Zac Smith: "Maybe I Think It Just Feels Fun"
I was neck-deep in a murky depression when Tao Lin sent me a copy of Zac Smith’s new book, Everything Is Totally Fine, last December – I was burnt out, on autopilot, my pleasure-receptors frayed even for reading. But the way it’s formatted, I was able to take resentful little nibbles out of the weird white book, and I eventually found myself cackling out loud alone in my sad house where I had been taking myself way too seriously. I continued reading, continued laughing, feeling possessed by a rare dumb joy that declared EITF as the funniest book I’ve read since Will Self’s Cock and Bull. However, Zac Smith’s comedy does not diminish his inherent angst – there’s a genuine release of spiritual frustration that takes the catharsis head-first into a brick wall (I found his mention of Blake Middleton claiming the book was like the Eric Andre Show very spot-on).
Helmed primarily by Cavin B. Gonzalez, Smith also helps run Back Patio Press, where they “aim to celebrate the gritty, horrid aspects of life as well as the tranquil and serene ones.”
EITF appears aesthetically minimalist, containing 69 pieces of flash, some pieces micro entries of just one paragraph. If there's one thing they all have in common, they all seem to be these spurts of stabbing high-energy nihilism often wrapped in a deceptively wholesome veneer, which you assure we see crack — you kind of clip the endings unexpectedly, like you pull the rug out from under the reader. What attracts you to this short medium? How do you know when a piece needs to wrap up?
I like your simile about pulling the rug out from under the reader. I hadn't thought of it that way. I’m not sure what attracts me to writing very small things. When a story is small, each idea has a greater weight — you can throw a whole piece off balance with a single word. So maybe I think it just feels fun. There are some longer stories in the book, but in my head, they just feel like very small stories, but bigger, if that makes any sense. Blake Middleton said my book reminded him of the Eric Andre Show, which made me think that I've probably been more influenced by sketch comedy than novels, and my favorite sketches are generally short, emphasizing a specific image over a compelling plot or whatever.
Full disclosure: After reading the first five pieces, my initial reaction was "WTF. Where is the craft in this?" as it seemed like each piece could have been tossed off as first thought/ best thought. But I couldn't put it down, and then I got extremely self-conscious about my snooty reaction; I scolded myself for even thinking of the word “craft,” and proceeded to scrutinize my own tastes. Finally, I found myself howling with laughter after reading each following piece, as if I had a breakthrough that felt sort of liberating. Do you tweak out on these pieces and edit heavily to reach this kind of minimalism, or do you see it more as defiant "anti-craft" that would lose its immediacy if overanalyzed?
Ha, I appreciate your disclosure. I don't really know what people mean by "craft" — I didn't go to school for writing, I don't take workshops, etc. Partly because I think a lot of contemporary writing lacks the self-confidence to really fuck around in a way that interests me. Even in writing that's supposed to be funny or silly, I feel like most people get stuck in these really uninteresting, predictable, self-conscious patterns of trying to be clever. No one wants to risk being dismissed or laughed off – there's this fear of not being taken seriously, so people seem consumed by professional aspirations, trying to write (or even "experiment") in these pre-approved ways, all so they can be popular and then get book deals or do speaking gigs or teach workshops, and none of that interests me, because that's not writing. If that's what you want to achieve, then I feel like you're not actually interested in writing. Interesting art requires knowing that a lot of people – the majority of people – won't get it, or like it, or want anything to do with it, and you have to be okay with that if you want to write something with value. I assume a lot of people will dismiss my book and think I'm a hack, and that's fine. I enjoyed thinking of ways to make the book kind of a challenge, not necessarily to readers, but to these conventions and trends and preoccupations and careerist mindsets. I think the best thing I hear from people is that something I've written has inspired them to write, and I think this really happens when you show people that there are alternatives to the generic and predictable stories we're told to like.
In terms of editing vs. spontaneity, I have fun writing when it feels like playing music, where in the moment you can stumble into something or try a new move without thinking, and surprise yourself with some exciting or unexpected feeling. I'd compare it to the story of how the Talking Heads recorded Remain in Light, where the songs are very tight, controlled, repetitive, and heavily stylized, but came out of the group picking out the best snippets – maybe even a two-note riff from hours of extended jamming – and learning how to perform it as a single chunk. So, once I figure out the core ideas of a story, I spend a lot of time to get the pacing right, the sentence structures to follow the right patterns, the transitions to flow smoothly, etc., but it's important that this all highlights the interesting parts. I don't really care if anyone analyzes it because that feels beside the point, from my side of the equation.
Many pieces of EITF appear like surreal tantrums of absurdity, like symbolic automatic writing one might do in a hypnogogic state; while others seem so rigid and gun-to-head decisive, like a writer who has run out of bullshit. Does this collection represent a specific time of your life? Do you find life events more inspiring to this weird shit you do or is it more about the time in between where nothing is happening? Because part of what I love about some of these pieces is that they give the impression you've mastered creating something out of nothing, without being all high concept or what some might call pretentious.
That's a good question. Some of the stories were first written in 2018 and some were written in like April 2021. I think I was definitely reacting to the constant carnival of the election and stuff in some of them, just thinking about the stupidity of America and the bold artifice of the government, so there's a few pieces about the idea of presidents and laughing about it. I think some of the stories were me processing early COVID lockdown, where seeing a stranger in the world felt dangerous and mysterious, like, when no one knew what was going on, so I was looking at people and interpersonal interaction differently. We were being told to be afraid of each other, keep our distance, stay outdoors. For like a month it really felt like seeing a person was like encountering a wild animal, which was then combined with just generic alienation. I do take a lot of inspiration from the real world, projecting weird ideas onto things I see as a daydreaming kind of activity, which then turn into story ideas. I guess I channel boredom to let my mind wander and make new connections. If you don't look at your phone constantly, which I struggle with like everybody else, daily life and the world around you is pretty boring, but that's when you remember things, speculate, wonder, and imagine. I feel like a lot of my stories involve people experiencing this too, but it feels to me like people don't often write about it without trying to make a caricature of some type of person. So I wanted to do the opposite and write about just what's normal, maybe.
You also help run Back Patio Press. What do you and Cavin B. Gonzalez look for in the books you decide to publish? I feel it’s noteworthy to add that BPP is also one of the rare indie publishers like Expat and Amphetamine Sulfate who go through their own private book printer instead of relying entirely on Amazon.
Back Patio is Cavin’s press first and foremost. He makes the decisions on what to publish and what to do. I just do a lot of the boring stuff, like helping make budgets, doing the typesetting, ordering proofs, and copyediting. I've brought two books to him that I thought we should publish – everything else was either his decision or a joint one where we were both talking to the author already. Technically, most of our books are available on amazon, mainly to allow for international orders. However, getting them on Amazon isn't the main priority. It’s taken us a while to get them set up, and some will never be on amazon for a variety of reasons. I think this approach is good in the sense that we have more control of things (Amazon KDP limits what you can print in a lot of ways, both in content and layout/design), but it's also a lot more work on Cavin, because it just means he has to hand package and ship hundreds of books. So when he's like, incapacitated for health reasons or something, the orders just pile up and people start getting angry. I don't have a problem with presses that go straight to amazon – Apocalypse Party and House of Vlad are excellent presses and they exclusively use Amazon KDP – because it makes the books a lot more accessible and, well, they sell a lot more books than we do, I think. If Back Patio sold two thousand copies of a book, Cavin would probably steal a motorcycle and drive it into the ocean. We can't scale without really rethinking how we operate.
Since EITF is published through Tao Lin's Muumuu House, what are the pros and cons of relying on someone else to put out your book when you have your own imprint with what appears to be a substantial readership?
I don't really feel comfortable putting my books out with Back Patio primarily because it's really Cavin's press. I don't want to try to leverage that for my own gain, because that feels weasely and I also get the sense that a lot of people who love the press strongly dislike me. Secondarily, it would require me to be a lot more self-promotional. I get a lot of energy promoting/producing books I love that aren't my own, and I feel a huge energy suck whenever I try to sell my own books. I'm happy to have other people take care of the marketing and design and distribution stuff for my books probably for the same reason I like having a good editor-writer relationship: it's nice having someone who understands the work who can figure out a fresh way to appropriately summarize or pitch it, write a synopsis, design a cover, or talk to people about it. In terms of marketing/promotion, it means you have a wider net. Tao knows people I don't and vice versa, so there's broader exposure for both of us, whereas self-publishing limits your audience to whatever you're able to cultivate yourself.
Get Everything Is Totally Fine directly from Muumuu House
To leave a comment