Mud Season Review

Rituals, Kinship, and Writing As a Way of Seeing

An Interview with Bill Smoot

by Madeline DeLuca, Mud Season Review Fiction Co-Editor

In the story, Lisa says, “That’s why I paint…so people can see things.” Do you relate to her at all? Do you write for the same reason?

Oh, yes. I feel a deep kinship with her. I do write as a way of seeing, for my own seeing as well as for sharing it with others, hoping they will see, too. I fear that our culture has become inattentive to particulars, to nuance, to shades of gray—the very things of which stories are made. Stories can entice us to pay close attention. 

Do you think Jane will ever “see” Lisa?

Readers can wonder that, of course. It’s a good question. But when I think about my own fiction, there is no life after the last page.

How do the four paintings in question–the dog, the teacher, Tomiko, and the snowman–show a change in Lisa? Is there a reason you picked the subjects and used that order?

They show she’s constantly becoming a more accomplished painter. Beyond that, they reveal that she senses and paints what flows beneath the surface. The first painting anticipates her loneliness and the comfort Buster will give her, the second painting senses the discomfort beneath her teacher’s cheerful façade, the third painting celebrates the deeper girl that Tomiko truly is, and the fourth realizes that Lisa and Tomiko—and people like them—may have to witness their snowman melt. 

I wasn’t conscious of having reasons for those paintings. They just came to life in my imagination. There were originally five, but that felt like overload, so I cut one. 

Do you have a favorite painting of Lisa’s?

I like the first, because it surprises everyone (maybe even the reader) that she is so talented. It also anticipates the melancholy and solitude that await her, and it knows that Buster will never abandon the pack. Later in the story the image comes to life when Lisa starts to cry and Buster comforts her.

Lisa’s painting of Tomiko was especially touching and showed how much she really does see Tomiko for who she is. Was this portrait always going to happen, or were there drafts where you decided against it?

I think it’s a painting she must do, so it was always there. It’s the one painting that is welcomed—at least by one person—as a gift.

Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

This is one in a series of stories set in a fictionalized version of the Kentucky town in which I grew up. They all began with a seed that grew into a story. In this case, the seed was actually the house. I discovered one day on a real estate website that a particular home I had always admired was for sale. I found myself having fantasies of buying it and moving back there. That was not a viable option, so I began to imagine who might buy it. Lisa and her parents arrived uninvited in my imagination and the story began to form. Tommy came later. 

So that was the seed. Beyond that, it’s hard to know what experiences shape the writing of my stories. One influence might be that when I was a photographer, I shot modeling portfolios for a couple of transwomen. It was very poignant to see how much they wanted to be and to be regarded as female. It was also heartwarming how happy they were to see their beautiful photographs. As was Tomiko when she saw the portrait. 

Do you paint?

No, but I was a serious photographer for about a decade. 

What is a painting that inspires you or changes the way you see things?

Munch’s paintings had a big effect on me. I seem to be attracted to melancholy. The Impressionists. Picasso, especially the blue period. But other visual art forms as well. Among contemporary photographers, I like Joyce Tenneson and Keith Carter, both of whom I studied under. The films of Terrence Malick. I am affected by art that’s beautiful and therefore helps me to see beauty elsewhere. 

My interest in seeing as a theme was also influenced by the poetry of Rilke.

What is your writing process? Do you have any rituals?

I wake up and eat a good, healthy breakfast and write all morning, with a break to take my dog for a long walk. If I don’t have chores, a class to prepare, or a tennis game, I might write into the afternoon. I often write in the evening as well. 

I am fortunate in that I love to write, and I never have writer’s block or problems with motivation. I enjoy revising more than writing first drafts (shitty first drafts, as Anne Lamott says). I write mostly at my computer, but sometimes I take a legal pad and write in barely legible longhand in a rocking chair in my living room or on the front porch. I have a thing for rocking chairs—I have five. It must be my Southern roots. 

I left my old day job four years ago, so except for teaching one class per semester at San Quentin, I’m a full-time writer. It’s a dream come true.

What is a piece of advice you would give to someone in Lisa’s position–an artist who sees many things, but who might be misunderstood?

Artists always run the risk of being condemned, vilified, demonized, misunderstood—usually because they try to see what many people deny. History is clear on that point. My only advice would be to get a dog—which Lisa did. That way you’ll always have one friend, and it may be your only friend.

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