April 11, 2011 6:15:00 AM
"This was a case of the story choosing me," said Michael F. Smith, of his debut book, "The Hands of Strangers" (Main Street Rag Publishing, 2011). The Brick Streets Press Short Story Award winner''s absorbing novella about a couple in France dealing with their own secrets after their daughter''s disappearance will attend a book launch Thursday, April 14, hosted by the Columbus Arts Council.
The public is invited to the event from 6-8 p.m. at the Rosenzweig Arts Center at 501 Main St. in downtown Columbus.
Smith, who teaches creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, was first compelled to develop the story after a chance flyer he spotted in a busy metro station several years ago captured his attention.
"My wife, Sabrea, and I were living in Pontlevoy, France, a small village about a 90-minute train ride from Paris. One day down in the metro, we came past this giant bulletin board where people pinned up everything from concert posters to store openings to guitar lessons. Buried right in the middle of all that, I saw a homemade flyer that read ''Please help us find our daughter.''"
The random sheet of paper with a girl''s photo had a profound impact on Smith.
"It was the most important message anyone could ever write, and it was surrounded by that mass of announcements that all meant nothing," he shared. "Something stung me about it in a way I can''t quite explain, and for the next several days, I couldn''t stop thinking about it."
Back in Pontlevoy, Smith set aside other projects to write a short story about his fictional "Jon" and "Estelle" and their attempt to survive the aftermath of a parent''s worst nightmare. As time passed, however, he admits he couldn''t stop thinking about his characters.
"It didn''t feel like their story was over," he said. "So I sat down and started writing again where the story originally ended, and that became ''The Hands of Strangers.''"
Smith''s transition from short stories to the longer novel form is ongoing.
"I have to admit that, while I''m often frustrated with the time involved in writing the novel --especially when you find out life doesn''t stop to let you do it -- I like quite a bit having a big story in my mind," the writer stated. "I like having characters walk around with you for months at a time. You feel like you really know them, you get to see their lives develop."
Smith, who attended Mississippi State University and the Center for Writers at Southern Mississippi, has been awarded the Mississippi Arts Commission Fellowship Award for Literary Arts, the Transatlantic Review Award for Fiction and the Alabama Arts Council Fellowship Award for Literature. He also served a creative writing fellowship with the Eur-Am Center for International Education in France. His fiction has appeared in numerous literary reviews.
The Mississippi native is currently working on other manuscripts, returning to his roots following the Parisian influence that inspired the first book.
"Now I''m back home in the Southern landscape," he said, "and my characters are navigating under the Mississippi moon again."
"The Hands of Strangers" will be available at the Rosenzweig Arts Center in Columbus ($9.95), Barnes and Noble in Starkville, Lemuria in Jackson and various other regional bookstores. Or order from the publisher at mainstreetrag.com/store, or call 704-573-2516.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.