Monday, September 17, 2018

A Sneak Peek into Harvard's Secret Societies

Allegedly based on facts, The Ancient Nine by Ian K. Smith (St. Martin’s Press, September 18, 2018) is actually a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age revelation of the ties that bind: love, friendship, family, social connections, and money.

As both an author of Lovecraftian-Mythos tales and a retired librarian, I was already familiar with Harvard’s Widener Library, the third largest library in the nation and, next to the fictional Miskatonic University Library’s restricted rare book room, one of the few repositories of the legendary Necronomicon. Imagine my pleasant surprise to discover the important roles rare books, grimoires, and libraries play in this intriguing new mystery novel set in and around hallowed Harvard Yard.

Spenser Quentin Collins, a financially-underprivileged African-American pre-med sophomore from the south side of Chicago, receives an unexpected engraved invitation to attend a cocktail party at the Delphic Club. One of the elite final clubs that serve Harvard students and alum in place of fraternities, the Delphic annually “punches” male sophomores as part of a highly secretive selection process of potential new members (not unlike fraternity rush week at state universities). Only those who prove worthy after three rounds of punch events are invited into the Delphic. Spenser, without family fortune or important social connections, can’t understand why he was punched by the Delphic. Is this a sick joke?

Since Spenser knows nothing about the final clubs, he begins to research the Delphic, first by asking other students, then by reading books and newspapers in Harvard’s many libraries. He discovers that a secret society called “The Ancient Nine” exists to protect the Delphic. He suspects the Ancient Nine may have deliberately and systematically covered up a student’s murder in the Delphic Mansion nearly a century ago. Why? Although he’s repeatedly warned to go with the flow and let sleeping dogs lie, he and a friend, Dalton Winthrop, continue to investigate the mysterious disappearance and the possible involvement of “The Ancient Nine.”

Spencer is followed, threatened, and fears for his own safety and the safety of his friends. Will the conspiracy of wealthy Harvard alums stop at nothing to keep their secrets?

Rich with descriptions of people, places, and things, The Ancient Nine offers history lessons to those interested in learning. All history is fiction. Even photographs reveal only the limited point of view of the photographer or the camera itself. Personally, I prefer to get my history lessons from novels. Don’t you?

Although The Ancient Nine is based on real places and events, it’s first and foremost a fast-paced thriller. It has characters you can care about, a mystery worth solving, and it’s not the author’s first novel. The Blackbird Papers, Smith’s previous excursion into fiction, is a well-written police procedural. His second novel is an even better read. Highly recommended.

Q & A with Dr. Ian K. Smith regarding THE ANCIENT NINE
  1. To begin with your beginnings, how did you get into writing?
A: I have always wanted to write stories since I was in college
and read John Grisham’s The Firm, long before it became the international
sensation.  I enjoyed how that book made me feel, heart racing, unable to
focus on anything else but the book, literally reading pages while stopped at
traffic lights.  I wanted to be able to create the same kind of story that
had a similar effect on someone else. I like stories. I like creating. I have
loved books my entire life.  I decided that while my principle area of
academic study would be biology and eventually medicine, that I would always
keep an open mind and ambition to write and publish.  That writing itch I
had harbored for so many years just never went away and I refused to ignore it.
Despite what many of my colleagues thought while I was in medical school, I
believed both medicine and creative writing could be pursued passionately in
  1. You’ve written many bestselling books about health and nutrition. What made you decide to pivot and write a thriller now?
A: Thrillers and crime fiction have always been at the top of my
list for entertainment.  I like to write what engages me, so I decided to
sit down and create a story in the fashion that I like to read them.  I
love suspense and plots lines that are fast-moving and constantly make you
think. I like the feeling of not wanting to put a book down and getting excited
for the next time I have a break in my schedule to pick up that book again to
read the next chapter.  I wrote my first novel, THE BLACKBIRD PAPERS back in 2004, a thriller based on the campus of Dartmouth College where I finished my first two years of medical school.
I had such great feedback from readers across the country. I would be on
tour for one of my health and wellness books and invariably, someone would come
up to me in the airport or a bookstore and ask me when I was going to write
another thriller, because they enjoyed THE BLACKBIRD PAPERS so much and
wanted more.  Every time this happened, my heart would jump, and I would
profusely thank the person for reminding me of my other passion and my need to
go back to it and create more stories to share.  I’ve been wanting to
publish another thriller for a long time, and this was the perfect time in my
career to do so. Fans of my fiction had waited long enough.
  1. This is a novel you “waited years to write.” What is it about this story that was
    just begging to be told?
A: This story has everything that I love to read.  There’s
mystery, murder, suspense, history, and a love story.  I’ve been writing
this book for more than 25 years. I started when I was a senior at Harvard.
While I was a very young and unpolished writer back then, I knew that it
was a story that was so compelling that it needed to be told, and I knew that
one day I’d be able to finish the story and publish it.  This is a
fish-out-of-water story with a coming-of-age feel that I think will appeal to
people across the spectrum. Everyone likes a story about an underdog, and THE ANCIENT NINE captures that feel and spirit.  I learned during my research
that no one had ever written extensively about the Harvard final clubs.
There were remote mentions in magazine and newspaper articles, but never
anything that really penetrated this rarefied world of power and privilege.  I
just felt like this was a story begging to be told.
  1. What was your personal experience with “secret societies” like?  How did you
    decide what details to include as elements of the story in The Ancient Nine?
A: I was everything you would expect a prospective member WOULD
NOT be.  I was the wrong color, no pedigree, blue-collar family, and
completely unaware of the elite circles in which these members traveled and
inhabited.  When I started to understand the lineage of the members and
graduate members, I couldn’t understand why they would invite me to join. I
have always been sociable, easy-to-like kind of guy, but I didn’t fit the image
of a member nor did I have the money or access to privilege that the majority
of members had.  I wanted to include the elements as I experienced them. I
wanted readers to see this world like I did for the first time, unsuspecting,
unexpecting, and undaunted. I met many great guys when I was a member and remain
friends with many of them to this day. Being a member was like a dual existence
on campus. I was a regular student like everyone else most of the time, then I
was a member of this final club that was a world of its own, including a staff
that served us in our mansion and dinners with wealthy, powerful alums who were
leaders of their fields throughout the country.  I sat down to tables to
eat and share jokes with amazing men who were extremely successful and
influential, and at the same time fun to talk to and share experiences. Being a
member taught me a lot about life and discrepancies and how pivotal networking
can be as one tries to advance in life.
  1. The Delphic Club is a very important part of the story, just like the mysteries
    around it. How did you come up with the mystery? Did you know how it would be solved from the beginning or did you come up with it as you wrote?
A: When I first started writing THE ANCIENT NINE, I wasn’t completely sure how it would end.  I had a good idea of some of the plot twists and most of the narrative, but I had not worked out the entire mystery.  As I was researching the history of the
clubs—something that was very difficult to do since there has been very little
written about them through the years—I discovered some amazing occurrences and
legends not just about the clubs, but of Harvard itself.  These
discoveries were like a small, unknotted thread that once I started pulling,
the story unraveled before me and everything began falling into place. I spent
a lot of time in libraries, in the stacks of Widener Library at Harvard and
Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, digging into the historical
connections.  It’s amazing how you can reach a point where a story can
actually write itself, and you just become the vessel through which it’s told,
trying your best to stay out of its way while you transcribe it as best as you
can without losing its feel and meaning.
  1. Have you received any negative feedback as a result of writing about your real-life experiences in these secretive organizations?
A: I don’t know what the feedback will be until more people have had a chance to read it.  I have had some of my clubmates read it and others who are familiar with the clubs and they gave me really positive feedback.  They found the book to be engaging and informative. They felt like I captured the essence of an experience that can only be felt by someone like myself who was foreign to this world.  This book is not an expose or
hit piece on the final clubs. This is a book that is based on real events,
secrets that have been tightly guarded for hundreds of years. As the clubs are
in serious and overdue conversations about opening their doors to a broader
membership, some of this information will enter the public forum much easier
and more fluidly than it has in the past.  I would think that many current
and graduate members of the clubs will find this entertaining, especially since
they know very well the lay of the land on which the story is built.
  1. How much does the main character in The Ancient Nine have in common with
    Ian Smith? How much of the story is autobiographical?
A: Spenser is based on me.  His emotions, worries, thoughts,
and experiences are based on mine.  There are some creative changes I made
such as where he was from and some of the family dynamics, but a lot of who he
is and what he thinks is autobiographical.  I’ve held on to this story for
a long time as I wrestled with the best way to tell it and when it should be
told. I was a tough, fearless kid who wanted to excel at everything and wanted
to make my single mother and family proud.  For those times, I was not the
typical Harvard student—no trust fund or Ivy connection or renowned academic
family pedigree—but I had what was most important for a student from any walk
of life, the confidence that I could make it on Harvard’s storied campus.
I was unafraid to try new things, mix it up, and learn as much as I could.
I played sports intensely all my life, and I think that taught me a lot about
the world, our many differences, the rigors and benefits of competition, and
the importance of resiliency. I’ve never been one to be intimated by the chasm
between what I have and what others have.  Spenser sees and feels the
world in exactly the same way as he remains proud of his humble beginnings and
constantly works to do what is right.
8.  In this novel you introduce a highly varied cast of characters, ranging from
comical to mysterious, sporty to academic. Who was your favorite character to
write? Which one would you most likely want to grab a beer with?

A: This isn’t an easy question as it’s like asking you to
pick a favorite child.  There are different things an author loves about
the characters he or she creates, and there are different reasons why the
characters appeal to the author.  I will say, however, that it tends to be
fun to write about characters who are very different from who you are, because
it allows you to explore and imagine in a space that is not completely
familiar.  Writing Ashley Garrett was a lot of fun. I liked and admired
her at lot. She’s from the other side of the tracks, brilliant, tough, witty,
romantic, and unimpressed. If I had a daughter, I’d want her to be like Ashley.
Dalton Winthrop was also a lot of fun to write, because he was
rich—something that I was definitely not—and rebellious and so determined to
cut his own way in life despite the overbearing expectations and interventions of
his imperious father.  I don’t drink alcohol, but several of the real
people who the characters are based on I actually did sit down with over the
poker table and a box of pizza. I think it would be great fun to sit down to
dinner with the obscenely wealthy but uproariously gregarious graduate member
Weld Bickerstaff class of ’53 who lived in New York City.  You just wind
him up and let him go.
  1. The Ancient Nine delves deep into the history and underbelly of Harvard. What was your process for researching this story?
A: I spent many months researching Harvard’s history and some
of the less known facts about John Harvard’s book collection he donated to the
college and the infamous 1764 fire that destroyed almost all of it.  Over
the years of writing this book I would find new pieces of information and the
web of history and mystery would grow even larger. Little is publicly known or
discussed about these clubs, and lots of secrets and knowledge have gone to the
grave with many of the graduate members.  Harvard has one of the most
expansive library systems in the world, and I spent countless hours in many of
the libraries mentioned in the book, digging up old newspapers and magazines
and examining rare books. It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun at the same
time to connect the dots and delve into the layers of such an important
university and the secret societies that have long been a perpetual irritant to
the school’s administration.
  1. During your research, did you find out anything surprising that didn’t make it into the book?
A: I gathered piles of research and discoveries while working
on this book, but alas, an author must decide what to include and what to
discard.  Those decisions were gut-wrenching at times, but for the sake of
the reader not having to sit down to a 600-page tome, the cuts had to be done.
One thing that surprised me that didn’t make it into the book was how
conflicted many of the school’s former leadership really were with regards to
the clubs.  Many of them publicly spoke against the clubs and the need for
them to either be disbanded or opened to a more diverse membership, but
privately, these administrators and school trustees had been members of a club
themselves and as graduates, still supported them financially in ways that
their identities and participation wouldn’t be exposed.
  1. Readers will know you from your work in health and nutrition. In stepping away from that world, and into the world thriller writing, what surprised or challenged you the most?
A: It has always been fun and rewarding to write books in the
genre of health and nutrition.  I have enjoyed immensely helping and
empowering people. My books through the years have literally been life-changing
for millions of people.  I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to
produce that type of impactful work. Writing thrillers has been equally
gratifying as it has allowed me to be more imaginative and tap deeper into my
creative side.  I believe that a person can tap similarly and effectively
into the left (science, math) and right (creativity, arts) sides of the brain.
Contrary to what some have suggested, I don’t believe it’s one or the other.
One thing vastly different about writing thrillers is that the plots are
not linear, and therefore requires a vigilant attention to detail and great
effort to maintain continuity. There are all kinds of dead ends, interweaving
threads, surprises, disappointments, and moments of excitement that you must
work into the story, knowing that you need to entertain your reader and keep
them engaged for hundreds of pages.  Accomplishing this is no small feat,
but the work it takes to achieve it is worth every grinding second of it once
you do.
  1. What’s next for you? Will you continue to write thrillers and do you have an idea for your next novel?
A: I will definitely continue to write more thrillers.
I love reading this genre, and I love writing it. My creative mind has a
natural proclivity for this type of storytelling.  I’m currently working
on a different series of crime fiction/mystery books based on a character named
Ashe Cayne who’s an ex-Chicago police officer and now a private investigator.
I have learned a lot from my friends in CPD who have shown me the ropes
and explained procedure. Ashe is smart, sarcastic, handsome, tenacious, morally
compelled to right wrongs, broken-hearted, and a golf addict trying to bring
his scoring handicap into the single digits.  I LOVE this character and
Chicago as the setting. The expansive, energetic, segregated, volatile,
notoriously corrupt Chicago becomes an important secondary character in the
book. Ashe Cayne takes on only select cases, and people of all walks of life
from all over the city come to him to get answers.  The first book in the
series is called FLIGHT OF THE BUTTERFLY, and it’s about the
daughter of one of the city’s richest men who mysteriously goes missing on the
night she’s supposed to sleep over her best friend’s house.  Her
aristocratic mother hires Ashe Cayne to find her missing daughter. But it’s a
lot more complicated than a missing person case. I expect to publish this book
in the fall of 2019.
Follow Dr. Ian on Instagram: @doctoriansmith
Twitter: @DrIanSmith
Facebook Page: The Ancient Nine

Monday, September 10, 2018

A brilliant, timely, and important story by a masterful storyteller

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine Books, October 2, 2018) is an amazing read. Not only does it reveal both sides of the abortion debate from the personal viewpoints of each of the main characters, it does so in an immediate life-and-death kind of way. Then the storyline begins to work backwards, hour by hour, to examine the choices that brought each of Picoult’s characters to this critical crossroads on the same day.

If only we were able to turn back the hands of time to choose over—to make vital decisions with the full knowledge of the consequences of our actions—would we make the same choices?

Do we ever really have a choice? Or do human beings only act out of necessity?

A Spark of Light tackles some heavy philosophical questions: When does viable life begin? Is it with the spark when sperm and egg meet? Is it at full-term birth? What are the responsibilities of parents? Of children? Of men to women? Of women to men? Of society to all children, whether born or unborn?

Of man to God? Of God to men and women? Of fathers to their offspring? Of women to their children? Of women to themselves?

A brilliant, timely, and important story by a masterful storyteller. Very highly recommended.