‘I really don’t know what they see in me,’ says Patti Smith
When “Just Kids” was published in 2010, it was a revelation to many who admired its author, Patti Smith, as a rock ’n’ roll performer, songwriter, and perhaps a poet, but had no idea she was capable of such masterly prose.
The book, a memoir of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, went on to win the National Book Award for nonfiction and establish Smith as much more than “the keeper of the phlegm,” as she was called by at least one clever headline writer in her punk heyday.
In 2015, Smith published a second affecting — and best-selling — memoir, “M Train” and is back now with “Devotion,” a slender volume that attempts to explain, however obliquely, her approach to writing. Smith will talk about the book Sept. 28 at the Back Bay Events Center.
An odd amalgam of fact and fiction, “Devotion” was actually an assignment. Smith was invited to talk about her writing process as part of the Windham-Campbell lectures at Yale University and develop an essay based on her talk. That she didn’t exactly follow the rules — “Devotion” is not an essay — should surprise no one.
“Instead of writing about writing, I thought I’d try to show how the mind melds real events with imagination,” Smith said on the phone from New York. “I guess I was trying to give a three-dimensional view of how one writes.”
Over e-mail and in conversation, Smith, who turned 70 this year, is modest and unaffected. Despite a publicist’s admonition that questions be restricted to the new book, Smith seemed content to talk about anything, including music, the agony of losing important men in her life — playwright and actor Sam Shepard being just the latest — how writing has become the central focus of her life, and her improbable status as a pop-culture icon.
“People say really nice things to me on the street all the time — I mean all the time — and I laugh because I’m usually messy in a ratty old coat and cap,” Smith said. “I’ll laugh and say to my daughter, ‘I really don’t know what they see in me.’ And that’s really how I feel.”
Celebrity is not something Smith ever sought, either in her early days as a poet and performer with the Patti Smith Group or more recently as a writer. Indeed, she withdrew from the public eye for more than a decade — from 1980 though the early ’90s — when she and her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, moved to Detroit and focused on raising their two children.
But even when she wasn’t around, Smith was still working, writing fairy tales and other fiction, none of which had ever been published.
“People sometimes think ‘Just Kids’ and ‘M Train’ came out of nowhere,” she said. “No, they didn’t come out of nowhere. They came from all those years when I was writing and writing, filling scores and scores of notebooks, developing the craft.”
In 1994, her husband died of heart failure at 44, and a couple of years later Smith returned to New York City. For reasons both emotional and practical — she can’t drive — Smith said she couldn’t stay in Detroit. She soon resumed performing with Lenny Kaye, the guitarist and principal songwriter in the Patti Smith Group, and continued to write.
“Life was divided between making a living and raising my children. I had to write ‘Just Kids’ because I’d promised Robert [Mapplethorpe] I would,” she said. “I’ve decided that in my next decade I really want to focus on my writing, and I’m sure that a lot of fiction will surface.”
The short story included in “Devotion” is a tale of obsession involving a young figure skater who’s prized and ultimately possessed by an older man. It’s a fable that in style and substance feels very European and owes much to Smith’s literary idols, writers like Albert Camus and Jean Genet. Whatever anyone thinks of it — The Washington Post called it “weak sauce . . . folktale claptrap” — Smith doesn’t much care.
Smith finds writing fiction very different from writing lyrics: One comes easily and one doesn’t. The problem with lyrics — “Because the Night” and “Gloria” are two of Smith’s best-known songs — is that she feels responsible to someone other than herself.
“I write lyrics to sing to the people or to serve a piece of music that I’ve been given by my husband or by Lenny Kaye,” she said. “When I’m writing poetry or fiction, my responsibility isn’t to the people, it’s to the work itself.
“In the ’80s,” she explained, “I wouldn’t sit around writing lyrics that no one would ever hear, but I didn’t mind laboring over stories or poems nobody would ever read because developing the discipline, the work ethic, had its own reward.”
As onerous as it is, Smith said she’ll be writing lyrics again soon because she and her band plan to record another album.
In her life and career, Smith has had many triumphs — being published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf and in Europe by the revered French publishing house Gallimard is one of her proudest achievements — but she has also suffered much loss.
Lately Smith has been coping with the July death of Shepard, with whom she collaborated on a play (“Cowboy Mouth’’) and had a tumultuous romantic relationship in the early ’70s. (He was married at the time.) For decades, Shepard was a steady presence in Smith’s life through a series of personal tragedies.
“I always thought he’d be here. I’ve lost so many pivotal men in my life — Robert [Mapplethorpe], my pianist Richard Sohl, my husband, my brother, my father, my friend [music producer] Sandy Pearlman,” she said. “But I could always count on Sam being here. It’s very difficult imagining him not on earth. On the other hand, how lucky was I to know this man for almost 50 years?”
Smith sighed. She said she intends to carry on doing what she’s always done.
“The principal thing that I do and that I have done since I was a young girl is write,” she said. “That’s what I do.”