West Coast Interviews – Bud Smith


After years of knowing Bud Smith casually on Facebook, I finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person at last year’s AWP, where we participated in a private Hot Pillow AWP reading in someone’s hotel room. I was so impressed with what he read from his book Tollbooth that I couldn’t wait to get home and read it.

Bud Smith works heavy construction in New Jersey. His books are the novels Tollbooth and the forthcoming F-250; the poetry collection Everything Neon; and the short story collection Or Something Like That. He lives in New York City.  www.budsmithwrites.com

Bonnie ZoBell:  One of the things I love so much about Tollbooth is what a regular guy the narrator, Jimmy, is. Well, ahem, at least until later in the story. Even his name is kind of one-of-the guys. He works at a tollbooth in the New Jersey Parkway, where he has humorous, annoying, and sometimes dangerous interactions with his boss, co-workers, and motorists. His best friend works at the DMV. I’m sure this was your intent—to have these guys kind of two lowly cogs in the wheels of society. Could you talk about that a little?

Bud Smith: I started to become Bud Smithconscious of tollbooth collectors and how miserable they looked, stoned and leaning half-dead and trapped in that booth and I guess as a joke I figured a person that miserable would have to be friends with someone equally miserable–someone who works at the DMV. So yeah, Jimmy and Ted, best fiends at the gates of hell.

Sometimes I feel like a lowly cog in the gears of society and I guess most people do, so that’s alright.

BZ:  Jimmy and his wife’s marriage has seen better days. Do you think this happens to all marriages after time, or it’s because Jimmy hates his job so much he can’t see straight and that trickles into how he feels about himself and therefore about his marriage? Or? He says at one point, his wife, “was as hot, but that attention she gave me just didn’t seem to mean as much as the attention I received from girls who were new, who didn’t love me with all of their hearts, who weren’t prepared to stay with me until death dragged us away.”

BS:  Marriages are not doomed. No way. Plenty of people marry the wrong person, that’s all. I don’t even think that Jimmy and Sarah are wrong for each other. They’re both equally as fucked up. Jimmy is a big screw up, and some of his misery has to do with his job that has sucked the life out of him for way too long. He’s not happy about becoming a father, either. His misery, his bleakness, it’s surrounding him like a fog, so he has a choice, either lay down belly up on the sidewalk and be cooked to death by the sun, or just go apeshit, go bananas, cut all the safety cords, remove the warning label from his mattress. If Sarah was narrating the book, who knows what kind of dark misadventures she’d have taken us on. All they had to do was be honest with each other. If they’d done that, the marriage would have been a blue-ribbon, prize-winning marriage and that’d be reason #609 way the book would have been boring. These two are rabid in their unease for each other. Death, chaos, and wildfire do have to drag them apart, eventually. There’s some victory in that.

BZ:  And his love life certainly isn’t contained by his marriage, which seems sort of on again off again. A lot of his love interests seem to be with women motorists he meets at his tollbooth and has strange and wonderful conversations with.

BS: Occasionally out there in the wilds I’ve stumbled across the humans that just aren’t happy with what they’ve got. It starts early with them sometimes, babies in cribs, miserable as fuck: “this baba is not good enough.”

I imagine how desperate a person would become after years of eye contact and never a long enough pause in the flow of traffic to even get past the weather, the traffic, or the big question, “How much is the toll?”

BZ:  I think Jimmy’s interactions at work with customers paying him tolls are hysterical. Hours seem to go by when all he hears is:

​”Can I have a receipt?”

​”How much is the toll?”

​”Can I have a receipt?”

​”Can I have a receipt?”

​”Can I have a receipt?”

​”Can I have a receipt?”

I suppose the point is that we all have some of this kind of drudgery at our jobs after so many years. Can you think of refrains like this for other kinds of jobs?

BS:  It’s got to get old to work in a restaurant, “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom.”

“Same place it’s been for 56 years.”

Or: “It’s my husband’s birthday. Can you come out and do back flips while singing happy birthday with a lit cake and also he’s 78 so we’ll need 78 candles and one for good luck!”

Or: Now everyone has camera phones so everyone, I mean everyone, at a restaurant has to have a photo taken by every server at every meal. That’s got to get old after the first photo. There’s the server holding this shitty phone with its broken screen with its low res photo capability, and its blinding white out flash goes off and everyone looks shiny and sweaty and horrible and the people at the table look at the photo and see how horrible they look and say, “Okay! Just try a couple more!” They pass the camera back, the other phones waiting on the table for their turn too.

The worst might be that to be a waiter/waitress–you bring a drink and another person at the table is like, “Oh can I have a soda too,” and when you come back with that single soda the third person is like “Can I get a ginger ale too?” Then after you come back with the ginger ale the fourth person wants a Diet Coke.

“Okay does anyone else here want anything else while I’m gone so I can bring it all over at once?”

::blank stares::

And when you bring back the Diet Coke the original soda-wanter asks for a water.


::a child cries at another table::

You take out your pad and say, “Have we decided on any appetizers?”

BZ:  Even close to the beginning, there is some mighty strange interaction with a character in a blue Ford Escort. “I turned to face the driver, saw a clownhead. Grease paint, bubblegum hair, blue stars for eyes.” Even in this first, relatively calm, interaction, he screams at Jimmy, “HEY, MOTHERFUCKER!! SEE HOW YOU LIKE THIS SHIT!!!” and proceeds to spray foam in the toll basket, which makes it impenetrable. Clownhead gets more aggressive, violent, and personal as the novel goes on, and yet Jimmy seems to really like him. Why is this?

BS:  Jimmy can’t cope with society anymore, and Kid with Clownhead is a mascot for suburban anarchy. So it’s a nice fit. He’s smitten with Kid with Clownhead. He wishes he could be more like him: endlessly brave, careless, deceptive, a mix of Loki and Bugs Bunny. That sounds fun to me, too. I can’t blame Jimmy. 

BZ:  Eventually, Jimmy snaps. That’s no giveaway since it says so on the book jacket. I’m thinking it might be a good thing. Do you think a nervous breakdown or snapping emotionally or whatever you want to call it is ever a good thing? Do you think it is for Jimmy?

BS:  I don’t wish pain on any living person. In a book, sure, pain is fine. And it is a good thing. It could have been a much different book. It could have been Jimmy going to a doctor on page one, explaining his doom/dread/disdain, and the doctor would have written him a prescription for some bipolar medication, and then by chapter three Jimmy would have been putting in some job applications at somewhere/anywhere he’d want to work. But Jimmy won’t go to the doctor. He won’t talk to his wife. He won’t do anything. Change has to come to him, for him really. He has to have a complete mental breakdown and leave reality behind to figure out who he is, where he is, what he wants. Being alive is hard for some people. I guess we all get our turn to spiral down for a while.

BZ:  What’s with the strange chapter numbers in the book, or is it a secret?

BS:  Those are the exits on the Garden State Parkway, where Jimmy works, counting down from exit 171 at the northern tip of Jersey, all the way to exit 0 for Cape May, at the southern tip. When Jimmy leaves New Jersey, the chapters count up from 1, in a different language. When he returns, they resume, counting down to zero, to the bottom.

BZ:   What are you working on now?

BS:  Cup of coffee and Rae is cooking me bacon and eggs with fig jam on some rye bread because she’s a saint and it’s my birthday.

Later today I’m doing some final stuff for the next novel, F-250 (which is more a realist piece.  There’s no ghosts or explosions or voyages into the afterlife). Looking over final cover design options for that book and checking out the interior layout that the press did for the novel. Just making sure I like it a lot.
For new writing, I’m finishing up a novel called Animal in Your Care, about a guy who’s survived a helicopter crash and has returned from combat with PTSD, so he decides to do the logical thing, go live in the hospital where his brother is operating under a fraudulent medical license and fake a terminal illness. Nobody notices he’s faking because it’s the worst hospital in America.

Just trying to get my money’s worth out of this computer chair I found in the garbage.

By | 2017-08-20T15:23:16+00:00 November 23rd, 2014|Bonnie ZoBell Blog, West Coast Interviews|0 Comments

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