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May 20, 2011

Evenings Out

It gets better with a time machine

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 this one 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.”

Smith’s extraordinary gifts as a writer, humorist, and keen observer of gay identity have reached new heights. The story is built around a notion of a gay man who accesses a time machine to connect with his younger self, stop Bush and Cheney in their tracks and prevent his sister’s suicide.

Like all of us raised on Saturday afternoon TV viewings of The Time Machine and The Time Tunnel, Smith has followed his nose into pay dirt. The reach of the time travel conceit allows the humor and the emotion to be wed in moments that are Chekhovian in their laughter-through-tears moments.

It also allows a thrilling set of speculative “what ifs” to happen. Early on in the book, the main character’s partner--the inventor of the time machine--says, “Today I proved time travel was possible. I sent a condom back to 1979.” I laughed out loud and then almost wept at the power of that notion of sending a condom back to stop AIDS.

Diagnosed in 2007 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease, Smith has dug down, dared to ask the huge questions and come up with a new book that is rich in humor and heart.

He has made a gorgeous leap into a really bold and fantastic device that lets him go to such rich places as a novelist.

I asked Smith about time travel and how to turn the word “Cheney” into a curse word.

Tim Miller: 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 book really combines all the strongest juice from your memoirs, your stand-up, and your first novel into a new creation. What is the balancing act between fiction and materials from your own autobiography in this work?

I've always thought of my stand-up 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 is, 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 2,500 years that sub-culture hasn't changed as much as you'd think.

The time travel concept really sets up a great template to go to amazing places. What lead you to this device?  Did you watch the TV show Time Tunnel as a kid?

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 very 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 in the book derived from.

And yes, I loved Time Tunnel as a boy and watched every episode.

While I expected the humor to shine through as it always does with your work, I was deeply moved by how poignant and deeply felt it was. How do you maintain this connection between the humor and the heartfelt?

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. Reagan began the Republicans' anti-environmental assault, which I take personally since my children will have 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 also thought the nauseating idea of having a Republican boyfriend was a great comic premise.

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 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














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