The Joyless House Interview: Theresa Smith
Our Writer of the Century of the Year this week came to us from out of a blue deep and dark, giving way to morbid grays and queasy greens; rolling in on the frigid North Atlantic, washing up on a Miami beach to shimmer, electric and queer in the moonlight, to the pulsating club beats in the unending Miami night... Somehow so alone. Always just in the distance. A smiling 'no swimming' sign.
Reading through the premature birthings of Expat Press (expatlit journals 1 & 2) there were many intriguing voices, but one was more jarring than all the rest: the weirdly-modulated intonations of Theresa Smith. Since then we have been gifted a collection of her short stories in print (L on Expat Press) and several online transmissions to be found at expatpress.com. She is my favorite living writer. She has (in the throes of a pharmaceutical blackout perhaps?) agreed to sit down for the Joyless House Interview. Let's see if we can ruin another nascent relationship, shall we?
Joyless House: Thanks for doing this Theresa. We at Joyless House are big fans of your work. It's actually a stipulation on our application form. Would you like anything to drink? Illicit drugs or ambient noise music?
Theresa: I'm always wondering why I never get invited to parties like this. I don't think I'm tawdry enough. Appreciate the gamble, and I'll try not to ruin it for anybody else.
JH: That last line would work well if you ever have to write your own wedding vows.
Ok. First thing's first: update us! Is there another Theresa Smith offering in the works? eminent? percolating? and what form will it take?
TS: I don’t have a plan. I never have any plans. I’m not buying ego insurance here – it’s always a surprise to me whenever something gets itself done. Which is, I think, a neat way of absolving myself of all responsibility when it does. It always floors me when someone has a plan.
Extrapolation is the last (and sometimes first) refuge of procrastination, so I’ll gladly expound on what I could do, if I did it, and try not to think about what happens if you or I forget that this is an exercise in futility. Another set of short stories wouldn’t be out of the question, and as long as we’re working the counterfactual, maybe a novel. I’m a big believer in gaslighting myself, so I’m going to say another book next year, and hope I’m dumb enough to believe it. That’s pretty much how it works around here. External pressure is good, because I like to make people happy.
As far as subject matter goes, it tends to suggest itself where it’s noticeably absent, like here. This might just be the mouthwash talking, but most of the ideas I really go to town on, about time and identity and perspective and whatever the hell else, are weirdly contingent and logically isolated, not to mention practically indefensible, which should probably concern me, but it doesn't. I think this goes for lots of other people, too, unless they’re just really meticulous about their deductive hygiene. And I wonder if what's holding these beliefs in place is a sort of underhanded creation argument – the ideas and objects that make it this far in the veneration sweepstakes, even the unpopular ones, necessarily have complicated histories made up of joinings and exchanges that are increasingly less likely to have happened just as they did, so you attach some significance to that – or if most of us are just drawn to maximally interconnected, minimally counterintuitive explanations that defy logic in the right ways. Maybe it’s both. All my stories are kind of overgrown thought experiments, so the one that gets written from this germ is me trying to figure out what happens when you go all the way south on the spectrum of triviality and replace these oddly specific and disconnected bedrock beliefs with some equally justified but lower-stakes beliefs, like the belief that you have to wash your lettuce before you eat it, or that pigeons have no dicks. I don’t know much else about this story, but I know there’s going to be a parade.
JH: So did you know very early on you were smarter than your peers and that they would rightfully hate you for it?
Really, the cerebral nature of your writing was a point I was going to hit on. Since you've catapulted the discussion in that direction... Are you ever tempted to consciously tamp down the circular logic in the interest of a story? Or is that really the whole point? Is your purpose on earth a brave crusade against the suspension of disbelief?
TS: Well, the short answer is, I can’t help it. I’ve thought a lot about the origin of my desire to constantly abuse some imaginary person who seeks solace in the immersion and continuity of fiction, and I might just be an asshole. Why do stories have to be about people doing things? Why does comedy have to be funny? Advancing some possibilities on these fronts is infinitely more interesting to me than the prospect of knocking together a provisional story-cave so a team of functional fuck-ups convened specifically for this purpose can piss each other off and go on trips and die and quit booze and deal with nuclear fallout, and it goes without saying that disinterest is a pretty clear sign that I should leave this scenario alone. I like it when a world outlives its characters; I like to watch it breathe a little easier when the action is over. I think a good way to figure out whether a story is worth telling or not is to take out the people and see if it survives.
I think there's a whole world of ways to get inside the ideas you have about how the many universes you move through over time operate in conjunction with one another, or how they’d operate if a few surplus facts were a little or a lot different, and only a few of them involve inventing characters to wear them. There’s nothing wrong with telling people what these places and relationships are like instead of showing them. If you end up with a piece of philosophy or an existential grocery list instead of a story, so much the better.
JH: I feel like the family dog trying to understand the family cat. Why can't Tiffy just make master happy?
Anyway... do you not get the same satisfaction from straight academic work; hard science and math, as you do from your fiction? And on that same token - assuming the obvious caveat that higher education is a scam, a pyramid scheme, a tool of classism and that academic degrees and publishing credits are Gucci bags for nerds - what is your academic background?
TS: If you cross out every fifth word, my answers are actually Ring Lardner stories, backwards. I guess I could apologize for poindextering my way out of answering a direct question, but I feel like I’ve earned a little leeway by putting up with decades of social ostracism for not much more than having good grammar. I was a philosophy major at Florida State, which you’d think would help with that one way or another, but college was just kind of a high school hypercube with more beer and less clothes. Failing once again to bond with the people last-minute cramming in the library because I cared too much about the subject matter, and not being enough of a stickler to actually master anything to the point of being able to hold a conversation about it. So eventually I just started hanging out with people who thought power metal was funny, and all things considered, I probably won that round.
In the interest of actually answering a question, just to see if I can, there is something I get from both science writing and fiction, especially when it comes to trying to do both at the same time – a sense that I’m doing something I definitely don’t have permission to do, which is creating certainty where there isn’t any. However artificial or crude or fragile or arguable this certainty is, however much it verges on uncertainty and entropy, it’s there, at least for now, and it contains and protects something I wanted to preserve – some fraction of a larger system, something that happened or might happen, robust enough to survive without air for a while. Also, 100 years from now when we’re all smoking computer dust and beating golf clubs into homemade armor, someone might actually remember the time I played a Roxy Music record at 45 rpm in high school.
JH: How much does the level at which readers understand your work matter to you? Your writing is Joycean to me (don't be too flattered, I just don't know many writers) in the respect that there are many levels to it. On the surface, it can be enjoyed lyrically, with no understanding of what sort of deeper concepts you're working through. But certainly there is a lot there for your fellow philoso-philes if they're down for the dig.
TS: That’s a very charitable way of explaining it. I like to imagine that reading one of my stories is kind of like breaking into an old house where I’ve rearranged the furniture. You’re looking at the amateur paintings when all of a sudden OH SHIT, the floor collapses and next thing you know you’re down in the basement staring at a box marked “Spinoza.” I think this is great fun. Some people do not, and that’s alright.
I’ll admit to not trying as hard as I could to be candid about things, which is part philosophical choice and part risk management. The first, because I think uncertainty is one of the few real bonafides of existence, and I want to reflect that from every angle possible. The second, because suddenly I’m not writing in a total vacuum anymore, and that makes me nervous, because for all the abuse of extended metaphors my understanding of this process is still embarrassingly literal, and I’m still looking for the turn signal that says, okay, now there’s a difference between what I’m thinking and what I’m writing. I haven’t yet figured out that this distinction is really only important to me.
JH: Yeah, well, when they say 'knowing is half the battle' they're being pretty misleading because while knowing you're in the fucking battle is certainly significant, that still leaves all the actual battling; the carnage and starving and getting up an hour before dawn to go on forced fucking marches. Yuck.
You mentioned FSU earlier. I didn't know you had a Floridian background. You are in New York now, correct? How does the SCENE there affect you as an artist/person/person who does art/writes? I don't want to get too far into the straight biographical, but being where I'm from, I'm always a little mystified by places that have SCENES that revolve around anything other than mainlining Busch Light.
TS: This is going to sound insufferable, and I don’t even know what I’m going to say yet. I think I know about 5 writers, total, in New York City. One of them writes for a living. The other ones do it for fun, or because someone did it to them. There are more writers than mailboxes here. I haven’t counted, but that seems about right. It takes a lot of grit and determination to exclude yourself from a class this accessible, but I think it’s what I was born to do.
The thing I like most about this city, and which is probably true of any city with enough human and cultural capital to choke a death ray, is that it seems to run on (at least) two clocks - a short clock, and a long one. Short time is the one most people seem to know about. It’s regular time, dilated to hold all these bodies and their mostly expendable stuff. You know how if you record something at half-speed and play it back at regular speed, it sounds twice as fast? That’s kind of what happens here. Short time stretches to fit you. Long time is building time; sidewalk time and big rock time. It’s the city version of geological time. In Tallahassee, where I grew up, most buildings were built post-1970. I can remember driving through the oldest suburb in the city, halfway between the capital and the highway, just totally gobsmacked by all the Mission-style digs built in the late ‘40s. That was local history to me. Here, cabs blow out their suspensions in 200-year old sinkholes.
The best thing about writing here is that there are a lot of distractions. There are bars everywhere, full of people I’ll never talk to. There’s a river – a couple of them – and lots of babies to make me feel better about myself. There’s a big library, in case I miss books. There are things that snap my head around, like 5-year olds buying cereal, or people calling themselves ecopsychologists. There are entire highways in the air – 60 feet off the ground! There are streetcolored birds everywhere, and some of them are even small enough to feed. The snipers have a lot of choices.
JH: That was a good answer. I harbor a small kernel of resentment for everyone that lives in a big, cool city. But that's ok, I can grind these kernels into a coarse meal to be baked into chips to wear on my shoulder.
Do you promote yourself at all as a writer? You're nowhere to be found on the social media I fuck with. Do you do readings? I feel like there's a weird stigma attached to writers promoting their work. Like you're supposed to be above that shit. Suggest someone might want to read your work and they look at you like you asked them to attend mass for your grandma.
TS: I hear you. There's definitely some skein of popular wisdom out there that goes something like this: great writing/art/film/whathaveyou exerts a kind of cultural gravity from underneath whatever material or social constraints are put on it, and which makes its discovery and eventual recognition absolutely inevitable. While recognizing that this is subject to a pretty hilarious degree of survival bias, it still somehow resonates, and in the way that rejected beliefs stick around as superstitions, I still kind of buy into it. It doesn't make any fucking sense, and it's probably been responsible for the total elision of more good work than all the library fires of history combined, but isn't it nice to think someone's looking out for you?
I hear you on the chips - I've gotta be at least 60% chip at this point (the other 40% is anxiety and Mitch Hedberg.) I have a deep-seated fear of self-promotion that goes way beyond my ordinary fear of imposing on someone else’s time and consideration for any reason whatsoever. I think this is officially a therapy session, so you can start charging now. Setting aside the larger issue in favor of the smaller one, which always works, I’ve never been able to handle what I see as inevitable rejection for being so ballsy as to insist that something I’ve done demands attention. Everyone seems to agree that social media is pretty much a reward system for the mentally absent but they toss in anyway, with the exception of a few conscientious objectors who love to let loose on some fuckboy sermons about surveillance and normativity which - while accurate - are generally way more obnoxious than their actual digital presence would’ve otherwise been. I’m trying not to be one of those people. There’s nothing inherently terrible about crunching through sweet layers of digital shitlicks to get to the tootsie roll center of people you like and who like you, and are interested in the work you do and are doing interesting things themselves, and it’s not even half as difficult as I’m making it sound. Eventually the energy I’m expending to maintain a pointless grudge will get converted into some more useful form of work, if I really insist, like maybe even reading my writing in front of other people.
JH: I feel like we've reached the point in this country where there should be an option for conscientious objection as a permanent state of citizenship. An option for moral or even aesthetic secession. Why not? I guess my question is A: do you think this is possible? B: will I have to move to Brooklyn or San Fran or some other decadent moral scum pit and C: will you be my president?
TS: Moral secession sounds great. It's a familiar state of mind, the feeling of having defected but still being here. I think as long as we promise to stop voting, they’ll let us do whatever we want. Maybe eventually the government will let us have some reclaimed swamp at the dick tip of Florida where we can stretch our minds out a little and establish our intellectual exurb. I’d like to believe that this community could, at least in theory, exist and become an engine of creation, but being both a native Floridian and a veteran of reality I have to admit that it will probably just devolve into some kind of debauched anti-Disney where everyone wears cargo pants in summer and fucks each other and instead of Goofy you get Eric Bogosian.
But most likely, they won’t give us any land, and they’ll just make us wear, y’know, armbands or something. Maybe move us all into a certain part of town. They might even let us rename the streets. You could go anywhere, but I have a feeling you’d have to go to Brooklyn for the real detournement camp experience. You're paying $3800 a month to live in an unfinished vaporwave timeshare in building V of VICE Gardens. There’s no way any of your 10 roommates will be getting up early enough to buy crackers and artisan salami from one of the two grocery stores that are actually bars that just stay open all the time, so you have to wait for the helicopter that airdrops Clif Bars and peaches into the middle of Kurt Vonnegut Park and stuff as many as you can into the pockets of your anorak while you fight over who gets to collage the last megachurch flyer. At night, when everyone’s walking around with bike lights strapped to their arms because there’s no electricity, they try to tempt you to de-defect by showing Tarkovsky films on a giant screen in the middle of the East River. Taco trucks double as ayurvedic field hospitals run by shroom dealers. Bars still have trivia nights, but no one wins. Somebody spray paints LEONARD COHEN WAS RIGHT on the top of a building, but nobody thinks to ask what about.
JH: Maybe if we agree to be subjects in a dystopian-reality tv show. They get the profits and we get anarchy. The viability of the colony determined by weekly stream ratings posted on a screen in Times Square. Again, why not?
TS: This definitely has a reality TV aspect to it; I wouldn't be totally surprised if this scenario devolves on us in show form sooner rather than later. Jersey Shore but for people who listen to Samuel Beckett audiobooks while they're jogging. It's got a good beat, and you can dance to it.
JH: I think we have enough material to work with here and quite honestly, I'm starting to feel a little sick. Do you have any final artistic, political or moral statement to make for the enlightenment of the countless lit wonks and fan-persons that are sure to read this interview?
TS: Well, this has been the bee's knees, and if you ever want to do this again, I have a lot of free time. A lot. Parting wisdom? If you try really hard, I mean REALLY hard, no matter who you are, you can get into Emerson, Lake & Palmer*. Generalize as necessary.
JH: Buy Theresa's book, L, at expatpress.com.
*Joyless House in no way endorses Emerson Lake or Palmer.