The concept for SMOKE came to me during the 1970s war between the FBI and elements of the American mafia that (at the time) controlled the stevedoring industry on the US east coast. An employee of ours, who turned out to be a soldier for a mafia capo controlling a major chunk of the industry, disappeared. The word was he'd assisted the FBI, and they had put him into the Witness Protection Program in order to save his life. I wondered what would happen if one day he got an anonymous letter that said only, 'I know who you are.' What would his life become? What would I do in his position?
The major motifs in the novel are identity, myth, and women.
Identity has always held a fascination for me. This fit very well with my original concept for the book since the poor guy who gets the letter doesn't really have an identity any more, or at least, not one that he can admit to. The idea that you can start again with a clean slate was interesting to me. Would it be possible in real life and would it be possible for this character?
Myth, on a deeper level, is very important to this novel. SMOKE is a journey, one following the arc of classic journey stories in mythology. The hero goes forth and faces these challenges that would be insurmountable were he, or she, not of heroic stature and character. Thus the hero survives and returns from the journey, but is usually somehow changed on a fundamental level, bringing back something new to those that were left behind. It would be wrong to disclose what the protagonist might bring back in this novel and the meaning of it should only be defined from the perspective of the individual reader. Besides, it would spoil the suspense!
Women. There are two female characters that are critical in the journey of this man they call SMOKE. What effect do women have on the character (and identity) of the men they are close to? (And I do mean CLOSE). The protagonist is a good man who has done bad things, and he is superlatively prepared to deal with any physcial threat since he has been tested during two tours in Viet Nam and as a Reconnaisance Marine - fresh out of adolescence. As a result, he is unprepared and thus profoundly affected by his relationships with the two very different but equally extraordinary women he encounters shortly after his journey begins.