Curtis Smith: An Interview

by Rusty Barnes

Curtis Smith's stories and essays have appeared in over fifty literary journals including American Literary Review, Mid-American Review, CutBank, Night Train, Mississippi Review, Lake Effect, Greensboro Review, The Humanist, Passages North, South Dakota Review, Hobart, West Branch, William and Mary Review and many others. His work has been included in a number of anthologies and nominated for a half dozen Pushcarts. His work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, the Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing list of the Best American Spiritual Writing.

His first novel, An Unadorned Life, was released two years ago. March Street Press has released two collections of his short-short stories, Placing Ourselves Among the Living and In the Jukebox Light. His latest book, The Species Crown, a collection of stories and a novella, is now available from Press 53.

Curtis lives and works in Pennsylvania with his wife, Michele, and son, Evan.

This is what I know about Curt Smith, straight from the official bio and from Myspace: author of two collections of short-short fiction from March Street Press; a novelist; published in over fifty literary journals; fan of music as disparate as Wilco, the Black Keys, Blondie, and Lou Reed. What else should we know about you and your work before we start talking about it?

To be honest, that's probably more than most people know about me already.

In this collection, you're particularly strong in that no man's land of stories, between 750 and 1500 words in length. Do you find yourself more comfortable in shorter forms than long?

No, not really. There are a few stories in the collection over 7,000 words, not to mention the novella. And this past year, I've been lucky to place a number of even longer stories. Some stories are born to be long, some short. Often, a short story insists it's long until I suck it up and chop it back to its proper shape. That said, there are a number of aspects of the short-short form I find very attractive—they're dense and precise, and the good ones bristle with powerful language or images or, in the best cases, both. Perhaps short-short stories come to me more easily because I usually get caught up in images before storylines. I think most of my shorter stories are driven by these images. The longer ones tend to be taken over by plot.

How did you arrive at the structure for 'Murder'? (For those who haven't read it yet, it alternates between past and present with little preparation or transition but an ellipsis, and it works well).

Let me foreshadow question four by answering that "Murder" was originally written as an outline-type story. Guess it was something I was going through. Siobhan Scarry, the editor at CutBank, the journal in which it appeared, suggested I drop the outline format. And she was totally right—it was too intimate of a story to warrant that kind of quasi-scientific structure. Other than the outline bit, the story was the same as it appears now in the collection. I wanted back-and-forth flashes between the present and past. I thought of the present tense as I normally experience it—kind of liquid, flowing, haphazard—and I tried to write the present parts in such a way by using single, run-on sentences for each present-tense section. The past, while not solid, is at least moldable—so I wrote those sections in the past tense and used pretty simple sentence structures. I hoped this contrast would make the past-present splits noticeable yet smooth. Another note about "Murder"—it was the only story I ever linked directly to music. Usually I write in whatever silence I can carve from my surroundings. But as I was writing this, I was listening to this old Leadbelly cassette I had. And in the process, the music and my draft somehow linked. I kept writing and listening, flipping the tape over and over. It was a cool experience. I hope it will happen again, but I don't think it's the kind of thing you can force.

I wonder about the outline form in your stories. 'The Baby Cries,' which we published a few years ago in Night Train II, is a story that uses the outline form to get its business done, as well as in one of my favorite stories from the Species Crown, 'Vacation in Ten Parts.' What is it about that form that makes it so clearly useful for your fiction?

So you already know about my outlining inclinations. I haven't written an outline story in a while, but I wouldn't rule it out if it made sense. I kind of enjoy the shape and texture of an outline story—it's reminiscent of sheets and pillowcases drying on the clothesline or a cutout string of paper dolls. I'm sure part of the outlining thing is rooted in my day job as a resource room teacher in public high school. I spend my days organizing things in chunks, in self-contained elements that don't melt into an incomprehensible, overwhelming whole. The outline didn't work in "Murder" because it was mainly a solo take on the main character. "The Baby Cries" and "Vacation" have main characters, but they also have substantial supporting casts. The outline form seemed like a good way to both put them on display.

One of your many strengths as a writer is your long, rhythmic sentences. I'm thinking in particular of places like the ending of 'Beneath the Net', the other story you published with us in our first online issue. Often I'll see a story end with a longer sentence, maybe as a final rhetorical this-is-the-end flourish, but you use these consistently throughout your stories. Do those come naturally for you, or do you edit your way toward them? Talk about your process a little, if you would.

I do tend to punch it up a bit at the end. Drum roll, please, right? But I enjoy putting a final period at the end of a breathless run. I enjoy the grasping feel of sentences like them, a sort of last desperate lunge toward something better, something somehow redeeming or enlightening. As a side note, "Beneath the Net" was without a doubt the story I struggled the most with in the collection. It's four pages long, but I wrestled with it for over a year on and off. Perhaps the only things that remain from the original draft are an image or two. Something in it wanted to be written, but I couldn't hear or see it clearly enough. I'm glad it finally fell together.

Tell me about your publisher, Press 53. How did you connect with them, and how has the publishing experience been so far? The book's cover is stunning and memorable, and the interior looks great as well, so I imagine you're happy with those elements.

The experience with Press 53 has been nothing short of wonderful. I drove down to North Carolina for the book's release and got to meet the folks behind the project. They're cool people with their literary hearts in the right place. Everyone who cares about the good things in this whole process of keeping small, lit presses viable should visit their site and buy a book. Mine preferably, but if not, then another one of their very cool offerings. We hooked up in the regular way—just me casting the net in the same way we all do. I've published fifty-some stories and essays—it's a statistic that speaks some to my growing proficiency with the craft but I think it speaks more to my ability to hustle. All writers who are publishing a lot in our lit circle have to hustle. Or we hustle to get an agent, then we let them hustle for us. Yes, the book looks great—and thanks for the props on the cover. My wife did the collage. It was a great experience to work together on it.

You've published stories online and offline, in small journals and in larger more well-known university-associated outlets. Have you found major differences in where you publish and how, how you've been treated? And what effect has having a Myspace account and webpage (the latter almost required these days) had for you in terms of getting your book sold?

In the world of lit journals, most places have been great. I could just do the lit journal scene for the rest of my life and be happy. Sure, a payday once in a while is cool, but I'd rather appear in a journal I respect than cash a check. Well, most checks, at least. I do have bills to pay. A book is an investment, and I feel a deep obligation to do what's right by the presses who've picked me up. My hustle, usually confined to the underground lit world, suddenly goes public. Curtis Smith has no interest in the internet or Myspace, but my book sure as heck does. I'll read or appear almost anywhere within an hour or two from my home. My website is new—so we'll see how that goes. Myspace is seriously addictive. Used correctly, it's stimulating and reaffirming—I love seeing that there are a number of folks out there who cherish and embrace the arts. But you're also always a click or two removed from some seriously messed up and oddly entertaining weirdness.

What's next for you? What are you working on, or are you still in full-on promotion mode for the Species Crown?

When I'm not pimping the book, I'm writing. I get up early, stay up late. I ignore all the more responsible duties beckoning me. God bless those who love us—we tend to be a ragged lot.