Author Interview: Kyle Thomas Smith
Most days, I receive at least one email from an author asking if I’d like to read and review their book. Some days I get six or eight such requests. I’m impressed by these writers, doing the footwork to check out my blog and reach out, yet I need to turn most of them down. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m reading solely out of obligation.
Out of all those requests, I’ve agreed to read five books so far and Cockloft: Scenes From a Gay Marriage is one of them. When I say yes to an author, it’s mostly a gut feeling, but the material has to sound interesting. I was immediately curious about this one based on the title and cover, both are unique and also I have a pretty immature sense of humor! Plus since I write memoir and personal essay, I’m always eager to read from those genres.
Before I’d even read the book (or wrote my review,) Kyle graciously agreed to answer some questions for a post!
Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the multi-award-winning novel, 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He recently relocated from Brooklyn to San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Julius and his cats, Giuseppe and Giacomo. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from City University of New York-Queens College. His cross-genre memoir, Cockloft: Scenes from a Gay Marriage, was released on September 17, 2018. The Kirkus Review recently said of Cockloft that: “The storytelling is lighter on its feet than that of David Sedaris but just as funny…A playful and often hilarious book full of New York stories, domestic hi-jinks, and madcap journeys.”
You’ve published both fiction and non, which is “easier” for you?
Nonfiction is easier and more enjoyable for me at this point. But who knows, that might change down the road.
Does writing energize or drain you?
I would say it clears me, makes me feel more coherent. And even when it drains, it’s a positive drain, the way you feel when you’re spent after a whole day of doing something you love to do.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
Well, certainly not for this book. It’s a sort of memoir and it’d be too confusing if I didn’t go by my real name. I thought about using one for 85A because there’s already an author named Kyle Smith and I feared that just including my middle name (Thomas) below the title wouldn’t be enough to differentiate us—even though politically he and I are night and day. But I just decided to go with my full name and it hasn’t caused too many problems—except that one guy did confront me about something the other Kyle Smith wrote about restaurant workers and it took some time to clear my name from that one. As a young writer, I used to dream of writing erotica under the name Ethel Moneymaker but the stories never quite gelled.
Did publishing your first book change your writing process? If so, how?
Not so much with the first book, 85A. Even though it was an edgy book, it adhered to a pretty standard novel format. Cockloft, on the other hand, is nowhere near as edgy as 85A yet its format is wholly untraditional. I actually talk in the afterword about how, by the time I began writing the pieces for Cockloft, I was abandoning the novel and gravitating more toward short-form writing. Will that always be the case? Maybe, maybe not.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with negative or positive ones?
Negative reviews are never easy but I just try to take any upset I might have over them and go right to the page. Years ago, I watched some actors rehearse for a play in a space that was being bombarded by all sorts of noise from local construction sites. The actors told the director how annoying it was and how hard it was to focus and the director simply said, “Use it!” And something clicked at that moment for both them and for me as a spectator. The cast ended up turning in a spectacular rehearsal and I came home that thinking that no matter how jangled my emotions might be after getting dinged by a critic, if I can find a private space and bring my emotions to the page, I can channel them and transform them. (This is true of meditation as well, by the way.) Then, when I’m more centered, I can reflect on whether the critic had a good point. If so, I’ll take it into consideration. If not, I’ll just do my best to bag it and go on with my writing and my life as best I can.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I think that, as writers, we often confuse a fallow period with writer’s block. We want to write a new book or a new story but we have no real ideas for one. Then we beat ourselves mercilessly for being unproductive or uncreative—when, really, the ideas we truly need to pursue may not have even taken seed yet and they certainly can’t be rushed into full bloom. Meanwhile, we look over our shoulders and can’t help but notice that So-and-So has just wrapped up their latest book and is already full-speed-ahead on their next one, which only makes us feel worse about ourselves. But maybe, for now, it’s that person’s karma to have those viable ideas—and that level of prolificacy—in such profusion and maybe it’s our karma to wait with great attentiveness, and with some degree of faith, for what wants to be expressed to rise up and present itself to us for expression. Rilke spends a good deal of time talking about this (read “Letters to a Young Poet” and, if you already have, read it again, and again) and so does Zen and so does the Tao Te Ching, especially in the 15th verse where Lao Tsu asks us, “Do you have the great patience to wait/Until your mud settles and the answer arises on its own?”
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a hard-ass. And my email inbox used to be plagued with interviews with authors who would say, “Writer’s block is bullshit. Get your butt in the chair.” My experience has been that, when I’ve tried to force a piece of writing into being, it ends up reading as just that—forced. Both the reader and the writer end up disappointed because the work is backed by ego and impatience. And I think too many of us have spent way too much time being down on ourselves rather than being patient with ourselves and our work—and isn’t that in itself nobly difficult? Doesn’t that approach also denote hard work?
Now, I understand that some of us might be lazy and resistant to the ideas that are champing at the bit to burst out of us and on to the page. It’s also true that those ideas could likely abandon us if we don’t treat them with the respect they deserve, if we don’t put our butts in the chair and work them out with hard labor on our laptops. But I don’t think that laziness is always what’s at the root of what many call writer’s block.
In the meantime, while we wait for what-is-truly-ours-to-write to reveal itself, we can sharpen our skills by mindfully writing our own stream-of-consciousness in notebooks à la Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages in her book “The Artist’s Way.” We can resurrect the lost art of long walks and just open up to our thoughts and experiences and to what we encounter. We can read widely and broadly. We can immerse ourselves in art and film. We can set aside some time each day to muse and/or meditate. These are all necessary and productive pursuits, which might not take the place of writing our opus but which might lead us to write our opus in ways that flagellating ourselves never will.
What’s your preferred method for writing? Do you write by hand at all?
I write mostly by hand, in notebooks. But I did compose a lot of the pieces in Cockloft on my phone, actually.
Do you read much? If so, who are your favorite authors?
I read a lot. Although lately I’ve been reading more books in French than in English since I’m trying to become fluent in French (even though I’m only an intermediate student at this point). Simenon books are great for this. He manages to be both atmospheric and concise in his detective novels, a genre I’m usually not fond of, given that I have ADD and have a terrible keeping up with plot twists and large casts of characters.
Old favorites are D.H. Lawrence, Tobias Wolff, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Hermann Hesse, Patrick Dennis, Ibsen, early Toni Morrison and W. Somerset Maugham.
Although when it comes to English language books these days, I’m mostly reading dharma books. I am a dharma student with a daily practice and lately, since we moved to San Francisco last year, I have been going to sangha almost every weeknight. I read a lot more of those kinds of books these days.
Your latest book has been described as “Seinfeld meets Sedaris in the SnapChat age,” How active are you on Social Media? How do you think it affects how and what you write?
I’m not on Twitter or Linkdin or Instagram but I am on Facebook and I like to post my vignettes on there to give my friends a chuckle. The more I did this, the more my friends would tell me, “I think you have a new book here.” And that was the birth of Cockloft.
Do you feel today’s generation is more aware of the literary art or less than previous ones?
From what I’ve seen, not as much as previous generations but that’s not necessarily their fault. How can books compete with social media and all the other entertainment outlets that have reshaped all of our sensoriums, unless we’ve been living completely off-grid for the past couple decades? This generation has its fair share of geniuses, though, most of whom have yet to be discovered. I’m sure that some literary anomalies—the kind who are unusually gifted and compelled to learn from past-masters—will rise up and dazzle us when the time comes. They always have and, for as long as our planet can still support life, they always will.
I’d like to say many thanks to Kyle for taking the time to answer my questions!
And since I’m sure you’re all dying to read the book now (which you should do because it’s hilarious!) here’s the Amazon link. Happy reading!