Andy Smart earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Solstice Creative Writing Program at Lasell University, where he was a Michael Steinberg Fellow. Andy’s essays have appeared in Salamander, Sleet Magazine, and Moon City Review as well the anthologies Show Me All Your Scars (In Fact Books) and Come Shining: Essays and Poems on Writing in a Dark Time (Kelson Books). His poetry has appeared in Lily Poetry Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and elsewhere. Andy was a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee. His first chapbook of hybrid poetry, Blue Horse Suite, is available from Kattywompus Press. This is his first book. Andy lives in Missouri and online at www.AndySmartWrites.com.
If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
Well I’m not much of a cook, but I’d love to make pancakes for Hanif Abdurraqib. He’s a beautifully lyrical writer but he’s also got some grit; I think he’d understand that when I was growing up we didn’t have resources–time, money, energy–to spend on gourmet meals. Not much has changed for me. Plus, pancakes are the shit. I mean, c’mon.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
Everything about the writing process kind of terrifies me, to be perfectly honest. First there’s the anxiety about your idea: is it interesting to anybody besides me? Am I enough of a writer to do it justice? That kind of thing. Then there’s the act of writing: am I making beautiful sentences? Because that’s my biggest thing, I want to be beautiful on the page. But also I get scared of overwriting. Like, okay now that just reads like somebody trying to write a pretty line. It all scares me. I guess I get past it by just making myself write. I’m also fortunate to have good friends and mentors who keep me going. Especially my girl Ashley Johnson. She won’t let me cop out behind being scared, like at all, ever.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
Ada Limon. She is otherworldly. I saw her read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2020 and she absolutely floored me. She’s one of those writers who makes you feel like throwing away your pens, pencils, laptop, typewriter, whatever, because you’ll never do it like she does. She’s beautiful, too, which is something else I’ve never been. Yeah, Ada Limon, for sure.
What books are on your nightstand?
Right now it’s The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski, Subjects in Poetry by Daniel Brown, Ten Windows by Jane Hirschfield, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, and Heating and Cooling, micro memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly. I’m just getting hip to Fennelly’s work and she’s amazing. I think I have a crush on her, too. To quote James Tate: hell, I love everybody.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
Semicolon. It’s fantastically versatile and it bedevils the hell out of people who try to use it, which makes me giggle. Also, it’s a symbol for suicide prevention which is obviously very dear to me.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
Beowulf. Which is funny because I love it now. Seamus Heaney’s translation, especially.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
I love this. My wireless headphones. I don’t usually write with music on, but I draft a lot in my head; while that’s going on I’m constantly listening to something. Noise cancellation is a great thing too. Or just giving the illusion that you’re listening to music so people don’t talk to you, like at a coffee shop. Thanks, Bose Quiet Comfort. I love you.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
Somebody actually did something like this for me. “It doesn’t need to be perfect, or polished, or published. It needs to be written.” I think that’s from TheWritingManifesto.org, so I want to give them credit. Richard Hugo has a credo that I love too. It goes something like “Don’t try to make music conform to truth, set your truth to music.” Like I said, I want to be beautiful on the page.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Yes. Yes it does. The act is fucking exhausting. Accomplishing something, even as modest as a first paragraph or the scene that’s been fighting you like a pissed off rattlesnake, is invigorating. But especially as a nonficitonist it’s truly taxing to make new work. You’re basically ripping your guts out and turning them into a sculpture. It hurts. I love it, but it hurts.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Oh man. I think a big one in nonfiction is the trope of the shock memoir. Or, to rephrase, the impulse to “be brave”. Take my first book, for example. It’s about my father’s suicide. For a lot of folks who want to write, there’s an expectation that just because you have this awful thing that happened you have a memoir. And you do, but it isn’t going to be good just because you have a traumatic event to write about. If you read enough reviews of memoirs, you’ll see what I mean. Stuff like “this book is so courageous” or “the writer shares their tragic story”. That’s part of it, sure, being gutsy enough to confront the hard things in your life. But it’s a trap to think that just because you write down the painful moments you’ve lived through that you’ve done them, or yourself, justice. A companion to this is the trope of the victorious recovery memoir, or the survival narrative. Something like this: the writer had X bad thing happen; they were severely affected in Y ways; Z is that they survived it. That’s a base formula for what could be a successful piece of nonfiction, but it can’t just be that. I think that’s especially true for writing about addiction or illness. If someone wants to write about getting sober, there has to be some compelling narrative beyond successfully doing so. Our truest stories are always about more than the surface truths. Aspiring writers should be willing–scratch that–should be eager to find the inner narratives, however tangential they seem. That’s often where the real substance of a good memoir lives. Start with your personal tragedy, but look beyond it. There’s so much more out there.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Self-doubt. I struggle with crippling depression. Always have. Sometimes my mental health deteriorates to the point where I just don’t work. Writers have famously fragile egos and I’m certainly not exempt from that. Convincing myself I can do this thing and do it reasonably well is my lifelong fight.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Oh hell yes. I think I’m weird on this one, but I sometimes can’t read books that are really good because their goodness makes me feel inadequate. I can’t tell you how many tries it took for me to get through Joy Harjo’s memoir Crazy Brave. It’s so fucking good. Heartbreakingly, astonishingly, make me curse under my breath good. So a lot of times, especially when I’m having trouble writing, I’ll also have trouble reading. It’s vicious.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Hard no. I think it’s necessary to be able to remove yourself from the rawness of your emotions to some degree in order to make your experiences into art, but I’ll die with Wordsworth’s credo in my heart: Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Philip Gerard wrote one of my favorite essays of all time, “What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes.” I read somewhere that he worked on that piece for like five years because it took him that long to write past his anger. While he finally managed to get some perspective and write beyond visceral rage, that anger is still very much a part of the essay. Without the original emotion he couldn’t have gotten to the final product. No one can.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Anne-Marie Oomen, a memoirist and poet from Michigan. She is the best teacher and mentor I’ve ever had. She’s an expert at knowing what each project needs and helping me calm down when I can’t find my through the drafting/outlining process. She’s also just a wonderful friend. She understands me when I don’t.
Randall Horton, poet and memoirist. The only full professor in America with seven felony convictions. Randall’s always there to remind me that it’s not enough to write for other writers; you have to write for regular folks. Because when we strip off the armor of our writerly persona, that’s all we are: folks. He’s also a genius at identifying spots where you can get lyrical and poetical and whimsical. “Make it sing,” he always says. He also has an eye for what hat to wear to a reading. He’s made me cooler than I am several times.
Mark Jednaszewski, fiction writer from Tampa. Mark and I write in different modes or styles and he’s never the kind of reader/editor to overly impose his own sensibilities on my work. He’s someone I can send a messy draft to and say “What the hell is this?” and he’ll come back with a smart, compassionate answer. One of his many strengths is concision, so he is a great help at trimming the fat; one of my weaknesses is being verbose in pursuit of being lyrical or beautiful. But he’s also preternaturally gifted at seeing a piece’s “aboutness”, helping me figure out what I’m really writing about and stripping away the protective membrane around it to make my stuff more poignant. And he can work a hockey metaphor into anything, which is surprisingly useful. I also owe him a giant debt of gratitude for sponsoring me during my struggles with sobriety.
Ashley Johnson, my best good friend from my CNF cohort at Solstice. She loves to get wild and experimental. One of my favorite things to do is use blind juxtaposition in my work, try to make readers take logical leaps and make connections without transitions. Ashley is like that too and she’s the best reader and writer I’ve ever known at knowing when a jump is too much to ask from a reader. Contrastingly, she’s also totally unafraid to say I’m holding the reader’s hand too much. When I need to know how my structure is holding, she’s my go-to. She’s also a sincere and gifted sensitivity reader with regard to race and gender. And hip-hop lyrics; she can find the right quote for any occasion. You know the expression “the world is too much with us”? She can find the sweet spot for being in the world and also keeping artistic distance.
Robert Lopez, fiction writer from Brooklyn. “The Lopez”, as I affectionately call him, is just a good dude. He’s always encouraging other writers to be fearless. He’s very commercially successful and his work is well-received by critics, but he’s not a slave to that success. He loves funky, genre-bending, and occasionally bizarre stuff. If there’s a convention I truly need to buck in order to make the art I’m trying to make, he’s all for it. I also treasure his advice on what to read. He’s possibly the most intuitive reader out there and I appreciate his reading recommendations.
Steve Kuusisto, poet and memoirist from New York by way of Finland. Steve is blind, physically, but his work sees everything. Like Lopez, Steve is fearless when it comes to language. One of my favorite quotes of his: “If there’s no metaphor for what I see in my mind, I make shit up. What is blindness? I see fine.” He also gave me a piece of advice that I’ll cherish forever: lyrical prose will take whatever you throw at it. You can take two—or more–disparate things and make them do whatever you want. What else is writing but destroying the barriers between worlds?
Lastly, Jericho Brown. I can’t rightly call him a friend since I only met him once, but that encounter left me breathless and undyingly grateful. The biggest thing Jericho taught me in the few minutes we spent together on the bookfair floor at AWP in Portland was this: be kind. Be generous. Be gracious with what you know and what you do. He took the time to sign a couple books and have a chat with me, a guy he didn’t know from a crack in the sidewalk. And it was beautiful, just like his work. I try to embody that same attitude and pass on my own riff on his energy: don’t be an asshole. We’re all in this lunatic world together so let’s be together.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
All writers have preoccupations that show up over the course of their careers. My dad’s suicide–and suicide in general–is one of mine. So that’ll always have a presence and an impact on my stuff. But I want each book to be its own achievement, have a life of its own.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Honestly I’m not sure it did. Maybe in imperceptible ways. But my projects tend to be different enough from one another that I necessarily have to change my process to fit each one.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
My MFA. There are a lot of fully-funded programs out there and if you get into one of those: congratulations. But I think there’s a toxic shaming of people who take on student loans in order to pursue their education, especially for an advanced degree in the arts. Obviously getting an MFA isn’t going to make you a good writer automatically. And not all good writers have one. But I got so much out of my time in grad school: time to write, a community of people to share and discuss work with, new experiences with language and forms. It was more than worth it.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Sad story, but I’m kind of impossible to convert. If I’m not into someone or something, I’m probably just not going to be. I was really hesitant about fragmentation as a form, though, and I’ve completely reversed myself on that. Well, not completely, but I’ve embraced it much more openly.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I was growing up, cable TV was brand new and the internet didn’t exist. What we saw and heard on television was pretty bland, linguistically. Images could be risque but the verbiage was pretty tightly controlled. Radio was a little different. Howard Stern came around when I was in elementary school, I think, and the way he terrified people with his raunchiness and irreverence just fascinated me. I think that really tipped me off that words were a big deal–that you could weaponize them in a lot of ways. Trying to figure out why certain words scared the hell out of people was fun. It still is.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Gustav Hasford’s The Short Timers. It’s the novel Full Metal Jacket is based on.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
A blue horse.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Everything. Literally. As a memoirist, even though I take some liberties and conflate or camouflage individuals, I’m always writing about real people. It’s a minefield or a gold mine, depending on how you walk it.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Not many, surprisingly. Unless you want to talk about my poems. Dear lord I’ve got a lot of disembodied poems and abandoned drafts thereof floating around in my cloud storage. You know when a writer dies and their “Previously Uncollected Poems” comes out? How it’s always like the size of a phonebook? Yeah, I totally understand that.
What does literary success look like to you?
Ha. It changes every time I accomplish something. First it was getting published. Anything, anywhere, just once. If I could do that, I thought I would be happy and satisfied. So I got an unremarkable story published in a now-defunct online mag and, to my dismay, I was not overly happy or content. And it keeps up like that ad nauseum. I’m delighted to be ushering my first book into the world and I consider it a great success. But there’s more to it. What that is, unfortunately, I’ll just have to find out as I go. Maybe to be a successful writer you just have to keep writing as true and hard as you can until your time is up. My old teacher Michael Steinberg did that and I don’t think anybody could argue that he wasn’t hugely successful.
What’s the best way to market your books?
I think it depends on the writer, the book, the target audience, the circumstances. For instance, I think–and this has historically held true especially for poets–that doing readings is a great way to do PR. But right now is obviously a challenging time to try to do that kind of thing; Zoom is great and all but it’s not going to sell as many books as the old fashioned way. I think having an agent is probably a really good idea from a marketing standpoint. Those folks are pros at reading the literary landscape and trying to situate your work within it. A lot of people are big on social media, too, and maybe that works well for them. That’s not my favorite place to be, so I couldn’t say for sure.
What did you edit out of this book?”
All direct quotes from Full Metal Jacket. Never, ever, under any circumstances, use copyrighted material without getting permissions first. Rewriting a whole book after the fact is unfun.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Well writing doesn’t pay my bills, as least not yet. I work in hospitality. It’s almost as much of a lunatic profession as being a writer, so I fit right in.
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