Richard Kramer: I’d like to start by saying we’ve known each other for years and had a thousand conversations like this. I love that we can still have these conversations, but something has changed for you.
Bob Smith: I have ALS. The strangest thing about my life-threatening illness is that two of my favorite writers: Henry Thoreau and Anton Chekhov, also had life threatening illnesses. They both had tuberculosis. I’m not comparing my writing to these literary giants, but I’ve always admired them. Thoreau was ardently against slavery and Chekhov traveled to Sakhalin to write against Russia’s prison system. (Children of prisoners accompanied their fathers to prison.) Both of these writers knew the Angel of Death was stalking them, but they kept writing and fought for other suffering people. My cause is Climate Change. I organized other writers for the March and the signs we carried were funny and tough. My friend John Bateman wrote: Koch Industries: Destroying Santa’s Home Since 1967.
My moral guide is my partner Michael Zam. He’s stuck with me even though I have one of the most depressing illnesses.
You’re primarily a TV writer. What made you decide to write a novel?
Richard: It was all I ever wanted to do. It was all that I ever thought was worth doing. I don’t know how I decided that. But I did. If I hadn’t done it, I don’t know what would have happened to me. All the time I was writing it I hoped it would be published, of course, but it would have been okay (sort of) if it hadn’t. Because I’d done it. And someone had read it. I don’t think anything you write is real until someone reads it. They don’t have to like it. But they have to read it. And the first reader was the person to whom I dedicated it. Note the proper placement of the conjunction, please.
And you? I’m pretending I don’t know why you wrote your first novel. But your answer will be much better than mine.
Bob: I was in Alaska with a salmon fisherman and flying back to Los Angeles and I read that Mark Wahlberg went fishing before he filmed The Perfect Storm. I’ve always liked Evelyn Waugh’s novels based on his travels. Those two ideas gave me a plot and an example that had worked. I decided to try writing about Alaska.
Richard: Well, you suggest nine different paths to go down with that answer. What were you doing in Alaska? Was Mark Wahlberg your editor? I’ve heard he’s always wanted to play Maxwell Perkins. But I would think —pardon my presumption here —that your background as a comedian and essayist (published, I might add) had something to do with it. Also, that you are probably the most enthusiastic reader I’ve ever known. Readers make the best writers. I bet we said that to each other, at some time. It’s true, though. Not all readers ARE writers, but —well, you follow me.
Bob: I was writing an article for Out magazine about gay and lesbians in Alaska. Brad Williams, a gay salmon fisherman said that I couldn’t just write about the community in Anchorage. He challenged me to go salmon fishing with him on Bristol Bay out on the Bering Sea. I accepted his dare and the experience made me love Alaska. To write a novel, you must love your story. I have read every American and English comic novelist. All their books. Actually reread most of them. From Jane Austen to Stephen McCauley and Armistead Maupin. I love Barbara Pym and Dawn Powell. You have to be a reader to be a writer.
Richard: I love all those people. Was it you who turned me on to Pym’s A GLASS OF BLESSINGS? If it was —and it was —thank you again. And for the Dawn Powell journals, too, which I think you also gave me.
I also want to add that one other thing that made me want to write a novel was the example you set when you lived in LA. I remember your treasured Mission bookcase, stocked with all the people you’ve just mentioned. And how you would retire to that back room and Just Write Your Novel, for hours at a time. I remember thinking “I want to be like that”. And worrying that I never would, or could.
But I want you to say something about your experience as a gay stand-up when there was no such thing, and your books of essays, which is how I met you. I was a fan.
Bob: I insisted you read A Glass of Blessings only because I knew you would get it. AND you did.
I came out as a gay standup comic in a straight comedy club in 1986 from reading Joe Orton’s Complete Plays and all of Isherwood. Their honesty made me think you can’t be a real artist hiding your identity. In 1986, I was the only out comic working comedy clubs in Manhattan. I still have my copy of Orton’s plays. The jokes are highlighted or underlined because I was teaching myself how to write jokes. I also underlined a copy of Saki’s Complete Stories.
Richard: I was wondering about Isherwood. He’s not exactly a comic novelist, but he’s not NOT a comic novelist. I’m sorry you didn’t get to know him. I used to see him everywhere; he and Don Bachardy went to every movie at the County Museum. Once a friend from New York took me to their house for dinner. I got stuck at Don’s end of the table. I remember all he talked about was cats and how he found them very interesting!. At the other end, I could hear Isherwood holding forth on his favorite sordid sex clubs in Berlin. But, of course, that’s the story of my life. Stuck at the cat end of the table.
Saki …I remember reading “The Monkey’s Paw”at summer camp. But I haven’t read anything else by him. For a long time I thought he was the same as Maupassant, but I take it that’s not true. What was it about him that made you study him so closely?
Bob: Saki is epigrammatic like Oscar Wilde. When he writes a joke, you can’t imagine it being written differently.
Richard: So you’re talking about precision. And individuality. And voice. And working on that through literature you wouldn’t expect you’d go to as a gay comic in a straight nightclub.
Here’s the obvious question …and I know it’s one that should never be asked again …but did you/do you think of yourself as a “gay comedian”, or a comedian who “happens”to be gay? Or neither?
Bob: I always thought of myself as a stand up. One time in the late 80s, a big manager told me to drop the gay material. “Just be Bob Smith from Buffalo.” I jokingly replied, “I’m more embarrassed about being from Buffalo than being gay.” It was a joke because I love Buffalo. I was the first openly gay comic on The Tonight Show and first with an HBO special. I think it was that I thought of my material as jokes, not “gay jokes.”
Richard: That brings up two things I wanted to get into with you. The first is —the gay shelf. Is that where they usually put your books? Amazon offers THESE THINGS HAPPEN with a book called MY ROOMMATE’S A JOCK? WELL, CRAP! Maybe I should read it; maybe it was influenced by Isherwood’s A SINGLE MAN, or Bellow’s SEIZE THE DAY, like my book. Maybe it’s a much better book than mine. But I’ve been pissed off to be shoved into that corner. THESE THINGS HAPPEN is for everyone. Period. It is not a Gay Novel, or a Novel That Happens to be Gay. It is a novel. As I am not a Gay Author. Nor am I an Author Who Happens to be —well, you get it. It gets very tiring to always say what you’re NOT, to always feel the need to correct people. To fight to be seen as —just say it —substantial. Not trivial. I was in New York last month, and I walked into Three Lives bookstore, and there it was, happily displayed on a table. And it wasn’t the gay table. It was the fiction table. I said to the owner “Are you sure you have this in the right place?”And she said “We all read it. We all fought to put it there.”I practically burst into tears.
Bob: I think my novels are COMIC novels, not gay novels. I read stories about women, straight men, African-Americans and lesbians. The one thing novels do supremely well is let you understand other people. Get into their thoughts. Putting our novels in the gay ghetto in a bookstore is like putting Philip Roth in a straight Jewish section.
Richard: Yes. And I just wrote an email to Amazon questioning this. Maybe they’ll send a drone, with an answer; drones are the new carrier pigeons.
I’ve also wanted to talk with you about talking with you. Which we can’t, literally, do anymore.
Bob: My ALS has taken my speaking voice. Although I still crack jokes with my iPad. Which reminds me of something I don’t know. What got you into television writing?
Richard: I never especially wanted to get into television writing. When I first started writing for TV, TV was not something you wrote for. It was something you watched. The veneration of TV writing came much later.
But – having said that – in the middish-70’s there was a series called FAMILY, which is fairly fondly remembered, that in some minor way was a precursor to thirtysomething. I worked on it, Ed Zwick worked on it, Marshall Herskovitz worked on it. It was about – well – a family, in Pasadena, and it had what its creators used to call “the stench of the real”. I decided I would write a spec script for it, even though I didn’t know what that was. I cranked something out. I think I’d maybe seen three screenplays at that point, and they were all by Ingmar Bergman. I found out where the production offices were, posted my script, and a year later got a call that they loved it and wanted to buy it. Suddenly I was in LA. And suddenly I’ve been in LA for 37 years. When I wrote it, I never thought anyone would read it, much less buy it, and I certainly never saw it as a calling card for a career. Looking back at who I was, or who I thought I was, I realize I was both incredibly focused, and incredibly vague. I have a friend who recently told me about his series of five year plans, and how he’s knocked them off one by one. I never had more than a five minute plan.
How did you get into TV?
Bob: I wrote a list How To Tell If You Come From A Dysfunctional Family and a comedian friend Carrie Snow showed it to Roseanne Barr. A line from the list was: When you played with your toy cars, you thought it was normal to have a designated driver.
Roseanne hired me for her Sketch show. It wasn’t a hit even though the cast featured Kathy Griffin and Jennifer Coolidge. Some of the writers from that show went to MADtv. They hired me. I worked there for six months and was fired. The executive producer was a Republican and he cut George W. Bush out of a sketch that I wrote. A month after I was fired, I received a check for 900 dollars. They ran a sketch I wrote by myself as The Best of MADtv. It was called The Zapruder Films. It showed that in every Zapruder home movie someone is shot. After that I concentrated on books.
Speaking of books, your novel is a comic novel, but it has two teenage boys being beaten up for being suspected of being gay. People overlook that great comic novels often have tragic events that influence the whole story. Austen’s Emma has the death of her mother shaping the novel. What do you think about mixing tragedy and comedy?
Richard: I think highly of it. And not to blow YOUR own horn, your book REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS I FORGOT handles that mix masterfully, I think. I remember your grief when your sister committed suicide. And then, years later, to see how you used it in that book … That made a big impact on me. I remember thinking: “Look what he did. I want to do that.”
Bob: What are you working on now?
Richard: I’m pushing and pulling at a novel, it seems. I insist to everybody it’s completely different from (than?) THESE THINGS HAPPEN, but maybe it isn’t. At first I thought it was one thing, now I think it’s another. The main character, though, is steady. He’s an actor, in his 60’s, for whom everything suddenly starts to go mysteriously wrong. It’s comic, I guess. And there are old parents in it. Right now I’m calling it THE DAYPLAYER, which is what you call an actor who comes in and works for only one day. They read xrays, book suspects, that kind of thing. They don’t matter, really, but without them the story would not be possible.
Bob: I’m working on a book of essays about my love of nature called, Treehab. I’m the father of two kids and I think climate change is the major issue of this century. I’m writing four essays about Alaska, and the essays are humorous, but my anger about climate change deniers will be evident.