The Rumpus Interview with Bud Smith
The first time I met Bud Smith was at the magical Mellow Pages Library in Bushwick where guests had been gathered to read in celebration of co-founder Matt Nelson’s birthday. Smith’s reading was by far the funniest as he shared a stream of anecdotes about his bodega adventures, straight from a stack of index cards. I introduced myself, among minglers sipping drinks and chitchatting about books, and was instantly at ease with his warm-hearted charm. Standing there, listening to him tell his story of a friend who scored a blurb from Ray Bradbury (who read the manuscript as he lay dying), I thought, “I have to be friends with this guy!”
When Smith mentioned the forthcoming release of his latest novel F-250, I jumped at the chance to interview him. I was already somewhat familiar with his poetry. I had read that “he worked heavy construction” and “didn’t have a single college credit to his name” so I knew he’d be interesting.
Smith’s second novel, F-250, takes us elsewhere, but not far, to New Jersey and into the mind of Lee Casey, a stonemason building poolside waterfalls by day, a rock guitarist with his band Ottermeat by night. The band rarely books gigs outside its regular dive, Spider Bar. The owner, Aldo, is the closest thing to family Lee’s got, aside from his roommates/bandmates, Seth, Feral, and his childhood friend, Trish, who all bide their time living in a dilapidated house on the verge of being flattened for the land underneath it. Lee drives a Ford F-250 and maneuvers it with the grace of a legless chicken, brakes weak and bed heavy with work equipment like wheelbarrows and cement. He crashes into everyone and everything, buts leaves those scenes mostly unscathed. And the truck? It keeps on going, too. Eventually, Lee finds himself in the center of a complicated love triangle, first with K Neon, a woman he meets on a beach while on a job, and later with K’s girlfriend, June Doom.
But the greatest thing about Smith’s writing is his refreshing lack of pretense. His observations are keen without being over-extended. He’s a wise storyteller and his heart is obvious and optimistic in every line he writes. I had the honor of asking Bud a few questions about jobs, writing, and almost freezing to death over the course of a weeklong email exchange.
The Rumpus: First the basics. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where are you currently living?
Bud Smith: I was born in Lakewood, NJ, a town where my mom worked on a factory line in an aerosol spray can factory. I grew up in a campground a few towns away from Bayville, which is right by Seaside Heights, famous for that reality TV show Jersey Shore. I live in New York City now, uptown Manhattan, 173rd street, and have lived here for nine years. I have a car that I park on the street. Every morning at 5 a.m. I drive over the GWB and commute into New Jersey for my job. I think I’m the only person that commutes out of NYC to go and work in NJ. There’s something wrong with me.
Rumpus: In one of your bios it says you work heavy construction. Can you tell me more about that?
Smith: I work in the metal trades, as a boilermaker, building and maintaining power plants and oil refineries. It’s a lot of welding and using large mobile cranes to work on huge pieces of equipment that have to be periodically ripped apart and rebuilt. I’ve done that for ten years. It’s a strange job. I still don’t know how I wound up doing this. I blinked my eyes and I was working in an oil refinery, wearing a fireproof suit, hardhat, and steel toe boots. I was twenty-three and suddenly a character in a Bruce Springsteen song.
Rumpus: I want to know about every job you’ve ever had. I’m serious. Indulge me.
Smith: I was eleven or so and got my first real job, scraping the barnacles off a boat parked in the asphalt parking lot of an auto body shop where my dad worked. I asked the owner if I could help out at the shop, changing oil, sweeping up, stuff like that. He brought his forty-foot boat and I scraped barnacles off on a 100-degree day. I probably died. All my guts were cooked solid and I stunk so bad.
I was the kid who use to walk around the neighborhood and ask everyone if I could mow their lawn. I saved up $5 bills and $10 bills until I had a giant stack of cash, like Scarface with small bills, and then I bought two things, a Gibson SG guitar and a crappy car. I didn’t mow any more lawns. I started working at this place that built waterfalls into swimming pools and it was the perfect job for me because it was physical and very creative. It didn’t pay much, and the people I worked for were crazy, like for instance, they’d buy these yucca trees from the mountains of northern Mexico and would pay me like $8 an hour to unload the truck, but the trees were infested with brown recluse spiders. But I didn’t care. I loved that job, I loved building things out of rocks, I loved going to the quarry in the pickup truck and getting a ton and a half of stone and moving it all by hand into someone’s backyard to build a waterfall or to build a stone wall.
For a while I was in business for myself doing that work. But then the union called and I got the construction job. I had no idea what it was to begin with, I took it on a whim. The construction job is totally non-creative but it’s great work because I work with a crew of a couple hundred guys and they’re all the funniest, far flung people I’ve ever known.
Rumpus: Do some jobs work as a way of exorcising demons, or is it all about the hustle?
Smith: The jobs have 100 percent exorcised demons. The waterfall job made me a much more creative person. It made me realize how vital it is for me to always be making something. It’s the only time I’ve made any real money being creative. And if I didn’t live in NYC, I’d still be doing that. Back when I was sixteen to twenty-two or so, I was playing in bands, and writing music a little bit, but I wasn’t doing much writing, hardly any at all. When I got the heavy construction job, I didn’t want to make music anymore because a close friend of mine who’s been in the band had died in his sleep and I wasn’t into the group creative process anymore; it hurt too much to think of working with people and then having to watch the relationship disintegrate and watch all the work of the art vanish as the band imploded.
I started to write. It was solitary, but I like that. Everyday I wrote something. It was a fit. At the construction job, I had a little time to sit off to the side and work on things. I’m terrified of having a desk job. If I ever got one, I don’t think I could do the writing I do. Last year I got offered a job in New York City in advertising. I think that would have killed me. The chemicals and the stuff I breathe at work are killing me, but at least I’m fulfilled in what I do, and the time as energy it allows me to create.
Rumpus: Chuck Palahniuk, who started out as a diesel mechanic, wrote in notebooks between his days repairing trucks and writing tech manuals. He blew all that off after Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club made him a bonafide rock star. Do you eke out stories like that while you’re working, or do you have a more structured routine, like before or after work, weekends, etc.?
Smith: I wrote F-250 on my iPhone at work. I wrote on my coffee breaks and my lunch breaks and a little bit at the end of the workday while the parking lot was clearing out (I don’t like to fight traffic). All in all probably forty-five minutes a day for a month. What I did was, I made index cards of what 1,200 words would vaguely cover and I brought the index card with me to work, in my pocket and I tried to write what was outlined on the card during the work day.
My job isn’t really too labor intensive. If something is really hard on the human body, we get a machine to help us, whether it’s rigging like chain falls or cranes or a fork lift. I do have to pay close attention while I’m working. My job is very dangerous. But I do get down time during the day. I try to write at work, squeezing time out of my day as I can, and edit at night after work or on the weekends. I probably don’t think things out as much as I should but I like these things to be an adventure.
Rumpus: How long did it take you to write F-250? Can you take me through the process of getting it published?
Smith: So F-250 took four or five weeks for a rough draft. Wrote it on my cellphone at work. Remember those index cards I was mentioning? Well, what I did as I edited it, after the whole thing was done being written, I edited the book card by card, marking it up after the scenes were edited. When it was all finished, the publishers (Piscataway House) who did my first novel, Tollbooth, wanted to know if I had anything else. I emailed the manuscript and about a month later the press sent me an audio file that was over an hour long. It was a critique of the novel from four editors at the press. They talked in a circle about what they liked about the book and what they thought needed work. For a month after that I worked on rewrites and then sent that back to the press. They had a few more suggestions. Some more things were fleshed out. Then the book went to the copyeditor. He was quick, a couple weeks. At this point I sent the PDF around to people I admire and begged them to blurb the book. I got lucky and everyone said yes. The photo on the cover was taken by the publisher Mark Brunetti and he has a junky cellphone, so that’s why the cover looks kind of blurry, and my wife and I designed the book cover, so the whole thing is really punk rock and pretty DIY, but I think that’s really in spirit with what’s inside the book. Maybe F-250 is not the most polished final product, but I think it has just as much grit and heart as a Fugazi album. So yeah, there’s that.
Rumpus: Earlier you mentioned a Gibson SG. Being in a band. Retiring that to write after your friend died. Your character, Lee, a musician with the dream of making it big with his band Ottermeat in LA, finds himself in a similar situation. Do you still have that Gibson?
Smith: I do still have that guitar. It did break, the neck snapped off, but I got it repaired. The other day a friend of mine called me up and said that there’s a recording studio on 185th street, and he’s dating a girl who lives on 207th—so, he’s hinted that we should start rehearsing at the studio, making songs or something. I don’t know what will come of it. I’m not very good at telling people no. I’m especially not very good at telling a friend no.
Rumpus: Lee is also involved in about a billion car accidents in the first half of your novel. But luck seems to buffer his blows from bearing too much liability. Have you been involved in a crazy amount of car accidents yourself? How are you still alive?
Smith: I’m alive! And yeah, way too many wrecks, but it’s probably only been five crashes my whole life, and four of them were because my pickup truck was weighed down so heavy from when I had my own business building the waterfalls into swimming pools and it was raining or the road was icy. This was before I had a cellphone and I never got in a collision while drinking and driving or anything like that. I used to drive around with, legit, a ton of stone in the back of the truck, it was hard to stop. [Laughs]
All my crashes were when I was twenty-one, twenty-two, maybe twenty-three. I stopped smashing into people when I got a different vehicle, when I changed my line of work. But I was just in a new crash last year, nine years later! And this one wasn’t even my fault. Here’s what happened: so I’ve got this car now that I drive up and down the NJ Turnpike into NYC every day, and one day during last summer, I was driving towards a tollbooth that had this big sign hanging over it that said LINCOLN TUNNEL to the left and GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE to the right—I was in the far left lane, headed towards the EZ Pass and there was a tractor-trailer truck in the lane next to me and I’m being careful not to be in its blind spot or anything. The tractor-trailer suddenly locks up its brakes and there all these squealing and smoke and this silver car cuts in front of the tractor-trailer. The silver car narrowly misses being crushed by the truck, but it crosses into my lane and is perpendicular to me when I crash into its rear fender, right at the driver’s side back wheel. We skid out, plastic flying everywhere, my hood caved in, the silver car smoking and popping and parked backwards next to these orange cones that are acting like a stand in median so nobody gets confused and drives into oncoming traffic at the toll plaza.
Except the driver of the silver car saw the sign above the tollbooth and COULDN’T GO TO NEW YORK CITY because it terrified her, so she did a high speed U-turn in front of the booth to stay safely in New Jersey.
The truck driver screamed at her and I told him to shut up. He rolled through the tollbooth and I sat for a while in my car, waiting for the cops. The cops didn’t come. So I walked over to the lady and we exchanged information and she was pretty upset so I convinced her to come and sit in my car for a while and calm down and stop weeping and wait for the cops to show up.
She was shaking and overly apologetic and I said, “Hey, it’s just a car. Don’t worry.” We listened to the radio and after a minute she was okay, cooled off. We started joking around about how our airbags didn’t go off and how that was a great thing because the airbags really burn when they go off, all the powder getting in your eyes. We both knew.
The cops came and one of the officers was a real hard ass, he started yelling at her when she said she did the U-turn, and specifically why she did the U-turn (afraid to enter NY State). I told the cop to stop yelling at her, and he did listen to me, which is the weirdest thing, because people never listen to you when you tell them not to scream, but this one cop did, this one time. I’ll take it.
Rumpus: Was the love triangle thing between June Doom and K Neon based on a real-life poly romance, too? Cool names by the way.
Smith: Yeah, briefly I had a relationship like the one in the book. Blink-of-an-eye-type thing, though, nothing to write a book about!
A lot of the relationships in F-250 were in response to ones going on when I was about twenty-one, ones I’d seen—a friendship would end because of a girl, standard stuff. There were hurt feelings and sometimes a fight. But funny things happened then that still make me laugh, like a girl we all knew who ran off to “join the circus,” who started dating a carnival worker (carnie). She was pregnant with our friend’s baby and there she went—off to the damned circus!
As far as the poly relationship stuff, my own experience with it didn’t last long, I wasn’t mature enough, and that’s what those things seem to really be about, maturity and knowing exactly who you are in life. At twenty-one I hadn’t figured it out yet.
Rumpus: Oh, and was there really an incident where you pushed a BMW into a lake with a truck after almost being shot? Not that I’m implying that your novel is in any way autobiographical.
Smith: I didn’t push a BMW in a lake and I was never shot at. There haven’t been a whole lot of firsthand encounters with guns in my life. I’m happy about that. There was one night when I was sitting in a house that was selling opium, and a kid who’d bought some opium came back with a handgun and demanded this money back because he was ripped off. He claimed he’d been sold beat opium! Everyone in the house was high as hell, and so yeah, he had a gun, he got his money back, and he left! Bye! See you later!
I spent most of my time in the New Jersey suburbs. Guns weren’t around. I finally got to shoot some guns for the first time in my life just a few months ago. My dad has an AR-8, one of those machine gun looking things, semi-automatic, we went out into the sand pits and shot a hundred rounds off or so and then it was like, “Okay, what next? Wanna go get a hamburger?”
Rumpus: I read somewhere that you’ve never been to college. Is that right?
Smith: I didn’t go, yeah, I could have gone, probably should have gone, but I didn’t go, because I wanted to be in a touring band or I wanted to be a novelist. I couldn’t figure out why I should give a college $80,000 for either of those things. I know a lot of people who’ve gone to college to do the writing thing and I think they probably did a great thing for themselves. But I’m terrified of winding up with a desk job. I don’t think I’d be a good college professor or anything like that. I saved everyone a lot of time by not going. When I’m curious about something I study it on my own time. Or I get in a conversation with someone smarter than me and just ask them.
Rumpus: Autodidacts write like no other. Like wild, raw empaths. Bradbury was one. Taught himself how to write by devouring stacks of books in libraries. Donald Ray Pollock literally worked in a factory for thirty years before he got “discovered.” Can you think of any more?
Smith: I had to type autodidact in the google search bar to see what it’s defined as. And they say that Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting is an autodidact. [Laughs] “How do you like them apples?”
For writers, I don’t know any artistic autodidacts in my real life, but I think that’s just because most writers have the sense and survival instincts to educate themselves formally.
Ray Bradbury was a hero of mine, for sure—he was supernaturally good, and I’ve read some Donald Ray Pollock, and found his work to be so truthful it didn’t read anywhere in the spectrum of fiction, but generally, my day to day isn’t filled with knowledge of who does what academically, and who would be an autodidact, but is probably more in tune with who can weld aluminum or other stainless steels without any big instruction or who knows how to put together heat exchangers, who has a preternatural understanding of how mechanical things work. I’m from a mechanical world, where I’m average. The creative side of the coin is very foreign to where I spend my day to day.
It came down to this: I wanted to write, I just for some stupid reason didn’t see how it’d help me to get taught, especially since the thing I wanted to do was so far away from journalism, which if you ask me, you probably should study with somebody who knows what they’re talking about. I figured with writing fiction, it didn’t matter, it was this big ball of goo, it was a bunch of tubes of bright paint but if you did it wrong for half your life, no one would even care to tell you to stop. They’ll just let you flail around and occupy yourself. Novels aren’t life and death; they’re a distraction from death and probably life too, but you’re not going to ruin any one’s existence if your books suck or if your books never get published. I put on my boots that’ve shrunk in the rain and I walked through the metal turnstile, where I don’t have a desk or a list of answers about anything. I eat my lunch cold, surrounded by industrial hum, typing a novel slowly on my iPhone with my fat uneducated thumbs.
The people I’ve always admired are mechanics. Most mechanics I know are completely self-taught. They figured out how a car works by taking apart a car. My dad is that way. It’s amazing for me to watch him rip a motor apart. Or pull the interior of a car apart. There are all these miraculous plastic clips that I snap every time I try to take a car apart, I’m not gifted with that. I wish I was. I guess if it doesn’t come naturally, you’re not destined to take apart your computer, pull out the motherboard, and solder out components, to solder in new components. But damn, I’ve seen it done and that gets me every time.
Rumpus: Speaking of well-read people, Ben Loory, author of Stories For Nighttime and Some For the Day, blurbed your book, saying: “Bud Smith is Nick Hornby if you strapped him to a Tesla coil and hurled him into a Sun made of Poetry.” Have you read much Nick Hornby? Was F-250 influenced by anyone in particular? Didn’t you and Ben almost die in a blizzard one time? What’s that story?
Smith: I’m actually answering this question right now on an A train in NYC on my way to hang out with Ben in Brooklyn. Funny how that happens. He’s here again in NYC hanging out and we’re going out drinking, coincidentally on the coldest day of the year. It was -21˚ today with windchill. [Laughs] Last year when he visited we walked from my apartment on 173rd street up the hill to this bar called Le Cheile and it was -16˚ out and we almost froze to death on our way up the hill. When we got to the bar we just sat there for about ten minutes without saying a word. Stone silence. Finally our vocal cords thawed out and one of us said, “Jesus, that was terrible.”
We both got beef stew and began the process of a good ‘day drinking session.’
I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity a long time ago. I think it was the same week as I read Fight Club and Clockwork Orange. So I must have been on this kick where I was reading the original novels for films I really liked. I thought High Fidelity was pretty good and I loved how Hornby’s wrote in first person, this mega-conversational tone. It almost struck me as stumbling on a journal filled with complaints about some girls this guy had dated. I’m always a sucker for real conversational first-person fiction.
This one time I went to one of those writing conference things, and there was this guy who gave this long lecture about how to sell your novel or whatever (he was writing these World War II thriller novels about this action-packed gang of American soldiers in a tank division) and the guy giving the lecture said, “Write in third person! First person is a waste of everyone’s time!” He said, “There’s only been one novel ever written in first person that was any good!”
The novel? Fucking Forrest Gump.
I decided he was an idiot, and he could keep writing his third-person tank division thrillers that I don’t care about, but since I care deeply about characters and what happens to characters on a small-scale level, I wanted my books to read like someone had stumbled upon my journal. I wanted people to feel close to a narrator. I did get drunk after the lecture and there was one of those mixer-type things and I told the tank division author that Forrest Gump was good but he shouldn’t stand up in front of a room full of people and pretend that he knew what he was talking about. That kind of thing is pointless.
I wrote F-250 after I read a novel by Misti Rainwater-Lites called Bullshit Rodeo which was a semi-autobiographical story about her life in Texas, when things were falling apart and her finding out who she was despite what her family wanted her to be. I wanted to talk about some things that happened to me and wanted to write about where I’m from, the New Jersey shore.
Rumpus: What’s next?
Smith: Book stuff. In August of 2015, I’m in a split book with Brian Alan Ellis called Tables Without Chairs coming out from House of Vlad. My section of the book is a bunch of connected short stories called Calm Face (that Mellow Pages piece you were mentioning, “Reviews of the Corner Bodega,” is in that). In the first quarter of 2016, I have a novella called I’m From Electric Peak that is being released by Artistically Declined. Beyond the book stuff, I’m just trying not to crash my car.
Rumpus: You’ve previously published a collection of short stories, a novel, and a book of poetry. Do you consider yourself a poet who writes novels? A writer who writes? Do you ever feel like you’re carrying around a hidden persona? Like Clark Kent? A double life?
Smith: I’m just messing around. I don’t take this stuff very seriously. I try to just keep something up in the air. Sometimes a novel seems to be working so I’ll write the novel and sometimes I couldn’t write a novel to save my life but I can screw around on Twitter and mess with language and a bunch of poems come out of that, other times I’m so deeply in love with the concept of the short story that I don’t think there could ever be a purer way to make a hunk of art. But really, I’m just a guy trying to play around with whatever I can. I don’t know all the rules. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be paying the most attention to. At times I think I’m probably having the most fun with this stuff that is allowed by law.