Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On Fire: An Interview with F 250 author Bud Smith

As promised, I not only reviewed Bud Smith's firecracker of a novel F 250 over at Small Press Book Review, I had a chance to interview the author as well. I'm not going to lie- I asked some hard-hitting questions here and Smith didn't miss a beat. Read on as we discuss everything from Holden Caulfield to Natural Born Killers and everything in-between.

Steph Post: One of my favorite things about F 250 is how closely I could relate to many of the settings in the novel. The bar, the lagoon house (though I never lived in a place quite like that, I certainly had friends did), the parties. I’m extremely critical of writing that tries to capture this particular scene, and I felt that you did so flawlessly. How much of F 250 is based off of real life experiences, people and places and how much is pure fiction?

Bud Smith: It's based off my own life a touch. Nothing crazy. If the whole book was a house, my life in relation to it would just be that initial wood frame. Everything else tacked on makes it so much different from how things turned out.
I feel like I don't know the narrator in real life, not as myself or anybody passing through my days. But he for sure drank at the same bars I did and his band was better than mine.

SP: Even with all of the in-your-face rawness and loudness of the novel, there were some quiet, poignant moments that really stuck with me. One of them was in the first chapter, when Lee is watching the ducks. In the midst of chaos, with one of his friends stumbling through the house with a bloody face at that very moment, Lee finds something special in those ducks. “One duck eats my purple Post-it note airplane. That duck is my favorite.” The first time I read that part, I was struck by its simplistic beauty. The Second time I read over it, the English teacher in me came out and all I could think of was Catcher in the Rye. So, a two part question: how do you think these quiet moments work in the scheme of F 250 and is Lee Casey akin in some way to Holden Caulfield? (how’s that for a loaded question?!)

BS: I love the quiet moments in books. There's all this hectic shit going on, and sometimes the story just needs to take a break and look out the window at some weird birds and marsh grass. That's where I'm at.

Lee Casey plays guitar in a noise band. He works heavy labor. But he's got Holden Caulfield's spirit a little bit. Maybe after Holden Caulfield gets kicked out of his rich kid preppy school and gets sent down to the local junkyard to torch cars apart. Haha. I liked Catcher In the Rye; I thought it was pretty dope that a book could be written like that, just this big mess slapped in a notebook and talking shit about people.

About the ducks. The purple note. Yeah, I'm not into proper written English. Grammar isn't my strong suit. Partly, I don't see the point, it's always changing. Language is always evolving. I don't see the point in holding on to a rigid 'right way to do it' in a medium as playful and as experimental as a novel. Plus, In ten/twenty/thirty years, novels will be full of emojis and text-speak, in addition to so many things we can't even imagine now. I'm cool with that. I haven't had any advanced English classes and I guess that shows, but that's cool with me too. I'm not going to be the guy explaining 'how to write' to a room full of masters of fine art. But I will chill with whoever wants to talk about the worst car crash they've ever been in, or the time they got arrested, or even the time they were flooded by the uncontrollable events of random life on earth that made them ditch the instruction manual, the preconceived notions, and do their own thing.

SP: Your prose style is very defined and I have a feeling its tight, staccato sentences will become a hallmark of your work. How much of this style is purely your natural voice and how much did you have to develop? Do you think the style accurately reflects the essence of the novel?

BS: The style, I hope, mirrors the mindset of the narrator, who is a little trapped. He's backed into a corner kind of. Let's say his mind isn't taking flight. He's doesn't close his eyes and soar over canyons on enormous falcons

SP: The style clearly works to create the voice of the narrator and is one of the reasons that the first person narration structure doesn’t drive me crazy. I usually can’t handle novels written in first person, but in this case, Lee’s voice was so authentic that I didn’t even notice the point of view. I was able to just enjoy the character and the story.

BS: I like when I'm at a party and talking to someone and they have me so locked into their story, that I forget I'm even at a party. I just keep leaning in closer and closer.

I'd say this style is one way I write, but sometimes it's not my go to. So maybe it's like 70% how I'd really write stylistically if all this was true and a memoir or something.

I will say the staccato sentence style of the book came from Twitter more than anything. At the time I wrote this, on my cellphone at work at the oil refinery, I was clicking out of the notepad app and going to Twitter to tweet things. I was in that short and sweet/brutal mode at the time.

SP: You wrote F 250 on your phone? I can’t even imagine what that would be like. How does that even work? How were you able to concentrate?

BS: Yeah, I wrote it in the notes app on my broken-screened iPhone 4. The battery was dying so quick though, that I had to write quick and charge it while I was out there welding.

I turned the phone sideways and tapped out the book with my thumbs, usually just in 1200 word-a-day chunks. I just did 40 days of that, usually at my day job on coffee breaks or lunchtimes when I wasn't too hungry.

Writing on my phone was no different than writing at my home computer or hand writing out a draft in a notebook. I try to focus on what I'm doing for 15 minutes at a time throughout the day until I hit the 1200 words I have planned. The only difference was that I have my phone in my pocket at all times (I have a new phone and it holds battery charge now, haha) and when I'm trying to write from a laptop or a desktop with a real keyboard, there's so many times when it's inconvenient. They say that a cellphone is the best camera, not because it takes the best pictures, but because it's always on you and how often do you have your $5000 Nikon with you?

SP: So much of F 250 revolves around music and the music scene. Lee, Seth and Ethan are musicians and some of the plot of the story involves a dream of getting out to LA and “making it.” The accuracy of this “scene” is one of the reasons I dug F 250 so much. Although the only instrument I can play is a radio and I won’t even sing in the shower because my voice is so awful, I spent a lot of time back in the day hanging out “at the show.” I met my husband when he was a drummer in a punk band and so many of my friends were and are musicians. Do you think readers who have no knowledge or concept of this world can relate to F 250? And if they can’t relate to it, can they still enjoy the story?

BS: Life is tough for everybody. I'm sure the readers get that struggle, the hassle of trying to break out of their ordinary existence. I think some non-music fans would be good with the book, for others it might fall flat. That's cool, though. I wrote the book with this one kid I know in mind. It's not the kind of book that'll touch the world.

SP: I don’t usually do this, but because I think you’re awesome and can handle it, I have to bring this up… K Neon and June Doom. While I do think these characters were well drawn and, honestly, accurate portrayals, the inclusion of these two girls irritated me to no end. There were several points where I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “this is Such a guy book.” I think I felt that K Neon especially was too much of a guy’s wet fantasy and I felt that she, June and even Denise were jarring next to everything else that was real and gritty in the novel. So, where do these women really fit into the story? What do their characters and their roles mean for you and for the novel?

BS: To me they mean a much different thing than to the narrator of the book. The narrator is 23 and doesn't have a big picture of what women are yet. Hopefully he'll learn. When I was in my 20s I know I hadn't a clue. I was surrounded by people just like me, clueless and colliding into each other. That's what this book is about. That oblivious swagger. And it's not any of my business, but I didn't write this as a book for guys. I hope that's not too big a take away for anybody.

SP: Oddly enough, I didn’t get the feeling that you had written it for guys. That’s another thing that I love about F 250- it doesn’t seem to have an agenda. It’s pure.

BS: Remember when Chick Lit was a thing? I'm glad that label has vanished from the earth. The term Men's Fiction is just as bad- toss Men's Fiction into a volcano.

F-250 was written for everybody.

Everyone in this novel would make a pathetic saint, all of them deserve scrutiny. Probably K and June will come across as just a wet dream to some and Denise isn't the smartest person, and sleeps around within the group of friends, but Denise reminds me of where I'm from and who I knew, just like K and June do. Just like Trish does. June, K and Denise could each have their own novel, they're on the same weird quest that Lee Casey is. If those books were written, different characters would stand out as ill-fitting. In K Neon's version of this novel, Lee would be a self absorbed asshole who just floats through life. He'd come off just as cold and ruthless as she does.

I think that's what happens when you write about a group of misfits. Where do the women of the book fit into the story? They're slowly teaching the narrator about how the world is, or isn't, and I hope advancing the story in general in their own way.

SP: I guess what I was trying to get at was that I found their characters believable. I don't think they were far fetched or caricatures. I've known girls who act like them. I think what bothered me was that the 3 girls seemed to be related to Lee only in terms of sex. K Neon and June are major characters and I wanted more from them. And of course, there Was more to them than that, but it felt weaker than the rest of the story. Almost gratuitous.

You know, I think that perhaps the reason I felt their presence jarring was this: I felt like I could relate to Lee up until the focus becomes so much on sex. There was a shift to me (pg. 108 to be exact) where I felt like suddenly the girls in the book were becoming sex objects. If we're being honest, probably most guy readers don't even notice this and I could find this element so frustrating because I'm a female reader. I hate looking at things in terms of gender bias, but that's probably where I'm coming from with this. I wanted more realism and less sex from the female characters.

BS: Totally get that. I don't think it's fair to downplay "most guy readers;" people come to art how they come to it. Plenty of guys realize sex isn't everything. Most of them aren't 21 years old though. Time changes people. Relationships change as people know each other. For stints in real life, every once in a while you'll blink and look up and you're a sex object, and someone else is your sex object, too. That could feel good or it could feel lousy. You get to choose. There's purity and there's lust in fiction and in your waking reality. But you might also put on some shoes and go to a museum with your sex object and slice the world apart and talk about heavy things. Vice versa. But, in certain situations, guys think with their dicks, and if I'm writing from the point of view of a 23 year old guy, I don't have the heart to neuter him.

By the way, I think all the characters failed in F 250. Some exposed too much ugliness and others were too vain and others didn't have anything to say at all, and so remained quiet. I'm glad you fell in and out of love with this narrator. 108 pages is a good run for him. I believe the unreliable narrator is as close to art touching real life as we can get in a book, because the people in our lives, in society, they fail us, they surprise us, they come through with huge victories for us and then they accidentally light it all on fire. Sometimes the in-real-life people just want to fuck us for a week, and it happens and there's joy in it, but no profound influence enters our lifetime beyond that week. Other times mindless sex can be something that changes our lives. Chisel that on my tombstone.

SP: I’m going to argue with you there- I don’t think the characters failed at all. Just because I didn’t like the turn of events with the girls, doesn’t mean I think their characters weren’t real. In fact, I think you pose some great points here. And I don’t think that books have to please everyone and they don’t have to have balanced, political correct characters and portrayals. As long as the author is true to the character, I think the art works. In this case, I think you’ve done that with K Neon and June. More so, now that I think about, you’ve done it with Lee Casey. It is his story after all; we’re seeing it through his eyes. And I think that you stay true to him, even in his immaturity, throughout the breadth of the entire novel.

BS: What I mean by all the characters failing in F-250 is the closest I could see them, or find them, put them in the cage of this book, was to give them the same fuck-ups, flaws, indecisions and un-pinnable nihilism that I see around around me in the real world. There is love and hate in this book and on earth too, but good luck knowing for certain anyone's motivations. Mostly earth spins on an orbit of ambivalence. I wanted the characters in F-250 to survive car crashes. Some of them were driving. Some of them were in the passenger seat buckled up. Some were drunk and riding on the hood like it was a surfboard. 

SP: With F 250, I believe you’ve really set down your mark as an author. What can we expect next from you? 

BS: I have a novel coming out in the spring from Artistically Declined called I'm From Electric Peak about two love bird teenagers on the run across America after the girl's parents were shot by the boyfriend.    

SP: Sounds very Natural Born Killers (one of my favorite films as a teenager).
BS: Never saw that movie. There's so many versions of that story, that all come from some mix of Bonnie and Clyde filtered through the Charles Starkweather killing spree (that spawned two of my favorite things, the movie Badlands with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and the Bruce Springsteen album Bad Lands). 
I'm From Electric Peak is a mashup of all those American kill-your-ma-and-pa-go-on-the-run tropes. 

SP: And to wrap this all up- give me three music albums that you think have influenced your writing style and three books you’ve read in the past year that you think every reader should have on their shelf right now.

BS: For music:
Black Moth Super Rainbow -- Cobra Juicy 

The National -- The Boxer 

Grimes -- Visions 

For books: 

Kathy Fish -- Together We Can Bury It (flash fiction that  is unbelievably good)

Sara Lippman -- Doll Palace  (short stories with remarkable depth and life)

Wildlives -- Sarah Jean Alexander (stunning poetry)

Many thanks to Bud Smith for stopping by and for not being afraid to dig deep into his own writing. Be sure to check out F 250 and be on the look out for more of Bud Smith and his balls-to-the-wall writing.

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