85A: An Interview with Kyle Thomas Smith

Frank Haberle

imageIf you did not grow up just like Seamus O'Grady - the self-immersed, angry and ultimately lovable hero of Kyle Smith's novel 85A- then you must have known someone who did. He is the kid that everybody loves, at first, to hate. Lost somewhere deep inside himself, untouchable to those who reach out to help him, and unbreakable to those who seek to break him, 15-year-old Seamus swerves toward his destiny in the frozen tundra of a bleak and brutal 1989 Chicago. Family, classmates, and neighbors conspire against him. His survival depends on two internal assets- a thick, expletive driven shell he's built around himself, and the capacity to fantasize about a magical escape to London. Seamus is a hard character to grow close to; but as Smith's story artfully unfolds, you find yourself reaching out for him with open arms. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kyle to discuss the motivation behind this beautiful, harrowing tale, seeking the answer to one central question: what makes Seamus tick?

KGB: Reading 85A, I struggled at first to develop empathy for Seamus. Through the first 50 pages his f-bomb laden internal narrative hisses at an environment that, at first, doesn't seem that bad. In fact, I found it easier to empathize with his family, other kids, teachers - even the 85A busdriver - in their mutual anger toward him. Then in a few beautifully rendered passages where he tries to connect with others, or others try to connect with him, he exposes sides of himself that are so sweet and so vulnerable, that the reader cannot help pulling for him the rest of the way. At the same time, we're increasingly confronted with how desperate his situation really is, especially at home. These sensations grow as the outside world closes around him and the story sweeps toward its harrowing conclusion. What inspired you to find Seamus' voice, and to tell his story in this way?

KS: I guess what inspired me was just that I was around in those times, the late eighties. I was a kid then. It's kind of a lost era: right before gentrification boomed in Chicago, when the city still looked and felt a lot like Good Times and Hill Street Blues. Racism was undisguised, queer-bashing was fair game and there was virtually no subtlety to inequities like there is today. On the other hand, there was a true counter-culture flourishing in the city's punk, alt and art scenes, which all too soon fell into the hands of upper-middle class suburban kids. But I wouldn't say that Seamus' environment at the beginning of the book “doesn't seem that bad.” Right from jump-street, he's got a Jack Daniels bottle hurled through his window with a note in it that says “DIE FAG”. His house is routinely vandalized. His mom is being threatened with rape. He is constantly gay-bashed. His dad always tells him what a disgrace he is. His much older brother kicks the shit out of him, and his dad got off on beating him up too until Seamus got big enough fight back. Then kids at school hound him for being gay.

But you're right. He doesn't handle it so gracefully. He generalizes his rage. It spills out everywhere. He's crass and self-pitying. But he's 15. What else does he have to defend himself with besides that dirt-mouth he's got on him?

KGB: I was really impressed with Seamus' Sex Pistols-Johnny Rotten mindset and how lyrically you manage to weave his punk sensitivity in as a survival tool. The story takes place in 1989, a decade after the pistol's heyday. But besides his relative awareness of a newer underground punk scene in Chicago, and his friend Tressa's efforts to turn him onto everything from Mozart to the Bad Brains, he sticks with Johnny as his personal messenger. How did music play a role in your own growth and development?

KS: Actually, years ago, I wrote a whole essay on this subject; it's all about how The Rolling Stone's Exile on Main Street compelled me to look outside the scene for salvation. Read it! It's a tell-all! http://www.streetlegalplay.com/Memoir_Files/Exile.html

KGB: Seamus' friend Tressa, in a supporting role, is a powerful and complex character. I read her as a guardian angel and, in many ways, the only real family that Seamus has; yet he keeps her at arm's length, preferring his dreams of escape to London. In the end I found that I was heartbroken for her, as much as for him; did you intend for Tressa to have this kind of impact on the reader?

KS: Well, remember that Tressa is about to go off to Switzerland, so Seamus knows he can only depend on her for so long. But Tressa is important for a number of reasons. Besides being brilliant, she's also black. This is a big deal to Seamus, the fact that his best friend is black and that he slept with her and that she's schooling him in how to live a larger life–and Seamus is keenly aware that this arrangement would be a big deal to people in his neighborhood too, the vast majority of whom are hell-bent on keeping their area all white. Tressa is definitely a guardian angel. I did my best to insinuate that she knows Seamus is gay and she knows he's an artist and she wants to foster his potential. One reader expressed disappointment in how Tressa doesn't end up living up to her renegade image. But Tressa knows how to play the game—especially the academic game—to get ahead, and she comes to regret that she didn't impart the wisdom of such diplomacy to Seamus, who takes her word as gospel.

KGB: As I looked at a few earlier reviews of 85A, more than once, I've seen a comparison of Seamus O'Grady to another young literary character who burned more than a few bridges, a certain Holden Caulfield. How do you feel about this comparison? What do you think Seamus and Holden have in common, and what keeps them apart? KS: I think the comparison is played out by now. Seamus and Holden are both flunk-outs and runaways but the similarities end there.

KGB: I read that you are a native of Chicago who relocated to Brooklyn; I'm a native of Brooklyn who's never been to Chicago. One of the things I love about 85A is the lyrical narrative journey from Seamus' home to his school, with stories and characters and recollections woven into luminous urban neighborhoods and scenery. Your ability to describe graffiti, or a latino neighborhood suddenly peopled by late-80's hipsters, or the corridors of an inner city catholic school, or a punk club, or a donut shop really stayed with me after reading your book; I really felt I could 'see' the real Chicago. Tell me three things about Chicago I don't know from reading your book.

KS: First, brownstones in Chicago and Brooklyn kind of look alike. Not identical, exactly, but they were built around the same time. Maybe Brooklyn built its first brownstones about five minutes before Chicago started on theirs, but a few years ago, I went back to where I used to live in the Pilsen neighborhood, an originally Czech but now Mexican area on the near-south side of Chicago, and I was shocked by how much the buildings looked like the one where I was living in Park Slope. I guess I just never noticed it before, but it was yet another reminder of how a lot of immigrant communities no sooner settled on the east coast than many in their clans headed for the Midwest.

Second, Chicago has the largest archdiocese in the world. Larger than even Rome. So it's no wonder that the Vatican would lord over Seamus' house on the northwest side with the same iron first that it would over, say, one of his distant relative's households in Dublin or Tipperary. Third, Chicago has the largest Polish population in the world next to Warsaw. That's why the names of so many of the characters in 85A are Polish.KGB: The Seamus of 1989 knows what he wants (to paraphrase his hero) and he knows how to get it. He's self-reliant, smart, capable of laughing at himself, big-hearted, driven by fantasy but with a very real-world capacity to achieve his dreams. What he becomes in his journey through 85A, I believe, is level-headed- a most valuable trait that may help him survive beyond the pages of this book. Where do you think Seamus is today?

KS: Hmmmâ€Â_I don't know if Seamus is levelheaded. He completely miscalculates who Colby is, for example, and what his relationship with him could be. He thinks he can just show up in New York and find a nice setup until he turns 18 and ships out to London. He thinks his newly shaven head will be enough to scare off anyone who tries messing with him when he hits the Lower East Side. Clearly, he's got another thing coming. 

And that's why I've put the sequel to 85A on hold. I've been doing a lot of research on LGBT runaways, and what these kids go through on the street—survival prostitution, scavenging for food and shelter, picking up any number of diseases (STDs, staph infections, tuberculosis, you name it) in their attempts to get by—it goes beyond the bounds of horror. Even if they make it off the streets, they're likely to live the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders for the next attacker. Do we want to see Seamus go through all that? And in 80s Tompkins Square Park? Back then, it was no place you'd find Carrie Bradshaw stepping out for cosmopolitans, right?

But in my ideal vision, I would like to see Seamus getting off the streets sooner rather than later. I'd like to see him find a mentor. I'd like for his proclivity for self-education to serve him well, and I'd like to see him become the dramatist and book author he set out to be. It's worked for the rare exception. I'd hope it'd work for him, and that he'd lose the chip on his shoulder without losing his edge.

imageKyle will be reading at Fontana's on the Lower East Side on May 18th; other events can be found here:



Frank Haberle

image Frank Haberle won the 2011 Pen Parentis Award for his short story South of Hartford; his other stories have appeared in numerous print and online magazines. Frank is a grantwriter working with New York City social service organizations. He is a Board member and workshop leader for the NY Writers Coalition, a nonprofit group developing writing communities in prisons, youth centers, senior centers and social service programs throughout New York City.

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