May 16, 2022
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 loved Rae’s illustrations throughout the book. How did that come about?
When the book sold to Vintage, the acquiring editor, Todd Portnowitz, had a vision of someone putting illustrations in the novel. I had no clue who they would try to hire to do these proposed illustrations. I thought I would get a sample of some artists and it’d go from there. Next, I heard, my agent, and dear friend, Mike Mungiello, had mailed Todd a copy of Dust Bunny City (Disorder Press), a book of my poems with illustrations by Rae Buleri, my wife. Next thing I heard, Vintage wanted to hire Rae, blown out of the water by her art in Dust Bunny. So, the work that was left to do on Teenager became a home arts and crafts project. Which was a very lucky thing because we were locked down for the first wave of Covid and going out of our minds. I’d read 5000 words of it to Rae and she would draw some wild and loose sketches. I was retyping it on my typewriter during the day and she was at her desk doing these sketches and working on other watercolors. It all came together so organically. Both Rae and I felt like we were given free reign to make whatever we wanted. Because of that trust and excitement on the editorial level, anything felt possible. The novel became more and more of an art object, thanks to Todd Portnowitz, who was a true partner in crime in the final drafts of the novel, and champion of it becoming an art object.
I wanted to ask you about Kody’s sense of chivalry—his simplistic or black-and-white way of seeing the world. Do you see this world view as a side effect of his head injury, or a coping mechanism for his tumultuous childhood?
All those things. I thought he learned to be like that from reading Don Quixote and not getting that Don Quixote was out of his mind. Don Quixote had this boring, sequestered, small life, and then read too many books of chivalry and leapt off on some ludicrous adventure that was all wrong. The same thing happened in Madame Bovary, she got obsessed with romance novels and thought she had to break away from her quiet life in the country or die. What if our call to adventure is our undoing? Should we just sit around the house until we die? No, we have to go out and find some trouble, it’s our charge in life, our duty to ourselves.
Kody finds more trouble than most people do. He could have used some guidance. What sets most people on the right track early on, is something as simple as asking grandpa and grandma, “What was it like when you were my age? How did you feel? What did you do when you felt like this?” You’ll probably get an answer that sounds like a fairytale. But if you have no family, where do you turn? Kody got the way he was from watching old cowboy movies and thinking the guys in the white hats were the good guys and the guys in the black hats were the good guys too because they were out there doing something with their lives, they were on an adventure. Kody never had anybody to explain how the world really is. Not that you can ever explain how the world really is. But nobody ever really tried to give him a direction and that’s what the problem was. What it means to be a good man. He never had a proper father figure; he never had a proper mother figure. He was raised by Don Quixote and The Wild Bunch, and Full Metal Jacket.
Frequently in this book you juxtapose the dreamlike expectations of a thing with the bleaker reality of the thing. Kody’s romanticization of the ranch, versus its reality of that experience. The push and pull of expectations versus reality seems to be one of the central explorations of this book.
Real life is push and pull and constant negotiation. I’m always getting things wrong. I mishear what people say, I remember events incorrectly. I have to look it up, did that really happen? Hmm, no it didn’t. But having one’s head in the clouds and feet on the ground offers an interesting view at least. Kody is like everybody, some of his impressions are wildly off base. But he does not wish to be destroyed before he absolutely must be destroyed. But hey, that’s just it. In real life, destruction is coming. I’m always striving to balance my make-believe. Does it have too much pain, well where is the delight? It’s got too much neglect in it, well where is the affection? On and on. When I write something at first, it just spills out. And then there’s this mess and I have to make sense of it, apply all kinds of logistics to it, emotional logistics and logistics in space time. I have to understand the ridiculous rules I’m gonna make up for it. And I, the creator of this mess, read it again and again as I redraft and find out what it meant, often subconsciously. I say, oh my god, this work I’ve put down is so bleak, so harrowing, what can I do to get me through reading this? I put in joy to even out the seesaw and to make me feel better, and the reader feels taken care of. With things balanced, I can keep going. Every day in real life, I see people making sacrifices for each other. It’s not just the selfishness you hear about on the news, the betrayal, the grimness, and terror. I put into my stories the good side of humanity as well as the bad, that’s the complete animal, and I feel you need the complete animal, not just a vivisection.
I want to ask you about Neil, Tella’s marine brother who is searching for our heroes throughout the book. He functions as a great narrative device, no matter how good things get for our protagonists, we know Neil is coming. The language of the scenes from Neil’s perspective, much like the seizures, has a different cadence and style. I love the way you can do that in this book, the juggling of these different styles, narratives and tones. Can you talk about the way you showed us Neil on the page? He functions like a kind of shadow character. We see him in almost noir-like conditions, but he is fully there, completely realized in the reader’s mind.
We see a couple different kinds of scenes of Neil’s approach. Sometimes he is written from within one of Kody’s seizures/hallucinations. Other times he is written as if Teal was being clear-eyed about him in the real world. Other times Neil is written from his own perception, with his own ego, believing he is a hero himself. You’re exactly right about him being a shadow character. I thought of him as the twin shadow of both Kody and Teal. I thought, what would have happened to Kody if he had a brother to be in confidence with about the world. Would he have gotten out of his youth less wounded? I thought about Teal, what happened to her with a brother like this? Then I sent Neil out on his own ridiculous adventure.
I’ve been reading your writing for a while now, Bud. Your nonfiction, stories, poetry, etc. There’s a real singular quality to your work, across genres—whether I’m reading a Bud Smith poem or surreal short story or piece of nonfiction about your day job, there is an unmistakable quality that earmarks the writing as uniquely yours. It’s a beautiful thing. It was such a pleasure to read that, to feel that feeling sustained over a novel like this. I wanted to ask; how consciously do you think about this thing some writers call voice? How aware or preoccupied or concerned or invested are you in being singular and consistent and all of that? Or, how much of it is simply a side effect of writing a ton and having what I’d argue all great writers have: a point of view?
Bud: I don’t think about that stuff at all. I just write down how my thoughts sound. How my dreams feel. My work might feel unified because I have to make it a certain way to keep myself returning. It might feel unified because I can’t get rid of myself no matter how I’d like to try and be somebody else. I know what makes me laugh. What upsets me. What feels difficult and what feels simple. I watch and read all kinds of different things, but even if I made a movie, I believe I’d just have to film it the screwed-up way I see the world through my eyes. So yes, it’s having a point of view, and trying not to reject your own view, even when you may get feedback and criticism, find a way to fix the ‘problem’ in your own voice, through your own skewed lens.
What were your influences when writing this book? Are there any that are outside the realm of literature? Any music or movies?
All kinds of things. Everything. It’s an endless parade of influence. How can it not be, I’m alive, I’m here. It keeps parading by. There’s the obvious cops and robbers and doomed lovers-thing(s). But Paris, Texas feels related to Teenager to me. I love those movies about America that come from other distorted sources. Wim Wenders directed that, he grew up in Germany, right after WWII and everything around his home was fire bombed, he talked one time about making this pilgrimage to Dusslorf to see art, to see a museum as a child, traveling through a wasteland of war wreckage to get there. In Teenager, there’s a reference to Amerika by Franz Kafka, about Kafka writing a book about America without ever being to America (and getting the details all stretched out of coherence—which makes its own point—the Statue of Liberty is gold and holding up a sword). Wim Wenders wanted to make a movie about America in the same way, having never been here, can we make the definitive movie about here? I think that kind of person is the only one who could. That struck a chord with me. The myth of the holy pilgrimage. I like Paris, Texas for the same reason I like Led Zeppelin, there’s this direct pure thing (for Paris, Texas it was a half-finished script by Sam Shepard, and for Led Zeppelin it was American blues music) both mutated through this other lens, so what winds up as the end result is American in origin but re-interpreted on Mars. I’m attracted to that kind of thing—what can we get wrong, to epic execution. The influences were everything in American culture happening around me, swirling around me. I found it odd when I was a kid that Elvis Presley got popular again, his image was in Coca-Cola commercials again after being out of fashion. We were living with his ghost, his hologram, a spectral Elvis again, slim again. At the same time, in the 90s, I remember my mom telling me how strange it felt to her to see kids dressing like she had when she was in high school, bell bottoms or whatever. She was talking about rave kids in Jncos. It all comes back mutated. Another reason to write this book: Tove Jansson, the genius Finnish writer, says in her novel Fair Play, “Americans are obsessed with their history.” As much as it interests me how Europeans and Scandanavians misinterpret America in their art, I am even more captivated by how the myths of America can be misinterpreted by its own citizens.
So as an American, obsessed with our own history, and not an outsider like Wenders or Kafka, how does your portrait of it here compare? By my estimation, you are borrowing from them in the same way they borrowed from Sam Shepard and the American Blues. you’ve borrowed from the borrowers, you’ve brought it back home, but kept their magic.
Well, yes, exactly. I’m interested in how it can be gotten wrong. I’m not the only one who works this way. I think about the spaghetti western films that are an influence on so many pieces of art that also inspired Teenager, and they themselves were adapted. Something like Yojimbo about a samurai playing both sides of rival Japanese crime bosses but being influenced by the filmmaking of John Ford. Akira Kurosawa saw The Searchers and was influenced by that style to tell his samurai story. So then when Sergio Leone set out to make his films with Clint Eastwood, he had the influence of Kurosawa, and it’d come from this other straight American western genre, back to a distorted version of the same genre the style had sprung from. So, you get, A Fistful of Dollars. And it’s brilliant because it’s so deformed and has become its own thing. That’s what I’m interested in. How can storytelling grow and morph and change and pay homage to what its creators loved while also stepping off in new directions? Bands like The Rolling Stones are prime examples of this, they start out as basically a straight laced cover band doing Howlin’ Wolf and slowly over time, these British kids play it just wrong enough that it becomes punk rock on Exile on Mainstreet. By letting in one influence, and playing it wrong, the band changes and becomes something else. A purist, a blues purist would balk at a band like the Stones calling themselves blues. How does a weird little group of English kids decide they are on the same spiritual and emotional plane as Muddy Waters? Well they get delusional and they stay delusional until finally whatever they’ve mashed together in their sound and in their lives begins to get interesting, and actually, unique. But it’s not The Blues. As much as they’d say, ah, we’re just a rhythm and blues band…yeah…from another planet. I guess the writers I’ve always looked up to the most are the ones that can’t fit into a genre, often the same genre they think they’re working in.
What are you reading and listening to right now? Anything exciting?
I’ve been reading Paradise Lost, a little bit every day when I wake up. For the last few years, I’ll read a classic while also reading some contemporary thing(s). Just finished Libra by Don DeLillo, which I really liked (despite knowing how it would end, haha) and now I’m right into Underworld, opening pages. Been enjoying a new album from Good Morning called Barnyard, which fits in real nice with a lot of albums that are among my favorites, such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I listen to YouTube when I’m driving around sometimes, I just search interviews and turn the phone away in my cupholder, so I don’t see the screen. I love to hear what my favorite creators have to say. On the way to work today it was Frances Ford Coppola’s audio commentary for The Godfather. If nothing else, hearing what adversity one of the greatest pieces of art faced to be made, inspires me to keep making my little arts and craft projects. I see how much work it takes and how nothing is ever smooth and easy, and that makes me want to keep going on my own work.
Bud Smith works heavy construction in New Jersey. His story Violets appeared in The Paris Review.