Cote Smith’s first book, Hurt People, centers on the relationship of two brothers whose parents have recently separated as they grow up in 1988. Set in Leavenworth, Kansas, a town famous for its four prisons, the boys’ father, a police officer, spends the novel trying to capture an escaped convict, and the mother struggles to balance her life as a single parent. Through all this, the boys’ primary concern is with the pool in their apartment complex and a mysterious man named Chris who forms a close relationship with the older brother.
This debut novel is a beautifully written story about brotherly love and the loss of innocence. Smith crafts a compelling narrative from the point of view of a nine-year-old that never waivers all the way through the gripping conclusion.
Smith graduated from the University of Kansas MFA program in 2009, an experience he calls invaluable. I met Cote at a coffee shop called La Prima Tazza in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, where he lives and teaches.
The Rumpus: I loved your book. It’s a novel about the loss of innocence, and you pull it off so well. What drew you to that story? Where did it come from?
Cote Smith: The novel started as a short story that I wrote in grad school based on a moment. When I was younger, I was living in an apartment similar to the one described in the book. My sister, who was playing in the pool with her friends, saw this person sprint by. A few seconds later, a cop runs by, chasing after the man. I always thought that was an interesting story, so I took that scenario and built a narrative. Once I started to explore that scenario, other things naturally played themselves out like the setting of Leavenworth with all the prisons. It helped to build tension into the story. I also knew I wanted to focus on the two brothers. That was an interesting relationship, and I expanded from there. I took a lot of what I experienced growing up and work it into the story, which was comforting for it being the first novel I wrote. I knew I could expand the story in a lot of different directions, because I had first person experience with it even though it’s fiction.
Rumpus: You said it was your sister who saw this guy running from the cops. Did the novel start out with more than just the two brothers?
Smith: It was always the brothers. I had an idea of what I wanted it to do, and what I wanted it to be about. The plot points changed over the course of revision as I learned how to write a book since it was my first attempt then my second attempt then my third attempt, but it was always the same family at the heart of the book.
Rumpus: I saw that you originally published the story in One Story. Can you talk a little bit about the process of expanding the story to a novel? Did you write the short story knowing it would become a novel?
Smith: No, I didn’t. I was driving around one day, thinking about what I wanted to do for my MFA thesis, and sometimes the best thoughts come randomly. It was one of those inspirational moments. I realized that world was interesting, and that I knew the world, and I should expand upon it. So no, originally I didn’t have any ideas of turning it into a novel. At that time, I was happy I wrote a good story.
Rumpus: I read a bit of the story as it appeared in One Story and noticed it was in third person, whereas the novel is in first. Why did you shift point of view? What do you think you gained?
Smith: There’s more intimacy with the first person point of view. There’s a bigger connection between the reader and the story. It was inspired by the books that I liked growing up. The first book that had a big impact on me was To Kill a Mockingbird. It was the first book that showed me what fiction could do, that it can be super powerful. That was an inspiration, the first person from Scout’s point of view.
Rumpus: Along the same lines, was it difficult to capture a nine year old’s voice?
Smith: The voice came pretty easy. The challenging part was the limitations of telling the story through his eyes due to his age. Limitations in what he can understand or what he can perceive or even when he does understand, there are limitations in the language he can use to express what he understands. He’s so young, he can’t understand all these things going on around him, but he can sense things are turning certain directions. That part was challenging, but it was also fun. I had to invent ways to get around that. For instance, he has a wild imagination that he can use. He also likes to understand the world through the movies he watches. That was the enjoyable part—making up these horrible movies and absurd plots.
Rumpus: I’m not familiar with the campy horror genre, but did you really make up all those movies?
Smith: Yeah, that’s the thing, you wouldn’t be surprised if they were real. If you turned on the Sci-Fi Network and you saw them, you would say, “Yeah, sure, why not?”
Rumpus: You grew up, more or less, in Leavenworth, Kansas. I may be reading too much into this, but the setting had an inherent tension for me. Is that something you thought about? Did you set it there because you were familiar with the area or were you aware of this inherent tension?
Smith: I don’t think I became aware of it until I started writing the short story. I think it’s present in the first paragraph of the short story where the setting is described as a rough place. It’s exaggerated a little bit in the story and the book, but it just made sense that guy running around and a cop chasing him would be in Leavenworth. Growing up and spending time there, you don’t really think about it. It’s all you know. It’s this natural world. It’s only when you get outside that you realize that it’s a strange setting. It does have this weird, inherent tension or suspense built into living there, and that works really well for a story.
Rumpus: I feel that the “cops and robbers” games when you were little would’ve been off the charts fun in Leavenworth.
Smith: They were. They were off the chart in particular because my dad was a cop. He was a police chief. He wasn’t a policeman like in the book, but we would always play the “cops and robbers” game. It was fun. We knew that world really well.
Rumpus: In your “Acknowledgements” you thanked your brothers Brent and Brett and dedicated the book, in particular, to Brett. How much of your relationship with your brothers helped influence the novel?
Smith: It’s based, in part, off my relationship with my older brother Brett. Brent is my stepbrother—still a brother, love him like a brother, treat him like a brother—but this relationship is based off of my time with Brett. That’s why the book is dedicated to him. He wasn’t nearly as menacing as the older brother in the book. He was much more loving. He was the type of brother who would do anything for me, very defensive. The bond between the brothers comes from our relationship.
Rumpus: Another thing about the brothers, I may have missed it, but I don’t think you named them.
Smith: I don’t.
Rumpus: Is there a reason for that?
Smith: It’s an intimacy thing. I like how it conveys their close bond, especially the way the younger views the older. A lot of times, I found when I’m talking about my family to someone I know, I’m not going referencing them by name. I say “my brother did this” or “my dad did this,” and I like the intimacy it creates.
Rumpus: Towards the end, without giving any spoilers, you write a horrific scene involving the older brother. Was it difficult to write? Can you talk about the process of writing that?
Smith: Yeah, it was difficult, because the first few drafts I didn’t take it far enough to where the story wanted to go. I knew it was going to be a hard scene to write, and the aftermath is going to be even harder. Maybe I resisted it a little bit, because I knew it was going to be hard to write, but this is where the story wanted to go, and I had to honor that.
Rumpus: Did you use any other novels or television or movies to help write that scene?
Smith: I don’t think so. By the time I reached that point in the story, I used what came before it to create the climax and resolution. I was doing what the story was asking me to do. It’s shaped by what’s come before it.
Rumpus: Earlier, you talked about how Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird influenced you. Were there other writers that influenced Hurt People?
Smith: I discovered, randomly, through my wife, a book called The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle. It has a young, not as young as mine, first person narrator who’s watching her older sister make bad decisions. The voice in the story, I thought, was really compelling, the way she used it and crafted the relationships. That helped a lot. It was one of those happy accidents that I happened to stumble upon an awesome book. She’s a great writer.
Rumpus: Who do you see as your audience. How do you see it fitting into the wider literary community?
Smith: Hopefully everyone will like it. My first goal was to write a book that I would want to read. That means, in part, it should be literary and character-driven. The characters should get a lot of attention. The language and sentences should get a lot of attention, but the story itself should have an emotional resonance with its audience. Those are my favorite types of stories where the story is compelling, the characters are very rich, and there’s still this moment carrying the story forward. I think that most people like that. I don’t have a certain audience in mind. I hope everyone can grasp on to some part of it. Not everyone is going to like every single aspect of the story, but if they don’t like the fact that the brothers don’t have names, maybe they like the mystery of the story. If they don’t like the mystery, maybe they like the language. If they don’t like the language, maybe they like the characters or maybe they like it all. I think there’s something for everybody. In terms of it fitting into the literature landscape, I guess I don’t really think about it that much. I wanted to write the story that I wanted to write and make it as good as I possibly could and let the other stuff take care of itself.
Rumpus: What drew you to writing?
Smith: I was always drawn towards creative things. When I got into high school, I found out I was bad in science. I didn’t have interest in it. That sort of pushed me in the writing direction. When I was an undergrad, I studied classic languages like Latin and Ancient Greek, so I was slowly making my way into a more language-based focus. I got a degree in classic languages, but my junior year I also added English and creative writing. I figured out that I really liked translating thing, but I also wanted to write my own stories.
Rumpus: Do you translate any Greek plays or anything?
Smith: No, we did in school, and it was awesome. I loved it, but I don’t really use it. It helps with vocabulary and also helps with whenever I see someone in a sorority shirt. I know what sorority or what fraternity it is, or if there’s some sort of evil witch or something in a TV show or a Latin incantation.
Rumpus: Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
Smith: I would tell them to read and write as much as possible. That seems like common sense, but someone had to tell me that when I was in grad school. I wasn’t well-read. I hadn’t written a lot, so I worked really hard and did those things. In terms of crafting a novel, be prepared to fail and that will tell you a lot about what you want as far as your writing career. This book was rejected at first, and it would have been very easy for me to give up and stop writing. Instead, I used it as motivation. I immediately started writing another novel, and I was 200 pages in when I got the call that Hurt People had been bought. That made me feel like I earned it. I wasn’t someone who gave up after I had been working on a book for six years. Be prepared for failure and rejection, and keep going. Go forward.
Rumpus: You started to answer my last question. What’s next for you?
Smith: I have a couple book projects. I want to go back to that second book I was working on, and I’m kind of working on another one that I can’t really talk about yet. It’s in the air. I’m not trying to be intentionally mysterious, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen. I don’t want to jinx myself. I never liked the people who are always talking about their writing but never actually write. I don’t want to be that guy. I would rather do something first, then we can sit down at La Prima Tazza again to talk about it.
Author photograph © Mick Cottin.