‘I drove a heavy duty f-250 pickup truck. 1990. Blue. 92,000 hard miles. Loose, ineffective brakes. There were a lot of crashes—into people, places, things, whatever was around. The truck was too heavy, I was weighed down, springs sagged, hills slick—I couldn’t control it.’
New Jersey poet and novelist Bud Smith is the author of Tollbooth, Everything Neon, Something Like That, Tables Without Chairs (with Brian Allan Ellis) and the 2015 breakthrough novel F 250. Bud is the kind of honest, no shit writer I like because his sentences read true and are heavy with life, like something honest and fat with lines that knock me on my ass.
“This is the kind of book that needs to be recorded,” I thought. I could not have been more right. Currently Spoken Word Inc is producing the audiobook for F 250 and it has been a hell of thing. Cosmic, even. The audio incarnation of F 250 will be out soon and ole Bud is chugging away, doing the reading himself like a goddamn pro up in NYC.
Over the holidays we shot the shit about his novel, recording audio, life in NY, working heavy construction and the sincere challenges of playing Nintendo as an adult >>>>
K: Where are you, Bud? Describe your surroundings for me. How do you feel sitting/standing there?
BUD: I’m in an oil refinery in New Jersey about 150 feet up in the air on a cooling tower. It’s raining but I’m ducking underneath an overhang on the steel, staying dry and taking my 9am coffee break. I feel good here, it’s almost Christmas. I stink like jet fuel but soap fixes that.
K: Do you give a shit about the holidays? What are your plans? Any big traditions in the Smith family?
BUD: I don’t have any kids but I love the holidays. My wife and I go driving around in NJ and look at all the neighborhoods that go crazy with decorating and we do the same thing in NYC. The other night we took an hour long subway ride from up by the Bronx, all the way down to Dyker Heights in Brooklyn where there’s s ten block radius of all these mini mansions that compete with each other to be the most insanely lit up house.
K: Do you remember any badass Christmas presents from your childhood? When I was still too young to ride a bike I got a single speed white huffy with back brakes that was awesome and it was entirely white all the decals and signage on it were neon colors. I miss that thing. Stolen when I was 13 or 14 in Princeton.
BUD: One Christmas I got the Nintendo game Contra. But I got it really early because one of my uncle’s got drunk and unwrapped it and started playing it in our living room. I was like “Whoa!” and to him, my mom was like “Where did you get that from?” And he pointed at the tree. I loved that game so much, even though it was impossible until we learned the Konami code later on.
K: Have you played that recently? It’s fucking impossible. I can’t get past the second stage.
BUD: There’s an arcade that serves beer in Brooklyn. They have all the old classic consoles. Donkey Kong, Gallaga, Joust, Contra, Punch Out … Great place. I went there recently and played some games for a while and yeah, Contra is so goddamn hard without the Konami code (^ ^ v v L R L R select start). I didn’t get very far in Contra and I certainly didn’t get at in Punch Out but I was pretty drunk and getting my ass kicked by Glass Joe (or whoever he’s called in that first console version). A girl came by and started heckling me. It was pretty funny, getting heckled about a video game. It was a new experience for me, I gave her the rest of my quarters and went and got another beer.
Another Christmas, one of my aunts won the lottery and was able to move out of the trailer park. She moved into a cool little house and had a party at it. We didn’t exchange presents, but it was so nice being in the new house and looking around at the walls and roof that the magic lottery money had won her. It made the improbable seem likely. That’s still what I’m doing with my writing, running through magic lottery hallways, still being a kid. Making improbable art.
K: I know that you are from Jersey. How much of your work is influenced by where you grew up, by that geography? F 250 seemed autobiographical and New Jersey as a character felt instrumental.
BUD: New Jersey is a huge influence. New Jersey has almost every kind of geography. Industrial (north jersey), mountain and forest (north west), beaches (central coast), farm (west) … And I used to spend a good amount of time in the pine barrens as a kid, playing in sand pits and dirt bike trails … So it’s arguable that I’m familiar with the deserts of south jersey, even if it’s only sugar sand. A good chunk of my writing is generally speaking, a love letter to the working class people I’ve known and loved in New Jersey. I’m keeping that rolling with other novels, I’m writing one now.
K- Do you remember exactly when you decided to be a writer?
BUD: I always liked drawing cartoons, taking pictures, making music, making stories. Being creative always made my days better no matter what was going on, so long as I can remember I was always working on some project or other. Writing books is just the thing that makes me the happiest so I do it the most …
When I first started, I wrote a novel in a notebook when I was in middle school. It was a fantasy adventure type thing but everyone in it was talking how they would nowadays … The setting was a kingdom with dragons and wizards and all that stuff but I didn’t play d and d or read fantasy novels so I was just making up a weird little world without any reference to the genre other than seeing the movie Willow a couple of times. It was probably more influenced by the movie Clerks than anything else … Or the Big Lebowski.
The town loser is told he’s the chosen one and sent on a ridiculous quest because the town’s people are tired of him getting wasted and stealing their chickens. I remember it filled up two note books and I didn’t knew how to type so I never typed it up and the notebooks are long gone.
I had a lot of fun making that book though and I always wanted to get my stuff typed up and printed as a paperback.
I’ll probably rewrite that fantasy adventure at some point …
K: People who know your writing know you work heavy construction. What does that entail? Do you believe having a physical labor job helps you as a writer?
BUD: I’m a welder, rigger, metal worker with the boilermakers. We build and maintain power plants and oil refineries in New Jersey. I’ve also done this type of work in New York City on occasion. Generally what I do, is cut things apart with oxyacetylene torches or arc gouges, prep the area and weld in new sections of tube, pressure vessel walls, or other components. In short I use big cranes to install or remove giant pieces of steel. It’s a lot of blue print reading.
My job is physical but not exhausting. Whenever something is heavy we use chain hoists or other types of machinery to help us move it. I’ll have a year long column called Work Safe Or Die Trying on the lit site Real Pants if people are more interested in reading about my job and creative writing amongst people who are non-academic.
K: Do you think you’d like to write full-time as your money-maker one day or do you like the balance?
BUD: I don’t think I’d be able to do it full time. I’m only good for a couple hours a day. A few years ago, I was laid off during a rough winter, and I was collecting unemployment until the snow melted and we could go back to work (outdoor masonry). I was home, in the warm house and didn’t do any more writing than I do now with a full time job. I’d do something else in addition to the writing to occupy my time of that was the case, to keep the endorphins going.
K: How do you write? What’s the Bud Smith process?
BUD: I write in short bursts, mostly. On my cellphone. I usually type things out with my thumbs as if I was texting. It works pretty good. For Christmas though, I got a Bluetooth keyboard that seems to be working really good for typing while I’m sitting here on my coffee breaks. It’s rechargeable. Uses the same charge cord as my cellphone. So I’ve started using that more often, even bringing it here into my break room at work.
Recently I was on an airplane and my phone was dead, so I wrote on a barf bag. Wish that was a joke. I’m the worst at typing up something I hand write, and I usually avoid doing the handwritten thing at all costs. But I’ve found that the dictation on my phone works pretty well for just reading back what I’ve written and translating it into a plain text file on my phone. Afterwards, I sit at a regular desk and edit the story or poem or piece of a novel. I have a shitty Formica desk I sit in, in a pink room in my apartment in NYC, with a hissing radiator and a record player that I listen to non-stop while I edit/rewrite.
K: Do you only write for a certain amount of time, or do you just wing it, play it by ear?
BUD: I wing most everything. I don’t have much of a regime and I usually pinball between projects. Right now I’m writing short stories and poems and working on a new novel. I’ll just do whatever project I feel like working on that day. Mostly I write on my cellphone on my breaks at work. But when I’m home I sit at my computer in my office and I listen to records and type things out. I’m good for an hour or two like that and then I’m off to something else. I’m not religious with sticking to a daily practice of writing but since I find joy from it, almost like its play or meditation, I try to squeeze some in between 5pm and 7pm most work days before my wife comes home. When she gets home I stop playing around with the writing and spend some time with her.
K: Hell of a husband. How long have you been married? I imagine your wife is cool as hell and supports all your crazy, writerly endeavors? I’m lucky as hell my girl does.
I’ve been married now for three years, we’ve been together for ten. When she walks in the door, I put aside what I’m working, on it’s more fun to hang out with her. Put on some records. Drink a beer or two. Hang out and laugh. I get a lot of energy for what I’m making from the good times that we have. Between writing at work on my breaks and writing when I come home from work for an hour or two, that’s a lot of time that adds up weekly. I’m thrilled to put down any art I’m working on, and shoot the shit with wife. She’s an artists too, so the support she gives me for what I’m making is a no brainer. I support her too. When she wants some time to work on a project she has going, I go and work on my project of the moment. Some nights I’ll go out to a literary event in NYC and she’ll come along, other times, she’ll go and make art with some of her friends. I feel bad for people who are in relationships where the other person takes away from their joy. I feel bad for the person who lets their joy be taken away. If you’re not sharing a life with someone who loves you and supports you, you’re really not sharing life.
K: How long did it take you to write F250 with editing and all?
BUD: It took 45 days (thereabout) to write the first draft and a couple months to finalize the drafts. It was off and on with the editing. I have a much harder time with staying on the editing than I do with making the project. I lack the attention to detail that a true editor has.
K: How about the publishing process? Did it take long to sell the book? How did that come about?
BUD: Piscataway House heard about the project and asked if they could put it out. Mark Brunetti and Keith Baird. They are brilliant editors and did a crazy good job with my first novel, Tollbooth, so I was happy we got to work together again.
K: You’re currently working on the audiobook for your novel F250 with us at Spoken Word Inc. How would you describe the process so far? Are you enjoying it? Have you ever done this sort of work before?
BUD: I’m enjoying it. I’ve never done voice recording before and I’m learning as I go. I’m enjoying it, but it’s much slower work than I am used to. I’ve done this kind of work before, being in bands and going into a recording studio, but this is the first time I’ve been involved with doing voiceover work. It might be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Haha. Maybe. But I haven’t climbed any mountains or anything.
K: What about it do you think seems so challenging? Tedious nature of getting through the read without making mistakes? That’s what does it for me.
BUD: Yes, the tedious nature of it. Doing the recordings is not something you can just fly through. You have to focus deeply on it as you do it. I’m not used to that kind of attention to detail. That’s not generally how I operate, but I’m getting better at it, I think. Also airplanes flying overhead. Car alarms going off on 173rd street. I live in in NYC so there’s a lot of noise. I have to find time to do the recording when there’s not a lot of traffic outside, when it’s not noisy.
K: Choosing to hire a voice actor or to self-narrate is a big decision. Writers and listeners alike have some strong feelings about it.
BUD: I choose to self narrate F 250 because I thought it was a great opportunity to get better at this type of thing.
K: What do you think about literature being spoken/heard as opposed to written/read?
BUD: Storytelling is storytelling. Spoken stories are beautiful. Written stories are beautiful. I love them both.
K: You’ve said before you try not to take this stuff too seriously. That lack of pretension or lightness is what I dig about your writing, most writing. Do you ever find yourself going against your advice, taking it too seriously?
BUD: When I’m getting bogged down or worrying about a project I just abandon it for a while. If I’m not enjoying what I’m working on, I don’t see much point in lingering on it. The trick though, is to make sure I actually return to the project and finish it.
K: Do you find your writing consumes other parts of your life or are you able to leave it on the page?
BUD: I’m able to leave it on the page. I don’t think about a project I’m working on when I’m not directly sitting down and working on it. I don’t obsess about getting things right, it’s okay if it’s not perfect. My life is not perfect, there’s no way I should expect my writing to be perfect.
K: Who would you say are your biggest literary influences? Who did you emulate in the beginning, if anyone?
BUD: I thought Kurt Vonnegut was the man then, and I still do now. The way his books were put together it all seemed so effortless and ‘no rules’. It seemed like something anybody could do. Like a homemade craft project. Back when I first encountered Kurt Vonnegut I was in sixth grade and his books had drawings in them like I liked to do in my notebook for the stories I was making. I thought he was the coolest guy ever, and I still do.
K: You said you’re working on a new novel. Can you tell me anything about it?
BUD: It’s kind of like Royal Tenebaums set in New jersey, except everyone is broke. A family drama, about a man coming back to his home town to attend the wedding of his brother, and while he is there, he gets roped into bulldozing down his childhood home, following a hurricane that has destroyed much of the NJ coast. It’s literary fiction. Funny. Sad. Cruel. Weird. A man trying to save his family from a sinking ship.
The badass Audiobook of F250 will be out on Valentines Day.