The Jazz of Life: BUD SMITH with Nicholas Rys
(Maudlin House, 2018)
If you are reading literature online in 2018, you’re reading Bud Smith. And you should be. His work has been published by Hobart, Wigleaf, Smokelong Quarterly, and tons of other places. Aimee Bender selected his story, “Wolves,” for the Best Small Fictions anthology. His work in general, and especially in his new story collection Double Bird, published by Maudlin House, is tender and funny, deadpan but deeply serious. This would be the part of the book review where I’d compare him to other humorists, such as Twain or Vonnegut, call him a “contemporary counterpart” to these oft-cited Serious American Funnymen. That not only feels tired, but inadequate. Bud’s work is funny, sure, especially the stories in this newest dizzying and astounding collection of short fiction. But those stories are one part of the mandala of Smith’s work—there’s also his nonfiction collection WORK, put out by Civil Coping Mechanisms last year, where he tells stories about his day job and life growing up. There’s his book of flash fiction and poetry, Dust Bunny City, published by Disorder Press, where he collaborated with his wife, Rae Buleri, who draws its surreal, minimalist illustrations. One can’t help but marvel at not only the output, but the variances therein, the refusal to commit to one form or style. Still, Smith somehow has cultivated a singular voice across all these mediums. And like all great writers, Smith makes this look effortless. But like all writers know, it is not. The kind of singularity and control of language that Smith exhibits across his work is a masterful deception.
What makes Double Bird excellent is that all the stories take place in a sort of fun-house mirror of our contemporary world: adjunct professors burrow to the center of the earth and are forced to eat their degrees and settle for manual labor jobs; a woman, who is playing a game on her phone whilst driving, hits a man who doesn’t have health insurance. In a rush, she puts the bleeding and broken man into the car with her and takes him to her job interview. In the Bender-selected tale, wild wolves move in droves from the forests, to the suburbs, to the city streets. Smith navigates the strange so expertly by treating his characters and their predicaments with care and sincerity.
In Double Bird, Smith looks at reality through a Dutch-angle. We recognize the world in his work as our own, but it is slightly off balance: recognizable, yet somewhat unfamiliar.
Nicholas Rys (Rail): There’s something sort of musical, free-wheeling or jazz-like to these stories. Did you listen to music while you wrote these stories? If so, what were you listening to?
Bud Smith: Usually they were written on-the-go, so the jazz you’re imagining is just the jazz of the world. Mostly I wrote them on my cellphone in places without music. The subway, or the work truck at the refinery when it wasn’t my turn to drive. I’m not a fan of writing with music on. When I have music on I want to be drinking bourbon and talking. I did edit some of Double Bird on my laptop, sitting in a pink room in my apartment listening to records. The point of the records was that every twenty minutes or so I’d have to get up and flip it or fix the needle back to the beginning of Pet Sounds or Dan Deacon’s America. It feels good to get up out of my computer chair, and pull away from make believe, you know, get up, look in the mirror, make sure I was really there, or whatever.
Rail: Much of these, tonally, remind me a bit of Kafka’s short-shorts, or, also, Joy William’s 99 Stories of God and there is this quality of bite-sized wisdom in these tales—even though the stories lengths are far more varied, those sort of takeaways or quick turns in plot reminded me of their work. Who, if anyone, were you thinking about or reading (or watching, if movies were an influence, too) when working on these stories?
Smith: Thank you about Joy Williams and Kafka, that’s nice of you to say, I’m writing towards them—yeah, for certain. The quick turns of plot, however surreal some of the stories seem, is a reflection of the real world I see. I do think that amazing things happen to ordinary people every hour on the hour. The bite sized wisdoms? I’m a person, as Dostoyevsky says, (unfortunately) swept up in “the beautiful and the sublime” so I should just shut up and do nothing—that’s an even bigger wisdom. I’m finally reading Don Quixote, which does seem to point back to everything. It was for sure an influence even though I’m just reading it at 36, years after most of the stories in Double Bird were written. Don Quixote is fun and wild and sad as hell and meta about meta about meta on the topic of meta. It’s even weirder than Being John Malkovich, written by Charlie Kaufman. Maybe I’m always writing towards his script for Adaptation which does everything I want to: a tragicomedy where you don’t laugh because you’re having fun, you usually laugh because laughter is a relief valve so something doesn’t explode. So I’m writing towards Cervantes, and the people who were writing towards him—Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme. And I’m writing towards Shakespeare, and Homer, and The Kids in the Hall, and Willa Cather, and Monty Python, and Denis Johnson, and Warren Zevon, and Ben Loory, and one-star Yelp reviews because used books smell like cigarettes, and Richard Brautigan, and Tove Jansson, and Larry David, and Peter Handke, and the Cohen brothers, and God knows who else. They’re all in my head, rattling around. And more people show up everyday, happily.
Rail: There are so many stories in Double Bird and they all hang together as a cohesive collection. Could you talk about how you arrived at these stories for the collection, and their sequencing?
Smith: I usually write a short story or two, every week, while I am working on other projects. It’s the same with poetry. I don’t see myself as a novelist, or a short story writer, or a poet, I see myself as just a writer. And that’s how I read too, I read novels and short story collections and poetry collections written yesterday, or 600 years ago, because I want to find the world and I want it to be shown to me by people who are completely different than me. So, I read like crazy and that not only helps, but it also is the thing. For five years, I wrote freely, one or two stories a week. And looking back on the total sum pile of stories, the stories that make up Double Bird are the stories about misfits who were actively trying to leave their own worlds. Those stories are all similar in tone, and existing in that wavy spec of consciousness where nobody is trapped, nobody is shipwrecked, they may be being taken advantage of in some way, but they are all trying to actively escape into some new light. Other stories, which didn’t fit the tone of this collection and didn’t make it in are sitting in the folders on my computer now and could be in other short story collections, some day, but who knows. Sequencing of Double Bird was easy, the first few stories leading the collection are deliberately setting the rules, and then the story “Junior in the Tunnels” is the collector ring for the whole work. In “Junior in the Tunnels” there’s a stack of journals discovered in a closet in an abandoned asylum and more than half of the stories in Double Bird are from those many journals. They are the fantasies of these patients who have all been released back into the world, who have all been healed by facing their own narratives. The rest of the stories are about me, the author. I bounce around town, I have fun, and in the end of course, I die.
Rail: I believe your book WORK started out as a column where you wrote stories about work. Did Double Bird start out as singularly focused or with a similar, cohesive idea?
Smith: Someone told me that the worst thing you could do was write about writing, so years ago, 2012, I started writing short stories where the characters come alive and enter into our reality. For instance, I had this story about a writer who is visited by a character from one of his own stories who holds him hostage and makes him rewrite a story where the character’s girlfriend dies of cancer just because the reader would get an emotional reaction from it. So, here’s a gun to your head, and fix my imaginary life that is very real to me! All the stories were about writers or artists fighting with their own work. And for a while I wrote them like that. Fables, but there are no animals besides the artist, who isn’t a cat or a fox or something; they are just regular humans in some kind of trouble with themselves. After a year of those stories I was onto something else, and even though none of those original ‘artist’ stories are in Double Bird, the feeling and energy survived. That kind of everything coming unglued feeling and there being no chance of gluing it all back together the way it was. By the time I wrote “Tiger Blood” in 2014, I had found what I wanted to do for this collection. After that discovery, each week I would write a column, which would become WORK and I would write a story that made it into Double Bird, and I would usually work a little on Teenager, my next novel. Kind of juggling it all, like you’re not supposed to.
Rail: These stories are rooted in realism—the people are real, their predicaments feel incredibly real, but almost all the stories eventually take some sort of radical departure from reality. I think the term for this is “fabulist.” Whatever people want to call it, it’s certainly different from the nonfiction of WORK. Was it totally different crafting these more surreal stories or is it less a departure than I’m making it out to be?
Smith: It’s “nice” to hallucinate. Departure is important here. Like I said, most of the stories in Double Bird are the active fantasies, or delusions of fictional characters. So we go to this place that is very much not Earth Prime, in which the laws of life and death are loose. There are so many things that the average person you see on the street feels they cannot do, so here we go to a place, often in the imagination of an imaginary character, who’s sprung from my imagination. Things can happen here. But, you said it; the writing is ground in reality, rooted in realism as strongly as I could manage it. I wasn’t trying to take anyone into the Twilight Zone. A perfect example of the style of Double Bird, if my explanations are seeming jumbled or pretentious here, is the book Down Below by Leonora Carrington. In Down Below, Leonora recounts a mental break she experienced, just as World War II was breaking out. Her mind was melting and sliding around in her head, and Hitler and his doom machine was crushing Poland. So as she flees to Spain to enter a sanitarium, she experiences severe trauma both in the physical world, and in the world of her own interior being, both places very real to her, overlaid on top of each other, swirling with sunshine and darkness. What she sees and feels is both happening and not happening and are indiscernible. That was important to me when I put together Double Bird, I wanted there to be the feeling that even though there were these fantastical things that happened, which might seem like a dream, the consequences of that dream world, were totally lashed to a body that was alive beyond the dream and maybe just ‘seeing things.’ And yes, this type of writing is 180 degrees the other direction in thought from WORK, which is writing about my actual life, my actual job, my actual family. But I think the prose is mostly the same. My sentences are the same, just as they are in my novels, just as they are even in my lines of poetry. I write in a certain style, which I pretend is my own, influenced gleefully by a million things, but the subject of the writing changes from project to project. I’d say the subject matter for Double Bird is that these make-believe people are losing their minds, but not their volition.
Rail: I wondered if you could just talk about the story “Agartha”. To me, it’s perfectly representative of the collection in many ways: a person faced with very real-life consequences taking a completely surreal turn. And that’s a real balancing act: to portray real people in real circumstances, and to take it to these kinds of places convincingly, and I think this collection, and that story specifically, do that expertly.
Smith: Thank you. It’s important to write a joke in a style that is serious as a heart attack. I believe that and I believe if you pull this joke off, you make art. If you don’t pull it off it’s just a joke. “Agartha” is a story about an adjunct professor who decides they don’t want to teach at community colleges anymore for like negative four hundred dollars a semester, so they jackhammer their basement apart to enter into the tunnels that lead into the underworld, where they will seek out a new life away from academia, literature, science, you name it. “Agartha” came about because whenever I would go online I would see posts on social media from friends who were stuck in this predicament of having gone to school for an MFA in creative writing and who were on their epic journey of trying to make it as a writer, but also tied up into that, had embarked on the other parallel epic journey of becoming a tenured professor at Harvard or Yale or Heaven or Hell, or anywhere. I mean, they want what generations of bookish people wanted before them, they want to follow their literary dreams and do what they love, and they want to get paid a livable wage for it. Of course, what I saw time and time again from these demoralized professors was that they could not achieve the dreams that seemed so attainable earlier on. It wasn’t their fault. The system had changed. Or they had been misled about the system. The universities that took their money had not been honest that there would not be enough jobs for the new professors who were coming out of these programs. Another pyramid scheme. So I wrote this story about one of those professors making a clean break away from every aspect of society, rejecting what that society stood for, what it wanted of them. To gain entry into Agartha, a city in the center of the earth, the professor has to eat his college degree and sign up to be a grunt laborer. They’ve lost all belief, all hope in the things that had pushed them towards knowledge and are supposedly now free to live out the rest of their days in happiness in the underworld. Of course, you don’t get to find out if any of that future happiness is true, because life doesn’t work that way. In my eyes, no one is doomed; plenty of people get what they want. Miracles happen; we just don’t call them miracles anymore. Or you can call it a miracle and you get a free t-shirt that says “KOOK” across the chest.
Rail: Double Bird has an incredibly beautiful, super-fancy hardcover release. What was it like working with Maudlin House on this book?
Smith: Fantastic. They were wonderful. The entire process was collaborative and felt natural, nothing forced. No one was in a rush. Thanks about the hardcover; I am really happy about that, mostly because I got to give my mom one of them.
Rail: Can you tell us what’s coming up? Any new projects in the works or that you are currently working on?
Smith: I’m working with Gian from New York Tyrant on edits on my next novel, Teenager, coming out with them in early 2019 it looks like. I’m still writing new short stories and poems each week, same as ever. Hope it stays that way until I’m suddenly not here anymore. Everything feels perfectly slow, perfectly impossible—I love it.
Nicholas Rys is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.