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Taking That Flying Leap: An Interview with Bud Smith

F 250a new novel by Cease, Cows contributor Bud Smith, is a lively comic romp, a love story about characters making the often difficult transition to adulthood.

CC‘s head editor, Chuck Augello, spoke with Bud about F 250 and his other work.

CA: How would you describe your novel F 250 to someone who has just picked it up and started reading?  

BS: A raw book about people on the verge of becoming adults who are jumping and dodging in every direction. F 250 is a love story. Literary fiction, focusing on a stone mason named Lee Casey and friends and bandmates who are living in a house on a lagoon in New Jersey. 

CA: Why did you decide to have Lee tell his own story instead of using a third-person or omniscient narrator?  

BS: I like the mistakes that a first-person narrator makes. I like how unreliable they are. F 250 is a mess of a book, glimpsing people whose lives are a mess. Third-person narration for this would have felt a little too cold and all-knowing. I like that the narrator of this book is digging a hole to get himself out of a hole.  

CA: Lee plays guitar in a band called Ottermeat. (Great name!) The novel wonderfully captures the vibrancy and chaos of being in a band. Are you a musician? Have you played in bands yourself?   

BS: I played in some bands when I was younger. We were usually loud and chaotic, so it was easy to look at the scene that surrounded that, the underground music scene in NJ/Philly/NYC and write about East Coast bands who struggled to get out of their small towns and be heard beyond the ten to twenty people who actually liked your band, and would come to the shows at the local fire hall or the dive bar up the road. 

Most artists are familiar with that feeling of being stuck in the place where you were born, and how sometimes it feels impossible to branch out beyond it. But the real crazy kids hop in a van and take venues by storm, toss all their money into it, and either go broke or expand their little world. Same with painters. Poets. Novelists.

You’ve got this little dream and you want people to rally around it. You want to be part of their thing and you want them to be part of your thing. Trouble is, to do that, you have to take a flying fiery leap into the unknown, and most people don’t do that.

F 250 is about a group of people who are on the verge of taking that flying leap. 

CA: Readers often wonder if characters are based on “real” people. Are there any real-life inspirations for the characters in F 250? How closely do you identify with Lee?   

BS: Most of the characters in F 250 were real people I have known. I drew inspiration from those people, and tried my best not to turn them into cartoons. I don’t know how well that worked. I tried, though. I don’t identify more than 50% with Lee. He feels like he could have been raised in my family, but I don’t think we’re the same shoe size and we don’t like the same kind of girls. 

CA: Lee often refers to “escaping” from New Jersey. Why is escaping, or trying to escape, so important to him?

BS: He wants to see more of the world. At least more of the United States. And he doesn’t want to wind up like most of his friends, just tied to the street where they grew up, for no reason whatsoever. I personally love New Jersey. I live in NYC now, but I try and get down to the beach whenever I can. I don’t surf—I just float around in the waves and get sunburnt. I’ve never had that desire to escape from New Jersey. But just the other day, a guy I was working with asked me about California. He wants to move there. He knows I go to California every year, because I have friends and family there. I told him, “It’s just like New Jersey, except everywhere there would be a pine tree, there is a palm tree, and the ocean is ten degrees colder and more violent.”

CA: Lee’s world includes a number of vivid female characters. Do you have a favorite?  

BS: My favorite female character in the book is Trish. She’s no frills. She’s not full of bullshit. And best of all, she’s probably the character in the book that best embodies the women I know in real life—women who are dealing with problems but looking for solutions without getting detoured by people who would like to drag them down. 

CA: We liked Trish, too. An endearing detail is how they meet—she’s the only one who attends one of his childhood birthday parties. Do you approach writing female characters differently than writing male characters?

BS: I don’t approach writing about women differently, no. I try to just write honestly about how someone would react to a scenario and most of the time, I don’t think a man or a woman would react much differently if they were in the middle of the problem. I’m writing about humans, plain and simple.

CA: An important part of Lee’s life is his work as a mason, which often involves hard physical labor. Why did you decide to have Lee do this kind of work?   

BS: I do that kind of work myself, and wanted to write about it. I’ll continue to write about it forever, I think. I’ve read enough books about people with desk jobs. It feels good to write about someone who is trying to make it in the world without putting a suit on, robbing a bank, navigating dinner parties with swanky people. The narrator of this book is like a pinball bouncing off the houses of the ordinary streets where I grew up. I liked giving him cement to mix and stones to carry around. It feels good to give a character an honest suntan.

CA: In addition to F 250, you’ve also published a book called Tables Without Chairs, a collaboration with Brian Alan Ellis and Waylon Thornton. It’s a unique book, almost like a genre all its own. How would you describe it? Tell us about the collaboration.  

BS: Brian Alan Ellis wrote some of my favorite short stories of the last few years. He claimed to like some of my writing too, so we talked on Facebook instant messenger for a year or so on a daily basis until it seemed unavoidable that we had to do a weird collaborative book that was a big old crazy mess. That was the birth of Tables Without Chairs

CA: What inspires you to write fiction?  

BS: I like this Ray Bradbury quote: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” It’s a common quote, but I think about it all the time. When I am writing, I like to think about it for my characters, too, because they live in this entire world, separate from our own, of course, and they are desperately bogged down by their own realities. So I like to think about the things they have to ‘stay drunk on’ to get through their days. That’s what makes them semi-real to me. I also like writing fiction, writing fake, because there’s no right way to do it. 

CA: Who are some of your influences as a writer?

BS: The writers change all the time. Started out with Kurt Vonnegut, and was blown away by the worlds he created for his stories and how everything and everyone was linked in this weird way. Then later, found Amy Hempel and fell in love with her economy of words—that ultimate chop down. Later it was Brautigan, who wrote my favorite book, In Watermelon Sugar, and Ben Loory, who marries Amy Hempel’s economy with Brautigan’s weirdness.

Recent writers who have changed the way I think about writing are Janice Lee, who writes the clearest, most concise lines. Amelia Gray who wrote Gutshot, the most bizarre boomerang of a collection of short stories I’ve ever read. I like writing books around records, too. Not even necessarily records I really like. For instance, my next novella, I’m From Electric Peak, was written with Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell in mind.

CA: Suppose a good friend was banished to a desert island, and could only take one book with him or her. Which book would your recommend?  

BS: The Guinness Book of World Records pretty much says all there is to say about what humanity can accomplish. Maybe that’d inspire the friend to figure out how to escape the island? If not, it would at least give them a bottomless list of people who achieved some feats, and maybe my friend could get distracted trying to beat those records rather than go insane. 

CA: What are you working on now?

BS: I’m writing a novel that’s in the vein of F 250…a man comes back to his hometown for the wedding of his brother and gets roped into bulldozing his own childhood home that was damaged beyond repair in a hurricane. It’s a family drama, tragicomedy. He’s there to help some wishes come together for his mother and father, and for himself—that old thing.

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.


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