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Author infuses 'The Ruins' with social commentary

| Sunday, July 23, 2006

If Scott Smith is to be believed, the odds of his second novel, "The Ruins," being successful were not good. The book started as a trial run after a period when he had concentrated on screenwriting, and was a difficult finish.

"It went in stops and starts," he says. "I would give up on it, thinking it wouldn't work."

A previous effort at writing a novel after his successful debut, "A Simple Plan," which sold 1.8 million copies and was made into the movie starring Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda and Bill Paxton stalled -- after 1,000 pages. And when "The Ruins" finally started to come together, Smith had to put the project aside because of a commitment to write a screenplay for a remake of the movie "El Cid."

"When I wrote 'A Simple Plan' I had a 30-page single-spaced outline, plotting everything out," he says. "Things changed, but I had the scaffolding. With 'The Ruins' I really just started writing. I had a general sense of the story. I knew how I wanted it to end, but all the steps to get there ... I just wrote it. I didn't plan it, and, obviously, that had major repercussions that carried through the story."

Perhaps the oddest thing about "The Ruins" is that it doesn't read like "a strange book to write," as Smith calls it. Instead, it's a compelling thriller that may cause sleep deprivation and is, superficially, the perfect summertime beach read. Between the lines of "The Ruins," however, is a dark, sometimes scathing, social commentary. A quartet of young Americans, just graduated from college, are on a lengthy vacation in Mexico before they start their careers. They meet other partying 20-somethings, including a trio of Greeks who use Mexican aliases and a young German, Mathias, whose brother has disappeared but has left a rudimentary map of an archaeological dig.

Of course, they decide to join Mathias in search of his brother. And of course, what they expect to be a daylong lark to visit Mayan ruins turns into a harrowing catastrophe when they become captives on a strange hill with a bizarre ecosystem. Instead of pulling together, they work against each other, exhibiting self-interest when only selflessness will suffice.

Smith, however, insists that any subtext is the residue of the story itself.

"I had a lot of people ask with 'A Simple Plan' if had an agenda," he says. "But I was really just telling a story. It might come implicitly through what I was telling, but it's unconscious. ... Even if I had a conscious commentary, I wouldn't know how to do it."

Storytelling is another matter. As a child, Smith read his father's "castoffs," the novels of Clive Cussler and Jack Higgins. Later, he would become obsessed with the work of John Steinbeck -- "perhaps that's where the backdoor social commentary comes from," he says -- and is an admirer of Barry Unsworth, the author of novels including "Sacred Hunger" and "After Hannibal."

By setting alone, "The Ruins" seems like the product of extensive research. Smith, however, did not set foot in the region of Mexico where the book is set, only reading a few travel books and doing some Internet research. His goal was not to render an accurate travelogue, but to create a story that worked for the reader.

"Growing up, I also read Ray Bradbury and Stephen King," he says. "I just had a sense of how to create these places that aren't real world places, but just with this provisional attachment to the real world. It is very much of your imagination, and I felt very much I could do that."

Noting that he's very conscious of "what I let out of the house," Smith allows that he felt a bit distanced from the horrific aspects of "The Ruins." This is not a book that kept him up at nights because of its content. Nor was he attempting to do anything other than to spin a good yarn, despite the repeated foreshadowing that adds to the book's tension.

"I think it's instinctive," he says of the foreshadowing. "I really like the storytelling; that's what draws me to writing, and as a reader, too. I'm drawn to those moments where you're not certain. You know something is wrong, but you don't know what, that anxious feeling I enjoy as a writer and a reader."

Capsule Review

Scott Smith's "The Ruins" has a strange duality in that it directly pays homage to Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone," and indirectly to "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen. The story of four young Americans caught in a deadly situation on a trip to Mayan ruins in Mexico, it builds a tension that Serling excelled at, created from knowing that a situation is spinning out of control in ways beyond the characters' comprehension.

The connection to "The Corrections" is somewhat more tenuous, and lies in how Smith frames his characters. While Franzen took dead aim and measured the American family, Smith's target is a group of recent college graduates. Both portrayals seem to be spot on, and only one engenders the reader's sympathy. And it's not in "The Ruins," a superb work nevertheless.

Additional Information:

'The Ruins'

Author: Scott Smith

Publisher: Knopf, $24.95, 319 pages

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