Culture Curator


Whether it’s with books or writing, Clay Smith is creating vital conversations

Years before Clay Smith became the literary director of the Texas Book Festival, the largest event of its kind in the state, he had an epiphany upon his full realization of the power of books to spark conversations and open minds in the culture at large. In 1995, after finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas, Smith took a trip to Oxford (he had studied there one summer after graduating from high school). Walking near Pembroke College he entered a Christian bookshop and began perusing a novel published in 1988 that would not typically be considered a religious text: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library.

Set in London in the early 1980s, the novel showcases the life of 25-year-old Will, a gay man who is coming of age, exploring his sexual identity and connecting himself to the cultural foundation of being gay at that time. In reading one of the first novels that was not assigned to him, Smith was drawn into the narrative wholeheartedly. “It showed me that gay literature could be–how human it could be–while being a little subversive,” he said, adding that the woman behind the counter would barely touch the book and didn’t make eye contact with him. “There are some boundary-pushing elements to that book. The beauty of it is, I felt like straight people could read it and connect with the narrative. The protagonist has a real style and is a full human being.”

Smith recalled reading for school assignments as he was growing up in Amarillo, but he didn’t start reading for plea- sure until high school. Taking up Latin then, and subsequently majoring in it in college, fueled his literary pursuits. “I just loved it,” he said. “I read Cicero and Virgil.” What’s ironic about his career path is that his grandmother used to pay him twenty-five cents for every book that he would read during the summer. Unlike his grandmother, he wasn’t a natural or early reader. For her, books were a very real outlet and an imaginative force, which they eventually became for Smith.

2-7What happened inside the small bookstore in Oxford drove home the point for Smith that reading is both a very solitary private interaction between a writer and a reader, and simultaneously something that can be made into a very public activity–which is what he facilitates now as the literary director for the Texas Book Festival. His leadership helps determine which authors out of thousands end up being fea- tured at the weekend-long literary festival.

Sitting on a vintage couch in his book-filled office on Brazos Street, with an old McGuffey’s Reading Chart, three black- and-white images of philosophers, and a framed Texas Book Festival poster from 2000 on the walls, Smith was by turns self-deprecating, introspective and witty. As someone who is getting paid to do what he loves with regard to writing, reading and producing culture, he recognizes his good fortune.

Journalism led Smith to his current role at the festival. He’d scored a proofreading internship at The Austin Chronicle in 1996 and was asked to come back as a full-time staffer.

At the time, he was wavering between attending graduate school for the classics or becoming a journalist. Ultimately, the prospect of writing for the Chronicle’s wide audience was impossible to resist. Stints as the books editor and writing for the film and food sections led to a promotion to senior editor by the time he left in 2002 to attend graduate school at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where he specialized in cultural reporting and criticism.

While editing at the Chronicle, Smith recruited new writers. “Clay was an editor who seemed to be driven by genuine intellectual curiosity, and he really allowed his writers to follow their deepest interests,” said David Garza, now the director of institutional giving at Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City. “He also took leaps of faith with his freelancers. I was a 22-year-old kid when he gave me my first assignment and he treated me like I’d been doing the work for years.”

“The beauty of being at the Chronicle is that if you are ambitious you can write across beats,” said Smith, “whereas at a daily paper, it tends to be more proscribed.”

A brief internship at The Independent, a now-defunct film magazine, led to his work for the Sundance Film Festival’s website. His former editor at The Independent started working for Sundance in 2005 and recruited Smith early that year to interview filmmakers and write about film for the world-renowned festival’s website. Having primarily interviewed people who want the coverage–writers, filmmakers, artists and activists–Smith tried his hand at investigative journalism via a six-month fellowship at The Dallas Observer. He realized quickly that it wasn’t for him. The Chronicle connection led to his position at the Texas Book Festival, as he’d served on the festival’s adult selection committee when hewas the paper’s book editor.

Smith is the festival’s “ideas man,” as he put it. He wears many hats in this role: part book critic, part diplomat, part advocate for writers, part curator of personalities, and part event planner. The main thing, he added, is that the public cannot feel the difficulty of programming everything perfectly; for them, it’s totally seamless and smooth.

“[The festival] creates the kind of public conversation that we need much more of in this country and particularly in this state,” he said. “It’s important that this festival is free.” Although he said the title of literary director sounds “gran- diloquent,” there are many factors to take into consideration about which writers get included. Many of these originate with Smith, who can be creative in thinking about what people are worrying or talking about in the country–whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

For instance, one of the topics being explored at this year’s festival is the idea of America as a security state and the growing corporate security apparatus in the U.S. Based on a book called Top Secret America, penned by The Washington Post’s investigative reporters on the vast national security state build since 9/11, the book itself sprang from a series in the newspaper, and a panel will explore the topic in depth. Other authors making appearances include Susan Orlean, Jim Lehrer and Steven Petrow.

“The artistry of the job is how writers fit together and making it all happen, while programming for diversity,” said Smith, quick to credit the work of 900 diligent annual volunteers who help make the festival a success. “Diversity in the sense of taste: James Patterson and Colson Whitehead in the same festival.”

The festival has given more than $2.5 million to Texas public libraries over its existence, thanks to the generosity of its supporters. Because of the success of its efforts and over- all awareness building, it has also increased the number of participating writers from 160 to 225 and regularly attracts 40,000 visitors to the Texas Capitol. Smith is proud of the partnerships that the organization has forged with Badgerdog Literary Publishing, Alamo Drafthouse, and the Austin Film Festival, as well as such new programming efforts as Literary Death Match. This originated in New York City and puts four writers onstage to perform the most electric passage from their respective books in about seven minutes before being judged by a panel and given a “nonliterary, totally nonsensical challenge” to determine the winner. “I love it when someone goes to this festival and they think they’ll see one panel,” Smith said, “and maybe they wander into another  session and discover this other amazing writer.”

After each festival winds down in November, Smith heads to sunny Los Angeles and immerses himself in the film world for the next two to three months, working for Sundance and writing about film for SXSW Film. “I think some people don’t realize until far too late in life when they were happy,” he said. “I’m blessed in the sense that I’m happy and I’m blessed that I know it.”

3-2At a time of tumultuous change in the world of publishing, with many commentators saying that people don’t read as much because of the advance of Nook and other e-readers and the disappearance of such bookstores as Borders, Smith and his team are proving that young people do, in fact, still care about books. The festival is, in itself, a work of perfor- mance art. For two days, the Capitol is transformed in terms oTf the kinds of conversations that happen there.

The protagonist in The Swimming Pool Library has his own set of struggles, and the narrative is not without drama. However, Smith’s own coming out to his parents, which took place after he moved to Austin in the spring of 1994 to finish his studies at UT, was not as dramatic. “I think parents always sort of know,” he said. “It’s a conversation that has to happen and you have to keep that conversation going.”

In a fit of eight-year-old anger, Smith asked his parents to send him to boarding school. Although it’s always easier to attribute more insight to oneself in hindsight, he said he was the typical, confused young boy, worried about fitting in. Far from it being the stereotype of a safe haven for misfits or for the children of privileged families, the boarding school was, for Smith, a way out of Amarillo. He landed at the Asheville School, and it turned out that the woman who interviewed him was from a small town in Texas, and they hit it off.

The nondenominational Christian school was quite different from what Smith was used to. Students wore coats and ties, attended church three times a week, and every minute of each day was carefully planned. “For me, that experience of intellectual awakening and new friendships that many people have in college, I had beginning in the ninth grade,” he said.

The experience influenced his work life and helped him build skills that he utilized later. In his senior year, Smith was elected to the school’s conduct council (a group of students and faculty members who dealt with such student infractions as cheating, lying or stealing). The value of diplomacy was a constant theme–and he stated that diplomacy is a big part of his role at the Texas Book Festival, especially with so many authors clamoring for a limited number of slots. “If you didn’t get along with someone, you’d see that person in English class, math class, at lunch, at breakfast, in study hall, and during sports–so you had to learn to get along and get over it. And that’s something I’ve carried into my work life.”

Smith said there were a series of confirmation moments that reinforced his own awakening as a young gay man. When he was still living in Amarillo, Smith had worked as a houseparent over the summer at a nonprofit for mentally handicapped adults, teaching them such everyday skills as doing their laundry. He had one client who was gay and aware of that fact; this client needed one-on-one classes on how to protect himself if people were making fun of him because of his sexual orientation. “That was wonderful for me because I felt like I could really help him,” Smith said.

That urge to volunteer and make a strong impact on his community extended into his time in Austin when he con- nected with Out Youth in the 1990s. It’s an organization that he’s been passionate about for quite a while, and he wants to see a broader base of support in the larger LGBT community for Out Youth’s work. “I want more people to know about it and fall in love with it,” he said. “The fascinating thing is that we’re having this national conversation about bullying and teens, but Out Youth has been helping those teens for 21 years. They’ve been helping them when it has not been fashionable or cool.” As a board member, he raises money for the group, spreads awareness and, advocates. That includes working as a chair of the group’s fall fundraiser, Glitz, to be held on Saturday, Sept. 24, at a beautiful house in Rob Roy.

The only time that Smith hesitated during the interview was when asked which person he admires the most. “I could give you the name of some historical figure. I don’t get up ev- eryday and say, ‘Oh, I need to live more like Jesus or Gandhi.’ That’s just not how my mind works,” he said. “When someone is touted to me as a hero, I go to journalist mode and think, what’s in their closet?”

For Smith, our gay and lesbian forbearers, who lived at a time prior to the cultural definitions of the word “gay” being fully formed, are mentors. “It has been a real interest of mine, for a long time, as to what gay lives were like before these terms even existed,” he said. “But to live your life and feel like you’re totally alone and feel like you have a perverted desire–I’m curious about how they lived and I think some of them were heroic.” In terms of people living in the present day, Smith said that Tom Doyal, a co-owner of Liberty Books, a bookshop catering to Austin’s LGBT community that flourished in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is a mentor.

Ultimately, the festival has to have a life of its own in order for it to be a success. While Smith can guide the process, he receives input from the selection committees, festival at- tendees and many others. In the future, he sees himself writ- ing more often, continuing to grow the festival and helping it to adapt successfully to the massive technological changes sweeping through the publishing industry. As it turns out, at this year’s festival Smith will have a chance to meet the author whose work he discovered at the religious bookstore in Oxford: Alan Hollinghurst will be speaking and has a new novel out called The Stranger’s Child. This consummate reader and writer also plans to pen a book or two of his own in the near future.

“I’m a culture maker, whether it’s journalism or the festival,” said Smith. “That used to be the province of gay men. As this normalization takes place and our lives seem to become more like straight lives, the question becomes–what kind of a gay culture do we leave to the next generation?”