Described by the New York Times as “highly entertaining,” Dominic Smith’s debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre (Atria Books), was chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program and won the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. From 2000-2003 he was a Michener fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. He grew up in Australia, worked for a time in Amsterdam, and now lives in Austin, Texas.
I knew Dominic at the Michener Center, but The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre was my first (but surely not last) exposure to his work. The book takes place at the end of Louis Daguerre’s life, when he suffered delusions caused by his exposure to mercury, the element that made possible his daguerreotype process.
Believing that the world is ending, Daguerre sets out to photograph ten final items, assisted in part by the poet Baudelaire and a prostitute and model named Pigeon. The project comes to focus on finding his childhood companion and the great love of his life, a woman named Isobel Le Fournier. However, the book also examines the creative process itself, the curiosity, obsession, and heartbreak that fueled Daguerre’s work — and that arguably play some role in all artistic enterprises.
Us: In the acknowledgments, you thank a photography professor for sparking your interest in Daguerre. What about his story intrigued you enough to choose him as the protagonist for your novel?
Dominic Smith: During a graduate photography class I learned about pioneering efforts in photography, in particular the work of Louis Daguerre. His big contribution to the early processes was the use of mercury vapor — the exposed metal plate image was run back and forth over a mercury bath. Although it cannot be proven, there is speculation among historians that Daguerre may have had mercury poisoning when he died. That was the idea that seized me — that one of the founders of early photography might have been going mad from mercury poisoning. I wondered how that might alter the way that the artist saw the world.
I began researching Daguerre’s biography and formed a picture of who he might have been. Although the Daguerre I created for my book is a fictional character, I tried to stay true to his career trajectory and his artistic interests. One of the things that was compelling about him as a person was that he was obsessed with the idea of trying to “trap” the essence of things. That drive led to the diorama and his work with the daguerreotype. The idea that Nature could sketch herself kept him awake at night.
AC: Had you written historical fiction before this? How did you go about doing research for the book?
DS: I had published a few short stories that were set in the 19th century. Writing these really opened me up to the possibility of rendering a different era. I sometimes think that the hardest things to get right in historical fiction are the nouns — the food, the carriages, the clothes, the everyday names for things. These are the bricks and mortar of how you define a world and you can’t get them wrong or simply make them up. I spent about a year researching Daguerre and the Paris of his time. I was also writing during some of this time, mostly sketches and an outline. I used a lot of different documents in my research — translations of French newspapers, travel writings about Paris from people like Charles Dickens, Daguerre’s description of his process, French novels written between 1840 and 1870. I also spent a lot of time looking at old daguerreotypes. I wanted to capture their mood by using certain kinds of language.
Of course, once I wrote a draft there were gaps in my historical knowledge. But by then it was relatively easy to go back and find what I needed. I believe on some level you have to set the research aside and dive in for the writing. If you’ve soaked in the nouns and phrases of an era for long enough then you’ll be surprised what you can dredge up when confronted with the blank page.
AC: Can you talk more about how you adjusted the language of the book to capture the feeling of the daguerreotypes?
DS: Daguerreotypes are, by nature, otherworldly. With millions of drops of mercury in each image, they have a metallic sheen that is like a hologram. There’s a ghostly shimmer burned into each plate. I wanted the language to capture some of this. For example, a lot of my language is necessarily about the interplay between light and dark — dusk, night, shadows, half-light, etc. I also used apocalyptic imagery (hangdog, underwater, drowned) because of the nature of Daguerre’s delusion. But early portraits — which required people to sit still for up to an hour — also have a weird and haunting formality to them. It’s easy to believe these people existed in some kind of limbo. All of this played into my choices for language.
AC: Do you think studying photography in general was a good practice for your fiction?
DS: Absolutely. I’ve been an amateur photographer since high school and it’s a nice complement to writing because it’s very hands on. With a camera you’re looking for ways to capture the essence of something but also wondering how to make your own statement about it.
AC: As a poet, I also have to ask how poetry, in addition to the novels of the time, influenced your writing of the book, since poets, especially Baudelaire, play such a role in the novel.
DS: I did read a lot of poetry from the time — all of Baudelaire’s and much of his English contemporaries. Poetry is a great window into a world…it gives you emotions and preoccupations in a very particular way. It also gives you great sensory detail. I would often begin my writing day by reading poetry from this time…just to get a sense of word play and rhythm.
AC: Michael Adams [a fiction writer and University of Texas professor] used to say that place is always the most important aspect of fiction writing — that you have to start with that or your story and your characters will never ring true. The city of Paris is practically a character in your book. Did living in Europe help you to evoke Paris, or is the Paris of your novel so much of the past that it could have been written through library research alone, through travel writings, newspaper articles, etc?
DS: Having spent time in Paris certainly helped — it gave me a sense of the city’s layout and the range of neighborhoods and the distances between things. But the historical Paris I created is a strange amalgam of details gathered from maps, pamphlets, travel diaries, articles, etc. I tried to stay true to what has been documented, but in the end there is the warping of time and the imagination. The world you create has to be dynamic and fit the mood of your piece. In my book, Paris is also slanted through Daguerre’s apocalyptic visions. Since he is struck with both nostalgia and doom, it’s natural for him to notice paper bunting and lanterns but also the catacombs and the barrens behind the left bank.
AC: While trying to get this novel published, you actually wrote an entire other novel, correct? Was it hard to begin a new project before this one had found a home? And when it was picked up by Simon and Schuster, did you have to do a great deal of revision for your editor?
DS: The road to selling two “finished” novels at once was unusual. I completed a novel while at the Michener Center for Writers called The Beautiful Miscellaneous.” I finished it in April 2003 and sent it to some prospective agents and Wendy Weil signed me in August 2003. But she also asked for some revisions. In the meantime, I had started a new novel (Mercury Visions), which was at about 80 pages of a draft when I received a Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Letters. That fellowship ran from August 2003 to March 2004. The Beautiful Miscellaneous was getting a good reaction but no firm buyers for a few months. Then, in early 2004, I sent my agent a draft of the Daguerre book. She started sending both books out together and within a month we sold both to Atria, a division of Simon and Schuster.
The Daguerre draft was actually written end-to-end in a year but with a lot of revision following that. My editor at Atria, Suzanne O’Neill, is very gifted at knowing what needs to be reshaped in a manuscript. She has helped me make both books much better. I’m revising The Beautiful Miscellaneous as we speak and it will come out some time in 2007.
AC: Is it hard to go back to The Beautiful Miscellaneous after so much time away from it? Or does the time away sharpen your perspective on it?
DS: It was hard to find the thread of the story again. I had to go back and read the whole thing with my editor’s comments in mind. But because I hadn’t touched the ms for two years there was also this distance and critical eye that was nice. I found that I had developed as a writer on a sentence-by-sentence level through the writing of the Daguerre book. So as I revise I’m finding myself cleaning up some older, shoddier sentences. I’m also less attached to things that I like but don’t quite work. Was it Anne Lamott who suggested “Kill your darlings”?
AC: Is The Beautiful Miscellaneous also historical fiction?
DS: The Beautiful Miscellaneous is contemporary. It’s a story about the average son of a genius; a kid who has been raised by a particle physicist and always had lofty things expected of him.
AC: As far as publicity for the novel, how much has Simon and Schuster done for you, and how much are you doing on your own?
DS: Atria has been squarely behind my book since early on. They’ve organized an 8-city book tour, retained a PR company to set up media events and interviews, and will be running an ad for the novel in The New York Times Book Review. They also submitted the book for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Program, for which it was recently chosen.
But I have also been very involved in generating some buzz about my book. For example, I’ve organized a launch party and signing at the Austin Museum of Art. There’ll be live French music, food and wine, and [the independent bookstore] Book People will be there selling the book. I sent out galleys to a broad range of people who might endorse the book. It’s all about word-of-mouth.
It’s felt like a nice partnership; we’re both working hard and making investments in getting the book talked about.
AC: Any final words of advice for other would-be novelists, particularly historical novelists?
DS: First, find a story that keeps you awake at night. It’s such an arduous process and only a story that mesmerizes you on some level will go the distance. Read everything you can from the period if it’s a historical work — poetry, novels, newspapers, ads. Believe in your own work. There are days when you’re convinced that your draft is trash. Press on. Writing is really a process of re-writing. We all know that, but we forget.