A Round of 18 (Needle) Holes with Erik Smetana

He uses words like ‘convoluted’ and ‘utter dreck’ and he’s somewhat of a golf enthusiast.  He also likes dopplegangers and ESPN.  With Herbie’s examination table and sharp needles, we welcome Erik Smetana to the Donor Center.

AJ:  Who is Erik Smetana?

ES:  Who am I? That’s a short question with a long answer (probably too long). The short version is I’m a writer, editor, teacher, university administrator, and husband, not necessarily in that order.

The rambling version is that I write, primarily fiction, but on occasion have been known to put together an awful poem (rivaling the work of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex) or something nonfiction ranging from book reviews to business articles to crazy travel adventures. I’m currently knee-deep into a novel about time travel, doppelgangers, atomic warfare, love and as John Hornor Jacobs put it: “American Home Cookin’.”

I’m the founding editor of Stymie Magazine, an online literary journal focused on writing that fits with the theme of sports and games. We underwent a re-branding in early 2010 and couldn’t be more excited. Our first issue with the new look went live in the Spring and was featured in ESPN The Magazine.

And that’s what I do in my off hours. By day I work for a large public university in administration, HR to be specific, and when that day is done I teach English, Literature, Writing and so on at a couple of local colleges.

What else? My father was reared near an Arkansas watermelon patch, my mother grew up outside Motown, and me? I was born, raised and still live just outside St. Louis (with my aforementioned amazing wife and a dog named Sam).

AJ:  The novel sounds interesting and there is nothing like American home cooking. Unless you’re from another country and then American cooking isn’t quite home cooking…

Not a good segue, but tell me about Stymie Magazine, if you will.

ES:  Stymie has evolved since I started it back in 2008. In the beginning the focus was on golf related fiction and poetry, mainly because I was/am a sucker for 18 holes and at the time I was on a reading bender centered around Roland Merullo, J. Michael Verona and Troon McAllister.

Today, Stymie is an online literary journal focused on sport and games. That said, sport and games means different things to different people, some of our stories/poems are dark, some are traditional, some are experimental. We’ve been fortunate since our re-branding/Spring issue in that we’ve partnered with ESPN for a fiction contest and seen both our submissions and readership spike. As we look ahead, things couldn’t be more exciting.

AJ:  How did the ESPN partnership come to be?

ES:  Happenstance, good luck and Sean Lovelace posting something about Stymie (I can’t remember if his initial post was before or after he’d had a story accepted) over at HTMLGIANT and boom! An editor at ESPN The Magazine clicked a link, landed at our doorstep and saw an opportunity to A) profile a new type of literary journal that might appeal to ESPN’s readers and B) to run a contest where the winner would be the first writer to publish fiction in ESPN The Magazine.

The profile, which included several excerpts from our Spring/Summer 2010 relaunch issue, hit news stands in early May (with details on how to enter the contest). Right now we’re sifting through the submissions and the work is just amazing, selecting a winner isn’t going to be an easy task.

AJ:  So, you get to go through the subs and choose the winner?

ES:  I’m going through them and Neil, the editor at ESPN, is going through them. Once I’ve narrowed down my list (and he his), we’ll figure it out from there, it’s a pretty organic process.

AJ:  It sounds interesting and tough at the same time. Good luck on choosing a winner. You mentioned earlier that you’re a writer of fiction as well? How did you get into writing?

ES:  That’s a question with a convoluted answer. I started writing when I was young.  I remember my first real story (as in put to paper for posterity) was in the fourth grade, a tale of motorcycle riding werewolves that evoked a reaction from my language arts teacher of: “There’s no such thing as werewolves and if there was they wouldn’t ride motorcycles.”

In the fifth grade I tried to write a poem in the style of Edgar Allen Poe (I’d recently read “Annabel Lee”) and was sent to the school counselor.  Needless to say my track record wasn’t looking so hot. In middle school I became enamored with comics and graphic novels and any efforts at writing were focused there. As I entered high school I fell down the rabbit hole like so many teenagers (especially boys) and stopped reading recreationally (which coincided with my putting down the pen). It wasn’t until a couple of years out of college that I started reading recreationally again (picking up the latest best seller in the airport book shop between business flights) and the more I read those stories the more the idea embedded in my head, “I can do this.”

So that’s what started me down the path of writing that I’m on now, only it wasn’t as easy as I had imagined. Story after story, I was churning out utter dreck and sending it out to journals that I’m embarassed about having bothered with such awful writing as I look back on it now. After a few months of collecting rejections I happened across Zoetrope, an amazing online writing workshop that helped me develop some skills, make the acquaintance of some talented writers and figure out what I wanted to do in regards to words. A path that I’m still following today.

AJ:  I love the word ‘dreck’ and ‘utter dreck’ is music to my ears. Sadly, that’s true. Can I ask you about a story you wrote a couple to four years ago? What were you thinking when you wrote ‘Pick,’ a story I’ve read a handful of times because of how wierd and disturbing it is?

ES: “Pick?” That’s a story I haven’t thought about in a while.

When I wrote it I was trying to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be, an internal dialogue that I still have to some extent, and at the time was focused on writing horror (a genre I’d started reading at an early age and had some familiarity with). I remember going for something that would make a reader step away from the page, something that might keep them up at night, and where I went with that was a mish-mash of the grotesque (in both theme, character and plot).

Bookgasm compared the style to Chuck Pahlaniuk (who I was reading quite a bit of at the time, and still read as he releases new work), which I took as a huge compliment; and The Fix Online said:

“PICK is less over the top and more serious, which lends a sinister and sickening weight to it … an unexpected bit of intensity.”

In terms of reviews, readership and things like that “Pick” has probably been one of the most popular stories I’ve written and really in my opinion the last decent horror story I wrote before moving onto other things.

AJ:   You definitely managed to to make me think and my wife would argue I don’t do that enough.

One last thing: Where can we find more information on Erik Smetana?

ES:  My personal website is www.eriksmetana.com where you can find my latest publication news, the inside scoop on all the happenings at Stymie Magazine, and other random things that I think should be forever immortalized by way of pixelation.

Thanks for the questions, it’s been a pleasure.

AJ:  You’re welcome and we appreciate your time. Now, be wary of that first step on your way out. Herbie hasn’t gotten around to fixing it yet…

(Herbie’s note:  The steps are not finished because the webmaster, researcher, formatter, typest, image finder, nurse and whatever else is all done by one person—me.  So, until AJ gets off his butt, there is always a chance someone will fall and break their ankle before it’s all said and done.)

  1. Kevin Wallis says:

    Awesome job, guys. I hear you, Erik, about worrying teachers with your writing. My art teacher kept me after school one day to ask if there was anything wrong at home because all my projects were bloody and filled with zombies and demons and people hanging from rafters. I told her I just like dead people. That didn’t help.

    And Pick? Try reading that while eating lasagna like I did.

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