I imagine you are very used to seeing your words in print after nearly two decades as a journalist and columnist. In fact, I saw you contributed music essays to two books published earlier this year. But does it feel different to have your very own work of fiction published? How?
It’s terrifying. I’ve written things in the past that had real consequences. Twice I had my life threatened from stories I wrote. One time in Detroit I was punched so hard in the face my eye was swollen shut for days. The guy hated what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure I was just telling the truth.
With fiction, it’s a different truth, a bigger one (we hope) in that the stories can ultimately define whatever moment we’re suffering through, or bouncing through with joy in our steps. That’s what my favorite writers, like Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Willy Vlautin, Denis Johnson, Jim Harrison, Harry Crews, and Charles Bukowski always did or do, somehow. I hope I can do a little of that for someone, somewhere. It’s about self-definition, and empathy for the world around us. I’m always terrified I fail at that. So that’s what’s scary.
A lot of these short stories take us to harrowing physical and emotional spaces. How much of this book is based on seeds of truth?
Well it is memoir-ish in some ways. I mean, I was strung out on meth and alcohol, the latter for years and years. I played in rock ’n’ roll bands that developed sizable followings and we made albums and toured. And I worked with rock ’n’ roll stars and gifted producers, and so on. I also worked as a journalist in Phoenix and Detroit, and I’ve lived on King Cobra in ghettos. I was an obsessed bicycle racer on the U.S. National Team when I was a teen. So themes and characters in the book relate to experiences I’ve had. It would be absolutely impossible to write about meth and booze addiction if I hadn’t lived it.
Much like the main character, you actually fronted not just one but several rock bands. Are you ever tempted to return to performing? Will this book tour see you sing and read from Spent Saints?
No singing on the book tour. I spent years fronting rock ’n’ roll bands. I lived and breathed that, and I have knee and back injuries and liver damage to prove it. We all figured we’d be dead by 30. And then when we hit 30, we figured we’d all be dead at 35. My then-heroes had all died off fairly young, from Arthur Rimbaud to Johnny Thunders. I really believed the shit was going to finish me off, if the depression didn’t. Along the way I learned to write songs too, and survived for a short while on that. I drank and played music and had great loves and read books and wrote songs. That was my life, and it sounds pretty sweet.
But for me the drinking became the most important thing, and the drugs, and, of course, the attendant sadness and ugliness that go with that stuff. I learn most everything important and sustaining in life from women, always have since I was a child, and even that couldn’t save me. Not at all. Ultimately I think I stopped playing music unconsciously because it became hard for me to do it sober. I lived for years waking up and wishing I could die. Sounds awful and selfish, and it is. And it’s no way to live. But somehow I needed to live. It’s a struggle for me everyday, still. I remind myself daily that life exists in all the small wonders. As corny as it sounds, I know I’m OK if a desert sunset can move me to tears, one all scraped up by power lines and mesquite trees.
Ten different up-and-coming directors have contributed their own unique visions to bring Spent Saints to life. What is it like watching versions of your stories on the big screen? Did you ever think your writing would inspire a cartoon? Or a contemporary dance?
You kidding? No, not at all, not in a million years. These beautiful films and movements, and the interest from the people creating them, absolutely blows my mind. It’s already crazy flattering that these super-skilled directors like the stories. But then they like them enough to translate them into mini-films? And for no money? It’s absolutely life-affirming. And the interpretations are interesting, to see what they pick up on, the nuances, particularly the sped-up horror of crystal meth — and that nervous system damage — interpreted in graceful dance. These two worlds collide. It’s brilliant and also very moving. Mostly I think everything I write is worthless and nobody will like any of it, and then this sort of thing happens. Now because of these films, a web series has been greenlit and is in production as we speak. It’s crazy.
So many debut authors are MFA graduates these days, yet you never finished high school. Can you speak for a minute about being an award-winning writer with limited formal education? Has being an autodidact given you an edge?
I don’t know if there’s any edge from being self-taught. I tell myself there is. I will say the fact I didn’t go to school for writing instilled in me a complete sense of inferiority over the years. I got my first full-time writing gig when I was still drinking and doing drugs. To my left was a Harvard grad, and to my right a Columbia grad, and me, an alcoholic high school dropout in the middle. It was downright comical, but scary too.
But I have found myself in countless situations that I otherwise would’ve missed out on had I gone to college and then an MFA program. From life-threatening (like, say, kicking alcohol or having guns pulled on me) to what-the-fuck-am-I doing-here incredible (I’ve found myself in wretched meth labs surrounded by porn and filthy kids in diapers, and also on stage with my band in front of 10,000 people).
I always get super nervous reading stories to rooms filled with MFAs and writing professors, but every time I do I seem to win them over. I’ve given talks in university classrooms about writing and journalism, and used myself as an example of what not to do when pursuing a career in writing or journalism. A few of my favorite contemporary writers came out of MFA programs, and many others did not, and those who are strictly autodidactic really inspire me.
BRIAN SMITH has written for many magazines and alt-weeklies, and his fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals. He’s an award-winning journalist, first as a staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times and then as an editor at Detroit’s Metro Times. Before writing full time, Smith was a songwriter who fronted rock ‘n’ roll bands Beat Angels and, before that, GAD. He has penned tunes with lots of folks, including Alice Cooper. At one point he overcame heady crystal meth and alcohol addictions. As a kid growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Smith was a national class bicycle racer. He now lives back in Tucson where he writes a regular column in the Tucson Weekly centered on unsung heroes, people on the fringes and the desolate beauty found in unlikely places. Spent Saints is his debut collection of short stories.