Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Scott B. Smith

Visiting The Ruins

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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The following is an unpublished e-mail conversation with author and screenwriter Scott B. Smith, conducted upon the 2006 publication of his novel The Ruins. I thought I would run it today now that the movie adaptation has opened in theaters.

Q: When you wrote The Ruins, were you as tense as I was reading it?

SBS: I usually feel pretty distant from what I write; so, no, I wasn't very tense as I wrote The Ruins. Or at least not tense because of the story. I'm more or less tense all the time in a generalized, free-floating sort of way. So if that counts then maybe I was as tense as you.

Q: In the book, two of your characters play a storytelling game, called "But/So." Do games like this help you in your writing?

SBS: An element of play is definitely important to me in my work. Writing reminds me of being a kid, playing with toy soldiers, creating a world and a story for these imaginary individuals to inhabit. But the But/So game isn't related to this; it actually comes from games my wife and I play. It's embarrassing to admit, but we waste vast amounts of time in mindless activities such as that.

Q: Several of the characters in The Ruins do not speak English, which adds to the discomfort of the situation. You don't write out the languages or translate them for us. Can you please talk a little about this?

SBS: Well, it's scary, isn't it? To be a monolingual American out and about in the world, interacting with people and cultures one knows nothing about, and just assuming one can get by on goodwill and fellow feeling? (I mean, let's just give the gift of democracy to those poor Iraqis...).

Q: The book is narrated by the four American characters, and then -- unless I misunderstood -- there's a fifth, sort of overall narrator. How did you arrive at this technique?

SBS: I stumbled into it. It had been a long time since I'd last attempted a novel, and I began The Ruins more as an exercise than anything else. I thought I would simply start writing and see where it went. I didn't have much of an outline, or much sense of the characters. I wasn't even certain if I'd pursue it very far. The first section I wrote had a sort of God's eye third person perspective. Then I fell into one of the Americans, and started rotating through their points of view. And at the very end it seemed fitting to pull back to that more distant position again, if only for symmetry's sake.

Q: This is the obvious question, but what took so long between the Simple Plan book (1993), the screenplay (1998) and The Ruins (2006)?

SBS: I spent the first five years after A Simple Plan was published working on another novel. It kept getting bigger and bigger, with no end in sight; by the time I gave up on it I had over a thousand pages and was at best a quarter of the way through it. Around that time the movie version of A Simple Plan came out, and I started to receive some offers to do screenplays. So I fled into that world to escape the book that had collapsed on me, and it took me another five or six years to make my way back.

Q: When you finished your first written work, where did you submit it, and how long before it was finally published/accepted?

SBS: I wrote a lot of short stories while I was in graduate school. I sent them out to magazines and literary journals, and kept the resulting rejection notes in a folder. This went on for a year and a half or so before I finally managed to place my first story.

Q: Stephen King has been very kind to you and your career. Do you have anything to say about him? Has he given you advice specific to a writer of horror/thrillers?

SBS: Yes, Stephen has been incredibly generous to me over the years. I wouldn't really know how to begin talking about it; anything I might say would inevitably fall short of my true feelings. I grew up reading his books, and even now he still retains a not-quite-real aura for me. I have such respect for him and his work -- for his writing and his storytelling -- and I'm so deeply thankful for his support. The only advice that comes to mind was actually more of a warning. About three years into my failed attempt at a novel, he wrote me a note telling me not to take too long with it, because second books that come out more than five years after first books are inevitably disappointments!

Q: Why did you decide to drop the "B" from your name?

SBS: It wasn't a conscious choice. The Ruins was already in the stores before someone pointed out the missing B to me. It's not something I have a strong feeling about either way, though there are an awful lot of Scott Smiths running around the world and sometimes it feels nice to make an effort, however feebly, at individuation.

(Note: see also my 1998 interview with Scott.)

September 6, 2006

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