Cote Smith talks about his stormy coming-of-age novel, Hurt People

Like any lifelong Midwesterner, Cote Smith has a knack for talking about the weather. In the Lawrence writer’s first novel, Hurt People, which came out March 1, rain pours and sirens blare, creating an underlying sense of anxiety familiar to any Kansas City resident who has ever sat out a tornado warning with one eye on the television and the other on the sky.

Set in Leavenworth in 1988, the story has another major source of underlying tension: the multiple prisons within city limits. Centering on a 9-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother, the narrative primarily shuttles the two siblings back and forth between their divorced parents’ homes. As their father, angling for a position as chief of police, struggles to catch an escaped prisoner known as “the Stranger,” the boys meet a charismatic man at their mom’s apartment pool who seems a bit too eager to teach them how to dive.

Having grown up in Leavenworth, as well as nearby Fort Leavenworth and Lansing, Smith tells me that reports of escaped prisoners never rattled him too much as a child. In fact, the ubiquitous presence of prisons in the towns’ culture and economy only seems unusual to him now, looking back.

“Growing up, you don’t really think about it, because it’s all you know,” he says. “You don’t know that not every town has a prison half a mile away from your elementary school or high school. It feels natural to you. In high school, when we’d have Lansing inmates come visit us during English class, it felt perfectly normal, but in retrospect you’re like, ‘What the hell was that about?’ ”

Despite the novel’s very Midwestern setting, complete with one memorable outdoor scene during a tornado warning, Smith did not set out to tell what he calls a “Kansas story.” Instead he hoped to delve into a side of Leavenworth that has not been frequently examined.

“You have this town that’s used as a joke in media — it’s a place that nobody wants to be or where people end up only if they’ve made bad decisions,” he says. “That works really well in the novel, because it’s a lot about people making bad decisions that affect other people, most notably the people they love.”

The idea that “hurt people hurt people” is central to understanding the story, he adds, even when it makes for discomfitting scenes. But Smith’s quick-moving, to-the-point prose carries the tough moments, managing to create a surprising amount of sympathy for characters we’re initially primed to hate. The young narrator’s point of view also offers a degree of levity, his observations simultaneously naive and insightful.

“He provides a nice lens through which to watch these people hurt each other,” Smith says. “Because he’s a young and innocent character, he’s not someone who’s initially going to purposely hurt someone else. Instead he can be a window in to that process.”

Still young himself, Smith, who earned his MFA in fiction from the University of Kansas in 2009, hopes to continue writing novels. In the meantime, Hurt People offers one boy’s powerful coming-of-age story, a sometimes-violent journey from innocence to understanding that has arrived just in time for severe weather season.

Cote Smith discusses Hurt People at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at the Kansas City Central Library, 14 West 10th Street.

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