We’re trying something different this week – one story followed by an interview with the author. The inaugural edition goes to the wonderful and generous BUD SMITH, where we talk about his books WORK and F-250 and life in general.
FO: In WORK, you write “Life was wide open” right after you quit the football team. I feel like this sentiment really animates you and your work more generally. Is it work to retain your optimism, your sense that all things will work out? Does this sense of optimism help in your creative work?
BS: Optimism is terrible, but it I like it better than embracing doom. However, I try to always assume more than halfway that nothing will ever work out, because it seldom does. You start in on the thing with one optimistic idea and then the thing falls out from under you and you have to grab onto something and just hang there, dangling. I think I get mistaken for an optimist because I just don’t care if the specific art project works out. Like, it’s totally fine if this novel explodes, there’s always another one to do, some other time. And that applies to everything. But I’m not a pessimist either. I have a friend who runs a recording studio, he is a real big pessimist, everything with him has always been a complaint. I don’t complain, especially about art, because I think every time you complain your ego just swells up. Complain enough and you become a Macy’s Day Parade balloon. There’s so many unhappy people on this planet, and these unhappy people are often neck deep in gifts they don’t acknowledge. Some of them you can’t even give a bag full of money, they’ll complain it weighs too much. So, I saw my negative friend for the first time in almost eight years, and we were eating lunch, catching up, talking for awhile and he looked increasing bothered by me. Finally he said, “What the hell happened to you? You’re so happy now.” I laughed my ass off. I used to be pissed off, used to feel angry all the time and listless, and that’s because I had no creative outlet. When I started spending more of my time ‘making’ rather than ‘consuming’ I felt like my time had more purpose. Throughout life I’ve been an optimist and a pessimist, I’ve been exhausted totally, and then pumped up full of energy again, but I’ve always assumed something someway, somehow would work out, otherwise why even try? Making art requires optimism, and like I said, that’s terrible. You don’t have to think that people will like it, that they’ll be moved by it, but you do have to believe that making art is better than the alternative, which on some days feels like, I should pay someone $50 to saw my head off and throw it down a deep dark well. If you keep trying, you will find your way, and happiness will whack you upside the head and your friends will see you after eight years and throw their pizza down in disgust and say, ‘Seriously! This is freaking me out! Did you find God or something?’
WORK is all about unwritten rules, about being self-taught or faking it until you make it. How important do you think this type of mentality is to today’s artists, and how has that approach in work come to affect your approach to art?
Staying alive is an unwritten rule. Being kind is an unwritten rule—kind to other people and kind to yourself. Being a life long student is an unwritten rule. You can be a student anywhere. And in anything. I think you learn more by trying to write, than by trying to learn to write. It always happens at my job too, we used to sit in the class and they would go over all this stuff about how to weld some exotic metal. They would tell you what it would look like while you were under the welding hood. They would try and explain what you should do while you were welding the exotic metal. Okay. So then after the written test, and the speech about it, and maybe the video too, you get out of the classroom and you walk over the welding booth and put on all your protective gear, and then you here you go, you start welding the fucked up exotic metal. And guess what happens, you forget right way all the things you’re told in the speech and video and you start flailing around—everything falls apart. But you’re there, you’re in it, and you struggle through it for a while. But eventually, you kind of get it. And once you kind of get it, and you’re sweaty and mad, then this is the time somebody with more experience will come by and looks at what you welded and says, ‘Oh my god that looks like hammered-on dogshit.’ That’s exactly what writing is. You write your first story and it’s hammered-on dogshit. You try a poem, hammered-on dogshit. You write your first novel, mega hammered-on dogshit. But again and again you can go back and try again, until you learn how to do the thing. The difference between welding and writing, of course, is that welding needs perfect conditions, and a novel, I’ve found, not only doesn’t need perfect condition, it really doesn’t even need conditions, period. Boxing is called ‘The Sweet Science’. That’s endearing to think that there’s a science to getting smashed in the face and stomach. There is no science to making art—isn’t that beautiful?
In WORK but also in F-250 there’s a tangible sense of the importance of art making you feel, anything, negative or positive. Why is that important to you, beyond the obvious that it’s making people pay attention?
It’s important because to make something devoid of feeling is a ripoff to the people. Their lives are not infinite, their time is not disposable. If they can’t be moved in some way good or bad by the thing I’m making, then I’d rather just get out of their way, I’d rather just disappear. Time is fake, but they’ll come for you if you waste any of it.
I was just reading about death masks. Back in the day, primarily before advances in photography someone would take a wax or plaster cast of a deceased person’s face. Okay, Abe Lincoln is dead, let’s make his face into a memento. Let’s make it so if anybody wants to buy Abe Lincoln’s death mask and have it in their little house on the prairie, they can. The problem is, there is no emotion. This is not a plaster cast of Abe Lincoln’s face, because the man is gone and the spirit and the emotion that made the man has officially left the building. That death mask is as meaningful as a plaster cast of a pile of hamburger. I feel this same way when I read a lousy book. Most books that you read that do nothing for you, those aren’t really books, they are actually a death mask of a great big wobbly nothing. The author has captured a vague shadowy outline of what the components of life are, but they have failed to make the thing actually breathe, and actually have blood still coursing though it. Why do we pay attention sometimes and other times we don’t pay attention? Well that’s because art is supposed to hurt you. If you’re not being hurt, you’re not in it. If you’re not being hurt by it, you can never hope to be healed by it, even fractionally. Art isn’t about positivity or negativity because that’s impossible to peg down, the individual reacts to something in the art and one person’s bummer will be another person’s elation. It’s always conflict and it’s always one side against another. Abrasion in this novel will be beauty in this other novel and the topics will be the same. People change every minute of every day, and when they die, they change even more. I don’t want to make a death mask.
A running theme of yours seems to be about avoiding the conventional or institutional thing to do – university, corporate jobs, rich people. why do you think its important for art/writing? Also, can you promise to record urself burning the 20k advance you will eventually receive from Penguin?
Yes, I will burn the Penguin money. Setting up the bonfire pit now. Work that resonates with me, usually comes from people who are general failures in life, but who kept making shit despite it all. I don’t agree with the idea that somebody has to be a champion of a person to create art. In a way, I believe in the fringe above everything else, but I think it all comes down to practice. If you give a bourgeois person time and space enough to practice their thing then you’ll get something relatively great from them. If you take a down and out crust punk and give them time and space to practice their thing, you’ll get something relatively great from them. A person on the fringe, who is really driven, won’t stop for much, and might never burn themselves out because the thing that I believe kills most artists is success. Losing one’s edge. It’s a shame because I think everybody wants to see an artist being able to support themselves with their art, but getting soft happens and then the magic goes away. There’s no better way to create a masterpiece than to find ignore somebody for forty or fifty years. If it will happen it will happen. That’s like the time and pressure on a lump of coal equals diamonds equation. But yeah, I’m trying to steer clear of the conventional, institutional way because it’s more fun to get out of the road than to get run over by a car. And then another car. And then another car.
In your opinion, does art have to always remain fringe then to be vital? We all seem to cling to the idea that art needs to be stripped away from monetary success but at the same time, think we can live as writers when this is probably never gonna happen. Is this why we all hate Johnathan Franzen so much?
I haven’t read any Jonathan Franzen yet. The jury for me is out on why people fuck with him, other than he just became a kind of meme. He’s the Richard Simmons of literary fiction. He’s the Guy Fieri of saying he doesn’t use the Internet. Maybe he lives in the vast apartment above the New Yorker and they come up and knock on his door whenever they are out of eggs and sugar, borrow a little. “Thanks Jon!” As for, does success kill art? I don’t know. Feels like a case by case basis. Led Zeppelin did fine with it. But maybe Led Zeppelin just got hungrier and hungrier up to a certain point. It’s that same mysterious equation, if you give anyone any power, will they change? Of course they’ll change. But will they change for the better or worse? Hardly anyone stays the same. You move someone up from worker to foreman and you see how they do, do they start screaming at everyone beneath them? It’s the same way with artists. Once an artist starts getting accolades, they change. For me, someone tries to nominate you for an award, just remember the only responsible answer is, “Lol that’s lame.”I like the idea that art needs to be stripped away of the notion of monetary success, but I definitely think art should be the most valuable commodity on the planet when I am very close to the end of the month and I have to scramble around to make my rent, pay the electric, keep the internet going so I can surf the information super highway. If there was a way to get paid to do exactly what you want, that’d be a utopia. I just don’t think anyone would want to go down into the sewers, or kill cockroaches and rats, or clean windows on the outside of skyscrapers. We live in a world that needs bullshit done, and that terrible bullshit pays a little bit, and sometimes gives you your nights and weekends off. We are never going to live i a utopia, so don’t wait around for the arrival of one so you can start your masterpiece. Make your masterpiece in-between killing rats and scrubbing the sewers clean.
There’s lots of reference to memory and how memory is only important to the individual, so why write a memoir?
I’m just your friend caught up in the cult. You can write a memoir because people either have had similar experiences as you and maybe you get to talk about your experience and it makes them think differently about the things they have lived through; or you write a memoir because they haven’t had these experiences at all and you get to show them that there is more going on than they are being shown. I think of it like this—so the internet was all about personal freedom and the opportunity to seek out any information a person wants or needs, but the average person, keeps going back to the cult of Facebook, because that’s where their friends and family are. Facebook is the last place you’ll ever find scientific data. But, people don’t really want scientific data, or proof, they want to believe, but they don’t need to totally see the data proving that the belief has legs. They want to know what’s up, what’s going on, but they don’t really want to hear the truth truth, they want to hear the truth from their baby brother who they know lies to them but the baby brother is such a funny person. Or they want to hear the limited truth from their aunt who lives on the other coast because she’s always so combative, and it’s great to watch the sparks fly between her and the rest of the family. Memory is constantly being reshaped, moved around, fiddled with, fucked with, I hear it all the time—someone at work takes a story of something we did and when they retell their version of the story, I’m like, fuuuuuuuck, I don’t know if that’s how it happened. Could I be wrong in misremembering? Could they be wrong? The memory moves swiftly into the realm of minor legend. Just as a two sides of a war, the enemy and the enemy, both will tell their legends as if they were the hero and the enemy was defeated, somehow in some way, you’ve got to believe us, we were there.
Authenticity is another side to this question of memory – it seems important to you, creating something real, avoiding the death mask. We live in surreal times now, where the real is actually false most of the time, or at least the real is in some part an illusion. So what’s the point of being real? Do you think it matters to people? Or do we do it for ourselves?
We do it for ourselves, probably. It’s easier to act like yourself than to try and act like somebody else. If you don’t like yourself, then you have unlimited options. You just do a little more work, and you can mess around be anybody. Be the Andy Kaufman of crayons and typewriters. Maybe you can’t ever hide yourself in your work though, maybe everybody can see who you are, and it doesn’t matter how you try to puff it all up and look cool, we can all see how you’re not so cool, just like us. Authenticity is semi-important to me. I don’t want all my artists to be sincere, real deal people – I want some of them to be Gwar. You’re right, we can never accurately represent ourselves in anything we do, but the good news is that no one can ever accurately represent us in the recounts of the things we did, either. Reality is a Laffy Taffy, and it’s all melting and sliding through the drain at the bottom of each and every day. I want to reflect what I thought was real at the time, even if I think it’s total farce just a couple minutes later. This reflection of the real, though it quickly becomes farce, is possible in fiction, just like it’s possible in life, that reflection only happens in moments of unwavering belief. You can believe in time. You can believe in money. You can believe in God. You can believe in your lover. You can believe in anything you want. The thing is, you’ve got to believe so much it freezes you to death and the only way to thaw out and survive is to make the thing.
Follow Bud Smith on Twitter @Bud_Smith and email him at email@example.com so you can buy his books.
If you’re interested in doing the Story/Interview format, hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org