There’s something about Bud Smith, I’m not sure if it’s the name, which has this film noir appeal to it, or if it’s the sense of humor in his work, which is featured in some pretty awesome places around the internet, or if it’s that he’s that super enthusiastic, intelligent, and kind guy I never met in person. Whatever it is, I like Bud. So when he asked me if I wanted to interview him, I said, Well, fuck yeah, Dude. Anyways, me and Bud are going to try to meet face-to-face one of these days, but for now here’s Bud getting deep about his latest novel, Tollbooth.
Bud grew up in New Jersey, and currently lives in Washington Heights, NYC with a metric ton of vinyl records that he bought at Englishtown flea market for a dollar. He is the author of the short story collection Or Something Like That (2012), and Tollbooth (Piscataway House 2013); he hosts the interview program The Unknown Show; edits at JMWW and Red Fez; works heavy construction in power plants and refineries. Currently, he’s probably watching My Cousin Vinny.
You can find out more about Bud Smith at: http://budsmithwrites.com/
So let’s start with a New Jersey question. I spent my high school years in Jersey, but I never felt like I belonged. I escaped to NYC whenever I could. Now that I’m older and living Bergen County, I have to admit, I like Jersey. I especially like it when people roll their eyes or sigh heavily when I tell them I live in Jersey. How Jersey proud are you and what do you miss most and/or least about your home state?
I really like New Jersey–not in an ironic way, or ‘because It’s my proud home’ or anything. I grew up there, spent a lot of time partying in the suburbs, laying on the beach, drinking in the pines and sandpits, junking around flea markets … When I was 20, I went cross country for the first time. For two months, I drove around America in a red pickup truck with my girlfriend and her pit bull. We hit most of the lower 48 states and, most places I wound up, I didn’t think were as good a place to live as NJ. Either they didn’t have an ocean or they didn’t have a sense of humor. Sometimes both. Plus a lot of this country is surprisingly flat and dusty, who would have thought? Since that trip, I’ve gone cross country by car two other times and the more places and people I meet, it confirms what a bizarre gem NJ is, and I don’t know if I’d want to live anywhere else in America if I actually bought a house and all that.
I live in NYC now, commuting out of Manhattan every day to work in an oil refinery in New Jersey. So, I’m lucky, I get to return to my home state almost everyday. I get to have a car in NYC. I get to visit strip-malls whenever I want. New York City is great, but I love the bizarre weirdness of the encounters of the suburbs. Serial killers come from small towns for a reason.
I bring New Jersey up because you set your latest novel, Tollbooth, there. In the novel, we follow the life of Jimmy Saare, a tollbooth operator who sits all day in a booth that’s “three and a half feet by three and a half feet.” The same size as his favorite room in his house, the downstairs bathroom where he keeps an array of photographs of a young woman he has a crush on, and the same size as the broom closet in his childhood home, where we presume he hid as a kid. Jimmy is a bit of a rebel without a cause. He is not dealing well with his life as a married, expectant father living in the suburbs. He yearns for control. There are several great moments where we see this push and pull in the book. What made you want to write about a guy like this and his struggles?
Before EZ Pass, I would drive up and down the highway, and see tollbooth operators and feel so bad for them. What a mind numbing job. Plus, it never ended, the cars kept coming. Talk about lack of control. I wanted to write about one of those guys. I wanted to start right at the moment they finally snapped. And it is true Jimmy Saare says, “I’ve always been a restless punk rock romantic,” so, sure–rebel definitely fits him. But, I believe he has a cause. He’d never done anything with his life. He was getting a very dusty soul, he needed to shake things up a bit. His first signs of life, as despicable as they are, are also convenient. He starts chasing after a 19 year old girl, though his wife is pregnant. The girl is local. But he doesn’t stop there. And the farther he goes, the more surreal and strange this examination of the everyday doldrums becomes. He goes deep into the wilds beyond the suburbs, across frozen oceans, into the afterlife even. I wanted to send Tollbooth Jimmy on a full-bore adventure, and so I did. Why him? Why waste all this typing on a scumbag? I think he has his redeeming factors. He’s struggling, but he’s not laying there like a dead person. He’s trying. I always want to write about people who are at odds with the absurd, sometimes those people will be stand up citizens, sometimes they’ll be quite the opposite. But, I will say this, they will always be the kind of people that would help you change a tire if they saw you stranded on the side of the road. There’s good in all humanity. Even Tollbooth Jimmy.
And yes, your description of Jimmy’s day-job and its connection to his past, present and future is spot on. A part that didn’t make the book, is Jimmy Saare being lowered into the wet earth, in a coffin the same exact dimensions as his tollbooth, childhood broom closet and downstairs bathroom.
I read somewhere something about Norman Mailer telling John Updike he should get back in the whorehouse and stop worrying about his prose style. I interpret this as stop being pretentious and write from the gut, but where I disagree with Mailer is his assumption that poetic prose is a step away from the whorehouse, from the gut. If anything, it’s the opposite. Sometimes Jimmy is a scumbag, but we also see this other almost poetic Jimmy emerge in the novel. I’m thinking of the scenes with his “beautiful Sarah.” There’s a delicate balance achieved in your writing. There’s Jimmy’s rage and lust, but there’s also tenderness. Jimmy glorifies his wife then turns away from her. It’s a dance he performs throughout the book. How difficult or easy was it for you to write about sex and intimacy?
There’s a lot of sex/obscenity in Tollbooth. There’s a lot of tenderness in the book too. It’s a strange balance. Life is that.
I try to be honest when I write about anything. The more honest I am with what I’m writing, I find I struggle less. So, writing about sex and intimacy, wasn’t necessarily any harder than writing about other things I’ve experienced first hand. Not to say it comes easy or anything.
But, I work heavy construction, and the guys I’m around every day, most of what they seem to wanna talk about is ‘real off color’ to say the least. There’s no censor switch in the trailer where we all sit. So, maybe all the obscene stuff in Tollbooth is second nature at this point for me. It’s a daily discussion. These guys will draw a cock on anything.
Maybe that’s what Mailer is talking about when he says that poetic prose is a step away from the gut maybe he’s saying, ‘write stuff that the guys in Bud Smith’s work trailer would relate to. Maybe Mailer wanted a cock drawn on everything.
I agree with what you say though, to write from the gut, you don’t have to write any certain way. All you have to do, is have 100% conviction in it. Even if its in jest.
See, I live in NYC, and a lot of my friends there are artsy people with academic backgrounds, who hold art to almost a holy standard, so, I kinda understand that other side of the coin too. The love of poetic prose stuff. The flowery wallpaper. But are they more deserving of attention? Should writing be directed to them instead?
My friends would be pretty offended if I took them to work with me. It’s brutal there, I love it.
Maybe those NYC peeps are more in line with Updike. Maybe they’d like to hear a little more about the curtain fluttering ever so slightly in the moonlight. My work buddies don’t care about that, they care about the girl on the bed. But that’s not to say they are simple, or ignorant or any less desiring of art.
What they might lack is a little pretension, that might be the thing. The weird thing that happens with art, is that it can be filthy or it can be squeaky clean and either way it can be the most pretentious thing. It can lack honesty.
I don’t think that writing from the gut has anything to do with language or topic. My hope is that if I write words on the page that are normal for me to speak out loud, it’ll all find its way. My hope is that if I write about life, just straight up- life, the story will find its way to whoever is receptive enough to wanna give the story a shot.
I don’t try to please the ghost of Norman Mailer or John Updike. I know I never could. How could I possibly?
I loved Kid with Clownhead in Tollbooth. He is one of those characters that appears in a key scene here and there, but is a constant presence throughout the novel and serves as a catalyst. There’s a risk with using this type of character in a novel. The character can be perceived as a trope or symbol and nothing more, but you made this character do lots of work in your novel. I felt like I knew Clownhead personally, like he had fucked with me in the past somehow. And I also enjoyed the Clownhead’s badass antics, just as Jimmy does at the beginning of the novel. Without giving too much plot away, can you talk about Kid with Clownhead and how this character came about during the process of writing the novel?
I’m glad to hear you liked him. He is technically the ‘bad guy’, but that’s bullshit. I don’t really believe in bad guys. Not in a book anyway. Plus, that’d make Jimmy ‘the good guy’. Oh, that makes my head spin, just thinking that.
Early in the book, Kid with Clownhead shows up and screws with Jimmy at the tollbooth. Out of the blue it seems. I figured if someone was trapped in a zoo-style cage, cause that’s what the tollbooth is for certain, there would always be those people that come and screw with the animals. Kid with Clownhead is one of those people, but, bigger picture, he’s one of those people that screws with the entire world.
I feel like this book could have been written from his point of view too. It wouldn’t be Tollbooth, it’d have been something different, but, I think maybe the Clown’s character worked so good, because he’s an antagonist, but is treated with just as much attention as the narrator. He’s not there to push a plot along. I didn’t care too much about a plot for this book. I figured, it’s about the natural order of things. I wanted to put some great people together in a box and shake the box ’til they reacted.
I’m glad that you like Kid with Clownhead, I like him too. I think he’s nuts, and a lot of fun. Somebody told me he was Loki, the god of mischief, someone else said that he was Jimmy’s split personality, that he doesn’t exist. That’s all up for debate, that’s up to whoever. I don’t get to decide. I know two things about him for sure, he’s not a villain, maybe slightly an antagonist, but–for sure, he’s just a high school kid who is very much alive and very much human. He can do anything. He choses to open people’s eyes.
The reason Kid with Clownhead keeps showing up, is because he does what everybody wants to do: whatever he wants. I love that about him.
Besides Tollbooth, you are also a short-story writer, poet, and editor. Your short fiction and poetry has appeared in a number of publications and you host an interview program. So what’s in the pipeline?
A couple of cool projects are in the works. I’m sending a manuscript to a place that is putting out a collection of my short stories from the last couple years. It’s called Lightning Box. That’ll be out near the end of the year, looks like. We’re gonna work on tuning the stories up a bit, but most, maybe 75% have been pubbed at magazines and stuff. The stories are all kind of Twilight Zone meets the Cohen Brothers. Adult fairy tale stuff, and me making fun of artists/writers and the lot. There’s a bunch of magic in it. Things hover, etc. There’s 40 stories, maybe that’s 38 too many or something. We’ll see!
I’m also coming out with a novel next year from Piscataway House, the guys who put out Tollbooth are deciding which one they want to work on, because there’s two, a semi-autobiographical one about growing up in NJ called F-250; and a very surreal one called I Wonder What My Skull Will Look Like, which is a weird adventure about a drifter named Win, who travels through a lot of odd American strip-mall landscapes in pursuit of a place to call home. Ya know, the standard Odysseus bullshit, except all the beer in this one is stale, and I say neon a lot. Ya know, to convey the neon-ness of things.
All that editing/rewriting my own stuff is a necessary evil. But everyday, I’ve got to have a creative output. I’ve been writing a bunch of poems cause I really want a press to put out some of that stuff one day.
What am I currently writing fiction-wise? Well, it’s a book called Teenager, which is the standard ‘let’s kill your and pa and go on the run’ thing. It’s two linked novellas, back to back, the first from the boy’s POV called ‘I’m From Electric Peak’ and the second from the girl’s POV called, ‘Teal Cartwheels’. It’s mostly about love. I play around a lot with ‘the game of telephone’ in the book, facts smudged and ill remembered, between the characters Kody Rawlee Green and Tella Carticelli. The book is almost done. Then, the submitting starts … We’ll see. I love the book, but I’m easy to please apparently. For instance, right now I’m happy as a pig in shit just sitting here next to an open window with a cup of coffee, listening to the city outside the window. I’m cursed with this kinda crap: beauty has me surrounded and it’ll start shooting if I don’t come out with my hands up. So, I just stay forever optimistic.
Thanks so much, Bud!