To say John L. Smith knows Las Vegas is an understatement. After nearly a quarter-century as the lead columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, there are not many subjects he hasn’t tackled—from the mob to mining. He writes five columns a week (including one for the company’s rural Nevada newspapers) and still has had enough material to write 12 books. He is especially attracted to “the great comic characters in Nevada”—namely those who don’t mean to be funny. While nobody in the local media is better with the skewer, Smith is also the consummate Irishman, often exposing a softer side in his column. It was in that space that he spoke of his father’s death and his daughter Amelia’s battle with cancer, which began in 2004 with the diagnosis of her brain tumor. Amelia is now in remission, and Smith, 49, credits her illness with changing his outlook on life and his approach to living in Las Vegas.
Why do you love the city?
There are a lot of great things about Las Vegas, but for me, as a writer, it has amazing characters that come here in very, very different circumstances. You’ve got a lot of folks who come here riding easy money, credit card money and all that, so they are a different person when they come to Las Vegas. Then there’s a whole section of the community that’s here for an opportunity to work or for a second chance. A lot of folks are busting out of the Rust Belt and different places, and they’re here to own their own home and to have a life. It has nothing to do with glamour or the club scene. They’re different people. The cool thing about Las Vegas is that it’s a hub. People wind up bumping into each other—you know, CEOs and street hustlers mixed in the same building.
Do you have a favorite column?
I can tell you of a few that people have reacted to. When I wrote of my father dying … I still get requests for that column. People want a copy of it. When I brought my daughter home from the hospital, that’s a column that gets asked about a lot. It’s almost always the personal ones. The smart-alecky stuff and most of the human interest stories or the things you think, Oh, man, it’s time to go bash the governor, people read those things but they don’t really care about them. They’re either entertained or outraged, but they don’t really remember them. People remember what’s personal. What matters to me most, I have found, is remembered by people.
How did your daughter’s battle with cancer change your outlook?
It really crushed our family and overwhelmed us. We fought through it, but it really changed my perspective on a lot of things. I was a person who always wanted more for this community than the community seemed to want for itself, but afterward I just took it upon myself to start fundraising. So that’s why half the time you’ll read the Friday column, the notes column, and there will be some fundraiser that I’m plugging. I just believe that the only way we’re going to make this change is if we do it ourselves as a community, and it’s hard.
What’s the nastiest hate mail you’ve ever been sent?
A lot of death threats. There’s one occasion where the FBI wound up being called in just to sort some things out.
Who are your favorite writers?
I’m a big John Steinbeck fan. I love the short stories of John O’Farrell and Somerset Maugham, and a lot of writers people probably aren’t reading right now but they were popular in their own time. I have a lot of favorite columnists, like Mike Royko and Jim Murray, the sports columnist. There are so many that I really have benefited from reading.
If you could interview anyone dead or alive, who would it be?
I would like to interview Honoré de Balzac or Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. Those would be amazing because they were all prolific writers. They were all writers who dealt with society, and to a less or greater degree they all had wicked senses of humor, which I appreciate.
Since it’s our “Drinking Issue,” why is the Tap House your bar of choice?
Partly, years ago I lived near it. It’s also kind of a crossroads for bookmakers and for telemarketers. Telemarketers are always hustling and they’re interesting, and if you’ve got bookmakers and guys with a lot of money you’re going to have law enforcement looking around. So I would go there and work it a little bit and have fun. It’s also a neighborhood bar. I’m not really a slave to fashion. I like the new different things, but I’ve never been a real Strip denizen.
Question 7.5: What’s your drink?
Beer, tequila, beer, tequila. Rinse. Repeat.