In Bud Smith’s newest novel, Teenager—out now from Vintage—we’re taken on a ride between the deep-fried corners of America to visit some of the nation’s greatest myths. I say we, because in Smith’s work there is a special intimacy to the narrative, a quality much to the reader’s benefit. This might seem at odds with a summary of the plot: in the first hundred or so pages, there is an escape from a juvenile detention facility, a double-homicide, an extended telling of a relationship’s origin story that is both incredibly comic and tragic, a visit to Graceland, all with surreal and moving drawings by Rae Buleri, a painter and illustrator who is married to Smith. If I were summarizing another novel, I would feel I had given away too much. But the high volume of events, combined with Smith’s delightfully galvanic style, creates a sense of participation for the reader, a welcome involvement—even friendship—with Teenager’s young and troubled kids on the run.
For the interview, Smith and Buleri came over to my place in Brooklyn. My wife, Kelley, cooked us all dinner. We ate, we drank, we took to the couch with coffee. The result? A transcript that topped 12,000 words before undergoing several procedures of hyper-distillation.
The Millions: Here’s one of my favorite sentences in the book: “Arizona, somewhere.” I love the symmetry of the word “Arizona” juxtaposed with the vagueness of “somewhere.” You feel the exhausting monotonous beauty of the desert. To start us off, can you talk a bit about your philosophy of language?
Bud Smith: I love a beautiful sentence, but I’m captivated by the paragraph, and think of myself as a paragraph writer rather than a sentence writer. I love how a paragraph can tell a whole story six times on a page. The way they can be anecdotes, vignettes, jokes (with their own set-up and punchline)—islands all on their own. How the first sentence launches this investigation and then by the end we’ve tried to resolve some idea. And all during there are twists and turns that do and undo, and mimic the way the mind plays. Sometimes the movement of the paragraph turns in a complete circle, boomeranging back to the original thought and maybe the thought has been examined enough and kicked around enough that through different acrobatics of language we’ve gone a course and feel satisfied. As if we’d read a small poem.
TM: Where do you think that comes from?
BS: Anecdotes and bullshit stories said aloud. My style was completed/formed from listening to people share stories out loud on construction sites. Brief. Succinct. I noticed, if somebody was brave enough to tell a story in a crowd, it was often told quickly, to the point, and framed in some bleakly comedic way to evoke a release. And a good tiny story does one thing well—it makes someone else want to raise their voice and tell their own story. Now, I always try to write things I would be willing to read out loud in a crowd. You know, be an entertainer. That’s one thing, the oral side. But what came first was more oblique. Comes from music. How the talking-blues thing I heard on those first Bob Dylan records collided with his abstract (irreverent) poetry attached to some beat, peaking with Blonde on Blonde. I had his cassette tapes on my Walkman and listened on the school bus. It felt like, Do whatever you want. He was a high wire act, going by his instinct. And borrowing whatever, in that grand tradition of thieves back forever into the mists of time. So Bob Dylan kind of cracked the door open on many lines of thinking. Eventually that leads me to guys like Vonnegut and James Tate. Writers of dreams within dreams, now, all the rules of narrative be damned, just make someone feel something, and laugh. It’s all a complete miracle to me. Just dump your life into it and see if those abstract broken utterances tell the middle of the story and the clarity of the setup and the impact of the punchline can save the whole thing.
TM: It’s funny you mention Dylan, because he was on my mind while I read Teenager. Your approach to the material is similar, right? You’re taking up these American myths and making them new.
BS: That’s it. Exactly. There are these stories that keep repeating over and over again. Our moment in history already happened. We’ve always lived in a world of love and war, and it’s never been too different since human consciousness kickstarted. Teenager is a folktale. The book is looking at these themes that keep repeating themselves, beating us over the head. The country seems older than it is. Right now America is just about ready to go to the senior prom.
Maybe my American folktale is sarcastic but I don’t consider Teenager a satire. I’m not an ironic person. I do not enjoy too much art where someone doesn’t let you know how they feel. Err to the side of sincerity. I get a lot of joy from participating in art. Art that takes the time to say: “Hey, I like this, all right?” It’s the same way with people. I like to be around people who take the time to say, “Hey, I’m into this, this is what I like, this is what I stand for.” So I try to do that with my work, put forward something that I really believe. Teenager is a modern folktale about the things that have gone wrong in this country’s years of massacre and great love affairs.
TM: You can imagine a version of this folktale you’re revising with slightly altered details. Malick’s Badlands comes to mind, where the guy is several years older than the girl. Why was it important for you that Kody and Teal both be teenagers around the same age?
BS: Badlands is amazing. Now I’m thinking of Springsteen’s, Nebraska. And just all the pieces of art based off of the Starkweather murders. That cycle of violence repeating again and again. And yes, the details smudged, and moved around. Youth happens to everyone, but your exact youth will never be repeated in anyone else. The novel comes at it that way, in the point of view of teenagers because when you’re that age everything seems new and fresh and the possibilities of the world are wide open. It feels like the first chance to break away from the paternal home and do things in the world. There are a lot of corny songs about this.
I had a great family. My mom and dad both worked blue collar jobs. My dad was a garbage truck mechanic and my mom worked in a factory. We had a stable house. They always had the bills paid and everything was stable and loving. A pain-free childhood where I could study and learn whenever I wanted. We had a house full of music and library books.
If I was to write my own story about being a teenager, it would just be a story of gratitude. But I feel the story of this country is also a story of anger, and a story of things that are not as good as they could be. Wonder mixed with contempt, you have both those strongest things in your adolescence. That’s why Kody and Teal had to be 17. Nobody loved them like I was loved by my parents, but they found each other and broke away to see their country before they and it die.
TM: You said recently that you liked a novel very much because there’s a villain in it. What is it that appeals to you about villains in fiction?
BS: We don’t have them in real life.
TM: You use an omniscient narrator in Teenager, which I think contributes to this sense of rewriting a classic. What brought you to that perspective?
BS: Well, this story is one that I’ve told in many variations, and this novel is the final form of that story. It was first written as a poem. A poem in the first person. Very brief. And then it became a short story. And then the short story grew a bit and soon it was a novella. All of those versions were in first person. But I was just not done. I never felt like fully expressed. Too close to the suffocated feeling of being trapped in one person to tell this big story. So it switched to third person and it was off to the races. I rewrote the book. And I started to feel like I could better express what I needed to say through everybody, not just Kody, and suddenly I had a true picture of him, because he too faced criticism, like any real person would. I not only had his version of the world, I had what felt closer to our universe as I see it, peeking down from my twinkling star.
TM: You build in this great tool with Kody. His head trauma allows for surreal moments. I’m thinking about when he’s on the phone with Neil for the first time: “A woman on stilts walks by with her head bleeding. Pink clouds coming out of the Dunkin Donuts.” There’s this surreal tinge to everything when we’re in Kody’s perspective. I’m curious about what draws you to the surreal.
BS: I come to fiction to suspend my disbelief. The book is a drug. I’m trying to take this drug. Get melted off this drug. I’m trying to get away from belief. I’m trying to get away from the real world and I’m trying to take the drug and go somewhere different from my own responsibilities. That’s what a book is. I have these responsibilities I have to do in my life. I’m sitting down for however long to read your book. During those hours, I’m not taking care of my family. I’m not solving any of my own problems. I give myself to your book and the pressing problems are probably only going to get worse in neglect.
But when I give myself to a book like that, I free myself totally in another kind of way. Like I said, if I’m there to duck reality and suspend my belief, you better believe I’m open to surrealism. And it goes so far in little drips and drabs. More can be accomplished in surrealism and abstracted reality than can ever be accomplished in a straightforward scene.
Now some of my favorite writers are straight realists, but my absolute favorites are alchemists trying to turn lead into gold. They’re holy fools. They’re not worried about falling off the edge of the earth, because they’re too busy flying off the edge of the earth. There’s a slightly woozy feeling in their narratives. That’s kind of what I want to happen. I want somebody to realize there’s a world within the world and feel the beauty of that. You have to paint the picture clearly, but to finish the picture, you have to blur it just right.
TM: Thanks, Bud. Rae, can you talk about how the illustrations came to be?
Rae Buleri: During quarantine Bud would read to me from the book and then afterwards we would talk about it. It was Todd Portnowitz (Bud’s editor at Vintage) who mentioned that he might want illustrations, and Michael Mungiello (Bud’s agent) told him that I’m an illustrator and a painter. So I sent Todd a previous book of Bud’s that I did drawings for, Dust Bunny City. And Todd was like: I love it, let’s do it.
Bud and I decided to start by making a list of ideas of scenes from the book that I could work from. The illustrations for Teenager were a new challenge, blending some of the abstract writing in the novel with a more traditional, character or object study.
There’s this fun first year of art school exercise, blind contour drawing. You look at your subject while you draw and you don’t look at your paper. It tricks your brain so your left side dominates. You’re trying to make your sketch resemble the subject but you don’t look at your paper and you don’t lift your pen. The work comes out loose and skewed. Many drawings from Teenager are in that style. Or that’s at least how I started many of the drawings, and then I’d relook at the drawing, redo it, go farther in one direction or another. Some scenes were very difficult to get right. Like when Kody and Teal go to Graceland. I was trying to draw Graceland itself, and it was just not coming around. Bud had this great idea. You know Elvis loved bananas? I laughed do hard. Go from trying to draw some sprawling colonial revival architecture, to try to capture how it felt to be Elvis, and have the heart of Elvis, to a couple of black-spotted bananas because he loved them so much. It didn’t always need to be so literal. You just had to look for the heart was.
TM: That’s great. I was telling Bud earlier. The book has this Dickens vibe. A very modern Bildungsroman. You think of the Victorian novel. The serialized novels then all had illustrations. And that feels so right here. The illustrations feel essential. I’m curious: which one is your favorite and why?
RB: The one of Kody right before he goes to see the priest. He has his mouth open and there’s all of those eyes. He’s about to have a seizure. I love how he looks fucked up, about to go on some cosmic journey within. One of my other favorites is the double page where there’s chickens running around and a coyote. If you really look closely, there’s the coyote, and right before him is the chicken looking at him, as if he’d refused to run.
TM: I don’t want to give away the final image of the book, but I’d love to know what it felt like to draw.
RB: There’s hope. Life is worth it and more.