Interview with Bob Smith, author of ‘Remembrance of Things I Forgot’
By Tim Miller
Bob Smith’s new novel Remembrance of Things I Forgot has done the impossible; it more than lives up to its blurbs! I have never felt a book so thoroughly fulfill its advance promo as Remembrance of Things I Forgot did in relation to Edmund White’s comment “If H.G. Wells had been funny and Oscar Wilde obsessed with time travel they might have mated and produced Bob Smith, who has written the funniest and wildest ride imaginable through the recent past and near future.” I have read all of Bob Smith’s earlier memoirs and his first novel, and in this new book his extraordinary gifts as a writer, humorist, and keen observer of gay identity have reached new heights.
Diagnosed with ALS /Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 2007, Bob Smith has dug down, dared to ask the huge questions and come up with a new book that is rich in humor and heart. At a time when so many novels have become careful and small in their reach Bob Smith has made a gorgeous leap into a really bold and fantastic device that lets him go to such rich places as a novelist. The capaciousness and sheer fun of it makes it a thrilling and emotionally rich reading experience. I caught up with Bob Smith to talk about time travel and how to turn the word “Cheney” into a curse word.
Tim Miller: Your new novel is so fantastic. What was the initial nudge that took you to Remembrance of Things I Forgot?
Bob Smith: About six years ago, my brother Jim gave me a photo of myself he’d taken in 1986. I’d never seen it before and was shocked at how handsome I was since I always thought of myself as my high school graduation picture: a geek with big eyeglasses. I immediately joked to friends that I needed a time machine to go back and give me the heads up. That picture was my Proustian Madeleine and later I found the idea of a gay time travel story funny, creepy and novel since you could be sexually attracted to yourself. I hadn’t read a time travel story with a gay protagonist and finally decided to write one.
The novel really combines all the strongest juice from your memoirs, your stand up, and your first novel into a charged new creation. What is the balancing act between fiction and materials from your own autobiography in this work? I’ve always thought of my standup act as a fictional autobiography and I’ve started to see that my novels are autobiographical fictions. My first novel Selfish and Perverse is a novel, but I did have a very romantic and sexually exciting fling with a hot gay salmon fisherman in Alaska. And in Remembrance, everything about Carol’s suicide is true and the mother is based upon my mother, and most of the opinions are mine, although I’m not quite the opinionated New Yorker as my main character, and I’ve never lost my hair.
Right now, I’m working on a novel set in Ancient Greece and you’d think that strange world would be completely alien — and much of it is — but during my research I read Xenophon’s Symposium and it opens with a comedian who offers to entertain at a dinner party in exchange for a free meal. The comedian bombs and I immediately knew I could write about that culture. I’ve told jokes in exchange for free vacations so I could identify with that universe. My new novel is set in the ancient Greek theater world and in 2500 years that sub-culture hasn’t changed as much as you’d think.
TM: The time travel concept really sets up a great template to go to amazing places. What lead you to this device? (and did you watch the TV show Time Tunnel as a kid?)
BS: I’ve always liked time travel stories, especially the works of Jack Finney. So I wrote a short story where a gay guy goes back in time and meets his younger self. In the intervening years he’s built himself into a hunk and his younger self is attracted. Friends of mine read it and one of them the writer Michael Carroll suggested that it should be a novel. At first, I didn’t see it, then it hit me. There’s a convention in time travel stories that if you change the past you might alter the future, but the more I thought about time travel, the more convinced I became that everyone would want to change their pasts.
From telling myself to hit on that hot jock in high school I once shared a single bed with, and who I suspected was open to experimenting with man-on-man action, to trying to prevent my sister’s suicide. Then there would also be the temptations to make money and really alter history — prevent someone from becoming president. But I want to emphasize that Remembrance is a comic novel with a sci-fi launching point. Once the main character is back in the past, I made every effort to have the novel play out realistically — what would you change about your past and how would you go about doing it? That’s where I found the real comedy derived from in the book.
And yes, I loved Time Tunnel as a boy and watched every episode.
TM: While I expected the humor to shine through as it always does with your work either as a writer or performer, I was deeply moved by how poignant and deeply felt the humor was. How do you maintain this connection between the humor and the heartfelt?
BS: Well, the writers I really admire such as Shakespeare and Chekhov, or the novelists Barbara Pym and Stephen McCauley, aren’t afraid of mixing the comic and the tragic. I just think of a story first and then write what the story requires. I tend to primarily think comic, but every novel — even comic novels — needs real moments of disappointment, reflection and sadness.
Leaping deftly from the hysterically funny to the existential, the novel really has a big generous heart of facing these hard times — AIDS, Reagan-Bush-Bush fascism and the like — that we have been traveling through head on. How has dealing with ALS these last years informed this novel and all your creative work? Well, the last five years have been some of the best and worst of times in my life. I became a donor to a lesbian couple and have two amazing children, and I was also diagnosed with a terrifying disease. While I was writing this novel, I seriously thought about living through the Reagan era when our president sat back and watched gay men die to today when the Republicans have broadened that policy to sit back and happily watch everyone die without health insurance.
I’ve also been, what I jokingly call in the novel, a same-sex tree hugger since I was a kid. And Reagan began the Republicans’ anti-environmental assault, which I take personally since my children will have to live on that ruined planet. I also believe Bush and Cheney have become historical villains like Richard III, and it’s the duty of playwrights, novelists and historians to ensure their diabolical policies aren’t forgotten. Most of all I thought the nauseating idea of having a Republican boyfriend was a great comic premise.
TM: Bob, if you could use that time travel device and fling yourself in the future one hundred years, what could you tell us from that vantage point?
I’d like to think that in a hundred years, gay rights and environmental sustainability will be universal values, calling someone a “Cheney” is universally recognized a vile insult, and no one will believe in a God who’s meaner than I am. (I’m pretty easy-going, so yes, Bob Smith will have to be the measure of meanness.) All my books will be downloadable to your brain. And they better have a cure for ALS!
Tim Miller is a solo performer and the author of the books Shirts & Skin, Body Blows and 1001 Beds. He can be reached at his website TimMillerPerformer.com.