The stories in Bud Smith’s latest, the memoir WORK, feel like someone talking straight to you, the reader, intimate and free of pretention or tricks. Which is the trickiest trick of all. This is finely crafted writing, pretending to be simple, refreshingly free of gimmicks, showy language, or lessons. These are stories about the ordinary tragedies of life, things that are so sad they’re funny, like family video stores burning down, and working on Christmas, and trying to go on a date with the woman who would one day become your wife, except your truck is so shitty its gas tank is leaking and so you have to figure out a way to covertly pour gasoline from a bucket into your holey gas tank. Bud Smith and I talked about the book’s genesis, being labeled a “working class writer,” and something called grave blankets via a Google doc.
I was curious about your process of making WORK. I like book birthing stories.
There’s an anecdote in WORK about my dad refusing to salt our front steps in the winter. I was trying to get them salted so my girlfriend would come over and bang, but my dad was standing his ground. Anyway, he eventually slipped and almost paralyzed himself. When I first met Ben Loory, I told him that story and he laughed and said, ‘You should write that one down.’ I hadn’t written any non-fiction up to that point. I guess sometimes, all people need is a little encouragement. I started writing down all the anecdotes I’d tell friends at bars, or parties, or over the telephone. But I didn’t want the writing just to be Bud’s Secret Diary, so I kept my eyes open for some venue to run these pieces. I thought it’d be cool to have a column somewhere. I saw Adam Robinson put up a post on Facebook asking for pitches for the website Real Pants. I was very drunk, and warm, and happy, so I sent a message asking if I could send stories about my day job in construction, and by extension of that, how to fit creativity into what’s left of the day. He wrote back, ‘Sure.’ I called the column Work Safe or Die Tryin’.
That’s how this book started. I wrote each piece on my cellphone on Tuesday morning during my coffee break at the refinery. Most the pieces I finished and posted by the end of my lunch break on the same day. The deadline generated the material. That’s all that did it. It was Adam Robinson answering my question, ‘How often should I post a piece?’ with this answer: ‘I don’t know, how about every Tuesday?’ He could have said once a month and then there would be no book right now.
How long did it take you to write?
A year. I ran out of things I wanted to talk about, so I stopped. There was no grand declaration or ceremony. Sometimes books feel like that. They feel like somebody planting a flag on the top of a mountain. There are no mountains in New Jersey, so this book had no flag planted in it when it was done. I sent it out, and CCM took it to publish. There wasn’t too much content editing. So that was cool.
But … of course, a month or two before it was set to be due for printing, I decided to delete almost half of the book because I suddenly didn’t think it was that interesting. So, I started writing down more anecdotes. Things less about my day job and more about my personal life, and my adolescence and how I felt growing up in a campground. I was fucking the book up and it was great.
My good friend Joey Grantham was living with me then, and he pushed me to write down other little stories from my life he’d heard me tell, drunk at the kitchen table. And that’s how it goes sometimes. You just follow the bouncing ball, and you stay with the thing, and you try and let yourself be a jackass, and, in my case, a brother, a son, a friend, a coworker, a husband, a little kid with a bloody mouth, a person rushing at a deadline trying to squeeze the last sweet stuff from the juice box.
I called the book WORK because it’s partly stories about my day jobs in heavy construction, but it’s also how you have to work at relationships with your friends and family, and love interests and all that; but, also, it’s about chasing art and finding time in your life to make art, even though it sometimes feels like a big old roadblock. Someone the other day told me that WORK is a self-help book. So yeah, I wrote a self-help book because my dad fell down the icy stairs and almost died and a friend laughed when I told them, and because another friend said, every Tuesday.
You’re a “working class writer” without an “MFA” or even a “college degree.” Do you mind being pigeonholed this way? I’m married to someone who people consider an “outsider” because he’s from West Virginia. Fancy NYC writer people have said a lot of dumb shit to him over the years, and made a lot of dumb sweeping generalizations. What sorts of sweeping generalizations do fancy NYC writer people tend to make about you, and “working class writers” in general?
When I think of my life, I don’t think of the life as being solely a member of the blue collar work force. And I don’t consider myself solely a writer, so I’m fine to be pigeonholed as an outsider artist or as a working class artist, or whatever. Less stress. I like it. I live in this bubble of noise and traffic, and I try and do my work, whatever that is.
I think most of the surface level stuff they assume about me is pretty spot on. I’m pretty up front to people I meet. But I guess to strangers, I come off like a goon who slipped and fell and got his dick caught in a typewriter.
People don’t say too much dumb shit to me. Everybody is kind, face-to-face, because life isn’t a John Hughes movie. If high-fallutin’ people think you are a Neanderthal posing as a writer, they keep it to themselves, because, ya know, they might get strangled to death by a Neanderthal writer poser in a fancy public place. And that is something that money can never make not embarrassing.
I don’t get into the whole, Am I good enough for people? thing. I kind of enjoy not being good enough for certain people. It’s a freedom. I haven’t met the crowd yet that is truly against working class writers. Most writers I know who aren’t working retail or working in the service industry, are struggling as adjunct professors. There is no job in America right now that is as hard, or as underappreciates as adjunct professor. I don’t know a single fancy NYC writer person dirtbag. All the ones I know are good people. If I decide to know them and I find out they aren’t good people, it’s the easiest thing to not know them.
Why didn’t you go to college? With my education, I got myself in a lot of debt and then found a job that pays horribly, working as an adjunct at both a community college and a university. The two populations I teach are wildly different. At the community college, a lot of my students are completely unprepared for school, purely on a practical level. It makes me think a lot about our higher ed. system in general—why some people go to college, and why others don’t, and why some people start and then quit, and how complicit I am, as an educator, in this mess of student debt our country has put our young people in. Is going into debt for a degree even worth it?
It’s worth it. Yeah. It’s like playing the lottery, just with your future. I see these kids taking the dive and deciding that their writing is worth $30,000 dollars (or whatever to them). I mean, I bought a car seven years ago, and it cost $30,000. That car is going to the junkyard soon, but a person who graduates with a degree might live a hundred years and always have that knowledge, that experience. That seems worth so much more than $30,000. What a foolish sonofabitch I was. What a foolish sonofabitch I continue to be.
When I was 23 and working as a stone mason, I wanted to be a writer, but I sucked at it. I just had such a shitty view of things, too. My family had hinted that they would put me through community college, but when that time came, everyone was shocked at how much it all cost, because none of them had ever gone to college.
Turns out there was no money for it. I had none and they had none. It was just such a Holy fuck moment, and the person at the college was trying to sign me up for a loan, but because of the money fear, I decided right there, out of like, panic and cold feet, Nah, this isn’t for me.
I continued to mix cement and dig holes. I figured you could learn to be a writer for free by reading books at the public library. Ah, the Good Will Hunting Method. I still believe you can do that. But I also think that people need a mentor. A guide. And that’s what college is: a group of paid guides. They save you so much fucking time. They lead you through your personal maze and show you how to ask yourself endless questions. And that’s what fixes the jam. The bright light bulb popping off, letting you know to ask the questions about yourself.
I bumbled along on my own, reading paperbacks recommended to me by Amazon algorithms. I think I found George Saunders that way, and it was an ah-ha moment. I’d just never seen contemporary MFA-style writing before. People are so mad at Amazon, but they told me to read Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Tim O’Brien. Now I read things written by people who are 23, people who didn’t mix cement for a living, who went to college for writing and I’m just like, Oh my god, you’re so much farther along than I was at that age. I love it. That’s the thing that inspires me. I ask those people, what books did your professors have you read? And then I try and read those books. I don’t think a hunger for knowledge is something to ever knock.
You talked about something called “grave blankets” in your book, and I figured it was some sort of blanket people put on people’s graves. But then I looked it up, and it turns out grave blankets are elaborate floral arrangements made mostly from pine tree branches. Is this a New Jersey thing? I don’t understand.
I don’t understand it either. It’s a superstitious thing that people do for the dead. My mom used to go and put one on her mother’s grave every winter. Evergreens. I had a job where I’d drive up into the mountains outside of the state and gather the clippings. We’d roam around for a couple days drinking beer and filling up a trailer with branches, and then we’d bring them back to the farm market by the beach and make wreaths and grave blankets. Maybe people bought them because they made the cemetery look less depressing, the same reason they bring flowers in the spring. I always liked the idea of evergreens, you just keep living and living and the seasons change but there they are, hardly any different.
Your book feels really positive, and so do your answers. It’s refreshing. I feel like it’s so easy to be cynical. I am guilty of this. That’s one thing I love about Work, and also your writing in general. You’re finding beauty and pleasure in simple things, things most people would ignore, but you’re also not oversimplifying things or putting a fake spin on it. But it makes me wonder: what pisses you off?
Plenty of stuff pisses me off. I try not to write about it because I’ve been conditioned from my real life that “Nobody wants to hear your bitching.” I like to think I’m usually writing about people who are dealing with things that are within their control and letting go of the things that are beyond their control. Maybe that constitutes happiness? Letting things slide that you can’t make better and focusing on the limited amount of things you can make better for yourself, your family, your community.
I do my fair share of shit talking in person, and I feel more comfortable thinking of myself as a pessimist than an optimist because when you expect things to go wrong, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when they accidentally go right. But I’m not much of a cynic. I believe people err towards good because that is more their nature than not. However, I don’t like anyone that doesn’t have empathy. I don’t get along with people who are always under the impression that they are getting fucked by life. Some writers piss me off because they come across as so entitled. They complain about anything that doesn’t go their way. Like the people who bitch about getting form rejection letters. Like for real? If you don’t like form letters just wait till the editors personally show up at your house and wup your ass as a rejection with a capital R. Or the people who are mad their books aren’t selling. Of course they’re not selling, it’s a book, not a bucket of fried chicken. Now those sell.
I want some book recommendations. What are some books that influenced Work?
WORK was influenced mainly by two books by Martha Grover, One More For the People, and The End of My Career. She’s amazing. She writes a lot about her various day jobs, her family, and a chronic illness she has. Her writing is so funny it’s sad, or so sad it’s funny. I want to be that way. Another book that had a huge impact on me that I was thinking of was Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan. He’s written some of my favorite books of all time. After WORK was already sent to the printer, I read Caca Dolce by Chelsea Martin, and I thought, Wow, her book is like a sibling to mine. Caca Dolce and WORK are kinda both these weird animals that stepped in same mutagen on the way to their own fun deformity. Also, when I was editing WORK, I was thinking about a couple books whose structure I liked (ones jumping around non-linear/emphasis on small ‘chapters’): This Might Be The Place by Sean Doyle; Potted Meat by Steven Dunn; Literally Show Me A Healthy Person by Darcie Wilder. A lot of people won’t tell you what their influences are because they think it makes them look less like an original talent. I don’t believe that. I just believe those people who keep their influences secret are assholes.
Bud Smith is the author of WORK (CCM, 2017), Dust Bunny City (Disorder Press, 2017), among others. He lives in Jersey City, NJ. Twitter: @bud_smith
Juliet Escoria wrote Black Cloud (CCM/Emily Books 2014) and Witch Hunt (Lazy Fascist 2016). She was born in Australia, raised in Southern California, and currently lives in West Virginia.