“Hurt People hurt people:” Author Cote Smith Discusses His Novel

Thursday, March 10, the Kansas City Public Library invited author Cote Smith to read from and discuss his first novel Hurt People. The event was hosted by novelist and Writers at Work series organizer Whitney Terrell.

Hurt People
takes place in Leavenworth, KS, a town that features four different correctional facilities within its limits. The most prominent amongst them is the federal penitentiary. Set in the summer of 1988, in the wake of a convict escape, the story focuses on two young brothers, 9 and 11, whose only desire is the pool at their apartment complex. They joke and scare each other with stories about “the Stranger” from the newspapers. But when a mysterious young man enters the picture and begins to create a rift between the brothers, the circumstances begin to put the boys in harm’s way.

The night began with Smith discussing the journey his story took from its initial conception as a short story which was published in the literary magazine One Story during the second year of his MFA at Kansas University. One Story, like the name suggests publishes one story in each issue, and also includes a bio and an interview with the author. Throughout the discussion, Smith was charmingly deadpan and self-deprecating. He joked, “I think the smartest thing I did in One Story… they ask what you’re working on. And I said, I was working on a novel. Which was, maybe true?”

After that publication Smith had gotten the attention of literary agents.

“The agents email me, they were like, ‘So I hear you’re working on a novel.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah. Totally’ [laughs].”

He describes scrambling to expand his story. “Luckily, the agent I ended up working with, she didn’t expect anything right away. She was like, ‘take your time, whenever it’s ready, it’s ready.’”

Once Smith had completed his novel, he described the sending it out and the process that led to its publication with Farrar Straus Giroux (FSG Books). “We sent the book out to everyone, and it got rejected by everyone.” Smith said. “Of course I was very— Um, bummed is the word I guess. Very despondent.” After spending years working on Hurt People, he began working on another novel. He had written 200 pages for this second novel when his agent called him and said that Emily Bell, Editor of FSG Originals, had been thinking about his novel and she was interested in seeing it again. Bell would go onto to edit Hurt People and publish it through FSG Originals.

Smith then read passages from the novel. One of the most striking aspects of the reading was the relationship between the two brothers. Every line showed the fraternal love and competition between boys. They relied on each other but never missed an opportunity to mock each other. Smith also discussed the core concept of the novel, “Hurt people hurt people.” Its beauty lies in its brevity. It is at once a piece of homegrown wisdom one can imagine a relative saying, but also a succinct observation of the way that people interact with each other.

To close the discussion, Smith took questions from the audience. He was asked what his thoughts were on writing about his hometown.

“It’s nice because you don’t have to do research,” Smith responded.

He did say that he was a little nervous that the people of Leavenworth might take offense to their town’s portrayal. Shortly following this, two different men mentioned that they had lived in Leavenworth for years and they had never feared their proximity to the prisons. Before Smith closed the night, Terrell asked if he was done with Leavenworth as a setting. He responded, “I like to think I’m done there.”

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