Wordsmith: English teacher publishes debut novel ‘Darling Energy’

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By Tiffany He, Co-Managing Editor

The Main Line, calmly situated in the midst of suburbia, seems like the least likely setting of a mystery novel. However, in ‘Darling Energy,’ English teacher Ben Smith has created a thriller set around familiar landmarks, including Great Valley High School, where Smith attended, and Valley Forge Park.

The novel, published on Feb. 22, follows two students, Dylan and Steven, as they piece together a series of puzzling automated all-call system messages sent out in the middle of the night by an unknown source. As their investigation unfolds, they also must figure out what is wrong with their favorite English teacher, Mr. Drake.

Book by it’s cover: English teacher Ben Smith’s debut novel ‘Darling Energy’ was released on Feb 22. The novel’s title was inspired by an anagram of past student Dylan Geringer’s name.

“This book is about two suburban students who come up with a wild, impossible plan to disturb the quiet of their community and their culture,” Smith said.

Smith took inspiration from his love for anagrams, which are words, phrases or names formed by rearranging the letters of another. In past years as a welcoming activity in class, he would often place students’ anagram names at their assigned seats. After years of doing this, Smith stumbled upon the anagrams for Class of 2015 alumna Dylan Geringer and Smith’s former colleague Trevor Drake.  

“Her (Geringer’s) name spit out so many wonderful other possibilities of anagram combinations, including the title (of the book) ‘Darling Energy,’ daringly green and legendary ring. My friend and former colleague Trevor Drake who just retired became Dr. Overtaker. I just thought that was funny because he was not a villain, by any means,” Smith said. 

In September of 2015, these anagrams became the small beginnings of a much larger project. 

“I have always thought that those anagrams were kind of cool alter egos, you know? It could be you but not you, you but mixed up you,” Smith said. “So one night on the Notes app of my phone, I just wrote the first paragraph of the book, imagining a student who likes to do these anagrams and how she was coming up with alter egos for her friends and her teachers. It just kind of spiraled out of control.” 

While his characters share very little with their real-life counterparts aside from their names, Smith has drawn inspiration from his time teaching in the classroom. 

“What inspired me to write this story is the relentless hope of young people, especially the ones that I teach in a time in their lives where they are bombarded with all sorts of advice, ambitions, confusions and desires,” Smith said.  “I’ve noticed that despite all that, students have a really great hope and positivity. I’ve been inspired so much by my students, so this is kind of like a 392-page thank you note.”

According to Smith, the majority of his writing was done over the summer. But during the school year, he began tracking his progress on a calendar in his classroom. 

“I printed out my calendar from Outlook, just a blank monthly calendar, and put it up in my room. In the calendar, I would write down how many words I wrote that day. Some days you might have a fruitful day when you wrote 2,500 words, and then you might have a week of zeros,” Smith said.

Throughout his writing process, Smith received support from many of his friends and students. 

“I remember many students who encouraged me along the way. The two examples I mentioned in the acknowledgments are Thomas Jenson and Laura Liu,” Smith said. “Thomas would come in during Lit Mag and look at the calendar and see the 2,500 words and be like, ‘Hey man, good job,’ and then Laura would come in and she looked at those string of zeros, and she’d be like, ‘Mr. Smith, you got to do better,’ but I liked having both encouragement and prodding from students.”

Despite having self-produced other creative content like his 2019 album ‘Picardy,’ Smith initially reached out to publishing companies and agents to have his book represented. But after about a year and a half of communicating with publishers, Smith made the decision to self-publish. 

“Some writers online suggest you should aim for 100 rejections every year. So, I got a lot of good feedback and a lot of requests, but no one eventually represented it. So after about 80 or 90 rejections, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll put it out on my own,’” Smith said.

Smith sold over 200 copies of ‘Darling Energy’ within its first week after publishing. He is currently working on a second novel about a piano tuner and a sleep sanctuary. 

“I think the one fear you have once you make it (the book) available is that people are gonna read it and judge it, and that’s terrible. We ask our students to do it all the time. So I think it’s a very humbling experience of giving myself a very hard writing assignment, and then having to finish it, and then having to share it with other people,” Smith said. 


Tiffany He can be reached at [email protected].