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Interview: September 23, 2021

THE SUMMONING, J.P. Smith’s ninth novel, revolves around a 9/11 widow whose daughter is in a coma from a fall after witnessing what appeared to be an accidental death. To make ends meet, she acts as a medium, reaching out and offering assistance to those who lost loved ones on that tragic September day. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Smith talks about why he enjoys creating fresh characters with each new book he writes, how he came up with the plot line for his latest psychological thriller, and why he had to make a last-minute change to the ending of his debut novel.

Question: In over 40 years as a published author, you have never utilized the same characters twice. Is that correct? It must be a huge challenge having to invent an entirely new protagonist and cast for each succeeding book.

JPS: My first six published novels were purposely stand-alone titles and not launchpads for series, with no afterlife for the characters. They were literary novels with a touch of genre, though as I continued to write and publish, genre became more pronounced.

But I like creating fresh characters with new challenges for me as a writer, though I do see the sheer pleasure of coming up with one original character and giving him or her a whole shelf full of adventures. I’d love to do it someday.

Q: Was the suspenseful story for THE SUMMONING one that you just created following the completion of your previous book, or was it an idea that you had been carrying around with you for a number of years?

JPS: I’ve been mulling over writing a novel about a medium ever since I lived in England in the ’70s and ’80s. I was then much influenced by two movies, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and Don’t Look Now, both of which deal with death in two very different ways. But I couldn’t find my own story for a medium until two years ago, when I came up with the idea of a 9/11 widow with a daughter in a coma from a fall after she’d witnessed what appeared to be an accidental death. And that death is key to the book, of course.

The fact that the main character, Kit Capriol, can elicit so many sometimes contradictory opinions from advance readers is what I intended when I created her. This is a person who has to make ends meet to pay her daughter’s hospital bills. She’s an accomplished actress with no work at the moment, and though she is a con artist, now under the scrutiny of detectives, she brings her clients genuine comfort. So this character pulls readers in different directions. It takes her out of the one-dimensional world and gives her reality and depth. At least I hope it does.

Q: Was there an author you'd been reading whose work inspired you to become a fiction writer all those years ago?

JPS: I began writing before I read authors who truly inspired me. Until then I’d been working on becoming a rock god, and when that didn’t pan out, I finished my master’s degree in English and began writing. The perks of being a writer are nowhere near being a rock god, however.

After that, certainly Proust, who has much influenced the way I create character. Patrick Modiano, for what he doesn’t say in his very spare yet substantial novels, each of them in a way a detective story. Other French writers have inspired me as well, as many of them mix genre writing into literary fiction, something that I think may be quite rare here. Publishers wouldn’t know what to do with them; booksellers wouldn’t know where to shelve them.

Q: During the process of writing THE SUMMONING, did you ever hit a patch that stopped you cold in your tracks? If so, how did you extricate yourself?

JPS: No. But if I feel I’m writing myself into a corner, I’ll go back to page one and start again, reviewing, cutting, adding, etc. I call that “rearranging the furniture.” Add a new plot point, and go back to the beginning to see how the structure can accommodate it. By the time I’ve completed a novel, I’ve rewritten it as many as 25 times.

Q: The genius of your books lies in their elegant structure, which breeds suspense without ever cheating the reader. A lot of bestselling authors lack this very special skill. How do you explain your proficiency at it?

JPS: I must confess that I’m not a reader of thrillers, per se, though I do enjoy watching them, as either films or TV series. This is done on purpose, as I don’t want to be influenced by other writers. The matter of structure really comes from writing scripts --- all of them unproduced, alas --- which is what taught me how to build suspense through shaping scenes and knowing when to cut away.

I know that readers say they have to work when they read my books, they have to be attentive. In THE DROWNING, many readers missed what I was doing, because that novel is, at heart, about how people can be manipulated by others --- in that book’s case, by a filmmaker named Marty. It’s certainly not a straightforward thriller. But then none of my books is straightforward!

Q: Have you ever received a comment from a reader regarding one of your novels that provided an insight that you yourself had missed?

JPS: Once. When I wrote my first novel (actually the 13th that I’d written), THE MAN FROM MARSEILLE, my wife objected to the ending, which she said made no sense. I sent it to my agent in London, and he sold it to John Murray in two weeks.

We happened to be moving to London for three months, and I was able to work with my editor for the entire time. First meeting: “The ending,” my editor said as we sat in the room where Lord Byron’s memoirs were burned in the fireplace by the first John Murray a few centuries earlier. “There's a problem. It makes no sense.” I broke into serious flop sweat and then, like Charlie Parker, began to improvise.

On the spot I came up with an alternate ending. “Brilliant, dear boy, absolutely brilliant,” my editor said. And a day later I signed the contract. And the film rights were procured a few days after it was published. Of course, the movie wasn’t made. Because that’s the more common outcome. But the ending I came up with is now in the book.

Q: Please name three contemporary practitioners of the suspense novel whose work you especially admire.

JPS: I don’t read thrillers, per se, but…movies and TV series, mostly. I watch for structure and construction, and I do love a good slow burn. There’s lots to learn from the best.