The Universe’s Couch: A Conversation Between Bud Smith and Mike Jeffrey
I MET Bud Smith last year when I interviewed him via Zoom for the Skylight Books Podcast about his 2022 novel Teenager. We ended up shooting the shit for a while after we stopped recording and stayed in touch. Bud’s a construction worker from New Jersey and I’m from Rhode Island, and there was an easy connection between us deriving from certain shared characteristics of our home states, we agreed.
We both have fiction stories in the Fire issue of The LA RB Quarterly, and so Chloe, the editor, asked us to discuss “semi-autobiographical fiction” with each other ahead of the release. We talked about that, the relationship between our lives and our fiction. We also talked about sleeping on couches, Bud’s wife’s broken foot, the competitive paintball tournament circuit, and not writing for the CV.
MIKE JEFFREY: Right now, I’m in Sacramento for a weekend, coaching a paintball team based up here. I’m staying on the couch of a guy I knew in Rhode Island back in 2009.
BUD SMITH: What’s the couch like? I’m staying on a couch.
MJ: A sectional with brown fabric upholstery and built-in recliners. Six feet wide, I know because if I stretch out all the way, my feet reach past the armrest so I had to curl up a little. A little dog hair on the cushions. No extra pillows in the house so I roll up my hoodie.
BS: A sectional. Excellent. Me too. My wife and I have been sleeping on this blue and white sectional at her parents’ house an hour south of where we’re supposed to be.
MJ: Where are you supposed to be?
BS: Good question. Home, I guess. But we live in the city and there’s all these stairs everywhere. We never realized there are a hundred thousand steps to get inside our building. But a broken foot reveals stuff to you. My wife’s foot is broken in five places, and she can’t sleep through the night in a bed, in a guest room, or our own bedroom so many miles north. Who is the paintball guy from Rhode Island?
MJ: He used to sell me weed, and now he sells fences and he and his wife have two kids and three dogs and a lot of Disney memorabilia on his walls.
BS: You used to work in bookstores.
MJ: I was working at Skylight in L.A. last year and at Riffraff Bookstore + Bar in Providence at the start of this year. But I’ve been living with my parents and reintegrating myself into the bizarro tournament-paintball part of my life, and writing letters to people.
BS: We’ve ripped apart a plastic plant here, polypropylene, and are welding it back together. Today’s my day off. There’s no life to be found at the plastic plant.
MJ: I’ve been slowing down and reengaging with childhood, for better or worse. Trying to avoid feeling infantilized, but also embracing the pause.
BS: I sympathize. I’m “staying with my parents” too. Being infantilized. I’m 41 years old and beginning my descent. I wake up in this retirement village with my wife’s mother and father trying to stealthily crunch cereal so as not to disturb us. The TV is across from our sectional, and I know my wife’s poor parents want to watch the news but they are holding back for our sake. What’s it mean to compete nationally in paintball?
MJ: I could talk all day about how paintball started and how it evolved and how it’s played at the highest level today, but maybe the fastest way is to say that paintball plays out like chess, except that every piece has a mind of its own. I once had some bookstore co-workers laugh at me when I described it that way at a holiday party, but it’s true. And there’s something special about putting your whole heart into something that’s laughable to outsiders. You’re using up vacation days, missing school, missing family time. And almost no one makes a living doing it. There are a handful of pro teams with rich owners that’ll pay their players somewhere between 15 and 70 grand a year. So even at the pro level, everyone has a day job or at least a couple side hustles. It’s a double life.
BS: A double life is something to strive for—that particular one doesn’t sound much different from the writers I know who skip out on work and hop on a plane and go read a couple poems to a small audience at a random place. I don’t see a hierarchy to art-making versus other passions. Both are laughable. Or neither is. A passion is a passion. People would do better to get themselves one. At least one.
MJ: Where are you?
BS: The middle of New Jersey. Typing this with my thumbs on a street named after a pear. Sitting on the universe’s couch. The couch was given to my wife’s parents by a woman from Hungary named Alice, who lived to the age of 96. Alice was a friend of the family. She had one eye. When she passed away, she also gifted my wife and me all her glass furniture and a typewriter with Hungarian characters. I think you call them characters. Alice was wonderful. I’d like to go back home, to our apartment. See all that glass furniture again. Peck away on the Hungarian typewriter. When we finally work up the verve to traverse up all our stairs, my wife and I will continue sleeping on own sectional there.
My wife and I were born in the same suburban hospital (since demolished) near the little town where this retirement community is, so I’m quite familiar with all the green grass of these particular subdivisions, and all the chain restaurants, which once broke my heart and which once felt like they were suffocating me, but Red Lobster is very important to me now. You’ll notice: they don’t have stairs to get in. Wonderful handicap ramps.
I miss being home. The other day, I met somebody at the plastic plant, a man from Georgia who traveled up here to work this big outage going on. Crazy hours. Open as much of it for inspections as possible and make mechanical repairs. Lots of crane rigging. Turning wrenches. Crazy hours. Well, this man from Georgia stopped me outside the trailer and said he knew me from somewhere. But I’ve never traveled down to Georgia to work. We kept talking about it and we came to the conclusion that he knows me because he saw me in my kitchen window in Jersey City a few times while he was walking by and I was washing dishes. My window isn’t too far off the street. He is staying with his sister who lives over by Lincoln Park.
If you look around and listen, there’s always things coming at you to “capture.” Someone always says something strange, stupid, wrong, and it surprises me. So it gets plucked out of the day, and a poem gets made of it. Nothing new. Cavemen and cavewomen were doing this same nonsense on the walls of their cave.
MJ: I take a lot of notes when I go home, and my dad and my sister will text me “classic Rhode Island” stories—about the extended family or local corruption, insurance fraud, and small-time nitwit scams. They know I love the raw material. But it’s hard for me to start from something true and move into fiction. It tends to work in the opposite direction for me, where I start with an invented situation and then look to inject truth into it. If I try to relate a story someone told me, or write directly from my own experience, it’s very hard for me to get anything moving.
BS: I always just think the truth is that everybody is in the circus. The real world is the big top. That there is no sense in truth because it’s all a big mess anyway. So you’ll already be writing some kind of “scenario” and then go back and kind of look for reality to inject into the dream? Maybe straighten out the “mess”? It was like that for your story, “Omissions,” that appears in the next issue?
MJ: Something like that. For “Omissions,” I remember I was at a family party, and my cousin Alex showed me this Excel spreadsheet he’d made for betting on NBA games, and he was telling me about going to these poker games hosted in vacant office spaces in Midtown Manhattan late at night. I wanted to write about those poker games, and I asked him to send me the spreadsheet because I knew I wanted to use that detail somewhere, somehow.
I loved your story, but when your bio is “works heavy construction and writes stories in New Jersey,” and then you have heavy construction in your story, does it bother you that people are just going to be like, “Oh, this narrator is Bud”?
BS: Nah, they’re right. The narrator is Bud. If it’s first person, it’s either me pretending to be someone else, or me pretending to be me. If it’s third person, it’s still me. Sometimes I’m omnipresent and sometimes I can’t even wake up from my spot on the couch, the dream keeps rolling.
MJ: The narrator in my short story is named Mike Jeffrey, but all I was trying to do was write in a voice that felt close to my own voice. I was like, “It’ll be kind of funny to write a slimeball version of me that manipulates high school sports,” and I can picture my mom and one of my brothers questioning me about it.
BS: A good question to ask is, is this work bringing great shame upon my family? Or, at least, I think I should not be writing a story that could get me ahead in a job interview.
MJ: Looking to stir the pot is a good place to start in fiction. I like that your story included that intention a little bit. The narrator is getting questioned over and over again about the dangerous incident. My friends who read said that “Omissions” was just like Kafka, and my friends who don’t read said, “Shit, dude.”
I try to work from a similar place. I don’t ever have a specific person in mind, but I like the idea that my bookseller friends, writer friends, childhood friends, and relatives would all be engaged by the story. Like, you don’t need an MFA to enjoy it. When I’m stuck on something, I’ll ask myself, “How would you describe this situation/person/feeling to someone sitting across from you at the dinner table?” And that’s a style choice, but I think it gets me to stay closer to the truth.
BS: Where do you do your writing these days?
MJ: I’ve been pretty rootless since about November, so I’ve had to get less precious about where and when I’m writing. In the past, I’ve liked to keep a solid routine and get to the desk at home around the same time every day. Nowadays, I’ve been writing at my parents’ house and on my phone as I’m going about my day. I’ve started a bunch of stories on my phone sitting at this one bar in town.
BS: I make stuff like that too, as I go about my day. Can usually blend the two things into a day and it feels nice. The make-believe with the reality that’s happening. But because of my work situation, various significant injuries, and other troublesome events that cannot be named, I haven’t worked on creative-anything since the second week of January, and now it’s almost mid-March.
MJ: Do you get nervous when you’re not doing creative work? Like superstitious that you’ll forget how to do it?
BS: It’s great to forget how to do it. Come back and learn some other way to do it. That’s healthy. I don’t worry about anything. When I can’t make art daily, I just figure it’ll be more potent later and I won’t take it for granted when the days get easier. Which they are about to. The real problem is pushing too hard. Getting burned out. It’s better to be loose. And to get comfortable being uncomfortable so you forget you’re uncomfortable. Try and use the Hungarian typewriter instead of the one you understand.
MJ: Do you teach workshops or anything like that? Do you dabble in that side of things at all?
BS: I do. But that’s just in my apartment. I never had any higher learning but I’ve always been a fan of people who self-study and then go around spreading their dubious results. When I get invited, I go to universities and talk to college kids and I love that opportunity. But mostly, my teaching is just me in my living room and the students sit on my sectional couch and wonder why I have all this glass furniture while I try to teach them everything I think I know.
MJ: I’ve had a rough few months with a lot of false starts. Setting out and stopping and retreating to my notebook and just journaling and messing around in there. There’s one situation I’ve come back to again and again, but I haven’t been able to find a way to make it move. And I don’t know if I should walk away or keep poking at it. But I was actually thinking about something you said in an interview, that you gotta get comfortable with doing bad work, because you can always go back and make it better later. So I’ve just been showing up for about an hour a day, being stubborn about it. Because if you don’t show up, nothing’s gonna happen.
BS: It really is just doing lousy work. That’s mostly my thing for the last two months; like I said, I haven’t really been able to do any writing. I wrote one story a couple weeks ago, I guess it was two Saturdays ago, the story “Witness Statement,” which I was only able to get the time to write down because of the actual incident in the story. Some people have “writing residencies.” I just get told not to show my face at the work site because of some horrible violation. They told me not to come to work for a couple of days because of what happened. And I was like, I’m gonna write about it, and then just kind of banged it out, really not thinking about it too much, just trying to dump it all out in one fell swoop. A lot of times, if you get it in the groove and you have to do something, you can do it. If I’m trying to do my best work, I’m usually overthinking it, and in the end, it’s not what I wanted to make anyway. But I try to retain a workmanlike approach to making my make-believe.
Mike Jeffrey is a writer from Rhode Island. His work has appeared in The Idaho Review, Soft Punk Magazine, Boston Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere.
Bud Smith writes stories and works heavy construction in New Jersey. His novel Teenager was published by Vintage in 2022.
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