Social Issues Core of Smith’s Work
By Dawn Ius
Timothy Jay Smith wrote his first stage play in the fourth grade—a socially conscious piece of work about freed slaves in the Civil War. To say that his passion for issues of social justice goes back a few years would be a gross understatement.
It’s been a while since Smith has written a play, but through his screenplays and novels, he continues to cover issues of global importance, including with the theme of his newly released fifth book, THE FOURTH COURIER, a deeply atmospheric literary thriller set in post-Cold War Poland. A time, Smith says, when “there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across.”
It’s the impact of this fear on the people that Smith was most interested in exploring, and to do so, he created two strong protagonists—FBI agent James “Jay” Porter, who teams up with a gay CIA agent named Kurt Crawford—to investigate a series of grisly murders along Warsaw, Poland’s eerie riverbanks. The killings themselves are disturbing, but it’s Smith’s attention to setting and atmosphere that truly ratchet up the suspense.
Smith captures the “gloominess” of Poland with an authenticity that is in part due to the fact that he lived there for a short time in the ’90s.
“Almost all of the main characters are based on people I knew,” he says, admitting that they clearly contain parts of himself as well. “I think all writers tend to plumb themselves for their work. I write what I like to read—so it’s important for me to take on a global issue, but give it an intimate storyline.”
The details are important, and in the case of THE FOURTH COURIER, Smith’s knowledge of the FBI and CIA is both impressive and vital.
At the time he lived in Poland, Smith says he had greater access to the FBI—in fact, he was able to take a tour of a Quantico training site, a luxury that post 911 would likely no longer be afforded. Smith mined several notebooks worth of information about the organization and the potential characters within it, tucking it away until decades later when he would sit down to write THE FOURTH COURIER.
Though written with a more literary flair—the reader is deeply immersed in both character and setting—THE FOURTH COURIER reads at an astonishingly fast pace, proving that Smith is also skilled at creating a riveting plot. Not only are Porter and Crawford tasked with finding whoever is responsible for the grisly killings, they also learn of a portable atomic bomb that could explode at any moment—and the race is on to stop it.
But THE FOURTH COURIER is also a highly visual book. It’s almost as though a film is playing out in your mind—and that’s both intentional and almost unavoidable given Smith’s impressive chops as a playwright and screenwriter.
“I’m aware that a sense of scene is really important to me,” he says. “I write short chapters, and include a lot of atmospheric description. Writing screenplays has proven to be a very useful editing tool. Novels can go off on a tangent, and that’s not always good.”
Just as Smith has always been drawn to social justice issues—he spent the first half of his adult life working on projects to help low income people all over the world—he says he’s also always had a fondness for film and television.
“Growing up, the TV was always on,” he says. “As long as we did our homework, we could watch it…”
Smith watched and learned—and years later, he leaned on that form of storytelling to write the adaptation of one of his earlier novels, A Vision of Angels. That process gave him new insight into dialogue, setting, and the importance of “tight writing.”
His stalwart efforts in screenwriting, playwriting, and as a novelist have earned him countless award nominations and medals, and a platform from which to tackle issues close to his heart—from blood diamonds and human trafficking to modern day slavery, and the focus of one of his next projects, the refugee crisis in Greece.
Though he lives in France, Smith and his partner have spent a lot of time in a small Greek village where almost a half million Syrian refugees landed a couple of years ago. Smith became very involved in fundraising to supply these asylum seekers with clothes, food, and medical supplies.
Still, he admits the story—which will be about a gay Syrian refugee who is recruited for a very dangerous ISIS mission—will be a bit of a challenge.
Though, thankfully, it’s nothing a glass of wine and a little extra soul-searching won’t cure.