Multi-hyphenate Emerson alum releases second book ‘The Other Side of Infinity’

By Ryan Yau, Living Arts Co-Editor

Emerson alum Joan F. Smith ‘10 released her second young adult novel “The Other Side of Infinity” on April 25. She graduated from the Creative Writing MFA program and currently resides in Massachusetts.

The book revolves around the dual protagonists: December, a clairvoyant teenager, and Nick, a lifeguard whose life she saves with her gift of foreknowledge. December believes that they are fated to fall in love, and the book flips between their now-intertwined perspectives as they dabble in each others’ lives and reveal secrets.

The premise incorporates a “Butterfly Effect”–style sci-fi premise into a YA romance story—against the age-old Grecian motif of pursuing prophecy. The concept was informed by Smith’s then-experience as a new mother and her desire for similar prescient powers.

“I had a newborn and it was very anxiety-producing,” Smith said in an interview with the Beacon. “I was like, ‘I wish I could know everything that’s about to happen with this kid, I wish I could know that he’s gonna keep breathing and be okay.’”

Within the YA genre, Smith could turn her personal anxieties into narratives with broader appeal. For instance, her debut fiction novel “The Half-Orphan’s Handbook” thematically reflects her own experiences losing her father to suicide.

As that book was being published in 2017, the idea for “The Other Side of Infinity” was already being finalized. She began drafting the novel in 2018, and it was revised over the course of three years.

“When we were trying to sell my first book to publishing companies, I wrote ‘The Other Side of Infinity’ to distract myself from the process,” she said. “I drafted it in about three months—the fastest I’ve ever done.”

In addition to being a novelist, Smith has been an essayist, freelance editor, and the associate dean of creative writing at South New Hampshire University. She also works as a dance instructor in Easton and believes that the mediums of dance and literature are more connected than many would consider.

“Dance is just the movement of storytelling,” she said. “When I’m choreographing a piece, I’m setting something that has a beginning, middle, and end, the same way I would develop a concept or a plot for a book.”

Her emphasis on movement extends to her writing process: while writing “The Other Side of Infinity,” Smith had to constantly be active. She adapted to this new lifestyle and learned to write segments on the fly.

“I did a ton of dictation for writing,” she said. “I was driving to and from daycare pickups at that time, I was working full-time. On lunch breaks I would be dictating in my car, when my husband was driving I’d have napkins or notebooks with me.”

The novel takes place in an undisclosed suburb south of Boston, and the texture of the setting incorporates sensory details informed by experience and attention to the outdoors.

“I’m huge on drawing inspiration from the environment,” she said. “Asking questions like, ‘what does the air smell like?’ Fall in Boston is really unique and different, and depending on where I’m setting a story, I often try to visit those places and see what realistic details I can use to help convey the picture.”

Before submitting her manuscript to a formal editor, Smith consulted her critique partners: Laura Taylor Namey, author of “A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow,” and Allison Bitz, whose debut novel releases this year. The group had met on Twitter in 2017, and subsequently developed an online working relationship that grew into a close personal one.

“Basically the best part of the process was working with them,” Smith said. “We support each other in so many different ways, it’s beyond just the books at this point.”

Smith recommends that students interested in writing strive to build rapport with honest feedback; while writing is a solitary process, fresh eyes are necessary for a book to move into the realm of popular consumption.

“For any writer, or anybody who wants to be a writer, finding a good writing group is so important,” Smith said. “I’m not afraid to tell them when an idea that they’re working with isn’t working, and the same for me—having that brutal honesty is so important in this career.”

Emerson’s MFA Creative Writing program was beneficial for connecting with other writers and writing professors, and she attends various events at venues like Brookline Booksmith or workshops like GrubStreet.

Although “The Other Side of Infinity” is completed, writing is a continuous movement for Smith. Even as her second novel releases, she is in the process of finalizing a third.

“I’ve got another book almost finished to go out on submission, and I’m really excited,” she said. “As I move through life and things inspire me, that’s just where I take myself.”