“Maybe everything you ever lose just makes room for what really belongs in your life”: An Interview with Bud Smith


I should preface this interview by saying that I’m pretty biased. I think that Bud Smith is one of the coolest, most generous, most consistently wonder-driven writers alive. Maybe the most. I also know him fairly well. A few weeks ago we drove around in a car for far too many hours, reading our books at places in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and North Carolina. Bud messed up while making the road trip playlist, so it ended up having the entire Dinosaur Jr. discography on it. Oh well. We made the best of it.

You know a Bud Smith story when you read one, and, if you’re lucky enough, when you hear one. They’re these stories that often begin with some small germ of reality, just enough to ground you, and then they sprint into the forest of mystery or wonder. They celebrate life, because, for Bud, literally everything is worth celebrating. His newest book of stories, Double Bird, from Maudlin House, is like that, each story diving to the heart of human experience, which, for Bud, is a hell of a deep dive, because it contains so much. Love, hurt, joy, fuck-ups, anger, sadness, rage, youth, age, fear, angst, resurrection, forgiveness. Pick your poison. Whatever it is, there’s a Bud Smith story for you.

And so, you know, we went fishing, and we talked about it.

Gosh, this fishing boat is beautiful. I can’t believe we are about to go out on the water!

A good day for this.

Yeah it’s a beautiful day for fishing. Anyways. I’m glad we are getting around to this interview about your new book, Double Bird.

Double Bird is an ideal book for fishing. Thanks for talking with me about it.

Why would you say it’s an ideal book for fishing?

The stories are mostly flash, hovering around 1000 to 2000 words, and it’s easy to look up from the book and go about whatever activity. Like, for instance, checking your fishing line. The worst book to ever take fishing would be War and Peace. The stories in Double Bird are aligned with the patience of a fish.

I’m trying to think of a worse book to take fishing than War and Peace. Have you heard of László Krasznahorkai? All of his books are basically one sentence long. That would ruin a fishing trip.

Haha. Haven’t heard of László. But I don’t think a person named László could make something boring.

I mean, I love him.

My friend Chuck Howe used to have a purple cat named László. But Chuck passed away and so did the purple cat.

Right after? That’s so sad.

It is sad. But this interview is going to cover these moods: sad, happy, reflective, fearful, apprehensive, sad again, even happier, nostalgic, unsentimental, and finally, triumphant.

I’ll keep that in mind. I imagine the fearful part will be when one of us hooks a stingray. Anyways, back to Double Bird. There are 40 stories in it! That’s so many. And they span some years, if I’m right. How did you put it together?

I wrote stories since my last collection was put together in 2011. So seven years of stories. At some point I found that about half of them worked together, and maybe belonged together, and they became Double Bird. The Double Bird stories all revolve around a lynch pin that is a stack of notebooks found in a room in an asylum. Most of the stories are excerpts from those journals, which are found in story “Junior in the Tunnels.”

The Double Bird stories are all mostly about outcasts, rejects from society, and some meta ones that are about the author of the book, me.

The fifty or so stories that didn’t make the cut are more realistic, less surreal, and didn’t feel like they belonged in this collection. I also don’t really have plans on doing anything else with them. I think that it’s okay to write three or four stories and only want to save one.

All that makes sense, especially since you really set the tone for the collection by beginning with “Tiger Blood,” which is truly one of my favorite stories of all time, since it is founded on such an absurd but beautiful idea that, in the end, has been true all along

Life is always like that. We get taught to doubt rather than believe. We get taught that magic is foolish and wonder is dangerous. “Tiger Blood” is about finding out that you’re not as good as you thought you were but it’s okay. It’s okay to not be good enough for everyone. It’s also about how you shouldn’t think you even have half the answers. This place we live in will only ever surprise you.

And thanks for saying “Tiger Blood” is one of your favorite stories. That means a lot.

Yeah, that’s the best part of it. I’ve heard you read it probably seven times now, and every time I watch people’s faces when you get to the part of the two of them looking through the microscope, and realizing that there are actual tigers in the girl’s blood — every time you read that, at least one person in the audience starts to laugh and another starts to cry.

I think some of these stories may be misinterpreted as humor. There’s very few jokes in here. But yeah the ones who cry are getting the most out of it. Doesn’t it hurt to find out you were wrong? It feels so good to be hurt.

It feels good to be hurt and know that maybe you deserved it a little bit, yeah.

When you find out you were wrong, anything else can happen to you. Being right is the quickest path to a boring life.

Isn’t that true?

Also, I like reading “Tiger Blood” out loud and for a while I’ve been writing stories with reading them out loud almost as a default. Not as a performance. But like, I want to read someone a bedtime story or something. Double Bird is mostly bedtime stories but there’s a lot of blood.

Do you ever surprise yourself when you write?

Yes, I only write to surprise myself. No story of mine survives if I know the beginning, middle, and end. It has to come along and slap me. Shock me out of the normal day. And I mean, even with stories in realistic modes too. Like I said Double Bird is mostly fable.

I like to think of the act writing as creating a place where you can give yourself as much permission as possible, since the world often doesn’t let you do that.

Exactly. You have a contract with yourself that anything you want to do, here, in the rules of this story, you can do. Of course there’s no rules anyway. Sometimes a story just breaks its own rules and becomes something else, becomes a wild feral thing and you have to decide if it’s worth it to coax it back to your house or just let it sprint farther and farther into the forest.

How do you make that decision?

Well, take a story like “Goblin.”

“Goblin” is this thing I couldn’t control. It made no sense to me and so I just let it do whatever it felt like it wanted to do. A colleague of the late great Barry Hannah reached out and said that story reminded him of a Barry Hannah story. Like, what is going on here? What does this strange thing say? Who knows. When a story is too weird to reel in, you’re better off just letting it get weirder and more lost.

I don’t make too many decisions when I’m writing a story. I just make a decision after if it’s worth trying to get it a reader or if it’s worth putting it in a book. Mostly it just comes down to mood. How did a story make me feel. How did it make others feel. I’m looking for a reaction. But I’m never sure what reaction I really want.

Yeah I feel like some or many writers write stories or poems with some predetermined intent behind them. They want to say something, or respond to something, but maybe don’t trust that if they just let a story run a little bit away from them, it could say more than they ever thought they could.

I mean, Double Bird is two raised middle fingers. But how many times have you gotten the double fuck you from someone who was serious or deserved to be taken seriously? Everybody on this earth is just having fun whether they know it or not.

I believe that it’s worth more, and is full of more joy, and pain, and terror, and peace, if artists don’t pretend like they have a set of keys that can open any door. And besides, even if they do have the answer, and get the right door open, something more powerful and with two heads and glowing eyes flies in through the window and eats your truth anyways. What the creature barfs up, that’s there the real story is.

Haha, I think you might be the Warren Zevon of writing.

He’s one of my favorite dead guys. I liked him so much, I want someone to re-record that album Life’ll Kill Ya though because the electric acoustic guitar sounds so bad and the rest sounds so thrilling. Keep his voice. Fix the guitars. Just a regular Martin mic’d normal.

I think you mentioned that in the car when we were on tour. All I remember saying is that someone should make that “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” song into a novel.

I say it a lot. It’s one of my old man sound bytes. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” and the movie American Werewolf in London have been more influential to me as a short story writer than any book I’ve ever read. Those are Bible stories rewritten by the Brothers Grimm and then rewritten by coked out party people. They’re such bleak, but endlessly beautiful stories. I’m always turned off by the notion that art is supposed to be compassionate. It can be. But it has to happen organically. Compassionate art is usually pandering art. It’s a mean world too. Letting that meanness smile in the light is quite a large mercy.

That’s a bold statement! I think I agree to the extent that I would rather reckon with a troubled and flawed character than one who is easy to like. It’s like how I imagine that heaven must be a really boring place.

Heaven is just boring in that Talking Heads song. But yeah, it’s sickening to read a story about a person who saves cats out of trees and isn’t trying to get something out of the saving of the cats. I’ll put it to you this way: morality in fiction is a drag. Sometimes the drag is more than worth it though.

Hah. What’s the worst thing you’ve forgiven someone for? That’s a loaded question. Also, don’t forget to cast out your line!

I’ve forgiven my grandma for being mad my dad was born and then me. I’ve forgiven the people who poisoned my dogs when I was a kid. Salt and Pepper they were called. I guess they didn’t want to hear them bark. I’ve forgiven the woman who told me when I was a very small child that I didn’t have any talent and I couldn’t be in the ‘gifted and talented’ program that the elementary school had. The art teacher sent me there and after a few days she had me removed from the class on the idea that I didn’t really have any talent. I imagine that’s the thing that always sent me away from academia. That cruelty to a little kid. I’ve forgiven the people I loved who didn’t love me back. They taught me that nobody owes you love back. It’s not a two way street. You can love in one direction and their love back is solely independent. That independence is where actual compassion comes from. Where actual respect comes from. Nobody needs you. Until they decide they do. And that’s amazing. I’ve forgiven all the magicians of the world. And all the rational engineers, too.

Being able to love is just as cool as being loved back. Sometimes people don’t see that.

Yeah. I often get squashed flat just thinking about things I appreciate. Things I love. The most human feeling is the feeling of loving something that is for certain part of your impending demise. It’s like that story in Double Bird, “Gling Gling Gling,” where a man gets hit by a car and he’s dying and a woman just takes him around town so he can run all his errands before he has to leave with a capital L. He’s not even mad. He’s apologizing too. Everybody I know keeps apologizing. They apologize every time they take a breath of air too loud. They apologize when they figure out the secret of life. They apologize when they win the lottery. Whenever they apologize, all you have to do is say, it’s alright, I love you, even though you’re the most annoying person that’s ever been born.

Hah, yeah. Have you ever read the essay “Joy” by Zadie Smith? She talks about how joy is such a wild and crazy emotion because it almost always involves the thought of losing the thing that gives you the most joy. Like a dog. Or a child.

I haven’t read “Joy” but I will shortly. That is true though, fear is the thing driving everybody’s life. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of being a waste of time. Fear of having to become a wraith who lives in a dumpster. Fear of being a bag of hot air that says nothing true. Maybe everything you ever lose just makes room for what really belongs in your life. I wanted to do other things but they didn’t work out, so here I am, afraid these things I’ve planted flags on are going to sink into the lava and disappear forever as well.

Yeah. You guest-taught a college class recently, right? If you had to teach a writing class what would you do?

I’d make them search out the worst story they could find, anywhere in the history of literature, and I’d ask them to rewrite it so it was the best story only they could write.

That’s good! What would you rewrite?

I’d rewrite The Bible, a little piece of it, just like people have been doing since those Bible stories weren’t even a glimmer of a seed of an idea as a bible story. The Bible is just a collection of short stories with an ineffective narrator. I think the biggest problem, and something I’d love to teach and talk about, is how an original thought isn’t something to strive for in a story.

What is, then?

A story should strive to make you question why you believe the things you do and what you can do to become a fuller person. Not a better person. A fuller person. A story should fuck with you. It should have equal parts contempt and respect for its reader.

I’m trying to think of a story that really embodies that.

Best example I can think of is Adaptation by Charlie Kaufman.

Yeah, you were talking about that last time we were together.

Person/a by Elizabeth Ellen is a novel I think really embodies that mode. Also, Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms.

Love that book.

Ulysses. Pale Fire. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell. Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Good Time by the Safdie Brothers.

There’s a Barry Hannah story where he says “The point is to strip down, get protestant, then even more naked. Walk over scorched bricks to find your own soul. Your heart a searching dog in the rubble.”

Yeah. His book Ray is probably the best example of this contempt and respect for the reader. You feel so bad and you feel so soothed. I want to write things where the relationship between the reader and the book is not a happy, benign one. Like I said, I seek out art because I want to learn things through osmosis almost and I want to get shaken up by osmosis. But! It’s also not such serious business!

Which is why we are fishing!

Yeah, other interviews would be at La Closerie des Lilas. Any second now we’ll decide to go to Buffalo Wild Wings.

God, I love Buffalo Wild Wings.

I mean, I think there’s still this big roadblock up that average people, who work average jobs, are not really supposed to make art. But whatever. I want to read the poetry from the bartender at my local Buffalo Wild Wings.

Yeah, sometimes I think the worst thing that can happen to you as a writer is when you start to believe that people deserve to read or hear your work.

Right now if you are reading this interview and you are maybe reading my books, or deciding if you want to, keep in mind that I am just a guy who works heavy construction in North Jersey at powerhouses, refineries, and nuclear plants. I am as far from a professional writer as you can get.

I was going to put that in parentheses every so often anyway, Bud.

If all goes well, I will stay a clown until I die.

I hope so.

Of course there’s no greater underdog in the writing game than the person who puts themselves through an MFA program, by working multiple jobs, who then becomes a teacher, often an adjunct, and who goes off and tries to live their dream of being a novelist, writing during the summer and trying as hard as they can to improve their CV and to gain fellowships and invitation to retreats. I mean, I’m rooting for those people. I hope they are rooting for me too, on my crusade to not do any of those things.

How’s this interview going so far?

This interview is going really great. Oh, look at this, I caught a fish. Yay.

Put it back, Bud!

It’s small. Threw it back.

By the way, I am vaguely one of those people you mentioned, Bud. And I am rooting for you. Though honestly at this point I just want to quit the college academia route and just be a cool high school teacher forever.

I wanted to be a high school teacher. That was my plan. I wanted to teach history. History is just storytelling. I wanted to tell the kids really funny stories about history and make them care because making kids care seemed to just be about being a good public speaker. But I didn’t do that. So now I just write stories instead of telling stories. You got any more questions about Double Bird?

I do have some Double Bird questions! But we got off track.

Off track is the best. I feel like we really covered a lot of the feels.

We did. I should ask you some of the standard interview questions. Like: how did you decide to arrange the book the way you did?

Oh god no. No one cares how I decided to arrange this book. Or if they do care they are worthless.

Instead I’ll ask: if you could imagine one person who is, like, the ideal reader of Double Bird? Like, in the advertisement billboard for Double Bird, there’s a person reading it — who is that person?

The ideal reader of Double Bird is a sixteen year old kid who rides their bike to their job and sneaks off to smoke cigarettes out of view of the security camera and reads a short story from Double Bird while smoking the cigarette. They don’t have a car yet. They are trying to figure out how life works. They are pissed off one minute. The next minute they are giggling. Another ideal reader of Double Bird is someone with no money who emails me and says they have no money and they really want to read my book and so I send them one because they are actual living saints. Another idea reader of Double Bird is a college student. Another ideal reader is a person in jail for doing something unthinkably terrible. Another ideal reader is you. Another ideal reader is an idiot.

Everyone, Bud, everyone should read Double Bird.

Another ideal reader is the head of a college’s MFA program who finds the book refreshing because it’s not a book that would get published by Penguin Books until I’m dead for awhile. Another ideal reader would be a lonely housewife who is sitting by the window wishing more construction workers wrote literary fiction. A final ideal reader would be a person in a hospital bed withering from a terminal illness, who around page 63 pushes the buzzer and pleads with the nurse … “Please bring me Tuesdays With Morrie, instead.”

Haha, I think every copy of Double Bird should come with a tape of you reading “Franklin” or “Tiger Blood” aloud in a house in Asheville.

Franklin” is a story about a little boy who keeps trying to kill himself and who grows up and tries with greater success to kill himself but also, because he wasn’t raised right, he doesn’t even have the skills required to successfully kill himself. It’s about how failure works out in someone’s favor, like nine out of every ten times.

It’s a perfect sad story. I love the final sentence, about how he still doesn’t know the pledge of allegiance.

Someone in England was going to put out some of my short stories in a book. They claimed that English people would really like them. I still hope that one day the good people of England get to read about Franklin, and Tiger Blood, and adjunct professors who decide to go down into the underworld rather than teach at community colleges for like $7. That’s the thing about sad stories … if you write a really sad story then it earns whatever humor is in it. It’s like how going to the funeral of a dearly beloved one can generate the most laughs. You cry so much it turns into a laugh and it means something. It transforms a person. If you are smiling in a story and then you are laughing in a story, you’re not reading a story, you’re reading cotton candy.

It’s amazing how many things we indulge in as a society that are like cotton candy.

You have to. You have to feel good. I always think about the Epic of Gilgamesh. How Gilgamesh had a buddy who was a happy wild man in the wilderness and who was pulled out of the wilderness and taken to society by giving him some beer. He lost all his freedom and he became so sad. But he had beer. Society is slowly strangling us all. But also, society is making a new Lord of the Rings TV show. Most things feel like a consolation prize. Of course, love is not a consolation prize. And neither is being left alone. And neither is an hour of quiet. And neither is saying something to someone who doesn’t want to hear it, and saying it loud enough that they punch you right in your insufferable mouth.

I’m trying to think if I have ever wanted to punch you in the mouth.

Oh my god! The other day I was talking to Joey Grantham about something I was mad about and I mentioned that you said you were mad about it too and he said, “Well if Devin is mad about it then it’s legit because he really is a nice person, you’re not really a nice person.”

Haha, thanks Joey. But I think you’re a nice person. But then again you did put out a book called Two Middle Fingers. So there’s that.

Double Bird has a couple sweet stories in it. “Scanner” is about a janitor who runs down the street dressed like a police officer because he doesn’t trust the police to not shoot everyone. He cares. “Boss” is about a man who begins to hallucinate that he is Andre the Giant even though he is small. His girlfriend helps him get over this mental snap. She is tender. “The Lost Girls” is about a cartoonist whose child is always investigating the death of his mother and then begins to think the neighbor is Amelia Earhart. And the cartoonist doesn’t tell the child they are wrong.

But, you know. I believe people are capable of anything. I believe they are capable of much more good than harm. I believe people don’t try to bring hurt into the world, it’s just here and that hurt gets kicked up like dust when someone sneezes in a filthy room. If you want to be astonished, just look at the window for awhile, and see how many people walk by before a pair walks by holding hands.

We have a great view of birds and fishes here. No people, though.

I thought that was a pair of bobbing lovers. Oh wait. It’s a couple of buoys. From now on I’m just calling people buoys. I’ll call them little scummy waves. I’ll call them loud hungry birds.

Look at that bird, way up there. Do you see it?

That’s a person. That’s a loud hungry person.

I think it’s giving us the finger. Or maybe…two fingers.

That person is so mad. But also I think maybe, if we got to know it better, we’d find out it is a true artist with equal parts respect and contempt for us.



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