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‘Bear is Broken’: Willmar, Minn., native son makes mark in literary world

A love of literature that got its start in Willmar, a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cornell University in New York, a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University in California, a law degree from Berkeley and a successful day job as an attorney in Alabama was blended together to help launch the literary career of a Willmar graduate whose first novel hit bookshelves nationwide this month.

“Bear is Broken” is the first in a series of mystery crime novels written by Lachlan Smith.

His second novel, “Lion Plays Rough” has already been sold, edited and is in the hands of the publisher for release in 2014 and he’s half-way through the first draft of the third novel which will have “Fox” in the title.

“Bear is Broken” has received positive early reviews. The book’s jacket carries accolades from a variety of authors, journals and reviewers.

“We’ve had some wonderful pre-publication reviews,” said Smith. “I think it’s been very well received so far.”

It’s the emails and calls from friends and family — including a long list from west central Minnesota, that matter the most, said Smith.

“I’m so thrilled people are reading it and liking it,” he said.

Smith is writing under his given name, Lachlan Smith, but he’s better known locally, and in his legal profession, by his middle name — Will Smith.

Lachlan was a more interesting name to put on a book cover, said Smith, a 1996 graduate from Willmar High School.

Having a separate identity also helps him distinguish his writing and legal careers.

Smith said he knew early on in his childhood that he wanted to have a career as a novelist.

“It was always something I had my eye on,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he lives with his two young children and wife, Dr. Sarah Moody, a professor at Alabama University who is also from Willmar.

Smith, who is 34, credits his parents, Dr. Lachlan Smith and Judge Kathryn Smith — who both work in Willmar — for nurturing his love of literature.

That interest was fanned by his teachers in the Willmar School District. “They were always supportive,” said Smith.

After completing his post-graduate studies in literature and writing, Smith decided to pursue a law degree to have a career to support a family while he pursued writing.

He began writing “Bear is Broken” before he started practicing law during a brief time when he was a stay-at-home-dad.

Since he began working at a law firm, the pace has quickened and he’s had to be creative and disciplined to keep his series on track.

“It’s been a juggling act,” he said. “You always find little bits of time somewhere.”

During an hour-long commute to his job in the morning he uses a voice recorder to “write the scene out loud.”

He doesn’t have the luxury of waiting to write until he’s “inspired,” and uses the audio notes when he sits down for scheduled times at the computer for serious writing.

Smith decided early on to focus on genre fiction, more commonly known as popular fiction.

Steeped in crime, murder and the mysteries of legal defense and prosecution, ‘Bear is Broken’ is a page-turning, easy-to-read thriller whose main character is Leo Maxwell, along with his brother, Teddy.

Teddy is a crusty San Francisco defense attorney with a swagger and a long history of successfully defending rough characters with a blend of justice and unorthodox methods of gathering evidence.

His younger brother, Leo, is a newly minted attorney trying to get the attention and praise of his brother.

The only thing Teddy gives Leo, however, is the biting name “Monkey Boy” and a tangled mystery of multiple crimes to solve that’s kicked off with the attempted murder of Teddy that happens on page 4.

The book delves into the complex relationships between the brothers, their father (who is in prison for the murder of their mother) and a cast of complicated, if somewhat unsavory women.

Those relationships, which are sprinkled with a dose of violence and sex, change dramatically from the beginning of the book to the end but there are no quick happy endings and resolutions. There will most definitely be emotional and physical challenges ahead for both brothers that should give Smith material for many future novels.

“Bear is Broken” is “kind of a coming-of-age book,” said Smith.

“It has its own momentum,” he said. “It’s very fast-paced.”

In a tip of his hand to “Lion Plays Rough,” Smith said several years have passed in the life of Leo Maxwell when the second novel begins.

“He grows older with each book but maybe not wiser,” said Smith.

Now that he’s launched the “Leo Maxwell Mystery” series, Smith said he realizes the challenges of sticking with a central character for multiple books that “come alive for readers.”

Leo Maxwell will have to “develop with time” and his relationships with other recurring characters will have to deepen as the books and storylines move forward, said Smith.

Because the words he writes today will send his characters down a certain path in future novels, Smith said he needs to make “careful choices” for the fictional actions of Leo Maxwell.

Smith said it’s exciting to “draw good characters that readers may not necessarily like, but are interested in reading about.”

Smith said he hopes Leo Maxwell has a long life.

“I would love to still be writing Leo Maxwell books 20 years from now, but keeping a series alive is a formidable challenge in today’s publishing climate,” he said. “Right now I’m taking it one book at a time.”

As a first-time published novelist, Smith said working with an agent, editor and publisher has been a positive collaborative experience that’s complimented with local support.

“I’m so grateful to all my family members back in Willmar and friends who’ve been reading the book,” he said. “It’s just been fabulous.”

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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