In this feature, we ask our Crime Cymru authors to name six things that influenced their life and shaped them as a writer. This week, Cal Smyth talks of sycamore trees and tremors, of Belgrade and mortality, and of love and the road to Marseille.
When I was 10 years old, I was sitting in the living room and looking out at a sycamore tree. I saw one of the sycamore helicopters twirl down to the ground and had a vision of how the tree rooted, grew, branched and decayed… which made me think about my own existence, how one day I would die and not even have a mind to be aware that I wasn’t alive. This realization shook me to the core and I sobbed uncontrollably. My mum tried to comfort me, but I was inconsolable. From this point on, I knew that life was short and should be lived to the full. That I was driven to explore and have adventure, that I wanted to capture these existential feelings and desire to overcome them in stories.
I was woken by the tremors. And then as the building started to shake, I checked out of the apartment windows, saw people gathering below – everyone thinking the bombing had started. It turned out to be a minor earthquake, not NATO bombing Belgrade. That happened a few months later. By then I’d been kicked out of Belgrade, my visa not extended as I was given twenty-four hours to leave. But that feeling of a city under siege, of people being afraid but defiant stuck with me – the historical aftermath of the Yugoslav War impacting my future crime novels. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the whole experience was Noir, Balkan style.
Belgrade is a city with a place in my heart. I lived there in the crazy 90s, when the black-market and underground hedonism ruled. The perfect setting for crime novels, the city itself inspired my Balkan Noir series. And my connection to the Balkans has branched into other areas of writing. I’m currently working with Slovenian producer Svetlana Dramlić and HBO to create a documentary series about Balkan Trap music – uniting trap artists from the region with British YouTubers. And I’m also collaborating with British / Albanian actor Orli Shuka (Gangs of London) to write an original crime series that moves between Albania and the UK.
On a solo road trip from Marseille to Mazamet, I drove past wild horses and pink flamingos as I curved the Rhône Delta lagoons. It was a drive I’d wanted to do for awhile and I needed the time to myself – holing up in my dad’s house while he was away to finish writing the last of my Balkan Noir novels. I also needed to clear my head personally and professionally, to be free to embark on new emotions, writing projects and career change. A year later, I did the reverse journey, driving from Barcelona to Marseille with a woman who made hearts jump out of my eyes. The two of us discussing the idea of Transhumanity as she drove, bouncing ideas that I turned into a sci-fi thriller.
Who created the first cryptocurrency and is it something that can actually disrupt economic systems? Or is it just another source of profit for the rich? As with Transhumanity, the digital tech of cryptocurrencies fascinated me after discussions with my partner. And it became the inspiration for the thriller I’m now editing… featuring an FBI finance investigator who strives to uncover the mysterious creator of a new cryptocurrency, a terminally ill coder who is determined to keep the creator’s identity a secret until his death, and a financial fixer who does whatever it takes to protect the wealthy.
The woman I love inspires my writing more than she knows. It’s with her that I’ve learnt what it’s like to really love someone, to feel a crack in my heart when we took a break, to know with certainty that this is the woman I want to spend my life with. And from these emotions, I have been able to develop my writing. When I first started as a writer, it was all character and no plot. With my initial crime novels, the balance tilted the other way around. As I’ve turned to writing tech thrillers, I have consciously merged character and plot. Transhumanity & Crypto are both borne out of talks with my partner. And even my career change to a content lead / UX writer for a tech company stemmed from my partner’s words. She’s an amazing person and her love is a true inspiration.
Read more about Cal Smyth here.
Discover Cal’s books on his Amazon page.