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Stirring Up a Mess of Trouble

An Interview with Carl T. Smith

by Joyce Dixon

 
  To newcomers, a pot of Lowcountry Boil looks like someone is stirring up a mess.  The basic ingredients are shrimp, sausage and corn on the cob, but many will toss in crab legs or other local treats.  In the South, 'a mess' also means a quantity of food. Carl T. Smith in Lowcountry Boil is stirring up a mess of trouble for some powerful men who are drawn by the love of adventure and greed into the shady business of drug smuggling. 

Carl T. Smith captures the Lowcountry personalities -- natives and transplants. There is a laid-back quality as well as class structure to the community. Carl and his wife, Archer Lee, live on Fripp Island, South Carolina.

Raised in Danville, Virginia, Smith was the son of a North Carolina carpenter and a Swedish mother -- thus great genes for storytelling, dark plots, and modeling! Smith has had careers in songwriting, singing, theatre, professional speaking and consultant, and educator on the secondary and college levels. After becoming a full-time writer, Smith wrote Nothin' Left to Lose, a novel about the entertainment industry. Lowcountry Boil is the first book in a trilogy.

"Southerners have always considered insanity, suicide, murder, alcoholism, and infidelity romantic and normal behavior."
                                                 ~ Sam Larkin, Lowcountry Boil (pages 277-278)

 

Lowcountry Boil is loosely based on real events from the 1970's in Beaufort County, SC. Was this group so drunk on power, that they thought they were above the law? Could a smuggling venture work today on the SC coast?

I think a good many people involved in the ‘70’s conspiracy were innocents’. Sure they knew what they were doing was against the law, but people are masters of rationalization. Maybe rather than innocents’ naïve would be a better word. I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, equate these people with the heroin, cocaine and crack dealers we read about in the paper today. They were not violent. Above the law? I don’t think so. Fear is stimulating to many people (roller coasters, driving race cars, etc.) and money certainly aids one in the decision to take risks.

The men in The Company already possess wealth and power, so they are smuggling for the "rush" of adventure and risk. Is this a type of mid-life crisis for them?

I’m not sure it’s a mid-life crisis, as far as these men are concerned. Of course the ‘rush’ of living-on-the-edge is one of their primary motivations; however, there are other things driving them: the camaraderie of being an integral part of a very exclusive team lends a feeling of superiority, the money, to a degree, even though they are wealthy (as Charley Clay says, “Money is the greatest addiction.”, and at this point in their operation, they have gotten in over their heads, a situation which makes it difficult to ‘get off the track’.

Charles Clay is the puppetmaster of the group. At one point he remarks, "...having nothing to lose makes me dangerous."  How has he trapped the others into his game? Is he more villian than innocent?

I don’t believe Charlie ‘trapped’ anyone to join the endeavor. Perhaps I should have explained how they got involved, but, as you know, seven hundred page novels are hard to market, so I had to set limits on what I wrote. My concept was that probably in college someone bought someone else a nickel bag and it grew from there. Fun and games. Although what they are doing is not innocent, I believe they are innocents’ or at least were in the beginning. They have obviously become educated as time went by. It’s easy to get carried on by a swift moving current, especially when one is successful.

Charley Clay a villain? Perhaps more selfish than villainous. The ‘dangerous’ line is more for intimidation than a description of the man. He is at times appalled at what he is doing and so states, but is addicted to the thrill and is simply a bored, sad man, who has become ambivalent to anyone else’s interest, welfare and needs other than his own. Is he a bad guy? Probably not.

Morgan Hannah is a rich widow in her 30's who is enjoying her freedom and sexuality. Does the Lowcountry lifestyle promote self-gratification to the point of dropping a moral code of conduct? OK, I have to ask -- Did you name her "Hannah" after the song, "Hard, Hearted Hannah. The Vamp of Savannah, GA?"

 
Tough Question! No, I don’t believe the Lowcountry promotes a lifestyle based on
self-gratification any more than any other area of the country. I do believe Morgan Hannah
represents independent and confident women everywhere who are honest with themselves
and others. This is not to say every independent woman lives as she does. Morgan is
selective, not into one-night stands and would rather spend time alone rather than just be
with company for no reason. Moral codes of conduct can not be generalized and more than
religion can be generalized. Each to his own. She is not hypocritical, which might invite
judgment, but I think that would be unfounded. She has suffered—lost husband whom she
loved, no children, prescription drugs—and has not allowed it to destroy or cloister her. I find
her quite admirable, as did the women readers who helped me in the development of the book. 

And “No” -- never even thought of hard-hearted Hannah. Don’t think she is particularly

hard-hearted. I did have a model in mind, but won’t disclose who that might be. 

How would you compare Skeeter Crewes to Cedrick Hamilton? 

Cedrick Hamilton is corrupt. He has very few values, if any, other than his own greed, ego and
love of power. I find few, if any, redeeming qualities in the man. He is a weak man in a
powerful position he did not earn. He plays the ‘race’ game and pretty much uses everyone
he comes into contact with to his own advantage. 
    
Skeeter Crewes is noble. He has “made peace with himself between his ambitions and his
limitations” (Teahouse of the August Moon) He has never turned his back on the values he
was taught or those he promised his wife, and has steadfastly refused, no matter how times
are, to become a stereotype. I would like him as my best friend. 

 

Cedrick Hamilton is an interesting character as the school superintendent desperate to
refill the school district funds before an audit.  You use the quote -- "Power corrupts,
and absolute power corrupts absolutely." How does the quote define your book?
 
Power eliminates, to a great degree, restrictions. A lack of restriction can invite personal anarchy,
feeling above the law, allowing the ego to eliminate fear and, in Cedrick’s case, feeling for anyone
or anything save one’s self. That leaves few if any redeeming qualities.
 
I don’t think it defines the book. One or two characters might be defined by that. The rest have
redeeming, if not heroic qualities. Sometimes only the willingness to ‘face the music’.

Turner Lockett is a simple-living, good old boy and fisherman seized by fear and

superstition in this venture.  How is superstition a part of life in the Lowcountry? 

 

Turner is a ‘nature outlaw’ who lives by instinct. People who do that are subject to
superstition and fear. Some thrive on it, some use it. Superstition—though some people would
not call it that—is prevalent in the Lowcountry, as it is in any area where there is a high
number of people of Caribbean background. Witchcraft and voodoo are commonplace in
Louisiana and here though they might be called by different names here.
How does your knowledge of theatre and music aid your craft as a writer?
My theatrical background is probably the most helpful in my
writing. IN theatre, one is taught to be consciously observant,
to find primary sources—real-life people who physically or
emotionally fit the character one is portraying, or, in this case,
creating on paper. This penchant for observation has had a
great influence on the dialogue I write. Real people seldom
speak glibly all the time, and I detest books with overdone
glib dialogue. One exception: Robert Crais, who uses it in a
self-deprecating manner for his hero. Also, in all my
observations from the Southern U.S. to South Philly and New
York, I have seldom heard people, even of the lowest classes
use profanity as their choice for every other word. 
  Carl Smith with Brewster Robertson at a Lowcountry event.

Tell us about your next Sam Larkin mystery. Will Karen Chaney return?

The next book (untitled) is the second in what I conceived as a trilogy. It does feature Sam
Larkin and Karen Chaney; however, there are a number of new characters introduced that
may well appear in the third book. Although the new book begins with Sam in the Lowcountry,
the story takes him to Mississippi and Louisiana. It is not a ‘back story’, but it is a mission into
his past. The third will be in the Lowcountry exclusively.

Do you still take speaking engagements? What topics?

I no longer take speaking engagements other than those concerned with my books and writing.

As a transplant to the Lowcountry, what qualities stand out and made you want to call
it home? What about living there inspires your writing?
After getting ‘lost' in the Northeast for thirty years, it was a lifetime dream to come home to the
South. (I was raised, went to school and worked in Virginia until my late twenties.) I think the
southern lifestyle is emotionally healthier, if one allows it to be. I did not anticipate living in the
Lowcountry when I came south; however, the beauty of the place, the natural environment,
the cultural aspects of the area and some of the people I met made it my ‘country of choice’.
And the ocean.
Like the Bayou Country of Louisiana, the Lowcountry provides a canvas with the background
already completed when the work is begun. And it’s better than any artist or writer could
conceive on his/her own. It’s hard to ask for more than that, and yet it throws in for good
measure a unique cast of characters as a bonus.


Carl T. Smith's Web Site

 
 
Lowcountry Boil
by Carl T. Smith
River City Publishing, 2003
Hardcover, $27.95 (375 pages)
ISBN: 1-877-408-7078

    

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© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved