Readers of Boston Irish Magazine and bostonirish.com are well-versed in the work of Sean Smith, whose finely wrought writings and reviews of the work of performers in the Celtic arts of music and dance, in particular local and regional standouts, have graced our pages and internet files for many years now.
In June, Sean launched his new novel, “Transformation Summer,” and it drew positive attention from pre-launch reviewers.
“Transformation Summer” is a work in the coming-of-age, biographical, and interpersonal drama subgenres,” wrote K.C. Finn of Readers’ Favorite. “It is best suited to the general adult reading audience and is penned by Sean Smith. In this insightful and emotive work of self-exploration, perception, and past memories, we explore the world of our central character, Seth, as a sixteen-year-old being dragged along to the Transformation personal-growth camp with his mother and in the years following this brief but life-altering experience. Shifting between perspectives of then and now, we learn about the people and bonds that Seth made at such a formative age and the unexpectedly disturbing moments at Transformation that have stayed with him for a long time afterward.
Added Literary Titan in a posting: “Sean Smith has crafted an intimate portrayal of psychology, memory, emotions, and self-exploration that lures us into a much deeper and more meaningful story than it may first appear. The charm is in the creation of Seth himself, an incredibly endearing protagonist and one we want to know more about, especially when his conflict in adulthood is so painfully evident and ripe for exploration. I loved the storytelling style and the way lines were sometimes clear between past and present, then sometimes, as the influences of hindsight, time, and life experience blurred, changed what we thought we knew. Overall, “Transformation Summer” is a work filled with these bold and well-penned insights. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone seeking intelligent, deeply emotive, coming-of-age fiction."
Following is a conversation between Boston Irish Magazine and the author:
Q. Please tell us about yourself, such as how you wound up being a writer.
A.- My parents were intelligent, extremely well-read people – both college professors, though my mom quit teaching at 60 and worked for NGOs in places like Somalia and Afghanistan – and helped inculcate in me an appreciation for books. But I have to admit I spent several years as a kid immersed in Marvel Comics; I even wrote and illustrated my own versions of Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, etc., just for fun. I suppose I had a good foundation with which to become a writer, because I always did well in spelling and grammar in elementary school – though my handwriting was atrocious.
It took a while for me to latch onto journalism as my career path, but it felt spot-on right from the start: I did an internship at the now-defunct Belmont Citizen, spent two years at a weekly in Central Massachusetts, then three-and-a-half years at a suburban-Boston lifestyle/features weekly. After that paper folded, academia seemed a good fit and it was, so I’ve been an editor/writer at Boston College for the past three-plus decades.
I never put “publish a novel” on my to-do list. After a few attempts at fiction over the years, somewhere in the early 2010s I just found a groove, and this culminated in the genesis of Transformation Summer. Once I had the idea, I thought, “Might as well start trying to write it”; after the first chapter I thought, “Well, I’ve gotten this far…” – and that’s pretty much how the process went, right up to the point of submitting the manuscript to publishers. If it didn’t work out, I was no worse off; if somebody actually wanted to publish the thing, well, I’ve gotten this far…
Q. Is it fair to say that “Transformation Summer” had a gestation period extending back to your boyhood days? How much of the book is autobiographical?
A. There’s a certain autobiographical dimension to Transformation Summer, but I feel you can say that about a lot of novels: Hey, write about what you know, right? Coming up with the basic outline of the story, I took the concept of “intentional communities” – collective households, communes, housing cooperatives and so on – and stretched the definition to encompass the idea of people who, rather than live together, instead gather at regular intervals out of common beliefs, interests or purpose.
I remembered, for example, my experiences at the youth programs run by the Quaker meeting I attended in my teens. To my mind, that was an intentional community. I made a lot of friends at these weekend events, and along with the formal activities we had all kinds of little customs, rituals, in-jokes, etc., whether it was a game we looked forward to playing together, or sneaking out for a moonlit walk in the meadow.
I’m sure many of us have had these kinds of intentional-community experiences in our lives, where we withdraw from the larger world for some period of time – maybe a weekend, a week, two weeks, or longer – into a setting that is its own ecosystem: a camp, a retreat, a music festival. We often develop expectations and behaviors around those experiences: “It’ll be so good to see that person, and we’ll take a long walk together after breakfast like we always do” or “I can truly be myself around these people.”
Eventually, of course, we have to return to the so-called real world of work, school, our neighborhood, our usual routine. This can be challenging: Can we incorporate the qualities of that special community, that experience, into our everyday lives? If you try to explain to a co-worker or a classmate what this place is like, will they get it? I think this is something most all of us can relate to.
Another universal theme the book touches on is how, as children, we come to realize that adults – especially including our parents – are fallible, imperfect, even vulnerable. That revelation can be scary, empowering and perplexing, all at once. It’s certainly the case for Seth: He’s watched his parents’ marriage dissolving, and – like many discerning teenagers – he sees hypocrisy in the adults at the camp, the disconnect between their actions and the supposedly shared values and ideals on which Transformation was built.
Q. You chose the first-person approach, which invites closeness with readers but then limits perspective to the narrator alone. History suggests that the best first-person narrators rigidly monitor themselves against detouring out of the character’s view of things and into their own. Did you find this a challenge as you were writing?
A. I was self-conscious about imbuing Seth with too much of me, so as I crafted scenes, events, dialogues, etc., I had to remind myself, “OK, I know how I might act in this situation – but what about Seth?” He and I have some things in common, but I feel he’s more headstrong than I ever was. I didn’t want him to be a passive, slack-jawed neophyte as he tries to figure out Transformation; he’s active, observant and questions what he sees and hears. Me? I probably would’ve just played frisbee and looked around for jam sessions.
Q. There are quite a few characters that make up the book: Grace, who I see as an assistant narrator; Rafe; Diana; Funk; Mishy; Morgana; The Girls. There’s also Seth’s mom, and Is, a complement to Grace’s role in many ways. Do you have a favorite among them, and why?
A. Oh, that’s a tough one. After finishing the manuscript, I found myself missing these characters. I’d thought about them so much while writing the draft, trying to get at who they were, their characteristics, their strengths, their flaws. Over the next year or so, I did make some tweaks, but it wasn’t the same as when I was developing them along with the narrative.
Some characters I like, I suppose, because in a sense they represent composites of people I’ve known. But then again, we all might’ve known such people – though I tried not to make them overly archetypal: Grace, the quiet girl you were trying to figure out; Rafe, the kid in class who always made you laugh because he was such a wise-ass; Diana, who comes across as tough but has her tender side, too.
It took a bit of doing to flesh out Morgana as the girl in her own kooky-wonderful world. Early on, she’s a kind of comic relief, but I felt bad making her the butt of jokes because she’s so well-intentioned and sociable. I wondered: What if there were a darker aspect to her that makes her less ridiculous, more sympathetic? This revelation winds up being a rather important plot point.
I also like The Girls: They’re about to enter the throes of adolescence, but they have each other, so they should be all right – especially because Lily doesn’t take any guff.
Q. Seth tells a tale that he filters through regrets and second guesses – none shallower, it seems, than his casual handling of why he let his relationship with Grace peter out over so many years. For all the detail he gives about those two weeks and the long aftermath, is he being square with us as to why he chooses to go on such an impulsive journey at the end?
A. My editor at Atmosphere Press really liked Transformation Summer, but he felt the conclusion as I’d written it was lacking something. So I took another approach and had Seth confront, in very stark terms, the impact of his investing so much in the memory of that summer. It begs the question: Can a memory become an end in itself, ultimately even more important than the actual people, places or events it evokes? Can a memory keep us from moving on, moving forward, even as it constantly enriches us?
There’s a little clue in a remark made by Joanne (who perhaps grows the most of all the characters), which has to do with a recipe for ratatouille, of all things. But in a larger sense, that scene also gets at Seth’s struggle to process those two weeks at Transformation.
I don’t know if this is true for all novelists, but I have a hunch it is: Even after it’s published, in your mind – and maybe your heart – you never really finish the book.
Sean Smith will hold a reading, discussion, and signing event on July 9 from 4p.m. to 5p.m. at the Scandinavian Living Center Nordic Hall in Newton. For more information, go to seansmithwriter.com