By Annette Hinkle
More than a decade ago, a Southampton College student named Simon Van Booy began working as a freelance writer for the Sag Harbor Express.
“That was my first writing job,” recalls Mr. Van Booy. “My very first story was the annual blessing of the pets at the Episcopal Church.”
And it was during his time at the Express that Mr. Van Booy realized a minor coup by scoring an interview with journalist, writer and literary editor George Plimpton. Mr. Plimpton died a short time later. It was probably the last interview anyone ever got with him.
It was an auspicious start to Mr. Van Booy’s literary career (if a somewhat tragic end for Mr. Plimpton’s) and in the years that have followed, Mr. Van Booy has done quite well for himself, thank you very much. He now has 10 books under his belt (seven fiction and three non-fiction) and numerous awards, including the 2006 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award — one of the richest short story competitions in the world — which he won for his collection “Love Begins in Winter.”
Mr. Van Booy is just out with a new collection of short stories, “Tales of Accidental Genius,” and in mid-November he appeared on NPR’s Diane Rehm radio show to talk about the book. On December 19, Mr. Van Booy comes back to his old stomping ground of Sag Harbor to read from the collection at Canio’s Books.
The British born Van Booy has lived in places as diverse as Kentucky, Paris and Athens and in “Tales of Accidental Genius” Mr. Van Booy takes readers into the lives of a range of divergent and quirky characters — from a retired British bodyguard or an old man with a dead goldfish to a divorced magician from New Jersey and a Beijing street vendor who gets rich overnight.
“My great grandfather was Cantonese,” explains Mr. Van Booy. “I put a picture of him in the back of the book.”
Since he has written both novels and short stories, it’s natural to wonder if Mr. Van Booy finds that short stories can become the basis for novels or if, conversely, characters from novels can spin off and have their own adventures in the realm of the short story.
“It’s a good question,” notes Mr. Van Booy. “Short stories can grow into novels but novels don’t grow into short stories. A short story is centered on singular unique event — a dripping faucet, or a lost watch, or a dead cat. That one event can become a short story and is a metaphor that symbolizes some other event.”
“A novel is a series of events in the life of a person,” he adds. “The character is what happens.”
Mr. Van Booy’s own journey to becoming a writer was not a straight path and in some way, was as divergent as the characters who populate his books. In addition to working for East End newspapers (including The East Hampton Star), he also studied philosophy, sports medicine, and briefly even considered a career in banking with UBS PaineWebber in Southampton.
“I thought it would pay off the student loans. But they said I’d have to move to New Jersey,” recalls Mr. Van Booy. “I think you have to go into a profession you really enjoy because you’ll be up against people who really do love it. I still read the Financial Times, trade stock and enjoy it, but I wouldn’t want to do it as a career.”
Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at him today, but Mr. Van Booy admits that in the beginning, he had very low expectations when it came to his chances of success in the literary world, largely because much of what passed for successful literature in bookstores he visited was not something he could relate to at all.
Truth be told, he wouldn’t have minded creating a life on the East End.
“I saw myself living in a little cottage in the Hamptons with a thread of smoke coming out the chimney,” he says. “Sort of like the sort of thing you see on a Sleepy Time tea box – a bear in a corduroy chair.”
“I would’ve stayed there full time,” he adds. “The Sag Harbor Express would have been a great job – I’d get to live on the East End and have time to do my own work.”
He’d also be able to pull in the occasional 20-pound striped bass off the beach with a rod and a reel — something he still does when he comes out east for a visit.
Instead, as it does for many, the cost of living drove Mr. Van Booy away from the East End and took his life and career in a different direction. Today, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife Christina and Madeleine, his 11-year-old daughter from his first marriage (his first wife, Lorilee, died in 2008).
These days, Mr. Van Booy loves going “character hunting” in Chinatown for figures that might appear in his next short story and he’s the type of writer who seems capable of finding meaning wherever he is in the world or in life. As a result, he’s not beyond placing stories in locales that most would consider cultural voids — Nassau County, New Jersey or Staten Island for example. And despite all his success and accolades, Van Booy notes the most important thing for him has, and will always be, the work.
“A lot of writers I feel are gunning for a Nobel Prize or National Book Award. That’s great, but it’s not a really good motivation to work,” he says. “Are you going be disappointed if you lose? It gives others so much more power.”
“I feel the writer’s responsibility is to make a living and if they can sell their books it’s a bonus,” he adds. “People want to get published and get rich and win prizes. It’s a great ambition, but it should be about the writing.”
While the traditional world of publishing seems to be shrinking, especially in terms of old fashioned paper books, audiences and online resources have grown exponentially. That’s where Mr. Van Booy sees the world opening up for all writers, literary or otherwise.
“With everything competing for our attention, people say people aren’t reading anymore,” says Mr. Van Booy. “The population has doubled since 1960 — so while there might be less people reading books, the number of people reading is greater than ever because the population has grown.”
“I think that if you write zombie Star Trek fiction set in the steam punk era of 1910, the great thing is the world is big enough for you to have an audience,” he adds. “Strategizing and patience is a good trait of the young writer.”
He notes it’s also about having faith and focusing on the writing at hand.
“You’ll find your voice and your readership if you’re doing it for the sake of the work,” he says. “I feel I have a readership and can make a living. I’m not on the Armani yacht yet — but we don’t learn from comfort and luxury, we learn from struggle.”
Simon Van Booy reads from “Tales of Accidental Genius” on Saturday, December 19 at 5 p.m. at Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor. A holiday reception will follow. Call (631) 725-4926 for details.