DEBORAH CROMBIE: Whenever I go to England, I realize I live a very insulated, smoke-free life at home in Texas. I am a non-smoker. No one smokes in my family (my husband quit a year ago, thank goodness, and even when he smoked, he never smoked in the house, in the car, or in public places.) No one is ever allowed, on pain of death, to smoke in my car, and when I go out it's usually to smoke-free shops and restaurants.
So it's always a bit of shock to be thrown into the midst of very public London, where people smoke on the streets, and there is a whole new culture of pavement-smoking outside restaurants, pubs, and clubs. Suddenly I have to remind myself that at least some characters in my books should smoke. This is not so much a matter of approval or disapproval, but simply that as a non-smoker, smoking doesn't occur to me.
While certainly bad for one's health, smoking has always provided a nice "bit of business", both on the page and screen. It's something for your characters to do while they have a conversation (other than drink endless cups of tea.) It can convey an emotional state such as agitation or nonchalance, or give subtle insights into character (I've loved Sergeant Hathaway's attempts to give up smoking in the recent episodes of Lewis), class, or background. (Think James Bond here...) Camel or Silk Cut? Does the smoker carelessly put out the stubs in old cups of coffee, or tamp them out and tuck them away in a plastic baggie?
And with many of the popular retro shows like Mad Men, or The Hour (I've yet to see if they will smoke on Pan Am, but am horrified to remember that people actually used to smoke on airplanes!) smoking is once again being shown in a glamorous light (excuse the pun.)
As a reader, I like to play a little guessing game about whether or not the writer is a smoker--if almost every character in a novel smokes, I'm inclined to think the writer (I could name a few) does, too. But at the moment, I'm halfway through Felix Francis's new novel, Gamble, and I've just realized that not a single character has been seen smoking. I'd be willing to bet (excuse another pun) that Felix Francis does not.
So what about you, Jungle Reds? Do your characters indulge? And should they?
JAN BROGAN: I think the characters should smoke if you think that's part of who they are. I had a teenager in Teaser smoking because I thought that's what she'd be doing and I wanted my reporter Hallie Ahern to show she had good getting-people-to-talk skills by allowing the young girl to smoke in her car even though it was driving her out of her mind.
I'm thinking of setting my next novel in southern France, where at least half the French characters must smoke.
DEBS: Yes, the French and the Italians are all big smokers, but the red wine and olive oil probably keep them from getting cancer . . .
HALLIE EPHRON: I'm writing a novel in which the main character's dysfunctional alcoholic mother smokes. As Jan says, it's essential to the character.
It's pretty astounding how much public has changed about smoking. My husband brought home a "Rugged Men" magazine from the 50s. It's a real period piece, soft porn and enlightening article, like "Let's Get Rid of the Girls Who Shake Their Cans" by Dunwoodie Hall. In it there's an article that dismisses the "health scares" of smoking and concludes, "Thus, it can literally be said, 'Smoke--And live longer!'"
ROSEMARY HARRIS: I've had a few characters smoke, but no main characters. If they're going to die, I'd rather kill them off in my own way.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Huh!Not to give anything way, but you've made me realize that the people in my books who smoke--are the bad guys!
(I tried smoking in college. Once. ONCE! My best friend Hallie (a different Hallie!) and I shopped for the coolest package. Montclair, navy blue with a gold crest. I took one puff at age 17, choked, tipped over the ashtray onto my bedspread, burned a hole in the blanket and that was the end of that.)
The good part about people smoking in books--it give them something to do, you know? And it can be very dramatic, a la Bette Davis.
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I've just realized that I've had exactly one smoker in my books - and that was because it was necessary for the plot. I'm like you, Deb, never smoked, no one in my family or circle of friends smoke, so it rarely crosses my mind. Since smokers tend to fall into a few distinct groups nowadays, I think having a cigarette-user makes more of a statement about the character than it once might have. We have the 80-year-old Dan Drapers and Joan Holloways who haven't died off yet. Young people still light up for the same reasons they always did - smoking is way down in high schools but on the upswing on college campuses. And increasingly cigarette smoking is a class marker, with a sharp divide in smoking rates between socioeconomic and education levels.
This has definitely given me food for thought! I'm going to go back over my current work-in-progress and see who might profitably be made a nicotine fiend.
DEBS: Interesting, Julia. Yes, there are beginning to be class issues associated with smoking, but one can't make blanket assumptions. My husband fought a forty-year battle with nicotine addiction--and I do mean BATTLE. We learned some very interesting things when he was finally able to quit (we certainly hope for good.) One is that there are take-it-or-leave-it smokers. I was one. I smoked in my teens and gave it up at twenty without a bit of bother. And there are some for whom nicotine addiction is worse, and harder to kick, than heroin. It apparently has to do with the difference in the chemical receptors in people's brains. The same seems to be true for alcohol addiction, except that the take-it-or-leave-it percentage is much greater for alcohol than for nicotine. It's much, much easier to be a social or occasional drinker than an occasional smoker.
So all food for thought, and for creating interesting characters.