Sunday, March 2, 2014

Interview - Kyle Thomas Smith

After reading 85A, I reached out to its author, Kyle Thomas Smith, and asked if I could interview him.  Graciously, he accepted and I sent him 20 questions on sometimes absurd topics (i.e. the question about the BRT system on Ashland Ave.).   The interview sheds light on the writing process, certain details about the novel (though I did my best to avoid spoilers), and some recommendations for further reading.  Hope you enjoy it.

JK: When did you first begin writing 85A?  How long did it take you from the writings of the first pages of the first draft, through the final publication of the book?

KTS: I began writing 85A as a short story in early 2008. Next thing I knew it was 80 pages and I wasn't even at the quarter mark for the first draft. I kept writing at white heat, it was a cathartic venture. Within a year, I had a manuscript. Within two years, by 2010, I had a published novel.

JK: How did you go about getting the book published?  Did you send query letters to agents or the publishing house directly?

KTS: I did the standard drill. I shopped around for an agent and met with rejection, which I pretty much expected given Seamus' gutter mouth and illicit affair with a man more than twice his age. Then I got lucky. I had registered in an online forum - I forget which one, it was one of those informational symposiums on how to pitch your breakout novel - and I happened to chat with a publisher who owned a small press in Minneapolis. I told him about 85A, he liked the premise, I sent him the manuscript, he accepted it. 

JK: Who are your top five favorite authors of all time?  

KTS: That's a tough one. I read a lot, and I like different authors for different reasons. Maybe the best way to answer your question would be to say that, when my husband Julius got me a Kindle this past Christmas, I scrambled to download the authors whose works I'd broken the most bag straps lugging around. They included D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Patrick Dennis, Flannery O'Connor, Yukio Mishima, Raymond Carver, Allan Sillitoe. One of my cats is named Marquez, if that helps. I don't read too many contemporary authors, though I do like early Paul Auster, and Elisabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge" was nothing short of a masterpiece. I'm also huge into theater and my favorite dramatists are Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and Joe Orton, whose life was cut short before he could write his best plays. That's more than five, I know, but it's hard to be decisive in the shadow of so many giants.

JK: Did you write exclusively for a living at the time you wrote 85A or did you need to work a separate job too?  Is this situation still the same (i.e. how did your life change, if at all, after publishing it)?

KTS: For about ten years, I was one of those writers who woke up at 4 o'clock every weekday morning to write before work. Through most of my post-college life, I made my living writing for nonprofits--grants and marketing materials and so forth. It was hard work, long hours, made all the more onerous by my ADD. I was stretched way too thin and, through it all, was trying to salvage my dream of being an author. By the time I began writing 85A, though, I'd moved in with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. He believed in me and I was able to exit cubicle hell and devote myself full-time to writing. I know I'm lucky, I know that, but if you'd seen me and the circles under my eyes back then, you'd agree I'd paid my dues, and I don't take my good fortune for granted today.

JK: Much of 85A seems drawn from real-life experiences in Chicago in 1989.  How much of it is autobiographical? 

KTS: 85A is about as autobiographical for me as "The Glass Menagerie" was for Williams. I grew up on the northwest side and went to school on the south side like Seamus, although unlike him, I'm the youngest of seven kids (he has only one sibling), but when things got unbearable at home, I moved in with my Grampa in Rogers Park, which was 100 percent more integrated and creatively fecund than anywhere to the north and west of Logan Square at the time. Between Rogers Park and West Town, which was just beginning to attract artists en masse then, I had a vision of salvation. Sometimes I wish I could recapture that vision.

JK: Do you know if the Blue Line changed its route?  The only factual error that stood out to me is that it stops at Division and Milwaukee, while it appears in the book that it stops at Division and Ashland. 

KTS: That's actually not a factual error. Growing up, the conductors almost always announced that stop as Division and Ashland, rarely Division-Milwaukee. That might have changed in time, I don't know. Later, I lived at Division/Ashland/Milwaukee as a young adult when it was a far different place than it is today. But bear in mind, I'm pushing 40 now. When I was taking the L to and from school as a teenager, they didn't call them the blue line or red line or brown line. In fact, they'd only recently begun calling the blue line the O'Hare line as they'd only extended the L past River Road (now Rosemont) in 1984 or 1985. The Red Line was the Howard-Englewood Line. The Brown Line was the Ravenswood Line. I can't remember what they called the Green Line but the Orange Line was the Midway Line. It's a different nomenclature now.

JK: Do you have any thoughts on the proposal to establish a rapid transit bus operation on
Ashland Avenue?

KTS: No, I'm sorry, I don't have any thoughts on it. I know nothing about it. I haven't lived in Chicago in ages so I'm not sure what's going on there.

JK: Did you obtain approval from the CTA before publishing this book (full disclosure: I work at the CTA Law Department and really enjoyed the details you included about the Blue Line because I live right at the Logan Square stop)?

KTS: In the process of publishing, I'd consulted attorneys on copyright matters and they indicated that I did not need to obtain special permission to mention public-transportation stops as it was no different than mentioning street names.

JK: You live in Brooklyn, and you've written a novel, so you probably understand the phenomenon of so many books taking place in New York.  Why do you think this is?  I haven't read many great books about Chicago.  Crossing California is the only thing that comes to mind.  Have you read that? 

KTS: I'd never heard of "Crossing California" until now, though I did love Langer's "The Thieves of Manhattan." Thanks for the rec, I'll check it out. 

I don't know why there aren't more great books about life in Chicago. Nelson Algren and Stuart Dybek found plenty to say about it. It's pretty evident why people write about New York, though. It's a whirlwind, a maelstrom, there are all sorts in all places at all times from all over the world. No matter where you're from, if you can find a way to stay there (which is infinitely easier said than done), you can reinvent yourself and you'll rub shoulders with some of the most extreme characters, for better or for worse, you'll ever meet. The problem is, how do you find time to write about New York when you're so busy trying to make rent, which is triple what it is just about anywhere else in the country? 

JK: Did you live in Chicago after college?  If so, what made you want to live in New York?  Do you think Chicago is dying?  Which city do you think has a brighter future?

KTS: I was born and raised in Chicago. I went to UIC and continued living in Chicago for several years after graduation as I worked on my writing. I had just been there too long. I was itching to get out. I'd made a failed attempt at living in Europe, just couldn't set down roots and kept wandering. New York was alive and vital and called out to me like a Siren. There seemed only one viable place to go. I made friends there right off the bat and found my true home. There have been harrowing challenges but they didn't bother me inordinately, they just seemed to be part of the game.

Is Chicago dying? Hell no! Chicago is a never-say-die town. I go all over the world and I've never seen a city that affirms itself anywhere near as much as Chicago does. Friends from home come see me and I'm floored by how each and every one of them won't stop rhapsodizing about all that's going on in Chicago, whether it's the horrid politics or the amazing Taste of Chicago or Millennium Park or Steppenwolf; the way they talk, you'd think there's nothing else going on on this planet if it ain't happenin' in Chicago. New York doesn't do that. It's already New York, so dot dot dot.

Which city has a brighter future? Well, since so much of the world financial industry is based in Manhattan, there will probably always be more investment in New York, so its economic future as a city is most likely brighter--just as long as this new spate of hurricanes we've been experiencing doesn't wipe us off the map.

For artists, New York is becoming prohibitively expensive, though. In Chicago, however, you can still afford to try, fail and try again. In New York, you're one flop away from the next Greyhound back to Dodge--so Chicago gives more latitude for experimentation, the mother of mastery.

In terms of whose mayor is bringing along the next generation better, I'd put my chips on De Blasio. Yes, he's still untested but he's going all in for universal pre-K and efforts to reform Bloomberg-era charter-schools initiatives so they don't stay on track to becoming yet another extension of a failed No Child Left Behind policy. He's putting forth measures to create more affordable housing and to reconcile the city's appalling income disparity. He's clamping down on stop-and-frisk. Rahm Emmanuel, by contrast, has been systematically shuttering the Chicago public school system and, at one point, had suspended red-line service on the south side with little expressed interest on how that would impact the lives of low-income families, many of whom already had to travel far and wide for work every day. Daley might not have been any great crusader for the construction of fair housing in opportunity areas or for reinvestment in blighted neighborhoods but at least he was a south-sider! He never would have let that happen.
New York's homicide, gun violence and violent crime rates are much lower than in Chicago. The reasons for this are many and varied and too much to unpack in a single interview but I do hope to see those tragedies diminish in my city of origin.

JK: Did you actually grow up in the city of Chicago, in the same area of Rogers Park as Seamus?  If so, do you ever wish you grew up in the suburbs, or closer to the center of the city (full disclosure: I grew up on the North Shore and often wish I grew up in the city)?

KTS: Yes, I grew up in the city, a little north of Jefferson Park. To be clear, Seamus did not grow up in Rogers Park. If he had, he'd have no cause to complain about lack of diversity in his neighborhood. In the book, he's living on the far northwest side - in fact, Part One is called Northwest Side.

I've never lived in suburbs. I've always felt an intense aversion to them. The northwest side gave me quite enough angst to chew on growing up. There was no need to cross the city limits for more.

JK: Do you have any opinions about the present state of the Chicago National League Ball Club?

KTS: No. Haven't watched baseball since I was about 12.

JK: What are your top 3 favorite bands?  Is your taste in music comparable to what Seamus likes in the novel?

KTS: Wow, I'm really gonna lose some cred here. Yes, I shared a lot of the same tastes as Seamus as an alterna-teen but I don't listen to much of any of that stuff now. If I had to pick three faves, I guess they'd be Stones, Pixies, 70s Bowie (all phases of that decade of his career) and Dylan (tied for third). While writing, I listen to Chopin and Krishna Das. I practice in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism so most of what I listen to is the sound of silence and the yammering of my own head on the meditation cushion. Here is an essay I wrote about eight years ago about how The Stones' "Exile on Main Street" saved my life when I was trying to wean myself off the scene in my late teens (note: it talks a lot about what Chicago was like in those days, a far different town from what it is today):

JK: Would you ever want 85A to be turned into a film?

KTS: People have said it should be a movie but no filmmakers have ever approached me. I'd be open to it but it'd be hard to get Chicago to look the way it used to.

JK: 85A seems heavily influenced by The Catcher in the Rye.  Can you comment on that book and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that people will inevitably compare it to that?

KTS: The truth is, when I'd read Catcher at 15, I liked it fine but I didn't think about it again until after I'd already written 85A, nearly 20 years later. I was 34-years-old and was taking a train from the south of France to Paris for my flight back to JFK. I'd already read all the books I'd brought with me on my trip and the station at Avignon had an English language copy of Catcher. I bought it and had read it cover to cover by the time I’d touched ground in New York. I was stunned by how I must have absorbed the book subconsciously as a kid. Next day, I talked to the editor in Minneapolis who only then started citing Catcher comparisons. That was fine by me, so we underscored the similarities on the back-cover copy, knowing people were going to form comparisons anyway. But, to me, the book is far more greatly influenced by Sillitoe's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner." 

JK: What advice would you give to a young writer in Chicago looking to get published for the first time?

KTS: You mean someone who already has a manuscript ready to submit? Just work on finding an agent through a directory. Gone are the days where you have to move to New York, get a no-pay job as an editorial assistant and sidle up to the Xanax-popping big shot. The industry is changing, formats are changing, indie presses are the new majors and living outside New York isn't much of a deterrent anymore. 

JK: The character of Brody paints a rather negative picture of people in the legal profession.  Do you have any experiences with attorneys that led to this characterization?

KTS: Didn't mean to leave that impression! My husband is a lawyer, some of my best friends are lawyers. I worked for lawyers throughout college and totally appreciated them signing my paychecks. I've been screwed over by lawyers and I've been helped out enormously by lawyers. They're no better or worse than anyone else. We're all just people!
That said, Brody is the type of guy who's popping his buttons over how he's fulfilled his parents' expectations by having worked his way into more advantaged, white-collar corners of society. You used to see that type of guy—they were mostly guys, males--a lot around the board of trade and as junior associates in law firms on LaSalle Street. They were kind of nouveau riche before they could get riche - and if you hung around enough, you'd hear a lot of the talk that would come out of their mouths and it was often pretty stridently racist and homophobic. Remember, this was the eighties. If racial stratification in Chicago is bad now, it was worse then; and as for LGBTQIAs, if they were going to be like that, then they deserve what they got - that was the accepted code of the road, not much different from Putin's Russia, although these guys tended to find street violence against gays to be a bit too blatant and it might cost them their jobs. (You even sense that Seamus, who wants so much to be cosmopolitan and to see racial unity, is still unlearning a lot of racist and homophobic attitudes. I did not disguise that in him.) Not everyone in those trades was like Brody but a lot were and I had grown up around a lot of those guys, ones who didn't grow up in rich families but who leveraged their white, heterosexual privilege for all it was worth on their way to making money. And God help a gay kid like Seamus who couldn't fill those shoes or toe that line. Fire and brimstone were just the warm-up acts for what their homes and neighborhoods had in store for them in those days.

JK: One of the more difficult parts of the book for me to accept was that Seamus's parents and brother could be so mean to him.  It seemed almost over the top to me.  Was this intentional, or do you feel that's just how people were in the 1980's (i.e. blatantly homophobic and non-supportive of countercultural types)?

KTS: might seem over-the-top from the standpoint of today but it was not all that uncommon even as recently as the Eighties. David Sedaris writes about this well in one of his more recent essays, "Attaboy." He says of his upbringing in the Sixties and Seventies, "Self-esteem hadn't been invented yet." By the Eighties, there was only a dawning consciousness in the mainstream that maybe shaming and corporal punishment were bad for child or adolescent morale--commercials started coming on TV encouraging parents to count to ten before breaking out the belt, etc.--but these concepts were mostly accepted by baby-boomer parents, the new generation of yuppies who didn't want to see their kids raised the same way they were raised. Suddenly enrollment in Montessori schools goes up, individuality is encouraged and living-room coffee tables are decked with alluvial fans of Conscious Parenting magazine. This was still a pretty new idea by the Eighties.

Seamus' parents were older than those of his peers, they grew up in the Depression. He makes mention of how they were the children of immigrants and educated by autocratic nuns. It's the kind of thing Mary McCarthy writes about in "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood." In Seamus' parents' time, you didn't dare tell your parents that Sister Mary Holywater bloodied your nose in school that day, not unless you wanted a black eye on top of it. So when Depression-era children grew up to have kids, "spare the rod, spoil the child" wasn't considered child abuse, it was considered a good rule of thumb. If you couldn't whip your scions into shape, then you weren't whipping them hard enough. Add to this that Seamus' dad had been a marine a la "The Great Santini" - the threat of military school is always in his holster and he's exceedingly competitive with his fractious son.

The movement away from this mentality was still in its infancy by the Eighties. Old school authoritarianism was still alive and kicking ass in many American homes - though it's true it was on its way out. Kids started reporting their parents to the police. All this might seem inconceivable today but it was still practiced and applauded not so long ago by parents who came up in the lockstep Silent Generation, as Seamus' parents did. They called it tough love. There's a whole sociology embedded in these generational dynamics.

JK: Are you working on any new pieces of writing right now, and would you be able to comment
on the subject matter briefly?

KTS: Yes. I am writing a new novel, although it's been put somewhat on hold as I work with a wonderful new agent I recently got in Manhattan. We've known each other a long time and she's always encouraged me in the direction of personal essays and humor pieces. I've written volumes of them by now, so she's helping me to build a cohesive collection of them.

JK: What was the hardest part for you personally in the writing of 85A?

KTS: The book had been moving along swimmingly and I had a sense of how it was going to end. Then, at about two-thirds of the way through, there was a gap in the story that I did not know how to bridge. I set about trying to bridge it with 200-pages of pure, unadulterated shit, and then confidently completed the last several chapters. I then showed it to a well-known editor, who loved the first two-thirds and the final several chapters but made me wish I was never born for wasting her time with the shit chapters. I didn't know how to rebound from her drubbing until about a week later when the scales fell from my eyes and I knew what I had to do--just take out those 200 pages! It felt like a risk but I went in, excised the mamah-jamah tumor and ended up bridging the hitherto impassable gap with just four paragraphs! But if I hadn't written those 200 excess pages, I'd have never gotten those four paragraphs. And the book itself ended up being only 223 pages.

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