War, Memory, and Quantum Mechanics: An Interview with Curtis Smith

War, Memory, and Quantum Mechanics: An Interview with Curtis Smith

Interview by Jen Grow

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five by Curtis Smith, is part of Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series, which asks authors to respond in various ways to books that inspired them as writers. In Smith’s capable hands, the project transcends literary criticism to become a free-form meditation on the themes in Vonnegut’s novel. Written in the collaged style of Slaughterhouse-Five, Smith reflects on the nature of time, memory, war, and mortality as they intersect with Smith’s life as a reader, writer, teacher, and father. Curtis Smith is the author of five previous story collections, three novels, and two essay collections. His stories and essays have appeared in more than one hundred literary journals and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He lives and works in Pennsylvania with his wife and son.

Jen Grow: I’m very curious about the Bookmarked series. When the editors first reached out to you about the project, did they have any specific guidelines about the approach you could take, the length of the piece, the overall vision? Did you feel daunted at the task of writing a book-length response to another book?

Curtis Smith: There wasn’t much outlined, except for an approximate word count (around 40,000) and a time frame (a year). Initially, I balked—then I was assured what they were looking for was a personal take on the book, not literary criticism. Outside of that, they left the rest up to me—which was incredibly liberating. I didn’t feel daunted about the task so much as about doing justice to the author and book. As far as material to write about goes, Slaughterhouse offers such a rich variety of themes and topics and stances that it didn’t take long to understand that I’d have plenty to write about, given all the wormholes I had to explore.

JG: I’m intrigued by your thoughts on the fluidity of time and memory. After reflecting on a list of collective experiences—the assassinations of Kennedy and King, the moon landing, Nixon’s resignation, John Lennon’s death, the Berlin Wall coming down, you write, “I remember all these things. Or do I?” At another point, you ask, “Can any of us ever stop looking back?” You also bring up our fascination with time travel, as it shows up in any number of books and movies. What do you think we’re actually trying to capture in our looking back or speeding through time to a particular destination?

CS: I think it’s a matter of understanding history—especially our personal histories—in order to truly understand the present. Memory is a slippery thing—and in the course of writing the book, I came to understand that my own memory isn’t that great, or at least it isn’t great on the surface—but once I started deliberately thinking about certain times and events, more and more incidents came back to me. But then I wondered—were these recollections actually true? And to what extent did the present moment influence what I was conjuring in my mind? To a certain extent, I imagine we’re all haunted by our pasts—in ways both good and bad. That’s one of the major questions of Slaughterhouse—how can a person who’s witnessed horror on the scale of Vonnegut/Billy Pilgrim ever escape that horror? Is that even possible? In terms of trying to explain PTSD (albeit in abstract terms utilizing aliens and a man unstuck in the narrative of his own life), the book was really ahead of its time.

JG: I love the meditative quality of your writing and the way you’ve assembled your ideas to complement or juxtapose Vonnegut’s themes. I dog-eared the page where you write, “…I stumble when I think of calling myself a writer. A writer—it sounds too final, like I’ve reached a destination. But there is no destination; there’s only practice, a continual reach. A desire to share a clear thought.” The phrase ‘continual reach’ really resonates with me. Since your book is a collage of ideas that build on each other, are you suggesting that war is also a form of ‘continual reach’ or maybe over-reach, a desire of some sort? Can you elaborate? (And as an aside, do you ever feel like the process of writing is an internal battle?)

CS: Thanks for the kind words. The question of structure was really interesting—I wrote the book in the form of Slaughterhouse, a series of brief observations and asides. I kind of pictured the structure as a weaving—I had long strands that ran the course of the book—a history of massacres and PTSD, theories of time and alternate realities, my own experiences with the book, quotes from Vonnegut and others. Then I slipped shorter strands through these—observations that usually ran for a few pages—religion and Ayn Rand and modern politics and so on. It sounds fragmented—and it is—but I think it’s also cohesive in its own way.

War as a reach—I’m not sure about that—but I’m afraid it’s inescapable, and that breaks my heart. That said, there can sometimes be a good war—and I believe Vonnegut felt he fought in one—but then his heart was broken too when he saw his country become entangled in Vietnam and Iraq. I came to think perhaps Billy Pilgrim’s stumbling through time was really a story of all mankind never being able to escape its past—that just as we’ve been able to build civilizations and fall in love, so too have we never evolved from being butchers.

I think there are elements of internal struggle when it comes to writing, but a clearer notion for my experience is the practice of continually asking questions. The questions can be about craft or plot—but more often, they cut deeper. I think when we ask questions of ourselves or our characters, we’re really on a journey to understand our own sensibilities. Not that the journey is ever complete—but being aware and conscious of the process is reward enough.

JG: I don’t want to suggest that writing is war. That’s certainly not what I’m getting at. But ‘war as a reach’ is something I jotted down in the margin of the book after I read your passage about writing. It occurred to me that war could be a warped form of reaching: a reach outside of one’s own boundaries to conquer new lands or people, a reach to provide stability to a region, a reach to protect one’s homeland or world view. And now that I think of it, even memory or time travel is a reach: a reach into the recesses of the mind or a reach into the future. So maybe my question has to do with the idea of ‘continual reach’ and yearning. For you, as a writer and as a citizen of the world, where is yearning helpful and at what point does it become destructive? 

CS: Wow, that’s a good question. That’s a very interesting take on war—the reaching for what isn’t yours—I can see that.

On the personal level, yearning is what keeps us going, keeps us looking ahead through a moment’s setbacks and disappointments. I’ve got to believe there are a rare few who make it in the writing world—or any venture—on talent alone. But most of us aren’t like that, and the amount of yearning or desire or drive we possess is what often separates those who succeed from those who don’t. This is a good thing—for while we all can’t have the same level of innate skill, we all have access to the kind of drive that allows us to make the most of our skills. When does it become a negative force? Perhaps when we’re not being honest with ourselves—or when we allow the yearning to undermine our other duties and responsibilities.

One of the seminars I’ve taught in the past is about planning before writing—and on a wider scale, I invite the audience to create a hierarchy of the callings in their lives. For me, family comes first, then the job I’m being paid to do, then writing (with exercise coming in a not-so-distant fourth—if only for the fact that it clears my head and allows me to write). Having this knowledge allows me to put aside my work when necessary—and, more often than not, to overlook other callings that aren’t as important. I can ignore a leaky faucet or walk past a crooked picture for weeks, even months. I’ve made my peace with many of life’s distractions—and I think that peace has helped my work.

JG: You make the point that the Bombing of Dresden in Vonnegut’s novel is an echo of any number of massacres throughout history: The Battle of Marathon, Battle of Ypres, the Third Punic War, the Parsley Massacre, the Massacre of Latins, the Hamidan Massacre, and so on. I hate that I can use the phrase ‘and so on’ about massacres left unmentioned or forgotten. You also remind us that the “Tralfamadorians urged Billy Pilgrim to look at the pretty things, to ignore the troublesome, the ugly, the brutal.” So many of these massacres have been forgotten or relegated to history books; and there are things going on in our contemporary world that are difficult to acknowledge. What do you think that says about our collective blindness and cultural relationship to mass devastation? To discomfort, even?

CS: I think collective blindness is a coping mechanism we couldn’t live without. Sometimes sheer numbers leave us numb. There’s a quote some attribute to Stalin—“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” And what’s sadder still is that same sentiment has been echoed in a number of quotes through history. Through the book, I address a string of atrocities—all of which had an air of irony to them or struck a chord with a nearby passage. Unfortunately, researching such events was easy—I had a lot of material to pick from. I don’t want to be a downer, but I think people don’t know enough about such things. Perhaps acknowledging this all-too-human penchant would be the first step to avoiding it. Perhaps I’m foolish to think it could make a difference.

And we engage in collective blindness on a personal level. In the book, I touch on this—how I try not to think of where my clothes are made or where my iPad is assembled. It’s a question I trace back to Jesus and Judas. Vonnegut and I hold similar beliefs when it comes to religion, but I think we’re both on the same page as Jesus in this aspect: yes, the poor (and other unfortunates) will always be with us—the real question is what are we, without ever being able to solve the problem, going to do about it.

JG: Quantum mechanics is fascinating to me, even if I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. You bring up the Many Intersecting Worlds hypothesis that suggests that parallel realities might interact with ours at the quantum level and therefore make it impossible to tell where one world ends and the next begins. While this is mind-blowing on the scientific level, what do you think about this as a writer and reader, as a creator and consumer of narrative universes?

CS: I touch on aspects of quantum mechanics a number of times in the book. That said, I can talk about it, but I don’t really understand it. But it is interesting—the notion that we’re surrounded by other versions of our lives and ourselves. And you’re right—that’s what we do as writers; we imagine different worlds, only we get to pull all the strings and decide what is and isn’t.

JG: At one point, you talk about arranging toy soldiers as a boy and how that play was a bit like writing. I relate to this idea because as a child, I used to build houses for our train set. I didn’t care about the trains so much, but I’d spend hours creating narratives for the people in the town. How old were you when you started writing? Do you outline and organize your thoughts ahead of time (as an arrangement of toy soldiers might suggest) or is your process more intuitive and organic?

CS: I started writing in my late twenties. I wasn’t the kind of person who always knew he wanted to write—but I did want to be creative. Writing clicked where other creative investigations had fizzled. I wrote a story, got hooked, that was it. Hardly a day’s gone by since when I haven’t written. I’m thankful for the discovery—it’s allowed me a level of engagement and happiness that’s made my life much richer.

My writing life is different from the rest of my life, in that I’m very organized when I write. I’m a planner—I need to have a vision from beginning to end before I put pen to paper. I really enjoy this part of the process—the seeing things on a wide stage—and it helps me feel closer to my work. Of course, the end result is often very different from my initial imagining; the work always has its way. But that’s cool. I’m big on the sentence-level of writing—I like my sentences and paragraphs to be clean and sharp—and I find that if I can focus on that during my rough drafts rather than thinking, “where is this going?” I can emerge with a stronger piece of writing. Of course, then comes revision, where many of my best-laid plans and most labored-over sentences get cut, but that’s another story.

JG: It’s apparent that you did a lot of research in writing this book. For you, which comes first—the research or the writing? When do you know you’ve done enough?

CS: There was a lot of research with this book—historical incidents, quotes, scientific theories—but mainly, I used them as a springboard to introduce other things—or more precisely, related topics that hopefully tied back to Slaughterhouse.

I’m kind of a history and science and math nerd anyway—so the research was pretty fun. I told myself I’d done enough when I felt the narrative arc back to the notions I wanted to address from the book’s final scene. Although since submitting my final draft, I’ll sometimes stumble across an article about science or time and think, “Man, I wish I’d known that before.”

JG: Is there a question you’d like to answer that I didn’t ask? Or do you have a current project you’d like to mention?

CS: I’m usually juggling three projects. Right now I’m finishing the first draft of a new novel. And while I’m not doing that, I’m working on a new cycle of stories (I work every morning and evening—the novel is my current evening work and the stories are my morning work—my evening and morning brains are better suited for different kinds of pursuits).

Last year, I retired after thirty-three years of teaching special learning students in a public high school outside Harrisburg, PA. I’m taking notes and considering trying to write a kind of memoir about the experience, but I’m not sure how that will work out. It’s odd—it was such a part of my life for so long—but when I think about it now, sometimes it seems too near to truly make sense of, and other times, it feels like it’s part of a distant past that’s more shadow than real. I think Billy Pilgrim would understand what I’m saying.

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