Street Talk

Curtis Smith

Curtis Smith's latest book is Beasts & Men, a story collection from Press 53. He is also the author of four previous story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. His next book, a novel, will be released from Aqueous Books in 2015.

Life Forces: An interview with Curtis Smith


Braddock Avenue Books: No doubt the title of your story collection, Beasts & Men, is intended to be metaphorical, but it’s also the case that the stories often juxtapose people and animals in a literal way—“The Dogs, The Dogs,” “The Dry Season,” and the title story—often with the result of the people discovering an unflattering portrayal of their humanity.

Curtis Smith: The unifying concept of Beasts & Men only struck me later when I realized a lot of animals were popping up in my stories. I think the parallel between animal and human is interesting on many levels—consciousness versus instinct, action versus restraint. And it’s not all bad, really—well not all the time, at least. It’s more about being one with the greater living forces of this life, balancing our animal and human sides.

A side story—a number of the pieces in the book had dogs in some capacity. Just after the book hit, we got a dog, my first. He’s a little rescue mutt—it’s funny because I never realized how much—and how quickly—I would love him. Perhaps I was subconsciously entertaining the idea these past few years as I was writing the book.

BAB: “The Dry Season” is set in an unnamed African country where an international group of tourists gather to visit a remote village and spend a few days trying to experience a moment of authenticity, and this possibility seems to be part of what the story is exploring.

Smith: For me, it was a story about a woman coming to understand her affair—which has been more of a reaction than a thought-out plan. It’s about the natural forces at play—on the expedition and within her own marriage and also deeper, within her own body. In each, there’s beauty—and mystery—and a cold dictation of facts we have little power over.

The question of authenticity came into play on a more physical level of the story. I’m not much of a traveler, but I think writing about travelers is interesting. I found myself on YouTube a lot when I was researching this story. Not for facts so much as for visuals so I could describe the feel of things like traffic in a busy African city or the look of driving across the stretching savannah. The access to so much information, both in words and images, can be a great tool for writers of our generation.

BAB: In “Lenin!” you show a wide range of characters—a Hollywood actor starring in a bio pic, a would-be musician crafting a pop song, a Russian bureaucrat making an experiment in capitalism—all using the legacy of Vladimir Lenin to some personal advantage.

Smith: “Lenin!” was a fun story to write. It’s a lark, but one that I hope is funny and kind of sad at the same time. My flash pieces are usually very focused in scope. I think my longer pieces sometimes tend to have big casts and wider views. I enjoy stretching my legs there after the sometimes tight confines of flash.

I’m a big movie fan—and with this story, I tried to use some elements of movies I love—especially films like Nashville and Magnolia. I took a large, seeming unconnected crew and tried to unify them in a way that would come across as haphazard yet also inevitable.

BAB: Although there are a few longer stories in the collection, most of the work in Beasts & Men is flash fiction. To say that there has been a surge in this form’s popularity is an understatement; however, making a flash fiction work is a challenge. What do you think makes for a truly impactful flash fiction?

Smith: I’ve loved reading and writing flash long before we settled up the term. My first two books were chap-length flash collections from March Street Press—and my last two story collections from Press 53 had a pattern of alternating long and shorter stories. But when this book was coming together, I was in a groove of writing flash pieces. I was reading other flash collections and writers, and as I was writing, I was enjoying the challenge.

What makes an impactful flash piece? I don’t know if there’s any set formula for me—I enjoy all its forms. I don’t write flash pieces in first person or with much dialogue, but some writers do and really pull off wonderful things. I enjoy hints, little mentions that mirror larger realities. I enjoy elements of uncertainty and danger. Most of all, I appreciate rich language, sharp images, and rhythm.

BAB: Beasts & Men is a truly rich and complex book, both thematically and stylistically. I wonder which writers have most influenced your work.

Smith: Wow, where to start? Let’s go with James Salter, Milan Kundera, Cormac McCarthy, Margret Atwood, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Ellen Gilchrist, Rick Bass, Kim Chinquee, Kathy Fish, Denis Johnson, Anne Sexton, Heinrich Boll, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Vonnegut.

Stylistically, this book was greatly influenced by my last book, Witness, which was an essay collection. I was a fiction person first—and later on, I started trying essays. I found a new voice/tone coming out in my essays—a more direct approach, I guess would be the best way to view it. More understated. I believe some of that feel carried over into this book.