This autumn, I had the chance to sit down with Noble Smith, an award-winning author and playwright who has worked as a video game writer, a documentary film producer and the media director of an international human rights foundation. His non-fiction book, The Wisdom of the Shire, was called, “A definitive guide to Tolkien’s worldview,” by Wired Magazine, and has been translated into eight languages. His epic action-adventure novel, Sons of Zeus, was published by Thomas Dunne Books June 2013, and is the first in The Warrior Trilogy. (To read the complete interview and a novel excerpt, visit: American Athenaeum: Wayfarers All.)
Noble, how did you get started with writing? What was your early inspiration, a moment that you can point to as the starting point?
The first book that I started working on was an epic science fiction/fantasy novel that was a cross between Frank Herbert’s Dune and The Lord of the Rings. I was fourteen at the time, and it was quite an ambitious project for someone that age, but it was spectacularly derivative of those two books. But you know what? It got me into the habit of making a daily effort to write. At first I wrote in cursive, then printing, then I got an electric typewriter, and by the time I was in high school I had one of the first home computers. To me writing is physical labor just as much as a mental endeavor. The Medieval manuscript illuminators, hunched over their desks all day, used to call their efforts “plowing the page.” I think that’s a beautiful way to put it. You’re like a farmer standing behind an ox, holding tight to a plow, breaking furrows in the soil of your imagination. It’s a lot of effort, but cool things grow out of that labor.
Who were some of your early mentors?
My first mentor was my dad who used to read to me from his favorite books—mostly American history and biographies. We had this little room that he had built at the back of the house that was a library with beautiful book cases and shelves for magazines: history and art journals, stuff like that. You could display the magazines with their covers face out like at a public library. I loved that room! My dad sat in this big leather chair and we had this old psychiatrist couch that my mom found at some antique store. And I would lie down on the couch and he would read to me about Lyndon Johnson or the Civil War or whatever he was into. My next mentor was the playwright Alfred Uhry. He gave me some great advice about being a writer: “The critics are the (expletive) enemy! Never forget that.” Thinking about Alfred practically screaming that line at me always makes me laugh. It’s really good advice. You can never worry about who is going to review your book. Otherwise you will be cutting your own hamstrings.
What were some of your earliest successes?
When I was eighteen years old (and a freshman in college) I won the New York Young Playwrights Festival. My play was produced off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons Theatre and starred Cynthia Nixon. It was the most surreal experience of my entire life. The play, by the way, was about an eighteen-year-old wannabe playwright trying to write a play for the New York Young Playwrights Festival. Very cheeky.
How did your upbringing/schooling/travel/mentors influence your writing path?
Travel had a huge impact on my path to becoming a writer. We went to the United Kingdom right before I started high school and I got to see all of the great museums in London and visit places like Oxford (where my favorite writer J.R.R. Tolkien lived for so many years). And every summer we would go to a town called Ashland, Oregon where the biggest Shakespeare Festival in the world is located. In one week we would see about a dozen plays, and by the time I went to college I had seen half of Shakespeare’s canon. I ended up graduating from theatre school in that town alongside actor Ty Burrell (the star of Modern Family).
One of your recent published books, Wisdom of the Shire, is a non-fiction exploration of the hobbits’ shire featured in the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. It serves as a guidebook for living a “good life,” like a hobbit, in today’s world. Can you tell us about the spark that inspired this work?
I came up with the idea while driving home from an interview at a monolithic corporation. I was stuck in traffic and I sort of had this meltdown. I started screaming and cursing. I asked myself why I was trying to get a job with a company that I despised, fighting traffic like some kind of automaton. “Who are you?” I asked myself. “What do you want to do with the rest of your short life?” And then it hit me: a freeway epiphany. It was as if Ian McKellen—as Gandalf—was speaking in my head. “It’s the Hobbits,” he said in his kindly tone. “You must write about the Hobbits.” I realized in that moment that the kinds of people I had always wanted to emulate were Tolkien’s Shire-folk. Despite the fact that they are fictitious characters they have all of these amazing qualities that makes them exemplars of good living. They practice sustainability and sufficiency. They are friendly and funny. They love good food and drink. They value friendship and family above all else. They’re peace-loving, yet stand up bravely for what they believe is right. When I got home I wrote the first chapter of the book “How Snug Is Your Hobbit-hole.” A year later The Wisdom of the Shire hit the shelves in the US, the UK and has been translated into eight languages. The intro, by the way, was written by one of my old friends, the fantasy writer Peter S. Beagle (who wrote the introduction to The Lord of the Rings).
In chapter one, “How Snug is Your Hobbit-Hole?” you explore the tight-knit community in the shire, pointing out how everything was made by hand. You present the question, “When did we all become so helpless that we stopped learning how to make or fix the simplest things?” It’s a really important question, one that resonated with me, enough to make simple changes in my day-to-day life. With all the suggestions presented in the book, which one is your favorite, or is there one you feel even the “time-deficient” can consider trying?
I’m glad that my book resonated with you! I think that one of the easiest things people can do is to start their own little Hobbit gardens. I even give instructions at the back of the book on how to do this. Tolkien said that the Shire-folk have, “A close friendship with the earth.” It’s a beautiful way of saying that they are connected to nature in a way that grounds them and makes them happy. Creating a little garden can change your life. It’s magical.
Your most recent published novel, Sons of Zeus, tackles the ancient world of Greece, and follows a young Greek warrior, Nikias, who “dreams of glory in the Olympic games as he trains for the pankration—the no-holds-barred ultimate fighting of the era.” His training is cut short when the city is attacked, in a type of “Pearl Harbor” way, which sends Nikias and his neighbors to war. The book is quite an accomplishment in how it recreates the past in such a lively and innovative way, one that contemporary readers can easily connect, with. How long did it take to write the book? What type of research did you do for the novel?
Sons of Zeus took me ten years to write. A lot of people wonder how a Tolkien-freak like me could have written this book. What’s interesting is that Tolkien inspired me to start reading the ancient Greeks. I read in one of his letters that his introduction to the classics was Homer. So I went from reading The Lord of the Rings to The Iliad and The Odyssey. In college we had these core classes. Mine was Great Books. In that class we read every extant play from Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. I fell in love with the Greeks after that. So about ten years ago I was working as a documentary film producer, and we started a project about 5th BCE Athens—the “Golden” age of Greece. During my research I came across the story of the sneak-attack on the democratic independent city-state of Plataea: a tale that I had glossed over the first time that I read Thucydides. I couldn’t believe that this epic story of courage and survival had never been the subject of a novel. The character of a young Olympic fighter-in-training who must save his city, family and beloved from genocidal invaders just came to me in a vision.
To read the full and extended interview and novel excerpt, please visit: American Athenaeum: Wayfarers All Issue.