Ches Smith Gets Meta with The Author Is Dead

Not Chaz, Chase or Cheese:  Ches Smith
Not Chaz, Chase or Cheese: Ches Smith Photo by Paula Nguyen Luu, courtesy of Ches Smith

This summer, I read an advance copy of The Author Is Dead, the new darkly comic novel by Houston writer Ches Smith. Well-crafted characters and biting humor make it the best book I’ve read this year and one I believe most fiction fans would enjoy, though Smith says readers with a certain precondition might enjoy the book better.

“An existential crisis might be a prerequisite for my work. Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life isn’t worth living.’ You can’t thoroughly examine life without facing some unpleasant truths,” Smith notes. “There’s freedom in encountering the darkness, facing it head on, and then finding the humor in it. I also hope it finds an audience with all the artists — in the broad sense of the term — out there struggling to make themselves heard.”

That struggle is at the heart of The Author Is Dead, which released widely today and gets a proper book launch tomorrow night at Brazos Bookstore. Smith said the event, which begins at 7 p.m., will include a chat with Kate Martin Williams from Bloomsday Literary, the local publisher which runs the "F***ing Shakespeare" podcast.

The novel follows a writer, described as “a failed suicide, a failed writer and a failed husband,” whose life takes some wildly interesting turns after meeting Thalia, his muse, at the mall food court. Soon, he’s embroiled in multiple murders, a rebellion led by middle-schoolers, run-ins with Thalia’s seedy family members and his rapidly unspooling mental stability — all while searching for a book deal.

The book’s protagonist is named Ches Smith, just like its author.

“It is Ches Smith. You wouldn’t believe how often people get it wrong. Chaz, Chase, Chas, Chez, Chess, Cheese, and my favorite, Che. As in Guevara,” Smith said.

Naming the hapless main character Ches Smith isn’t just a genius jab at Roland Barthes’ theory that a writer and the characters he creates are unrelated. It also invites readers to try to separate the real Smith from his metafictional counterpart. The in-the-flesh author says they do share some attributes. They both grew up in the Alief area of southwest Houston, for instance, and both graduated from Elsik High School.

“Twenty-six years ago. God, I’m getting old,” Smith remarked. “I went off to college and then seminary and finally came back to Houston in 2001. My wife, Silvia, and I have three kids, Sarah, Cristian, and Max.”

Both are IT professionals in public schools. Smith's the campus network specialist at Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School. Unlike the book’s character, who breaks several laws and exhibits increasingly poor judgment on campus, the actual Smith is a former HISD Employee of the Month.

They’re both storytellers. In the novel, Ches tells Thalia he realized he could write while in high school. Real-life Smith said it was much later in life for him.

"I’ve always had an affinity for storytelling, but I didn’t fall in love with writing until my early 30s. Oddly enough, the spark was lit writing emails at work, of all places. When there’s only one tech guy for over a hundred staff, email is the only way to communicate effectively. I got tired of my emails being completely ignored so I started trying to make them funny. The percentage of staff reading them went up considerably. From there, I started writing on blogs and internet forums and finally started working on my first novel in 2012."

“I’ve learned to work scenes out in my head first, find the heart of the moment, and then when I sit down to write, it comes quick and easy,” he says of the writing process. “There’s not always time to write, but there’s always time to think. I guess it flies in the face of most writing instruction, but it seems to work for me.”

Smith’s first book, Under the Suns, was a self-published sci-fi satire. The new book is from Literary Wanderlust, a small, traditional publisher out of Denver. He says he’s begun work on “a time travel novel set on the Texas-Mexico border called Veracruz, but lately, I’ve been gravitating to a story that kind of subverts the classic murder mystery.”

Smith says he bounces ideas off friend and fellow author, Mark Dostert, and tries to attend events through Inprint Houston, Brazos Bookstore and Blue Willow Books; but, he says social anxiety issues keep him from delving deep in the Houston literary scene. He doesn’t shy away from discussing depression or existential dread, subjects which are front and center in The Author Is Dead. I ask whether his time as a seminary student shaped his thought in some way.

"Seminary certainly didn’t help. I had a profound crisis of faith and the heart of it was this pervasive feeling that the universe is utterly indifferent. I went from seeing a world guided by divine will to a world of chance," he admits. "Humans are hardwired to seek a narrative to explain everything, that’s why storytelling is so effective, but when you peek under the curtain, reality is so much messier. So much more convoluted. We’re full of contradictions. Hypocrisy. Today’s political climate has done nothing to assuage me of that perspective."

That’s heady talk, but in fiction form Smith tackles it all with hilarious and deft writing.

"I have a form of depression called dysthymia that at times has been coupled with major depression. Suicidal thoughts are not unknown to me. I’m comfortable talking about it because I get it. I know what it feels like to get that low," he says. "I hope that the humor reads as coming from a place of familiarity, not jest. I think self-deprecating humor works because it’s disarming."

The book is so meta that the logical progression means a movie is next, I suggest. I've even made casting choices, I tell Smith. It's The Craft-era version of Fairuza Balk for Thalia, the cool punk rock muse. As Ches, the depressed author whose face bears the scar of his unsuccessful suicide attempt, I offer Ryan Reynolds.

“If I had any say in a film version, I’d encourage the director to change the protagonist into a filmmaker rather than a writer so it maintains that self-reflective aspect, Smith says. “I really like those actor choices! Fairuza Balk never occurred to me, but she would be perfect. I always pictured Mary Elizabeth Winstead from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for the role of Thalia. Ryan Reynolds would need to be uglied up considerably. Maybe put on some weight. He played crazy very well in The Voices.”

Ches Smith’s The Author Is Dead is now available through any online book retailer and through the publisher, Literary Wanderlust. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, hosts the official book release, 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 2.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.