Narrative has a few burning questions for Austin Smith.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
I love Nedra in James Salter’s Light Years. I have such a vivid image of her in my mind. Every time I read the novel, which is often, I love her and fear for her anew. She is perpetually parking on the streets of New York in places explicitly marked No Parking. Or taking off her rings. Or putting her rings on. Doing all manner of dangerous or beautiful things. I would never watch a film rendition of Light Years for fear that my image of Nedra would be destroyed by, I don’t know . . . who could play Nedra?
But I also love Austin King in William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It.
My favorite character in life, though he is no longer alive, is John Keats. I’ve read every biography of him, I read the letters in one perpetual loop, and I’ve made pilgrimages to his house in Hampstead and his grave in Rome. Something about his life, the beautiful and tragic arc of it, deeply affects me. I would love to shake his living hand and thank him.
2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote)?
I have lots of favorite lines. Here are some:
John Keats: “Young companies nimbly began dancing”—Ted Hughes writes of this line: “Here, no less than four of the five iambic feet are reversed, producing a violently syncopated line of wonderful beauty and kinaesthetic power,” which is precisely what I said when I first read it.
Larry Levis: “Under the missing and innumerable stars.”—I love how the stars are both missing and innumerable.
My dad, Daniel Smith: “In the silence of the migrated birds.”—I love this line so much I used it as the title for my first chapbook of poems.
Elizabeth Bishop: “No—the legend.”—This is the last line of a strange, unpublished poem called “Apartment in Leme,” which is just phenomenal.
3. The story, novel, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time?
I remember the first time I finished Light Years, I had to finish it with a glass of wine out of celebration and mourning. My mom had been telling me to read it for years, but I’d stupidly ignored her advice, operating on that erroneous assumption (thankfully vanquished now) that I’ll find all the great books I’ll read in my life on my own. But actually the book that I’d like to encounter for the first time again would be Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, which I worship so much I can’t even open it anymore, nor shelve it with my other books. We live estranged from each other, the book and I, which is sad, but I think it’s good to have at least one book that you love so much you can’t bear to read it ever again.
4. Best part of the day?
Definitely the early morning. Six o’clock or so. I grew up on a dairy farm and so am physically incapable of sleeping in. And the morning is when I do most of my writing. I like the story of William Maxwell’s writing habits, how he would get out of bed and go straight to the typewriter in his pajamas. I usually get dressed and make coffee first, but I think there’s something to that: stepping right out of your dreams and onto the page. If I lose a morning to something foolish, like plane travel, I feel I’ve lost the part of the day I live for. I love that part in A Moveable Feast when Hemingway is describing that hour in the early evening when the cafés are starting to fill up with painters who still have paint on their hands from their day’s work. To me, the perfect day is a day on which I’ve worked well in the morning in total solitude and see friends at night.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
If there is a cure, I’d love to know it. In the meantime, I’ll pass on what John Berryman told W. S. Merwin:
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
I really have prayed, not to the Muse, necessarily (I’ve never been able to fix an image of the Muse in my mind) but to some numinous god who I pray will give me the strength to continue.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
Page: Farm, wheat, death, silo, cow(s), porch, milk, mow, hands, moon.
Life: Farm, wheat, death, silo, cow(s), porch, milk, mow, hands, moon.
7. What’s your current obsession?
Most currently I’m obsessed with a song by The War on Drugs called “Arms Like Boulders.” Another current obsession is finding the perfect desk (the one in the picture is my desk at school). I’m downright neurotic about desks. For the past few years I’ve been using whatever desk was already in whatever room I was taking in whatever city I was in, but I finally have a desk-less area that needs to be filled by a desk. And not just any desk. The desk is the writer’s altar. It has to be perfect. So, if you know of any good desks . . .
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
I think I tend to worship certain writers to an almost damaging degree, to where I can’t even put a word on a page because James Agee put a word on a page in 1937. I actually read little fiction: I read mostly biographies and letters. I’m really interested in the way that an artist lived. But this has had the effect of maybe making some of these figures loom too largely in my mind, to where it interferes with my own admittedly humble but deeply necessary to me efforts. I forget who it was, but someone told me that it was good to have obsessions but to try a little harder to keep them at a certain distance in order to do my own work.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten, and/or what do you know now you wish you knew then?
At age twelve I was already writing poems, because my dad is a poet and there were often poets around. Gary Snyder visited us on our farm, as did Michael Mott, Margaret Gibson, Donald Hall, and many others. A poet named Kent Johnson, who lives in Freeport and teaches at the community college there, invited them to give readings. So very precociously I began trying to write poems in a notebook labeled: POETREY. I found the notebook recently and was laughing over it with some friends. One of the poems is called “Up in the Mountains”:
The days are short and the nights
Long. A river cuts open the mountains.
The moon and stars give light to
The green hills. An owl sits in an
Old hole in a tree.
I love this because there was not a single mountain anywhere within a thousand miles. But the reason I bring it up is because it’s evidence to me of something I knew then that I’ve since forgotten. I didn’t yet suffer from the crippling self-awareness that I suffer from now. And I was writing for the sheer joy of it, not to get some fellowship, or prize, or publication, or residency. I miss that innocence. I wish I still had it in me to describe a hole as “old,” which seems both impossible and wonderful. I’m hoping that one day I’ll write poems like “Up in the Mountains” again, even if I have to wait to become a senile hermit.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
Oh, I don’t know anything about it. But I’ve just started teaching fiction, and I was working on a lecture last night called “Fiction as an Act of Love,” which I think it is. I’m interested lately in the way that to write something, to create any work of art, is an affirmative gesture. I started off my first class by thanking my students for even being there. The mere act of writing (which of course isn’t mere at all) is one continuous yes, as well as one continuous denunciation of all sorts of atrocities. I’m personally sick to death of irony, and I think there’s a real desire among many of us now for work that goes out on a limb and takes the risk of being earnest rather than self-defensively silly. I laughed so hard last year when I had a story rejected from a journal that claimed the story was “too traditional.” I worship the documentary journalism of Archie Lieberman, who photographed the farm families of Jo Daviess County, which is the county immediately to the west of where I grew up, and one day I was looking through one of the books and my mom said, “Those are your people.” If I’m expressing my love for the place I came from and the people who populated it, I’m doing the only thing I can do, and if it seems “traditional” (whatever that means) so be it.
Austin Smith’s desk