For good fiction, facts matter

Using sleuthing skills worthy of his fictional investigator, Arkady Renko, Martin Cruz Smith tracks down the historical, political and emotional minutiae necessary to bring his characters and stories to life. During a Feb. 11 appearance at Kelly Writers House cosponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Library’s 250th Anniversary Celebration and the Alumni/Library Friends Book Club, Smith described some of his research methods during a question-and-answer session. The Q&A followed a brief reading from his latest novel, “Havana Bay.”

Smith (C’64), a Reading, Pa., native who is the son of two jazz musicians, had a winding path to becoming a top-selling novelist. At Penn he intended to be a sociology major until he ran smack into a statistics class; then he changed his career goal to being a fiction writer. After graduating, Smith worked as a sports editor at the News of Delaware County, a Good Humor man, a car salesman in Spain, a reporter for the Associated Press and the Philadelphia Daily News, a pulp fiction writer, and a staffer for two years at magazine called For Men Only.

A 1973 trip to Russia inspired what became the first in his Arkady Renko series, the best-selling “Gorky Park,” published in 1981. That book was followed by “Polar Star” (1989), “Red Square” (1992) and last year’s “Havana Bay,” all starring the beleaguered homicide investigator. Smith’s work also includes “Stallion Gate” (1986), about the Manhattan Project, and “Rose” (1996), a book that he counts as his favorite, about “pit girls,” or women coal sorters, in Wigan, England.

Smith said it was Penn English lecturer Christopher Davis who taught him the importance of verisimilitude, “that care of having the right bricks to build your structure,” including not only facts but also people’s motivations. “He said take that time and that care until you feel accurately what is going on.”

When beginning research on a new project, he said he generally starts by reading books on his subject. “I have no preconception,” he said. “I don’t have any conception at all. You open the gates as wide as you can and then you sort out the flood.”

For “Havana Bay,” Smith, who speaks some Spanish (his mother was a New Mexico Pueblo Indian), visited Cuba five times. He learned about the troubled history of the Russian experience in Cuba. “There was never a worse cultural mix.”

Yet he characterized Cuba as a “warm, tactile place. If you can’t feel something in Cuba, somebody’s got to take your pulse.”

Smith contrasted his experience in Cuba with his current research project: Japan during World War II. “What served me in Cuba, which was a readiness to dance,” he said, “does not work in Japan. What works in Japan is stillness and observation and patience.”

He said that the nature of the subject matter he wanted to explore, including atrocities in Nanking and the machinations of the Japanese army, might be beyond what most Japanese want to remember.

“I want to go to Japan, find real people, and talk to them about their lives and the war,” he said.

He said he’s having more trouble than he’s ever had before, but he is learning patience in the practice of his art. “You can’t break into someone. You have to find someone who wants to come out,” he said. “The writing is only one part of it.”

Originally published on March 2, 2000