Drew Nellins Smith, Hopeless Cynic

The author of Arcade on peepshows, wasting time & coming out in Texas

Six years ago I answered a Craigslist ad filed in the horribly depressing Writing Gigs section. Someone in Austin, where I lived then, was looking for a “writing accountability partner.” This writer and I traded some emails, in which we agreed to become partners, and in which he stated that the last thing he wanted to do was exchange work, and the second-to-last thing he wanted to do was meet me.

This guy, Drew Smith, which I assumed — and still occasionally suspect — was a fake name, said he was beginning a new project and wanted only someone to whom he could send a daily email reporting his progress.

“Today I wrote for two hours. Drew,” went a standard message.

This continued for some months. He told me nothing about his project and he sent me no pages. But we slowly got to know each other over email. I learned that he’s a hopeless cynic, particularly about literature and, perhaps especially, the literary community, a term he always enclosed in scare quotes. He’d shopped a novel once, and the experience was so absurd and disheartening that he was sure he’d never subject himself to it again.

I liked this guy with the fake name. Even more so after we finally met, many months later, outside of an East Austin bookstore after a reading. He said something to the effect of, “Either everybody here is fake or I am,” then he handed me a pack of Camel Lights empty of cigarettes but containing a baggie of weed. For me to just have.

We began to meet regularly for lunch, during which he, very frenetically, would do about 92 percent of the talking. Eventually he told me about his book, a sort of roman a clef (sorry) about a closeted gay man who watches, and sometimes engages in, loads of anonymous sex with men at a peepshow arcade on the outskirts of an unnamed city that is probably Austin. He said the book began as a collection of impressions, ideas and memories drawn from his own experiences, after which a character and narrative began to take shape.

Two years later, December 2013, I took a draft of Arcade home for Christmas. It was fascinating. And very funny. Sort of shapeless, in an interesting way. And super filthy: There was cum everywhere. It dripped, it oozed, it splattered. I sang Christmas carols with my family but my mind was stuck in the pages of a book that was unlike anything I’d read.

Two years and a half after that, Arcade was released by Unnamed Press.

Drew Smith — turns out that’s his real name, Drew Nellins Smith — and I still talk. Or, he talks, I listen and laugh. He’s still nervous and anxious, fatalistic and self-hating. He considers his book a failure and he thinks his life is without meaning. He’s good people.

David Duhr: It’s been a month since Arcade came out. Will anything ever be the same again?

Drew Nellins Smith: Nothing has changed. It’s all the same. I think I kind of expected something to change, like this line would be crossed in my life, and I’d at least feel different or something. I told everyone I knew that nothing would change, but secretly I hoped it would, and when all my disclaimers that nothing would change were proven correct, I was kind of surprised and disappointed.

DD: Has life improved at all?

DNS: I’d like to be able to say yes. I guess it’s an improvement that I’m not worrying about the book coming out all the time, trying to push it to the finish line like I was doing. And I guess it’s nice that I’ve sort of weathered the interviews and reviews about all the sex in the book. I didn’t really have a plan for dealing with that, so it’s good that it’s all out there now and it all went all right. All my weirdness is out there for public consumption. Maybe that’s kind of freeing.

I don’t know. Basically, I think I’m still in a form of shock or something. A few days after the book came out, I was sitting on my back porch, and I just burst into tears suddenly.

DD: Because of the book, or was it just a standard tear-burst?

DNS: It was definitely related to the book. I don’t usually burst into tears. You know what a long time coming this has been for me. All the years I spent writing to no one, working on things that didn’t come to fruition or that were published and then disappeared in the flow of everyone’s newsfeed five minutes later. I had a novel that was agented years ago that ended up not selling. It’s just such a long process, and I worked so hard on Arcade.

For the past several months, I’ve been expecting it all to fall apart at every turn. I mean, I really didn’t believe that Arcade existed as a book until I walked into the bookstore for my first reading and saw it. I hadn’t seen a finished version before then. Maybe the tear burst was because I was relieved. It’s the only time I’ve really been emotional about the book, unless you count stress as an emotion.

DD: As you went through the publication process, you wondered if there was any point to it. What do you think now?

DNS: I don’t think there’s really any point to anything at all, probably. Unless you’re actively working to ease other peoples’ suffering or something. I mean, you know me, so you know I think this way, that everything is basically meaningless, or some kind of cosmic test that I’m failing.

My best hope for Arcade is that someone will read it and relate to it and connect with it, and feel less alone somehow. That’s a good feeling to have when you’re reading a book. So I can see a possible point for other people. I’m not really sure what the point was for me yet, except just to get it out.

When I’m walking my dog, I always try to move the snails from the sidewalk into the grass so they don’t get stuck and sort of boil there in place. Publishing a novel feels kind of like that. I mean, if everything is a pointless waste of time, at least it’s a better way to waste it.

When I’m walking my dog, I always try to move the snails from the sidewalk into the grass so they don’t get stuck and sort of boil there in place. Publishing a novel feels kind of like that.

DD: A couple of weeks ago you said Arcade was already flatlining. But some books, especially with indie presses, can take months to sort of catch on and find a wider readership. Why not yours?

DNS: It always makes me laugh, because I think of you as such a cynic, but then you really turn on this Pollyanna routine where Arcade is concerned. It’s true that it can take books months to catch on, but the truer truth is that most books never do catch on, and they just get washed away in the flood of new material that comes out every day. Which you know as well as I do.

Obviously, I hope that despite the staggering odds, the book will catch on somehow and gain a little traction in the culture. I really like Arcade. If someone else had written it and I picked it up, I would still like it. Which is pretty nice, and it’s not a feeling I’ve had often about things I’ve written. I hope I can hold on to that.

DD: You’re hanging tough at 6,500 on Amazon. That’s like 3,000 spots better than when we talked last.

DNS: (Laughs) You’re mistaken. It’s 62,000.

DD: Oh. Oops. I was looking at the wrong thing.

DNS: Yeah. At this point I’d love for it to be at 6,500 overall.

DD: Well, OK. Maybe let’s talk about the book itself. It seems like readers and reviewers assume it’s only lightly fictionalized, if at all. So, why is that happening?

DNS: Right, you and I laughed about that one piece that said something like, “Smith claims it’s only partially based on his life — after all, his mother might read it.” It’s like, “Obviously, Mr. Smith is a complete liar hiding his repugnant past.” The strange part is that I’m willing to own up to so much of it. The worst of it, even. I wonder why that’s not enough.

DD: It bothers you?

DNS: I don’t know. Maybe. I guess if it bothers me at all it’s mostly just because the assumption is factually incorrect. A friend from work mentioned one part that takes place at the motel where the narrator works, which is based on the motel where I actually do work. He said it struck him as something that really happened, and he assumed it did. But nothing like that has ever happened to me in my life. I drew a lot from my life in such a haphazard way, but far less than people seem to assume. But protesting at all is protesting too much, apparently.

The other day my uncle was asking me about the book, and when I said that it should not be read as a memoir, he said, “I’m not buying that.” What am I supposed to say in the face of that?

DD: You told your mom not to read it, right? That’s because you don’t want her to, or you think she’ll hate it or be horrified?

DNS: Yeah, I asked her not to read it. For all those reasons. I don’t think she would like it no matter who wrote it, and I think it would upset her, particularly given this dimension of half-truth we’re talking about, the way so many details from my real life are mixed in. No mother wants to envision that much of her kid’s sex life. That said, I think many people who aren’t my mother would be horrified by the book as well.

DD: I’m not your mother and I was horrified.

DNS: Exactly! Now we’re getting to the truth.

Were you really horrified though? I can never tell when people joke about it.

DD: I wasn’t, but I’m not a small-town Texan. Maybe you can touch on that for a minute, if it’s not too terrible? What kind of place you were brought up in, how that contributed to this book.

DNS: It’s about 7,500 or 8,000 people. A very conservative place. There isn’t a lot happening there culturally. Sometimes I could find good movies at the movie rental place, but that was about it.

I think growing up there made me a very self-conscious person, and I’ve had to get over that. When I was a teenage stoner and more of an outsider, it seemed like something the whole community was aware of. It was very easy to stand out as someone operating outside of the mainstream. I felt different from everyone around me. But I also felt a certain level of confidence because most people thought I was funny. I had that, at least.

A girl I went to school with came out as a lesbian at one point soon after we graduated, and every time I went home for the next few years, I’d run into old classmates and it would always be the first thing they’d tell me. “Did you hear that so-and-so came out? She’s a lesbian!” It was very big news in my town. I still think about that all the time.

DD: So was your own coming out big news there? Or does the town not know, or care? If they’re following your career or whatever, they know now.

DNS: I don’t know if my coming out was big news there, because I’ve never discussed it with anyone there who I’m not related to. I assume some people there know about me, but I’m not in touch with anyone I grew up with, so I don’t know. Hopefully, it’s not such a big deal in society in general now.

DD: Was this stuff any kind of sticking point as you were pursuing publication?

DNS: Maybe a little. Mostly just because I don’t want my parents to have to feel embarrassed or to be put in the position of making excuses for their degenerate son. But I figure I’m an adult, and at some point I have to be allowed to be myself and just create what I want to create.

DD: But now a lot of people ask about what you were trying to do as far as changing the culture and raising awareness of gay rights. And your response is like, “Um, nothing?”

DNS: Yeah, that’s about right. I almost feel guilty about my lack of political motive at this point. I wrote Arcade because I wanted to write about a world and a set of feelings that I wasn’t finding in the books I was reading. It was really fascinating and incredible to me, and I wanted to think more about it and make it part of something bigger.

But writing the novel was far from an act of activism. I’ve never been part of any movement. My aims have always been more literary than political.

DD: What are these literary aims?

DNS: You know, I actually take literature so seriously. It’s meant so much to me in my life. What I really want is to write good books that can have some kind of impact on the people who read them, even if it’s just a spark of recognition and connection. I know my work won’t always be for everyone. David Markson isn’t for everyone. Jane Bowles isn’t for everyone. Knut Hamsun, Julie Hecht, Nicholson Baker, they’re not for everyone. Even James Baldwin, who seems so universally beloved, isn’t for everyone. And these are people whose work is so important to me. What these people do in their writing is meaningful and powerful and diverting and interesting to me. That’s what I tried to do with Arcade, and what I hope to do with whatever I write in the future. I just hope I can find my audience. Or that my audience can find me, whichever way that works.

DD: Are you finding any of that audience with Arcade? Do you hear from random people who say the book connects with them or whatever?

DNS: If it’s finding its audience, it’s pretty small at the moment. I mean, I’ve gotten a couple of random emails from people, like this one guy who said he’s a married straight guy in his 60s. He saw the thing in the L.A. Times, and he bought the book and really enjoyed it. I’ve done that a lot in my life, writing little notes to writers to cheer them on. Most writers don’t get nearly enough of that. It was nice to be on the receiving end of one of them.

DD: Are the reviews as expected? I know you said you wouldn’t read them, and I also know you’re reading them.

DNS: Yeah, I swore from the beginning that I would never read any reviews, then I immediately changed my tune as soon as the first ones came out.

The reaction from reviewers has been different than I expected. I thought people would talk a lot more about the narrator’s life outside of the arcade, the breakup that drove him there and his friendships. I also thought there would be more acknowledgment of the parts of the book centered on his work life. People love to talk about how there are so few books about work. But there’s a lot about work in my book, or a fair amount anyway. Work and class and all sorts of internal struggles that don’t really pertain in any way to having anonymous sexual encounters at an arcade. But reviewers haven’t written about that stuff so much.

Some of the reviewers bemoan a lack of plot in the book, which is interesting, but I can’t say it really bothers me. I’ll be the first to say that Arcade has no three-act structure, no great challenge overcome over the course of rising and falling action. But that’s not how life really is. In real life, change is so incremental and difficult. Whatever you might say about life, I don’t find it to be particularly plotty.

Whatever you might say about life, I don’t find it to be particularly plotty.

DD: How many times have you refreshed your Amazon ranking since we started talking?

DNS: Not even once. Honestly, I only remembered it existed as a possibility when I started wondering if that L.A. Times thing would give the book a boost. I paid attention to it for a few days and then stopped. I think you think I’m more obsessed with it then I am.

DD: I guess let’s wrap this up, since you’re getting crabby. What’s your next project?

DNS: I’m working on two different novel-length projects now. One is inspired by film diaries like The Jaws Log and Bob Balaban’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. The other is sort of a bootstraps story about attaining success, what that pursuit might look like. And I’m always threatening to go back to that book about Simon and Garfunkel’s 1981 Concert in Central Park, which you know I spent years researching and interviewing for.

DD: Any parting words of wisdom?

DNS: Be hyper-vigilant about typos. There’s a typo on the first page of my novel. The first page! Isn’t that unbelievably awful? And it was all my fault, because I kept changing little things until the last possible moment because I wanted it to be perfect.

DD: Have you enjoyed this process, or have you just been a throbbing ball of anxiety for weeks or months?

DNS: I was anxious in the weeks building up to Arcade’s release, but since then I think I’ve sunk into a mild melancholy, with little dopamine spikes when someone writes or says something nice about the book. The night of my reading here in Austin was pretty glorious. I guess that was the high point. I keep fantasizing that I’ll die in a dramatic car crash and that sales will skyrocket. That would be pretty great.

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