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Recent Work By Nicholas Rys

 

Bud wrote a new book! It’s out on Vintage, and everyone should be incredibly excited. It’s (unsurprisingly) great. In Teenager, Smith pokes and prods, deconstructs, and blows up a slew of “American Myths.” I love Teenager because you can describe it a dozen different ways to a dozen different people, and none would be wrong. It’s a road book. It’s about the death of the American dream. It’s a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a love story. Naturally, it is all of these things. Bud has crafted a superb novel that is fascinated with the question of what makes us American, but smart enough not to have a reasonable answer. Bud talks about it as a kind of loop: things are invented here, then tried out, exported, and refined, then brought back and tried again. And this repeats. Bud is part of this great tradition. Bud has brought it back and tried again. Bud has written the Great American Novel.  

 

Below, we discuss the myth of America, the characters in Teenager, and influences that helped shape his book.

 


 

I really love the early scene with Kody and Teal smoking: “how do the women in the movies do it, how does Marlboro man do it?” It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen: girls comb their hair in the rear-view mirror and the boys try to look so hard. It really hits on the performance of youth.

 

I was just talking to someone about why the novel is called Teenager. About how when I was that age, I didn’t really know exactly what I could get away with, that time when you’re just stepping away from your parents and their home, their rules, and as good as home was or as bad as it was, you are yourself for the first time, often in those stolen little moments, often with your friends. You know, the girl combing her hair in the rearview mirror is doing it to be looked at, to see if she is admired by someone in the back seat, but she’s also looking in the rear view to figure out who she is going to be for the rest of her life. And the boys trying to act hard are going to find out how tough they are when they actually have to fight their first fights for looking tough. You learn who you are to the world pretty quick when you’re that age, and you spend the rest of your life fighting against it or surrendering to it. Being a teenager is new and seeing things for the possibilities there, your life can change for the better at any moment. 

 

 

Can you talk about Kody’s seizures? What was the impetus for giving him this condition? The hallucinatory language of those scenes was almost startling, not just the imagery, but the way in which it is written.

 

I was thinking of those prophets who had visions, Moses with the burning bush. Maybe Moses had seizures, maybe his reality melted and when it melted, maybe God talked to him, but God was in his head. Once it starts to become like that, well maybe that talking snake in the Garden of Eden isn’t the Devil either, maybe you’ve just cracked your head open. The language in Teenager slips away as hallucination and fantasy opens like a flower. This is a realist work, with the door open for dreams, visions, nightmares, and the little hopes that keep people going. Teal imagining that if they get caught by the police, perhaps she and Kody can share a prison cell for the rest of their life, and have a family in prison, and the children will be born behind bars and eventually grow up in the prison and have their own children, making Kody and Teal happy incarcerated grandparents. To me, the unlikely miracles that Teal and Kody hope for are no different than any of those Bible stories. 

 

Is there an American Dream? Was Hunter Thompson correct that it died in Las Vegas, or was it somewhere else? Is America an adult playground in the desert or a hamster wheel where every suburb and travel plaza and exit off the interstate looks the same?

 

The American Dream is just another thing that isn’t real anymore, or ever was. That’s why it’s called a dream, you’d have to leave your physical reality to find it. What we have is just another marketing campaign, for some nostalgic product that didn’t really exist to begin with. I do believe there is freedom for the individual in America, some parts of the globe don’t have this same level of individual freedom. That’s a fact. I love the citizens of this country, the roads that snake through it, the places on the wayside, the surprises. I’d feel that way of any country that’d accept me as a citizen. This earth is beautiful, in its own way, wherever you travel, if you look for the beauty of nature, you’ll find it. But you have to be looking. So really, the dream of the whole world is what I care about. Because it’s people that matter. Me, as an individual, all I can do in America is try to surround myself with friends and neighbors that I care about and try to do my part in caring for them. We do not have a utopia from sea to shining sea here. But it’s possible to make something close to a utopia in the room you are in now, with the people you care about. 

 

 

Can you talk about Elvis as America’s Jesus? (an idea thrown out in the book) Who is the new Elvis? 

 

We don’t have an American Jesus, either. Nobody is kind enough to match the storybooks. Nobody is magnanimous. There’s too much coverage, and all our would-be Jesuses are exposed for their human erroring right out the gate. There’s no way to maintain that facade anymore, the public relations can’t compete. When Elvis was revered, the information about him was as controlled as it ever was with any political figure. In Teenager, the Carticelli family has left the Catholic Church, for what they say has to do with the hypocrisy of priests and what the media has brought to light in regard to the molestation of small children, but that is happening in their own home. In reality, they have left the Catholic Church because the family had to get their daughter an abortion. The unspoken fear being: Is it the boyfriend’s child? Is it the father’s child? Which reminded me of Joseph and Mary and Jesus Christ himself. What child is this? 

 

I first read Robert Lopez’s work a few years ago online. His was just the kind of writing you hope to find on the internet: visceral, immediate, somewhat shocking but with a deceptive attention to detail that was unmistakable to me. I was so pleased that when I read more and more of his work, these traits were consistent, almost dizzying. In A Better Class of People, Lopez’s unhinged narrator is so chillingly realized that you can’t help but feel the momentum of the subway rollicking through you as you read it.

 

Lopez sculpts words into sentences, then weaves together sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages. The work here is granular but not tedious. You get the sense that for Lopez each sentence is its own story. And then it’s on to the next one. 

 

That is why his ability to will (or wield, depending on how you see it) these pieces into a novel is a real achievement. To marry the love of language with a fully-actualized plot, complete with three-dimensional characters and narrative tension is something I wanted to discuss with Robert.


I was so pleased that he took the time to talk with me about the book, point of view, and stringing together the small moments.

 

Get your copy of A Better Class of People today.

 

Each chapter or story, depending on how you see it, opens with a diamond-sharp sentence. Your sentences in the book overall are expertly crisp, which is no surprise. I’m curious about the work that goes in to getting these sentences perfect. As someone who already works in a sentence-driven tradition, do these expert opening lines just come to you or do you rearrange sentences as you go? How do you juggle the precision and language of The Sentence and not lose sight of the bigger narrative?

 

I almost don’t know how to answer this first question. There’s something about putting language together that feels outside of one’s own consciousness. When the sentences come, they come fast and more often than not they come correct. Maybe that’s partially true. Otherwise, I go over them a lot during the initial composition and I don’t move on to the next sentence until the previous one feels finished. Even then there’s work to be done when getting the book ready for publication. Words are cut out here and there, maybe whole sentences and paragraphs. The bigger narrative comes from reading the thing over and over every day and finding threads and echoes and adding all kinds of connective tissue.   

Everything always starts with the first line. I never have any ideas. I wouldn’t know how to write a fiction from an idea. There’s very rarely any rearrangement when it comes to beginnings.

 

You really play with the unreliable narrator in this project (as you do in much of your writing). Can you talk about the ways first-person point of view seemed to be the “right” call for a project about this kind of person?

 

All humans are unreliable. I can’t imagine a narrative stance that is something other than unreliable. I respond to urgency on the page and am drawn to it above all. More often than not the urgency presents itself in the first person. There’s something about the third person that can feel like a bedtime story – Once upon a time – kind of thing. Not always, certainly. I’ve worked in the third person before and perhaps will again. But it’s rare and was never an option for the narrator of this book.

 

It’s hard to say when I read Garielle Lutz’s work for the first time. I know that a professor suggested Stories in the Worst Way. But I think I already had purchased Divorcer by that time, though I cannot recall if I had read it. Her work knocked me out.

Lutz’s work is wholly and completely singular, a feat that feels as difficult as ever, though a phrase that feels ubiquitous in our times. But I dare you to find another living writer doing what Garielle is doing. Something that strikes anyone when first reading Lutz is the surgical precision, the kaleidoscopic vocabulary. Much of her work is a masterclass in defamiliarization.

There is not much that can be said that hasn’t already about her genius, and if you are reading this interview, you know it already. She has, for writers like us, completely changed the game and though I know many who cite her as an influence or claim her as one, I can think of very few for whom I can see her fingerprints. Her latest book, Worsted, feels both a continuation of Lutz’s previous work, and something exciting and new from the writer who has been thornily typing out life’s most ordinary adventures for over twenty years.

Garielle and I talked about teaching, retirement, and influence, her latest work, and what’s next.

 


 

 

I know that you taught creative writing as a Visiting Writer at various colleges and universities, but I believe you have mostly taught composition during your time as an academic. Can you talk about teaching composition versus teaching creative writing—if they are completely opposite to you, if you find yourself a more productive creative writer while you teach one or the other, etc.

 

I’ve always been drawn toward menial but personally meaningful jobs, and at most colleges, the most menial sort of faculty employment seems to be teaching freshman composition. When, during my second or third year of teaching it, I told the chairperson that I had no desire to teach anything else, another prof in the department took me aside and said, “Bad career move.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t think of teaching as a career. I needed a job to support myself, true, but I’d always thought of “support” in its most literal sense–as a way of simply holding up. I found teaching composition to be an unsullying use of my time, a way to keep myself grounded. I’ve long felt that somebody somewhere ought to be telling students the truth about commas, about clauses, about the dark enchantments of specificity. Teaching comp is, of course, dirty work, because among the many papers coming at you every week you can always expect that more than a few of the pages will be provocatively grease-spotted and crudded with smudges and splotches and crusts–byproducts of all-nighter practitionings with snack foods, cosmetics, bodily discharge. On one page it might look as if smidgens of clay have been pressed deep into the paper stock; on another, you might come upon the dark bloods of whatever insects were still alive and crushable that month. As an instructor, I always felt it my duty to return the papers promptly and scrubbed reasonably clean. I tried my best with thicksome, stone-colored ink erasers that worked pretty well on certain strains of smutch, and there were chemical treatments that didn’t call for all that much ventilation. Some days I resorted to little more than dollar-store wipes. (The pages would often be warped, though, by the time I was done with them.) Other days the filth would be obstinate, irremediable, permanent. You had to accept that there was only so much you could do. By the end of my workday (I did all my grading in my office at school), I’d need to get far away from words on paper, from any further verbal circumstance. So, no, I never did any writing of my own during the press of the semesters. When I returned to my apartment after work, I always reached for my electric guitar. It was a cheap, solid-body thing I never plugged into an amp, because I wanted the chords I fingered to come out as alluringly trebly and inaudible as I could manage. More often than not, these were nonsense chords, not the simple, stalwart C, F, and G of the recognizable blues. The music I produced lacked any universality whatsoever. I wrote my stories during the summers. I never taught creative writing often enough to draw any conclusions, other than that the students were always smarter than I was.

 

Do you feel like your process or approach to writing has changed over the years, or do you find yourself still writing in the same manner? If it has changed, how?

 

I was never a fast writer, was always a dawdler, a layabout, but the pace has slowed even further in the past few years. I long ago read somewhere that a writer, or any other sort of artist, is usually granted only fifteen years in which to come up with something decent, and after that, the work sinks into mannerism and the bitter brittleness of self-parody, or else completely dries up. That sounds just about right to me. I might have had a good month or two here and there. I feel I can live with two or three little things I’ve put into words.