Dedicated to the Pursuit of Quality Queer Literature
Thursday, October 22, 2009
An Interview with Bob Smith
Interviewing Bob Smith was an absolute pleasure for me. He has a cheerful demeanor that is reminiscent of Johnny Carson. He frequently made me laugh--as the transcript shows. Interestingly, he never quite laughed out loud himself. A gentleman never laughs at his own jokes. And Mr. Smith is above-all, a gentleman.
Van de Motter: Mr. Smith, you write so convincingly about television comedy writing. Did you ever find yourself working on a TV show?
Bob Smith: I wrote for MADtv for one year. It was a great job, but I also wrote for Roseanne who ran a short-lived sketch comedy show called, Saturday Night Special. And that was sketches and that was my first TV writing job and it was great.
Van de Motter: Saturday Night Special?
Bob Smith: Yeah, terrible name. Completely unfunny. In fact, Roseanne had a contest for the writers to come up with the name of the show. And one of the names I wrote down was Aftertaste, which I used as the name of the TV show in Selfish and Perverse. But Roseanne picked Saturday Night Special. Which is so lame-o as a joke and pun, you know. But it was really fun writing sketches. And what’s great about it is: you write some crazy idea and then one week later, set designers, costume designers, actors are all coming up and asking you questions. You see your set being built. It’s amazing. And I was very successful with my sketches. One of my sketches The Zapruder Films—that’s plural—was rerun as the best of MADtv.
Van de Motter: The Zapruder? Does that refer to JFK…?
Bob Smith: Yeah. It’s basically about when the Zapruder film was sold to the National Archive, for sixteen million dollars. I did a sketch that all the Zapruder home movies were also sold included in the deal. And then they made a short film. For the first time, we’ll see the Zapruder home movies! And in every one someone’s shot! It’s like a birthday party, a holiday party…. And done like home movies.
Van de Motter: (Laughter.) So the comedy comes from the variations on the Zapruder film?
Bob Smith: Well Zapruder film was a home movie. So my premise was every home movie Mr. Zapruder made someone was shot. You have to see it. It’s very funny. It’s great shtick.
Van de Motter: Well, I did mention in my review that you’re the only writer I ever encountered who could make the electrocution of the Rosenbergs hilarious. So I’m sure that is going to be really funny too. But Aftertaste is so much better…
Bob Smith: Yeah, as a name.
Van de Motter: Aftertaste is also sexier and less violent, right?
Bob Smith: I hated that it was a gun joke.
Van de Motter: (Laughs.) NRA humor. Okay. So your work on MADtv really influenced…
Bob Smith: I was the last writer hired, so my office was the only office with no windows and the four writers’assistants sat right outside my office. And I would write with my door open. And one was this straight guy, one was a huge queen, one was a bisexual Bush woman and there was one other straight guy and they would have the most open discussions about sex...what they we re doing...their lives. They were constantly insulting each other. It was hilarious. And this was before I even knew I was going to write this novel. I told them: “You know, some day I’m going to write about you guys.” And I did. And they all wanted to be writers also. So when I came up with the idea of Selfish and Perverse, that was an idea I wanted to use: writers’ assistants on a TV show.
Van de Motter: You say, “writers’ assistants.” The uh… the "hero" can we can we call Nelson the "hero" of the novel…?
Bob Smith: Yeah.
Van de Motter: He’s actually a script co-ordinator. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a script coordinator until I read your book…
Bob Smith: Well, that’s among the writer’s assistants. It’s just a glorified name meaning, chief writer’s assistant.
Van de Motter: (Laughter.) So a script coordinator is a just a chief writer’s assistant…?
Bob Smith: Yeah, basically. And he’s basically in charge of typing. Basically he’s the character getting the script together for the actors and writers and producers. That’s it. It’s a glorified typist.
Van de Motter: Yeah. That’s why I got the sense of his frustration and his sense of humor. Have you spent much time in Alaska?
Bob Smith: I’ve been up there, at least I would say: fifteen times. And probably, I’m guessing, I’ve spent about six months up there in total. On my first visit, I loved it and I met a gay salmon fisherman. I met two doctors who worked there and had set up the Native Health Service, up there which is the services for Native Villages all over Alaska. And then I met a lesbian named Marge who had a polka band called "Marge and the Polka Chips… "
Van de Motter: Hold on: "Marge and the Polka Chips"?
Bob Smith: Yeah. Polka instead of poker.
Van de Motter: (Laughter.)
Bob Smith: I know, it’s hilarious. And she was great. These were all gay men and lesbians. And I thought: Alaskans are the coolest people ever!
Van de Motter: Yeah in your novel one gets the impression, as I wrote in my review, of a genuine gay community in that pretty much everybody knows each other would you say…?
Bob Smith: It seems like that to me. I mean I’ve met people in Juneau, people in Fairbanks who know the same person in Juneau. I was out in Coffee Point. And I was talking to a fishing woman out there who was in her sixties, a tough chain smoker who had the beginnings of emphysema, but claimed it was not caused by the smoking—who’s chain-smoking! She asks: “Bob, who else do you know in Alaska?" And as a joke I said: “I know, Marge of 'Marge and the Polka Chips'.” And she says, “Oh, I love Marge. She used to have her own radio show!” (Laughter from Van de Motter.) And to me that’s how small the state is. I mean, that’s four hundred miles away from where Marge lived. And it made it seem like a small town: the entire state.
Van de Motter: Four hundred miles away from Anchorage…?
Bob Smith: From Anchorage to Coffee Point. I think it’s three hundred fifty.
Van de Motter: Three hundred fifty?
Bob Smith: Yeah. It’s on the Peninsula. On the west.
Van de Motter: So basically what you’re saying is: it’s this huge state and still a very small world. Everyone knows each other even from hundreds of miles away...
Bob Smith: Well, Anchorage is a big city. It has probably four hundred thousand people I think there’s another hundred fifty or two hundred thousand people there. And that’s the rest of the state. Broken up into cities. And towns. I mean it’s tiny. It’s a gigantic state.
Van de Motter: So you’ve spent a lot of time in Alaska. And you've also written for a late-night comedy show. So you really believe in writing about what you know?
Bob Smith: I do. But I also really love the comic novels of Evelyn Waugh. Even though when I read them I think, he’s such a racist, he’s vaguely anti-Semitic and he’s a big queen, but he’s such a good writer. I really think he is one of those writers. He used to go to places for a long visit and then come back home and write novels about the places. Like his trip to South America and his many trips to Ethiopia. And I thought, why don’t people do that? Why don’t they go to some exotic place and write a comic novel about it? When I went to Alaska for first time, I got a sample of it. And I loved it. I loved the people. They took me out on a whale-watching trip. We saw fifty killer whales, because it was in the fall. And they form these super pods. And to see fifty killer whales jumping up all around you was mind-blowing…
Van de Motter: Fifty is a lot.
Bob Smith: Yeah. And then six months later, Out magazine got a new editor—a very good friend of mine in LA. The friend said: “I want you. I suggested you write for them.” So about a month later they said: “Bob we want you to write something for us. What do you want to write about?” And I said, “Gay people in Alaska.”
Van de Motter: Did she think you were kidding?
Bob Smith: No, I explained my reasons why. I explained I would go up—and Out didn’t have the money, but I used miles.…
Van de Motter: You mean frequent flier miles?
Bob Smith: Yeah. But basically I spent more money on the trip than I made from the article, but it was fine. And I called all the people I had met. I met a salmon fisherman, Brad, who I am still really good friends with. Brad said: “Well Bob, you can’t just come to Anchorage and think, 'Oh, I’m writing about gay people in Alaska.’ Why don’t you come out fishing with me on the Bering Sea? At Egegik in Coffee Point?” Well, I don’t think he really expected me to say 'yes', but I did. I didn’t know what I was doing basically. I went to Anchorage and thank God a really good friend, a retired judge, named Vic Carlson helped me out. He gave me a coat, helped me with food, told me what to bring. I took a Lear jet to a place called King Salmon and then he had to hire a pilot there to fly me out to Coffee Point. And when we were flying out there, the pilot, who’s this rough straight guy, all of the sudden says to me, “I’m talking to a woman at Egegik she said she’s never heard of Brad Williams and I looked up Coffee Point on the atlas and there are two of them in Alaska. And all I kept thinking, “Oh my God, I’ve got the wrong Coffee Point.” Well, of course I went out there. They drop you off on the tundra. On a gravel landing strip… (Laughter from Van de Motter.) …There’s no one around. It’s midday and everyone is out fishing. I’m walking around and finally I did get to Brad’s house. But I stayed a week out there. And it was the most intense, amazing …It was very romantic. “Fling” sounds too flimsy, but it was just this romantic week in this wilderness. And we ate great food. I saw so many things. The good thing was, because I was writing this for Out Magazine, I had no idea what I would need for the story, so I took sixty pages of notes while I was out there. And I took probably two hundred photographs.
And when I ended up writing Selfish and Perverse, many of the details I brought into the story were things I had either photographed or written about in my notes for the magazine article. And then when I was flying back, I read two things. I read that Mark Wahlberg went fishing to get into character for the movie, A Perfect Storm. He went for thirty days.
And I also read that the Alaska Department of Health was trying to get the Native Alaskans—Yup’ik—to make their native foods, like stink heads, the traditional way and not make them in Tupperware, because Alaska has the most botulism in the US—food borne botulism. And those two things: the act of going fishing and the botulism—you would think oh wouldn’t it be funny if, because I was all lovey-dovey with this human… And I thought: what if some actor tried to say, “I’m going to get into character and go fishing with your boyfriend.” It seemed to me a really funny idea and I stuck with it. It went through many, many, many versions. And it took about six years to write…
Van de Motter: Six years…?
Bob Smith: But that original idea is what ultimately became the novel.
Van de Motter: So that structure—again I don’t want to give away too much, for people who haven’t read the book yet, but that structure… the structure of the plot of the novel…would you say that it is something that you planned deliberately, or did you just see how these things grew out of it?
Bob Smith: I didn’t plan it all in advance. I had the major…I would say the two or three major plot twists or elements I had planned. And I knew roughly where they would go and I knew the ending. I thought I knew the ending.
Van de Motter: The ending wasn’t exactly what you thought it was at the …
Bob Smith: I don’t think it’s ruining it to say Nelson is in a romantic triangle, but by the time I got to the middle of the novel, I thought: “Oh my God, I don’t know which one he’s going to end up with.”
Van de Motter: But don’t you think that’s maybe a good thing…?
Bob Smith: Yeah, I know, I thought, “This is good.” I find if you surprise yourself writing the novel, hopefully your readers are going to be surprised also.
Van de Motter: That’s very good. Anything else you want to add?
Bob Smith: One thing…I wrote about a hundred fifty pages into the novel…and my salmon fisherman friend, Brad, is not an archeologist in real life, but we went to visit a friend of Brad’s—this lesbian whose family owned part of this island of Homer, Alaska. And the island is an internationally famous archeological site. It’s actually a National Historic monument. And on the beach you can find scrapers, anchor weights, even hand axes. It’s totally amazing…
Van de Motter: You say scrapers….?
Bob Smith: Yeah, like things Indians would use to cut salmon, scrap hides…
Van de Motter: The natives in the past…?
Bob Smith: They were actually prehistoric Eskimo culture.
Van de Motter: Mmmmm.
Bob Smith: And also I found one beautiful hand axe made out of green stone. It’s mind-blowing. You leave everything there… I became obsessed that you could actually find things in Alaska if you know what to look for. Lots of stuff. In the Salmon River. I found stuff even in California. Then this is what made him an archeologist. I love the La Brea Tar Pits in L.A. …
Van de Motter: Yeah, they figure prominently in the book—not to give too much away…
Bob Smith: I had an idea on how to use the La Brea Tar Pits. And I was in this writer’s group in L.A. It’s a mix of straight women and gay men. I was the only one writing a novel. They were all TV and film writers. And I gave them my idea for the La Brea Tar Pits. And I thought, oh my god, this is so crazy. And I laid it out and they all loved it. They all said, “You have to write that.” And it’s really because I love the La Brea Tar Pits… and I’m not the biggest fan of L.A. I think it’s great to visit. I lived there for nine years and that was enough, but there are some things about L.A. that are great. The La Brea Tar Pits is one of them. So it’s fun to write. You know only in the writing of this novel did I think of this new idea. It actually does play a big part of the novel now.
Van de Motter: Yeah, I just…again I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that when I read that particular part of the novel, I laughed out loud. And then I read it to my partner, Kevin, and he laughed out loud…
Bob Smith: I actually think that it’s the funniest chapter in the novel and it’s been rewritten and rewritten and one thing I have found: when friends read stuff too. And my friend Eddie Sarfaty who is also a writer; he has a book out: Mental, Funny in the Head. And we let each other read each other’s manuscripts. And we’re really honest. And he said: “Make the Tar Pit chapter bigger.” And I’m always of the opinion that if you’re going to be a really good writer, don’t be defensive about your work, say, “Thank you,” and use it. And so, I made it bigger. And that to me was really fun to discover.
Van de Motter: Yeah, I also think that, again, not to give too much away, but at the end there is a surprising amount of humor. Humor appears in surprising places in this book…
Bob Smith: Well, one thing people ask is: “Do you put in jokes?” or “Do you try to write jokes?” I really feel I don’t try to write jokes or put in jokes, but what I do try to do is write a description. Or make a metaphor. Because a lot of those jokes in the book are metaphors, but I naturally think in a funny way, so I’m not going to try to write the most depressing metaphor. And it will be in a way that I naturally talk conversationally.
Van de Motter: Yeah, you just need to read this book to get that. For instance you write of Dylan: “His tight-fitting dark blue shirt concealed his powerful body about as effectively as a tea cozy hides the identity of a teapot…” But I just want to stick with influences now. You say that you are an admirer of Evelyn Waugh, you say that you that he writes, what would you say the ultimate or the classic comic novel…?
Bob Smith: Look, if you read the novel Scoop I think that’s almost a perfect comic novel, although there are some unbearable racist remarks in there, which do disturb me, but I have said that for me, one of the reasons I became an out gay comic was reading gay writers. And gay humor. And really out gay humor—even though he was forced out—began with Oscar Wilde. And you can follow it in a line. It would go from Oscar Wilde to Saki the short story writer who’s I’m not one hundred percent sure he was gay, but I’m ninety-nine percent sure he was gay to Ronald Firbank—and Ronald Firbank became an influence on Evelyn Waugh. And then Ronald Firbank also influenced Joe Orton the gay playwright who’s hilarious and I read Joe Orton’s plays in 1976 in high school. I still have my old copy; it’s underlined—all the jokes. I learned joke-writing from him. And reading him and Christopher Isherwood—who I think writes comic novels also—made me think, well these guys: Joe Orton and Isherwood both are out gay writers and they’re successful. And I thought why can’t an out gay comic be successful? They really had an influence on me.
Van de Motter: Do you consider Evelyn Waugh to be an influence?
Bob Smith: I do. I mean, I like his novels, especially the early novels. And I consider him to be a gay writer. There is a new book coming out soon: 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read. And I wrote about Brideshead Revisited. You know the first half of that novel is a gay romantic novel. And then, because of the heavy-handed Catholicism, the second half is this Roman Catholic tract. It’s really a shame, because as I put in the essay, Julia and Charles get married. And it’s the most sexless marriage. And in the article I point out the seven times he actually says: “Julia looked exactly like Sebastian,” “Julia looks like her brother,” “Julia looks like a man.” (Laughter from Van de Motter.) It’s like, why didn’t you just stay with the brother in the first place!
Van de Motter: Yeah, the boyish girl…
Bob Smith: Instead of fucking this pseudo-man!
Van de Motter: (More Laughter.) Right.
Bob Smith: You know, Waugh, I felt, did the same thing. He had a long gay relationship at Oxford and actually after Oxford. And he got married and he…I’ve read his diaries, his letters, all the novels. He hated being married.
Van de Motter: Would you consider Waugh to be a gay writer?
Bob Smith: Yeah, I do think his humor and sensibility are definitely gay.
Van de Motter: Before I go on: In terms of that continuum, would you put Noel Coward in there or is he not in there?
Bob Smith: You know, Noel Coward is in there, but his writing style is not as epigrammatic as Wilde or Firbank. Noel Coward is not like that. He’s has a different kind of style of gay comedy writing, but I think all those writers at that time gave Coward the courage to write his style too.
Van de Motter: Back to Evelyn Waugh. A Handful of Dust: Are you a fan of A Handful of Dust?
Bob Smith: Yeah, I think that’s perhaps Waugh’s best novel. And it has the most delightfully absurd ending—for book-lovers. So if you haven’t read it, I love the ending, but it’s actually a serious comic novel about death, love and a serious examination of shallow people, but it’s very funny and it’s definitely a great book.
Van de Motter: That’s where I would see a little bit of cleavage between you and Waugh and you probably won’t be that surprised, because you were saying before that he’s a big queen…
Bob Smith: He’s kind of ruthless, maybe. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but there are times when his empathy for people falls short.
Van de Motter: About A Handful of Dust… doesn’t Waugh almost invite you to laugh at these people’s misfortune? One of the chapters is entitled, “Hard Cheese on Tony.”
Bob Smith: Yeah.
Van de Motter: That’s where I would say your writing style isn’t really like that. You’re not really inviting the reader to take great pleasure in their demise or…
Bob Smith: No, actually I can’t say I do write in the style of inviting the reader to take great pleasure in the pain in the characters. (Laughter from Van de Motter.) One reason I do and this may sound really pretentious, but one writer I admire and I took a course about only him in college is Chekhov. And Chekhov writes comic moments and very serious painful moments in the same story or play. And I thought that’s the modern artwork. It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy. It’s both. It’s painful and then hilarious at the same time. To me in a novel—like in my novel—if there’s really a painful moment and there are a few of them in the novel, I don’t play them for laughs…
Van de Motter: That’s right…You know the line in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Alan Alda character says: “If it bends it’s funny. If it breaks it’s not funny”?
Bob Smith: Yeah.
Van de Motter: In other words, if Laurel and Hardy are really mortally wounded or critically injured dropping that piano on themselves then it’s not funny but…
Bob Smith: If the Three Stooges need therapy…after all that battering…after all that abuse from Moe… (Laughter from Van de Motter.) It would be brother abuse. (Laughter from Van de Motter.) Fraternal abuse, I guess. It wouldn’t be funny, but I do think you do play moments real even in a comic novel. And I say this on the second page, so we’re not giving away anything…
Van de Motter: Mmm hmmm…
Bob Smith: Nelson—the main character—his mother is dead and his best friend, Wendy, her mother died and they died horribly and it’s actually traumatic and they make jokes about it. But the bond they both share is this darkness so they can make these dark jokes to each other. And I have a friendship with a comedian Judy Gold who definitely is the voice of Wendy. She knows this, I know it…
Van de Motter: We’re outing Judy Gold here.
Bob Smith: Yes we are. Judy and I have a really dark, but really loving relationship where we use dark humor. And I’ll give you the perfect example. When my sister committed suicide and it was horrible, horrible the most horrible moment of my life and Judy called me up the next day and she heard and she was very empathetic, “How are you feeling?” I said it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I was crying on the phone call and she says, very darkly she says, “Bob, don’t you think you are over-reacting? This has been almost twenty-four hours.” (Laughter from Van de Motter.) And I burst out laughing. I actually laughed and continued crying. (More laughter from Van de Motter.) Which has never happened in my entire life. And I thought only Judy would make that joke, but for me that was like lighting a candle in a dark room. And it was very loving of her to let me see that the world still has some funny absurdities. (More Laughter from Van de Motter.) Even in these super-painful moments. And in my new novel I’m actually writing about my sister’s suicide in a fictional way, in that the main character time-travels back to 1986. The forty-six year-old meets his twenty-six year-old self. And back in 1986 they team up to try to prevent their sister’s suicide and stop George W. Bush from becoming president! Because the forty-six year-old’s boyfriend back in 2006 became a gay Republican after 9/11.
Van de Motter: I’m really looking forward to reading that. You mentioned Chekhov. I was interested, because I saw that production of The Cherry Orchard at BAM recently and I was a little surprised that he labeled it a comedy: “A Comedy in Four Acts.”
Bob Smith: Yeah.
Van de Motter: And it should be funny…
Bob Smith: He calls all his plays comedies. And if they are done right they are really funny. You will laugh out loud. I saw Diane Wiest do Three Sisters and it was her performance that was so amazing, because she was heartless and mean one moment and then loving another moment. And then: comically, farcically absurdly an actress, because she plays the main character who’s an actress. For me, I don’t want to read comic novels where it’s like: ‘I’m funny every second.’ I want some real moments. I don’t mind seeing things through a funny prism which I do, but some things are not funny.
Van de Motter: Some things are not funny. You can’t be funny all the time. It’s no good to be funny all the time. About influences: You were mentioning Waugh. Any other influences?
Bob Smith: I also like the novels of Barbara Pym. I love Stephen McCauley. He’s been a big influence on me. Actually, I would also say: Armistead Maupin, because his Tales of the City are so suspenseful. I love that about his novels, because once you start reading them you read all seven. But Stephen McCauley I feel is one of the most under-rated writers today—gay or straight. His body of work is so readable, smart, funny. There are real moments in there. There are painful moments. He really is I think an under-appreciated American writer. And Barbara Pym: her novel, A Glass of Blessing, is the funniest gay novel written by a straight woman definitely. It’s basically about a married woman who falls in love with a gay man. She doesn’t realize he’s gay. It’s brilliant.
Van de Motter: I’m really looking forward to reading that. I haven’t read that yet.
Bob Smith: And there’s another novelist I love named Dawn Powell.
Van de Motter: Dawn Powell, yeah…
Bob Smith: And she wrote a novel, The Happy Island. And it’s set in 1938. It’s about gay men in New York City. It’s not homophobic. But she makes fun of them as real people, but not fun of them, because they’re gay, but because they’re selfish or they’re hot for some guy. And her comic writing has been a huge influence on me. There’s a line from Gore Vidal when he rediscovered her in The New York Review of Books, he quoted a line: “Connie was forty-three—well alright forty-seven if you’re going to count every lost weekend.” (Laughter from Van de Motter.) And when I read that, I immediately said, I have to read this writer. That is hilarious. And there are a zillion of them in the novel. But her best book is actually The Diaries of Dawn Powell. She gives the best portrayal of a writer’s life—the ups and downs—really of any artist’s life, that I’ve ever read.
Van de Motter: That’s cool. That covers a lot of ground. This might sound strange, but I kept thinking of Raymond Chandler when I was reading your book. Obviously this isn’t a murder mystery, but you, like Chandler, put something on almost every page. Chandler describes in The Big Sleep: “A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” And in Farewell My Lovely: “…he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of Angel Cake.” And: “A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” You know these are kind of like one-liners…?
Bob Smith: They are. He’s so rich with these similes and metaphors. And they’re actually comic metaphors. I mean, people think of Raymond Chandler as a mystery writer. And he does write suspense stories. But actually, I don’t read them for the mysteries, because they’re usually, to be honest, not that great, but his descriptions are brilliant and he gives you L.A. in a way that the movie Chinatown wouldn’t have been made without Raymond Chandler.
Van de Motter: Yeah, you can really get a sense of what it was like in the thirties and forties in L.A…
Bob Smith: That’s what I try to go for: really vivid comic metaphors in the novel that nail something.
Van de Motter: Hmm mmm.
Bob Smith: But it’s not stand-up comedy. It’s trying to accurately describe something and…
Van de Motter: It is in character, his voice…
Bob Smith: Yeah.
Van de Motter: He’s a frustrated comic writer, isn’t he? Nelson?
Bob Smith: Nelson is. He’s writing a novel in the novel and the first line in the novel is—he means it as a mock-coming out novel—and it’s something like: “Todd Greco still felt empty inside, even with a big cock up his ass.” (Laughter from Van de Motter.) Which I think is really funny still. And you know what? If I opened a novel with that opening line I would probably keep reading and buy it.
Van de Motter: (Laughter from Van de Motter.) Yeah, I don’t know how much farther I’d keep reading it, though. That’s a classic line. Which does come back to bite him though, later in the novel, not to give too much away…
Bob Smith: Yeah.
Van de Motter: Because he’s actually struggling with what kind of writing he wants to do…
Bob Smith: Yeah, he’s trying to be a real writer not just a goofball writer. He ultimately—I don’t think we’re giving too much away—he ultimately, through a chain of events, decides that it’s not the right opening line for his novel.
Van de Motter: But at least we got to read it, before it was cut out of his final manuscript. Do you mind if people refer to your novel as a beach read?
Bob Smith: Depends on the review. I mean, if someone was comparing me to Mary Higgins Clark or something…. (Laughter from Van de Motter.) But in the summer very few people want to read Dostoyevsky and Kafka. (Laughter from Van de Motter.) I find I’ve read a lot of comic novels in the summer. And I do feel I write comic novels and I think of myself as a serious comic novelist. I’m trying not to write a piece of throw-away trash. I’m trying to write a novel…I want to write novels… It might sound preposterous, but I call it the ‘hundred year rule.’ You should be able to read it in a hundred years and get it all. Because I’ve read some modern so-called comic novels and every reference, every metaphor is like, name some teen star. 'He looked just like Zach Ephron.' You know…
Van de Motter: References to popular culture…?
Bob Smith: Yeah. And you’re like… Okay when this novel is published in fifteen minutes the metaphors will make no sense.
Van de Motter: It will all be passé…
Bob Smith: And I hate that. I would never do that. I teach comic writing at NYU. I would tell my students. I always pointed out: I’d say, it’s lazy for one thing, because it’s silly to say about every handsome character oh, he looked like Cary Grant… (Laughter from Van de Motter.) You know, that’s it. Thanks. Thanks for doing all that hard writing.
Van de Motter: Thanks for doing all that hard work; it really paid off. He said ironically. And do you find it ironic that your novel would be referred to as a "beach read," considering the fact that most of it takes place in Alaska?
Bob Smith: Well, it’s literally a beach read, because it takes place on a beach. It’s not a tanning beach. It’s a beach on the Alaska Peninsula in a real place called Coffee Point across from Egegik. It’s a gorgeous beach.
Van de Motter: Well, it certainly reads like it’s very beautiful. It made me want to go up there and I’d never really thought of going up there before, to tell you the truth, but it really does make that part of Alaska really seem very appealing.
Bob Smith: Well, you know one thing, early on I realized and I met a lot of gay people up there—gay men and lesbians who moved up there. And they all went up there in their twenties. They either stayed or went back home and immediately planned to move to Alaska. And it’s so amazing: that environment. I really truly believe if I had gone there in my twenties I would have moved there. I would have lived there my entire adult life. And writing this novel in a weird way let me live there and I really think part of the reason I wanted to write this novel was that it’s about gay characters in Alaska. I felt that’s something we haven’t seen. And many people have told me, “I want to go to Alaska,” after having read my novel. And I’m glad to hear that, because I think they should.
Van de Motter: It does take place in the summer on the beach. It’s a summer beach read. In that sense…
Bob Smith: Yeah. And the summer is heaven in Alaska, because you have those long days. And you almost get a buzz from the sunlight. And people will be out at eleven o’clock at night playing in parks on weeknights. With their dogs. You know, throwing Frisbees. You sip in this energy in the summer. It’s like squeezing in two days of fun in one day. Like you spend a whole day doing something, then at night you can go fishing or hiking ‘til ten o’clock, eat dinner at ten it’s still sunny out. The sun starts going down around eleven o’clock. You take a sauna at eleven and it’s heaven.
Van de Motter: And then there’s also Matanuska Thunder Fuck.
Bob Smith: Yes, I wrote about people in Alaska and Alaskan pot, (Laughter from Van de Motter.) because I’ve been to Alaska fifteen times and I would say of the fifteen times I have always smoked pot up there. And I’m not a big pot head, but it’s such a part of Alaska’s character and people aren’t all big potheads, but instead of being up there and saying, "Let’s go for a drink," they might light a joint. It’s definitely all over the state. For everybody: conservatives to liberals, pot is all over from teen-agers to elderly people.
Van de Motter: Your description of the tundra makes it feel like it would almost feel like you’d have a buzz on just by looking at it, even without the benefit of Matanuska Thunder Fuck. It’s a very vivid description.
Bob Smith: Well, the tundra is a very weird environment in that it’s this flat—not completely flat—but kind of rolling flat terrain. And it’s like walking on a sponge. It bounces. It’s an incredible variety of beautiful small plants of all different species so you get down on your hands and knees and look at it’s mind-blowing. And I found the environment so strange. There’s this shabby fishing camp there and the buildings are all pieces of crap thrown together. Although my friend Brad built a deluxe one. It’s actually this geodesic dome. (Laughter from Van de Motter.) It’s very gay for the Tundra.
Van de Motter: (More Laughter from Van de Motter.) Very gay for the tundra.
Bob Smith: And these shacks are all on the beach, so it’s like you’re in a dump with a million dollar view.
Van de Motter: Yeah, that definitely comes across in the book. These clearly are not luxury housing…
Bob Smith: It’s only for the summer. Really people only live there for one month like the middle of June till the middle of July.
Van de Motter: But what a month it is.
Bob Smith: It’s like a utopia for a month, because you don’t lock your doors. You leave your keys in your truck. No one’s going to take anything, because there’s nothing to steal…
Van de Motter: There’s nothing to steal…
Bob Smith: There’s nowhere to take it if you do steal it. (Laughter from Van de Motter.) There are no roads.
Van de Motter: (More laughter from Van de Motter) There’s no road to get out of there.
Bob Smith: What’s great about that is: if you needed something at your neighbors and your neighbors were out fishing and you knew where it was, you could go in his house, take it and no one would be upset. They would understand that completely, because you needed it at that moment. There’s a rare truly almost utopian neighborhood sense there. You know, you help out your neighbor and they help you out.
Van de Motter: Yeah, that also really comes across in the novel. Is this kind of an anti-stereotype? I mean, because it doesn’t take place in Fire Island or Palm Springs or wherever?
Bob Smith: But we do have hotties on the beach.
Van de Motter: (Laughter.) It does have hotties on the beach for those of you who want that. But I mean, it does actually break some stereotypes, don’t you think?
Bob Smith: Well, a lot of people in Alaska are like someone I met, a classic built lumberjack. I mean really like a Paul Bunyon hottie. And he told me, “Bob, I love opera and I love my chainsaw!”
Van de Motter: (Laughter.) I love opera and my chainsaw!
Bob Smith: Yeah, and I thought that’s a gay Alaskan in a nutshell.
Van de Motter: The gay Alaskan in a nutshell…
Bob Smith: Because people there are super-well-read, they’re actually really well-traveled, because it’s so isolated. All the gay people go to Thailand or Europe, Hawaii. They also love the outdoors in Alaska and they’ll hike, bird walk, kayak. I mean, I have a friend there, who was a school teacher, a gay man and the reason he was a school teacher in Juneau was that every summer he would spend a month kayaking around Admiralty Island, which is this gigantic island in south-eastern Alaska. And camping out. And you know, he knew all the roads.
Van de Motter: That’s a really interesting thing about your novel and the setting and also the way that it unfolds in terms of its plot. Probably a lot of people want to know a little bit more about your routine in terms of your own writing. I mean, you say it took six years. A lot of writers feel that you have to write everyday. A lot of writers feel you have to write first thing in the morning. Six in the morning or…
Bob Smith: I do my best writing in the mornings. And actually writing this novel—because in L.A. everyone goes to bed at ten or ten thirty it seems--(Laughter from Van de Motter.) I would wake up at six or six thirty, write till two… I tend to write everyday. The reasons this novel took six years to write: I had a job. I had a few TV writing jobs in between, where I couldn’t work on it for months at a time, but it also went through about two or three versions. In one of them I actually wrote almost a hundred fifty pages in the third person. And then all my writer friends said, “But, it should be in the first person.” So I had lots of dead-ends.
Van de Motter: That sounds totally different. I mean you had gotten a hundred fifty pages into it and then you decided you wanted to have the first-person voice injected, which--by the way--is a much better a choice, because some of the best lines belong to Nelson. He says, “It was my first sincere apology of the day.” And: “…early on I’d discovered that most of the time, at least with gay men, if you make it to first base, you’ve scored….”
Bob Smith: Yes, these asides make it.
Van de Motter: But that must have been quite a challenge…
Bob Smith: It was, but I really feel if you’re going to be a writer, you have to be really objective and when I give friends pages to read I want them to say, “This is a masterpiece.” They never do. They always say, “Bob, what about this?” Or: “Could you fix this?” Or: “Could this be better?” And I actually appreciate that, because I want it to be really, really good. Great, in fact. So I take all that advice and if someone says, “You went in the wrong direction,” I agreed with him. I thought, the novel should be in the first person, so you have to take the time to deal with it. My new novel took two years to write. And I feel when I was writing Selfish and Perverse, I knew I could write a novel, because I had written nonfiction. You use the same tools. You have dialogue and description, characters, but it took a while because I was learning. In your first novel, you’re learning how to write a novel. And I probably was… I feel like if I re-wrote Selfish and Perverse now it might be fifty pages shorter and move along even quicker, although part of me is completely happy, because the stuff I’d cut would probably be descriptions of Alaska…
Van de Motter: It runs a bit long for a comic novel. Three hundred seventy six pages in the paperback edition, but I don’t see how you could cut any pages, because, as we talked about before, there’s something on almost every page.
Bob Smith: There are ways… I’m sure I could have, but it’s done and once I’ve written them I’m not about to go back and re-write them. The new novel I think will be two ninety-five probably or two ninety and that’s fine.
Van de Motter: You’re saying “that’s fine,” because you have an anxiety about it being that long. I don’t think….
Bob Smith: Actually I did not want it to be over three hundred. I don’t know why, I just felt I want this story to move.
Van de Motter: So you feel that this new novel moves along at a more rapid clip than Selfish and Perverse?
Bob Smith: I think it does. It also has a different kind of plot where urgency is key to the plot. You know because he has time-traveled back to 1986, he doesn’t know how long he’ll be back there. He could be sort of zapped back to the future in any moment. So in the sense I have to save my sister’s life and stop George W. Bush from becoming president, I better do that really fast! (Laughter from Van de Motter.)
Van de Motter: I just want to fill in a few blanks here. You’ve worked on a few different comedy television shows you mentioned…
Bob Smith: Right.
Van de Motter: Particularly with MADtv and then one at this show that should have been called Aftertaste…
Bob Smith: Right.
Van de Motter: Did any of these television shows influence you at all?
Bob Smith: I feel like all three—stand up comedy, comedy writing and sketch writing—are completely different influences but if you know the skill to do one I feel you should be able to do the others.
Van de Motter: But you do work in one very funny TV sketch—not to give away too much—near the end of the novel…
Bob Smith: That was deliberate. (Laughter from Van de Motter.) I wanted the reader to believe that Nelson and Wendy were really good writers. I thought: I want the reader to feel it’s fucking hilarious
Van de Motter: It has to be funny at that point. And it is very funny. (Laughter.) It is definitely hilarious. And a big surprise too. Again, we’re not going to give away too much… Do you write first thing in the morning?
Bob Smith: I do. I get up and almost seven days a week I write. But you know I’m not one of those writers who say: “Oh I hate writing, it bums me out.” (Laughter from Van de Motter.) “I have writer’s block.” I mean, Nelson in my novel suffers from writer’s block. I can say honestly—I’m knocking on wood here to make sure—but I mean that has never happened to me.
Van de Motter: Do you take time off? I mean when you were working on Selfish and Perverse, I know you said you had to, because you were working on television programs, but do you actually take vacations from writing?
Bob Smith: Yeah, I do. In fact when I went to Alaska to visit, I would keep a little notebook, but it wasn’t like I wrote in the morning. And everyone has their different things. Some people don’t write on weekends. On the weekends I write a little bit like an hour or two. You know in the morning. Even if I do a little bit, it puts me in a good mood for the whole day.
Van de Motter: For many people, sitting down writing two hours on their Saturday or Sunday would be a lot. How much do you write during the weekdays?
Bob Smith: Weekdays I’m pretty good, I go to Paragraph. And I would tend to wake up at let’s say eight o’clock so I write at home from eight to ten then Michael, my partner, kicks me out because he’s a writer also and he has the apartment. Then I go to Paragraph New York, my writer’s space there. And from ten till, you know, can be three can be four…. I’ll go the gym. I’ll go to acupuncture. So it depends.
Van de Motter: Interesting. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. Anything we left out? Thoughts about process or…?
Bob Smith: I mean, to me I feel like you have to put in a lot of time on your novel, because you really live in that world and I always give this advice: I always end on a good moment or idea. Start something. I’ll think of something funny and then I’ll stop, because my brain will be working on it overnight. I’ll wake up and I’ll be ready to go on to the next idea—next day’s idea. And then there are some days definitely where I’ll try something that won’t work. And I may be frustrated for a few days, but I’m always confident I’ll figure it out. And I do.
Van de Motter: So you’re really of the school of thought that if you’re writing and maybe it’s late in the day, and you’ve gotten a new idea—the Rosenbergs for example—that you should put it down and then start it the next day…?
Bob Smith: Yes, I would do that. I would stop. Maybe jot down my ideas, but I wouldn’t write it all out. Because then when you start the next day you know you have something to start the day going.
Van de Motter: Right.
Bob Smith: And I think that’s what’s the most fun about it. I mean it’s fun for the writer to discover something new and figure out something. I really enjoy it. So for me it’s fun to work on.
Van de Motter: When you’re writing, do you ever feel a kind of post-partum phenomenon where right when you’re done with it, you don’t think that it’s good, but then you come back to it maybe a couple days later and you actually think that it is funny?
Bob Smith: Actually I started a new project and I had that same thing. I thought that it wasn’t working. And then the new thing seemed really bad and I went back to the other thing and I saw that is working. Now I see what to do.
Van de Motter: Right. You can’t always tell right away……
Bob Smith: Well, I mean there’s a difference between writing on a computer and then reading it after you’ve printed it out. That makes a big difference. But also: I handed in my new novel to my agent and editor and I’m not thinking about that, because when they get back with their notes then I’ll look at it all fresh and be like…
Van de Motter: You’re sort of clearing your head.
Bob Smith: Yeah. I don’t think about it. And try not to. You know, don’t go back because you want to look at it fresh…
Van de Motter: Do you pretty much always write on a computer? You said when you were in Alaska you took notes…
Bob Smith: I can do both. So I’ve done both. Wherever I need to.
Van de Motter: But generally on a computer…?
Bob Smith: Now on a computer, because I think writing is always rewriting.
Van de Motter: Right.
Bob Smith: And who wants to carry around like thirty pages of notes on one metaphor? (Laughter from Van de Motter.) Where on the computer it’s no big deal.
Van de Motter: Right, it's much less bulky...
Bob Smith: Yeah, and it definitely would be a large amount of paper for me.
Van de Motter: Do you generally work on a laptop...?
Bob Smith: Yes, almost always on my laptop.
Van de Motter: Well, Mr. Smith, I want to thank you again for this interview. It has been very interesting for me and very informative. Thank you so much for your time.
Bob Smith: Thank you.
Special thanks to Brad Williams for the Alaska photos.