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Here are some fast facts on him:
- Born in Harlem. Raised in the South Bronx.
- His first job as a filmmaker was at the Camera Service Center, a film equipment rental house in New York City.
- He worked as a locations assistant on numerous feature films such as Money Train and HBO’s Subway Stories.
- He started writing screenplays to earn enough money to finish Doomsday Stew, his first feature film.
- He never did finish my feature but one of his screenplays, Joe’s Last Chance, sold to Intermedia. After that… doors in Hollywood began to open.
- He is now a professional screenwriter represented by Resolution and Circle of Confusion.
- He’s sold or optioned six spec screenplays and has been hired by studios for numerous rewrites
Amie Flanagan: Forty Acres is by far one of the best-plotted thrillers I’ve read in a long time. As a screenwriter did you use the same techniques you use for film and television to plot this story or did you decide to write the story as it came to you?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: I work very hard on plotting. I spend more time planning than actually writing. My outlines for my screenplays are crazy long and when I sat down to write Forty Acres I used the same technique. The put it simply, I figure out every beat of the story down to the finest detail. For Forty Acres I outlined every chapter. The outline even contained snippets of dialogue. When I finally began writing the manuscript I followed the outline for the most part. Sometimes the characters would briefly take the story in a new direction, but I would always wind up back on track.
AF: The form of Forty Acres is written very much like a screenplay in the sense that the chapters follow a scene and then once the scene ends, a new chapter begins. Did you determine the pacing of the book based on how you would write a screenplay?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: I’m a strong believer in sticking to one POV when telling a story. I also like when one moment flows neatly into the next. I’m always striving to make the read flow as smoothly as possible. I want the words to disappear and the reader to become lost in the drama and suspense.
AF: This is such a phenomenal concept you’ve written about that not many people think about. How did you take this high concept idea that involves serious issues like race, slavery and secret organizations and make it palatable to an audience who ordinarily wouldn’t think in these terms?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: One of the writers who I draw inspiration from is Michael Crichton. What Crichton does like no one else is take these far out concepts and blend them with real life. The trick to doing that well, I believe, is making everything feel grounded and real except for that one fantastic element. In this type of story, I think the audience is willing to suspend disbelief for one fantastic story point. More than that and you risk generating groans. Black guys keeping slaves is pretty “out there” but everything else is pretty grounded. Another trick I use is to try to figure out how that fantastic element would really be done. Jurassic Park’s plot is nuts but the method used to bring back the dinosaurs is based on real science.
AF: You challenge a lot of people’s ideas, perceptions, and even make people question their beliefs on race in this book. Did you find it difficult to talk about race?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: Not at all. This country is obsessed with race. I was gambling on that. I knew that if I could crack this plot it would grab a lot of attention because of the race element. The arguments made by the villains in Forty Acres is drawn from reality. I went to great pains to make their twisted views as relatable as possible. The problem that they talk about is very real, it’s just their solution that’s insane.
AF: What was your secret to writing on a topic that is so polarizing but not coming off as preachy?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: Good question. I guess the book doesn’t come off as preachy because Martin’s view is basically the everyman view. Martin’s position should seem natural to most readers, and not like someone trying to push their views down your throat. I truly believe that most people are good and that we pay to much attention to the assholes on the planet.
AF: You have an amazing sense of being able to blur the lines between a character driven and a plot driven story. How were you able to do this so well?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: This goes back to POV. Because the POV remains with Martin for 95% of the book it has that character driven feel, but it’s really plot driven. I think the best books and movies are written in this manner.
AF: You’re characters are so well rounded and believable, even the bad guys are sympathetic. Did you base your characters on real people or did they just come to you?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: They are not based on real people but I do a lot of work on characters before I begin writing. I write a full bio for each character, from birth until the start of the story. Of course, all of these details don’t make it into the book, but they do inform how the character behaves. A man who grew up in the Brooklyn and a man who grew up in the country are going to have different views about a camping trip. Also, I love bad guys who seem like regular people. Like someone you could see yourself hanging out with if it wasn’t for the fact that they have this one little evil quirk. Sympathetic bad guys are the best bad guys.
AF: I love how you chose Martin for the name of the main protagonist. It’s very symbolic. There’s a lot of symbolism in Forty Acres and I think that’s what makes it so powerful. How did you determine what things should be symbolic? Or did they just emerge naturally?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: Every decision is made for a reason. Nothing is random. Every character name reflects something about that man’s personality. I love planting details in my stories that quietly nudges the reader to feel a certain way about a character or situation. I’m a big believer in subliminal messages. I believe the subconscious picks up on a lot more than we are ever aware of. So, when I plan my stories I take the reader’s subconscious into consideration. I know how that sounds but it’s true.
AF: I really liked how tight your writing is. It’s quick and snappy but still maintains the readers attention. How did you determine what the best word choices were to tell Martin’s story?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: As I mentioned above I work hard to make the read flow as smoothly as possible. When writing screenplays I try very hard to use a few words as possible. When I decided to write Forty Acres I wanted to write a beach book. A real page turner. I believe the key to that is writing only what’s absolutely necessary to tell the story.
AF: You did a great job in keeping the setting and scene viewable to the reader. How were you able to present the scene while still moving the narrative forward?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: From writing screenplays I learned how to describe a lot with very few words. We live in a world where readers have seen everything. They know what a castle looks like so why do I have to describe it? I try to use a couple of suggestive words to give the reader’s imagination a kick in the right direction, then let them fill in the details. No writer in the world can compete with the readers own imagination.
AF: Do you have any tips for new writers?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: I know writers hear this a lot but it’s very true. WRITE WHAT YOU’RE PASSIONATE ABOUT. I wanted to write Forty Acres as a screenplay and everyone told me I was nuts. I loved the story so much that I decided to try something I never tried before, write a novel. My passion to get this story in front of readers is what drove me everyday. Even in my screenwriting career, I resist chasing trends. I try to write about stories that truly excite me, that’s when I do my best work.