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“The Highway Diner” serves up larger-than-life tale of tragedy, grieving and loss

Retired trial attorney and author, Mark Paul Smith has just published his fifth novel, yet another fast-paced, action adventure set in Fort Wayne, called The Highway Diner.

Agreeing that this is his most ambitious storyline to date, Smith makes a compelling case for the heroine, Murray’s, “coming of age, and coming of courage,” most importantly, he notes, a story, “written from the point of view of a woman.”

As to which of his professions provide the source of his inspiration, he's quick to point out, "I think the attorney in me is looking for the facts of the case, the facts of the characters."

Here, WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the creative writing process and distinctive style of storytelling with Mark, as well the unexpected parallels between this work and his personal journey.

Event Information:

The Highway Diner Book Signing Party
Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne
Thursday, July 18
6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Find out more Smith's novels and ordering information at the author’s website or the Castle Gallery website.

Jody and Mark Paul Smith
Courtesy/Mark Paul Smith
Jody and Mark Paul Smith, at the Castle Gallery

Here’s the transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Mark Paul Smith, welcome.

Mark Paul Smith: Thank you for having me, Julia.

Julia Meek: We sit here with your newly published fifth novel, The Highway Diner, congratulations, another larger-than-life read, Mark. So how about a one sentence setup, please?

Mark Paul Smith; A young artist struggles to regain her creative spirit after her fiancé is killed in a far-right militia bombing.

Julia Meek: Quite a lot of action adventure and a lot of emotion there too, to be sure. So last time, we had you on the mic, just two and a half years ago, with your last new novel. This was barely on your drawing board; you basically had an itch to write, and you were in search of her story. Briefly, how did all of that happen and come together?

Mark Paul Smith: Well, I decided that for my fifth novel, I would start with a character, not a plot, because character is action and action is plot. So, it starts with the purist of literary devices, the character, and I would let the universe show this person to me.

So I didn't know if it'd be black, white, male, female, and it got to be a little bit of a joke with Jody. We'd go out for dinner and she'd say, "Well, is your character here tonight?" (chuckles) I'd say, "Hey, this is serious. No, she's not here, or he's not here. I don't know."

So then, it was Labor Day, we went to the truck stop, and there was my character glowing in the dark, even though all the lights were on! (chuckles)

Julia Meek: So, what happened next?

Mark Paul Smith: Once I had the character, Jody said, "Well, if she's your character, go interview her." I said, Oh, no, no, no, no, no, I don't want to talk to this person."

She's a tall, goodlooking gal working at a truck stop, athletic build, but I was gonna make up everything about her. So, I didn't want to interview this poor gal in the truck stop.

So, she became Muriel, as named by her mother, but she goes by the name Murray. Her mother doesn't like that name because it sounds too much like a boy's name. But she says that's why I like it! (chuckles)

Julia Meek: It all sounds to make sense, coming off of your pen, I have to say, Mark. And the story itself reads like an odyssey; major modern fairy tale kind of describes your work: timeless plotlines, emotional roller coasters, real current events, pop culture issues, like any really larger-than-life-story should have.

How intentional was this? Do you think your thought process shifts between your dual roles as attorney and author?

Mark Paul Smith: I think the attorney in me is looking for the facts of the case, the facts of the characters. And one of the characters of the book is the commander who runs a very big militia up in Michigan, Newaygo, Michigan.

He's war-scarred from several tours in Afghanistan. And he is not happy with the Highway Diner for several reasons. So poor Murray was caught with this evil guy up north hating her for no particular reason.

Julia Meek: A real-life situation, all too true-life situation, as a matter of fact. Again, you have an affinity for characterizing people and things that happen to them. Don't you also prove that real people are superheroes or she-roes, villains too, and real situations are larger-than-life?

Mark Paul Smith: Absolutely. Murray in the book ends up taking on the Commander, you know, this is one little gal in a truck stop, who by the way, has an AR 15. Her daddy died when she was young, she was 17. But not before he taught her how to drive an 18-wheeler and shoot a gun.

Julia Meek: Things that could and would happen.

Mark Paul Smith: But I didn't have a plot. (chuckles) I had no plot, all I had was the character. So where does this book go? And I never knew where it was going.

So, every morning when I woke up, the character, Murray, or some of the other characters, would literally speak to me in that moment between waking up and really reaching full consciousness.

Julia Meek: Now, you say you don't do the traditional outline/plan ahead route. I guess you're proving your point right here right now. So how does it work for you?

Mark Paul Smith: Well, there's two kinds of writers: outliners and “pantsers.” And by “pantsers,” I mean, “seat-of-the-pantsers.” (chuckles) That's what I am.

But that's tough, because you worry about where your books going. And who's going to be the antagonist. And all of a sudden, some woman's running into the truck, stop being chased by a guy who's shooting up the truck stop, and you go, "Where did she come from?"

It's not like you plan it out. You're typing and your fingers become automatic, and characters happen that you didn't even know you were going to create, and they do things you didn't think they could do.

Julia Meek: Does that all go back to the fact of your life's work and experiences that, as many would say, truth is stranger than fiction and who knows what's going to happen?

Mark Paul Smith: Well, it's everything...(chuckles) life is generally a surprise. As John Lennon said, "Life's what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." So, the turns, the twists and the turns, they're important in fiction.

Also, I throw in a red herring every now and then, which is a false clue. So, the reader goes, "Oh, I thought I knew this. But oh, no, I don't."

Julia Meek: There's so much going on in most of your stories, this one included that, yes, the red herring, easy to miss, and then fun to spot. And by the way, this is your most ambitious storyline to date; would you agree?

Mark Paul Smith: I would agree.

 Julia Meek: Each chapter, sometimes paragraph, reads like its own gem of a tiny tale complete with its own precious little deep thought. Where did that come from? Did it feel as different going down on the page as your reader feels when they're reading Did you know that was happening?

Mark Paul Smith: You know, when you're writing, you don't have to worry about whether it's going to be any good or not, because you know, what you write will not survive.

You'll edit it several times, you'll make sure that every paragraph is solid, you will make sure that every chapter is a little story within itself. And then after you get done with it, then your male editor comes in, and then you think you've got it done.

And uh oh, here comes a female editor to tell you you're a lousy woman (all laugh) because I'm writing from the female point of view.

The book's about women finding the strength that maybe they didn't know they had. Murray, in the book, goes through a complete transformation--into a she-ro, as you say.

Julia Meek: And now, in the same time span, Mark, your personal life had its own bouts with sorrow and loss and grieving with the loss of your beloved wife, Jody and condolences. I'm so sorry for that, Mark. Was that something you were realizing somehow?

Mark Paul Smith: I did not realize my wife was dying, or even headed for death when I was writing the book. But somewhere in my subconscious, I must have known, because the book is about dealing with grief.

And I wrote it just in time to deal with my own. And what's the message here? For all people dealing with grief, the message is creativity is the vehicle through grief. You know, lifestyle is the ultimate artistic medium.

Everything you do is part of your life's canvas. Everything is a brushstroke. And, you know, make your colors bold, but be creative. Because grief is not something you get over. Grief is something you get through. And if you want to get through it well, you better be creating something.

Julia Meek: Beautiful words, inspired words, spoken from your own heart. Besides coming from your heart, and all the words that come from your pen, do you think that this book itself, Highway Diner, helped you come to that conclusion?

Mark Paul Smith: Yes, I do. Because the book didn't start off to be about a woman regaining her creative spirit. The book started off as just a conflict between a crazy militia guy and an innocent diner girl.

But the more trauma she suffered, and the more she became unable to paint, the more I realized what the book was really about. So, it's really about a woman coming of age and coming of courage.

And written from the point of view of a woman, her relationship with her mother is very interesting, because her mother develops right along with her. So, the Highway Diner becomes famous. They, they start off with a trucker rally, which says, look, all this hatred dividing the nation has got to stop. It's Trucker Nation.

And that term is born and catches on, make some kind of a national name. And what you've got to do is work together like the supply chain does. We've got all kinds of people and we're all working together to put bread on your table.

And here everybody is, hating each other for politics or religion or whatever. So, stop the hate, it's Trucker Nation!

Julia Meek: Wonderful sentiment, well thought, well written, pure Mark Smith, divinely inspired premonition. How would you say now in retrospect, it all churned around there, turned around there and came out so perfectly?

Mark Paul Smith: Well, I've always, for a long time been very saddened by this hatred. Because as a trial lawyer, you realize every trial has two sides, and the worst thing you could do is underestimate your opponent, you know, you have to respect the other side and listen to them.

The same with being a newspaper reporter. You know, every pancake has two sides, and you can't eat one without the other. So, I guess I really wanted to convey my disgust with the state of the world's hate.

Julia Meek: But turn it around. Even your disgust became a positive thing as you worked through the story with those people involved.

Mark Paul Smith: But how about this, these women with this great idea of love and supply chain get attacked and Murray's fiance gets killed in this far-right wing militia bombing?

So it's not about necessarily "love thy neighbor" because you can love all you want and somebody's still gonna come back at you with hate. And you're gonna say, Hey, well, what's that about?"

Julia Meek: A great metaphor, some might say, about all of the situations and problems and true hatred and misunderstanding in the world then?

Mark Paul Smith: Right. And also, where does the hate come from? Hate comes from hate. Violence comes from violence.

All these vets coming home are horribly scarred from our never-ending wars, are creating a network of militias! These guys are committing suicide all the time. I mean, literally, it's It's scary.

Julia Meek: It's a 21st century pertinent, larger-than-life story needing to be told. How does that resonate in particular?

Mark Paul Smith: Well, I was a conscientious objector during Vietnam. And all the hippies thought we'd ended war, you know, when the Vietnam War ended, yay, we win.

Well, we didn't win. And our country continues to engage in murderous mass killings. And it's coming back to haunt us in the forms of our militias. in the forms of our mass shootings. Violence begets violence.

That's the thought I've always had, and we, we brought in the commander who's devilishly clever, but he's got a compound a mile wide with a bunker at every clock point.

Julia Meek: Too much truth; so easy to do the truth, some would say, of course, then you don't need fiction. And that's another interesting way that you weave things together, Mark.

And by the way, you are known for randomly reading a paragraph aloud with your fans at signings. I'm not going to ask you if you have a favorite passage, I hope you have many, many, and write many more. But is there one in this book that might be forever in your heart? 

Mark Paul Smith: Yes, there is.

Julia Meek: Would you care to read it?

Mark Paul Smith: I will. (opens book) So here's Murray, and she's looking at a statue of a giant Indian in South Chamberlain, which is actually a statue. She knows that this female statue has something to tell her.

And the more she stares at it, the more mystified she is by what she's supposed to learn. She listens, and all she hears is the wind. And here's the paragraph:

“A flash of bright light reflected from one of the diamond shapes on the quilt, refracted through her tears, and plunged deeply into her internal turmoil. The meaning of the moment rang into her mind, louder than church bells in a tower. Murray suddenly understood what the woman was trying to tell her. "The woman suffered more than I ever will. And she never had the time or energy to feel sorry for herself. That's it. That's what she's telling me. Suffering is part of survival. It's something to be embraced and nurtured into a stronger will."

Julia Meek: Nice and thank you for that. Now, the whole project does seem like an obvious candidate for large or small screen; too early to ask or tell or hope.

Mark Paul Smith: I've got an agent shopping it to everybody we can think of, but it's a tough, (chuckles) it's a tough sell.

 Julia Meek: Wouldn't that be something, though?

Mark Paul Smith: Well, it's, it's a movie waiting to happen. It's action. It's got a tank in it. Stuff blows up, people die. (chuckles)

Julia Meek: And people love and live and it just touches every single heartstring. How does that make you feel? Can you close your eyes and see it unfold in front of you? Like it is on the big screen?

Mark Paul Smith: Oh, yes, vividly. And it's gonna be hard to watch it as a movie, because I know what it looks like. (both laugh)

Julia Meek: That might be a fun problem to have one day, though. So, good luck.

Mark Paul Smith: Yes.

Julia Meek: And, once again, sitting right here, right now, you've just finished a book. We are curious. What's currently up on that drawing board?

 Mark Paul Smith: On the drawing board is, instead of waiting for a character to reveal to me, by the universe, if you will, I'm waiting for a story to reveal itself. And once it does, I'll write my next book.

But the artist is not the conductor of the project, of the orchestra. You know, as long as you're standing on the stage and waving the wand, you're going to miss the point. You're in the orchestra only, there are collaborations going on.

The story must flow through you to connect with, let's call the conductor, God, (chuckles) the universe. Whatever it is, we know we don't understand.

But as soon as you're trying to play God and, you know, carefully plot out your book and make sure it's all about you. And you're gonna miss the point.

Julia Meek: You've got your method down pat, good luck. We can't wait to hear what's next. And last question. If, as you say, every writing adventure is your own new learning experience and holds its own new epiphany for you, author Mark Paul Smith, what's the most important thing you are taking away with you from that Highway Diner?

Mark Paul Smith: Well, the most important thing is, you've got to remain creative. Whether you're writing a book, or a song, or building a boat, or whatever you're doing, as soon as that creative drive is no longer there, you're dying. And it's also the only way I know to deal with the grief.

But let me put a plug in for my book signing party at the Castle Gallery. My wife may be gone but her gallery lives on; July 18 at 6 p.m., book signing and Summer Art, and some of Jody's best stuff is on display.

Julia Meek: Mike Paul Smith is a retired trial lawyer, songwriter and novelist, author of the Highway Diner. Thank you for telling your stories, sharing them with us, Mark, do carry the gift, and I believe you would say, "Keep on truckin'!"

Mark Paul Smith: (laughs) Keep on truckin, Julia!

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.