“It’s Like Getting to Pittsburgh”: An Interview With Bud Smith

About two years ago I left grad school and got a big boy job. And it was as if someone flipped a switch behind the scenes of my life: all of a sudden, I felt free. And for the first time in a long while, I was able to read books. I could read for fun. I could read without having to worry about wasting time, without having to feel guilty about reading for no other reason than to enjoy it. So I bought books, I bought them from all kinds of stores, from websites, from yard sales. It was great, and I was constantly looking for new stuff to read but didn’t know what to look for. Then I realized that back when I did read books – back before grad school – I had briefly touched upon this world of independent literature that felt so wild and free. So I went back to see what was up, to see what I should be reading, and by convoluted paths over recommendations and tracing out who’s friends with who and mapping out which presses put out which books and etc. and so on, I remember at some point just staring at the evocative and bold cover of Double Bird on the Maudlin House website and thinking “I bet this is good.” Then I looked up some of Bud’s writing and decided “ok, yeah, this is good,” and ordered the dang thing.

 I like books fine. I enjoy reading them. I want to write some myself. It’s a cliché to say that some books are so good you can’t put them down. I don’t like this cliché because I rarely, or almost never, feel this way about books, and because of this I often have a hard time relating to a lot of the general, like, “I’m really into books” culture that you see in the Goodreads twitter feed or plastered all over bookstore novelty gifts. But I have to say that I “rarely” and “almost never” feel this way here, now, because I read Double Bird. I couldn’t put it down. There you go. 

I mostly remember reading it while I walked my dogs. It was June of last year, and I remember walking around in the mornings, the evenings, the middle of the day, near my apartment, on walking trails, all over, book in hand. Just ignoring the dogs and letting them sniff and eat whatever so I could read this thing, this crazy, wonderful thing. I remember I read the title story on the Minuteman Trail in Lexington, MA. I remember reading “Tiger Blood” across the street from my apartment near the big stone with the placard affixed to it that the dogs like to sniff. I remember other stories and where I read them, but that’s a lot of extra detail you don’t need.

But I want to also say that my relationship to Double Bird is more personal than just enjoying it as a book. I like hearing about the moment when someone realizes that they can do something. Haruki Murakami famously said that seeing a baseball player hit a home run convinced him that he could write a novel. Bud Smith has discussed – in his writing and in interviews – his realization that you can just write stories and send them to people when he found a bunch of poetry zines stuck in an overflowing toilet. Bud discovered that there’s no secret club, no secret form you need to fill out to be a writer. You just write. You just write stories and put them out there. Reading Double Bird was that kind of moment for me, in the sense that it changed my perspective of, and appreciation for, the short story. These stories were compact, powerful, strange, down to earth. They had this sense of casual boldness, this kind of punk attitude in which nothing was overly dramatic and serious, but also, in a way, they are equally unpunk, not seeking attention, not looking to be loud and crass or in-your-face or whatever. It felt like I had left reading contemporary fiction behind six years prior, and when I got back, Bud was writing exactly what I was looking for. And seeing that he was this real, normal guy doing this – and not some golden child groomed by a monolithic literary establishment – was my homerun moment, my zine in a toilet moment. Maybe someone will call this my Double Bird moment. Maybe they’ll call this your Zac Smith Interviews Bud Smith moment. Who knows. All I’m getting at is that Bud is why I started writing short stories, why I started reading more short stories, and why I’m here, now, writing this introduction.

I’m not touching any of his other work here in our little preamble. Giving Bud and his writing the full justice they deserve would need a lot more thought, space, and time. I’m also not touching some other personal anecdotes, like how my grandfather, Bud Smith, died the same June I bought Double Bird. And how my father, Terry Smith, came to meet my daughter, Juniper Smith, the following October, and looked at my bookshelf and sort of froze in place, lost in the incongruous thought of his recently deceased father, Bud Smith, having somehow authored a variety of colorful paperbacks that his son, me, Zac Smith, had somehow collected. And, hey, you’re just here to read the interview. I get it. I don’t wanna keep boring you. I’ll hand it over now to the old Smith boys. Let’s see what they got up to this week – the first week of March, specifically, when this interview was conducted.

Hello, Bud, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Your ongoing column at The Nervous Breakdown, Good Luck, is like a weekly diary about whatever is going on in your life, and yet you extract these complex, evocative truths each time. We can follow your adventures on twitter and then see them distilled into this literary object every Thursday. Is Good Luck you trying to articulate some deeper feeling you experience in the moment, or is the take away something you uncover only after you start writing?

Both. Today at a red light I noticed someone had opened their window and thrown candy out into the road. Red and white peppermint suckers. I laughed, thinking about the circumstances that would lead someone to toss these out the window, or really just hang their hand out and let them fall from there palm on the centerline. Why would they do that? And why would I care? I was waiting to leave a retirement community, where my mother-in-law and father-in-law live. The light turned green and I crossed a rather busy road, and ducked my car into a QuickChek parking lot, where my own mother was waiting. She didn’t want to go through the hassle of getting through the retirement community’s security gate (she couldn’t anyway because her name was not on the list of approved visitors) so I was meeting her at the convenience store, where she had gifts for my mother-in-law. She had made her a pot of “flowers”, I don’t want to call them artificial flowers, they were made of stainless-steel wire, with the inside of the petals formed with wood glue, and then nail polish on top of the clear wood glue. The flowers look so beautiful, and it was such a gray and dreary day. They were a “get well” present for my mother-in-law, from my mother. A robot had gone down my mother-in-law’s throat and into her lung, where it cut out two tumors. I hugged and kissed my mom and then she left the QuickChek and I sat there in the parking lot of awhile, thinking about the stupid shit I’m always thinking about. There was a giant green sign over the front door.  Chek? Like Czechoslovakia? Wait no… Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic now. Not the ChekRepublic. QuickChek wasn’t trying to draw the Czechs from the community. I drove back into the retirement community, past the peppermint candy, up to the booth, where the kid in the tan uniform sat behind the glass. His uniform said “Police” but he wasn’t a cop. He had fluffy brown hair, down an inch past his ears, wire framed glasses and a beard. I told him where I wanted to go and then I gave him my name. He checked it in the computer, I was all clear. The arm lifted up and I was free to go. My mind was on other things though, and I took a wrong turn and found myself lost in the retirement community. The houses all looked the same and there was an endless line of them. Which was the house that had rejected the peppermint candies? I rolled down the window and took some photographs. Such a sad place. A sprawling labyrinth of American fake plastic Legoland for the dying. I turned around and went back to the community’s main drag, I’d been on Dante Drive, the whole time I saw, and snapped a picture. I took one of the wire flowers out and stuck it in the vent, so I could see something bright my mother had made.

We’ve talked a little bit about the process of making art and music before, and pretty recently, you got deep into the rabbit hole of interviews with studio engineers and the like behind famous and important records. What draws you to these more oblique angles on the process of making a landmark album?

The world is full of wonder and is more than half good. I need reminders. I’m trying to remain an “interested party” in whatever I find good in the world. Or at least, the world can’t be more than half bad. I’m seeking wonder, because doom finds me and everybody else without us trying. But, yeah, I’m looking around, paying big attention to beauty, wherever it’s hiding, so I don’t die too soon from misery. Sometimes it’s hiding in the way Pet Sounds was recorded, other times it’s hidden in one of the drawers of Tove Jansson’s desk. I’m happy to be over here in this junkyard full of art when I can, keeps me going. 

Are your goals in writing separate from your status as an “interested party”? I ask because your writing has been – and continues to be – very relatable, down-to-earth, person-centric. Good Luck always seems to center on not so much just displaying your own life to the reader, but some specific person, a specific decision they have made or action they’ve taken.

 I’d like to think it’s all specific. I gave up on a lot of things I didn’t enjoy to give myself more time to do what I do enjoy, right now I’m enjoying writing the Good Luck column. And the hope is that my life is my work, and my work is my life, that old thing. And I’m making art in the direction of trying to learn something new, I’m just like any other writer out there, I’m a student trying to be able to open my eyes wider. I’m consuming art in the same mode I think, too. Fuel for fire so as not to freeze to death. But also fuel for fire as a signal that others can see. But also fuel for fire to roast marshmallows. 

 You’ve written before about doing your writing on your phone, and more recently you’ve written about doing your writing by hand, and now by typewriter. Do you feel like an author’s approach to writing – the act of writing itself – deserves some of the spotlight alongside the final product? 

No, it doesn’t deserve much of the spotlight. It doesn’t matter how something is made. It’s like getting to Pittsburgh. How are you going to get to Pittsburgh? Will you drive your car? Will you fly? Will you ride a motorcycle? Will you walk? It doesn’t really matter. You’re just on your way to Pittsburgh and once you get there, you still have to figure out, “Why did I come here?” and then you have to start over, from the beginning and explain it all, every mile of the journey. The typewriter thing crept up on me, I’d gone to see the writer Joseph Grantham in Woodland, North Carolina, and he had a great typewriter and was doing his work on that, and for the first time I sat down at his desk and wrote a short story on a typewriter and it was nice, was something different. Then I went back to Jersey City and I was sitting around my apartment, looking at my library of books and thinking most of them were written before computers, and were pecked out on a typewriter in multiple thoughtful drafts, and I just wanted to try that. Add to that that I was just sick to my stomach with looking at my laptop, and even sicker to my stomach looking at websites on my cell phone… So, I bought an Olivetti 32, and now I peck away at that two hours or so every day after work. Mostly, the typewriter is nice because it slows me down, and somehow after all these years I learned how to actually type the correct way. Now I’m not writing books, I’m walking to Pittsburgh carrying a typewriter, and I don’t know why but it’s fun, and fun is most important. 

Does the lack of fancy editing capabilities on the typewriter help you abstract away from the idea of a “finished product” during the writing stage? Not being able to delete whole passages, rearrange stuff, change the formatting as an embedded part of writing…what was this switch like for you? Have you noticed any changes in how you focus, where you start, that kind of thing?

I’m not sure. I’m always able to sit down and focus in just a minute or two. Or I’m just oblivious to other things (in a minute or two), maybe that’s the better way to think about it. And I can’t stress it enough, the typewriter is not really an answer. Anything works. Laptops, pencils, pens, dictating, who cares? An artist just keeps playing and the playing eventually gets called their precious life’s work. The trick is to keep playing as seriously as you can while trying to forget you mean business. Artists make medicines that cure the most dire injuries to the human spirit. For some artists the creation of the art is itself an injury to the spirit – if nothing else, it’s the heaviest manual labor around. I’ve been hurt by it, too, sure. But as with most other injuries, time is the only answer to heal it. So you give it your time. And you keep going, kicked around but glowing.   

As far as editing…deleting whole passages and copy pasting, I was never one to do any of that in my first three drafts, anyway. That was always something I considered doing much nearer the end, the final draft(s). Besides, I will probably always line edit on the laptop, it just makes practical sense to me. Batch search, find and replace, formatting, etc. If I was tasked to build a new pyramid somewhere, I might draft the blueprints on paper, but I’d use a crane to set the blocks. Writing a book is building a pyramid and you’re allowed to build your pyramid however you want, the only suggestion is, build it in a way that doesn’t collapse on you and your friends while you’re still alive. 

Speaking of blocks, Good Luck episode 17, “Block”, came out during the conduction of this interview. How’s your writing block coming? I’ve been reading out loud to Jessica while she nurses the baby at bed time. They’re both big fans.

Luckily, I’ve never gotten writer’s block, there’s always been something to write about, and some work to do, so “Block” was just some thoughts on the convoluted nature of inspiration … I liked writing that specific piece because it’s a doorway into some other writing I was going to explore in the Good Luck series, and that is the ‘fictional essay’, not quite a short story, more of how a personal essay explores a theme and tries to sell some ideology or lack thereof, but which plays with the lens of real/unreal. So this Thursday’s piece, “Rewrite,” will be about agency, and responsibility of what we write about, ownership for who we hurt in the real world with our writing…not to make more of that series of writing, but I feel on the right track when I suspect this piece I’m making now, in this moment, is a bridge to that next piece and so on. Most effective (with all kinds of projects, novels and poetry collections and even letters to friends) is when I can sense that feeling, “Oh if I write this, then I’ll know what comes next.” And just follow the thing down to Happy Hell. 

Do you listen to music while you write? While you read?

If I’m alone, I don’t put music on. I live in the city, so there’s the sounds of the city all the time right out the window, and that’s music enough. Same thing at work. My day job is at an oil refinery right now, so I have all the industrial noise I can stand, so that’s happening while I write on my breaks. However, if my wife is home, she puts music on, and she puts it on loud. We work together in a pink room, her at her art desk, and me over on the other side at my bamboo desk I found on the trash last year, and in between us is this stereo system, and she plays records, mostly Prince, Electric Light Orchestra, and Giorgio Moroder. I like it, I get up sometimes and fix the needle, and other times she gets up does it. Mostly we stay on one side of the album and listen to it over and over again, in a rush to get back to whatever art we are working on at our desks and saying, “That side sounded great. One more time?” So, the needle goes back to the beginning again. 

Your book, F250, from what I can gather, is semi-autobiographical in its major plot points. You built waterfalls for rich people for a living, you drove a shitty truck and got into a lot of accidents, and you played guitar in a noise band. I love this book and I’m going to cut right to the chase and just ask: What was your band was called, and are there any recordings we can hear?

I’ve played some of those recordings for friends, but the band came to an end immediately after the recording of our first album. The drummer passed away. The album was complete but I chose to never have it released, nothing was ever put up for sale. It didn’t feel right to carry on with the music, to even share the music, or talk about the music. To be honest with you, to even play music, after that. I’d been in plenty of bands by that point, but that was the door closing for me. That pushed me into much more of a solitary existence, so deeper and deeper I went into the writing. 

That makes a lot of sense, I’m sorry for being kinda tone-deaf about this. The general feeling I see a lot in writing seems to be that we end up pursuing it as a sort of therapy. Do you feel like the act of writing F250 – confronting this, processing it, putting it out into the world – ended up helping you come to terms with this loss? Was that something you were looking for or expecting?

I don’t think of art as therapy. And if it is a processing, it’s only a half-process. For me to feel like some therapy has happened, I have to speak about the problem face to face. It’s beneficial to write down what you think, or to write towards understanding what you think. But for me a true therapy happens speaking with a live person, who can tell you to shut the fuck up as you are saying dumb shit, or that same person nodding and listening and agreeing because you’re being self-aware enough to speak your pain for the first true time – that’s really how the demons get exorcised.

You’ve talked previously about giving up on other artistic pursuits – drawing, making music – in favor of writing. It feels like it’s paying off because you have had this incredible outpouring of beautiful work, but with the way we commodify writing (even if there’s no money in it), do you ever worry about not having some low-pressure space to just fuck around? To make something like a Buddhist sand mandala where there is no final product?

All I can think about it is connecting with other people. That’s what I get out of the art I experience. I go into that art to spend time with that artist (most likely a dead artist). Everything I make, I make in that spirit: It’s for someone else, to connect with them. I’d argue that a sand mandala has a final product – the final product only lasts for a little while, though. The books I’m writing now most likely will only last for a little while too. The Good Luck column will soon be deleted. The paperbacks will go out of print. That kind of thing. It’s all temporary, and temporary is best. 

What does it mean, for you, to connect with someone? I personally struggle with feeling like my heart only has so much room in it, that I’m always letting people down or shutting them out, but you’re this really positive, active, supportive personality in our small little scene. And reading dead authors is very directional – you gain their perspective, you experience their experiences. Do you view your books as serving this end – passing on your slice of reality – or as a more active, sort of common ground for connecting with people in the flesh (or over email)?

To me, connecting with people is picking up the phone, writing letters, writing poems for people (Kurt Vonnegut said the world would be nicer if people wrote poems for their friends, and he was right). Also, hey, I’m not reading dead people on purpose, it’s just that it takes a long time for our messages to get out and most of the time when people finally see the starlight, the star is dead, that light having traveled from so far away. I write my own novels to connect, and to give my life a little more purpose. I liked my life before, I like my life a little more now. That’s a good direction to live in. But it’s all to connect, and connecting is necessary because I don’t want to do this alone. I want to be in a community of artists. The real world for me is made up mostly of time spent with my coworkers who don’t read books, and would never think about painting or drawing or playing a musical instrument. I love them but I feel like half of my personality is suppressed by being around them. So even during the workday, I need to communicate with artists, somehow. And mostly it’s social media. Or a phone call. And when I write, I write with people like my coworkers in mind, because they are the average inhabitants of earth, unpretentious and “normal,” so when I make art, I try to make it so they would not feel locked out of it. I don’t want to lock anyone out. I am trying to communicate as clearly as possible, yes the message sent, its subject matter, may be stranger than they would expect, but hopefully I’ll connect with people somehow and what I say is useful to them, because if it’s useful to them it’s useful to me. 

And related to this, you mentioned that people should feel free to email you their novels in WORK, did anyone take you up on that?

Yes, plenty of people have sent me their books after WORK came out. I read Juliet the Maniac immediately after Juliet Escoria read WORK for an interview about it. I’m reading a novel manuscript by Jon Lindsey right now, which is really good. It’s always been this way though, exchanging writing is important, no matter what comes of the notes, because creating in a void, to me, is too lonely, too much like writing in a maze of funhouse mirrors. I like when another human says, “Hey almost … Hey you’re almost there, go back in the funhouse and break some mirrors and find some other angles to get yourself out of the maze.” 

Are there any albums you know so much about that you could just dive into writing one of those 33 1/3 books about?

I could write one about Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about that album, even though I’m married to a flutist. What’s your history with it? And what in it should I listen for?

 It’s a parody of a concept album, the lyrics based on a fake epic poem put forward as being written by an eight-year-old boy, who is on the album cover being given a prize. The album art itself is a fake newspaper with fake ads and fake stories. The epic poem was put to music by Jethro Tull, and in reality, there is no eight-year-old boy, that’s fake, Ian Anderson just wrote the songs. There are two sides of music on the LP, one continuous song broken up by the room allotted in the vinyl pressing. The music is progressive rock, but to me, unpretentious, and I love the ebb and flow and circling back to the main “theme” which is the melody of the namesake song. It’s a serious piece of art but it has so many layers of humor, this is fake that is fake, that it reminds me of Don Quixote. The depth of mirrors and mirrors. Funhouse mirrors, again.


Bud Smith is a writer from New Jersey. He works heavy construction, too. In 2019 his next novel Teenager will be published by Tyrant Books. 

Zac Smith lives in Boston, MA, where he likes to walk his dogs. His stories have appeared in Hobart, X-R-A-Y Lit, Philosophical Idiot, Soft Cartel, and other very sweet online journals. His twitter is @ZacTheLinguist.

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