Just Make Someone Feel Something: The Millions Interviews Bud Smith and Rae Buleri

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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.

Making Meaning in an Honest Way: The Millions Interviews Dana Spiotta

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It’s an odd privilege to learn from someone you are in awe of. The senses seem to shut down, overwhelmed by brilliance. I know this from experience. Dana Spiotta was a teacher of mine. Her unsparing curiosity, her care for details, her devotion to the craft—in person, on the page—have been an endless source of inspiration. In Wayward (out now from Knopf), Spiotta continues her quiet run at the front of American fiction, with a novel that achieves ends sometimes thought exclusive: formal innovation and profound emotion.

Wayward might be most distinguished from Spiotta’s previous four novels by its subject. In the chaos of the recent past, at the time of Donald Trump’s election, through the particulars of a family in Syracuse, Spiotta confronts readers with the unseen terrain of menopause. Sam wakes at night in the Mid, which “always seemed to be precisely 3:00.” Sam struggles with comedically-rich impulses, such as “the urge to scream…at young women sometimes. She imagined herself shrieking ‘Menopause! Menopause! Menopause!’” Shopping, Sam reflects on clothes that were “flattering…to a grotesque midlife misshapenness—a blurriness, a squareness, really.” Sam becomes obsessed with the story of a middle-aged white woman who sneaks aboard planes without consequence. To age as a woman is to become invisible to the culture, Spiotta tells us, as she beautifully offers form to all the culture refuses to see.

Spiotta and I spoke over Zoom and exchanged emails about her new novel, the definition of structure, Ward Wellington Ward, lists. I was confident that, at the end of our conversation, I had just completed a master class on being alive.

The Millions: The struggle to be a better person—in an existential sense, in a moral sense—features prominently in all of your work. But it’s a struggle that has evolved from Lightning Field to Wayward, and, in its most recent form, it appears varied, new. Maybe we can start there, with talking a bit about this dilemma, often faced by your characters, to be someone better than they are.

Dana Spiotta: I remember when Lightning Field came out. Some people interpreted it as being ambivalent about morality. I didn’t understand that. I’m not concerned with this in a Christian way. I’m thinking of what Joy Williams says, about how a character can see with clarity in both directions. This is what interests me. It’s a version of a Joycean epiphany, to see yourself with clarity. It’s a struggle of being human. But then comes the challenge of what to do with what you learn. Of course, I don’t have the answers. Fiction is about consequence. About playing out the consequence. And part of playing out the consequence for me—because I’m a character-driven writer—is not so much about dramatic action, but, rather, that you can’t unsee what you see. My characters then have to choose to live with the compromise or try to change themselves.

In all of my novels the characters want to be better but are not necessarily able to. In Eat the Document, this takes the form of the characters wondering how to live in a capitalistic society and maintain their integrity. Nik, in Stone Arabia, struggles with something similar. That is, he finds a certain obligation to resist. And there are consequences of this for his family. Of course it’s your right to do whatever you want with your life, but it’s naive to ignore how you affect other people. Beyond that, I am increasingly interested in this question of responsibility toward others, in a broader sense, in the context of society. I think what feels most different about my work now, though, is that when trying to write about the broad cultural moment in Wayward, I go into a more local, more intimate field.

TM: In Wayward, many of the consequences for Sam’s change are the result of her being a middle-aged woman. There’s this hilarious moment in the novel when Sam and her husband tell Ally, their daughter, that they’re splitting up, and Ally assumes that it’s her father leaving her mother. She can’t believe that it’s her mother who wants to leave.

DS: What interests me about Sam is that, as a middle-aged person, it’s harder for her to change. There is more self there. You’re more compromised. You’re part of the status quo. You have more to lose. The older you become it gets increasingly more difficult and more consequential to change. I thought it was important that it would be Sam’s idea to leave. Her rupture. Her will. I didn’t want it to be a miserable marriage or an unhappy life. I wanted her to leave behind a comfortable life. One of the ways the book works in the beginning is to sift through why she left.

TM: I’ve wanted to ask you how you define structure. In general, I tend to understand structure as patterning, but for Wayward, it seems we need a definition to include asymmetries, the deliberate resistance of pattern.

DS: I’m not too conscious of structure while I’m writing. I do think you can be overly schematic if you squeeze your story into an apparatus. Even if you look at works like Ulysses, a work that contains invented constraints—and it’s great to have constraints, you need constraints, in some sense that’s what structure is, the big invented constraint—but you constantly have to defeat over-patterning, defeat where it becomes predictable. I think about it on the level of a sentence. For the sentence, you can repeat a pattern, but you have to vary it, otherwise it becomes sing-songy, and horrible. You can have a little pattern based on sound and white space and diction and then have it evolve. Let’s say you have a three beat ending on your sentences. “It was this and this and this.” And then you switch it to: “This, and this.” And it ends with: “This.” You’re aware as you create a sentence of the patterns you’ve created in the previous sentences. You have all of these things you can do with the patterns you’ve established. And then you have all of these things to vary it with. So I think of structure in terms of the micro level of the sentence, the semi-micro level of the paragraph, the somewhat macro level of the chapter, and the macro level of the novel. But they all have the same structural concerns, and they’re all things you can play with as you go forward. Patterning connects the recursions. What I love about writing novels is that you can introduce something in the first 20 pages, and when it recurs 100 pages later, the reader will still remember it, the novel will be going sideways and forwards and back at the same time, and all the meaning is made. That creates a feeling of completeness.

TM: Structure then becomes both the creation and destruction of patterning. Which I love. I want to make sure I ask about structures that influence you besides prose. I know paintings have been helpful for me.

DS: It’s interesting because when you’re confronted with a painting, you have to choose where to look first. Your eye eventually apprehends the whole thing. I think architecture does that as well. In Wayward, I reference Ward Wellington Ward, a real-life architect of the Arts and Crafts era. His work is not symmetrical but it is cohesive. He’ll have a fireplace with an inglenook and bookshelves nearby. He’ll have a patterning of windows that he’ll violate in some interesting way. It never feels messy. It feels purposeful, controlled. It’s that effect that makes me think of the comparison for writing. You want to have enough authority so that when you disrupt something structurally the reader is with you. If that makes sense.

TM: It does. Shifting a bit here, I wanted to ask about the setting for Wayward. Syracuse is this ultimate post-industrial and post-modern city. Your descriptions of Sam’s life here made me think of Red Desert. I know California is normally in your work, but why Syracuse, specifically, for this book?

DS: There has been more and more upstate New York in my work. All of the works had a California component though. And California is still really interesting to me. There’s an eccentricity to Los Angeles that I love, and upstate New York has that too. There is alternative culture everywhere. And it feels capacious. There’s a long history here of that “old weird” America. To me, the most appealing thing about America is how reformist and experimental it has been. It makes you want to take people aside and say, “What’s the point of all of this freedom if we’re just going to fall in line?” So people trying to do something countercultural—there’s a history of that in upstate New York with the women’s movement, abolition, and also all of these whackier things. It fascinates me. Like in Oneida, which I incorporate in Wayward.

I started researching the Oneida community and a lot of other 19th-century experiments in living for Eat the Document, but it didn’t make it in there. These were religious communities, and they were mostly concerned with counter cultural interpretations of how to be more Godly. In Oneida’s case, this involved a communal society without private property or private marriage. Part of what’s interesting about Oneida is that their community was so successful for so long. Which was partially because they were making things they could sell to the rest of the world. But as I was writing Wayward, I was thinking about how these alternative communities offered a kind of liberation for women. At Oneida, they could be in a religion that allowed them to have sex for pleasure, wear pants, and cut their hair. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of the culty religions in upstate New York had so many women active in them, either founding them or having major roles in them. When you think of Victorian culture and how limited women’s possibilities were because of constant childbirth, it’s also clear that menopause became a form of liberation. Once women were done with children, they could do other things. These alternative communities are fraught because they can’t really divorce themselves from the structures of the culture. You can’t say I’m going to make a non-patriarchal community because you’ve been raised by the patriarchy, so all of that shit comes with you. You could connect to a more modern instance of this, in Wayward, with Ally’s relationship with a much older man. It’s a recurrence of the questions the cult material raises, where sex is both a liberation but also has unintended consequences for her.

TM: I want to return to how Wayward fits in with your other novels. Often your work builds around a dramatic act of compassion. To me, this distinguishes your work. It’s never sentimental, but it is so concerned with compassion. Where does that come from?

DS: This was a big thing for me as a writer, a breakthrough. Learning to write emotional reality. Characters who are deranged with emotion. I think you can write unsentimentally about these things. You can’t be afraid of having consequential emotions in your book. You can undercut them without dismissing them or making fun of them. That’s what I really hope for in the work. The emotional connection between the readers and the characters. In this book, the humor is front loaded, and then it gets more serious.

TM: You said that was a breakthrough for you as a writer. What got you there?

DS: I grew up reading the writers of the ’70s, the postmodernists. In their work, you’re propelled forward but the expected revelation is taken away. It was discomforting and really powerful to me. But I found in my own writing, it became a kind of cheat. I remember in Eat the Document, I thought, Maybe I’ll never show what they did. And then my editor said, “I think we need to see it.” And I thought it would be corny, but once I wrote it I realized: yes, we needed to see it. Ultimately it’s about making meaning in an honest way. And for every writer that’s different. But for me, my honest relationship to the world is very emotional. I needed to be freer about that. Understand that derangement of emotion is a crucible for revelation. For me, then, the question becomes: can you be up to those moments as a writer? That’s difficult. It involves taking a risk.

TM: I want to ask about the role technology plays in Wayward. Similar to the struggle to change, this is something I see evolving through your work. There’s this passage in your debut, Lightning Field. The passage comes after a character introduces a camera into his romantic relationship with the book’s protagonist, Mina, who reflects on why “being filmed by Max was so deeply erotic…it wasn’t about vanity, damn it, it was about having the feeling that your life was being attended, about having your life signify something, some true thing.” This made me think of, in Wayward, Ally being asked by her boyfriend to send a picture of herself. I found Mina’s reflection to be so beautiful and sad. Of course, her situation is different from Ally’s. How do you see this technology complicating a relationship?

DS: In one case, Mina is being filmed. In another, Ally takes a selfie. But both are for men. In some ways, it’s compelling. To be closely paid attention to. But you’re also losing something in that. I think that comes up in Stone Arabia, too. It’s interesting that the Amish don’t want to be photographed. They were suspicious of the vanity of an image. In their view, a Christian vanity. Also, it’s interesting how easily the need to be seen in that way gets away from you. And, of course, in our society still, women are being taught that their value, their very existence, depends on being looked at in certain ways.

TM: I think it’s interesting how one-sided love through technology is. Technology in your work is both a way to transfer love but also to estrange.

DS: I’m very interested in incorporating what it’s like to be alive in the moment the book is set. One of the things I love about the form of the novel is that you only have prose to convey everything. That challenge—how to approach distinctly non-prose things—is exciting. I like writing about listening to music, about watching movies, about what it’s like to surf the Internet. So often my approach is to anchor the actual experience in the body and the consciousness of a character. But sometimes, other strategies work. You don’t want to be gimmicky, but this stuff is our lives. The technology has to be incorporated. We so seldomly think about the thinginess of what we use. What this object, this phone, is like in your hand. I was thinking about this a lot in Innocents and Others, the body relation you have to the technology. You can’t not engage it. It shapes who we are. Just like how the architecture of Sam’s house shapes who she is. Phones are machines for living.

TM: The language in the book has such energy. Syntactically you make brilliant use of lists. And you capture the smashup rhythms of Internet talk, the “faux po’/demi-dereliction.” But you also go deep into the particulars of a system here, the “chinoiserie,” the “inglenook.” There’s the gym-bro talk, the startup talk, the need to “optimize.” Then there’s the emotively lyrical, the “mildewed lemon wedge.” I would love to hear about your philosophy of language for Wayward. How did your relationship to language change (if at all) for this book? What I felt more in this book was the conflict between the different systems of language.

DS: A lot of my favorite writers do this. I do like subcultures that have an energetic jargon. When you invent new speech, at first it illuminates and then it obscures. It almost always tends toward euphemism. There’s often some sort of crime that gets committed, with the language covering it up. The more the language gets used the more problematic it becomes. And things get hammered into cliches that no one questions or thinks about. This is a big source of creativity for me. I also find it very funny, and pointing out what is funny about it is part of what energizes me.

I like lists. I like making lists. It’s an excess which I own. The list feels poetic. When you put things in a list, you put them in a syntactic relationship with each other that’s different from the usual way they’re viewed. You start to exist on the surface of the language in terms of the sound and look of it rather than how it’s used in the world. You’re dislocating that piece of language. You’re seeing new patterns, new relationships beyond the conventional ones.

TM: To end, I want to ask you about a scene in the novel where a character, MH, says: “Care? That the catastrophe that was human civilization is dribbling out? Why would I care about us?” To which Sam responds: “I don’t agree.” My question is: do you feel the novel is specifically equipped to take on the problem of building meaning? And, relatedly, do you feel the form of the novel has a responsibility to attempt to build some sort of meaning?

An example of a crosswritten letter.

DS: I am drawn to humor as a means of expressing honesty, subversion, and joy. Also, I derive hope to from paying attention to the small details of human behavior in different contexts. I am particularly moved when I look at people and notice small acts of resistance. For an example, how some women in the past used to crosswrite letters to save money on postage. The result was formally beautiful but also very hard to read. Almost secret writing that was considered “feminine” and perverse. I admire the beauty, the eccentricity, and the recalcitrance of the act. It gives me hope. In a big sense, I am not bullish on America or humans in general most of the time, but I do think our job as writers is to stay curious about the species in all its paradoxes. Can we truthfully engage our own pessimism while still holding on to hope?