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Author Martin Smith gets to the heart of fascinating people

| Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Author Martin Smith
Author Martin Smith
“Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee: And Other Tales of the People, Places, and Peculiarities of the Modern American Southwest”
by Martin Smith
“Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee: And Other Tales of the People, Places, and Peculiarities of the Modern American Southwest” by Martin Smith

When Martin Smith moved to Southern California from Pittsburgh in 1985, there were more than a few differences. But one thing the Upper St. Clair native especially noticed was a risk-taking mentality in many of the people he met.

“To me, coming from Pittsburgh, that was palpable the moment I arrived,” says Smith, the author of “Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee: And Other Tales of the People, Places, and Peculiarities of the Modern American Southwest” (Globe Pequot/Twodot). “There's a metaphor I use in the introduction of the book … Somebody at some point picked up the United States by the East Coast and shook it, and everything that was unstable or not nailed down or free floating kind of ended up in the Southwest. To me they are people who are willing to let go and see what happens. … It was as real as the smog when I arrived.”

The essays in “Mr. Las Vegas …” are culled from stories Smith wrote as a journalist with the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, and Orange Coast magazine. The title story is about Smith's attempt to interview Wayne Newton about “the neon-lit core of America's naked id.” Newton, however, was elusive, even though the story was pitched to Smith via the entertainer's publicists. Smith had to settle for a short phone interview.

Other stories — with one exception — are about dreamers and innovators flying under the radar of the public. “Extinction Along Interstate 10” is about Claude Bell, who built two giant dinosaurs (notably featured in the movie “Pee-wee's Big Adventure”) near Palm Springs. “The Downside of Perfection” tracks the story of Tom Amberry, who set a world record by making 2,750 free throws without missing at the age of 71. Adolf Schoepe, a World War II refugee and founder of the toilet manufacturer Fluidmaster, is featured in “The Toilet-Valve Titan.”

Smith generally used one rule when he listened to story pitches as an editor and writer.

“My standard response was ‘Oh, I'm sorry, we don't do stories about people who have publicists,' ” says Smith, who also worked at the Pittsburgh Press and currently lives in Colorado. “That served me well all those years. Those are people who have manufactured stories and are trying to sell something. I'm more interested in real people who have real stories and really don't care if the public knows about them or not.”

There were exceptions. No journalist would turn down an opportunity to interview astronaut Buzz Aldrin right before the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing (“Buzz Aldrin's Traveling Tube of Glue”). Nor could Smith miss the chance to interview one of his childhood idols, Muhammad Ali, for the story “Talking Tinseltown with 'The Greatest' ” in 1998.

Smith says that those interviews, especially his encounter with Ali, were more about the men than perceptions of their celebrity.

“Ali was a guy looking back over a life who, by being himself, had been rediscovered by the powers that be, in this case the advertising community,” Smith says. “He was kind of amused by that. He wasn't trying to sell himself (to Smith). He was selling himself to advertisers, but in terms of just sitting with him and hearing his stories, he was just amazed this was all happening at a point in his life where he had pretty much accepted all that was over. That seemed to me to be a very real and human moment in life.”

Smith also spent time with Dick Dale, the famed surf guitarist who was rediscovered by a new generation of fans when his song “Misirlou” was included in the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack in 1994. Smith did not meet Dale at the apex of his career, but a few days before the guitarist was scheduled to be evicted from his dream home at the tip of the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach in 1986.

“I'm always looking for people who are standing at a crossroad,” Smith says. “Something has happened, whether good or bad, and now they have to make a choice and they have to deal with the consequences of the choice. I love to catch people in moments like that, because that's when their character is revealed.”

Details: martinjsmith.com

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Events

Dec. 3 – Boozy Brunch Book Fair, food and drink authors, moderated by Beth Kracklauer of the Wall Street Journal and Anne Trubek of Belt Magazine, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Threadbare Cider House & Meadery, Spring Garden. $12. 412-322-5100, threadbarecider.com

Dec. 3 — Pittsburgh's Fifth Annual Book Sale, indie book sellers and small presses, Noon-5 p.m., Stephen Foster Community Center, Lawrenceville. facebook.com/events/1505787326135887

Dec. 3 — Joe Wos book signing, “A-Maze-Ing Mazes: 50 Mazes for Kids,” 2 p.m., Riverstone Books, McCandless. facebook.com/events/1505787326135887

Dec. 3 — Katherine Paterson, children's author, Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Words & Pictures series, 2:30 p.m., Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, Oakland. $11. 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org

Dec. 4 — Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evenings series, 7:30 p.m., Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. $35-$15. 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org

Dec. 6 — Carrie DeRisio, “Brooding YA Hero: Becoming a Character (Almost) As Awesome As Me,” 7 p.m., Dormont Public Library. 412-531-8754, dormontlibrary.org

Dec. 6 — Jeremy Dauber, “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History,” Rodef Shalom Congregation, Shadyside. Registration requested. 412-621-6566, rodefshalom.org

Dec. 7 — Stephen Coleman, “Discovering Gettysburg,” 7 p.m., Upper St. Clair Public Library, 412-835-5540, twpusc.org/library/library-home

Dec. 8 — Chris Fennimore and Daniel Aguera, “Simple Pleasures: Recipes and Memories of Real Food,” 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, Waterfront, Homestead. 412-462-5743, stores.barnesandnoble.com/store/2076/

Dec. 13 — Books in the ‘Burgh: Eric Lidji, “Into the Seventeenth Generation,” 7 p.m., Senator John J. Heinz History Center, Strip District. 412-454-6373, heinzhistorycenter.org

Dec. 16 — Chris Fennimore and Daniel Aguera, “Simple Pleasures: Recipes and Memories of Real Food,” 11 a.m., Merante's Gifts, Bloomfield, 412-682-3370, merante-gifts.com

Book recommendations

“Spy of the First Person” by Sam Shepard (Knopf, $18)

The last novel by the late playwright, actor and writer is sadly prescient. A man looks back on his life as he undergoes treatment for an ailment that makes him more dependent on others.

“Record of a Night Too Brief,” by Hiromi Kawakami, (Pushkin, $13.95)

Three novellas combining life in modern Japan with elements of folklore and myth, featuring women in transition. By the author of “The Nakano Thrift Shop.”

“No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters,” by Ursula K. Leguin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22)

Essays and ruminations on aging, writing and philosophy by the esteemed science fiction writer.

“Elmet” by Fiona Mozley, (Algonquin, $15.95)

A debut novel that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mozley constructs an elaborate tale about a two children and their father, a bare-knuckle boxer, living off the grid in present-day England. Mozley, who works as a bookseller, occasionally sells the novel to readers who don't realize it's her book.

“The Wanted” by Robert Crais, (Putnam, $28)

Crais' Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are two of the more intriguing characters in the mystery/thriller/crime fiction genre. “The Wanted” features the offbeat private detective (Cole) and his sidekick (Pike), a no-nonsense former cop, Marine and mercenary, helping a single mother trying who fears her son may be a drug dealer.

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