What is an ordinary day? With our days increasingly under analysis, it’s a reasonable question. Everything is Totally Fine arrives at an opportune time. Zac Smith’s stories are permeated with seemingly mundane events, actions familiar to the everyday, the stuff that makes up life. And life is strange. What do we feel when we think of ordinary days? Nostalgia? Longing? Resentment? Relief? As Zac Smith sat down to write these stories, maybe he had some of these in mind, or perhaps he wanted to forget about them. His ordinary days gave rise to a collection of stories, something he didn’t know he was doing at first. It’s this sense of serendipity, arbitrariness, and absurdity that trails his words. With that in mind, here is Zac Smith’s ordinary day.
start the day right
Rebecca Gransden: What happens when you get up in the morning?
Zac Smith: Currently I wake up around 5:45 to do chicken chores and let out one or both of my dogs. The chicken chores involve cleaning and refilling their water thing, unlocking the door to the henhouse, and cleaning the poop out from where they sleep. Usually I try to go back to bed for a little bit after this, but sometimes my toddler wakes up and I can’t go back to bed.
RG: What happens after that?
ZS: I cook breakfast and brew coffee. Breakfasts I cook include: scrambled eggs and toast, omelets and toast, egg sandwiches with tempeh bacon and avocado, biscuits and veggie sausage gravy, scrambled tofu with peppers and onions, savory oatmeal bowls, and oatmeal with banana and pecans. I think my mornings are pretty normal.
RG: What happens at lunchtime?
ZS: I cook lunch and we eat lunch. Lunches I cook include: hummus sandwiches, mac and cheese with lima beans and bbq tofu, black beans and rice with fried plantains, some kind of grain or pasta salad(s), shitty fajitas with tofu, quesadillas, and avocado toast with feta. Sometimes my kid helps me cook – today we made a vegetable soup with dumplings. Then, when work allows, I hang out with my kid while my wife gets some alone time to work or rest. We usually read books together or play with magnetic building tiles or toy animals.
RG: What happens in your afternoons?
ZS: Things I like to do in the afternoons that aren’t “going to work” include taking my toddler to a playground, going for walks or hikes, playing at home with my toddler (e.g. building an obstacle course), and cooking with my toddler (e.g. baking cookies). Sometimes in the evening I take time to play my guitar alone. More recently we’ve been checking for chicken eggs in the afternoons, as well.
RG: Do you travel to and from anywhere? What is that journey like?
ZS: I have been working from home since February 2020. For a long time the only places we would go were nature areas. Last fall, I started taking my toddler to places like coffee shops or small/outdoor stores/markets. Usually, on Sundays, we spend the morning driving ~20 minutes out to a nature area, then a coffee shop, then a small market. I’m laughing at myself saying I do the same things in different ways and places. We’ve only recently done some longer trips, because of the pandemic – we spent the day in Portland, ME to see some family and a few days in Upstate New York to see old friends. My kid seems to enjoy road trips and our friends were supportive of spending a lot of time in parks and playgrounds just hanging out. But most of what we do around our home is like a 2-10 minute drive.
intermission: where Zac Smith explains why Everything is Totally Fine
RG: How long did it take to write the book?
ZS: The oldest piece in the book was originally written in mid-2018, and the most recent story was written in May 2021. The earliest ones weren’t written with the idea of including them in a book, and then when it all started taking shape, I rewrote them in various ways to make them better fit the tone or to include self-referential (self=book) content. When working on it as a book, I wanted not to have too many of the pieces previously published online, since I think that in general the only people who will read it have also read one or more stories by me online, and I want them to feel like it wasn’t a waste of money to buy the book. In terms of getting the book published, there were/are only a few presses I really liked and felt like sending it to: Soft Skull, Tyrant, Future Tense, House of Vlad, and Muumuu House. I received kind and personalized rejections from Yuka at Soft Skull (who’s now at Graywolf) and Kevin at Future Tense, was ignored by Giancarlo (which was fine/expected, based on what I know about how he responded to book pitches; he was nice and supportive when I originally reached out to him), and accepted by House of Vlad. I didn’t have any expectation about publishing it via Muumuu House since I assume Tao gets a lot of unsolicited book pitches and he hadn’t published a book via Muumuu House in ten years, but we had been emailing about stuff/writing and then he offered to publish it, which surprised and excited me. I felt bad about pulling it from House of Vlad but Brian seemed ok with it and hadn’t started working on editing it really by then, so it felt like I hadn’t wasted too much of his time. Muumuu House is/was consistently one of my favorite places and I admire Tao’s editorial vision, and he has been very excited about and supportive of the book.
RG: I’d love to know how you chose to compile the collection—the order of the pieces, the selection of segments, etc. It’s a cohesive collection. Were the individual pieces conceived as part of a larger work, or did that take shape over time?
ZS: I’m glad it reads as cohesive. The book was originally going to be much shorter and published online as part of a collaborative project with Giacomo Pope, but then we didn’t feel confident we’d get more people to contribute like we wanted, so we took our respective collections and reworked them for books—his poems mostly ended up in his Chainsaw Poems & Other Poems and mine became Everything is Totally Fine. The original working title was Everything is Totally Fucked and Giacomo claims to have proposed that title as a joke based on what I wanted to write, when describing it to him, and then I just used it unironically. That seed was something like seven stories, and when I decided to make a book out of it, I started writing more specifically to fill it out and let the themes/ideas naturally develop from there. It went through a few drafts where I would try to flesh it out with previously-written-but-unedited stories, print to line edit everything, then categorize the stories based on certain things about them, and then figure out which categories made sense and thus which stories should be cut. I think this was an effective process and helped me feel like I wasn’t including any stories that wouldn’t make sense in the full book context. Also, around this time, Mike Andrelczyk would send writing prompts consisting of 3-4 unrelated photographs in a group chat we’re in together, and I would try to write something really quickly based on those, and then later I scrolled through the group chat to edit and add them in. There are probably close to 20 stories that I wrote for the book which aren’t in the final version, which seems like a good number relative to the size of the final collection.
In terms of sequencing, I realized I had about 2x as many first-person stories as third-person stories, so I divided the book into thirds, with the middle section being the third-person stories. Once I decided to do that, it helped guide me in terms of writing additional stories and experimenting with ways in which the narration is framed or “revealed,” which was fun for me, and it helped the sequencing. For sequencing in general, I tried to make sure I didn’t have many stories that were overly similar right next to each other, and to break up lengths a little bit. The last third I think has the longest pieces and is less cohesive, while the first section has some of the shortest pieces and is more thematically cohesive, which I think is funny in terms of naming the sections and maybe gives a little bit of an arc to the collection.
I want to note, too, that around when I started sending the book out to places, I traded manuscripts with Crow Jonah Norlander and he gave me some good suggestions in terms of copyedits but also a desire to see a certain type of story in a certain place, so I reworked an older piece for that because it seemed like a good idea, and he gave me some insight on some of the categories of story and that helped me when later writing more stories. I also got very nice and similar feedback from Graham Irvin, who gave some good suggestions specifically about doing call-backs or making certain stories more referential to being in a collection, which I thought was good, and I tried to do sometimes in a way that made me laugh. Alan Good provided copyedits and suggestions for ten stories in exchange for sending him some vinyl records, which was fun, and I recommend hiring him for copyediting. When finalizing the book, Tao recommended replacing four stories and asked me to write new ones for him to look at, so I sent him a mix of things I wrote over some two-week period and things that I had originally cut from earlier drafts, and then we finalized everything. We’ve finished the copyedits and are waiting on potential blurbs before finishing the cover and printing them, as of August 5, 2021.
the end of the day approaches
RG: When do you eat in your day? Your book features foodstuffs—pizza, yogurt, cookies—in sometimes antagonistic scenarios. Is this coincidental, or are you in a secret war with food?
ZS: I think about food a lot and eat a lot of food, partly because I do all the cooking in my family, and partly because of how eating/going out to eat was a big part of my family dynamic as a child. I like that you thought of the food being in antagonistic scenarios in my book – I think my relationship with food is unhealthy, in general. But I also think food is funny. Most food seems really dumb, but I also like food and have a lot of both good and bad memories associated with food. And I usually feel really interested when I read stories where people eat food – what they eat, how much they eat, when they eat it, etc.
RG: If you stay in one place in your day, what is that place like and what is your opinion of it?
ZS: I spend most of my time at home. I like where I live. It feels open and airy and we have a nice yard now to do things in, like raise chickens and garden and run around. Our neighborhood is pretty quiet and we are close to nature, although I feel like I don’t take advantage of nature as much as I’d like to. I spend a lot of time in our small office doing work for my job. I think I would enjoy never looking at a computer again.
RG: Is there anywhere in your day you make a special effort to travel to just to write? Do you have a routine when it comes to your writing? Does having a routine, or lack of one, influence your writing?
Where do you usually write?
ZS: I haven’t really prioritized writing lately, so no, I don’t think so. Usually I do my best writing on a laptop in a place that’s not my office, like sitting on my bed. I don’t have a routine. I’m unsure how this affects my writing. I think maybe having a lack of routine means I take long breaks between projects and so my writing is demarcated into periods or larger ideas, instead of a continuous flow of writing.
RG: Do you relax? If so, what does that look like?
ZS: I feel like I am often trying to relax because of some baseline level of anxiety. I usually try to relax by lying down on a couch, bed, or hammock. I enjoy taking naps in my bed whenever possible. I think I might simply be a lazy person who doesn’t want to do anything. I think I also relax by quietly doing chores.
RG: How is your evening and/or night?
ZS: My evenings usually involve putting my toddler to bed, locking up the chickens, and going to bed. The bedtime thing can be very stressful, but it’s also very nice and, I think, grounding/connecting. When I do bedtime, I usually end up singing 4-5 indie rock songs while holding my kid’s hand and lying in bed. After, sometimes, I watch a movie with my wife, or drive out to do chores, like going to a hardware store that’s ~20 minutes away. At night I usually read in bed.
RG: Does boredom influence your writing?
ZS: I think so. I think I started writing to alleviate boredom. I’m unsure how frequently I experience boredom, now, because of technology and my daily responsibilities. I want to be bored more. I think some of the stories in my book are about boredom and anxiety, though. I try to make an effort to pay attention to what’s happening around me when I am in public so I can see things that I could write about, which I think means I try to not preventatively stave off boredom when I’m in public, but I’m not very good at it.
RG: Have you noticed if you are more likely to have ideas for your writing at a particular time or place? Is there a type of circumstance that is conducive to bringing on ideas?
Do any ideas arrive in dreams?
ZS: I’m not sure. I think maybe I think of stories most often while walking my dogs. I think I’ve dreamt about story ideas before but they usually don’t make any sense when I think about them later. One time, recently, I was falling asleep and thought of a good story idea, so I got out of bed to write it and email it to myself, but it didn’t end up in the book.
Everything Is Totally Fine is due out from Muumuu House on January 18, 2022, and is available for preorder.