New York-based writer Bud Smith possesses one of the sharpest voices in all of underground literature today. His short fiction, which features what he calls, “average people at odds with the absurd”, has been published in Full of Crow, Red Fez, and The Bicycle Review, and a collection of his short stories, Or Something Like That, is available in eBook format and in print.
Matthew Guerruckey conducted this interview with Bud via email. In the conversation, Bud describes his writing process, his New Jersey childhood, and the inspirational qualities of The Legend of Zelda.
Drunk Monkeys: Where are you from originally?
Bud Smith: I’m from New Jersey. I grew up on the edge of the pine barrens, close to the Atlantic Ocean–a few towns over from Seaside, NJ where the television show Jersey Shore is filmed.
DM: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Jersey? Or are all of the horrible things people say about it true?
BS: I think the things that are said are fairly accurate. I don’t think there’s a misconception, really. New Jersey is a small place—but geographically it has almost everything. Ghettos, beaches, farms, suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia that have spawned strange metropolitan areas. It’s the most densely populated state in the country containing all kinds of characters.
You hear a lot about wiseguy types, ala Sopranos and, sure—they’re there. Sure, we have meatheads who kick people’s heads in at the boardwalk. But would it surprise you to know that there are farms? That down in South Jersey there’s a whole subculture of hicks and hill billy types flying rebel flags and tearing through the sandpits in jacked up monster trucks?
It’s a weird place. Constant entertainment. There’s probably no better place I can think of for a writer to get a microcosm of America. Go to New York City to meet the citizens of the world, go to New Jersey to meet America.
Also: I don’t believe in Hell … when they talk about Hell, I picture Camden, New Jersey.
DM: What was your family like?
BS: My mom worked night shift in an aerosol spray can factory and my dad was a mechanic at the township garage. It was cool because my dad used to take the cop cars home for lunch, he’d park the squad cars in the driveway and all the neighbors thought we were always in trouble with the police—because the cops were always there. I used to think that was so cool.
My parents, they are both such down to earth, cool blue collar people that I never felt like I needed to go to college to be happy.
DM: What were some of the formative influences in your childhood?
BS: We lived in a campground. In a rented house. it was nice because there was a big in ground swimming pool in the campground and an arcade that I used to hang around in. The summers were full of kids, all kinds of different kids that would come on vacation– I met all kinds of strand birds. After the summer, the campground emptied out and I was pretty much isolated, so I read a lot. Constantly. I started trying to write books when I was real young because of that I think, a way to occupy myself against loneliness.
DM: Your work does tend to feature solitary characters struggling with a chaotic world—does that stem from that early solitude?
BS: I’m sure it does. I was alone a lot. I got comfortable with that, I didn’t mind being left alone. My parents worked two jobs, the both of them. After school—I had hours alone in the house.
DM: How do you think those influences make themselves known in your writing today?
BS: It forced me to read and draw constantly as a kid. I mean, we had Nintendo, too. That’s my 2nd biggest influence.
DM: What was your favorite game?
BS: Legend of Zelda, hands down. I related to that so much. This kid who starts out with nothing and then finds a sword in a cave and just goes wild with it. Link. I’d like to be just like Link. But let’s not skip Mario Brothers, especially Mario 3, I mean, there is such a cosmic quality to it. The possibilities. You eat fire flowers, you warp around by way of a series of tubes and secret doors, you find a feather, and you fly! All of a sudden, you figure out that you can fly! How amazing was that?
I could keep going … Ghosts n’ Goblins … Castlevania … Contra …
DM: Given all that time playing video games, do you imagine that your stories have only one direction to take, or that there are infinite possibilities, like in a game?
BS: It’s very strange that you ask this question right now. I just got done writing a short story about a man who is given a list of codes and an explanation of what each code is, infinite bullets, super jumping, increased speed, maximum hit points. He doesn’t know how to use the codes, but they’re for HIS life. Not a game. His life. All he has to do is figure out how to enter the codes and they’ll work.
That’s how I see life. That’s how I see writing. You have all the opportunity that you want. You’ve just got to figure out the right place to enter your codes. Then …imagine that.
DM: How long have you been writing professionally?
BS: I’ve been writing novels since I was 20. It went as far as being professional, that friends bought them.
I make money now off of it, but that money is going right back into the process. Reinvesting anyway that I can back into it, because my goal is every writer’s goal—to keep writing.
I make my real money working heavy construction in oil refineries and power plants. Welding, rigging, cutting with oxy-acetylene torches, using these massive cranes. It’s a lot of fun. On my breaks, my lunches, before and after work, I’m writing. I get ideas all the time at work.
DM: Do you think doing so much physical work lets your mind wander to the world of your stories? Or do you have to completely separate your job mind and your writing mind?
BS: I think the physical work is good for the mind. I don’t ever stop thinking about stories and jokes and all of that. My co-workers are wild, hilarious people … they want to hear stories and jokes and they want to be entertained. Yesterday, I was way high up in the air … two hundred feet, on a tower where they make gasoline. I could see everything! I could look out and see New York City. I could see multiple rivers, planes swooping by almost right overhead … I took my break up there and I wrote a poem, looking across at everything.
This is my problem, I always wanna write and there is always something to write about. Oh, what a problem to have.
DM: What is your writing process like?
BS: Well, I’ll tell you about my short story process because I think I have that down best.
I tend to sit in silence, at my desk. I have a Herman Miller Aeron chair that I found in the trash. Some maniac threw it away. I have a crappy PC. Usually I write a first draft of a story very quickly. Maybe it’ll take me 20 minutes. Then, I usually do a rewrite almost immediately. Looking for typos. I like to read it out loud at this point. Just keep hacking words away. Hacking. Hacking. Then the story sits.
I have a list of all the short stories I have ‘on the table’ in a little notebook at my desk. In the notebook is also a list of all the current submissions that I have out. My intention with almost every story that I write, is to get it published in a zine or lit site that I enjoy. So, what I do is, I write the title of the story on a page in the notebook. All the titles and as they are published, I highlight them to keep me aware of what is available to submit and what isn’t any longer. This also helps me figure out what I want to submit where.
I submit fairly often and get rejected fairly often. That’s the nature of it. When I get a rejection, I rewrite the story … Submit it somewhere better. I think that’s the beautiful thing about getting a rejection notice, it’s somebody doing you a favor and directing a rewrite to you … In the end the final product winds up a lot stronger.
DM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a rejection?
BS: well, that’s just the thing. Most places don’t give specific criticism. They don’t say, “Your story dragged in the middle” or “Your characters are not believable”. Most rejection letters are short, to the point, non specific, but really—that’s all you need. If the piece bounces back a few times rejected and you think it’s a good ‘idea’ or a strong piece of your writing, I’m sure it is. You just need to do something with it.
Sometimes, I’ll record myself reading the story out loud on my phone. Listen to it. It becomes real apparent why the story doesn’t work. If it reads well, it’s written well. For the most part.
I do occasionally get a note from an editor who is kind enough to say something like, “I think that this is the problem …” and they’ll explain their take on the story.
I’m grateful for that, because I don’t think that I’m a very good judge of my own work. It still surprises me very much what get accepted and what gets rejected.
One time, I sent a story about a guy getting stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors and I got back a rejection notice that said, “I like your writing style, I just don’t like stories about people getting stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors.” So I don’t do that anymore.
DM: Your stories feature a strong emphasis on characters with very specific individual voices. How do you approach building a character?
BS: I like to write in the first person because I think it’s an easier way to be more immediate and personal. Like a love letter. I got some advice from a guy once who published a bunch of books, he said–“you should never write in the first person … You’re not a good enough writer (he’d never read anything I’d written)”. I said, “what do you write?” He said, “Well, my recent book is a trade paperback taking place in WWII Germany occupied France. It follows a tank division and their battles!” I’m trying to do the opposite of that. The complete opposite. I’m not concerned with big things. Battles. Explosions. War. I want to cover the thoughts of average people at odds with the absurd. So to build up those people … I just imagine their humanity. The way they joke around. The way they lie. The way they kid themselves. The favors they’d ask. The things they’d ask you to help them with.
Recently I started writing another novel and this time I did something a little different, I drew out all the main characters, as cartoons. It helped me to figure out what they looked like.
Bud Smith’s short story collection, Or Something Like That, is available now .