TL. Hello Noble Smith, almost a year ago in October your book The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life was released and now we will see the release of a paperback version also at the end of October. That must be exciting news?
Noble. Hey Pieter! It’s great to be chatting with you. (I just wish we were in a nice little pub together drinking some dark brown beer. Or sitting in your beautiful library of Tolkien books!) I am very excited about the release of the paperback of my book. The French version just came out at the same time and this marks the eighth translation of my book to hit bookstores from Europe to South America.
TL. While we write each other now and then and love chatting on twitter, somehow we never managed to get to talk about your book. Guess I have been missing out on a great book. I hear so many nice reactions. Can you tell me what your book is all about?
Noble. The Wisdom of the Shire is all about using the hobbits as exemplars of good living, and coming up with practical ways to make our lives better based on the wisdom of the Shire-folk. Hobbits have all of these great character traits: they’re steadfast friends, they’re funny and friendly, they eat good food and drink, they take long walks and garden and have what Tolkien called “a close friendship with the earth.” They stand up for what they believe is right, and show great courage when they have to, but at their core they are lovers of peace. Who wouldn’t want to live like a Hobbit, right?
TL. I read that your book was inspired by Tao of Pooh, how does your book compare to that?
Noble. The Tao of Pooh came out in 1982, right around the same time that I was deep into my obsession of The Lord of the Rings. I got The Tao of Pooh as a Christmas present. And I instantly thought, “Somebody should write a book called The Tao of Hobbits.” Over 30 years later I started writing my book: The Wisdom of the Shire. The working title was The Habits of Hobbits, but the Tolkien estate told me that they would only give me their blessing if I removed the word “Hobbit” from the title! So of course I came up with a new one.
TL. When people talk about your book the word 'fun' is always used in one way or another. Is the book meant to be fun?
Noble. Oh, yes! Definitely. I think that life should be lived with good humor and fun. Hobbits are really fun people. They’re always making jokes, even in the most dire circumstances. Merry and Pippin are a couple of comedians. One of the things I do in my book is encourage people to make their own music—“Sing Like a Hobbit” is one of the chapters.
TL. I guess If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world!
Noble. Indeed it would. And one of the most amazing things about that quote (and something that a lot of people forget) is that it’s Thorin the Dwarf who utters that line. He’s on his deathbed, and he regrets the fact that he chased after this chimera of gold and success while neglecting what was really important, such as his friendship with Bilbo. He learned about the wisdom of the Shire . . . but a little too late.
TL. Having studied Tolkien and read his works from little hobbit to father of your own hobbits, why do you believe his works are so successful?
Noble. This might sound kind of strange, but I think it’s because Middle-earth and the vanished world of The Silmarillion were as real to Tolkien as our world is to us. Middle-earth stands apart from almost all other works of fantasy because of this verisimilitude. If readers were to be magically transported to Middle-earth, most of us would be able to find our way around simply because the descriptions of the landscape are so spectacularly detailed!
TL. How much time did it take for you to write the book and how did you go about picking the themes for the book?
Noble. Well, I had been writing this book in my head for almost my entire adult life, so it only took me about six month to put it down on paper. And the themes just came to me. One of my favorite chapters is called “The Party Tree” and it’s all about changing the way we celebrate our birthdays—giving gifts like hobbits instead of getting them. A chapter that readers really seem to respond to is “Your Own Personal Gollum.” It’s about how to deal with that Gollum-like person in your own life.
TL. If you look back at it now, especially with the economic crisis growing bigger, are there any other themes you wished you had put in?
Noble. Actually, I talk about the economic crisis in my book. I compare these big corporations and fraudulent investment banks and their evil deeds to Saruman taking over the Shire. Some readers were annoyed that I brought politics and finance into a couple of the chapters (especially “Dwarves, Dragons and the Sackville-Bagginses” which is all about greed). But I could not have written a book about hobbits without talking about standing up to authority. Tolkien’s chapter “The Scouring of the Shire” should be inspiration to anyone who feels like they’re being screwed by the powers that be. The hobbits are the ultimate “little guy” standing up for what they think is right. I’m not saying that Tolkien was purposefully infusing his books with hidden metaphors, but he despised industrial pollution (or “orcery” as he called it) and hated the notion of “whiskered men with bombs” running the world.
TL. Did you change anything or will this just be a release of the same book, but in paperback?
Noble. Several savvy readers (the Valar bless them!) found a few mistakes that I had made, and so I fixed all of that errata. And the paperback has that bonus chapter about kids. It’s also way cheaper than the hardcover!
TL. When it comes to translations being released, most of the time covers tend to change and authors get consulted rather late or after the fact. How did it all go in your case?
Noble. I didn’t have any influence on the covers. Most of them were either modeled on the US or UK covers, although the Polish version is completely original (and pretty bizarre) and the Hungarian one is absolutely the coolest.
TL. Kirkus Reviews praised your book as "A life-affirming, must-have morsel for tolkien's colossal fan base." Where do you place your book yourself?
Noble. I think it’s a pretty cool little book. I am very proud of it. Will it stand the test of time? Who knows. But it was written with love and respect for Tolkien, and infused with lessons that I’ve learned in my strange journey through life. If readers come away with one little morsel and apply that lesson to their lives (like making a hobbit garden or spending more time with their friends) then I feel it was a success.
TL. Reading the reviews and reactions to your book, do you feel like you succeeded in what you wanted to accomplish?
Noble. I think I did succeed. I wanted to show that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are filled with wisdom that is totally applicable to the world that we live in, and not just a fantasy world in our heads.
TL. We have now all seen the first The Hobbit movie and the second is almost here, how do you feel towards the movies?
Noble. I thought that An Unexpected Journey was brilliant. The first part in Hobbiton was beautiful. The Riddles in the Dark sequence was worth the price of admission. I didn’t enjoy the gratuitous action scenes that were shot simply to justify the 3D version. But movies can’t be perfect. They’re trying to appeal to such a broad spectrum. I am a little worried, however, about some of the liberties that I think they’ve taken with the story for The Desolation of Smaug (especially the creation of the Elf warrior woman Tauriel). But we shall see!
TL. As for Middle-earth inspired art, what is your favorite artist or even work?
Noble. I love Alan Lee. I think he’s a genius. But I’m very fond of the Brothers Hildebrandt. They were like Old Masters brought back to life. Just check out their image of Aragorn healing Éowyn in the Houses of Healing, or her facing down the Witch-king of Angmar on the Pelennor Fields. Or their rendition of Smaug or the Balrog. Spectacular!
TL. In the foreword Peter Beagle writes that he would buy copies of your book and share them with all his friends, any news about how that turned out?
Noble. I just talked to Peter! He’s coming to my little town in a couple of weeks to show a print of The Last Unicorn animated film. We are planning on a dinner feast with lots of good brown beer, and I’m sure there will be singing too (Peter has a beautiful voice).
TL. To finish the interview, knowing you are always working on a new project, what is it you are working on now?
Noble. I’m working on an action/adventure series set in ancient Greece. The first book, Sons of Zeus, came out in June from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. This trilogy is based on the true story of the democratic independent city-state of Plataea and how they faced down the tyrannical Spartans in the longest siege in the history of the world. It’s a tale of courage, love and sacrifice set during one of the most tumultuous periods in history: 5th century BC Greece. Tolkien wrote that he was introduced to the classics through Homer, but I was introduced to the classics through Tolkien. And so I went from being a fantasy lover to a lover of history. Someday if I’m brave enough I’ll return to my roots and attempt to write a fantasy story.
Thanks for doing this interview, Pieter. I look forward to tweeting with you more in the future, and someday I hope to meet you in person. Maybe you’ll let me hold a couple of your Tolkien first editions. I promise not to turn into Gollum and try to steal them!
About the author
Noble Smith is an award-winning playwright, video game writer and author of the fantasy novella Stolen from Gypsies. He is the former media director of an international human rights foundation where he served as executive producer of feature-length documentaries, including the highly praised 'Protagonist' and 'Neither Memory Nor Magic' 'featuring the voice of Viggo Mortensen'. Noble has been a Tolkien devotee since childhood, and lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and children.
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