Bob Smith: The Past Perfect Tense
Author: William Johnson
November 7, 2011
“We should all use time machines to go back and tell ourselves how cute we are in our twenties because everyone is, but we won’t realize it until we’re middle-aged.”
With his new novel, Remembrance of Things I Forgot (University of Wisconsin Press), author Bob Smith becomes the ultimate genre mixer. The book is a time-traveling yarn, a political farce, a comedic examination of our recent past, and a heartrending tale of familial and romantic love.
The novel opens in 2006, where the protagonist, comic book dealer John Sherkston, haphazardly travels back to 1986 using his physicist boyfriend’s time machine. Once in 1986, John encounters “Junior,” his guileless younger self and a younger version of his still science-mined boyfriend. The trio embarks on a far flung adventure to “prevent John’s sister from making a tragic decision, and stop George W. Bush from becoming president…”
Smith took some time to talk with Lambda Literary about his new novel, comedy writing and his own 80s past.
Your new novel could really be considered speculative fiction. Are you a science fiction fan?
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but I have read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut and the time-travel novels and stories of Jack Finney. Finney in particular inspired me to write this book.
I had never read a time travel story with a gay protagonist and thought that could be especially interesting.
With this novel you tackle some pretty big themes: Familial love/time-travel/physics. Was there any fear involved like, “Hmm, can I pull this off?”
A lot of fear, once I started writing it, the intricate weaving together of all those genres was daunting.
But I had very smart writer pals read early drafts and, my boyfriend Michael Zam, who’s a genius about story, gave me brilliant notes. I did everything they said. I always say, “Writing is re-writing.”
I also caught a lot of comic book references. Are you a secret fanboy?
I loved comic books as a boy and as an adult I still love superhero physiques. I made my main character a comic book dealer, because I wanted a profession that could be regarded as juvenile, although I don’t think it is. It’s sort of the same stigma as being a comedian.
Comedians explore some serious minded stuff. Comedy often get slighted with being a lesser art…which strikes me as odd…since making someone laugh is can often be much harder than making someone cry. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know why. But in the literary world, ‘serious’ literary novels aren’t usually novels that make readers laugh. Stephen McCauley, Armistead Maupin and Alan Bennett are brilliant comic novelists, but I don’t see them getting the Booker or Pulitzer Prizes they deserve. It’s always the humorless 600-page novel about baseball or infidelity by a straight white guy that the Times praises. (The Times believes straight guys will only pick up novels about stray balls.) But my mom was severely depressed when I was a kid and my dad died of alcoholism, which were both horribly sad and yet also sometimes hilarious.
Your novel, like a lot of interesting speculative fiction, the “fantastic” is used to explore the political and the personal. And this novel really is an example of that. The novel is humorous, but there is an undercurrent of rage. Particularly against Republicans. Did your Republican friends read it?
I’m not sure if I have any Republican friends. They’d have to be deeply closeted around me. I do have Republican brothers though, and we’ve had some ‘interesting conservations’ which is polite for nasty arguments. Although, I do love them.
My rage is really due to my becoming a donor to a lesbian couple. They’re the parents of my daughter and son, and I dislike the Republicans more for their anti-environmental policies than even their anti-gay policies. Their selfishness is endangering my kids’ future.
Did your conversations with your brothers make their way into this novel?
Not really. In the book, I tried to imagine what some interviewer should ask Dick Cheney. But the novel I think is primarily a family love story. My sister Carol really did commit suicide, and trying to stop that is the primary goal of John, my main character.
Oh, I am sorry to hear that….Was it hard to revisit that loss?
It was impossible, and I can write about anything. I considered writing an essay about it, but it was too painful. Everything I write in the novel about the character Carol is true, but framing it with a fictional story allowed me to write about it.
So when you started this novel were you thinking, “What if I could save Carol?”
I wrote a short story about time travel where a guy literally fucked himself, and my writer pal Michael Carroll read it and said, “This should be a novel.” At first I didn’t see it. The breaking up with a Republican boyfriend was in the story, but when I thought about stopping Carol’s suicide—that was an eureka moment—I finally could see it as a novel.
Did you learn anything about your relationship with Carol by writing this novel?
Well, she was the funniest person I’ve ever known, and most of my friends are comedians so that’s saying a lot. But I think I understand her better… and of course, I wish I had a time machine so I could try and save her. And she used to say, “Hi Groovy” whenever I called her and while writing the novel. I realized she meant that literally. I was her cool older brother living in New York, appearing on The Tonight Show, having my own HBO special…
How hard was it for you to summon the eighties…All those 80s cultural touchstones? Did you go back a do a lot of research?
I did a lot of research on Bush in 1986, the year he quit drinking. But most of the cultural references slowly appeared while I was writing the novel. Things such as no cell phones or that in 1986, no one had ever heard of the novelist Dawn Powell. If I had known all the fact-checking I had to do, I might’ve had second thoughts about writing a time travel novel.
What were the eighties like for you?
I loved New York. I moved from Buffalo in ’84 and became a cater-waiter and worked all over the city in places like The Dakota, waiting on people like Jackie Onassis and David Hockney, who left me a drawing on his menu as a tip when I waited on him for a week at the Metropolitan Museum. I was also furious about Reagan’s indifference to AIDS and his starting the continuing anti-environmental Republican assault on our planet. Many of my friends then died of AIDS and that was a primary reason why I became an out gay comic working in straight comedy clubs in 1986. Back then, I was the only out comic working in New York and all the still-closeted comics in those clubs thought I was crazy. It was literally the best and worst of times. Actually one inspiration for Remembrance was a photo of me taken in 1986. My brother took it, but I never saw it until 2005. I was shocked how handsome and buff I was then because I never thought I was. We should all use time machines to go back and tell ourselves how cute we are in our twenties because everyone is, but we won’t realize it until we’re middle-aged.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your career. In the midst of a successful stand-up career you were diagnosed with a neurological disorder. How did you deal with that adjustment?
In 2007, I was diagnosed with ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease. My voice has deteriorated and I had to quit doing standup in 2010, which was very hard. It takes so long to become a good standup and it was sad to give it up. But my focus has been on writing novels and essays in the past few years and that still makes me happy. I’m about halfway done with a novel set in Ancient Greece.
Ancient Greece? Can you give me any more details?
It’s narrated by the boy-crazy Sophocles (He was, as there are numerous stories), and it’s a comedy about tragedy. I’m also trying to write about how much we owe to the Greeks, in both good and horrible ways. Everything from male beauty pageants to the sexism and slavery practiced by the people who invented democracy. The Athenians destroyed themselves in fifty years by constant warfare led by an oligarchy of the rich, and the parallels with our current history are frightening. It’s also kind of refreshing writing about a culture without sexual shame. I’m also happily writing my first lesbian love story in this novel.
One thing I’ve loved is researching the ancient Greeks and how homosexuality permeated their entire culture, In college, my professors said there’s no proof Achilles and Patrocles were lovers, but my research revealed Aeschylus wrote a play called The Myrmidons, where there’s a line about, “the Holy union of their thighs.” Obviously the Ancient Greeks thought of them as boyfriends. And the heroes of ancient Greek democracy were a gay couple, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who died trying to assassinate a tyrant. They had statues erected to them and a song about their heroism was almost an Athenian anthem. It pisses me off that their story isn’t taught in schools.
What I’m really enjoying, though, is that how many things that were a part of Ancient Greek culture feel contemporary. For instance, Pythagoras believed in reincarnation and many of followers were vegetarian and, of course, chorus boys haven’t changed in 2500 years.