About a year ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Bud Smith for my inaugural interview for Entropy about his then newly published memoir, WORK. As we approach the official one year anniversary of said interview, I figured it’d be appropriate to catch up with Bud and ask him some questions about his latest collection of short stories, DOUBLE BIRD, which is out now from Maudlin House. As always, it’s a treat to do some back and forth with Bud, and this time was no different. Take a look.
Andrew Byrds: I’ve been reading a lot of poetry collections lately, and I’ve noticed most contemporary poets have adapted to the styles of realist fiction writers–that is to say, they’ve become more succinct, grounded to reality, forgoing metaphor/fantastical narrative in favor of lamenting the concrete.Red is red, blue is blue. There seems to have been a shift, because fiction is becoming more cosmic, allegorical, and rooted in the bizarre. There’s a point to this observation, so bear with me as I ask the first question: what do you think?
Bud Smith: It’s hard for me to say, because some of the oldest stories I know are “cosmic, allegorical, and rooted in the bizarre”, I’m thinking of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Bible itself, so to think about modern stories making some shift back to that seems like it’s just a reaction to some kind of cyclical marketing of writing … as if the last cycle of realist short fiction is played out (for now) so here we go promoting bizarre stories as a break from it. People have always written odd-duck fiction, and they always will because there are always going to be odd duck writers, trying capture odd duck emotions. Recently I started reading Richard Ford short stories, which all hover around 4000-6000 words and are centered around the lives of realistic people, dealing with realistic problems. They were refreshing because they were a break from I had been reading which were little pill-sized flash stories full of cartoon sunshine demons and rabbits with lightning bolts for teeth. Whatever the art is, it’s there for me for one reason, and that’s because I want to understand my life and the lives of my friends and enemies to greater effect. It doesn’t matter how that happens. If it happens with a realistic Richard Ford story about stealing a car and driving it through the badlands, dissecting the ennui of a realistic life, or if it happens with a masterful Ben Loory story and everything is saturated with the dramatics and hypnotics of a dream world, I don’t care. I just want some kind of transcendence to meet me there.
As for poetry, yes, right now modern poetry is way grounded. “Popular” poetry anyway, the kind that I see shared on social media. But it’s just a phase, all of it, and nothing matters. It comes down to the individual making the art, and the individual who has, or doesn’t have an experience with the art.
AB: I ask because the stories in DOUBLE BIRD make a 180 from your last short story collection, CALM FACE, which centered more around quotidian anecdotes than, say, the ones in DB which have layers and layers of fever dreams at times. Were any of these stories written concurrently with those in CALM FACE?
BS: Ah yes, these stories spanned years. I was writing one or two a week while working on other projects, projects without “fever dreams”. Most of Calm Face was written with performances around New York in mind, when I lived there. Pieces such as “Reviews of My Corner Bodega” and “Calm Face”. I’m hardly ever writing into the void. I’m always thinking about who specifically I’m writing this for. That makes it all less lonely. Makes it all a love letter of some kind. Speaking of love letters, I always thought of the books, Everything Neon, Calm Face, and Dust Bunny City as each being part of a whole, a love letter to living in an impossible place. No matter what I’m making, no matter the project, I’m doing just about a 180 from the last thing I made. I’m not writing from a template. Each time I fuck around with a new thing, it’s just shoots off in any direction it wants and I go chasing it, surprised and trying not to let it get away.
AB: So there’s a bit of an anarchist approach to your creativity, writing whatever the hell you feel like and kicking against the pricks of whatever seems to be domineering the publishing industry? Thus far you’ve had books published by Civil Coping Mechanisms, House of Vlad, Maudlin House, and soon New York Tyrant. How have these publishers affected your outlook on writing? Would you ever consider trying to pursue something with a major publishing house?
BS: Tyrant is a major publisher. I can’t imagine a better editor than Gian, intuitive, relaxed, doesn’t try to make the project more “sellable”. Cares about the book and not the stock market of books.
I have faith in every publisher I’ve released a book with. Brian Alan Ellis at House of Vlad, Joseph Grantham and Mikaela Grantham at Disorder Press, Mallory Smart at Maudlin House, all major talents. So on so on. Piscataway House who put out my first two novels were shepherds to me. They ran it all punk rock style. They taught me things it would have taken me a decade to learn. And they didn’t take royalties. Piscataway House never took a dime. They just wanted to put art out into the world. For them, the publishing house was an art project and it ran its course, they became a band, they became museum curators, they moved on. I’ve still got the manuscripts and I’ll always have the manuscripts. Can do whatever I want with them. So yeah, I was born out of an anarchistic approach. Mark Brunetti, former ringleader of Piscataway House is a brilliant guy, I’m trying to get put out a big books of his poems somewhere. I’m sending emails. Haha.
And besides that idea of “major” publishers, I figured it was always best to have a large body of work and then maybe the public at large would catch up with it all down the road. Most likely after I’m dead.
I wanted to make art now, not worry about the money, or the career of it, and with any luck, if I stayed interested enough, engaged enough, and used the creation of art to drive my life, an audience of readers would find me, somehow. I think they are starting to find out about me now, and that’s good news. In twenty years, maybe things will really be moving. It’s not for me to decide though. All I can decide is, what the next novel is going to say, the readers have to decide if they want to talk about it to their friends, if the experience they have with the art is worth recommending to someone who could use it in their life.
AB: There’s a little bit of everything for everyone in DOUBLE BIRD. There’s grounded stories like “EVERYBODY’S DARLIN’” and the eponymous story, and there’s surreal slice-of-life tales like “EVERYONE (EVERYONE, EVERYONE, EVERYONE)”, or even a hint of meta-fiction with “JANGLE BELL”. One thing many of these pieces have in common is starting out as entertaining tales, and then being sucker-punched by a line or two that makes the reader really question their own realities. Going back to my original question, were most of these stories written on a spark of creativity, or were any meant to be allegorical to expound on any philosophies you had while writing them?
BS: Most of the stories were written with something else in mind than what is happening on the surface of the story. I don’t think it’s helpful if I say, Oh story X is about this to me, and story Y is about this to me. But that’s how they were written. What they mean to the reader might be vastly different than what I was thinking, and they’ll make it more complex, or the stories will mean nothing to them, and that’s the same too. This type of storytelling is 20% entertainment and 80% Rorschach. You’ll see what you want and it’s just as valid as what I put in there. Most of the Double Bird stories are about abandoning society to some extent, or gearing up to, so it’s my hope that people who read the collection get some kind of jolt to either fix the troubles they have or go out and create even better troubles for themselves.
AB: There’s a worldbuilding aspect to these stories which reminds me of Richard Brautigan, in that no matter how outlandish the customs/descriptions of the world of the characters, the reader can still fill in the blanks and relate to what’s happening on a personal level. Did the idea of creating your own universe with your own rules cross your mind while writing the pieces in DOUBLE BIRD?
BS: For sure. I love doing that. The world of the collection is the same throughout, even if some of the stories happen just in the imagination of characters, as hallucinations. There’s a stack of journals found in a mothballed asylum and a good chunk of these stories, are the stories from the journals. Or at least they are to me. So, they’re linked in that way. But linked in other ways too.
And man, Richard Brautigan is one of my favorite writers. I read In Watermelon Sugar once a year and if I’m out somewhere and see used copies of his books, I buy them and give them away to my friends if I have a lot of copies of that particular title. Especially Hawkline Monster. My favorite short story of his is “1/3, 1/3, 1/3” it’s a meta story about writing, which they say you’re not supposed to do. But, hey, the rulemakers are wrong more than they care to admit.
AB: I remember my old professor invited me over to his house one day, told me I could have whatever books he had on his shelf. I had a thick stack already and planned on being done, then he stopped me and handed over several books by Richard Brautigan because “he was one of the few writers who had any sort of clue”. This included a copy of IN WATERMELON SUGAR with a cover halved in teal and dishwater blonde with Richard shirtless and balding seated next to his wife, just staring. I’d say between that and WILLARD AND HIS BOWLING TROPHIES I also go back to him whenever I can. How has his style helped develop your own voice in writing?
BS: He reaffirmed my suspicion that you didn’t have to “give a fuck”.
AB: Of all the stories in DOUBLE BIRD, have you found any specific one which moved you both while writing and eventually reading it for the first time?
BS: The story “Wolves” meant a lot to capture on paper. I’ve just seen so many people pushed away from their homes, and their dreams. I like reading that story out loud to people. Tonight I’ll read it again, at a reading series here in Brooklyn called The Farm. And I’ll read “Grasshopper”, another story that I felt lucky got captured somehow. “Grasshopper” is about not knowing what to read at a reading. The first time I read it to people, they seemed to like it, I’d put the audience into the story, and I think they all liked being written about. Made them feel something.
AB: You’re becoming one of the more prolific writers that comes to my mind, especially within the last couple years alone. Has your ingratiation in the writing world helped in reconsidering any of your previous perspectives on life?
BS: Not really. Life seems to flow wherever it wants to be, regardless of the thoughts and feelings of the individuals caught up in living it. I can write whatever I want, as often as I want, and it doesn’t solve any dilemmas for me personally. Writing for me, is like going to sleep, I wake up from the act of writing and I haven’t improved my place in the world at all, I’ve just hit the pause button, or I’ve even doomed myself, because while I was asleep the room caught on fire and I died and didn’t even know it.
The quickest way I know how to get rid of two hours, is to sit down and write/edit something. So when I’m writing/editing, I’m trading away my concrete time here on earth, writing/editing an ethereal fantasy.
That being said, I take great pleasure in it. There aren’t too many other things I’d rather be doing with my time.
But writing hasn’t taught me any lessons about myself, or about anyone else. Plain old living did that, observing, studying, wondering about people. If someone wants to become happier, and gain a better perspective on life, if that is their goal, I’d recommend they become a reader, or an explorer of nature, or a sweetheart to somebody, help somebody, go directly to them, where they are, help them face to face.
If you write, you’re more than likely just volunteering to go to sleep, and to dream little dreams that you are welcome to come back here and tell us about, but remember it’s all voluntary. Not too many people are asking you to do this writing. Most of them will consider it worthless.
To become an “important artist” You’ve got to be obsessed with the idea of reporting on these strange dreams of yours, as if they can somehow help other people figure their problems out. My problems, they never get solved in dreams. And they never get solved by telling other people about them. Trust me, I’ve tried. But reading, reading always saved my life. When I couldn’t travel, I could read. I went places that way. Reading always got me out of Hell.
AB: Finally, besides TEENAGER, do you have any other projects lined up in the future you wanna tease? Any final thoughts?
BS: Always, always. I’m always writing something. I hope anybody who sees this interview follows along with my series, Good Luck at The Nervous Breakdown this year, 2019. I’m writing a personal essay each week of 2019. They go up Thursday morning. Here’s a catch-all link ( http://thenervousbreakdown.com/author/bsmith/ ). There will be 52 essays/episodes. We are at episode 14 now. At some point, I’m going to start having them erased, so don’t wait too long, they are going to begin disappearing as I go along towards whatever it is I’m after.