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Issue 5, January-March 2011
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Rusty Barnes Interviews Curtis Smith

Curtis Smith's stories and essays have appeared in over fifty literary journals including American Literary Review, Mid-American Review, Cut Bank, Night Train, Mississippi Review, Lake Effect, Greensboro Review, The Humanist, Passages North, South Dakota Review, Hobart, West Branch, William and Mary Review and many others. His work has been included in a number of anthologies and nominated for a half-dozen Pushcarts. His work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing list of The Best American Spiritual Writing.

His first novel, An Unadorned Life, was released two years ago. March Street Press has released two collections of his short-short stories, Placing Ourselves Among the Living and In the Jukebox LightThe Species Crown, a collection of stories and a novella, was released by Press 53 in 2007, followed by Bad Monkey in 2009. Sound and Noise, his second novel, was put out by Casperian Books in 2008. His newest book is Witness from Sunnyoutside Press.

Rusty Barnes: In a way, Witness is a roundabout yet complex answer to the first question I thought of: how does fatherhood inform the rest of your life and your writing? 

Curtis Smith: Fatherhood has given me a new set of eyes through which to consider my world. What more could a person, especially one who writes, ask for? It’s a real perspective shift—suddenly, every major decision is filtered first and foremost through what impact it will have upon my child. In terms of my writing, I feel much more privy to the emotions of my characters who are parents. It’s not a seismic shift, but in those terms, my work rings a bit more true—at least to me. 
RB: Being a father certainly doesn't seem to affect your productivity. How do you manage to get that essential time for yourself?

CS: I think it comes down to how one views it. To me, writing is like exercise; it’s something you have to set time aside to do. That said, I write less than I used to—mainly because I’ve become comfortable with my process and I’m a bit more focused. What took me two hours ten years ago now takes me one—at least on a good day. 

RB: Other than fatherhood, a focus of the book is to some extent your musing about agnosticism. The book was once titled “An Agnostic's Prayer.” Why the change?

CS: Titles are hard for me. For a while, I was going with “Agnostic’s Prayer” because it was not only one of the essays’ titles, but it also seemed to fit where a number of the pieces were coming from. Then I wrote “Witness,” and as both a title and as a shaping construct, it seemed more appropriate. 

And yes, the subject of agnosticism often creeps into my work. I guess it’s something I’m still working out in my own head, so it’s inevitable that it will spill over into my work. 

RB: You teach to make a living. Do your students make their way into your fiction at all?

CS: Parts of them—but never a complete whole. Essays are a different matter, but even there, I’ve tried to lend them a bit of a disguise. 

RB: Do you think anything in your life is up for grabs as a writer, or are there subjects you don't or won't touch?

CS: There are a number of things I won’t write about. I may write essays, but in real life, I’m a pretty private person. And I think it’s important for me to respect the privacy of others, so I’m always careful about drawing others into my work. 

RB: How does non-fiction fit into your normal writing life? Do you write it as the moment demands, or on assignment? 

CS: I try to keep a couple projects going at the same time. This allows me to pull out the one that’s speaking to me at the moment. I’m usually juggling a cycle of stories and a novel. Sometimes essays come into the mix. It’s cool because when I do return to a project, I come back with a bit of perspective. 

RB: Consistency of tone is one of the hallmarks of this great book. Under what conditions were these written, and over what period of time?

CS: The eighteen essays in Witness were written in about a six-year span—with most of them being written in a two-year time frame. I’d never written an essay before I saw a call for a special issue of The Mississippi Review about the war. I’d always enjoyed MR, so I gave it a try. Getting the piece accepted gave me a push and I started exploring the genre a little more. One piece led to another, and suddenly, I found myself considering the world around me through an essayist’s eyes rather than a fiction writer’s. It was an interesting experience.

RB: In my favorite essay from the book, “The Borders of Diane Arbus,” you write not only about Arbus, but about the social misfits and mentally challenged people who always seem to find you, "read[ing] something on my face that I have yet to understand." Have you any idea yet what that thing is that they see in you?

CS: I’m not sure. I’ve been working with people with disabilities for over thirty years. My guess is that I don’t look away, and I must offer a smile. Perhaps for someone who’s considering their surroundings with a bit of confusion, that’s enough of an invitation. 

RB: I'm curious. What does your father think of your writing?

CS: I think he was proud. But we didn’t talk much about it. My mom is more of a reader than my father was. 

RB: My mother is the one I agonize most about when my work heads toward home in any way. It's just an odd feeling I have when I know she's read or about to read something. Let's call it. . . discomfort. Is there something else working (beside the cliché mother-son/father-daughter issues) in parent-writer relationships? I feel as if I shouldn't reveal too much.

CS: I’m OK with my mom reading my work, and to her credit, she’s never questioned the boundaries of where my fiction meets real life. Now if I wrote an essay divulging something I myself was uncomfortable with, perhaps it would be a different story. 

RB: Is the non-fiction easier or harder for you? I notice in your fiction a complete confidence in your skills, whereas the non-fiction feels no less crafted, but somehow more tentative, more searching. What do you think?

CS: I think the tone in Witness is more tentative because it is about searching and how one looks for answers in the muddle of our day-to-day lives. In fiction, I’d better have some sort of answer or grand design—many of my essays are about the search for that sense of structure and connection.

Writing non-fiction is harder for me than fiction. It’s almost a reverse process. I can impose form upon a story or novel. With nonfiction, I have to look around and try to find form within the elements of my life.  For me, that’s much more difficult—but when it comes together, an essay has a much more satisfying feel.

RB: The Jessica Lynch/Lynndie England essay really intrigues me, especially as we uncover more and more (I'm thinking of the recent Wikileaks documents scandal) about the wars we're fighting. Do you praise or condemn Wikileaks, and why?

CS: I think that any information about the doings of our government or military that doesn’t imperil lives or jeopardize any current operations should be accessible to those living in a democracy. Neither individuals nor societies should fear their pasts. 

That said, the whole Wikileaks thing seems to lack focus. I don’t think releasing a flood of information really qualifies as news or reporting. In that sense, it seems kind of sophomoric—making noise just for the sake of making noise.

RB: So is it safe to say we might see another collection of essays sometime down the road?

CS: I hope so. I’d love to put together another collection a few years down the line and work with David McNamara and Sunnyoutside Press again.  

RB: What's next on your writing path?

CS: I have a new novel that’s out being read. I’m about halfway through placing stories from a new collection. And after a long hiatus, I’ve been returning to essays. I’m busy, but only in the best of ways. 

Order Witness from your favorite Indie Bookseller
Rusty Barnes is the editor of Night Train and proprietor of Fried Chicken and Coffee, a blogazine of rural and Appalachian concerns. His work has appeared in nearly two hundred journals, newspapers and anthologies. Sunnyoutside Press published his flash collection Breaking it Down (2007) and his collection of traditional stories, Mostly Redneck (2011). His comprehensive interview of DeWitt Henry, author of The Marriage of Anna Mae Potts, Safe Suicides, and Sweet Dreams: A Family History will appear in Night Train's next issue.