Film critic Chris Smith emerges from the dark theater into NYC lights

Posted Dec. 27, 2010, at 6:16 p.m.

In the lights of Fifth Avenue, jewels and crystal glassware shine. But what exists in the shadows of the skyscrapers? Twenty-three years ago, Christopher Smith set out to write about the darker aspect of New York’s high society, and in publishing his novel this year, he also revealed a part of himself that had long stayed in the shadows.

As a Bangor Daily News film critic, Smith has dissected people’s work for 14 years, making his mark by commenting on artists, writers and actors alike. But the tables turned when his thriller “Fifth Avenue” was released as an e-book in October.

“It’s totally different. Instead of reacting to something, I’m creating something,” Smith, 44, said. “I can see everything [in the novel]. It’s like a movie.”

While in his 20s, Smith traveled to the Big Apple every month, attending dinner parties and learning about the city from his wealthy friend Ted Adams, a descendant of President John Adams.

“The opulence. All this money being thrown everywhere,” he said. “I witnessed it. I was impressed by it and totally intrigued by it. But there’s this whole other side to this society and it’s not being talked about.”

He began the novel while attending the University of Maine for degrees in English and business, but his priorities shifted when he began writing movie critiques and managing electronic communications at the University of Maine. This year, with a push from his father, he decided to return to the novel to publish during the e-book craze.

“I quit the column and I put everything into writing this book,” he said. “Twenty-three years — it’s like a marriage. I wouldn’t have stuck with it so long if I didn’t think something was there.”

Smith had reviewed more than 4,000 movies since writing the original novel, so the rewrite is more cinematic. His experience with movies helped him envision the action and avoid cliche scenes. With his spry 16-year-old cat Blanche (Dubois) lying on the couch not far away, Smith sat down at his desk in Hermon and he re-wrote the novel, cutting 60 pages and ramping up the suspense.

“Fifth Avenue” is a story of revenge. A feud between two self-made billionaires comes to a head when one sets out to destroy the other — and his family. Professional hit men and the mob enter the fray, setting events into play that keep the reader wondering which characters can possibly survive the dangerous plot.

Eight days after publication, the e-book “Fifth Avenue” rose to No. 4 out of the 2 million e-books on Amazon.com. Two months later, the novel remains on the top 100 best-sellers list. And when it was released in the U.K. this month, it rose to No. 5 in five days.

So far, he has sold tens of thousands of e-book copies in both the U.S. and the U.K.

“When you’re passing Stieg Larson and Stephen King … I only thought my mother, family and friends would buy it,” he said. “I looked at it and I laughed and said, ‘This doesn’t even make sense. How is this happening?’”

Smith advertised on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and his blog, but he credits word-of-mouth for his success. The novel has received great ratings and reviews, but it hasn’t escaped negative critiques and comments.

“It’s interesting being a critic and being criticized,” he said. “It’s like: Well, you’ve certainly doled it out yourself, so you better be able to take it.”

At one point, comments from a group of people were less constructive and more disruptive.

“In the discussion forums on Amazon, the book created a great controversy because of a particularly edgy scene in my book. People were repelled by it,” Smith said. “They got on their high horse, they liked the view from up there, and I appreciate the sales.”

In capturing the Fifth Avenue society, power struggles dealing with money, sex, drugs and violence enter the picture, making the book for adult readers only.

Though Smith’s many characters are relatable and entertaining, he isn’t afraid of killing them off. In fact, early on, one publisher refused to publish his story solely on the grounds that Smith refused to bring one character back to life. To explain most of the deaths, Smith simply said, “They had to die. They were horrible people. I sit there and think: ‘Now how will you die?’ That was the fun part.”

Smith doesn’t envision a story from beginning to end.

“Once I get the characters established, I just follow them and get them to tell me what to do,” he said. “It comes to this point in the middle of the book where I am struck with different possibilities. It’s this organic experience. It just does its own thing at one point, and I hope it’s not going to be a weed.”

Though the two powerful entrepreneurs stir up the feud, it’s the degenerate daughter, Leana Redman, and a famous actor, Michael Archer, who become key players in the scheme and resolution.

Complicated relationships of love, family and friendship emerge and create as much suspense as the high-speed car chases and conversations at gunpoint. Perhaps the most satisfying part of the Smith’s story is the unpredictability of it.

“There are no perfect people. Everyone has to have a quirk — that missing trait,” Smith said.

In a review, P. Cook of Maine on Amazon.com said, “Smith creates compelling heroes and villains, but leaves the reader wondering who they should root for in the end. This ambiguity creates tension, and that is what makes this book a page-turner.

Publishing an e-book on Amazon is a free, easy process, Smith said. The author receives 70 percent of the profit and has complete control over the book’s appearance and price. Smith prices his e-book “Fifth Avenue” aggressively, alternating between $0.99 and $2.99. It also is available as a print-on-demand book from Amazon for $14.99.

From Smith’s success online, he was able to land Matt Bialer, an A-list literary agent appropriately from Fifth Avenue in New York. And book publishers now are in a bidding war for the rights to publish “Fifth Avenue.”

“I feel total surprise and I feel kind of humbled because I know a lot of writers don’t get this chance. I’m just grateful. It’s a realization of a lot of hard work.”

Founder of Amazon.com Jeff Bezos has allowed Smith and other authors to have success without going through the process of finding a literary agent and publisher. Until Smith finds a publisher, Amazon will print the trade paperbacks sold on the site.

“What [Bezos] has done for writers like me and so many others is to open up many doors and potentially change a life,” Smith said. “If you have a book in your closet somewhere, dust it off, edit it and put it on Amazon. You don’t know what will happen.”

He thanks editors Sandy Phippen and Constance Hunting (who died in 2006), both of whom taught at UMaine, for working with him on the novel.

Within the next few weeks, Smith plans to visit his agent in New York and, while he’s there, he’ll stop by the medical examiner’s office to suit up and watch an autopsy. It’s necessary he have the experience for him to accurately write a scene in his next book, a Wall Street thriller titled “Running of the Bulls,” which is scheduled to be finished by spring. The sequel to “Fifth Avenue,” possibly titled “Park Avenue,” will follow.

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