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Q&A | Get to Know Downeast Genius Earl Smith

Updated: Apr 25, 2022


Author Earl Smith

Earl Smith, author of Downeast Genius, took some time to answer questions for the Islandport Press blog. Downeast Genius, one of our most popular books, chronicles the many inventions of folks from Maine across history. From doughnut holes to steam motorcars, it touches on everything that has come from the practical ingenious of many a Mainer. Keep reading to find out more about Earl’s favorite inventions from the book and what it’s like to write both fiction and nonfiction.

 

Out of the inventions included in the book, which is your favorite, and why?

The Stanley brothers’ steam motorcar, while it did not survive the competition from gas-powered vehicles, was a powerful example of the ingenuity of Maine people in the beginning of the automobile age.


Which do you consider the most important or impactful, and why?

I believe the adaptations of Orlando Lombard’s chain tread log hauler (caterpillar tread) impacted the world more than any other invention ever to come from Maine: military tanks, heavy construction and moving equipment, snowmobiles etc.


If you could invent anything, what would it be?

A cure for cancer.


If you could time travel and hang out for an entire day with one of the inventors in this book, who would it be, and why?

I would love to spend some time with Hiram Maxim, one of Maine’s most prolific inventors of all time. A true genius, and something of a rascal. A fascinating man who had found fame and fortune long before he invented the machine gun.


There seemed to be an explosion of inventors from Maine in the post-Civil War era. Why do you think that time period was so fertile in Maine?

The Industrial Revolution, which had begun before the war, exploded in its aftermath. The move from farm to factory led to the pressing need to do all sorts of things quicker, better, and more efficiently.


You’ve written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Which do you prefer to write, and why? Does one inform the other?

Downeast Genius is my fourth work of history, and I am at work on my eighth book, which, if and when it is published, will be my fourth work of fiction. People often ask me why I go back and forth, and I sometimes joke that I turn to fiction when I get tired of telling the truth. In fact, I enjoy writing both genres. My third work of fiction, Head of Falls, was the most fun to write and the most satisfying. Downeast Genius has drawn the best response.


And yes, one kind of writing does inform the other. Fiction is not appealing unless the details about the time and place are correct, and nonfiction fails if it is not written with some imagination. Writing about Colby history (Mayflower Hill) led me to write the Waterville History (Water Village), which in turn inspired Downeast Genius. All of that regional history informed Head of Falls and the other locally set novels, including the one I am working on now.



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