An Interview With Author Ali Smith
by Literary Agent Lee Sobel
Ali Smith is a born and bred New Yorker, made evident by her sharp wit and her complete inability to drive a car with confidence. After touring the world as a punk musician and recording 8 albums, she’s found success as an award-winning photographer and writer. Her most recent book of photography won two international book awards, garnered praise from The NY Times, and was called a gift to moms by Gloria Steinem who wrote its back cover copy. Ali’s work focuses mostly on the lives of women and underserved communities. Cutting her teeth on the punk world has
All photos of author Ali Smith and her band Speedball Baby are (c) Ali Smith
afforded her an exciting, sometimes dangerous,deeply satisfying life, as well as an appreciation for all things absurd and honest.
The Ballad of Speedball Baby is her literary debut.
Intro by Lee Sobel:
Full disclosure -- I am Ali Smith's literary agent and I've just sold her book which is at present called THE BALLAD OF SPEEDBALL BABY: A True Story About the Only Girl in the Van, on the Stage, at the Police Department. The book is a memoir written in the style of a novel and after some initial hesitation based on it being a non-celebrity memoir and the fact that another agent had shopped it to 99% of the entire publishing world, I was so impressed by this book that I decided to take it on. Ali did some work on the manuscript under my guidance and when I felt it was ready to go, I began the process of pitching her book and finding a buyer. At present it is scheduled to be released in spring 2024 from Blackstone Publishing.
Lee: You first sent me a chunk of your manuscript three months to the date when I closed your book deal. When did you first start working on this book and what was the process by which you wrote it? Were there other drafts? Did you write material that you decided to cut from the book? If so, what was in that material and why did you cut it or change it?
Ali: This book is almost unrecognizable to the one I started writing because in terms of being a writer, I’ve been learning a lot on the job these past few years. Writing, revising, listening to feedback, hiring an editor to help me shape it, keeping some of her advice, rejecting other bits… and reading, reading, reading aspirational work a lot. I started writing it about five years ago, in coffee shops, on park benches, in bars, on beaches, while stealing a half hour during my son’s swimming or piano lessons, on public transport, etc. (As a parent, you write when you can steal the time.)
I’ve written tons of content that I took out. ( I can hear your voice now. “Put it all back in!!” :) ) But the manuscript got much stronger once I took a hatchet to it and chopped away at it mercilessly. I cut out when I was pontificating, being boring, and any time I found myself cushioning the truth. Once that was all gone, the work got better. I also asked a lot of friends to read it and BLESS them, they each took the time to do so. Or at least they each took the time to LIE to me and tell me they did. But I believe them because every person gave me valuable feedback that I put my ego aside to listen to. As did you.
This book started out as a story about a band because I didn’t think anyone would think I was interesting enough to carry the story. Then publishers told me the band wasn’t famous enough to publish the book. So I said fuck it and I took the story back. Now it’s about the making of a woman with music and punk rock and chaos as the inroad to that story. That’s a more honest story.
Lee: Prior to my starting to work with you three months ago, you had another agent shop the book to many publishers but it didn't sell. Can you talk a bit about the creative process that I worked with you to revise the manuscript and what things changed or were added based on my notes and discussions with you? Also, how did you feel about giving your trust to yet another agent who was asking you to make changes? I must commend you because you made every change I suggested and even if you didn't at first like some things I mentioned, you seemed to come around pretty quickly to being open to my notes.
Ali: I was really surprised — maybe because you’re a man from the music scene — that you immediately and unapologetically got that this is a story about the making of a woman. That it’s about walking through this male-centric world female and all that that entails. I am grateful that you kept bringing me back to leaning into my vulnerability and the bits about my childhood more. That was your main note. More about life outside the music. Maybe because we’re both native New Yorkers, I understood your style when you told me something really wasn’t working and appreciated your honesty. And you were able to take it when I said “No. I don’t like it.” Only to often come back and say “Hey! I tried it and I actually do like it.” You also helped me shape the first five chapters so there’s more suspense and emotion to them.
I’d originally been afraid that because I wasn’t the one in the band with the addiction, that I wasn’t the abuser, that I wasn’t the typical nihilistic central character of a punk rock mayhem story, my story would’t be interesting. Then my friend said “OK, you aren’t those things. But you saw it ALL and you were the only credible witness on the scene. And that’s a rare point of view!” which may be a bit of an overstatement, but that gave me a boost. And then you continued to push for honesty and vulnerability and it made it a much better book.
Lee: A lot of agents refuse to represent material that another agent has shopped, yet I threw caution to the wind and decided that I might know a few smaller publishers that your previous agent had not approached. Most authors would have given up after their agent had shown their book to as many publishers as your previous agent did. What gave you the confidence to see if another agent could get you a deal?
Ali: If I’ve learned anything about your character in the short time we’ve worked together, it’s that you’re sincere and you lead with your gut. It makes sense to me now that you made a crazy decision because you responded to the material on a gut level. I’m very grateful.
I also knew you’d represented my friend, author/musician Peter Aaron. He is the real deal. A music lover in the purest sense. If you believed in him, I hoped you might believe in me when I approached you.
As for giving up, I have poured an unearthly amount of time and effort into writing this book. At first, I was sure it would be a slam dunk. I think being unreasonably confident can really help jumpstart a project. It wasn’t that I thought I was so amazing. It’s just something I learned from the DIY punk world. When people say “NO” you just carry on. You run a wire from the base of a street lamp, down a hallway, into the backyard of an abandoned building and you power up your amps and you put on a show, Little Rascals style.
But after a long while, I began to vacillate daily between “This is self indulgent. You need to pull the plug!“ and “Lots of people have failed failed failed until they haven’t. You’ve got too much skin in the game to stop trying now.” It did feel rather hopeless quite often.
Lee: Your book is a memoir, yet very much written in the style of a novel where you plunge the reader right into the middle of a chaotic scene. The previous books you wrote and were published were very different. How difficult was it for you to write about events in your life that were so personal?
Ali: The book should have the energy of music and will hopefully fill you with emotions like music as well.
As for being so personal, secrets are poison, shame is destructive. My family - like so many - had too many secrets and held too many grudges. I saw the damage of this early on and I try really hard not to be that way. I predict I’ll be embarrassed about laying myself so bare, but I respect other artists for doing it and it excites me when they do, so hopefully it will be received well. I certainly shouldn’t be ashamed of any of the traumatic things that have happened to me or the choices, my sexuality, my perceived mistakes. Shame is the result of brainwashing. I think younger women generally see this brainwashing more clearly now. Many of us had to undo it in ourselves through punk.
There are some things I’m not yet ready to write about. But even though some things in the book still make me cringe, as Lawrence of Arabia (supposedly) said “The secret is not to care.” I think women, particularly, will recognize the truth.
Lee: Are there any books you read before writing this book that we're inspirational to you?
Ali: Most books, TV, and movies about the underground music scene get it horribly, embarrassingly, comically wrong. It’s like a “Vegas revue of punk.” You can’t hire models and clean actors and then tell hair and makeup to “dirty them up.” You don’t get authentic. You get punk clowns. I’m looking at you, Alex Cox, (I can’t believe I’m saying this) Danny Boyle, and whoever made that stinker CBGB biopic. The thing they always get wrong is that nobody in the punk scene looked healthy. We were all too skinny, too pimply, too smelly. We were beautiful and fabulous, but we were also those other things. So inspiration from other art about punk and music is hard to come by.
Jennifer Egan did an amazing job with A Visit From the Goon Squad writing a character driven story about the music world that didn’t get every fucking thing about the music world horribly wrong. Goon Squad got the vibe right and made the inner worlds of the people involved fully believable and recognizable.
Just Kids meant a lot to me. In part because somehow I seem to have lived, by accident, next door to just about every address Patti Smith ever had in New York (ten years after her). Of course everything Patti Smith writes is poetry and imbued with visceral emotion. Sometimes I find that more challenging to fully sink my teeth into. But Just Kids was a stunning combination of narrative and impressionistic poetry.
The Kiss, The Glass Castle and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - by Kathryn Harrison, Jeannette Walls and Jeanette Winterson (respectively) - were hardcore lessons about the importance of women telling their own stories authentically, without apology. We need more of that! I don’t think I’m as brave as they are yet, but I hope to be one day.
And then there’s David Sedaris, perhaps out of left field, who treads that poignant, shocking line between sour and sweet always. I love everything he writes, but particularly this last book where he wrote more openly and honestly than ever about his father.
Lee: When you wrote this book, did you worry at all that writing about real people that you know could cause problems in your relationships with these people? Did you ask them ahead of time if they would be okay with you writing about them? Were there any people you wanted to write about that you held back on because you knew it would cause problems to do so?
Ali: There are definitely some people and some names that I left out or changed in order to protect the innocent. And by that, I mean me. I’m the innocent. There were some really rough people in the worlds I walked in.
Also it’s not a diary and it’s not a vehicle for vengeance. I think I could have been a lot meaner to a few people in there. But that would imply that my experience is the only one that mattered.
I still worry that what I’ve written may hurt someone I care about. But I’ve been amazed and touched -every step of the way-that the people involved have given me their blessings. As for the people in my band, I think that’s because we always agreed that expressing yourself through creativity has intrinsic value. Also, we’re all frigging older now. It feels like there’s less to hide. We’ve all mellowed with age and we don’t have to posture as much with each other anymore. Being able to say “I love you” or “Your child is so beautiful” to some of the toughest people I knew from back then is, I think, a relief for all of us.
I hope people depicted see that I haven’t asked anything of anyone in the book that I haven’t asked of myself, and that I don’t always come off so well. There’s a real lasting beauty in owning our imperfections. I also hope they see that I love them all.
That said, I do care how people in the book feel, so I’ve given them each the chance to read it and tell me if they think, strongly, that I got anything factually wrong. That’s a risk, but I care about (most of ) the people involved.
Lee: You write about some things that happened to you that must have been upsetting to relive. Was this cathartic? Did you find it at any point difficult to dredge up things that were so painful?
Ali: Over the years, I’ve learned to shut a part of myself down when talking about the most traumatic things I’ve been through. I’ve defined myself to myself as a gritty survivor-not only a survivor but a thriver. I’ve assumed a fighting stance. The real pain, inner chaos, self-loathing and despair has mostly come out in late night purges with my partners. I’ve kept a protective shield around myself and decorated that shield with metal spikes and poison-tipped arrowheads. And all of this, I can tell you, is exhausting. And fruitless, once you’ve past the worst of things. I felt this was a real opportunity to jettison secrecy and shame —two things I’ve seen ruin the best around me— and to connect with other people about the fact that we aren’t defective just because life hasn’t consistently been some delicious piece of pastry. I’ve worn being a survivor as a badge of honor. A testament to my grit. But it turns out I wasn’t all that gritty deep inside. Nobody is. I’m tired of pretending.
Lee: As a feminist, how do you feel this book speaks to women and what do you hope people will get out of reading your book?
Ali: All women know what it means to walk through this world hyper-vigilant when you should’t have to be, judged and punished when you shouldn’t be, frightened when you shouldn’t be, walking with your keys spiked through your clenched fist, especially when you take a less traveled path. Every woman will recognize their own version of the terrors and triumphs in the book. Plus, I think they’ll get some laughs about it all.
Lee: As a musician who was in a band that got signed and then dropped by a major label (which is in your book), what can you say about your career in music and do you have any words of wisdom for up-and-coming musicians?
Ali: I am 100% sure there is an incredible, thriving, relevant music scene out there that I will never know anything about because it’s for the kids. Of course there is! But from my perspective, it was a gift for us to be able to languish in relative obscurity for a looooong time while we birthed ourselves as musicians, without the immediate feedback/anxiety created by the constant observation of social media. When my 12 year old tells me he’s bored, I say “CONGRATULATIONS!” Of course, he hates that, but I mean it. Being bored and sitting with yourself and having to create something out of nothing because of it is a motivator. That said, I’m sure there are advantages I can’t relate to about the way things are done by musicians now. it just feels unfortunate that the second something is conceptualized, the goal becomes to commodify it. It doesn’t allow for a lot of room to breathe. That’s just my opinion.
If you feel drawn to playing music, there’s no reason you can’t. Someone will play music with you. I guarantee it! Or else just strap some cymbals to the insides of your knees and have at it.
Kurt Vonnegut spoke to a high school class. He urged them to write a poem and to throw it away without showing it to anyone. Because it was just that act of doing it - not the perception of it — that spurred your “becoming.” It’s the making of the art that benefits you the most. Kurt was a punk. For sure.
Lee: Can you talk about how you went from being in a band to being a professional photographer who has worked with so many prestigious publications?
Ali: A huge part of being in a band is myth making. Pennie Smith did it for the Clash. Godlis, Roberta Bayley, Bob Gruen did it for the entire CBGB’s scene in the 70’s. Images go hand in hand with music, plus having a camera gives you something to do. I hate a party unless I have a camera on me. I hate small talk and the mundane, but I like making an image about small talk and the mundane, etc.
So I was always photographing the bands around me — for album covers, flyers, promotion etc. I also gravitated towards photographing the women in our scene who were having kids. i was fascinated by that. it never occurred to me to have a kid in my 20s, and they were having them in squats, bringing them to underground punk shows. These women — sometimes men too — were raising kids in this chaos and that was fascinating to me. As my music goals waned, it wasn’t such a stretch to continue on with the photography. It’s all exploration and story telling. As Generation X (the band, not the generation) said “All I want is some truth. Just gimme some truth.”
Lee: Three publishers made offers for your book. What were some of your concerns in choosing the right publisher for me to make the deal with? I know you were very concerned with the companies' distribution, publicity, market strength, etc.
Ali: When my first book came out with Random House many moons ago, my editor quit her job mid-stream, my agent lost his mind and left his husband and the city suddenly, and my publicist at the imprint was a woman who thought that going to Las Vegas with her friends for the weekend was “a fun idea.” That’s code for “This woman will never know what to do with my book,” which was about kickass women — like Alice Walker, Lydia Lunch and Amy Sedaris — who inspired me. And I was 100% right about that publicist. All the best media I got — including a feature on Oprah’s Oxygen TV — came from efforts I made, which she usually told me were a waste of time.
When I self-published my second photo book - Momma Love; How the Mother Half Lives — I literally didn’t have any distributor. I did, however, have that old DIY ethos and I sold out the print run, got a back cover blurb from Gloria Steinem, won two international book awards for it, and many wonderful things happened.
So I’ve looked at life from both sides now, as the song goes. The opportunities I’ve had—even when they came from a major label like MCA or a major publisher like Random House—still required a shit-ton of hard work and inventiveness on my part and nothing was simple. But doing everything yourself is incredibly hard.
What I wanted for this book was a publisher with great distribution who I can relate to well personally who doesn’t try to shoe-horn it into being either just a “wild r+r ride” or doesn’t bemoan that it’s not a “celebrity memoir.” A publisher that understands what the book is, loves it for that, and will work with me—hard—to make it the best book possible, treat it like a piece of art. One who will support and conjure up creative ideas for promotion. I wanted to work with an editor who thinks that publishing a book is a meaningful thing. And that is exactly what and who I found with Dan Ehrenhaft and Blackstone Publishing.
Thanks, Lee. And thanks for asking!
(c) Lee Sobel, July 14, 2022.
Photo credits in order of photos used (not including author photo) : Kay Adams, Brooke Williams, Ali Smith, Parker Noon, Monk Parker, Tanjya Holland, unkown, Ali Smith, unknown, Toby Amies, Toby Amies, collage and self-portrait painting by Ali, Shannon Castleman, unknown, unknown