Talk With Zac

I asked Zac Smith about his book Everything is Totally Fine, and also pretzels, cars, linguistics, chickens, Joy Williams, the president of the United States, and everything else.

How did Everything is Totally Fine get started as a project, as an idea for a book?

Originally I had planned on writing a digital chapbook-type thing with Giacomo Pope — we encouraged each other to write ~8 pieces each that we would publish online as part of a website for collaborative things, but then the idea fell through and we both started expanding our little collections into full books. His poems mostly ended up in Chainsaw Poems & Other Poems and mine turned into Everything is Totally Fine. Giacomo maintains that he suggested the original working title, which was Today is Totally Fucked, as a joke, but I liked it unironically, and then it morphed into Everything is Totally Fucked, and then finally Everything is Totally Fine.

I especially liked “I’m Not Here to Commit Any Crimes”. I really love the line about the mom not being sure if the guy is a dog or not. “The mom told me I wasn’t a dog. But she didn’t really sound confident.” Could you talk about writing that one?

Thank you - I’m glad you liked it. I like that line a lot, too. That story is pretty old, but then I reworked it to fit the tone of the book more, specifically emphasizing how the people feel uncertain and hesitant about things. I felt like the book has a lot of stories where the main character is clearly a person, and a lot where the main character is clearly an animal, so it seemed funny to me to have one where it’s unclear what the main character is. I can’t really remember much else about writing it, aside from reading an early draft of it to some friends and them seeming confused and asking why I had written it.

Do you have a dog?

Yes, I have two. I have a toy poodle and a half bichon frise/half cavalier king charles spaniel. They’re both about 13 pounds and they sleep in my bed.

What was it like working with Tao on the book/what was the editorial process like with Muumuu House?

It was good! Haha. Tao has been very supportive and encouraging. He seems really thoughtful in how he talks about the book, affirming that he likes it after rereading it and editing it, and that he’s excited to publish it. The editing process happened in a couple stages. First, he took a pass at it and noted about five stories he thought should be cut or replaced, and encouraged me to send him other things I had written and to write new things that might fit. I sent him about ten more stories, and he picked which five he liked most. I really valued his thoughts during that process and was happy to have someone who hadn’t written the book just tell me some things to do, because I felt like I had a limited perspective on it. Then he offered some line edits on maybe ten stories, and we discussed a few of the ideas/reasoning for why they were written a certain way, and I feel happy about where they all landed. Then he and Yuka Igarashi sent thorough copy edits for things like typos, spelling, consistency, redundancy, use of italics on the copyright page, all kinds of stuff, based on printed proofs. Overall the process was very calm, easy, entertaining, and encouraging. I really enjoyed it.

When did you first get involved with Back Patio Press?

I met Cavin when he was editing for Soft Cartel and we became friends. I’ve always been interested in producing physical media and wanted to learn more about making books right around when he released the first (and only, haha) print book under Soft Cartel. When he started making books for Back Patio, I was excited for him and wanted to help him with the things that aren’t as exciting, like copyediting and working out budgets and timelines and understanding barcodes, ISBNs, distribution, and etc. so he could focus on working with people on their cool stories. I first helped by copyediting and helping typeset his first book, then started getting more involved in sourcing, editing, typesetting, and ordering proofs for books, making/ordering things like stickers and pins, and helping him with budgets and timelines as we released more books with more convoluted preorder bonuses. I’ve enjoyed investing hundreds of dollars into Back Patio press with no expectation of making any money back (I’ve never taken any money out of the account, and never will, I don’t think Cavin has either aside from his own book royalties).

Is caring for chickens hard? When did you start? What do you like about it?

Haha, no, it’s fun. We only have four, and we got them as chicks in March 2021. People say it gets harder when they get sick or injured, but so far they’ve been easy to care for. I like all the little projects involved, like building perches, winterizing the chicken run, troubleshooting what to do if their egg shells are too soft, and cleaning the hen house. My kid really likes fucking around with them, too — feeding them, trying to pick them up, collecting the eggs. They’re great chickens and the hardest/dumbest part is having to shove them into their hen house at night. They stopped going in on their own at some point.

Do you think about audience when you write? Is there an audience in your head?

No, not really, although I guess I just assumed the audience would be people like me and who enjoy independent publishing, so I felt like maybe that was the bar to clear when thinking about novelty: it seems really easy to write something more interesting than the average piece of major press fiction, but harder to write something more interesting than the average piece of weird small press fiction. I think I also laughed a lot thinking about normal people who read normal fiction finding my book and feeling put off or confused by it. Part of why the inside is designed to look so nice is that we wanted serious literature people to take it seriously so we can kind of trick them into reading possibly the dumbest story they’ve ever read. That seems funny to me.

Do you have a favorite story in Everything is Totally Fine?

That’s a good question. Maybe “Scaffolding,” because it incorporates most of the things I was interested in doing separately throughout other stories, but all in one place.

Are there emojis that come close to the pretzel emoji as favorites, for you?

No, haha. I just remember laughing at lot at my phone suggesting I use the pretzel emoji instead of the word “pretzel,” thinking it was insane that some team of people designed and released a pretzel emoji, and that our phones suggest increasingly weirdly specific emojis for various words. I do like the “face in clouds” emoji because it looks like someone peeking through a mysterious gaping hole in reality.

These days I think about length a lot. Do you think good contemporary writing should tend shorter?

No, I don’t think so. I know there’s a lot of discussion about attention span and the internet age and phones and stuff, but I think good writing can be any length. There’s a lot of really bad short fiction, too. The only real problem with longer fiction in my opinion is that people can try to cram in too much, but, ironically, some of the stuff crammed in doesn’t get enough space, or it feels like they’re including things because of convention or sales or something. Shorter fiction doesn’t try to bludgeon you over the head with big reveals or symbolism as much, I think. But I like a lot of longer books that feel meandering, or include a lot of strangely specific ideas just for the fuck of it. I feel about writing (and length) the way I feel about visual art, maybe. I don’t think charcoal sketches are inherently less valuable than oil paintings. They both have value.

Do you naturally write leaning toward the concise side or do you edit yourself down so it ends up that way?

I do both. I naturally write longer sentences and with more repetition, maybe as a means of experimenting with the right way to say something, and in editing you can just take the best parts and go from there. But I also feel like I write short passages to begin with, because I want to get the important parts down first. If you know you want X to happen at some point in the story, but you spend an hour writing a big prelude for it, you can lose that passion for X, and maybe it doesn’t make as much sense as you hoped, or you get distracted or overwhelmed by all the other shit you included just to get there. So I try to navigate efficiently from important idea to important idea when writing a first draft, which naturally leads to concision.

Have you ever written something very very long like a novel? Would you ever?

Yes, I’ve written two (bad, unpublished) ~65k word novels, and a couple novellas. One novella was/is(?) supposed to be published sometime, but I think the press lost energy for the idea of publishing novellas. Another novella I wrote got lost when my computer crashed. I have another novel in progress that’s about 30k words right now but I want it to be a little longer. The problem for me with writing a novel is that I would want my novel to be interesting and not feel like something formulaic, like having dramatic plot points or reveals or twists or obvious social commentary. I don’t think I was able to do that too much with some of my earlier writing, which is why I moved on. I think once I write one good novel, I’ll be able to write more. I’m not really in a rush. I don’t think of any one form as being more legitimate or important than the other.

Favorite authors before 1950?

I looked up some authors I like and then found that a lot of them didn’t have books out until the 50s, haha. I guess Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway in terms of authors whose whole body of work I’ve liked a lot so far. But I’ve read a lot of random great books from before 1950, I think like most people. I just googled “best books from before 1950” and recognized a lot of names like James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Hesse, Graham Greene, B. Traven, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I dunno. I really liked The Maimed by Hermann Ungar, who was a contemporary of Kafka. It’s one of the most fucked up books I’ve ever read. I should read more classics and older books, I think, looking at this very predictable list.

Do you like reading your writing out loud? Either to other people or just out loud to yourself?

No! I feel like whenever I’ve read a story out loud, aside from at a book reading, it’s been very embarrassing for everyone. I don’t like talking much, like the physical act of it, so reading out loud isn’t that fun for me. But I really liked doing book readings for 50 Barn Poems, because that felt like what I imagine it feels like to do stand up comedy.

On the podcast No Edit you talked about “The Lover” by Joy Williams. What are your other favorite Joy Williams stories?

I’d have to look at my copies of her books because I don’t remember story titles very well. My favorite might be the one about the family on a train and the dad gets drunk and complains about weird shit to his daughter and her friend. I really liked her novel Breaking and Entering, too. It felt very interestingly paced and I liked a lot of the strange imagery and nature, the relationships between the main character and children in particular, and her insane mother.

I know you studied linguistics. What made you do that?

Haha, I don’t know. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at college. I was majoring in Spanish and then one professor taught some linguistics, and I was like, “oh nice, this is what I like about language, not the talking to people part!.” So I started taking more linguistics classes. I like it because a lot of it is about the math of language — different formal logics, patterns, mathematical proofs. I had no idea what to do with my life so I decided to go to grad school and see if I could become a professor. I feel like we do a bad job teaching kids about careers so I, like a lot of people, just felt like, well, school is all I know, I should just stick to school.

What parts of studying linguistics have to do with your writing fiction?

I think it’s mostly made me more sensitive to ambiguity and confusing sentence/paragraph structure. A simple example is in pronoun resolution, where you can confuse the reader, like this: “Jane threw a party. Sally showed up with chips and dip. She was happy that her friend had come to the party.” In that example, we intuit the last “she” to be referring to Sally, but the author intended it to refer to Jane. I see this a lot, sometimes even in back-of-the-book synopses, and it always frustrates me. I think it’s important/interesting to write stories that are confusing, but the writing itself shouldn’t be confusing. The other thing might be the importance of transition sentences, which is important in scientific writing, and, I think, useful for fiction.

What kind of grad school were you in?

I was doing a Ph.D, but then left before finishing my dissertation. It was kind of competitive and very focused on defining success only as becoming an important scholar at a big institution, but all the (younger) professors always seemed so terrified and depressed all the time, and that seemed like a horrible thing to define as success.

What time of day do you write the most?

I think at night, usually before bed, or in the middle of the night.

You have a lot of output online, both published writing and blog writing. When did you first start putting writing online at all, for other people to read?

My first published piece was in X-R-A-Y Lit on September 11, 2018. I did do a webcomic, briefly, like 2010-2012. I’m unsure that counts though. Like most Americans my age, I spent a lot of time on Xanga and Livejournal and stuff like that when I was in high school, so that’s technically when I started blogging and publishing, like 2004-2007.

There’s repetition in your book with themes and actions that I think adds to an overall sort of futile feeling. As in, repetition within the stories and also across them. Is that a fair read of it?

Yeah, I think so, haha. I think futility is funny. Everything feels futile and I laugh about that a lot. And yeah a lot of these stories involve people doing things in spite of knowing that everything is futile, or coming to understand futility in new and exciting ways.

You mention pizza sometimes. What’s your favorite kind of pizza?

I’ve recently been getting into mushroom pizza. But I think my favorite kind of all time is pineapple and feta with bbq sauce instead of pizza sauce. It’s very decadent.

What music did you listen to today?

Buds by Obvlov, True Talent Champion by Pope, and a bunch of Christmas music.

There’s a lot of driving-related images and instances, some that are pretty uncanny and scarily close to reality even though they’re absurd, like in Holding Your Breath So You Don’t Have to Breathe So Much Sometimes when the guy’s car slowly gets stuck between medians. How did so much car stuff develop in your stories? Do you think about driving a lot?

I grew up in the midwest so I used to have to drive around all the time just to do anything. As a kid we’d go on long road trips to see family in Iowa or go to the beach in North Carolina. And as a teenager, you’d go on a three hour drive like it was nothing, especially around the holidays, just driving like twelve hours, then the next day driving three hours, then the next day six hours. And my wife doesn’t like to drive so I do most of the driving if we go anywhere. I don’t mind it. But when you drive a lot I guess you think about driving a lot. I would entertain myself by thinking about weird things that could happen while driving. I don’t think I ever drive a car in my dreams, for some reason.

Do you enjoy driving?

It’s fine. I like listening to the normal radio, which I only do in the car. I like going places. Driving itself is whatever.

Are there words you think you use too much? Are there any words you don’t use enough?

Probably, haha. I’m sure someone, if they care to read and write about the book, would comment on all the “think”s and “feel”s in the book as if it were a bad thing. But thinking and feeling is basically all anyone does, so it seems normal for that to happen a lot in a book. I don’t know about words I don’t use enough. That’s a strange question...I don’t use the vast majority of words. If I felt like I should use them, I’d use them, maybe. What do you think?

What books are you in the middle of reading right now?

A bunch of parenting/birthing books and Islands in the Stream by Hemingway, as a sort of cozy/escapist read.

I like when your narrator either trails off or sort of gives up at the end of the story somehow. How do you let that happen and still make a story feel satisfying?

Thank you. I don’t know, it just seemed funny to me, and is related to that sense of futility you mentioned. I do remember listening to “Karma’ Payment” by Modest Mouse back when I was finishing the book and it’s great because the song is mostly a rambling story about his car breaking down and then doing drugs with some guy, and then he just ends it with “I went to LA the next day/I got jacked in a real bad way/I can't tell you/but it’s a long story” and the music stops. It’s so dumb and great and required a lot of confidence and humor to do, I felt, and you never really read or hear that kind of ending. So I wanted to do something like that, too. I don’t know whether any of my stories are satisfying tbh. It just felt like a good thing to do in some stories and it made me laugh.

I think you tweeted once about not liking horror movies. Why not?

I used to assume I didn’t like horror movies, but I’ve watched and enjoyed a lot this year, from classics to some recent A24 ones. I think I just don’t like jump-scare movies, and popular ones from when I was a kid seemed overly stressful and dumb. I really liked The Thing and The Witch.

I laughed out loud at the story Taking even just 5 minutes to sit quietly and follow your breath can help you feel more conscious and connected for the rest of your day when the guy says “I was lucky because I was the president at the time” because it was the perfect absurd surprise/shock that got me off guard. Can you talk about writing that story?

Haha, great, I’m glad that made you laugh. That story was mostly just me thinking of what kind of presidency would be funnier and stupider than Trump’s, but with someone who was more self-aware. The idea of being President when the world is ending is funny to me, and I remember people talking about how his tweets would end up in the library of congress or something, which was just this great moment where you could see the cracks in the idea of the country — all this self-important stuff was really just a facade. No one expected the president to be just the dumbest, most insane loser you could imagine. It was like putting a dog in the white house and seeing journalists ask it serious questions. In terms of the surprise, I guess that line specifically is an example of me trying to include really dumb reveals of perspective or narration in a story. Sometimes when real people tell stories, they say really stupid and confusing shit, or they’re so used to telling a story that they screw up the order of important details, and that’s always been funny to me, or like saying something really central to a story but as an aside. I guess doing stuff like that can make even a really short story feel “bigger” and more dynamic. I recommend it.

Do you think you’re cut out for presidency?

No, absolutely not. I don’t think I could live with myself if I ran for any kind of political office.

When did you start doing book reviews on your blog?

July 2020. Before that I would sometimes write goodreads reviews, but the star-rating system made me anxious. And I don’t like submitting writing, or trying to write reviews from an academic/social commentary lens, so submitting reviews to publications also didn’t make any sense. So I felt like just writing reviews where I could talk about what interested me in a book without having to say “this is good” or “this is bad” and just put it out if people wanted to read without expecting them to. That made more sense. I’ve enjoyed it.

I read something you wrote on Neutral Spaces about poetry along with a mixtape of poets you like. Have you been writing any poetry recently?

Not too much, just every once in a while. I prefer writing with a full collection or something like that in mind, and I haven’t had any good ideas lately. I’ve just done a few random poems and put them on the Neutral Spaces blog.

Have you ever taught writing? If not would you ever want to?

I taught a freshman composition class for one semester in grad school, but it was basically like an intro to science writing (about linguistics). I got self-conscious about my ability to teach and I gave everyone an A. I don’t have any interest in doing writing workshops or teaching gigs for money. I feel like getting into teaching creative writing in workshops or at colleges is basically a pyramid scheme kind of grift and I don’t have much interest in being a part of that. I enjoy editing my friends’ writing or talking about writing with people, though, but I don’t think I could ‘teach’ anyone anything.

I can’t believe some of your stories exist. In the very last story the speaker says “The wind caresses my penis. This is an insanely bad story.” It doesn’t seem like you fear a risk in a story, in a good way. Have you always been that way?

Hahaha, thanks. This book in particular was for me an exercise in trying to move past the idea of ‘risk’ in writing or being understood, cared about, or read by a larger audience. I used to feel differently, and sought attention and appreciation and wrote things I’m now embarrassed by, but with 50 Barn Poems and now especially Everything is Totally Fine, I only wrote exactly what I wanted to after really thinking about it. You either fuck with it or not. I don’t really care if this book matters to anyone else, and I think that let me write something that felt exciting, to me.

If you had to choose is everything fine or fucked?

In my head, writing and editing the book, and talking to people about it, I’ve come to conclude that ‘fine’, ‘fucked’, and ‘normal’ are synonyms.

Buy Everything is Totally Fine from Muumuu House!

Aurora Huiza lives between Syracuse and New York. She writes fiction.