Ten Questions for Evan Dalton Smith

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Evan Dalton Smith, whose debut book, Looking for Andy Griffith: A Father’s Journey, is out today from the University of North Carolina Press. In this blend of memoir and biography, Smith digs into the life of the eponymous actor, whose death in 2012 spurred him to understand his strong feelings about the man. Not only was he the star of The Andy Griffith Show, a television program that was culturally significant throughout Smith’s childhood, but Griffith was also born and raised just an hour north of where Smith grew up in North Carolina. Griffith’s story unfurls alongside and intertwines with Smith’s own personal history, including the early death of his own father that led him to idolize Griffith, whose role as the character Sheriff Andy Taylor, a widower, often focused on his relationship with his only son. In heartfelt prose, Looking for Andy Griffith offers a searching meditation on the South, our attachment to pop-culture figures, masculinity, fatherhood, and powering through life’s setbacks and challenges. Kirkus calls Looking for Andy Griffith “a poignantly candid memoir.” Evan Dalton Smith’s writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review, the New Yorker, Slate, and elsewhere. He has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, Millay Arts, and MacDowell.  

Evan Dalton Smith, author of Looking for Andy Griffith: A Father’s Journey.   (Credit: RJD)

1. How long did it take you to write Looking for Andy Griffith?  
That’s a complicated question. I’m fifty-five years old and this is my first book, yet I published my first writing in the early 1990s. Looking for Andy Griffith is a memoir and also a biography of the actor Andy Griffith, who died in July of 2012. I began the writing just after Andy died, realizing I was grieving for this man I never met because he was a surrogate father figure to me, and I wanted to investigate why. It turns out many felt the same as I did. Then through research I discovered all this cultural machinery behind Andy’s career and around The Andy Griffith Show that fascinated me. I published an essay about Andy Griffith in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2013. The essay took about seven months to write; I remember after it was published I wrote on social media that I’d been working on it all my life. Then—while I was writing a book proposal built from that essay, determined to at last publish my first book in my mid-forties—my marriage abruptly ended. Somehow in that desperate chaos the book sold maybe six months later, in 2014. I discuss a lot of the upheaval that delayed writing the book in the book itself. So part of the narrative is about failure, my inability to write the book. I turned in the first draft in 2021. The book’s pub date is May 28, 2024. Today! Let’s call it ten years. And I never once grew weary of the subject!

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Challenges were legion but, as some asshole said, “Every challenge is an opportunity.” The largest challenge, initially, was economic, which I detail in the book. And battling my own ego, as I couldn’t afford to travel as much for research as I envisioned. But this caused deeper dives into archival research, and I made some fun discoveries. The other big challenge was ultimately deciding to write the book I wanted to write rather than the one I imagined was expected, letting my own willfulness win out.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
When I was young I often wrote new material just before sleep and would revisit it the next day. But for most of the years I was writing Looking for Andy Griffith, I was a divorced parent of two kids and working multiple low-paying jobs, with little spare free time and barely scraping by. So I was often living in survival mode; that level of stress can disrupt the ability to form new ideas. I worked in fits and starts: on my lunch break at my grocery-store job, sitting in my car in a strip-mall parking lot, or dictating to my phone on my daily commute—sometimes with hilarious results, which I detail in the book. I try to complete a rough chapter draft before making any edits. Sometimes I write on legal pads, sometimes on my phone. Whatever is working in the moment. Right now I’m writing this sentence using the Notes app on my phone. My son encouraged me to switch to Google Docs, which is helpful for early chapter drafts. Nothing works entirely well, yet everything works at one time or another.

4. What are you reading right now?  
Rebecca Donner generously blurbed Looking for Andy Griffith. I asked for a blurb because I loved her award-winning book of creative nonfiction, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, as did everyone else (it’s the greatest title of all time); her book possesses a bold and masterful narrative that is dizzying in scope and execution. So after my head stopped spinning I picked up her first novel, Sunset Terrace, which I missed when it came out in 2003, and it has finely-wrought storytelling. It should be reissued so more people have access to it.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general? 
Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was an inspiration. It’s about navigating his relationship with an absent father, which is also part of my story. Nick’s prose has the lyricism of an accomplished poet. I also write poems, so I love it when a great poet writes wonderful prose. I have a huge affection for people who cross genres. Also Anne Carson’s poetry. All of it. I love the willfulness and artistry of her work. Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence, which is about his inability to write a book about D.H. Lawrence and has great humor and pathos in it. In my book I mention reading Dyer’s book at the darkest time of my life, which coincided with beginning work on Looking for Andy Griffith.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Looking for Andy Griffith?
I worried I’d grow tired of the subject and of watching The Andy Griffith Show, which I’ve loved all my life, but it looks now as if that will never happen.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My agent was generous and forward thinking, and when we first met she said something like, “This is a weird little book, but you can gradually make a career out of writing several weird little books.” (Although my next book is a big weird book.) My editor was very patient and encouraging and made great suggestions. I recall he flagged a chapter he liked and asked for “more chapters like this.”

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Looking for Andy Griffith, what would you say? 
That is a loaded question. I talk about my frustrations and failures in the book, that I hoped I would finish the writing about a year after it sold and launch a career—after my life in Manhattan had unraveled and I was unmoored and isolated in New England. I wanted to write books with titles like “A Global History of North Carolina Barbecue” or “The Hotel Lobby Bars of New York,” which I’d still love to do. But then I found myself working four jobs, including one at a grocery store, during the pandemic. Had that not happened, though, how I approached the material in Looking for Andy Griffith wouldn’t have happened. It gave me a template and the confidence to tackle the subject of my mother’s addiction to a prescription narcotic, which I discuss a little in Looking for Andy Griffith. Mom’s addiction began in the early 1970s, when I was a small child, and lasted until after I was in college. The particular drug has a compelling world-historic origin story, and there was a failed battle to ban it, which set in motion things that are still playing out in the culture. I’m enormously excited by the subject and research for this new project [about that subject]. And my family is on board. I am finishing the proposal now. Even greater, I’ve fallen in love and have a life partner now as a direct result of my book’s late publication date. And I wouldn’t trade my life now for anything. So everything seems to have worked out exactly as it was supposed to. If I could speak to myself ten years ago, I’d say, “Have faith, and stop punishing yourself.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Lots of research, some detective work, a ton of driving, interviews, and phone calls—most of which I enjoyed. I like people and enjoy hearing their stories, and I spoke to many more people than those who made it into the book. I cut maybe twenty thousand words.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?  
The best advice I intimately understand, and that I wish someone had conveyed to me when I was young, is from a picture book I read to my kids called You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! It’s about the legendary baseball pitcher and details how Sandy was wild when he was a rookie because he was trying to strike everyone out and not let anyone hit the ball. His career may have ended then, but he learned to relax, let his teammates do their jobs and field the hits; then he threw more strikes, which resulted in more strikeouts, more wins. It just means to relax and do the work; there are teams of people to help you. Writing is solitary, but you are not alone. I’m very grateful to the entire team at UNC Press: Lucas, Thomas, Sonya, Mary, Lindsay, Ann—just to name a few. Thank you!