Chas Smith | Family Reunions with Bank-Robbin’ Danny — Flaunt Magazine

Congratulations on the new book! What has the writing process been like, and how was it been publishing it during the pandemic?

The writing process was fun compared to my other books, mostly because—so my cousin Danny, he’s a bank robber—just going back and forth with him made it more enjoyable. If I had a question about something, instead of just trying to dream up an answer, I could actually ask him, ‘Okay, how specifically does it feel to handle the teller?’ Really being able to drill down on all these things I’ve always wondered about, so that it was more fun than typical for at least the writing process.

During the writing process, I suppose, the pandemic… I had another [book] come out during the middle of the pandemic, which totally sucked. This one, it feels like it’s kind of wanting, so I get to do live readings and stuff like that again. It’s fun to be able to interact with the material when it’s out.

This is your fourth book—was the process for this one different from any of the others, and if so, how?

No, I mean, this one flowed sort of more easily. The fact that I’ve done three—they’re all kind of different in terms of process, but this one just felt like a clean story to me. Going back to the other stuff that I’ve done, you know, after a book comes out, I’ll think it’s awesome and I’ll read it. I just actually had to read the first one that I wrote for a book on tape ten years later, and it’s so hard to do that, where you think about all the stuff you would’ve changed. I suppose on this one, I said, ‘I’m going to try to make those changes in real time and cut out fat.’ I just hate fat now. All of my other books—they just feel like they had so much fat in them. I really tried to trim this one down and also, having Danny to really cover it in real time. I actually started writing it while he was on the lam, but we were in communication the entire time. Having source material I could continuously dip back into—he was in jail for most of it, so I had a captive audience, literally—or a captive subject—having that was great.

So, this book is partly about your cousin Danny and his bank-robbing schemes, but it’s also about your upbringing and the heavy religious undertones in your family. What made you want to combine the two?

It was almost impossible to tell one without the other. If we were just a normal family, Danny’s bank robbing would still be interesting. But he and I grew up the same, with all the same religious undertones and all the same importance on the church and those aspects, so it made his state of mind more interesting. Like, how did you go from here to there? It’s one thing to go from point A to point B if you sort of started rough, but going from crazy, furiously religious to robbing banks is something else. It intrigued me—that side of the family always intrigued me too. So it just seemed like a nice way to rope them all in together.

Danny wrote to you from prison, saying he realized “the wide-eyed dreams of the suburban middle-class were bullshit.” Was this the point where you as a journalist and writer realized you had to tell this story?

No, I think I started knowing I had to tell this once he reached out to me on the lam. I was really hoping to run and find him, I thought that would be epic. I was trying to figure out, ‘What is actually aiding and betting a fugitive, what does that mean? How could I go find him?’ But when Danny wrote me that specific line, I thought it was bullshit! I guess it did make me want to dig in way deeper, I thought, ‘Come on, you’re not even thinking seriously about this.’ That just seemed so cliché to say, ‘Oh these dreams… white picket fence,’ whatever. It’s bullshit! Let’s really dig in here, and what makes a man rob a bank?

I enjoyed this line from Danny: “My misfortune drove me away from spirituality. I shook my fist at God and found every reason not to believe. I looked for distraction now, not understanding. Rebellion felt better than healing.” This is a valid feeling—in psychology we learn that ostracism has real damaging effects on a person in a social group. Is this one part of his story about him that’s maybe a little understandable?

Yeah, totally. And I did understand, but it seems to me also, when you’re there—I totally get it, I totally get throwing it all off. I suppose, now that I’m talking about it, it makes a lot of sense. If I’m gonna go bad, I might as well go all the way bad, which I’ve always thought before, too. If I didn’t believe God existed, what would stop me from just doing whatever I wanted? Which I suppose is what happened [to Danny].

There’s so many specific details about Danny’s mindset, why he felt passionate about this, and his experience in prison. How did it feel when he relayed this to you? Were there multiple sessions of him just telling his story of him and you listening, or did you hear of it exclusively when he was in prison?

Yeah, there was correspondence before, when he was running from the law. He was still actively robbing banks then, so I could really see this manic crackle in there. Once he got caught, being able to ask him again and again. Since he’s my cousin, I feel like any normal other kind of subjects, I would sort of take on face value what they said. You know, they know themselves better. But I said, ‘Okay, we grew up the same and we knew each other well as kids.’ I felt like I was more able to question what he told me and get him to kind of think more deeply about it, or at least probe deeper on stuff where I thought, ‘Okay, you haven’t thought about this enough. You know, that is a bullshit, easy answer and I’m not buying it.’ Being able to challenge him, too, in the book. He hasn’t read it yet—I do challenge him, but some of the stuff—bullshit! That’s lazy. Don’t be lazy.

So he’s in prison, and you’re challenging him—saying, here’s an activity! Write creatively about your life and I can make it into something.

And it is! I mean, he’s written so much of his experience of him too, where I have letter upon letter that I’m saving. Before he gets out, I want him to be able to publish his own account of him, too. This is my view into it, but his view of him through the middle of it—it’s endlessly fascinating, but when you’re in the middle of doing something like that, I think it is easy not to challenge your own perceptions about it. I’d like him to publish his own, but really challenge his own perception of why he was doing it.

I really enjoyed those excerpts of his letters; it was so interesting to hear from.

It’s funny—I mean, how often do you get to hear from and talk to a bank robber, a fugitive, and a felon while it’s happening? Always, when those letters came, I would just devour them. And they’re still coming! That’s the great thing—I still get to be emailing him and all this stuff, so it’s an ongoing thing.

You have a realization towards the end of the book and say, “Help! My cousin’s cooler than me!” As someone with eight coolers, older cousins, I get where you’re coming from. But how was that dynamic with a cousin as a bank robber?

To me, bank robbing is obviously morally wrong—“Do not steal” is one of the stinkin’ Ten Commandments. But it still feels so romantic to me that the morality of that, of robbing a bank, wasn’t nearly as disappointing as the morality of going on a bunch of Tinder dates. If he was just robbing banks, and not ‘Tindering,’ I would have been like, ‘Go Danny!’

Religion plays a major role in your story—you detail Uncle Jonny and Grandma being incredibly involved. How did this shape family life and most of your formative years?

I mean, it was just everything. It was my entire worldview, it was the people that I… not just loved and respected but just, this was it. That painted my entire world. So looking at it from this perspective, we’re not done with it anymore. And Uncle Jonny and Cousin Danny slid into such dumb cliché… where they fell to me is just so boring. And that’s the thing, I suppose, I’m not sure if it came out in the book, but I’ve never lost faith. I’ve never lost religion, right. My Christianity looks different today than it did then—I think Danny kept trying to push this line, kind of, that I lost faith or that he had lost faith. Where I’ve never lost faith, and I think it’s lazy for him—if he has, he has, and I want him to dig deeper into that. But in terms of spirituality, Christianity, I’m over that. And the fact that cousin Danny and Uncle Jonny now are just being dumbasses with their own scandal. In the laziest, dumbass way—it’s just so frustrating. Like, be interesting, at least. Do something different. If you get in some lazy-ass problem, affairs, or—I hate the ways the church talks about these things, like sinful, sexual relationships, stupid shit. It’s just dumb, and so, so frustrating.

Your previous books are more research-based, and this one certainly has some as well, but how was digging into your own history and past for this one? Were there a lot of family interviews or did you rely on memory?

It was mostly memory. To me, I was sort of on the outs—not sort of, I was on the outs—with my folks when I was writing it, so I didn’t talk to them at all. I sent them a rough manuscript after I was done with a second or third pass and got their input on stuff, which was super helpful. They were mad about some of it. I don’t know—going back through, so much of family is your perceptions of family. Or the ideas that you have of a family. And so to go interview them all and do all that was less interesting than, you know, ‘This is the way it felt, to me.’ I talked to my sister a bunch through it, and my brother, too, so I had enough people that I could make sure it was a correct perception. But for me the perception was more interesting—it’s all just smoke and mirrors, at some level, when you start going in and breaking down family. So much of a family is based on the stories you tell about that family, or those you tell yourself, and I wanted to preserve that more than breaking it down, I suppose.

It reminded me of a lot of David Sedaris, who writes comedy essays, most of which feature about his family. It’s always interesting to imagine how they’d react to his writing about him.

I’m sure my family’s gonna be pissed off. Nobody talks to each other anyway—ever—and so it’s like, ‘Big deal. If you’re pissed, I won’t even hear about it because you won’t talk. It’d be nice if someone would just call up and scream at me, but I know it’s just gonna be quiet.

You also go into brief histories of bank robbing, gambling, and fugitives. Was the family connection what got you interested in these?

The bank robbing—I was always fascinated before, and the fact that he became one, of course made me both jealous and gave me even more reason to investigate more. Fugitives, then, kind of leads in. It’s funny—gambling stuff, and gambling as impetus to rob a bank was real boring to me. But I found out, I mean, that’s the truth. That’s what really drove him into [bank robbing], so I had to honestly look at it. But yeah, it’s funny that besides bank robbing, the common underbelly stuff of either running away from stuff or gambling… these kind of low-level—not sins, per se, but just sort of bad living—it was fun! It was fun to go in and think more deeply, I suppose.

Recently you tweeted ‘If you really had to rob a bank, would you use a note? And what would it read?’ So, what’s your answer?

Well, what I learned from Cousin Danny—don’t use a stinkin’ note! It’s DNA! So, go in and yell. You yell loud and get people to shock into submission. So that’s funny—I have all the bank robbing information now. One of these days I’ll rob one.

If I had to do one, I’d say ‘Hey, can I please have a moderate amount? 1 to 500 dollars, and please don’t report me.’ But only if I was forced to.

Yeah, just a chill thing.

‘Just so I can get some lunch after this and get out of your hair.’

‘Oh yeah, no worries, no worries.’

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