When Martin J. Smith arrived in Southern California in 1985 for a job interview at the Orange County Register, it struck him from his first lunch in Santa Ana, at Mexican taco stand owned by a Vietnamese family, that this was a world unlike that he’d known in his previous life in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
“To me that was just so exotic,” Smith says. “Like landing in another world.”
He got the job, and as he started to explore his surroundings through the stories he wrote – at the Register, and later at the Los Angeles Times and Orange Coast magazine – Smith never lost that sense of wonder at the people he met and the places he explored.
“In Pittsburgh I was kind of caught in this loop of writing about the downturn,” he says. “The steel industry was collapsing, Pittsburgh was falling apart.
“Out here we were writing about whales and kids driving their Ferraris to senior prom. And the people who I met and encountered in my journalism career tended to be people who were doing things that no one else had done.”
His new book, “Mr. Las Vegas Has A Bad Knee,” which Smith will discuss in Orange on Sunday, Jan. 14, is a collection of 24 stories written about those uncommon characters, the doers and the dreamers who typified what the journalist came to think of as a kind of personality unique to the region.
“I noticed right away that people here think differently,” Smith says. “They approach life differently. They are more willing to take risks and defy convention than the people I grew up with in Pennsylvania.”
In sorting through all the many stories he wrote in 31 years in Southern California – Smith relocated to Granby, Colorado about 8,000 feet in altitude and 90 miles west of Denver about two years ago – he focused on subjects that fit that mental model.
“I looked for iconoclasts who sort of fit into that risk-taker mold,” Smith says….