Neil Smith’s debut novel Boo follows the afterlife of a thirteen-year-old boy named Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple. Oliver lives in heaven—known as Town with its delightful rules and facets—with his friends Johnny, Thelma, Esther, and numerous other thirteen-year-olds.
The story is written to Oliver’s much-loved parents, and we follow Oliver and his friends through Town as they pursue the truth behind Oliver and Johnny’s deaths. It’s a coming of age tale flipped on its head, with a subtle depth and poignancy. Readers will feel torn between sadness and hopefulness throughout the story, and by the end just may feel the urge to go hug their loved ones.
For Smith, whose own childhood was marked by tragedy, writing this book allowed him to create a fictional version of afterlife, just as he did as an adolescent living in Salt Lake City who didn’t believe in god. His capacity for creating quiet characters with rich inner lives is on full display in Boo.
I spoke with Smith by phone while he was on his book tour in New York City about how his own experience of being a thirteen-year-old boy influenced the book, the pull between staying an innocent child and being thrust into the violent adult world, and how friendship can help pull us through traumatic events in our lives.
The Rumpus: First, congratulations on your debut novel. Boo is a wonderful book.
Neil Smith: Thank you, I appreciate hearing that because for a long time I didn’t have any feedback whatsoever. I didn’t even allow my family and friends to read it until it was actually published. So they’re just reading it now; some of them haven’t finished it yet. It’s always scary to wait for your father to read it and give you his approval.
Boo is being published in seven languages, and as a translator, I’m really happy about that. I translate from French to English in Montreal, so I’m always thrilled to be working with translators and receiving their questions. For example, I know the French translators are having trouble with “holey heart” and “sadcon”—they just don’t work in French, so they’re going to have to come up with something else.
Rumpus: One of the things I loved about your short story collection, Bang Crunch, was your attention to quiet characters—people who might not garner a second glance and yet have rich inner lives and stories. In Boo you do it again, only this time we get to follow thirteen-year-old Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple in heaven, which leads to some surprising developments. Do you find that writing the quiet characters, the underdogs, comes naturally to you?
Smith: I think it does. I’m always intrigued by people who sit on the sidelines and observe. I like when that type of character is able to tell the story to the reader. They bring a lot of comprehension to the story; they’re like a conduit for the reader, really.
Rumpus: What was the idea that started Boo for you?
Smith: It started when I was around thirteen years old. At that time, I was living in Salt Lake City and I come from a family of atheists and agnostics, so it was very unusual for me to be surrounded by people who were so religious. Mormonism intrigued me but I knew nothing about religion, I’ve never even been baptized, so I didn’t even understand who Jesus Christ was. I thought he was sort of like a Santa Claus figure; in my mind he was like the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.
So when I was around the Mormons who were ultra religious, I would ask very embarrassing questions, particularly about heaven and afterlife. For me an afterlife would have to have rules, so I would ask them things like: “How would you get around in heaven? Would you ride bicycles?” “Would you eat meat from a dead animal, and if it were dead how would it be available in heaven?”
I even questioned the idea of toothpaste, and whether we would brush our teeth in heaven (which is the first line of Boo). I had all these very precise questions about how heaven would work, and of course the Mormons were appalled by my questions and they had never thought of these things and I came off like a complete freak, which I guess I was to them.
At the same time there was a tragedy in my family. My brother died, he overdosed on heroin, and my sister tried to commit suicide. So I thought even more about heaven and where people end up after death. I didn’t believe in god, so I made up my own version of afterlife. I was a kid that read a lot and absorbed by fictional worlds, so I thought I could create my own fictional heaven for my brother.
I wanted Boo to have the lightness of the books we read in childhood, like The Wizard of Oz, but with a dark tone, too, that represents the difficult childhood that I had. At thirteen, I was torn between wanting to stay a child and being forced to grow up because of these incidents that were happening to my family. I remember thinking at thirteen that I didn’t want to age another year. I wanted to stay thirteen forever, so that idea worked its way into the book. I still sometimes feel as if I’m thirteen; I don’t think any of us ever recover from being that age.
Rumpus: It’s a pretty traumatic age. So you had already conceived of the rules and structures of Town as an adolescent, and with this book you had a container with which to place this fictional world and put it together with the character of Oliver.
Smith: Yes, it’s like when you’re a kid and you make up stories or put on plays. I would create these movies starring action figurines with my younger brother. I would create the whole world and the rules that surround it, the way that kids do. Or the way you might play with Legos and create a town and that town would have its own qualities and rules. I think we do that a lot as children, and I wanted that aspect to be in the book.
What I’m saying is that every author is a god in a way; you’re a god creating these worlds, and you decide everything for them. I pushed it a little further in my book and created Zig (the nickname Town inhabitants gave to god). I was almost the Zig character, deciding what would be allowed and what would not be allowed in Town.
Rumpus: Did your characters lead you through the first draft of Boo, and you discovered the story as you went? Or did you write from a loose plan for the narrative arc?
Smith: I had a loose plan but the voice of Oliver Dalrymple came to me very easily. Once Oliver’s voice was in my head, it became really easy to write from his point of view. As a writer I was thankful that his voice was so strong in my head because it carried me through the first draft of the novel. I did have trouble deciding how it would end; I knew something traumatic would happen but I didn’t know what it would be. That’s a good thing as a writer, to have mystery while you’re writing. But I wrote and re-wrote those last scenes several times before I was happy with how the novel ended.
Rumpus: How did you create and develop Oliver’s voice? He has such a distinct formal voice that is also wonderfully familiar and human; it straddles the line between being a child and being an adult.
Smith: When I was thirteen, I went through this period when I corrected everyone’s grammar. I remember I wouldn’t use contractions. I would say do not instead of don’t, and Oliver does that too. Of course it drove people insane. So there is a bit of Oliver in me.
But I also took bits and pieces from people I’ve met and molded them into a character, just as most writers do. After awhile, the bits and pieces faded away and the character of Oliver was himself. When I think of Oliver now, I clearly picture this kid that is not me and is not the original people I used as a springboard to create the character, but a person who is alive in my head.
When I re-read Boo now, it’s like rediscovering this friend that I haven’t spoken to in a bit.
Rumpus: I love that. I’m curious if you intended the book to be at all a social commentary on the epidemic of bullying in schools or school shootings that are elements of the plot?
Smith: Yeah, definitely, I did want to comment on those things, though not too heavy-handedly. I didn’t want to soapbox. I was certainly bullied myself as an adolescent, though not to the extent Oliver was.
And then when I was in college at the University of Montreal, there was a shooting where a gunman went on campus and killed 14 women. I was there that night, and that event was so horrific that it colored Boo in a certain sense.
But I didn’t want the novel to only be about these things. I wanted the book to be about the pull between staying an innocent child and being thrust into the violent adult world.
Rumpus: What was the feeling you wanted readers to leave with after they finished the story?
Smith: I did want it to end up on a hopeful note. There is a sadness in the book measured with the bizarreness. People are calling it a “quirky” novel, and it is. But there’s both a hope and sadness in the book because of what Oliver has gone through. In the end, had Oliver and his best friend Johnny known each other and become friends when they were still alive, they might have had much different lives. It’s certainly about how friendship can help pull you through these horrible events in our lives.
When I was growing up, I moved all the time. I lived in Salt Lake City, I lived in Boston, I lived in Chicago, and it was really difficult to make friends because I was always the new kid in class. I yearned to make friends, but I was always the oddball so it was difficult to do. I think that friendships during that period are so important and they do help you survive the tragedy of being thirteen (the hell of being thirteen, really).
Rumpus: Isolation can certainly be a dangerous thing for our mental health. Oliver had to have a friend then, it had to be an essential part of the plot for it to be a hopeful novel.
Smith: Exactly. I think Oliver kids himself in the beginning of the book where he talks about having survived living in the Hoffman Estates without friends. We don’t believe him. Friends were essential to him; otherwise he would not have done what he did.
Rumpus: Was there anything that took you by surprise when you were writing Boo?
Smith: I think the way in which my imagination works. When you’re a writer, that’s always surprising, the things you can come up with that you didn’t even suspect you believed. It’s always amazing to me how the characters I make up feel like real people. I almost forget that I created them, as if they existed already and I simply discovered them. It’s exciting as a writer, and when people comment about liking my characters, such as Thelma, I think: “I like her too. I’m glad I found her.”
Rumpus: In between Bang Crunch and Boo you wrote a novel that you ended up shelving. How did you know when to let it go, and that Oliver and Boo was the way forward?
Smith: When I completed my story collection, I wanted to write a novel, but didn’t really know how to write one. I had never attempted one, and so I went off in all directions without having a plot in mind. It was just writing, writing, and more writing. There was some good stuff in it, but it didn’t add up to a novel. I had to junk it and start again.
I took some time off and during that time I kept thinking about the voice of Oliver, who had been in a tiny scene in the novel draft. I loved his voice so much that I used it for Boo. But I had to reinvent an entire world; Oliver was the only thing that I was able to use from that first novel.
I think I had to teach myself how to write a bad novel and make some mistakes, and now after writing Boo, I have an idea how to structure and plot a novel. I think plot is difficult for a lot of writers whom I know. So I’m hoping I’m better skilled at plot now than I was when I first started.
Rumpus: You learned how to write a novel essentially by writing one that didn’t work, and then writing one that did work.
Smith: Yes. I think so. Like any skill in any field, you have to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. I had never before attempted a novel; in fact I had never thought I would become a writer. It wasn’t something I focused on in school; I didn’t study literature or creative writing. So I think I had to make mistakes that perhaps a creative writing student would have made in graduate school. I find short stories much easier to do, I must say. Everyone says they’re very difficult, but I found the process of writing my short story collection easy and said so aloud often. I’m sure everyone wanted to throttle me because I was getting too cocky.
Rumpus: That sounds like the perfect time to attempt to write a novel.
Smith: Yes, indeed.
Rumpus: Finally—why do you write?
Smith: I write to discover my own imagination. I’m creative and imaginative in my real life, of course, but when I sit down with a pen or computer, my imagination goes off in a lot of different directions that I didn’t suspect I had. I write to discover where my imagination will take me. That’s something we do a lot as children when we’re playing, and that we don’t often have the chance to do when we’re adults. So writing always feels like returning to the playground to me.
Author photo © Michael Lionstar.