ford Village, it’s like a garden apartment. And we moved in right next door to Bob Smith (Wendell’s brother). And Wendell lived with Bob. That’s how I met him. We were both on the second floor. I’d see him out my window walking around the parking lot.

Wendell: I used to see you going off to work in the morning.

Dell: So, we’ll jump ahead. We know the story of Wendell and Muriel getting married and driving across country and setting up shop at the top of a mountain. (To Muriel) So when did you start to write?

Muriel: Well the first time I remember writing something good was in eighth grade. It was around Christmas and we had read the Christmas Carol. Dickens. And the assignment was to write another episode with another ghost. And my teacher was just thrilled (with the story she wrote). And she read it out loud to the class. And I was amazed. I didn’t know that my story was that good. You know, I just wrote the assignment. That was the very first time I thought that maybe I was a good writer. Because nobody had ever mentioned it to me before.

Dell: So that planted the seed.

Muriel: Yes. Then I thought, Gee, I’m a good writer. And I realized that I liked doing it. It’s fun.

Dell: I remember growing up on Main Street in Orleans and I think you were keeping a journal at that time.

Muriel: Well I wrote a mystery when we lived there.

Dell: All right.

Muriel:  A very bad one.

Dell: Okay, I’m glad you can admit that. But that was your first attempt at a novel right? So it’s okay that it was bad.

Muriel: It was really bad. But it was good experience. How are you going to learn if you don’t sit down and do it?

Dell: Every good writer has a couple of books that they don’t show anybody. That never actually go anywhere. That’s part of the learning experience. Now, you’ve written some romance novels.

Muriel: Yes I have.

Dell: Since the ’80s or ‘90s you’ve written a few?

Muriel: Three.

Dell: Did you have an agent at one time?

Muriel: Yes. It was fun having an agent. She was really nice. And helpful. It was just great. And I didn’t realize quite what it meant to have an agent. I didn’t have any friends who wrote. I didn’t have any contact with other writers. Like, Cindy’s in this wonderful group (TARA – Tampa Romance Writers of America). I had nothing like that. I didn’t realize getting an agent was such a big deal. After the third book, which she loved but couldn’t sell—and she wanted me to rewrite it—I just dropped her. Which is so awful. Here she was trying so hard to get my writing going and getting me published, she really tried and was so nice to me. She’d call me up on the phone and everything.

The Incredible Barn, Orleans, MA, 1967

Dell: What was her name?

Muriel: Lettie Lee. She was with the Ann Elmo Agency. I don’t think it exists any more. I think she was older, maybe my age. Because during the course of our friendship her husband died.

Dell: So you dropped her like a hot potato. Said, I’m done with you.

Muriel: I didn’t say anything. I just didn’t feel like rewriting the book. And then I gave up. I decided that I tried it, and it didn’t work. That was it. Which is wrong. Cindy has friends who have written twelve novels before they were published.

Dell: It sounds like you were frustrated.

Muriel: Yeah.

Dell: And you felt like it wasn’t worth it, it wasn’t going anywhere.

Muriel: That’s how I felt. Yeah.

Dell: I remember you going off to stay at the campground in Foster, Rhode Island.

Muriel: Yeah. That was fun. I got a lot of work done. I (had been) dreaming of going somewhere alone and just writing twelve hours a day. That’s what I did there; I worked all day until about four o’clock. And then Laurie and the kids would come over. We’d have a swim and then she’d take me (back to her house) and cook me dinner.

Dell: What were you writing then?

Muriel: I was still writing the romances. I wrote three.

Dell: Do you like them?

Muriel: Yeah.

Dell: The one you recently went back to take a look at, was that the last one you had written?

Muriel: Yes.

Dell: The one the agent wanted you to revise?

Muriel: Yes, that’s the one the agent liked the best.

Dell: Are you revising it the way she told you to, or are you looking at it with fresh eyes?

Muriel: I’m revising it the way she told me to and the way Cindy thought I should. You know, so there’s two people giving me feedback.

Dell: I know that you’ve written some short pieces too, in the last few years.

Muriel: I had always written short pieces, but never got any of them published until the Cape Cod Times took the one about the mouse in my trailer, which was a true story. Back when dad and I had Cindy, we already had two other almost-babies (Robin and Laurie). The three girls were so close (in age). Robin was two, Laurie was one, and Cindy was a baby. (At that time Wendell and I) had a contest about writing little short pieces and getting them published. We used to write these little one column articles and we sent them to these little magazines and we were getting them published. I was writing about the babies and the household and all that stuff. I hired a high school girl to come every day after school to help me with this huge bunch of babies. They were all in diapers.

Dell: At the same time?

Muriel: Yeah. And there was a lot of work to do. So I wrote an article about that. And we were getting these little things published because we were just sending them to little magazines and newspapers. Remember that Wendell?

Wendell: Here’s just an aside. When we moved to the Cape there was a bunch of women who wanted to start a (writing) club. The twelve o’clock scholars. So (one of the women) called up me and Kurt Vonnegut, and we went to see them and they said, Do you think (starting the writing club) is a good idea? And we said, Yes. I talked a while with Vonnegut. He told me, “I’m going to write this book about the bombing of Dresden.” Remember, he was a prisoner of war and they were in a Schlachthof  (slaughterhouse)  seven, or whatever it was. And he told me that he really had to write about that.

Muriel: And he wrote it.

Wendell: And that’s the last I saw of Vonnegut. (Editor’s Note: Wendell and Vonnegut both went to Cornell around the same time.)

Wendell, waiting for a court

Muriel: But never joined the twelve o’clock scholars, did you?

Wendell: No. I thought it was just for women.

Muriel: It wasn’t just for women. There were men in it. I went to it for a while, but I didn’t like it at all. You know, there are writing groups and there are writing groups. There were too many people in it. It was huge.

Dell: When you had all these kids it must have slowed down your writing.

Muriel: We hadn’t moved to the Cape yet, we were living in North Wales, Pennsylvania. And I don’t know why, but we just decided to have these little competitions and we were just each of us knocking out these little stories. And they were selling. For practically nothing, I mean we weren’t making any money. If they paid us ten dollars we were probably….

Wendell: I had a piece in the Philadelphia Enquirer, the paper.

Muriel: Well he did a lot better than I did.

Wendell: Well, I’d write something. And then say, Well who might need this. And it was an article on commuting, meeting somebody at the station.

Muriel: That was cute.

Wendell: And I usually had two or three places (in mind) so that if the first one turned it down…but now the papers are so strapped they’re not even…

Muriel: They’re trying everything to cut down.

Dell: Robin is writing a blog for the Cape Cod Times website. She’s not getting paid, it’s just an extra thing she’s doing for them. Everything’s changed now. Muriel, who were some of your favorite writers growing up?

Muriel: When I was kid, every year I would read all my favorite books, books like Heidi, and every good children’s book because I loved them so much. And then a whole year would go by and I’d read them again. I’d read them over and over. The Little Lame Prince, do you remember that book? I loved that book. But that’s when I was a child. There’s so many writers I love.

Dell: How about writers who were influential to you when you were in college?

Muriel: My trouble is whenever I’m reading a good book, if I were writing at the same time, I would kind of go into their style. Does that happen to you?

Dell: Probably.

Muriel: It’s not a good idea to do it.

Dell: That’s why you should read good writers.

Muriel: I know.

Dell: Because if you’re going to copy somebody, it better be good.

Muriel: I just read a wonderful book (called) Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I just read it about three weeks ago and it was fabulous.

Dell: Would you recommend that?

Muriel: Yes.
Muriel on the high seas, 1960s

Dell: Wendell, what book are you reading at the moment that you recommend?
Wendell: I was reading Mayflower (by Nathanial Philbrook). I took it out of the library and I renewed it and I better finish reading it before I get another. Living on the Cape, you learn a lot about the early history of the area. And how the Indians helped the Pilgrims. But then more and more English came, and more settlements. And the poor Indians were backed into a corner. Of course, a year or so before the Mayflower landed, 90 or so percent of the Indians died from disease. It was probably the biggest mass dying in the history of the country really. Thousands of poor Indians. And a few Indians helped the Pilgrims. But (the Pilgrims) were always leery of the Indians. Of course Jamestown, down in Virginia, was damn near wiped out by the Indians. So they were always very leery. And Miles Standish, he was a military leader. And the Indians really were living in (hard conditions). If their crops didn’t come up…well, Miles Standish attacked a little Indian village and a lot of the Indians just got scared as hell and they would run off in the woods and run out of food and die. It was a very harsh time. Well anyway, this is an interesting book.

Dell: Have you read other books by Philbrook?

Wendell: He wrote (In the Heart of the Sea) about the Essex, where the whales sunk the ship.

Dell: You’ve always been interested in history and Cape Cod, and you always seemed to carry a lot of books that had to do with regional interests.

Wendell: Having a bookstore on the Cape, you naturally needed non-fiction on the area. Ships, and whatever.

Dell: Well, I guess that’s it. Do you have anything to add?

Wendell: I just wish I had kept up writing like you have.

Dell: Would you ever go back to the novels you wrote and take another look at them?

Wendell: I might, yes. When you get to be my age you send a manuscript to somebody and they say, Well gee we might like to publish this guy but, hell, he’s 85. How many more books is he going to write?

Muriel: Even when I was writing my romances and I had the agent I thought, well if she ever wants to meet me, what I’m going to do is get Robin to impersonate me and go to the meeting because I didn’t want her to know how old I was. And agents want a writer who turns out a book every year, you know. That’s what she’s building. And if you’re in your seventies, or however old I was, the chances of writing a book every year is slim. So I was going to get Robin to meet her.

Wendell: You didn’t, did you?

Muriel: No, but that’s what I had planned if (the agent) had come to the Cape and wanted to meet me.

Wendell: That’s a good story right there.

Wendell, Grand Canyon (?), circa 1952

Muriel: I never told Robin that, but that’s what I was going to do.

Dell: Thanks for talking.

Muriel: You’re welcome. Any time you want to talk. When I wrote my family history I probably didn’t put anything in about writing, did I?

Dell: Probably not.

Muriel: I was just writing about the family. I think Laurie was the one who kept bugging me to do it and I think she wanted to know who the relatives were and who we’re all related to. That’s what I was trying to get across.

Wendell: That’s what I have to do.

Muriel: Yeah, now she’s bugging dad to do it.

Dell: That would be something you could get down pretty easily.

Wendell: Yeah.

Muriel: You could do it on the new baby (a new computer they bought). I haven’t tried writing anything on it yet but it would probably be fast.

Dell: Well he hasn’t even used the word processor before. He likes to write longhand. (To Wendell) You have to get her to transcribe it for you.

Muriel: I don’t know if I could write a book in longhand. I mean, the thing with a computer is your brain works so fast you know when you’re thinking and so does the computer work fast, so that’s good. But to write long hand which I’ve tried to do, it’s a long tedious job to write. And your brain is right over here about a mile away from your writing, you see what I mean?

Dell: Yeah, but on the other hand you are concentrating on what you’re writing so that by the time you get to the end of the sentence—

Muriel: Your brain has caught up with you?

Dell: Yeah, well it forces you to stick with the sentence and maybe you were changing the words as you went.

Muriel: Yeah. But sometimes you get these wonderful thoughts and you just want to get it down so you don’t forget it. It’s just the right combination of words and it’s just flowing. Which comes out great on the computer but in longhand it would be… (laughs).

Dell: Right. Good point. Get it out. Well, he (points to Wendell) used to bang away on a typewriter.

Wendell: Yeah. I like to write longhand, too.

Dell: Do you still have a typewriter?

Wendell: No.

Muriel: The first computer I ever bought from Steve Green, the only reason I bought it was to write on.

Wendell: Well, if you have any more questions, let us know.

Dell: This has been Wendell and Muriel Smith, chatting with Dell Smith on May 25th, 2009 in Holmes Beach, Florida.

Muriel and Wendell Smith, Cindy Mitchell, and the Unreliable Narrator, Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island, 2009.


Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thanks Dell! This is a wonderful interview. And I love the old photos. Really beautiful. :)

Dell Smith said...

I'm glad we have this. Also, been scanning a lot of old photos.

Laurie Smith Murphy said...

Love your interviews with Mom and Dad! Thanks so much for doing this, Dell. I feel like I'm in the living room with you.

Liz's Mom said...

I love your mom. She is so honest, matter-of-fact, straightforward and dear.

Wonderful photos !

I am so glad you taped this interview and transcribed it, worth every minute.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Liz's Mom. There's more to come, lots of photos, and other writing.