2017-10-18 / News

Chester author’s debut novel explores violence, sexual minorities


Patricia Smith, who teaches English and literary arts at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, recently published her first book, “The Year of Needy Girls.” 
ASH DANIEL Patricia Smith, who teaches English and literary arts at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, recently published her first book, “The Year of Needy Girls.” ASH DANIEL The year was 1997, and anxiety rippled through the LGBTQ community of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A 10-year-old boy had been abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by his male next-door neighbor. The boy’s parents spoke out, saying the perpetrator’s horrendous crimes had nothing to do with being gay, but members of the city’s LGBTQ community still worried about violent reprisals.

“It created a lot of fear for everybody,” recalls Patricia A. Smith, who lived in Cambridge at the time. “[A backlash] didn’t happen, but I think I always wondered, ‘What if?’ ”

That concern spawned Smith’s debut novel, “The Year of Needy Girls,” published by Akashic Books’ Kaylie Jones Books imprint in January. The book begins with a similar event, putting a small Massachusetts town on edge.

Following this incident, the book’s protagonist, teacher Deirdre Murphy, finds herself swept up in a witch hunt. Sitting in a van after a school field trip, a female student kisses Deirdre. The kiss is witnessed by the girl’s mother, setting the novel’s plot in motion.

“It’s about a teacher who’s falsely accused of having a relationship with a student,” says Smith, who now lives in Chester and teaches English and literary arts at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School. Though she received a favorable write-up by a crime novel blog, Smith says hers is not a traditional crime novel in the whodunit sense.

“The book is as much about being a teacher as it is the circumstances around the crime,” she says. “It’s getting some good feedback. I’ve had lots of people say they couldn’t put it down.” Writing and teaching aren’t Smith’s only passions. She’s also long been a contributor to the James River Writers conference, including the one that took place this past weekend. The annual conference is intended to support local writers, connect them with agents and foster a sense of community.

In three panel discussions this weekend, Smith addressed the topics of crafting villains and heroes, staying creative, and queer literature in general.

“The conference has been invaluable, and it’s a great resource,” Smith says. “It’s nice to make those connections, not only just to share the struggles, but the celebrations.”

Young adult novelist Meg Medina of Richmond says Smith has done outstanding work as a promoter of the local literary scene and as a backer of sexual minority voices.

“She’s a person who is incredibly humble and driven by the craft of getting a book exactly right and getting the voice exactly right,” says Medina, author of “Burn Baby Burn” and “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass,” among other titles. “She just makes this city a more vibrant place for being here, and she’s an amazing advocate for the LGBTQ community through literature; how to be present, how to tell individual truth through your point of view.”

Virginia Pye, author of the novels “Dreams of the Red Phoenix” and “River of Dust,” says she admires Smith’s persistence in finishing her first book.

“She’s very dedicated, and has sort of kept her eyes on the prize, so it’s very gratifying that it’s finally happened,” says Pye, who attended Wesleyan University with Smith, but got to know her through James River Writers more than a decade ago. “She is a passionate and wonderful teacher of writing, and a mentor to many students.”

Cindy Cunningham, department chair of both English and literary arts at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, says Smith is a tireless advocate for her students, including as the sponsor of Spectrum, a club that helps address the needs of the school’s LGBTQ community.

“She’s by far one of our better educators,” Cunningham says. “She has worked to change the school’s policy, particularly in regards to field trips and bathrooms for [transgendered students].”

Cunningham says she wants Smith’s writing career to soar, but selfishly wants her to continue teaching at the regional governor’s school.

“I don’t know how she balances her writing life and her teaching life, but she does it somehow,” she says. “I want her to become a famous author, but I want her to stay here forever.” ¦

Return to top