T. B. Smith Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with T. B. Smith. Smith is the author of A Fellow of Infinite Jest, the latest release in his series, the Luke Jones Novels. Smith is a retired police lieutenant with the City of San Diego and San Diego Unified School District police departments. His service career spanned twenty-seven years until he retired in 2003 after being injured in an on-duty traffic accident. Smith is a graduate of San Diego State University, where he studied English literature and creative writing. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version of A Fellow of Infinite Jest. Welcome T. B. Smith, or may I call you Tim?
T. B. SMITH: Yes, I prefer Tim. Thank you.
MH: Thanks for joining us today and congratulations on the release of A Fellow of Infinite Jest, book two in the Luke Jones Novels. Tell us a little bit about the storyline.
TS: A Fellow of Infinite Jest is set in 1978–79, when I began my police career. It’s the second in a series of novels that will follow an officer’s career from the first radio call through to retirement. A Fellow of Infinite Jest features, among other things, the PSA 182 plane crash that occurred in a neighborhood a few miles from downtown San Diego, killing about 140 people. It explores the deep psychological impact on people’s lives, in particular the effect that event had on the police department. If you’re familiar at all, or if your listeners have read Joe Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, there are some similarities. The Onion Field was nonfiction while my book is fiction, but it uses the same technique of; based on real people, in real situations. It explores the profound impact on the lives of several officers and leads them in very different directions.
MH: Your lead character, Luke Jones. Obviously, from twenty-seven years in law enforcement, you’re drawing on your own experiences; to people and to fuel the stories in your books. But Luke Jones is an interesting character—a cop who loves to spout Shakespeare. How did you come up with him?
TS: He’s based on me, to be quite frank with you. I majored in Renaissance literature and creative writing and my first love was always Shakespeare. I’m the son of a preacher’s kid and therefore quite familiar with the King James Version of the Bible. That made the language very easy and enticing for me. I went into police work really to give me something to write about. I was twenty-two years old, and one thing I knew about myself was that I was a writer. The second thing was that I knew I didn’t have anything to say yet. I didn’t want to be a teacher. I had been profoundly influenced by the works of Joe Wambaugh, and that motivated me to go into police work, because that was something to write about. The love of Shakespeare was something that I took with me into a police career.
MH: You mention Joseph Wambaugh and in a number of the critiques and reviews of both these books, you’ve already been favorably compared to him, and particularly in terms of creating a realistic milieu in terms of a window into police life. How does it feel to get such a response from your peers, especially from other cops and law enforcement people who have remarked on that verisimilitude?
TS: It feels great. I’ve heard comments from people like, “You nailed it. You really captured and pictured what it was like to be a police officer in San Diego at that time.” I want to point out that some of those nice comments are not just from peers. Understand, I come from a paramilitary career structure and hearing really good things from people like Jerry Sanders, who had been the chief of police and later became the mayor of San Diego, and Bill Kolender, who in many ways was my hero, a former chief of police of San Diego and then the sheriff of San Diego County. These are people I admire a great deal and to get really positive feedback from them about how I capture the experience of being a police officer in a major city is very gratifying.
MH: Could you maybe give us some examples of situations or details that you’ve used that provide some of that insider feel to your stories?
TS: I’ll give you an example from The Sticking Place, the first novel in this series. Luke is a trainee with his training officer and they get a radio call about a shooting that could turn into a murder. His training officer volunteers for the call even though it’s out of their area because he wants to expose Luke to a potential murder so he can see how it’s handled. When they arrive, it’s in the ghetto, not too far from San Diego, and there are a lot of very angry people there, in particular Hispanic gangster types who are against the cops. They’re not interested in solving the murder of a young Hispanic man, whose father arrives, and lets himself under the police tape. Luke’s training officer is really angry with Luke for letting him get that close. So Luke goes over and tries to get the father to move so they can manage the crime scene. The father says, “I already know what happened. Somebody came to the house and told me that this guy showed up in the neighborhood and he didn’t belong here. My son got out of a van and told him he didn’t belong there, that this wasn’t his neighborhood. The kid pulled out a shotgun and killed him.” And the father falls to his knees. Luke tries to get him to move, but he just really doesn’t know how to interact with this guy who’s so devastated, who’s asking all the police to tell us why. He says he’d been to Vietnam, and they tried to kill him, but nobody could hurt him there. But right here, in his own city, his son gets murdered. Then, right after that, they get a radio call about a little girl who says that her parents are not home and she needs the police because she needs to get ready for school. Luke says to his training officer, “It’s the middle of the afternoon. What does she mean she needs to get ready for school?” When they get there they discover it’s a young woman. So those are some of the kinds of realistic events that Luke and other police officers deal with on a regular basis.
MH: Yes, those are compelling stories. You mentioned you graduated from San Diego State with a degree in English literature and creative writing. You said you always wanted to be a writer and I find it fascinating that degrees in literature and writing are what prepared you for a career in law enforcement. But what were some of your early influences in terms of becoming a writer? When did you decide that’s what you wanted to be?
TS: I lived in Denver from the first to the third grade, and I don’t remember when it was during that period of time, but I recall sitting under the Christmas tree and starting my first novel. I would have been somewhere between six and eight probably. It was back then that I knew I wanted to be a writer. Of course, my love of Shakespeare and my love of great books fueled that. I was in my thirties before I started reading any modern or contemporary literature. I was a classicist up until then and still am to a large degree. I like to read Renaissance writers, Reformation writers. I was born, I would say, with a love of literature. Then, of course, with my dad and my upbringing, to him and his peers really the only great literature was the Bible. I was exposed to that at a very early age, and there are a lot of great literary aspects to the stories in the Bible.
MH: I read on your blog that after leaving law enforcement, you still keep up to date in terms of what’s going on in community policing. Particularly, you’ve given some talks on police use of deadly force. I know you’re involved in these issues, is there also possibly an agenda in your books in terms of getting the ramifications of those kinds of issues out to a wider audience, beyond just the police community?
TS: Yes, in fact that’s really my motivation for writing these books. I don’t watch a lot of cop shows and I know most cops don’t, but when it comes to television or even books, my experience is that they depict a lot of the harrowing aspects of what it means to be a police officer in society, but there’s not a lot of in-depth characterization about how that changes lives and impacts the development of a character or human being. And that really is the reason I wanted to write a series that follows a career from the beginning to the end, because it gives me as an author the opportunity to make character development, to slow character development down a little bit so the reader can really comprehend the impact on a person’s life of achieving this career.
MH: So the Luke Jones Novels will follow his career from beginning to retirement. How many books do you think that’s going to take?
TS: The first two have covered periods of about six months each. I had a twenty-seven-year-long career. I’m not going to do that. In other words, I’m not going to write two books per year. In my head I’ve got outlined a series of about twelve novels. Then I also have an agreement with my publisher to write a nonfiction book to be published in 2016, which will be the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, where I’m going to grab up all of the major Shakespeare festivals in the country and write a book about Shakespeare’s relevance to our time using the anniversary of his death as a stepping-stone for that.
MH: Now you mentioned that it wasn’t until you were in your thirties that you began to read modern fiction and had been absorbed in the classics up until then. When you went into police work after leaving college, when did you start writing? And from there, how did the writing begin to turn into your next career?
TS: I started writing two or three years into my career for The Informant, which was a monthly magazine put out by the San Diego Police Officers Association, and that began with a fictionalized account of the climactic scene in The Sticking Place. Then I branched out into more of an op-ed kind of a writer, and then kind of ironically in a way one assignment I got was to write an article about the ten-year anniversary of Bill Kolender as police chief, so of course I got his attention by writing this really nice piece about him. From there I ended up writing speeches for him and for several of the other executives. I also did some work for him on the sheriff’s campaign and then also for Jerry Sanders for his mayoral campaign. So it grew from there, when I started writing for the San Diego police officer’s monthly magazine.
MH: When you finish with the Luke Jones series, I know you mentioned a nonfiction book you’re writing about Shakespeare, but have you already got ideas in gestation for other works of fiction?
TS: No, my kind of life is wrapped up in this series and in the nonfiction look at Shakespeare’s relevance, so that’s where my creative head is for the next, I’d say, probably decade or so.
MH: Have you had a chance to hear the narration of your first Luke Jones novel? And do you listen to audiobooks?
TS: Yes, I did. Barry Kraft was the narrator. I thought he did a fabulous job. I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time. He’s acted in every Shakespearean play. I thought I had accomplished something because I’ve seen every Shakespearean play. I thought it was very good. I do listen to audiobooks all the time. When I travel I either listen to an audiobook or to lectures.
MH: And lastly, top five favorite authors.
TS: Top five. I’m going to have to go, of course, with Shakespeare, with Joe Wambaugh, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, and Hemingway.
MH: Thanks so much for joining us today Tim. Again, we’re really excited about the upcoming audiobook release of A Fellow of Infinite Jest. Thanks again.
TS: My pleasure. Thank you.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with T. B. Smith. You can find A Fellow of Infinite Jest, The Sticking Place, and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in June 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
A Fellow of Infinite Jest
A Fellow of Infinite Jest is the second novel in the Luke Jones series, which follows one cop’s career from rookie to retirement.
Unconventional police rookie Luke Jones is back to work after reluctantly killing a man he knew and liked in order to save the life of a partner he despises. Although labeled a hero by some, he’s soon up to his old tricks—doggedly challenging authority in an organization with little tolerance for defiance, irritating peers and superiors alike by quoting Shakespeare at will, and refusing to back down when prudence dictates surrender.
His latest challenge: San Diego’s cops and citizens are reeling from the horror of PSA flight 182, a Boeing 727 airliner that collided with a private Cessna 172 and crashed into the crowded neighborhood of North Park, killing 144 people. Now disaster lurks in two parts of the city, and Luke has to choose which situation needs his attention first. One could prevent his intervening to save the life of a friend. The other could get him fired—or killed.