Neil Smith made a splash in 2008 with his first book, the short story collection Bang Crunch. Now his long-awaited second book, the novel Boo, is about to appear. Like the stories in Bang Crunch, Boo is deceptively gentle, charming, and painfully sensitive to the stress of being a teenager. Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple, high-school pariah, gets his nickname from his ghostly-pale appearance. Boo opens as he awakens in a strange room, and knows immediately that he is dead.
Rover: Boo takes place in a heaven reserved for 13-year-old Americans. Your version of heaven, called Town, doesn’t resemble any of the popular images of heaven (for that matter, your angels are not particularly angelic) — how did you choose to make it the way it is?
Neil Smith: As a child, I had a very down-to-earth vision of how heaven might work. I figured that a god would have to segregate the dead somehow, given the countless people who’ve died throughout history. I imagined these separate heavens as vast public-housing projects like those I saw in big American cities.
Rover: The unexpected choices you made in creating the world of Town are tantalizing. For example, the 13-year-olds stay in Town for another 50 years before they disappear — in effect, having close to a normal life span. Do people who die at 80 live for another 50 years in their Town? Do people who die as infants live as infants for 50 years?
NS: Townies don’t have a definite answer to these questions. They speculate that a heaven exists for each age: one for 11-year-olds, one for 52-year-olds, etc. My theory, though, is that all the heavens are populated by 13-year-olds. If, say, you die at eight months or 87 years old, you wake in your specific heaven at age 13. But I’m not Zig, so I can’t confirm that this is true.
Rover: You are an avowed atheist. What led you to create a heaven run (or benignly neglected) by a deity that Boo refers to as “Zig”?
NS: I grew up as an atheist, but I always wished there were a heaven, just as I wished there were a Tatooine (Luke Skywalker’s planet) or a Middle-earth (Bilbo’s stomping ground). These were all fantasy worlds to me. As a budding writer (I started creating little books when I was seven), my religion was fantasy and my bibles were novels. Still, I realized that The Hobbit was a made-up story, just as I suspected that the stories in the Bible were too.
Rover: Why do angels use baking soda to brush their teeth in Town?
NS: Zig sends only the necessities. Since townies never have cavities, they don’t need fluoride toothpastes. But Zig does send soap, shampoo, and toothbrushes so that townies can keep themselves clean.
Rover: Isn’t there anyone in Town who is curious enough about what’s outside the walls to figure out how to climb over? (There is remarkably little mischief in a town populated solely by 13-year-olds!)
NS: The Great Walls surrounding Town are about 25 stories tall. Zig built them to be impenetrable and insurmountable. As for mischief, the 13-year-olds who’ve lived in Town for decades are more mature than the newbies who’ve just arrived. The older townies act almost as parents to the younger ones.
Rover: What made you choose to set Boo in suburban Illinois?
NS: I lived outside Chicago when I was 13. I even lived in the same low-rise apartment building where Boo lived with his parents before he passed.
Rover: Who named everything in Town after characters from YA books?
NS: Townies name the parks, schools, infirmaries, and streets after favourite characters from novels, both the YA and adult novels that Zig sends them. They also rename these places as time passes and different novels arrive in Town and become popular.
Rover: Do you imagine Boo being read by kids as well as adults?
NS: Definitely. I want 13-year-olds and 73-year-olds to read it. And I want Zig to send my novel to Town one day.
Rover: The friendship between Boo and Johnny is powerful, especially after all the plot twists play out and the reader understands what has passed between them, in life and in the afterlife. How did that evolve?
NS: When I was growing up, my family moved constantly: Quebec, Massachusetts, Utah, Illinois, Ontario. I changed schools all the time and found it hard to make friends, especially since I was an odd duck. I wanted the novel to be a tribute to friendship. Though Boo claims he doesn’t mind being a loner, friendship is secretly what he’s always yearned for.
Neil Smith will be appearing at Librairie Paragraphe on May 2 for Authors for Indies day, where Boo will be available for purchase and autographing in advance of the official May 12 release date.
Elise Moser is the author of the YA novel Lily and Taylor, from Groundwood Books. She and Neil met many years ago in a writing workshop.