"Revising the Plot"
Despite PD, novelist Martin Cruz Smith carries on with vigor and light, producing best-selling books.
“I had fun,” says Martin Cruz Smith, on researching and writing his latest novel, The Girl from Venice—a romance set in Italy at the end of World War II.
Fun is a word he uses often.
But his life is not all clear sailing. While Smith has written many novels, including Gorky Park, the literary thriller that introduced Russian detective Arkady Renko to fans, he also has Parkinson’s disease, which presents its own challenges.
His description of those challenges, however, centers on play, comparing his lack of focus with an inability to follow instructions for putting together a child’s toy. Also, he says, “I can’t skip. If you can—congratulations.”
While Smith concedes that “denial has thousands of stages,” his relentless optimism seems like a choice. Then again, fun runs in his family. His father was a jazz musician, his mother a nightclub singer. They met at the New York’s World’s Fair in 1939. She was a Pueblo Indian girl who was there to represent New Mexico.
“They were an attractive, romantic couple,” Smith says. “Eleanor Roosevelt once had them thrown out of Washington Square, where she rented an apartment, for making noise at 2 a.m. Too much fun.”
As children, Smith and his brother and his sister, Jack and Beatrice, lived with their paternal grandmother in Pennsylvania when their parents toured the East Coast. Later, Smith studied creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met his future wife, Emily “Em” Arnold.
The pair married and lived in New York City while Smith edited a men’s magazine before focusing on writing novels. He turned out bread-and-butter projects while carving out time to work on what would later become Gorky Park.
With the success of that book, the Smith family, which by then included two daughters (and later a son), turned the corner financially. Smith went on to produce eight books in the best-selling Arkady Renko series and other acclaimed novels, including Rose and December 6.
A Diagnosis—and DBS
“I had about as lucky a life as one could have,” Smith says, describing the time before he was diagnosed with PD in his mid-50s. As tremors, slowness and rigidity set in, he tried medications, concealing his condition for 18 years while continuing to write, even as he struggled to take notes and sketch, both instrumental to his research process.
When he could no longer type, Em stepped in, taking dictation as he paced the room. After Smith submitted Tatiana—a book inspired by a Russian journalist who was murdered after aggressively reporting on political corruption—his editor praised the manuscript. Smith then revealed his Parkinson’s. “At a certain point you owe it to people,” Smith says. “First, I had to prove that I could write.”
He also fought back medically. When the book was finished, Smith underwent deep brain stimulation (DBS). Doctors customized the surgery, planting electrodes in a specific region of the brain to preserve verbal fluency while still controlling tremors.
In 2013, he began to speak publicly about Parkinson’s, giving interviews to major news outlets that published videos and articles about his diagnosis.
Some writers have wondered how he can write without typing. During one interview, an author suggested to Smith that typing is how writers think. Smith responded, “There was a time I thought I could not write unless I had a cigarette in my mouth. You adjust. Living with PD requires making adjustments.”
Focus on the Fun
As Smith continues to work, family members help. He recently went to Siberia with Em and his daughter, Luisa, who took photographs for her father’s research. Smith says that “if anything,” the struggle with Parkinson’s “adds a certain grit to the writing.”
At age 74, Smith is still doing what he loves, working on a novel, sometimes facing rough spells, as we all do.
“There are days when you feel floored,” he says. “You might think, ‘Good day to crawl under the table.’ Tell yourself, ‘This too will pass.’”
Martin Cruz Smith shares advice for beating the blues.
- When you hit a wall: Get out a good book, or watch a great movie. Go for a walk and appreciate the day.
- Sign up: “I joined a therapy class,” he says. “Seeing other people with PD is like looking in a mirror. Some will be in a much more advanced stage than you are, but they won’t be deterred.”
- Exercise: Get moving. Nothing helps the PD body and mind more than physical exercise.
- Come to terms: “Accept that it’s going to be difficult,” says Smith. “But a lot of time may go by—make the most of it!”
- Try something new: “I was in a log cabin in Siberia singing ‘Streets of Laredo.’ That, I promise, was a one-time event.”
Originally printed in MoreThanMotion, Winter 2017