Bud Smith is kind of a legend. The Jersey City writer has been publishing since 2009, but has been writing for much longer. Under his belt he’s got a story collection (Double Bird, Maudlin House), a poetry collaboration with his wife, Rae Buleri (Dust Bunny City, Disorder Press), a memoir (WORK, Civil Coping Mechanisms), two novels (F250 from Piscataway House and Tollbooth, self-published), and a forthcoming collection of short stories, out in the near future. Teenager, out May 10th by Vintage/Anchor, is novel number three.
Smith’s writing hits that sweet-and-salty spot between reality and fantasy, truth and falsehood, ecstasy and heartbreak. His prose moves like poetry, regardless of genre — it’s not afraid to shock you, not afraid to spit in your face. Kody and Teal, the teenage lovebird runaways of Teenager, escape from New Jersey and make their way west after an unfortunate, but necessary, double homicide. Lovable and dysfunctional, they represent the kind of people Smith is interested in writing about: inherently good, damaged by what the world around them has forced them to endure, dreamers who problem-solve their way through to the bitter end.
There’s something canonically American about the themes and stories Bud Smith is drawn to as a writer, but there’s also something very otherworldly, too. As we follow Kody and Teal through to Gracie Mansion, to the Grand Canyon, to the Pacific Coast Highway, Teenager wrestles with heavy psychic themes: freedom, death, love, redemption. “Great for the beach. Great for the house. Great for anywhere you need a damn good book,” is an Amazon review of Bud Smith’s 2018 story collection, one that has been repeating itself over and over in my head ever since I stumbled upon it. Probably because I think it denotes something about what’s so magical about Bud’s work: it inspires others to walk and talk in the poetry of their own.
I was grateful that Bud sat down with me to talk about alternate versions of his fantastic new novel Teenager, how America’s vastness can feel like a trap, and what it means these days to be a writer from New Jersey.
I was curious about the path to publication you had with this book in particular. I know you’ve published with small presses for a long time.
Bud Smith[Teenager] actually started out as a poem. I wrote on a napkin because I was at a poetry reading and one of the readers wasn’t wasn’t there, they hadn’t shown up. So the event organizer was like, “read something” and there was no cell reception, so I was like, “I’ll write something to read.” So I wrote the first iteration of this book as a poem and it was really like a quick hit of plot points of what eventually became a short story, which was Teenager but with a different name. It wasn’t called Teenager until it was way down the line. I didn’t have a plan for it to become a novel — I’m not the type of person who makes a lot of goals. I prefer to just work on something for the enjoyment of working on it. But I wasn’t really done with this story. I wasn’t done with the character. And so it became a novel.
It was [my editor] Todd’s idea to put illustrations in it. He said, well, what do you think about [putting] all these sketches [in the book]? Would you like something like that? And I was like, sure, I don’t know. Then my dear friend and agent suggested to Todd, well, you know, Bud and [my wife] Rae [Buleri] have done a book together, Dust Bunny City.
And so he emailed Dust Bunny City to Todd, and he was like, wow, these drawings are amazing. I don’t even think he really realized that Rae was my wife yet. He was like “We gotta get these people back together,” you know? And so it became like a home arts and craft project for Rae and I. Literally, I’d read her [excerpts] and she would show me the sketches she was doing, and we would give each other notes. We actually had a fun time during the pandemic working on this book. It got us through those initial months, when you couldn’t go out and see anybody.
How are you feeling about the release of Teenager?
I’ve got my head in the clouds, cause I[‘ve] just [been] writing so much. I’m working on a short story collection with the editor who bought Teenager, so I’m not obsessing over like, where my author copies are, or what I’m supposed to be posting leading up to the release. I’m just thinking about stories, you know? And that feels like the best thing to do, because I love to write, I love to be creative and I have somebody who’s like, being creative with me right now, rather than me obsessing on social media. I don’t even feel like I have to go around and be like, “blah blah, this is my life, this is who I am,” — I’m not really so interested in that, and hopefully people know. But I’m excited for it to come out. Rae and I are getting ready for the party.
Do you have a title for your story collection?
Yeah. So there’s a story called “Violets,” which was the Paris Review story. And I knew I wanted to name the collection Violets even before that story got picked up, just because I love that word. The violet time of night, you know, sunset, when everything’s going towards twilight and [things get a] little stranger. And I love the misunderstanding of the word— it’s almost “violence” — violets, it’s almost “violence.” So I just really like it as a title. That, and because the collection is, you know, it’s a little bit…. I’m trying to be so careful not to get pigeonholed into being goddamn a crime fiction writer, you know. But there’s some of those kind of stories in there. Crime stories and love stories, that kind of thing.
You mentioned this book wasn’t originally called Teenager. I actually wanted to ask you about the title. ‘Cause when I was reading it, I thought it was an interesting name for the book, because when I hear the word teenager, my head goes to interiority — like, a brooding kid who can’t get out of his head. And I was interested in how it’s kind of a passive title for a book that is such a romp. Then once I started reading more, I’m like, no, this makes perfect sense for this book. It’s the best title ever for this book. Because teenagers have always kind of been cast as that outlaw character in American myth. And Kody is definitely an outlaw as much as he is a teenager.
There’s so many teenagers in this book — not only in age, but in feeling. When I was I think, 19 or 20, I did my first cross country trip. Cause somebody was going and I hopped in the car and we went from New Jersey to California, and just seeing everything for the first time through those eyes, you know, it was amazing to see this country, to see these places.
And I was thinking about it recently because I went off on another cross-country trip with my brother. Well, we flew to Phoenix and then drove up to San Francisco. But like, my brother was 36 years old, and he didn’t care. Like he was just like, yeah, there’s the ocean. Yeah. There’s the desert. I was kind of going on the trip thinking it would blow his mind, like I was going to see it all for the first time through his eyes. I never considered that it’s way too late.
You’re not going to have that same feeling you had when you were seeing it in your adolescence, I guess. Right? At that time when you’re entering the cusp of adulthood… everything is so “woah.” Teenager is about that feeling. The book is for people who, no matter how messed up things are, can still get excited about the possibilities. They’re not worn down by life yet. So that’s one aspect of the title, and like I said, some of our characters are that age. But to me, the biggest teenager in the book is America.
I thought of America itself just as a teen: it’s not quite fully matured yet. In the Wild West it was like a toddler. We were like, slinging guns around and, you know, hanging everybody, all the genocide. It’s like knee jerk genocide. The Wild West was as terrible as everything we’ve ever done yet it’s become a fantasy. Our country still feels young [to me]. Like we’re just toddlers knocking shit over. And someone’s got to come in the room and help pick it up for us. Like no, stop: this is going to be preserved in history. We’ve got to say, please, don’t destroy this experiment of this continent. We’re about to just completely ruin this early on, you know?
So by the time we are telling the story of Kody and Teal, I feel like America is in its teenage years. It’s on its feet enough, but a lot of people are losing that excited feeling about the country, about the people, about our futures.
I’m also from New Jersey. I grew up in Jersey, I love Jersey. I feel like it’s only recently people are starting to respect it culturally in a way that maybe they didn’t before. I remember when I went to college in [New York]. When I moved here, I remember I would tell people like, oh, I grew up in Jersey and people I went to college with who were like from Ohio would make a face and be so rude and judgy. And I’m like… I grew up 20 minutes away from here, and you’re from Ohio… what are you talking about? I don’t know if it’s because of that NJGov account or like people watching The Sopranos all the time, but I do feel like Jersey culture has become… more respected, like, more people are into it. Do you know what I’m talking about?
I do. Yeah, of course. Usually it’s in New York City. Somebody lives in New York and you’re at a party somewhere. And then someone comes up to you at a party. Brooklyn somewhere. And a lot of times it’s even like, where are you from? You talk funny, you know? And I’m like, oh, I’m from New Jersey. I love where I’m from. I love my home state. And I know for a fact that New Jersey is one of the best places in America. Cause I’ve driven around and seen [America]. I’ve seen the whole fucking thing, I’ve driven around. Four or five times now, coast to coast bend. I’m going to Mississippi in a few weeks. Why am I going to Mississippi? Cause I want to go and meet the people from Mississippi. I want to go and see what’s going on there. With this book coming out, there’s not like some huge 20 city tour, it was kind of like, you know, I picked a couple of places to go. And I said, well, I’ve never been to Mississippi. I’d never been to Oxford, Mississippi. So I want to go down there and see it.
When I hear something from somebody, it’s usually the worst when it’s someone who’s my age, who’s in their forties or something, And they have a bad conception of a place. And I’m just like, you’ve never been there. Or even if, even if you pass through it, where else have you really gone? I know it’s very privileged to talk about travel like that. Not everybody can travel around, but I’m certainly not going to like, pick apart someone’s home that I don’t know about that I’ve never gone and seen firsthand.
It’s just ridiculous. That’s the height of ignorance right there. New Jersey has gotten a little more popular. Obviously the beaches are great and I love it here because it’s got every landscape. There’s a lot of farmland where I’m from in the Pine Barrens. It’s wide open, and you almost feel like you’re in the desert. Just wide open sand pits. There’s just so much geography in this state.
Do you consider yourself a New Jersey writer?
I do identify as an artist from New Jersey, proudly. It’s where I was born and I choose to stay here. Instead of living in New York City, I live in Jersey City. I can get into New York City whenever I want. And Jersey City’s a sister city to New York — it’s not quite a suburb of it. It’s its own weird little city.
I did write a novel called F250 , which is a complete New Jersey novel, and that’s like one of my favorite things I ever did. I wrote another novel specifically about a toll booth operator on the [New Jersey] Parkway called Tollbooth.
I guess there’s not a whole lot of famous books about New Jersey. You know what I mean? There’s not like that one person, you know? I mean, people will obviously name a bunch of musicians. But even if I do feel like a “New Jersey writer” I’m not hoping to be known as the author from New Jersey. Cause you know how it is. As soon as you’re pigeonholed into thinking you always have to be writing about your state, it usually becomes, like, fan service kind of shit. You know what I mean? Saying what people want you to say.
You know what’s a good book about New Jersey? John McPhee wrote the book Pine Barrens, about the Pine Barrens. It’s amazing. I’m a little bit biased because I grew up right down there and the Pine Barrens were right out my back door and you could get on a dirt bike and ride forever out into them. You could believe that the Jersey Devil was out there when you were a kid.
My father, he would drive out in the fire trucks and fight the forest fires out in those Pinelands. John McPhee has got so many great nonfiction books. They’re kind of like podcasts before there were podcasts written by, you know, a genius. But the book Pine Barrens is set in the 1950s, early 60s. It’s about a culture of people who are still able to kind of live off the grid out, out in the wilderness, in New Jersey, where they’re kind of, you know, they have just enough modern creature comforts and moderate enough trucks and vehicles to get back and forth to towns. They’re living in like the old mill towns. That have long gone out of business before, since the industrial revolution. And they’re living out in the shells of these communities, in cabins and shacks that they’ve built. And it’s amazing. No one realizes it, that New Jersey has a frontier.
You mention in your bios that you work in heavy construction. Do you think that having a job that is physical has a lot to do with how prolific you are as a writer? Because you’re not in front of a computer all day and can reserve that time for writing?
I consider my life really balanced, and I can’t speak for anybody else. Like I know I specifically work the kind of job I do because it suits me. I am not going to say that working physical jobs is going to make you an artist. All I can say is that I work this specific job because then I don’t get burnout sitting in front of a computer. So by the time I get home from work, if I’ve done the right thing and not stared at my phone every second I had at work, I’m actually excited to sit down at my desk and work on my typewriter or work on my laptop or whatever it is I actually am excited to do. That way, I’ve already gotten maybe enough exercise during the day. If I did spend [my work day] looking at my phone then, you know, maybe I do need to come home and lift weights for an hour or something. But overall my life is specifically balanced in order to make time for me.
I’ve made certain sacrifices, like saying no to jobs that were too far away or no to working longer hours, because I really need to be writing. Or else what’s the sense in all this stuff?
I’m good if I have enough money to pay my bills and my wife and I can go out once or twice a week and just do something together. At the end of the day, an extra 20 grand a year is not going to solve any of my problems.
Is there a dream project you definitely want to write at some point, but that you know that you aren’t ready to write, or don’t want to write yet?
Yeah, there definitely is. If my plan comes together, which it never does… I’ll have [another] novel coming out that’s more [autofictive], like Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, only an abstracted version of working construction. It’s a little bit like Rosemary’s Baby or something, without the devil. That’s my plan, for that novel to come out next — and after that would be this dream project, which is a little closer to Teenager in tone and scope, but it’s about the afterlife.
But that’s the thing with plans. Sometimes you hear “you can’t do that,” but the good news is, if you just write what you wanna write, day by day, someone will read it, eventually.
By Bud Smith
Published May 10, 2022
Christina Drill is a writer from New Jersey currently based in Chicago. She is the Social Media Editor for Chicago Review of Books, @stidrill online, and you can read more of her work at www.christinadrill.com