Smith Hagaman died last week. Unless you're from North Carolina, or are one of the too few people who have read his books, the name will mean nothing to you. But Smith is an inspiration to me.
He began to write at the age of 86. He had a story in his head, and he decided, "If not now, when?" He was a reader but, other than a letter-to-the-editor or two, he had never written. He knew nothing about the craft of writing, only that he wanted to tell a story. He sat down and wrote for six months. He said later that if, he'd worried about how he was writing, he'd have given up.
But then he took the crucial next step: He learned the craft. He went to workshops and readings, he joined a critique group and a marketing group. He hired an editor. Me, as it turned out. And what a joy he was to work with. "Why?" That was always his question. When he understood why his first scene didn't work and what the reader would expect from a first scene, he rewrote it in a week.
And he researched the details. He had been involved in a plane crash during World War II, so he already knew what that felt like. But if his fictional crash occurred in the Arctic Circle, what would the survivors find to eat? He consulted the foremost expert on the flora and fauna of that region. I had a problem with the scene in which an Irish priest comforts a dying Jewish man. Smith consulted a rabbi and found a prayer that I didn't know existed, even though I'd sung in synagogues and been fascinated by Hebraic rituals for more than 30 years.
Smith ended up with more than a good adventure story. Because he asked "why?" throughout his life, each of his characters is on some sort of quest. One of them—the Irish priest—questions his own faith. The laws of physics, engineering and mechanical problems, and an underlying spirituality all come into play. And he manages to engage the reader with the most unsympathetic character imaginable . . .Ah, I don't want to give away the ending.
When Smith asked if I would write a blurb for the book and sent me the galleys, I truly could not put it down until 4:00 a.m. For a good read, do get hold of "Off the Chart," by Smith Hagaman.
A wannabe writer at 86, Smith had two books published, and was at work on a third when he died.