This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.
Mike Smith of Albuquerque is also Michael Farrell Smith. He is against Fascism, neofascism, white supremacy, corporate greed, crimes against the Earth, inequality, injustice, and all war. Chapters/essays from his forthcoming memoir, Shadows of Clouds on the Mountains, have been published in many notable literary journals; he is represented by Nat Kimber, of The Rights Factory, of Toronto and New York.
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3288 Review: How did you get your start writing? Has it always been essays and creative nonfiction?
Mike Smith: I have an essay up at the New Delta Review right now that gets into this (“101 Jokes for Epileptic Children“), but I suppose for me it all began with reading. For me, reading widely and seeing the almost-infinite range of what can be done with writing just made me want to try it myself. I also grew up in a fairly repressive religion, that I have no fondness for today, that encouraged everyone to keep a journal.
As a kid I wrote books about my pets, as a teenager I wrote ridiculous things to make my friends laugh, and as a young adult I wrote long letters and personal accounts of my travels and adventures. It’s always been something I’ve gravitated toward. Personally, I believe free will is an illusion and that I myself had nothing to do with me ending up a writer. Probably my parents told me I should be a writer when I was really young and impressionable.
For a while, as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, I felt I was on track to write popular history books—I wanted to be like Hampton Sides or Sally Denton or Simon Winchester—I had books all planned out, a popular weekly history newspaper column, and regular articles in many Southwestern periodicals. Then the worst depression of my life attacked me out of nowhere, for maybe two years, and after that I basically had to restart my career and make all-new friends and completely reinvent myself as a human being, and as a writer.
Since then, and since grad school, I’ve focused more on memoir, writing the experimental memoir essays that will eventually be the chapters of my autobiography, Shadows of Clouds on the Mountains, a book I’ve been working on since 2010 and working on almost every day since early 2012. I think I still have two more years on it, which is horrible, but whatever, the time it takes is the time it takes. It can’t be rushed.
I honestly hope to make it a masterpiece, something I will be wholly satisfied with, and I am putting everything I am into it. Eleven of its chapters have already been published as standalone essays in literary journals, including in The 3288 Review and Booth and Tin House and Bacopa—three pieces received Pushcart nomination, and another got me a New York literary agent, as well as a Notable mention in Best American Essays 2015.
I want to create something that reads like a Bollywood movie—I love Bollywood—by which I mean changing tones and mediums and approaches as the stories demand. Like a really good mixtape of only good songs, with perfect transitions. I want to create a work that’s an extension of my ever-changing self. I want to destroy the lines between my life and my art.
I can think of no other way to approach the creation of great art than with deadly seriousness. Even when I’m joking in my art, I’m serious. Even when I’m joking, I am trying to say something, I am always trying to say something, and that something is just one stolen quote, a howl from The Void itself.
As for “Has it always been essays and creative nonfiction?,” no, not always, and even now it’s not, though nonfiction is my truest love. I think I’m becoming something of a nonfiction prose snob. Pretty sure. Like, I involuntarily look down on poets and their eighty-page books of mostly white space. Their books are like my chapters—and my book has over thirty chapters, some of them more-than-ten-thousand words long. Suck it, poets. You have it easy.
Anyway, I love the challenge of finding the story and the plot and the motifs and the themes of true events, and I find it fascinating and startling that it can always, always, be done. I think we are always unconsciously creating our experiences in the world, we are writing our lives according to our preferences and our obsessions, so it’s no wonder these elements can always be found and then placed into a compelling nonfiction narrative.
Real life is so messy and profuse—there are so many thousands of details that when we sit down to write about it, just through the simple processes of selection and omission, the whole world can be revealed as full of intricate connections and meaningful revelations. And that’s not false—it’s perceptive, it’s penetrating. Approaching my own life in search of its story and meaning feels to me a bit like how Sigmund Freud and his crowd approached dreams—there must be meaning there—there must—there must—and they were usually right. Or, at least, they often found what they were looking for—or found something—and usually something interesting.
Fiction is fun too, though, as is poetry. I actually love poetry, and I love screenwriting
The next few books I have planned though are all nonfiction, and again, the book I’m working on takes pretty much all of my available writing time—those exhausted hours at the end of the day when, honestly I would usually rather just sleep or watch a movie or contemplate suicide.
What I would really love would be to get well-established as a writer and then alternate writing books with making movies. There is so much that film can do that books can’t, and vice versa. Someday. I’ve already shot a documentary, just recently, with my girlfriend Mauro Woody, who makes music as Lady Uranium. We just need to edit it into shape. She’s a musician, I’m a writer, and we filmed each other talking or performing or just living, a few minutes a day, just using our phones, for an entire year. In it, our stories as struggling writer and musician will intertwine; whichever of us is not on screen is the cameraperson; and I think it’s going to be really cool and innovative. We haven’t even begun to edit it though. We have a lot of footage. Some great stuff too—getting tear-gassed at a protest against police lethality; the excavation of the Atari landfill down in Alamogordo (look it up); and some of Mauro’s witchiest, wildest, best performances. We’re calling it This Will Be Our Year, after the Zombies’ song, and wow, did that title get ironic fast. So much went wrong during that year. We barely survived it. I won’t go into that now.
I just want to get at The Real. I just want to explore that, whatever that is. I want to recognize and explore how it is to be. What it feels like, and how it can be meaningful and beautiful and worthwhile. Someday, and I’m being serious and literal here when I say this, I may quit writing altogether and just devote my life to stacking rocks up in a big pile in some remote someplace somewhere. Once my kids are grown, of course. I think it could be a meditative, revealing experience, those years of rock stacking, and I think I would get a lot out of it. That may be my final work. Continue reading →