Talking with former MT editor Brian Smith about his searing new book of fiction

'If I Wasn’t Dead Already’

If Spent Saints & Other Stories were a song, it'd be loud and fast and dirty. Picture a typewriter plugged into an old tube amp, the volume knob turned up to 10. That's what this book is like. That's what makes this book a song like no other: Guitar feedback screeches, heavy bass, and cymbals crash like a double kick to the nuts — mud-drunk and mud-sludgy. Its music might be, to most within earshot, painful and ringing to the inner drum. But for those who stick around and put their heads inside this sonic oven of smoke and heat — the bulk of these stories are set in Phoenix, a place where "Nothing lasts where it never rains" — you'll hear the music, the hooks, and the acoustics that drive these adrenalized sentences and their stories of heartbreak, addiction, and ruin.

The 10 interrelated stories that make up this debut collection take us into a dive-bar, trailer-park, trap-house West where its characters wake up to the kind of heat where "skin sweated malt liquor and crystal meth" and the days play out in a haze that's best described as a "sleepless broil." If this is a world you've found yourself walking around in, waking up in, slowly dying in, and with no way out of — if you're still alive to read these words — it's a world you'll recognize as truth's truth. Smith gets it right. He doesn't bend or turn away from the ugly. Not even the sunrise the next morning is beautiful when it's seen through the eye of sin, on a face eaten away by a mixture of crystal meth and maggots snorted through the nose. If you've never seen such a face, consider yourself lucky. You might choose to wince and turn away, but Smith insists that we look closer. There is truth here and there is music here, and behind it all is the story of a man, Julian Grayling, who makes it out alive.

Metro Times: You've been through and have done and seen a lot of things. Makes me think of this sentence from Raymond Carver, "I've seen some things." Or from one of Carver's poems that begins, "Make use of the things around you," a poem that ends, "Put it all in, make use." How much of what you've seen and done, be it drink or drugs, rock 'n' roll, and competitive cycling, have ended up shaping the stories and vision found in Spent Saints?

Brian Smith: Old Ray was right. Everything I've done works its way into these stories. I always believed that with fiction you have to live before you can write. Sounds corny and obvious, I know, but one day I woke up and said, "Hey, I'm not dead. Time to write the books!"

Even in my darkest, most drug or alcohol-obsessed days, I was always reading, or attempting to. Sometimes I just couldn't — it's not easy if you've been up for four days strung out on crystal meth and porn. I always wanted to write, even when I couldn't. Even when I was a pretentious, punk-weaned kid reading Rimbaud and Verlaine and so on. I was always too depressed or drunk or high or hungry, mostly all four. Sounds super-corny but writing saved me.

Most of my favorite authors drew from lived-in experience and then went from there. Writers who could define what no one else could because they lived in frightening places where no one else did, and not by choice. My favorite writers were never the theorists, or academics, they were usually the ones who lived hard in whatever way, whose existences were rooted in depression, abject poverty, or self-medication, or all three. Everyone from Oscar Wilde to Charles Willeford to Dorothy Allison to William Gay to Hubert Selby Jr. to Jim Carroll to Anne Sexton to Charles Bukowski, and many others made me feel like I was never alone. Sometimes they were all I had, or thought I had. (The Ramones and other bands did the same when I was a kid.) I'm talking writers who were often crippled inside, whose hearts were seized by something, and they had to define what that something was. Musically, it's why I love Dennis Wilson so much: Yeah, he was a Beach Boy, but when he found his voice in song it had this deep tremendous and unironic sadness, and he was trying to articulate in the only way he knew how. His solo album Pacific Ocean Blue is one of the saddest albums ever made, and one of the most profound ones. Dorothy Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina is kind of the same thing, but completely different.

MT: Man, what an epiphany, "I'm not dead yet!" What was the process between that moment and your own ability to sit down and begin the writing? I imagine that's easier said than done, especially if that involved getting clean, kicking habits, etc. How long between that moment and this book? Every page here drips with sweat and blood.

Smith: That's a compliment! Thank you. And what an involved question ... I was always writing nonfiction for work. I sobered up for the last time in Detroit in 2004, while working at this very newspaper. In the weeks leading up to that particular cranial gang-rape, I was tired and sick, and my pigmentation was turning yellow, and I had the shakes and frights when I wasn't drinking. Was just terrified all the time. Had some really good friends and editors at Metro Times, but kept the agonies and booze withdrawals to myself, and from everyone, even my girlfriend. I was embarrassed, ashamed, filled with self-hatred. The usual. But I knew I'd die if I kept going, and for some reason I didn't want to die. I would've committed suicide otherwise. I almost did several times over the years. But I knew I should stick around. I'd already lost friends to booze and drugs. And I'd pretty much stopped cocaine and crystal meth before moving to Detroit in 2002. I figured I'd stop drinking as soon as I got there. What a laugh — the city was in glorious ruin but there were great, inviting old-man bars or liquor/party stores on every corner. (A few Greektown and Hamtramck bartenders were bummed I stopped drinking. My money would go to them.) With new sobriety came overwhelming inertia, and a deeper, more nuanced depression (no drinking my way out of it!), which I didn't see coming. I thought the opposite would be true. It turns out sobriety is hard motherfucking work. I waited a year to see a medical doctor because I thought my liver was fried, but blood tests revealed it was OK. Wow. I was prescribed massive doses of anti-depressants, which flat-lined my world, killed all creativity, but not the inner need to write (which created a whole other kind of personal tension) for like seven years. In hindsight it was all absolutely debilitating. Yet, for the first time in my life I felt secure. Funny how that works.

But I still couldn't function, not in the way that had any real meaning. In that time I met another woman, a writer, married and divorced, and I felt like I blew it. Heartbroken again. I saw a brilliant shrink who helped with the depression and getting off the happy pills, and the inertia lifted somewhat. I'd hooked up with a brilliant woman who kept on me to write the fiction. So I did these stories beginning in 2013. Started a novel too. Finished a screenplay about the life of my friend, songwriter Doug Hopkins, an alcoholic who committed suicide. Should've started a decade earlier, but I wasn't ready in the head.

MT: So through much of your struggles with addiction you were writing non-fiction (to pay the bills, etc.), mainly arts and music journalism, right, which is how we first met? Why a book of fiction and not, say, a memoir that tells it straight and true? What, I guess I'm wanting to get at, indirectly, is how might a fiction tell it truer?

Smith: I was also doing a lot of feature writing — especially before I got to Detroit — which, when you factor Truman Capote and Norman Mailer and such, is close to fiction writing in a lot of ways. I learned feature writing from reading those guys early, really, and, also, from reading fiction. Never went to journalism school, or any school really. And I learned from working with great editors. I was a fan of short stories, of Flannery O'Connor, Carver, of so many, so that's what I wanted to do first. I'm a romantic! A memoir will come later, I guess. I learned through writing fiction what so many have said — you arrive at a greater truth with fiction. The story "The Grand Prix," for example, partly centers on a theme of childhood abuse, and to show that cycle of abuse, and the effort to get out of it, the race takes place on a closed circuit, around and around. The circular action is the metaphor, and the main character Julian actually gets to win, he manages to overcome the abuse in a way.

MT: Did you actually cycle competitively as a kid? You write about that world with great authority, though, of course, the imagination can capture what we haven't actually experienced. Yet there is something else that sometimes sings through its subject and that is having the actual experience — say of racing skinny-wheeled bikes, light enough to lift with one finger — to back it up.

Smith: I did. I spent a lot of time living at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs when I was 15 and 16. Was on the U.S. National Junior team. I was winning races against much older guys, usually in the mountains. In Tucson, I'd go for 80-mile training rides before eighth-grade homeroom. It was insane. I discovered punk rock and girls and quit the sport, just up and left the training center one day, shocking my coaches. My teammates later won Olympic gold medals and stages in the Tour de France.

MT: Talk about cold turkey. Your body — the athlete in you — must've been like, "What the fuck?" I guess you found other ways to get to that adrenaline high: punk rock, girls. Drugs.

Smith: Exactly. My first high was endorphins. I had more than one smart psychologist tell me that I was an endorphin addict by the time I was 12, so hard was I training on a bike. When I quit racing I just replaced the high with alcohol, drugs, girls, porn, whatever. Never learned how to just be until much later in life, after much sober time. Still learning.

MT: That scene in the meth dope house with Jesus and the woman with the face that got eaten away by maggots after snorting bad dope is about as fucked up as it gets. Where writers like Denis Johnson or Jim Carroll go with the poetics of suggestion, you choose to grab the reader by the back of the neck and force us to look. This is zoom-in, dirty realism at its best. It dares us readers to open our eyes to the gritty truth or get out. What's your stance on telling-it-like-it-is storytelling? Let's face it: A lot of readers out there are gonna choose to look away and maybe even toss aside the book, though I have a feeling you're OK with that. Let's face it: The best writing risks losing the reader.

Smith: I purposely went for the jugular in that particular passage. I felt like to show the absolute destruction of crystal meth on human beings, inner and outer, it had to be brutal, and revealed in a grotesque physical way. I really wasn't going for shock-the-reader pyrotechnics, or irony or parody. It's a composite of observations based on experiences. If the imagery makes one want to toss the book, well... there's that risk. There's so much beauty in risky places, as you know. But with meth, there never ever is any real beauty other than in the sadness in hindsight.

MT: This book takes a hard look at some hard things: drugs, booze, love gone wrong, etc. And yet, there are moments in the book, amid all the ugliness, where some small thing finds a way to shine. It makes me think of the great little poem by William Carlos Williams, "Between Walls": "the back wings / of the / hospital where / nothing / will grow lie / cinders / in which shine / the broken / pieces of a green / bottle." Talk a little bit about that little bit of hope.

Smith: That Williams is lovely. Yes, for any writing to work there must be empathy. To me, all good writing is empathy, really. When you boil it down there has to be a heart beating through, no matter how bruised, and it can't be forced. It's in that Williams poem. One character in Spent Saints doesn't make it, a sad kind of sacrificial lamb. The main character, Julian, should really be dead, but instead he lives. He finds grace and beauty in small wonders — all these ghosts and fireflies. It's not redemption as much as a simple way to negotiate life.

MT: The passage that I'm about to quote reads like A Portrait of the Artist as a Dead Man. "I'd stay up three days straight and not eat. I'd rearrange a single sentence 60 or more times thinking each bettered the last but still wind up back where I started, the same words in exact succession. Then I'd move onto the next line. Two sentences could take hours and they sucked, just half-baked ideas propped up on adjective support. For timeouts I'd engage in long hours of porno jerk sessions, pissing into empty beer bottles so as not to get up and interrupt the action. Pretty soon I merely existed, not 'being' not 'doing.' The very definition of the living dead." This is pretty great, Brian, and seems to capture the struggles of being a writer, with or without the added addictions that so often seem to flog the artist.

Smith: Ha! Thank you, Peter. Well, my literary career pretty much started when I began reviewing porn movies for money. I used pseudonyms in sleazy magazines that paid a good word rate. Not exactly proud of the work, but I will say that I'm pretty sure I'm the only porn film reviewer ever who made Ezra Pound, Wagner and Clash references in smut reviews! I was doing a lot of crystal too. So that passage is memoir-ish. What's funny is, after I got sober, I realized the action of writing, with or without the speed, stayed the same. That's when I really understood the insanity of it!

MT: What's life like now for you? I know you've been on a reading tour to support the book, which is what brings you back to Detroit for a reading at the Book Beat and another at Atomic Dawg cafe. I also know that a series of short films has been made based on the stories in Spent Saints and that the book has been selling better than you or your publisher, Michigan's own Ridgeway Press, could have imagined! I'm so happy for you! What have I left out?

Smith: Well, I moved to Tucson from Detroit in summer of 2015. I was born here so it felt sort of like returning to the womb. The warmth (literally), the family, I felt protected. I was really down and feeling suicidal. I'm better now, writing. I'm still sober. I write a column for The Tucson Weekly called "Tucson Salvage," which details the unsung and the overlooked, folks in the margins. Those stories will be collected in a book soon. Working on the follow-up novel to Spent Saints. I go for long walks in the city at night, sometimes 10 miles, to counter depression, and find calm. I love the lonely late nights this town offers. Tucson, with its chain-link and cinderblock and saguaro and mesquite, it really is a lonesome desert at night, an end-of-the-world kind of lonesome. That really inspires me, like it did when I was a kid.

Brian Smith will be appearing with Eddie Baranek and John "Cal" Freeman at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 7 at Book Beat (26010 Greenfield Rd, Oak Park; 248-968-1190) and with M.L. Liebler and the Wagner Act at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 9, at Atomic Dawg (2705 Coolidge Hwy., Berkley; 248-398-3294).

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