Interview: Curtis Smith Bares His Teeth

And they aren’t summerteeth, that’s for sure. In today’s jmwwblog, flash fiction editor Dave Erlewine talks to Curtis Smith about Wilco, writing flash versus short stories, and fatherhood, among other things:

Dave Erlewine: I hear you are a fan of Wilco. To me, it appears there are two types of Wilco fans, those who love “I’m always in Love” from Summerteeth (me) and everyone else. Are you with me on this song? If not, this might be a short interview.

Curtis Smith: I really dig Wilco. They’re one of the few bands who I trust enough to buy their CD the day it hits. That said, Summerteeth is my least favorite album. It has some classics (and maybe my favorite, “Shot in the Arm”). But after a bit, the organ gets a bit heavy. I’m very susceptible to suggestion, and one time when we were listening to it, my wife said the track’s whirring organ sounded like a dentist’s drill—or worse yet, Styx. Unfortunately, it was “I’m Always in Love.” I still like the song, but it’s hard to hear it now without thinking of “Come sail away with me . . .”

DE: Well, I do still get fired up when “Mr. Roboto” comes on but yeah that “Come Sail Away” song is horrific. We’ll come back to Wilco when I’ve had a chance to digest that Summerteeth is your least favorite album. I really got a kick out of your Night Train interview. You said there that short-shorts may come to you more easily than longer short stories because you put images ahead before storylines. I’ve found the same thing in my short-shorts. I used to write mainly longer stories but now seem to keep sticking with flash. Any suggestions for me so that i can crack the longer short story market, biceps pumping?

CS: I don’t know if I can really offer any suggestions other than you have to follow the story that’s calling you. If I can handle the notion in my head with a single image, then I’ll write a flash piece. But if concepts of character and dialogue and plot and a deeper sense of development are in question, then I’m going long. I try to block out my longer pieces in a series of little scenes—then I try to string them together to make a compelling whole. And sometimes I’ll write a big, long story only to realize it was meant to be a flash all along.

DE: I see you worked with your wife on one of your Press 53 books (she handled the collage cover). That’s great. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can get my wife to read one of my short stories without telling me I should go see a shrink?

CS: I can’t help you there, brother. But I would tell her that working things out in a story is probably just as healthy as going to a shrink. That’s what writing is—a delving into our sensibilities and the continual asking of questions (of both our characters and, by proxy, ourselves). If she still tells you to see a shrink, perhaps you’d better take her advice. She knows you better than me.

DE: Ha, well put. I do have to say that she only likes three stories of mine—one about the Milgram obedience to authority experiments, one about a guy checking out his yellow teeth in the rear view and killing a kid, and one about a man biting another man’s balls and killing him. So, yeah, I married the right woman. But we’re straying. I hear you wake up early and stay up late to get in your writing. Do you ever have weeks/months where you just sort of wake up later and go to bed earlier? If so, do you feel guilty hitting snooze? Do you ever fall asleep saying in two minutes you’re going to wake up and write a couple of good sentences and then go to sleep? I seem to be doing all of these things lately as all last year I stayed up late and woke up early, writing all the time I had free from my wife and kids (wow, that sounds bad).

CS: I don’t really have periods like that. Not saying that I don’t have times where I’m working on projects that eventually fizzle and die. But knowing I have some free, quiet time is enough to get me out of bed early most mornings. Writing isn’t different than exercise—if you’re motivated to do it, then you’ll make the time.

DE: I saw a recent quote like that from Michael Czyzniejewski in an interview so I’ll defer to you two. Let’s focus here (I’m talking to myself). Ted Genoways of VQR had an article in Mother Jones recently titled “The Death of Fiction?” It stirred up a lot of controversy there (50 comments) and on htmlgiant (and probably other places). One of his quotes was:

Just 17 years ago, you could find fiction in the pages of national magazines like The Atlantic, Elle, Esquire, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, GQ, McCall’s, Mother Jones, Ms., Playboy, Redbook, and Seventeen, and in city magazines and Sunday editions like the Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago, and the Voice Literary Supplement. Not one of these venues (those that still exist) still publishes fiction on a regular basis. Oh, sure, The Atlantic still has an annual fiction issue (sold on newsstands but not sent to subscribers), and Esquire runs fiction online if it’s less than 4,000 words. But only Harper’s and The New Yorker have remained committed to the short story.

Given the large number of places you’ve placed stories with, and since you are publishing books (SS collections and novels), I’m curious what you think of Ted’s comment and the current state of fiction.

CS: I understand his point—but I view this current state of flux as one that also contains new opportunities. The desire for writers to write and publishers to publish will survive no matter what. Perhaps some old institutions will fade away—and considering their rich history, this will be lamentable. But new ones run by people with drive and ambition and vision will take their place. There are some really wonderful, relatively new independent print journals out there. I think it’s a pretty good time to be a writer.

DE: One of the things I always hear is that other writers are the only ones reading our stories. I know online when I post links to my stories on Facebook, nonwriting friends will often drop me a note saying “good story!” or “dude, wtf?” Do you find that many of your fans/readers are just that fans/readers…and not writers who are trying to ingratiate themselves? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for ingratiation (if that is indeed a word)

CS: In my personal, face-to-face life, I have readers. Thank goodness for them. There are family member, neighbors, and friends. I’m just starting my 28th year at a public high school, and the staff there has always been great about buying my books. Maybe that’s just because I’m a nice guy, but some really enjoy my work, no ingratiating involved. That’s pretty cool.

DE: Uh, yeah, you are a nice guy. I need to work the kindness thing into my arsenal maybe. When you blogged at FlashFiction.Net, you wrote, “We have our trances and our words, our heart and our eyes and our questions that remain unanswered. What more could we want from this life we’ve chosen?” Maybe I’m just in a funk, writing-wise, but sometimes I feel like writing messes me up more than it helps me. Like, I get into these trances and edits, and I seem to not even realize I’m getting annoyed with my kids or my wife or my job or my bills or my other things I “should” be doing. Do you ever feel like writing isn’t “good” for you? Ever? Once a year?

CS: If it’s incorporated properly, writing is always good—at least for me. Children, spouse, obligations—all those must come first—if they aren’t, then I’m not in the right place for my work. Not saying my wife hasn’t made many sacrifices, for which I’m very, very grateful. But if I didn’t have a proper balance in those other areas of my life, I don’t think I could get into the type of trance needed to produce my best work.

DE: I’ve talked to a few writers, some of them writers I greatly admire, who have said they have gotten more “fucked up” (their words) from writing. Do you ever feel that way?

CS: No. Writing has helped me discover a lot about myself and my beliefs.

DE: Fine, I get it. You’re a happier, better adjusted guy. Let’s move on. [the interviewer is ad libbing this and hoping it comes across as funny and not snarky but ruining such an affect in any event with this aside] Do you have a favorite story you’ve written?

SC: I’d say either “Amelia Imagines Herself in Terms of a Circle” from THE SPECIES CROWN (it includes little geometry lessons, and this gives the piece a real visual presence) or “Marik the Rapist” from BAD MONKEY. Marik is probably my best story-story in terms of the old fashioned yarn. But of course the story that is my favorite is always the one I’m working on right now.

DE: Of everything of yours I’ve read, if I had to pick my favorite story, if someone had a knife to my big toe, I’d say “So this is Love.” Man, I gotta say, as obsequious as it will sound, I may read that a few more times until I’m covered in bedsores. My favorite line from that story is: “This is my kind of love, a two-fisted and bloody adoration, the kind of love people write songs about. The kind of love people die for. With a twist of his chin, Eric works his face away from the sopping T-shirt. “You didn’t tell me he could punch like a mother fucker, honey,” he says in an airy, pinched voice.” Damn, the “airy, pinched voice” part just kills me. After the soaring feel of “the kind of love people die for,” to come back and hammer us with the image of the shirt, sopped in blood, and this tiny sort of voice saying that great line. Has to feel good writing a line like that.

CS: So glad you liked it. In a flash piece every word has to not only justify its place, but it also has to shine. Most of my descriptions come out in the revision process—which is where I seek out the flat spots and try to pump them up a bit.

DE: The first story of yours that I read was “Fever,” which I saw on Fictionaut, and then I began to read up on your work. That story, to me, could only have been written by someone with kids. Do you agree? Before I had kids, all my stories were about single guys with all kinds of angst. Now that I have kids, all my stories are about fathers with angst. I know you’re a lot more imaginative than me, but after you became a dad did your writing change b/c of having kids? Did you began writing more “father” stories or had you already been doing so?

CS: Parenthood changed me as a person—and as a result, it’s changed me as a writer. I had a few stories before that involved characters who were parents, but the depth and first-person intensity of actually being a parent has given me a much broader appreciation of the impact a child can have on one’s life. All the emotions are still there, but now you view them through a new lens, one which intensifies the experience.

And they ain’t summerteeth, for sure. In today’s jmwwblog, flash fiction editor Dave Erlewine talks to Curtis Smith about Wilco, writing flash versus writing short stories, parenthood, and more:

DE: In closing, and getting back to Wilco, were you an Uncle Tupelo fan? I loved them in college and my favorite cd was “Still Feel Gone” though i also loved “Anodyne.” When Tweedy and Farrar split up UT, i put my $ on Son Volt (and loved their first cd) but man they sort of tanked a bit and Wilco keeps on keeping on.

CS: I discovered Wilco first—right around the time of Summerteeth’s release. Then I kind of backtracked and explored UT and Son Volt. Like you, I really liked SV’s first—but then they kind of remained the same. What I find so exciting about Wilco is how much they change and evolve with every release. I’ve heard a lot of UT, but the only one I own is the best of collection.

DE: Well said, Mr. Smith. Been a pleasure. Keep on keeping on.

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