Intimate Conversation with Frederick L. Smith
Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Frederick L. Smith is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and Loyola University Chicago. A finalist for the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship, and an alum of the VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) Writers Workshop, Fred is a social justice advocate. He lives in Los Angeles and works with college students to help them find their voices and develop pride in their cultural and gender identities. He is the author of Down for Whatever and Right Side of the Wrong Bed, a Lambda Literary Award finalist.
BPM: How did you get to be where you are in your life today? Who or what motivated you?
My biggest motivators have always been teachers. From an early age, I respected and looked up to teachers. They were some of the first, and accessible, college-educated professionals I knew up close. Coming from a working-class background in Detroit, I also looked up to the men and women in my neighborhood and my family who worked at the post office, the auto plant, government offices, and other unsung professions. At the time, and still today, these jobs provided a very stable living for families. I always had a respect for people who worked hard in their professions and provided for their families. It's that spirit that I carried when I went to college and that I carry with the students I work with in my University job today. I have never forgotten my working class roots, and I encourage my students to never forget where and who they come from.
BPM: Who does your body of literary work speak to? Do you consider authors as role models?
I think my work speaks to anyone who is aware of and thinks about the various identities that shape our lives and the lives of the friends and family members around us. I also think my work speaks to readers who like contemporary, fast, compelling, and smart fiction. Some of the authors I consider role models include the late E. Lynn Harris, the late J. California Cooper, plus current authors likeTerry McMillan, Eric Jerome Dickey, Alisa Valdes Rodriguez, Tayari Jones, Daniel Black, and Pearl Cleage. All of them write work that I enjoy reading and find meaning in.
BPM: What inspired you to sit down and actually start writing this book? Why now?
The election of Barack Obama has brought and influenced a lot of change in U.S. society. His positions on issues such as immigration, mentoring in the Black community, marriage equality, healthcare, helping working families, and equity for the LGBT community, etc... we can see that there's been many positive changes and shifts in the way we think. We're much more open to everyone's struggles. These observations inspired me to sit down and start writing Play It Forward. I see that many Black families are much more open to conversations about supporting their children and family members who happen to be part of the LGBT community. So I wanted to reflect those changes in fiction.
BPM: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
This book represents a maturity and growth in my writing and storytelling. I also had fun thinking about what would happen if a regular, everyday person happened to become part of the circle of a celebrity. Those circles are small, protected, and sheltered. I wanted to imagine what it would be like to be invited into that circle, but at the same time, not get too star-struck and goo-goo-eyed over it. After all, celebrities are regular people who eat, shower, pay bills, and have ideas... it's just that more people know celebrities than regular, everyday people.
BPM: Where do your book ideas come from? Are your books plot-driven or character-driven? Why?
My books are a mixture of both plot-driven and character-driven narratives. For me, I turn to books for entertainment and escape, so that's always in the forefront of my mind -- entertaining the reader. But I also know that it's my responsibility as a writer to create products that are high-quality, well-written (to the best of my ability), and contribute something to a reader's growth and thinking. My ideas come from being nosy, watching people, and always asking the question "what if?" while writing.
BPM: Could you tell us something about your most recent work?
Play It Forward is the story of Malcolm Martin Campbell, a man who leaves corporate work in banking to do what his heart has called him to do -- mentoring young Black men who also happen to be LGBT. This calling speaks to the type of relationship Malcolm had with his late father, who mentored, advised, and groomed Malcolm to be an upstanding Black man and to embrace all his identities. It speaks to his introduction to Black Hollywood, via a guest speaker, Tyrell Kincaid, a pro-basketball, who speaks at the organization Malcolm leads -- LADS.
The book is available as an e-Reader on all formats.
BPM: Give us some insight into your main characters or speakers. What makes each one so special?
All my characters are culturally-empowered, sexually-empowered, and not ashamed of any of their identities. They speak and live their truths to the best of their abilities. This is a theme in all my fiction -- characters who know who they are, don't try to shrink to fit a majority point-of-view, and do their best to empower the people around them. I think I had the most fun creating and channeling the character, Blake Campbell, who is Malcolm's nephew. Writing from the point-of-view of a 19-year-old young man, new to L.A. from Indiana, with all the visions, naivety, and myths around fame was a lot of fun -- so was writing Blake's mom, Marlena. She was a character! When you're a mom of a 19-year-old who's figuring out his identity, and you don't have much information to base opinions on, you say a lot of things you don't mean to your kid. Marlena and Blake were a wonderful mother/son pair to write about.
BPM: Are there under-represented groups or ideas featured in your book? If so, discuss them.
Black, Latino, working class and LGBT communities (and all the possible identity intersections of those identities mentioned) are featured in Play It Forward and my previous two releases, Down For Whatever and Right Side of the Wrong Bed. I like writing about communities of people I know, hang out with, and understand.
Since E. Lynn Harris, there are several authors who have embraced and celebrated multiple identities around sexualities in their novels. I feel this is important, especially today with so many Millennials being open and open-minded about their identities, to represent multiple communities, experiences, and lives in fiction. I believe fiction needs to represent the world and change that President Obama and Michelle Obama (and all their supporters) have ushered forward, especially in relation to learning about and accepting all the communities that make up our world.
BPM: How does your book relate to your present journey?
Play It Forward represents a place where I am in my life, where I believe it's important to be a mentor, pass along information and knowledge, and create a body of work that represents my ideas, behaviors, and politics for inclusion and knowledge. This shift from self to others has been very profound, and it might sound weird, but it was influenced a lot by seeing/hearing the interviews Whitney Houston did just before her death as they related to the filming of Sparkle. The way she talked about moving into a mentoring, teaching, role-modeling place with a new generation of actors (i.e. the women who played her daughters in the film) really touched a place in my heart that got me thinking about shifting to a place of contributing, and not just receiving.
BPM: Did you learn anything personal from writing your book?
I learned to stop putting people on pedestals, especially celebrities. That was a message and character trait I wanted in my main character, Malcolm. I also learned that books come when they come. Prior to Play It Forward's release in January 2015, it had been six or seven years since my last novel came out. The writing had to come in its own time, space, and way.
BPM: Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?
Hahaha. Well I didn't meet any celebrities. But I did meet, and do know, some people who are part of the orbits or " the people" of celebrities -- stylists, publicists, background dancers, handlers, etc. That's where my nosy part came in by gently asking about the normalcy of the people they work with or for. Again, this goes back to the idea that celebrities are just regular people who more people just happen to know. I also learned that we'll never really know everything that happens in the private, behind-the-scenes lives of our celebrities -- because the Confidentiality Clause is a very real thing that no one wants to violate!
BPM: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
My goals were to challenge and embrace the ways in which we put celebrity on pedestals, how we need to put value into the work of our 'neighborhood celebrities' who do the work to empower our communities, and how everyday people can make a difference. I also wanted to create a novel that let the Black community know that by embracing and loving our LGBT friends, family members, and community members, without judgment or conditions, we empower all of us to be and live our truths. I feel like Play It Forward accomplished those goals.
BPM: What projects are you working on at the present?
I'm working on a novel now that I hope to finish a first draft of by end of this calendar year -- by summer, if possible. That's because I'm currently applying to doctoral programs in Higher Education, Student Affairs, and Educational Leadership, and should I be accepted and enrolled in a program, I'll be immersed in academic writing, research, and the dissertation process for about three years. I want to complete and publish a novel to tide my readers over while I embark on the exciting journey of becoming Dr. Smith.
BPM: How can readers discover more about you and your work?
My website is www.FrederickLSmith.com. I'm very active on Twitter and Instagram and my handle on both is @FSmith827. I'm also on Facebook at Frederick Smith, Author.
Author website: http://fredericklsmith.com
Author Twitter & Instagram: @FSmith827
Purchase Play It Forward by Frederick Smith
Amazon Link: http://amzn.com/1626392358
Conscious. Human Stories. Black. Latino. LGBTQ. Contemporary Fiction set in the city of Los Angeles.
More Books by Frederick L. Smith
Play It Forward (January 2015)
Right Side of the Wrong Bed (December 2007)
Down For Whatever (July 2005)