The Element of Play
I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak. – Kurt Vonnegut
“I don’t think anybody should kid themselves into thinking anything too precious about what they do,” says Bud Smith, the author of Tollbooth and the newly-released F-250, both from Piscataway House. He’s a big guy—tall, almost imposing when paired with his no-nonsense way of rattling off more in his answers than there was questioned. The intensity of his presence is distilled, however, by the fact that Bud is (and is perhaps always) having fun. “Just have a great time with it and don’t take it too seriously,” he continues, explaining his overall view on the habit of writing, “Keep that element of play to it.”
Sure. For the person who has spent thousands on an English degree and still stresses about claiming “writer” on a resume, this might sound like pure applesauce. But coming from a guy who has published two novels and who regularly embarks on other publishing projects in his spare time… it doesn’t seem like terrible advice. He isn’t saying not to take art seriously, but that if you’re wrestling to be a certain thing or write a certain way, maybe you’re doing it wrong. “I meet a lot of people who complain about slogging through [their writing], or they’re posting their wordcount everyday with ‘#AmWriting 500 words today,’” Bud says, “If that’s what you have to do to keep yourself on task, I kind of think you’re messing around with the wrong form of what you’re doing to begin with.”
He’s absolutely a follower of his own logic. None of his own writing ever travels the same path of creation. Tollbooth was written sitting at a desk. Well, it wasn’t just written sitting at a desk. Bud isn’t the world’s best typist—he claims to type with a “horrible claw technique”—and cranked out around 3,000 words a night at that desk, only to wake up with shooting pains in his fingers and wrists. He finished the first draft of that book, all 120,000 words, in just over a month, and while it probably doesn’t seem like the most playful way to write a novel, Bud wasn’t forcing it, either. That’s just how the book naturally came out.
F-250 was, for the most part, written on his cell phone during his breaks at work. Forty-five minutes a day for, again, little more than a month, and Bud had finished his second novel simply “trying to make better use of [his] time” instead of reading articles on Reddit or The A.V. Club. And, truth be told, that month-long timeframe is about all he ever needs. “I usually work on a project about that length of time, no more, and either the project is done or I move on to something else for a while and let it sit,” he explains, “Otherwise, I think you start to get in a rut with it.”
This Bayville native lives in NYC, though he works in New Jersey every day and does plan to move back. The thought of owning a house just kills his element of play a bit: “When you don’t own anything, you can stay a kid forever,” Bud laughs.
Regardless of where Bud is, how did we get here, to find Smith the author of two novels (and collections of short stories and poems)? It all started when Bud was a musician; his band had just finished playing a set at Brighton Bar, and Bud decided to hang around the bar for a bit instead of head out to a separate party. He went to use the bathroom, as one is wont to do at a bar, and found the toilet stuffed full of paper. Not toilet paper, though—little books, like those church pamphlets to help you “find Jesus” (as Bud describes them). He exited and told the bartender about the restroom, who replied, “Oh, they’ve done it again.” The local drunks had flushed copies of the Idiom magazine down the Brighton Bar toilet.
What was Bud’s first thought? “I should send these guys something!” he says, ecstatic to leave music behind for poetry he found clogging Asbury Park’s restrooms. “So I sent them a poem, and it was crazy because I had never really, but the Idiom sent me—out of the blue—a check for $75 for the poem because it had won a contest.” This odd interaction led to a few more poems being published by the magazine, a few years of keeping in touch. Eventually, Bud pitched part of a novel he had recently finished to The Idiom, and it snowballed into what became Tollbooth, his first title published by Piscataway House. “I never had anything beyond high school, or formal writing classes, or tutoring, or mentoring,” Smith admits, “Working with these guys who all have their MFAs—Bobby Fischer, Keith Baird, Mark Brunetti, and Ink Feindt—it was like going to college for me.”
The guys from Piscataway House sent him tons of notes, but more interestingly, they sent him recordings of their round-table discussion of the novel. Their conversation evolved over the course of an hour, and the group’s passion for Bud’s book “flipped a switch” for him. “Writing my final draft was just night and day for me,” he says.
The new book seems to echo segments of Bud’s life: the main character, Lee Casey, plays guitar in a New Jersey band called Ottermeat, squats in a collapsing house, works as a stonemason (Bud is a boilermaker), and drives a “jacked up pickup truck.” But Smith doesn’t feel he’s injecting himself into his writing. Rather, he uses the writing to see how far he can satirically draw out his character. “How miserable can I make this person be?” he asks, “Most of the time, I would say it’s more of a fantasy, puffing something up or tearing it down, as opposed to who [I] really [am].”
“When you find that project that really grabs a hold of you, you won’t be able to resist following the thing through to the end. It shouldn’t be a struggle,” he says. And with so much on his plate already, it’s hard to wonder what isn’t irresistible for Bud Smith.
F-250 is not his only active project. Bud runs his own small publishing company, Unknown Press, and plans to release In Case I Die, an anthology of “people’s whacked out stories of near death, getting high and seeing UFOs, and experiences with ghosts.” He’s also released a split book with Brian Alan Ellis, his part titled Calm Face—short stories of life in New York City. And next year, he’ll release I’m From Electric Peak with Artistically Declined Press.
A different way of doing things—it’s ultimately what Bud appreciates most about working with Piscataway House, and it’s where Bud finds himself most comfortable: in that less formal, less tightly-wound-academic, more DIY space. “In lit, some people might say they want to be published by a big publishing house,” Bud explains, “and then there are the punk rock shitkicker places, and that’s more where I fit in.”
“My eyes light up when I think about people who are actually getting down and dirty in the street, doing events in dive bars that aren’t even in major cities.”
The Vonnegut quote is apt for Bud Smith. For a regular guy who claims not to “know the rules” yet publishes his work widely, a guy who writes outwardly for the fun of tinkering with the writing, he’s overall a tremendously refreshing presence in literature.
Feature Photo by Catalina Fragoso
This article first appeared in Issue 05