Interviewing obscure writer Brent L. Smith
By Brent L. Smith
For a native, LA seasons are dictated only by which holiday it is, the only discernible weather patterns have names like the Santa Ana winds and June gloom (it even get as low as 50 degrees in the winter *brrr!*), and your friends grow up to have cool jobs in the entertainment industry. For Smith, the essence of the city runs far deeper, and darker. You can see hints of this in his recent short story 'Holloway Drive', the first volume in a transgressive literary series titled Tales From the Hills. The story's about about a pill-popping UCLA student who stabs and shoots his 3 roommates. Something that's certainly not exclusive to the City of Angels, but a sobering reality nonetheless. "I'd rather see it in my stories than on the news," he says, popping the bottle cap off of a Magic Hat #9, offering me one. "Besides, it's about so much more than that. I don't see the murders as the focal point of the story. It's just a big part of the American scene right now. Along with everything else, college kids have be all pent up about maybe getting shot at school one day. It's what they're dealing with, if not directly then certainly mentally and emotionally."
He doesn't recommend tourism in LA either. "Unless you have a good friend living out here, you'll just be disappointed. Nothing is as it seems," he tells me in a foreboding voice, making spooky fingers with his hands, eyes dark and glaring like Dracula... if Dracula's hair was less like Dracula's hair, and more like Johnny Galecki's hair in Rosanne. I didn't mention the reference at the time, probably a wise move. His work has appeared in YAY!LA Magazine, The Newer York, and Stimulus Respond.
When was the first time you lived outside of LA?
Right after high school. I didn't get accepted anywhere special, so I attended SBCC for a year. I lived in a house in Isla Vista with 11 other people, which was basically my 'dorm experience'. I'll never forget it. I'm also astounded I walked out of there with 28 units.
Were you a writing student?
Not then, no. I was a film student and SBCC had an awesome department. A lot of my units didn't transfer because I took nothing but film classes.
When did you decide to study writing as a serious vocation?
When I realized I wasn't at USC or NYU, and that I didn't have any family members in the industry either, so it kind of made film school seem futile. It was actually my older brother who pointed out that I've always written stories and been good in English. So, why not try to get smart, get better at writing, really grasp narrative and storytelling on a primal level, and take the back door into the industry. So I changed my major to English, bounced around a few more city colleges, spent a summer in Europe, and then eventually transferred to Humboldt State. After graduating I jumped right into an MFA program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. There, I really got into my rhythm.
I'm sorry, did you say the Jack Kerouac School? Such a thing exists?
That's exactly what I asked when I came across it, and that's exactly why I went. It was founded in 1974 by the poet Allen Ginsberg and Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I wanted to go to a place with that kind of lineage. I wanted to experiment in that kind of atmosphere. And getting away from LA for all those years was good for me. Even though I grew up here, I couldn't truly see this city until I put some distance between me and it.
Going back to your experiences in Santa Barbara, and forgive me if this question is in poor form, but did you see any similarities between Johnny Jones in 'Holloway Drive' and Eliot Rodger?
Wow, just jumping into the deep end, huh? Alright, well it's funny you say that because I got a few texts from some of my friends right after the SB shootings happened, saying how they were freaked out it was so similar to the story I had written a year earlier--and jokingly calling me a witch. But really, I don't think Johnny Jones is anything like that guy. From what I could tell, Rodger was really narcissistic, something Johnny is definitely not. Johnny's on a whole other frequency. His motives are very different.
What are Johnny's motives?
That's complicated, but I can say for sure that, for Johnny, the spectacle made of the murders is more interesting than the murders themselves.
What is it about LA that makes it the city it is?
I don't know. It's somehow so laid back and so wild all at once. Maybe something mystical happens when the desert meets the sea. Maybe there's some rift right there on that line between sand and water, emanating way up in the sky like a highway mirage, dazzling westerners who, after 150 or so years, still feel the need to keep moving west. Discovery, reinvention, escape, etc. it's all still here. Then more people move here and it gets amplified, like we're stuck in a holographic feedback loop.
Any particular part of the city that you're drawn to the most?
The area I'm living in now (east of Hollywood, north of downtown) is technically called Edendale, even though nobody calls it that. It has more to do with what this area used to be. Before Hollywood as we know it, there was Edendale--heart of the silent film era at the turn of the century. All the original film studios were out here. It blew my mind once I learned more about that time and all the scandals and the stars whose names we wouldn't recognize now. Like Theda Bara who played Cleopatra in 1917. There's all kinds of forgotten history in these old hills. The Gelsons on Griffith Park and Hyperion used to be the Disney studio before it relocated to Burbank, for example.
Are your parents from LA too?
My pop's a honky from Kansas who got out of there and moved west the first chance he got. He worked as litigator downtown for years. My mom, though, actually grew up right around here, not too far from where the La Bianca murders happened in 1969. She was a junior at John Marshall High when she heard the news of what the Manson Family had done. This stuff came up a lot for me when I was at the Kerouac School. My professor (and phenomenal writer) Bhanu Kapil would always discuss ideas of origin, borders, boundaries, geography, and the feeling of diaspora. Like I said, getting away gave me perspective. Exploring, mapping, encoding and decoding the psychic LA landscape. It's an ongoing effort.
That's interesting. (Pause) So, you basically live in, like, LA hipster central, right?
Oh, totally. Death Cab for Cutie used to sing about this place all the time.
Like if, god forbid, Al-Qaeda struck in your neighborhood, so many baristas aren't showing up for work that day.
Exactly. We'd lose a crippling amount of American Apparel sales associates.
So, now that we've kind of loosened up...
This six pack is already gone.
Do you like James Franco as a writer?
I thought we were talking about me? Well, to be honest, I haven't given his stuff enough of a chance. I've caught a few of his poems online, and I've read the first chapter of Palo Alto (dug the River Phoenix reference) but haven't picked it back up again.
Because you didn't like it?
Stop trying to make me sound like a dick! No, I caught a flavor of Carver in there. Certainly human, as opposed to, say, Tao Lin's stuff. I'm just a very slow reader and there's way too much for me to catch up on. Reading and writing can easily take up 99.9% of your time. Also, reading that kind of straight prose helps me to ground mine. It's not the only thing he does either, I feel like a bum compared to James Franco, and if he's making books sexy again, all the power to him. He's not the only one either. Lena Dunham's got a book coming out too, right?
Yes, a book of essays, 'Not That Kind of Girl'.
That's it. I remember seeing the cover and really liking it. Old school, like Didion. I was just more surprised to hear (Franco) say in an interview that poetry isn't a good vehicle for anything political, considering he's read so much Allen Ginsberg after portraying him in Howl (or at least he should've). But it's irrelevant, I'm not here to shit on other writers. Actually, speaking of actor-writer types, I was really impressed by Kristen Stewart's poem 'My Heart is a Wiffleball/Freedom Pole' that was randomly published earlier this year.
Wasn't that in an interview with Marie Claire?
I can't confirm that.
Is James Franco the king of selfies?
What should we look forward to next?
Volume 2 of Tales from the Hills is due out in a few months. A cool little site called Literarylibations.org decided to publish the series, they do a great job with pocket-size books. So, hopefully you'll be seeing both volumes for sale on there in the near future.
Last thoughts concerning outsiders to LA, any recommendations as to what to do and see?
The Helter Skelter tour is the tits.
After the interview we got drunk, listened to Ty Segall, and made out with each other.