Title: The Ancient Nine
Author: Ian K. Smith, M.D.
Publication Date: September 18, 2018
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Date Started: July 18, 2018
Date Finished: August 18, 2018
*I would like to thank the publisher, author, and NetGalley for providing an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*
Harvard: the dream school for countless students, which used to be only attainable to the most elite, those socially connected. In the very beginning, several even more elite clubs formed, and in the 1980’s, young Spencer Collins is being punched for one of these “final clubs.” Spencer is a young, black man from the southside of Chicago, and is the opposite of the usual member of these secret societies, and yet here he is.
As Spencer begins the process of interviewing and joining the Delphic Club, he stumbles across an unsolved mystery involving a missing student from the 1920’s who attempted to uncover the secrets the Club was hiding. This leads Spencer, and the reader, into the great history and underbelly of Harvard clubs, thoroughly researched by Dr. Smith.
While I enjoyed the history portions of the novel, they did tend to drag on at parts, and some of the dialogue could seem a little forced in order to advance the story. Regardless, this was a surprisingly fast read. My major complaint would be the lack of female voice, though that does remain true to the nature of the clubs and might have felt out of place if it were indeed included.
I also had the opportunity to ask Dr. Ian Smith some questions as part of this blog tour, enjoy!
Q & A with Dr. Ian K. Smith regarding THE ANCIENT NINE
1. To begin with your beginnings, how did you get into writing?
A: I have always wanted to write stories since I was in college and read John Grisham’s The Firm, long before it became the international sensation. I enjoyed how that book made me feel, heart racing, unable to focus on anything else but the book, literally reading pages while stopped at traffic lights. I wanted to be able to create the same kind of story that had a similar effect on someone else. I like stories. I like creating. I have loved books my entire life. I decided that while my principle area of academic study would be biology and eventually medicine, that I would always keep an open mind and ambition to write and publish. That writing itch I had harbored for so many years just never went away and I refused to ignore it. Despite what many of my colleagues thought while I was in medical school, I believed both medicine and creative writing could be pursued passionately in parallel.
2. You’ve written many bestselling books about health and nutrition. What made you decide to pivot and write a thriller now?
A: Thrillers and crime fiction have always been at the top of my list for entertainment. I like to write what engages me, so I decided to sit down and create a story in the fashion that I like to read them. I love suspense and plots lines that are fast-moving and constantly make you think. I like the feeling of not wanting to put a book down and getting excited for the next time I have a break in my schedule to pick up that book again to read the next chapter. I wrote my first novel, THE BLACKBIRD PAPERS back in 2004, a thriller based on the campus of Dartmouth College where I finished my first two years of medical school. I had such great feedback from readers across the country. I would be on tour for one of my health and wellness books and invariably, someone would come up to me in the airport or a bookstore and ask me when I was going to write another thriller, because they enjoyed THE BLACKBIRD PAPERS so much and wanted more. Every time this happened, my heart would jump, and I would profusely thank the person for reminding me of my other passion and my need to go back to it and create more stories to share. I’ve been wanting to publish another thriller for a long time, and this was the perfect time in my career to do so. Fans of my fiction had waited long enough.
3. This is a novel you “waited years to write.” What is it about this story that was just begging to be told?
A: This story has everything that I love to read. There’s mystery, murder, suspense, history, and a love story. I’ve been writing this book for more than 25 years. I started when I was a senior at Harvard. While I was a very young and unpolished writer back then, I knew that it was a story that was so compelling that it needed to be told, and I knew that one day I’d be able to finish the story and publish it. This is a fish-out-of-water story with a coming-of-age feel that I think will appeal to people across the spectrum. Everyone likes a story about an underdog, and THE ANCIENT NINE captures that feel and spirit. I learned during my research that no one had ever written extensively about the Harvard final clubs. There were remote mentions in magazine and newspaper articles, but never anything that really penetrated this rarefied world of power and privilege. I just felt like this was a story begging to be told.
4. What was your personal experience with “secret societies” like? How did you decide what details to include as elements of the story in The Ancient Nine?
A: I was everything you would expect a prospective member WOULD NOT be. I was the wrong color, no pedigree, blue-collar family, and completely unaware of the elite circles in which these members traveled and inhabited. When I started to understand the lineage of the members and graduate members, I couldn’t understand why they would invite me to join. I have always been sociable, easy-to-like kind of guy, but I didn’t fit the image of a member nor did I have the money or access to privilege that the majority of members had. I wanted to include the elements as I experienced them. I wanted readers to see this world like I did for the first time, unsuspecting, unexpecting, an undaunted. I met many great guys when I was a member and remain friends with many of them to this day. Being a member was like a dual existence on campus. I was a regular student like everyone else most of the time, then I was a member of this final club that was a world of its own, including a staff that served us in our mansion and dinners with wealthy, powerful alums who were leaders of their fields throughout the country. I sat down to tables to eat and share jokes with amazing men who were extremely successful and influential, and at the same time fun to talk to and share experiences. Being a member taught me a lot about life and discrepancies and how pivotal networking can be as one tries to advance in life.
5. The Delphic Club is a very important part of the story, just like the mysteries around it. How did you come up with the mystery? Did you know how it would be solved from the beginning or did you come up with it as you wrote?
A: When I first started writing THE ANCIENT NINE, I wasn’t completely sure how it would end. I had a good idea of some of the plot twists and most of the narrative, but I had not worked out the entire mystery. As I was researching the history of the clubs—something that was very difficult to do since there has been very little written about them through the years—I discovered some amazing occurrences and legends not just about the clubs, but of Harvard itself. These discoveries were like a small, unknotted thread that once I started pulling, the story unraveled before me and everything began falling into place. I spent a lot of time in libraries, in the stacks of Widener Library at Harvard and Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, digging into the historical connections. It’s amazing how you can reach a point where a story can actually write itself, and you just become the vessel through which it’s told, trying your best to stay out of its way while you transcribe it as best as you can without losing its feel and meaning.
6. Have you received any negative feedback as a result of writing about your real-life experiences in these secretive organizations?
A: I don’t know what the feedback will be until more people have had a chance to read it. I have had some of my clubmates read it and others who are familiar with the clubs and they gave me really positive feedback. They found the book to be engaging and informative. They felt like I captured the essence of an experience that can only be felt by someone like myself who was foreign to this world. This book is not an expose or hit piece on the final clubs. This is a book that is based on real events, secrets that have been tightly guarded for hundreds of years. As the clubs are in serious and overdue conversations about opening their doors to a broader membership, some of this information will enter the public forum much easier and more fluidly than it has in the past. I would think that many current and graduate members of the clubs will find this entertaining, especially since they know very well the lay of the land on which the story is built.
7. How much does the main character in The Ancient Nine have in common with Ian Smith? How much of the story is autobiographical?
A: Spenser is based on me. His emotions, worries, thoughts, and experiences are based on mine. There are some creative changes I made such as where he was from and some of the family dynamics, but a lot of who he is and what he thinks is autobiographical. I’ve held on to this story for a long time as I wrestled with the best way to tell it and when it should be told. I was a tough, fearless kid who wanted to excel at everything and wanted to make my single mother and family proud. For those times, I was not the typical Harvard student—no trust fund or Ivy connection or renowned academic family pedigree—but I had what was most important for a student from any walk of life, the confidence that I could make it on Harvard’s storied campus. I was unafraid to try new things, mix it up, and learn as much as I could. I played sports intensely all my life, and I think that taught me a lot about the world, our many differences, the rigors and benefits of competition, and the importance of resiliency. I’ve never been one to be intimated by the chasm between what I have and what others have. Spenser sees and feels the world in exactly the same way as he remains proud of his humble beginnings and constantly works to do what is right.
8. In this novel you introduce a highly varied cast of characters, ranging from comical to mysterious, sporty to academic. Who was your favorite character to write? Which one would you most likely want to grab a beer with?
A: This isn’t an easy question as it’s like asking you to pick a favorite child. There are different things an author loves about the characters he or she creates, and there are different reasons why the characters appeal to the author. I will say, however, that it tends to be fun to write about characters who are very different from who you are, because it allows you to explore and imagine in a space that is not completely familiar. Writing Ashley Garrett was a lot of fun. I liked and admired her at lot. She’s from the other side of the tracks, brilliant, tough, witty, romantic, and unimpressed. If I had a daughter, I’d want her to be like Ashley. Dalton Winthrop was also a lot of fun to write, because he was rich—something that I was definitely not—and rebellious and so determined to cut his own way in life despite the overbearing expectations and interventions of his imperious father. I don’t drink alcohol, but several of the real people who the characters are based on I actually did sit down with over the poker table and a box of pizza. I think it would be great fun to sit down to dinner with the obscenely wealthy but uproariously gregarious graduate member Weld Bickerstaff class of ’53 who lived in New York City. You just wind him up and let him go.
9. The Ancient Nine delves deep into the history and underbelly of Harvard. What was your process for researching this story?
A: I spent many months researching Harvard’s history and some of the less known facts about John Harvard’s book collection he donated to the college and the infamous 1764 fire that destroyed almost all of it. Over the years of writing this book I would find new pieces of information and the web of history and mystery would grow even larger. Little is publicly known or discussed about these clubs, and lots of secrets and knowledge have gone to the grave with many of the graduate members. Harvard has one of the most expansive library systems in the world, and I spent countless hours in many of the libraries mentioned in the book, digging up old newspapers and magazines and examining rare books. It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun at the same time to connect the dots and delve into the layers of such an important university and the secret societies that have long been a perpetual irritant to the school’s administration.
10. During your research, did you find out anything surprising that didn’t make it into the book?
A: I gathered piles of research and discoveries while working on this book, but alas, an author must decide what to include and what to discard. Those decisions were gut-wrenching at times, but for the sake of the reader not having to sit down to a 600-page tome, the cuts had to be done. One thing that surprised me that didn’t make it into the book was how conflicted many of the school’s former leadership really were with regards to the clubs. Many of them publicly spoke against the clubs and the need for them to either be disbanded or opened to a more diverse membership, but privately, these administrators and school trustees had been members of a club themselves and as graduates, still supported them financially in ways that their identities and participation wouldn’t be exposed.
11. Readers will know you from your work in health and nutrition. In stepping away from that world, and into the world thriller writing, what surprised or challenged you the most?
A: It has always been fun and rewarding to write books in the genre of health and nutrition. I have enjoyed immensely helping and empowering people. My books through the years have literally been life-changing for millions of people. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to produce that type of impactful work. Writing thrillers has been equally gratifying as it has allowed me to be more imaginative and tap deeper into my creative side. I believe that a person can tap similarly and effectively into the left (science, math) and right (creativity, arts) sides of the brain. Contrary to what some have suggested, I don’t believe it’s one or the other. One thing vastly different about writing thrillers is that the plots are not linear, and therefore requires a vigilant attention to detail and great effort to maintain continuity. There are all kinds of dead ends, interweaving threads, surprises, disappointments, and moments of excitement that you must work into the story, knowing that you need to entertain your reader and keep them engaged for hundreds of pages. Accomplishing this is no small feat, but the work it takes to achieve it is worth every grinding second of it once you do.
12. What’s next for you? Will you continue to write thrillers and do you have an idea for your next novel?
A: I will definitely continue to write more thrillers. I love reading this genre, and I love writing it. My creative mind has a natural proclivity for this type of storytelling. I’m currently working on a different series of crime fiction/mystery books based on a character named Ashe Cayne who’s an ex-Chicago police officer and now a private investigator. I have learned a lot from my friends in CPD who have shown me the ropes and explained procedure. Ashe is smart, sarcastic, handsome, tenacious, morally compelled to right wrongs, broken-hearted, and a golf addict trying to bring his scoring handicap into the single digits. I LOVE this character and Chicago as the setting. The expansive, energetic, segregated, volatile, notoriously corrupt Chicago becomes an important secondary character in the book. Ashe Cayne takes on only select cases, and people of all walks of life from all over the city come to him to get answers. The first book in the series is called FLIGHT OF THE BUTTERFLY, and it’s about the daughter of one of the city’s richest men who mysteriously goes missing on the night she’s supposed to sleep over her best friend’s house. Her aristocratic mother hires Ashe Cayne to find her missing daughter. But it’s a lot more complicated than a missing person case. I expect to publish this book in the fall of 2019.
Follow Dr. Ian on Instagram: @doctoriansmith
Facebook Page: The Ancient Nine
And finally, St. Martin’s Press has graciously provided me with the opportunity to share this book with you!! Below you will find a link to the Giveaway. The prize: One Hardcover Copy of “The Ancient Nine”!!
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It’s always interesting to see authors branching out into different genres of writing. Usually there are little hints of their main field – I wonder if that happens in this book at all.