Scott Simon interviews writer and heavy construction worker Bud Smith about his new novel, “Teenager,” in which a young couple in love hit the road on a wild road trip.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Kody Green is a Jersey guy who dreams of becoming a cowboy out West. He wants to spend the rest of his life on the range with a girl he adores, Tella Carticelli, whom he calls Teal. But Smith’s novel, “Teenager,” opens with Kody breaking out of a juvie detention center and taking Teal with him on a road trip into their dreams. They make camp their first night, and let’s ask the author, Bud Smith, to set the scene.
BUD SMITH: (Reading) The moon was fat and heavy and had no idea what Kody and Teal had seen and done. It was just the moon. It shone on their path, just as clear as ever – good thing, too. The headlights were so dim. Kody pulled the car into a meadow. They’d rough it that first night in the car. He didn’t want to bother with setting up a tent, all the things that would come with it. He knew they’d fight while setting up a tent – all the polls, the stakes. They couldn’t fight right now.
SIMON: What they had done was leave behind a crime scene. “Teenager” is the new novel by Bud Smith, who’s written for the Paris Review and works heavy construction in New Jersey. He joins us from Jersey City. He thanks so much for being with us.
SMITH: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: The crimes they commit are shocking, but without making any excuses, they don’t come out of nowhere, do they?
SMITH: No. I thought of these two as people who really weren’t raised by parents who gave them the care they really needed to figure out who they were in the world. And they made some mistakes along the way, and it just comes from a lack of love.
SIMON: Yeah. It’s upsetting when they hold up a couple who were about to go out. They’re dressed well. They hold them up at gunpoint, Scotch tape their hands and legs. There’s something, I’m afraid, comic about it. And yet the contempt they have for that couple is pretty painful to read, too.
SMITH: Yeah. It’s like what you have in life and what you don’t have in life sometimes. I like what Kody says to the couple, though. He’s not going to hurt anyone. And, you know, he tapes them up with Scotch tape rather than something worse, let’s say, but he says, you know, there’s going to be plenty of champagne and ballroom dancing, just not tonight.
SIMON: Yeah. Then they hold up a family pharmacy for medication that Kody needs – another scene that’s comic and terrifying. And he tells the pharmacist, I’m a working stiff, just like you. We’re on the same side here. Is that true?
SMITH: It is definitely not true. As soon as you’re smacking somebody upside the head, whether it’s a little love tap, so to speak, or it’s – you’re pistol whipping someone with a gun, you’re definitely not on the same side. I think, Kody – he made some big mistakes along the way, and he’s definitely screwed up.
SIMON: Well, and I enjoyed the tour of America. I hope you didn’t just Google all these places, from the Grand Canyon to an alpaca farm. Or have you been there?
SMITH: I’ve been there. I was always obsessed with just getting around as much as I could. I came just from a blue-collar working family. My dad was a garbage truck repairman, and my mom worked in a factory – aerosol spray can factory. And we weren’t struggling, but there were always books to read, of course. And art was something you filled your life with. But as soon as I got old enough, any chance I had, if somebody I knew was hitting the road to go somewhere, I would try to get in that car. So I think I’ve gone cross-country now maybe four times.
And this book, the places I wrote about are places I visited in my late youth, maybe when I was 19, 20 years old – a lot of these places that I wanted to write a travelogue about one day, and I just couldn’t quite find interesting enough things to say about how I felt about those places, or the places meant more to me than I could really just write down easily from my own point of view. It was so exciting, so fresh to just break away from my family and my small town.
SIMON: You work in construction. And with respect for absolutely every novelist that we ever have on this show, do you think because you work in that line, you have insights and experiences that novelists who are teaching creative writing just don’t have and can’t bring to the page ?
SMITH: No, I don’t feel that’s true. I think we’re all responsible for paying attention to everything that’s going on around us in our lives. But I’m in a particular circumstance where, on these heavy construction sites I work on – I’m in a union. I’m in a union with a bunch of people. And when we get together on the job sites, it’s a lot of the same guys. I see them a lot, and they’re the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. Some stuff is really off-color or wild and always surprising, and they’re the best storytellers I’ve ever heard. And they really taught me how to write, just listening to these guys and learning how every time you tell a story, you know, you have to think about the audience and be entertaining, or those guys will tell you to shut up. They’ll say, I’m just not interested in what you’re saying. So it’s those guys, they’ve just kept me inspired and constantly learning how to tell stories in new and interesting ways.
SIMON: That’s a great answer. What do you hope readers feel for these two teens who’ve had rough lives? – because, well, I mean, I wanted them to have a good time, but, you know, they do leave a trail of terror.
SMITH: Yes, they do leave a trail of terror. I want them to feel that the characters are ultimately balanced, and they feel everything good and tender that they’ve done is balanced with the reality of what life brings. And it’s not that we have to suffer, and it’s not that we will automatically get rewarded. It’s that our days are a summary of both those things, and we have to make peace with it. I want people to read this book and feel like they know Tella Carticelli and Kody Rawlee Green, but also that they feel like for all the bad things that maybe have happened to them, if they can find someone to be sweet to or let someone be sweet to them, that there is a way to get through the rest of your days that might be just really lousy alone.
SIMON: Bud Smith – his novel, “Teenager.” I can’t wait for your next one. Thanks so much for being with us.
SMITH: Thanks so much, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.