The title seems fairly clearcut but, according to M-Street resident and author C.W. Smith, the book is not exactly a “how-to” guide for the single male.
“It’s a coming-of-age story,” he says. “It’s set in southern New Mexico and the main character is a teenager from Dallas who travels there to work for his uncle one summer. “As soon as he gets there, he discovers his uncle and aunt are estranged. He then meets his uncle’s mistress and her cousin and gets caught in the middle of the warring factions of his family.
“The story’s really about him trying to figure out what goes on between men and women and it’s tempered by a lot of the expectations in the 1950s. Like what was expected from women and how women should behave, the penalties for not behaving that way.”
The book, which was released last year, recently received the Jesse H. Jones prize for Best Novel from the Texas Institute of Letters. Past recipients of the honor include Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, and Smith himself.
This is the eighth novel by the 59-year-old SMU English professor, whose first book won the Jones award over 25 years ago.
Understanding Women is the only of Smith’s novels to reference the city of Dallas. Most of his stories take place in the Southwest; Smith himself is a New Mexico native. His next book, however, will be set here in the community, which makes things a little easier in terms of factual references.
“The best thing about that is that you have everything at your fingertips,” he says. “It’s going to be a contemporary story. And even though things have changed around here since 1990, I still remember when some places were on a certain corner and what was here and what wasn’t. Doing the basic reality-based details has been a lot easier than in my other books.”
Smith migrated to Texas to attend college at North Texas State. After graduating, he left the state for 15 years, then returned to Dallas. His writing career began with a stint as reporter and movie critic for the Dallas Times Herald. He also wrote articles for numerous notable publications including Esquire, The Utne Reader, D Magazine, Atlanta, TV Guide and Texas Monthly.
Smith says that fiction writing has always been his true passion and it took a while to finally achieve that goal on a professional level. The biggest challenge was making enough money to leave behind his journalism career and pursue writing novels full-time.
“Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate journalism,” he says. “But my real love is writing fiction. I learned a lot of things as a journalist and I enjoyed the time I did it, but didn’t want to do it beyond the time that career ended for me.
“I think it was also how much I ended up working. I worked for a newspaper that’s no longer in existence (the Herald). At the time, the staff got smaller and smaller and the workload got bigger and bigger. I was writing so much every week that I got swamped.”
While he admits that the change of atmosphere is nice, he says that it hasn’t necessarily impacted his creativity. He does, however, have some words of wisdom to aspiring scribes everywhere.
“Read good literature,” says Smith. “Try to recreate the effect that you appreciate and you enjoy.”
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