Boston College Chronicle editor and debut novelist Sean Smith has written for a living for the better part of four decades, but his work has seldom involved the kind of touching, and sometimes agonizing, interpersonal insights found in his recently published first work of fiction, the award-winning novel Transformation Summer.
Released in early June, Transformation Summer focuses on 16-year-old Seth, who reluctantly and rather bitterly joins his mother at a personal-growth camp, Toward Transformation, the summer following his parents’ separation—a split that has mystified and angered him. Much to his unexpected but pleasant surprise, Seth finds not only camaraderie among the other kids who have accompanied their parents to the camp, but acceptance, romance, and self-discovery. However, it’s the everlasting impact of this brief but life-changing sojourn that Seth grapples with immediately upon his return home, and even as he grows into adulthood.
Smith’s publisher, Atmosphere Press, characterized Transformation Summer as “not just a coming-of-age novel, but an exploration of how we experience memories of youth—from the perspective of accumulated years and wisdom, or as if we were still that same young person trying to make sense of the world.”
Smith will hold a reading and discussion of Transformation Summer on July 9 from 4-5 p.m. at the Scandinavian Living Center’s Nordic Hall, 206 Waltham Street in West Newton, Mass. The event is free and open to the public, and copies of the book will be available for sale.
Probably the most famous bit of writing advice, usually attributed to Mark Twain, is to "write what you know.” And Smith—whose inspiration for the novel struck while driving along the Massachusetts Turnpike one winter morning in 2017—acknowledges that it’s understandable if a reader might wonder how much of Transformation Summer is autobiographical.
“Sure, Seth and I have a few things in common, but I was very conscious about putting too much of me in him,” said Smith, who decided early on that the story should be in the form of a memoir, a critical choice that led him to create Seth as the protagonist. “I think he’s probably more headstrong than I ever was. I didn’t want him to be passive or overly accepting as he tries to figure out Transformation, so he really has his eyes and ears open and questions what he sees and hears. I think I would’ve just played Frisbee and looked around for jam sessions.”
A native of New York’s Hudson Valley whose late parents were college professors, Smith noted that the concept of intentional communities—such as cooperative housing, collective households, and communes—played a pivotal role in conceiving Toward Transformation. He “stretched the definition” to include those instances where people gather at some regular intervals out of common beliefs, interests, or purpose.
“I remembered my experiences at the weekend youth programs run by the local Quaker meeting I attended in my teens,” said Smith. “I’d see a lot of the same people, and over time we’d develop our own shared set of activities, customs, and expectations around the formal, structured portions of those programs; to my mind, we really had our own intentional community.
“I’m sure many of us have had these kinds of experiences in our lives—a camp, retreat, a music festival—where we enter a setting that is its own ecosystem. And it can be challenging when we have to go back to the ‘real world’: Can we incorporate what we value about that special community, that experience, into our everyday lives?”
Smith’s writing proceeded at a steady, unhurried pace (“I didn’t give myself a deadline; it was a case of, ‘Well, I’ve gotten this far, might as well keep going’”) and he completed a first draft in late summer 2018. He turned to friends for comments and suggestions, began fine-turning the manuscript, and then started looking for publishers, receiving rejections or no replies.
But real life intervened in a very personal, seismic way for Smith when his mother died in July 2021, and his wife, Shawn Stamm, succumbed about three months later after battling cancer for three years.
“Shawn was diagnosed around when I finished the first draft, but things seemed to stabilize after a few months, to the point where I could spend time revising the book and sending it out,” he recalled. “As her health, and my mother’s, began to worsen, though, everything else in my life receded into the background and stayed there for a long time.”
During the summer of 2022, Smith resumed submitting the manuscript to publishers, though not with a great deal of hope given the COVID pandemic’s impact on the industry. But in August, five days before the event he’d organized to celebrate Shawn’s life, a representative from Atmosphere Press contacted Smith to express interest in publishing the novel.
There followed a period of several months to refine and tweak the manuscript, as well as other tasks to get the book ready for publication. Smith found it a positive experience.
“My editor really liked the novel, but he promised that with some changes, we could make a good book into a great book.” This involved a reconsideration of the book’s ending, said Smith: “He felt that it was lacking something, so, I took another approach and had Seth confront, in very stark terms, the impact of investing so much in the memory of that summer.
“And one of the major themes that emerges is whether a memory can become an end in itself, even more important than the people, places, or events it’s associated with. And does the memory, even as it enriches us, maybe prevent us from moving forward?”
So how did a lifelong editor and writer—used to working in the inverted-pyramid structure, style guidelines, and other conventions of journalism—handle the relative anarchy of fiction writing?
“It was freeing,” said Smith, who began his journalism career writing for weekly newspapers. “You’re allowed to create your own universe, and you’re liberated from structural barriers, but it still needs to make sense; it must be purposeful. I had not thought about writing in terms of chapters, but it became immediately clear to me that they can be effective tools to create suspense, or anticipation, in a way that is totally divorced from news writing.”
Transformation Summer has drawn positive reviews, as well as a Gold Book Award from Literary Titan—an organization comprised of professional editors, writers, and professors—which lauded “the meticulous development of unique characters or subjects presented in an authentically engaging context.”
Which begs the obvious question: Is there another book in the pipeline?
“I actually have two unfinished novels, one of which I started well before Transformation Summer,” said Smith, a part-time contributor to the BostonIrish.com website and quarterly magazine. “That one’s about a guy fresh out of college who’s a reporter at a weekly newspaper in early/mid-1980s Massachusetts, which by an amazing coincidence, happens to resemble certain aspects of my life. I feel I’m a little more than halfway there; part of the problem is how happy I want the ending to be.
“The other novel-in-progress is a love story set in the early 1980s Boston, and though I have the ending pretty well figured out, I have to decide how I’m going to get there. Then there’s this short story I wrote and later expanded into a novel; it has a few elements similar to Transformation Summer, so I think I want to go back in and make some changes.”
But lest anyone wonder, added Smith, “No, I’m certainly not going to give up my day job.”
For more information, visit Smith's website.