Lewis Buzbee: on Going for Something Huge but Still Realistic

Lewis Buzbee: on Going for Something Huge but Still Realistic

An interview with Lewis Buzbee, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Lewis Buzbee was a bookseller for ten years, worked in publishing for ten years, and now teaches writing variously around the Bay Area. He’s published eight books, for both adults and younger readers, most recently Blackboard and Bridge of Time. You can learn more about his books at lewisbuzbee.com.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I tell them I’m a writer, and that I also teach a little.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Start reading broadly and deeply, and start writing every single day, then give it 10 years. If you don’t have 10 years’ worth of apprenticeship in you, you probably don’t want to write.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I do, absolutely. Because I set out to be a writer when I was 15 and I haven’t stopped, and that was over 40 years ago. I’ve been published and unpublished all along, but I’m still writing, still making stories, still thinking of new things to write, still excited by the power of words and the necessity of story.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

Any music video by The Front Bottoms, this band from New Jersey who are my absolute favorites. Their new one “Cough It Out,” I put it on and I’m dancing.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

My father. He was a deep-sea diver for the Navy for 25 years. I mean, what a cool job. He was an Okie share-cropper’s son, had a 7th grade education at best, and ended up diving with Cousteau off Key West. What a life!

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

Oh, any astronaut at all, whoever was on the newest mission. And yes, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I discovered that you had to have 20/20 vision—at that time—and my dreams were crushed. Kinda hard to face another day in 5th grade when your dreams have been crushed.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

Every day at dusk, I watch the sun fall behind the granite slopes of the High Sierra. Then I turn and walk up the little path to the bar, where an ice-cold martini is waiting for me.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

Seriously, no one wants to hear about that.

How much money do you have in your checking account?


What’s wrong with society today?

There are 7 billion of us.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

Nasal steroids.

What is your fondest memory?

Seeing my daughter for the first time. Ain’t nothing better than that.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

On a good day, probably 3 or 4 times. And the focus of that falling in love is so variable, too. A song or a book, that baby in the stroller, the same old view of SF, maybe whatever cup of coffee I’m drinking.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

I’ll go for something huge but still realistic: clean accessible drinking water for everyone on the planet.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art is first and foremost a pleasure. And that’s why it’s necessary; at the most basic level, we are pleasure-seeking critters, our brains are wired that way. I also think art is an orderly way for humans to look at the chaos of the world, a way of taking it in. Why is it necessary? I think it makes us feel less alone.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve been writing, off and on over the last ten years, these weird little stories, where the syntax is all broken, and the stories are super short, and all the narrators are female, from 9 to 65. I never set out to “write” them, more like I was mugged by them, but in the last few months I finally realized they all went together, and have gotten more active about writing new ones, and am just finishing the collection now. I think it’s going to be called Maybe Later.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

Have you ever read the Irish writer Paul Murray? His novel Skippy Dies is my favorite novel of the last 10 years, and his newest, The Mark and the Void, is such an important book, a hilarious and revealing send-up of our globalized world. He’s very smart, very very funny, with a deeply affectionate attitude toward his characters, but he’s also scathing when it comes to our vanities and follies. He’s Dickensian that way — novels with big social scopes and characters that are hilarious and foolish and touching. I’d like that, to write a big book like that.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Shut down the freeways and bridges, amp up BART, make ferries free. I mean, really, have you been on a ferry recently? That’s commuting.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

I’m a seriously cheap date. Me and my wife and my daughter at our usual, Kezar Bar and Restaurant at Carl and Cole, seated at the window table and watching the world go by. Or going to a show with my daughter at The Rickshaw Stop or Slim’s or Bottom of the Hill.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

The blackened skylight of San Francisco outlined against the pale glow of Berkeley on the night of the ’89 quake.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

With 50 words, you can make someone feel something they didn’t know they were going to feel or ever might even feel, you can just turn them upside down — if you do it right, if you start with 100 words then whittle those down to the right 50 and then…

With 50 dollars I can almost buy two brand new hardcovers at my local, Green Apple on the Park.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Sun-warmed apricots. Freshly turned dirt. Asparagus pee. And the best of all, petrichor, the smell of new rain on rock.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I think I’d still like to be an astronaut.

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