New Jersey novelist Bud Smith talks his writing habits and influences, working as a creative writer with a day job and what it was like growing up––all while discussing the how, what and why of his new Teenager characters chasing the American Dream.
Listen to Bud Smith read an excerpt from Chapter Five of Teenager:
What were your teenage years like?
They were really easy, waves of bored as shit to ebbs of excitement, I don’t know.
Are any of your adolescent memories blended into your novel, Teenager?
Some of my work is autobiographical, not so much, this, I mean, Teenager. My life and experiences don’t line up in any way with this novel. It’s just one of those lil ‘ol works of fiction. My upbringing was real different from the ones the main characters, Kody and Teal had. My parents are wonderful people, but I can understand how some kids would be right in never wanting to speak to their parents again the second they could leave their house, or even worse than never speaking to them again.
So what are your best memories from being a teenager?
Finally getting a car, and it broke down almost immediately, and my dad took me out in the garage and showed me how to rip the engine out, hoist it up, change the head gasket, and then he did the harder part, put it all back together, and made it look easy, all the experience he had from a life of fixing broken things. He was always so kind to me. And I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mom and just laughing and drinking coffee and making fun of everybody and everything with her, it’s still that way. She can laugh at things and she can make me laugh. I’m forty, so that’s been my whole life. My father helping me fix things I’ve destroyed, and not hardly even needing a thank you, he’s just happy to have something to do, and my mom wanting to drink one more cup of coffee before we leave the table.
But it’s not like that for your characters…
Not at all. Kody and Teal never had these things, parents like this, good memories like this. I have it easy. The least I could do for them was give them each other to love unconditionally.
I’ve read somewhere before, or heard it in a podcast, you didn’t study literature past high school, no college or MFA. Were your parents big readers? Was reading encouraged?
Mass market horror novels and spy novels, adventure novels lying around. Dad still reads the Clive Cusslers when they come out, and mom used to read all the Dean Koontz and V.C. Andrews. They weren’t killing it financially, but I remember being told if I wanted a book, they would drive me to the mall and I could get one to read. So each week I’d find something, trust me, I would, and I’d make sure it wasn’t like anything they had in the house already. I tried to get into fantasy and sci-fi and never really connected.
What kinds of books?
I read some of those Dragonlance books, which were bastardized take offs of The Lord of the Rings. Dragonlance was put out by Dungeons and Dragons, which itself is a watered down version of Lord of the Rings. And I tried some Issac Asimov novels, but none of it really did much for me. I remember the first big book, an adult novel, for me was Jurassic Park, which I read in sixth grade or something and the kids in the cafeteria were talking shit because I was reading a book with a dinosaur on the cover. But then they were going crazy for it when the movie came out, I saw some of them read that book, too.
When did you discover literary fiction?
We read Catcher in the Rye in class of course, but I didn’t know that’s what it was. We read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that was the best book I ever read when I was that age. Whenever Fight Club came out I read the novel and that was really good, a gateway to contemporary things, Chuck Pallahniuk had something on his website, books he recommended. I found Amy Hempel from him, Reasons to Live (the first literary short stories I ever read outside high school), amazing, changed everything. There were no good bookstores around but by 2000 the internet was an open flower. I bought Reasons to Live off eBay books and they would suggest other things to me because I purchased that. So there was Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, and it just kept going. Before I knew any other writers, or anyone who went to college for writing, I was reading that way because the algorithm kept recommending me those college kids contemporary literary fiction books, all thanks to, well, the algorithm, what can I say. It finds you.
So no college, you went the autodidact way?
I still learned from others, not a teacher present in the room, assigning things, but by reading and following the guidance of any interesting author I could stumble across. It took me a long time to find my way, I could have saved myself ten years or more by just going to school.
But you’ve run a creative writing workshop the last couple of years?
Yes, for ten years I lived in NYC and whenever I would go to a reading, usually at a bar, to see a poet or a short story writer, a novelist, if they were good, blew me away, I’d try to talk to them after, see what they liked to read, so I could read it. Most of them who were better, seemed to just have read more, had written more, had gone through the grinder of an MFA. But they would all talk so much shit about their MFA experience, how the professors had these lame rules and suggestions, and how their co-students were really competitive and catty, fighting over scholarships, and giving feedback that was not in good faith, because the students all grew to hate each other in the program. I had no idea how true all this was, I had no experience in even English 101, let alone a masters program. But after hearing these complaints about many of the NYC MFA programs, I figured I could try and offer something else, and not include any of the things I’d heard so much complaining about. I started teaching that in my living room two years before the pandemic and then it switched to Zoom during the first wave of the pandemic. I think it’s coming back to my living room in the fall. Jersey City, NJ. Rae will be at her desk in the corner painting and the students will be giving each other feedback, and I’ll be back at the dry erase board while the police sirens scream by outside, just like old times.
Rae Buleri also drew the illustrations in Teenager. How did her input on a creative project like this influence the storytelling?
She got so good at giving feedback, from listening to the ex-MFA students who were in our living room. She’d be painting and they’d be saying, “Hmmm this part of the story was weak, maybe try this” or they’d say, “This part was excellent and I’d like to see more of X, maybe you could do it like this …” So Rae knows how to edit stories now, just as good as some of the ex-MFA students. But she’s brilliant like that. Nothing gets by her. After Teenager was accepted, I read the novel to her and she gave feedback and critique and I used that critique to improve the story. She’s a natural. It was the same way with the drawings, she would show me what she had sketched and I’d give feedback and critique and she would do another draft of the drawing until it was its best. So, her drawings didn’t influence the story per say, her heart and mind helped me get the draft to its best place. When we were doing the initial layout and design samples (as PDFs in a word processing program) for the professionals at Vintage to use as guides for their final layouts in InDesign, we would come to a part where the text interfered with a more interesting way to place the illustration—on a few occasions I edited down the prose to make room in the layout for drawings to be larger, more prominent. Saying things more succinct, but not changing the content. Or broke apart a chapter into two pieces to make room for an illustration that might have fallen in the center of the chapter. The art and writing do something together, in cohesion. Most of our work together was all about capturing a feeling, an emotion of a specific character in a specific place—usually someone stuck, someone lost, someone forgotten.
There are vestiges of those forgotten people in a lot of the supporting characters: the boatman, Dead Bob, etc. How does Teenager’s narrative translate into a reality where these characters exist?
Well, I suppose a place plays some part in shaping a person, probably not as much as how you are raised in that place, nurtured in it or suffer in it. The Boatman has been rejected by his community, set on fire while sleeping on the streets, and he’s gone into exile in the woods, living underneath an old rotten rowboat he keeps. Dead Bob is a handyman who died as a child and was resurrected to live a helpful life. He’s a literal guide of the place he lives, a place sacred to him in many ways, but he’s also a spiritual guide. Both Dead Bob and the Boatman help Kody and Teal figure out how to escape something. With The Boatman they learn how to escape a tangible threat (the police) and with Dead Bob, they learn how to escape a more slippery threat, death itself. I shouldn’t even say the word “escape,” because I don’t believe that life is a cage you can ever escape from, you just delay the inevitable, but uh, “laughing in the face of danger” is probably something I learned from reading all those adventure novels with my dad as a little kid.
Throughout the novel—we do see that cage imagery, a zoo, a penitentiary bus. Are Teal and Kody “set free” by the end of the novel?
I don’t think they are set free by the end of the novel. They’re still on the hook in many ways to each other, and for each other, and for the things they have done together and apart. This novel is just another one of those forever scrolls of deeds committed, good and bad, but I try and pass no judgment myself. Neither condone nor condemn. But like I say in the book, ‘He figured life should be like that. Free will and all. No destiny. You get to decide what you’ll be punished for. Don’t forget, everybody is punished for something.’
Who punishes? Does God exist in the novel?
For some there’s God to punish them, I suppose. But first you got to invent God for your life, let alone invite God into your life. So to me that’s not, you will be punished by some higher power, I’m saying, you are your own higher power and you have to live with what you’ve done as long as you live, and maybe when you die, we don’t know, maybe you’ll just have to keep on thinking about how well you did or how bad you did, for eternity, stuck somewhere, or reborn somewhere, or just split apart as energy scattered through the universe. If you want to be at ease, I’m saying, live your life now, at ease with others. Be proud of how you’ve acted with others, and to others, but give yourself a break when you fuck up. Apologize often, to them and to yourself. You’re only human, for now.
As much as traumatic events shape Kody and Teal as characters, they also try their hardest to reinvent themselves and escape their pasts throughout the country. Is this part of the American Dream to you and in what ways do they succeed?
The American Dream is just some marketing quip, some left over ad copy from the Cold War. You know, Buy More Coca-Cola to Defeat the Commies. Individual happiness can be found with the people you love, on a deeply personal level, but the best answer isn’t always the nuclear family. You can find your people. You don’t have to settle for your biological family if they bring you no happiness. The characters in Teenager, almost all of them, are trying to break away from some system of command imposing pain to their lives.
The novel was completed during the pandemic and while writers already are isolated, or seem to choose to be by nature, did this added level of isolation affect your work?
The pandemic has been a nightmare, the generations before us had their many nightmares, one after another, connecting now to this, ours. But we are not in a world war right now. And the lights are still working, so on. The battery in my laptop keeps charging, I can get ribbons for my typewriter, etc. I’ve always looked at art as being a social thing, as well as a form of private expression. Put it to you this way, I read books for myself so I myself can talk about them with other people. It’s been this way ever since I was a child. I read those horror novels to talk to my mom about them. I read those treasure hunting novels to talk to my dad about them. That’s what I love to do. Same with film. Same with going to the museum. I want to talk about my experiences. When I write a story, I am writing it for my own self-expression but in the hope it will get people to talk to each other, to discuss my work. But to make the art, you have to sit in the chair and you have to tune everything else out. It’s only afterwards that you might notice how lonely it is in the room. The solution to that was to always just walk into the room where Rae was and turn the stereo on and laugh with her. As people have adjusted to the pandemic, I’ve begun to see them more and more in person. We’re back to doing what we always did, sitting around and talking about books and albums and movies we loved.
That sounds optimistic put that way.
I’m optimistic to a fault.
Are your characters?
For sure. Most of them, yeah.
When Kody and Teal finally make it to the ranch, they have separate approaches to working there. Kody defines being a cowboy as a dream and destiny and Teal through what she seeks out and what is practical. How does that reflect your own views of work, maybe of being an author or of being in heavy construction?
Well, everybody I know has to have a job. Everybody. All the creative people I know are juggling one or two jobs, some of them are working three jobs. I just have the one. We’re all taking care of our families, doing what we have to do underneath failing automobiles, waiting on grocery store lines that wrap around the store, dropping kids off, walking these drooling animals we have blended into our lives. Taking care of our health. It’s a lot. It’s endless. But the creative people I know and whose work I admire, have all found a way to make time for their art, too. If they didn’t I wouldn’t know their creative work. Teal and Kody don’t make art in this novel, they are on the edge of a cliff and one wrong step they fall forever. They’re in a desperate situation. All they have are their dreams and their destinies and their love. And yes, they too have to get a job. Everybody does. You live here long enough, in this country of ours, that’s one of the only surefire things—you’ve got to get a fucking job, even if it kills you.
There’s a determined youthfulness in Kody & Teal’s effort to define themselves. Do you believe in the adage that youth is wasted on the young?
I don’t believe youth is wasted on the young. You’ve got one life and you’ve got just a little bit of time to make it count. I know senior citizens who are in their third or fourth youth.
Does that resiliency translate in the novel?
Sadly, most of the old people in this book are brutally murdered. We never get to find out. Ned Carson, our eldest character, I think he has a particular resiliency, if he keeps going how he’s going, he’ll live another happy hundred years watching the big show and running the ranch.
Is there a particular person in your life that Ned symbolizes?
I wish! Some people have to invent God, all I could come up with was Ned Carson. For him I was thinking of those old westerns, films or novels, people are always coming to this country for a fresh start, and disaster is always rearing its head and they have to make the best of it. That’s the story of the American immigrant from the beginning, a new land, and unforeseen problems. Ned Carson is out of place in the book, he’s almost like one of Nabokov’s kooky characters, Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, or assistant professor, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin in Pnin, or more likely, a relative to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. I wanted him coming to the ranch to be a mistake, and one he should have known better than to undertake, but I couldn’t bare to cause him any harm. If there’s anyone I love most in Teenager besides Kody and Teal, it’s Ned Carson.
Is there any room for regret for any of these characters by the end of the book?
They’re just like anybody worth knowing, they’re full people who know they can’t take complete credit for everything they ever did, but can’t help but feel they were steering the ship whenever they do anything they shouldn’t have done. When we are at our happiest in life, unfortunately, somebody else has to suffer. When we are at our lowest, somebody else is at the height of the see-saw. Every single character in Teenager is full of regret, just like they’re balanced with a different kind of pride, but that’s everybody I ever met in my life.
Is there any room for hope?
Hey, I said I’m optimistic to a fault, it’s all I can do, just keep hoping, just keep making up little make believe stories so people can read them and talk to each other about them, or how you’ve done, kindly talk to me about them.
Bud Smith is the author of the novel, Teenager, and the short story collection Double Bird, among others. He lives in Jersey City, NJ.
Rae Buleri is the illustrator of Teenager (Vintage ’22) and Dust Bunny City (Disorder ’17). She is a textile artist and painter, who likes to walk and talk on the phone.
Christopher Bowen is the author of the chapbook We Were Giants, the novella When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed, and the non-fiction Debt. He blogs from Burning River.