An Interview with Small Press Author Bud Smith
Bud Smith is the author of F-250, Tollbooth, the poetry collection Everything Neon and the short story collection Or Something Like That. He works heavy construction in NJ with the boilermakers and lives in NYC with his wife, a textile artist.
First off, what got you into writing? Or, how did you “begin?”
Bud Smith: I was in a band and the drummer died. The last night I saw him, was a show we played at a dive bar at the NJ shore.
I helped him pack up his drums in his car and then I went to load my amp and guitars in my car. Before I left I went and used the bathroom at the bar but the toilet was packed solid with papers, what I thought were religious tracts so when I went to the bartender to tell her about the problem with the toilet it surprised me when she handed me a little-photocopied zine called The Idiom. That's what was stuffed in the toilet. The kids who made the zine used to distribute hundreds of them around the NJ shore. I took the zine home, and that night my drummer passed away in his sleep. I was really wrecked by that and didn't play much music after that, but I did have the copy of The Idiom that I'd found in the toilet and I figured I could try for the first time to submit my writing as some kind of outlet. So I wrote this long narrative poem about my local video store that had burnt to the ground and to an even greater surprise, I got a check in the mail for $75 from The Idiom because the poem had won a contest they were having that I didn't even know about.
I looked at the check and thought, Ah! $75 for one poem, I'll just keep doing this. Keep writing poems and get rich, Haha! Well, it doesn't work like that. Anyway, I kept writing and submitting and over the years as writing became more central to my life, it’s become an immediate source of joy and a way to ground myself when life seems stupid.
What inspires you?
Everyday people I meet. I listen when they talk to me. That’s big. Memories from my youth. Mostly, it’s the guys I work heavy construction within New Jersey, at oil refineries and power plants, welding and building the process equipment with cranes and other rigging. Every day is just a constant laugh marathon and bullshit session with the other guys I work with. We tell a lot of stories about when we were younger and I guess after you tell the stories about your life enough, you start to figure out which ones people really like, whether they laugh, or say, Oh that’s messed up or best of all, if you’re around somebody new and they say, Oh, you’ve got to hear this story…
I also like the Weird But True section in the newspaper (I read the newspapers I find just laying around, I can’t remember the last one I bought). The Weird But True section is a great way to remind myself as a person writing fiction, that whacked out things do happen all the time in the world and a person shouldn’t get too hung up on if what they’re writing is realistic enough, or believable, because somewhere tonight, the oddest things are happening.
I’m also a fan of writing short stories that could be ripped out of my REM state dreams, but for the most part, I never remember my dreams.
A good example of this is a story called Birthday! I wrote about a person who finds a giant egg that grows and grows until an eagle hatches and changes her life. That story came out of a playful place, kind of a throwback to my Jim Henson-youth and adventure novels for kids I used to take out of the library because my family was broke. Those stories used to be an escape from reality and thankfully, writing them is as good an escape as reading them used to be.
Sometimes I’m inspired by the everyday mundane, the compelling wonder in the ordinary, and that comes out in the more realistic stuff I write, case in point, F250. Other times I’ve aimed to write something that is way closer to magical realism or fantasy, but with an emphasis on the characters and language. A few years ago my collection of short stories came out called Or Something Like Thatwhich consisted of stories that could be lassoed out of a dream/nightmare.
My big thing is, I don’t believe any idea is too silly for me to write about. I’m not keeping guard in order to look cool or avoiding genre or style, I just like to make art when I can. I find I’m most inspired by keeping my options wide open and not rejecting any whim. I’d like to say I write stories like a punk rock kid writes songs, real quick, three chords and when the song/story is over, it’s on to the next one—
How did your novel F-250 get published? What led you to write it?
The guys from TheIdiom Magazine that I was mentioning earlier, they published F-250 after years of publishing my work in their zine. They started a press called Piscataway House. Their first novel was also my first novel, Tollbooth. Piscataway House has the coolest way that they edit their books. The editors get together by at the beach (near where the bonfire is on the cover, actually) and they sit at a table and the four editors record a round table discussion on the book. So that's what I got. Instead of notes on the novel, the initial feedback I got from them was a one hour mp3. We did a couple rounds like that. This year we worked together again and the result of that is the novel F-250, which is a book that touched close to home for them too because there're scenes in the book from the dive bar where they used to leave The Idiom.
Did you draw inspiration for your novel’s characters from your own life?
Yes, definitely. F 250draws heavily from my life. But it’s a work of fiction, and only has threads of things that really happened. It’s less like writing about my own life, actually, and more of projecting events I’ve experienced onto a 20 something narrator who is oblivious to any lessons I’ve figured out as a 33-year-old man. I took some characters and shoved them into a maze vaguely in the shape and dimension of my youth. But I wasn’t sure where they would wind up, just like I wasn’t sure where I would wind up when I was in my 20s. People I’ve known are in there but morphed through characters I did or didn’t like in B movies. The places are distorted. You can’t draw a map of F 250 and get around my hometown or the bars we used to kick around with the bands we played in. The narrator doesn’t reflect how I feel for some things and his history is completely invented, as is where he winds up at the end of the book.
It’s the first novel that I've done like that. In the past, I've written more surrealist things based off of fantasy lives of characters I've made pretty much from scratch. My first novel Tollbooth was about an everyday guy who works in a tollbooth on the New Jersey Turnpike. The book starts with him being a happy, heroic figure, but by chapter two, he’s already knee-deep in sadness, woe, and on the verge of a mental breakdown. Instead of doing anything to fix his own unhappiness with his own life, he goes on a bonkers adventure and levels everything in his path. But it’s funny. It has that black humor element. Tollbooth is an extreme example of the surrealistic style I like to write in, like it’s almost a cartoon, or a vivid dream, with flashes of reality in it … but F 250 is the other side of the coin. It’s probably as close to realism as I can write. I wrote a lot about how tough friendships can be, how dreams get squashed and it’s okay to be directionless for a spell, and how things that are taken away can be snatched back if a person goes the right amount of crazy to catch back up with what has slipped away.
I saw that you also write poetry. Do you think that your poetry helps your fiction or vise versa?
100%. Poetry helps the prose and vice versa, but I try to think of it all as ‘just staying creative’. I try to stay creative whenever I can. Usually, that involves me writing on my cellphone at work, and that is how I wrote F 250. My iPhone sideways, just typing away at it with my thumbs during lunch breaks, coffee breaks, waiting in the parking lot to leave with all the other cars honking. I get in a place sometimes where I’m not really feeling like working on my novel project (I always try to have one going) so I’ll write a short story instead. Other times I can’t get the short stories to work, so I’ll write some poems. I didn’t used to understand poetry very much. The actual rules of it. But that was just because we were studying form poetry in high school. Sestinas and Shakespeare and such didn’t speak to me. But then I read The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell and that cleared things up pretty quick. A poem didn’t have to rhyme, could be in plain English that anyone could understand and it could even have a ghost narrate it, whose blood and guts get washed out of the turret with a hose at the end of the poem. After that, I just figured that anything goes, and you just make your own rules and try to follow your own style. This was the eleventh grade. For years after that, there were bad poems in notebooks. And now there are bad poems on Twitter, I guess. But Twitter made me better at prose. And Twitter made me more of a poet. Writing in that compressed form was a revelation. Getting more concise with word choices made my poetry really open up. By making those concessions to be more concise my prose lost as many excessive words as possible. For me, everything I do happens in an echo chamber. I’m thinking about poems and short stories all the time and trying to play catch up for my lack of education or pursuit of studies in a college. I’m just sitting here at work right now, hands covered in oil and stinking like jet fuel, messing around with making some stories to keep myself entertained. Poems to keep myself entertained. Novels too. I figure if I can have fun with it for myself, then people who feel the same way I do about the world will like it too. We’ll meet up at some point. On the other jet fuel stinking hand, the people in the world who do not feel the same way I do, when they read what I’m writing, they’ll at least get to see that there are different approaches to making art and the approaches don’t all have to come from the most conventional angle. I’m writing to reach people if I can. That’s what literature is for. I try very hard not to forget that, even with all this talk about doing it for my own entertainment. Poems saved my life. Records saved my life. Used paperback books saved my life. Crappy VHS rentals at Captain Videos saved me too. What doesn’t when you’re 15?
An important element of F-250is the love triangle between June Doom and K Neon. How did you come to include such an interesting relationship in your novel?
I try to write about love in as honest a way as I can because love to me is not a topic to be screwed around with. There’s nothing worse in a book or a movie or even a Spiderman comic book when all of a sudden there’s this big plot point that comes breaking through a wall like the Kool-Aid man, and the plot point/device is love.
Oh, we’ve got these eight characters in this sitcom and there're eight seasons, so each season we’ll just have them rotate around in a circle loving each other and having little wars. Boy, that sucks.
But sometimes, I think the best stories are love stories. They’re all versions of King Kong or Frankenstein—either rushing towards each other or somehow trying to break free, to destroy, to demolish.
I always wind up writing some version of a love story, because there're so many levels to it. The aftermath. The obsession. The initial blast off of happiness. The complicated road blocks that suddenly appear on the well-traveled streets you used to cruise down…
June Doom and K Neon are seeing each other and they aren’t sure about their relationship. They have the problem “Sometimes the love you have for somebody can fill a fifty-five-gallon drum, but the love they have for you can’t even fill a teacup.” That’s been my impression on most real life relationships. There’s no equal ground, or it’s such a seldom thing, two people who are perfectly in love. In F 250 I was writing about June and K and the relationship they are struggling with, made even worse by the introduction of a third party, the narrator of the novel. I wanted to write about that because those three way relationships are the hardest thing in the world. There’s a constant tension in all of the joy that you can find in the company of another person, especially when you are 21 and just legally figuring out the world.
June and K are interesting to me because they are flawed, honest and seeking to make things work, even when it’s easy to give up.
F 250 is novel about youth: whether it’s going fly as it jumps off the cliff, or whether it’s going to go splat on the rocks at the bottom of the canyon.
Lastly, what are you up to now?
I have a novella coming out from Artistically Declined called I'm From Electric Peak, about two teenagers in love, on a killing spree. I’m working on some edits with the publisher on that. I also have a split book coming out with Brian Alan Ellis from House of Vlad that is called Tables Without Chairs, so I’m leafing through proofs of that. It’s a crazy book, full of tweet-sized anti-writing advice, monster drawings, and comedic short stories about where I live in NYC. I wrote a book of poems called Everything Neon that was love poems to my neighborhood in NYC, my half of Tables Without Chairs is called Calm Face and it is the sister piece to Everything Neon—prose about NYC with all the love sucked out. So there’s that. There’s the Frankenstein I was mentioning.
But, right now, I’m about ten minutes away from drinking a beer with my wife and eating some Indian food here in Apartment number 12 on 173rd street. I’m utterly happy. Orange light is filling up the living room.