Logan Ryan Smith writes dark, disorientating, and highly imaginative streams of consciousness with a unique sense of humour and madness. In the third of this new series, I caught up with him to talk about isolation, the flow of writing, and the unreliable narrator.
Hi Logan, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!
Hi, C.R. Thanks for the invite to participate. Very happy to be a part of this.
How are you faring in these strange times, is isolation a help or a hindrance to your creative process?
Outside of the occasional moment of being overwhelmed emotionally by the terror and beauty of a whole planet trying to achieve something together, in unison, not only for themselves, but for their families, neighbors, and those workers out in public selflessly providing essential services for the rest of us, I guess you could say I’m doing quite well, actually. As I’m betting you’ll hear from most writers, I’m not incredibly social. I’m not antisocial, but the things writers like doing (reading and writing) are things done in isolation already, so it’s not a huge disruption to my life. And I’m in isolation with my favorite people, my family, so why would I complain? So, we’re taking this lockdown very seriously and fortunately they’re like me — not super social. I guess we were all homebodies to begin with, so we’re not dealing with the same stress as those that have a real need to be out and about with bunches of people. So it goes.
As for the creative process, I guess it has stymied it. I usually take a break after releasing a new book, but I likely would have begun a new one by now had this whole thing not happened. I am fine with (some) isolation, but I actually do a lot of my writing out of the house. That’s mostly due to not having any kind of writing studio in our house, which means the kids would be asking every five seconds what I’m doing, what my book is about, and if they can help me write it. But when I say, “Sure. Tell me how many S’s there are in ‘occasional.’ I can’t remember,” they just give me blank expressions and start hitting the keyboard, laughing madly like a couple tiny maniacs. It’s frightening. You should see it. That said, even if I get my writing studio with a door that locks (we’re going to try to convert the garage during this time of lockdown), the six-year-old is already a master lock-picker. So we’ll see how that goes.
Aside from needing space, I’m also not the type to write when my mind is completely occupied by something other than the thing I’m writing at the moment. I turn on the news every morning, hoping against hope that the death and infection rates are slowing, and as yet, it seems to only be increasing. Hard for me to think about my next book when that’s how the day starts. Then of course there’s getting used to working from home. So, sitting all day in the house on the computer for the day job makes it a little daunting. I mean, to basically “clock out” of the day job without having gone anywhere and then to simply “clock in” to the writing job is an abrupt change in gears and I’m much better working when there’s more of a transition from one thing to the next. I hate abruptly changing gears.
All THAT said, the itch to write is a lifelong affliction, and that has returned. I’m ready to get rolling. What that will likely do is inspire me to get to work converting the garage ASAP. So, long story short, this whole crisis has affected me by inspiring me to do some home renovation. Who’d a thunk it?
I can certainly relate to all that! So, you recently released a new novel – The God of Salt & Light – with a very interesting premise. Do you want to talk a little about that?
Of course I do! As a writer, one of my very favorite subjects is my own books! The God of Salt & Light, I especially like talking about. This is a book about a guy in love with the Salton Sea. He worships it and starts a kind of cult called The People of the Salton Sea. And then, of course, lots of strange, bizarre, disgusting, and wonderful things happen. BUT, beyond that, I’ve been really excited to get this book into the world because of the language. I had been writing a book based around the Salton Sea for nearly the entirety of 2019. It was a more traditional novel, but had been going slowly. In about 10 months I got down only 55K words or so. And then I realized I wasn’t writing the book I wanted to write, so I tossed it in the bin and tried to work on a few other things. But this thing with the Salton Sea (and I’ve had a thing for the Salton Sea for a while) didn’t go away. Then the first few lines of the book popped into my head and next thing I know, 10 days later, the book is done. Well, the first draft. It came out as a skeleton of a book at first. Actually, my first impression was that I had only written notes for a book and not a book, itself, and I put it away for the rest of 2019. When I got back to it in early 2020, I found that adding the meat and muscle to that skeleton also just seemed to happen. That book poured out of me and then, even with the pause, continued to pour out of me as I shaped the book and got it into its final form. Of course, that process took a few months, so, the revising/rewriting/editing part took significantly longer than the creation part.
I’ll admit I’m not sure how much the process means to anyone else. It probably doesn’t mean a lot to others that this book is very important to me because it was one of the most natural releases I’ve ever experienced creatively. By “release,” I just mean that the book was really like water — it flowed. And given that this book is about a massive, salty body of water in the middle of a massive desert, I think there’s something to that. There’s some connection between the content and the process that created the content. It’s a mystery to me what that is exactly, but mystery is what makes art work. And in the end, with a kind of ease I rarely experience, I created this mysterious little book that is wholly unlike anything I’ve ever done.
So, for the moment, it’s my favorite. That said, ever since I wrote My Eyes Are Black Holes back in 2015, I’ve had a desire to write another novella with an emphasis on language and image. These are things all my books take great care with, but I wanted a book where, when someone asks what it’s about, I could just say it’s about the language. It’s about the sounds these words make and how they all fit together and what they make you FEEL.
I suppose you could really say that about every book ever written, but…
In my reviews of your books, I’ve referred to you as a ‘master of the unreliable narrator’. Your main characters are outsiders, often suffering psychological trauma, the effects of substance abuse or both. Where does that come from? What attracts you to writing such perspectives?
And thanks again for saying such kind things! Ever since I turned to fiction as my main vocation (I originally focused only on poetry), the unreliable narrator has fascinated me. Or intrigued me? There’s a few reasons for that. One is that it’s ripe for the element of surprise. In art of all kinds, what I’m excited by is that thing I never saw coming. With an unreliable narrator, that’s more possible because at any moment you can turn the tables. Of course, if you don’t do it well, you’re just manipulating the story and the reader. And that sucks. It’s really easy to slip into bad writing when writing an unreliable narrator. But when it’s done well, you get those moments where your brain lights up with possibilities, both as the writer and the reader.
The other thing is, I tend to be most comfortable writing in the first person. And if I’m writing in the first person, the unreliable narrator is the natural outcome. I think that’s because every human being is an unreliable narrator. We tell ourselves versions of the truth every day, for various reasons. And, in the end, our own truths are the ones we live by, whether they’re valid or virtuous or disastrous. What’s more fascinating about the unreliable narrator than that is that we human beings are well aware of the fact that we basically tell ourselves lies all day and, yet, when we listen to others, we take everything they say at face value (well, to some degree). It says something about us as human beings that we really want to believe others the way we believe ourselves. And I think readers do that when they’re met with an unreliable narrator. One of the questions I get most often about my books is whether or not something happened, or was it just in the narrator’s head, and my response is always, “Does it matter? It happened in the book, didn’t it?”
I might be leading myself on another never-ending tangent there, so I’ll move onto the other part of the question. My characters tend to have psychological trauma, neuroses, etc., and most have some kind of substance abuse. I spent almost all of my 20s in seedy little bars in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. The Tenderloin was (San Francisco has changed since I left it in 2009, and continues to change rapidly into something it never was before) a grimy neighborhood that I lived in for a number of years and I was surrounded, basically, by the things that ended up in my books: outsiders, addicts, and insanity. While it was a stressful place to live in, I felt pretty much at home. I’d sit in bars and drink pint glasses of whiskey and soda water and chat with all kinds of people, most of which were searching for some semblance of balance. Most of whom were searching for a kind of family in all that madness. My 20s were a very impressionable time and spending most of them in the Tenderloin definitely shaped how I see things, and I guess how I see things is how it all comes out in the books.
Of course, that explanation entirely leaves out my early 30s, which were spent in Chicago and where I found myself struggling and isolated. It was in Chicago where I started writing fiction. During that time of relative isolation, I discovered I was a more social person than I had thought and that I had a genuine need for connection. I think that also informs my characters. Even when they’re trying to get away, they’re trying to find some kind of connection. Some kind of family to be a part of.
I like that. I’ve heard your writing style described as transgressive in the past. How do you feel about that as a label, do you agree with it?
I may have been the one that first started throwing that label around! Ha. So, I probably started that, really. In any case, it’s not a label I’m comfortable with any longer, though it does seem that some readers agree it’s an apt label for the kind of messed up stories I write. But, because I write fiction that uses elements of horror, sci-fi, thriller, mystery, supernatural realism, psychological drama, etc., it’s always been a struggle to express to the readership what kind of fiction they should expect to encounter with my books. Especially in the beginning, when stories for Enjoy Me were being published in lit mags and I was convinced I was going to be able to find a publisher for the collection. I was like, “What the hell do I call this?” Publishers REQUIRE you to tell them how they are going to market your book. And I really couldn’t, because I guess I never set out to write in any one particular genre. But, if I call it horror, people will expect something like Stephen King. If I call it sci-fi, then people will expect PK Dick. If I call it magical realism, people will expect Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And if I call it transgressive, people will expect Irvine Welsh. And my books are nothing like any of those things. It’s still a struggle. People want to know what to expect before they commit the next week or month or whatever to reading your book, and I really don’t know what to tell them to expect. Expect the unexpected sounds cheesy as fuck, so I try to keep myself from saying that.
Although there’s some pretty dark stuff in your novels, there’s also a measure of humour. Is that a balance you take care to get right?
When I first started writing fiction I didn’t even recognize my own humor. I had only been writing poetry previous to that, and in poetry I found little opportunity for humor. So, I guess when I started writing fiction, the humor finally found its release. It comes naturally, but I also am of the opinion that humor is absolutely necessary. Especially when writing dark content. I’ve read a number of really really really dark, yet humorless, books and the persistence of it is too much. Or, it flattens everything out. Meaning, mood and movement. Like, who wants to live with a book where the only color is grey? That kind of thing. If dark thoughts don’t come with humor, they’re… I don’t know, overwhelming? Make you want to kill yourself? I don’t know. It’s not, of course, black and white, because I have read some humorless, exceptionally dark fiction (Spider by Patrick McGrath comes to mind) that I enjoyed a lot and which has stuck to my bones. But, if my books didn’t have the humor, they wouldn’t be anything like themselves. Even books like The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, a book many claim to be too dark for them, has lots of little moments of humor. Frank’s completely bat-shit crazy brother is hilarious, for instance. In any case, it’s my experience that most people won’t dive into darker territories unless there’s moments of levity to bring them out of the muck every once in a while. Fortunately, my characters tend to have a level of sarcasm, wit, or slapstick to them. To put it simply, it’s what I enjoy, and I like to crack (way too many) jokes throughout the day, so it’s something that occurs naturally during the writing process. And I’m grateful for that.
You mentioned that you started out writing poetry. Did that influence the way you approached writing longform fiction?
It absolutely did. And while the early part of my writing “career” was completely absorbed with writing poetry and publishing others through my zine Small Town and the chapbook series under the Transmission Press imprint, I pretty much owe the style I’ve developed entirely to poetry. The most important thing I learned from poetry was how to let go when writing. Lose the ego and all that. You know, how to get out of one’s own way, essentially. While living in San Francisco, I was very interested in its local history pertaining to poetry. Of which it has an incredibly rich one. Of course, most associate San Francisco with the Beats, but they never jived with me. My interests leaned more toward the adjacent school of poetry, which was the jokingly named Berkeley Renaissance group helmed by Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and Robin Blaser. Jack Spicer in particular. He believed that the poet was merely a receptor. To be more direct, the poet was simply a radio receiving transmissions from the ether and, essentially, translating and broadcasting them onto the page. That idea allowed me a particular kind of freedom, while also helping me recognize why some of my poetry I’d already written worked, and some didn’t. But, this whole idea of letting go, of not letting your ego get in the way, basically gave me the go-ahead to dive deep into freewriting and see where it took me. Because it wasn’t about me. Once I realized that, the words found escape a lot more easily.
Additionally, this whole idea of letting go relieves the writer of a lot of responsibility, which, in turn, relieves the UNBEARABLE BURDEN of having to have “something to say.” Once I got rid of that burden, the world opened up for me. Once I got rid of that and just wrote, I realized that while I may feel that I don’t have a whole lot to say, my books sure feel that they do. And once I started writing Enjoy Me, I realized just how useful that could be with not just poetry, but fiction as well. Perhaps even more, since fiction is supposed to be plotted, thus outlined and executed according to a specific plan. At least in a rudimentary sense, you have no wiggle room to deviate in fiction, or at least that was my perspective in the beginning. In removing that, you might come up with something completely new. Right? And I think we should always be trying to make something new.
There are a lot of music references in your work. What’s your relationship with music like and how does it play into your fiction?
I’m obsessed. Music is life. There’s really nothing more direct than it. No purer artform. And if I was any good at making music, I’d probably devote my life to that. So, I think the inclusion of music in almost all of my books comes down to my inability to imagine a setting without it. To imagine characters that are not also obsessed. And I leave all the music references in at my own peril, because I know that readers could be very disinterested, especially if my characters and stories are referencing music they either haven’t heard of or may despise. In the end, I leave it all in there for myself. It’s a reflection of the world I live in and it feels good to have it there in my books because I don’t ever want to be anywhere without it.
Aside from that, I do think it’s possible to reference music in a literary way. Like, do all allusions and references have to be from fucking Ulysses or something? I don’t think so. While music is in all my books because I’m obsessed with it, the music in the books is hardly pointless. More often than not, through the use of (completely legally borrowed) lyrics or whatnot, you can create a vibe/foreshadowing/allusions, etc. It’s another tool, like symbolism or metaphor, to use.
But, in the end, I’m a Gen Xer, and we’ve always worn our musical tastes on our sleeves.
I hadn’t thought of it being a generational thing, but I can totally see it. Finally, then, a question I’m asking every guest. Which three books would you recommend to readers on Lockdown?
Oh, I do love the opportunity to make recommendations. Let’s see…
- Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis. Yes, none of us like the person Bret has become in his waning years, but this book has EVERYTHING. It’s possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read, while also being one of the darkest, dirtiest, glittery-est, disgusting-est books I’ve ever read. It’s epic in a way Bret never gets in his other novels, and surreal/dreamlike in a way he seemed to perfect in parts of American Psycho (another hilarious book, really). Plus, it’s like 600 pages, so it’ll give you something to do. I’ve read the book about five times and it doesn’t get old.
- Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh. In contrast to Bret, how could you hate on old loveable Irvine? This book is surreal and dreamy and dark and brooding and beautiful. This is one of Irvine’s early novels where he was still experimenting with narrative structure. He even used to do a lot with typography and layout. I love all his books, new and old, but his creative energy in his first three or four books was something else. A haunting story that I’ll need to reread over and over again. Possibly during this lockdown, actually.
- The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. Speaking of epics, this book is that. What’s impressive is how EPIC this book feels when, really, much of the narrative takes place over a relatively short amount of time. The way in which Michel chronicles the quotidian is fascinating. Like the two authors above, Michel is very much his own author. I can’t think of anyone that sees things the way he does, that writes them the way he does. He’s a very precise and direct author, yet his ideas are definitely dark and heavy and bizarre. There’s an alien-like quality to everything he writes that I can’t get enough of. And like Glamorama, it’s a massive book. Great for filling the time!
Fantastic recommendations! Thank you for your time, Logan, this has been great.
If that piqued your interest, be sure to check out Logan’s novels, short stories and poetry on his Amazon page.