Queen's University

A gathering darkness

If life’s little travails have been thwarting you from writing that novel or screenplay you have in mind, you’ll feel pangs of guilt when you hear the challenges that journalist-author Russell Smith, Artsci’86, MA’88, has faced lately.

Along with suffering two detached retinas and battling to save his vision, Russell Smith -- the self-admitted former “party boy” who's now the proud father of a three-year-old son -- is currently hard at work on a movie screenplay.

Russell SmithToronto journalist-author Russell Smith (Photo by Georgie Binks)

Smith who pens two weekly columns for The Globe and Mail, one on style, the other on culture and arts, has a career that anyone in the arts would envy. The author of eight books - seven of them novels - he’s been nominated and won several literary writing awards. He’s also co-founder and co-owner of a men’s daily online magazine, DailyXY.

His challenges began a few years ago, when he woke up one morning and noticed flashing lights. With no previous eye issues, he had no idea it signalled a possible detached retina and could cause blindness if untreated, and so he ignored his symptoms. Soon a blob appeared, and by the time he was cabbing it to a Toronto hospital’s emergency department the vision in his left eye had completely blurred. Doctors performed emergency surgery for a retinal tear – a vitrectomy – in which the eye’s vitreous fluid is removed and replaced with a gas bubble. Recovery involved lying on one side for two weeks. In that position, he dictated his Globe and Mail columns to his girlfriend. “When you’re lying on one side, it’s hard to see a computer screen,” he says.

Still, Smith ended up losing the peripheral vision in his left eye, and the gas bubble caused a cataract (frightening because it can also cause a retinal detachment) that is scheduled to be removed in the coming months.

 “I’ve read that people are more afraid of going blind than they are of dying.”

After two months, the bubble dissipated and Smith was able to return to work. Then last August, the flashing lights re-appeared, but this time in Smith’s right eye. Even though he went to the hospital immediately, doctors were unable to detect the detachment, and when they finally did, they had difficulty locating a doctor to perform the surgery. That made the situation even more problematic. When surgery was performed, the surgeon used a scleral buckle, a flexible band around the area to stop the vitreous from pulling. It also closes the tear which heals. Smith says the procedure was very painful for several weeks, took another two months to recover from and left him with a large floater. He now uses four different pairs of glasses for work.

The whole experience has been terrifying, says Smith, and he knows he’s not alone. “I’ve read that people are more afraid of going blind than they are of dying.”

Through all this, Smith’s little boy, Hugo, has been growing up with the constant demands of any child. As well, Smith has been helping his girlfriend battle alcohol dependency. “Like all people with an addiction, she’s never out of the woods. She’s had several relapses and my life is still very tense. “An accomplished writer, she’s publishing a book about her struggles next year.


Smith’s vision has improved enough now that he’s hard at work on the aforementioned screenplay of his 2010 novel Girl Crazy, which will be produced by New Reel Films. Smith is excited about the venture, which is something he has never done before. “I think I’ve done nine drafts now, which I believe is not unusual. It’s not a question of compromises; it’s a question of writing something completely different. There’s pressure to make the action a little bigger in a movie. ”

He continues to write his newspaper columns and to teach a course each fall at Humber. “My students had to submit their work to me in 14-point font,” he notes.

He’s also turned a Toronto Life article about his eyes into an e-book on sale at Kobo. In Blindsided he muses that his struggle with his eyes and his new domestic situation have changed his former high-flying lifestyle and possibly affected his choice of subject matter for new works. What hasn’t changed though is that he’s going to keep writing whatever the challenges.

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Last updated at 9:21 am EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
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