Freeman Smith is a unique and multifaceted American artist and writer, who has traversed the country, observing and experiencing its various cultures and subcultures. In his latest book, “Society, Suspicious,” Smith offers a bold and thought-provoking critique of American society, calling on us to choose between moving forward or regressing into an imaginary past. The book is an experimental and genre-bending novel, narrated by a complex and at times insufferable protagonist, who seeks revenge on America by starting a cult through conspiracy, culminating with an insurrection on January 6th, 2021, at the wrong building. In our recent interview with Smith, he shared his unique perspective on American culture, his writing process, and the inspiration behind his latest work.
1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Observant. Disciplined. Intuitive.
2. “Society, Suspicious” has mystery, stories, poetry, political criticism, and art criticism all at one destination, which have challenged the structured, linear pattern of writing. Did you feel risky about its success while choosing this style of writing?
I did exactly what I set out to do with my novel and measure success only by my standards which are incredibly high. I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books. I love art, artistry, artists, and especially brave and bold artists. Be brave. Be bold. The A-Z approach is fine but I like inventive, confident artists and writers. The structure of my book will be talked about and I’m sure it will be imitated at some point. It’s very different, yet accessible. Anyone with a decent knowledge of American culture will understand the book. If you believe in democracy, this is your book. If you love literature in all forms, this is your book. If you like to laugh while reading, this is your book. Any questions about the book can be answered on my website. That’s the marketing plan. If you read my website, you’ll either buy the book or you won’t.
3. The title of the book “Society, Suspicious” is a critical element of the whole book. What does this title and especially the coma between society and suspicious signify?
Suspicion is a necessary innate survival instinct. Kids are taught to be cautious and the term “stranger danger” has become a safety mantra. I get it, the world is a dangerous place. But it appears to me that people have become so obsessively paranoid and suspicious of one another. It’s like a societal PTSD where people are instantly shocked back to some trauma after seeing someone they believe – usually falsely – poses a threat to them as they sweat out adrenaline and get primed to throw fists. It’s become so ludicrous the way people think and behave. There are so many “Karen’s” and “Clarence’s” out and about making life miserable for innocent people just doing their jobs or walking down the street. Most people’s only real motive in life is to be alive, and like you, they want to be left alone. We can be better, smarter, and cooler. We have so much bad information, but we have so much great information. The comma in the title, the hesitancy, is that we have this other innate instinct, an instinct to want to embrace and instantly accept people we meet. The instinct to instantly accept is as old as the stern-faced step back. I’m not advocating going on a hug fest in your city’s skid row, but we can be better, cooler, and smarter about our interactions as adults. If you’re walking down the street just mind your own business or be cool. Those people are nothing to you and they feel the same of you. The rules of engagement obviously change given the level of intimacy or the situation. I mean there’s a huge difference between the guy sitting next to you on the bus nodding off than the guy holding the rope as you repel a canyon wall. If you really think about it, the guy holding the rope might be less trustworthy…or at a minimum, and from a logical odds perspective, the rope holder definitely deserves more scrutiny.
4. If you would have to describe America in one word from your dictionary, what would it be?
5. In “Society, Suspicious”, you have unmasked the nature of the so-called liberal and democratic nature of Instagram and Facebook as you quoted, “People hate each other, always have. Facebook and Twitter just make hating a quicker proposition. We ain’t politically divided, we’re people divided.” Why do you think Facebook and Twitter are the newcomers to spreading hate?
Prior to the Internet a hate spreading person would have to take the time to draft a letter or series of letters, find the correct addresses, get envelopes, stamps, put it in the mailbox, and hope for a reply. There were many more time-consuming moving parts required to spread hate back in the day. Newsletter, personal ads, chain letters, etc. Many ways to cool down back then, you know, maybe go out and mow the lawn or change the oil on the old Ford. Social media allows people an opportunity to spread whatever it is they want to spread across the planet in seconds. Now someone can create an online persona and say whatever they want to a large audience and get likes and friends and followers and retweets, etc. Most people who are part of this so-called “political divide” in our country have no idea who their politicians are, how government functions, or any other political particulars. These people see someone on TV or Facebook or Instagram or TikTok and they despise the person and pick the opposite side. There’s just not that many political scientists out there and I think people who use the term “politically divided” are either being lazy or naive. People read a rhetorical headline and make it their truth. Most of these people are politically clueless and many willingly vote against their own interests because of their dedicated Internet hate and that’s both sides of the two-party system. Most of these people couldn’t locate D.C. on a map. Our hate, jealousy, anger, etc. at others is as old as civilization itself. In my book I point out that in the Bible Cain kills Abel on the third page. Not only does he kill him on page three, there is a lot of hate and jealousy and heavy psychology going on between these brothers (no less) in the two pages prior to the murder. It’s nature, probably. If you have a literal view of the Bible then embrace the idea that people are born to have the temperament they have and you oughta back off a bit, or more likely a lot. Some scientists think the Earth started after a big bang, so if you believe that then maybe we’re a bit ancestrally angry from being born of a violent explosion.
6. One of the tremendous parts from the book “Society, Suspicious” is the inclusion of critical poetry in the poem “Society, Suspicious” which has clearly portrayed the irrationality behind rational society. How did you come up with the idea for this poem?
Many people’s lives are ruled by social media. Their facts, worldviews, beliefs, relationships, etc. are shaped by whatever it is they clickbait, confirmation bias headline read/skim, off the phone held in the palm of their hand. They know everything because of that phone. It’s the obvious opposite of what palm readers do and that was the theme of the poem.
8. One of the powerful poetry quotes from the book “Society, Suspicious” titled “You Fight, They Flight” is “lines, they ask you to memorize & memorialize. Lines they demand you cross for them. It’s their cinema, you’re just a prop. You open your curtains to Peeping Toms of power surveilling you, analyzing you, preying on you. You give them the right to: waive your rights, waive your life, wave goodbye.” What is the inspiration behind these lines? Do you think we all are actors and which are the roles we all are entitled to?
This poem is related to the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The people who entered the Capitol were told to do so by the outgoing President of the United States of America. We all witnessed this happening and yet nothing is happening to any of the people who orchestrated the coup. They walk free as the foot soldiers sit in prison. Don’t get me wrong, those people belong in prison but what about the organizers? They’ll probably skate free. The gist of the poem is that those in power are constantly looking for followers so they study and manipulate those they think are sympathetic to their politics or their causes. They research people, they study them, and they prey on them. The MAGA politicians lied to their own constituents. These people lied to their own voters and asked them to attempt an overthrow of the government and some of the leaders are still in positions of power. It’s absurd. That was the idea of “You Fight, They Flight” for a title.
Near the end of my book is a novella about two mentally lost people who go to the White House instead of the Capitol for the insurrection. Lunacy and absurdity is what I wanted to show and this story is absurdly good. Some people who invaded the Capitol had a misguided innocence to them and I am sympathetic to their situation. It is a forgiveness of sorts. Those people can be saved. Some of the others that stormed the Capitol that day are too far gone to be helped and our society should do everything we can to keep them gone. They forfeited their American citizenship on January 6, 2021. They’re all stateless vagrants.
9. In one of the poems, you have also highlighted the universal truth of hero-worship, which has led to the dominance of the messenger more than its message or the preacher more than his preaching. Do you think hero-worship and idol-worship are similar or have differences?
A hero can be you or me or your dog or cat or whomever. The hero dog running for help. The hero dad overturning a school board decision. Real people stepping up when needed. A cat in the tree situation. A hero inspires. A hero can make a person better and remove doubt. I think everyone should have a hero or heroes as a reference in their lives. An idol is a whole other level. An idol can be anything from a golden calf to Trump. An idol does whatever he or she wants whenever he or she wants and for some reason that person gets stronger when they get wronger. An idol comes to your house, eats your food, takes your wife, tells you to take a hike and you take that hike cheerfully right on to his next show in the next city and you cheer from the front row lighter held high yelling for an encore. Anyone who idolizes anyone else living or dead is a weak, weak human being. That is a bad way to live life.
11. The mysterious thing about your stories and poetry is the grayish layers within them that have questioned many of the dominant and political natures of any of the philosophies. Do you think philosophies like Freudian philosophy, Scientology philosophy, and religious and psychological philosophies are bringing rigidity or flexibility to society?
Scientology is nothing but a cult and nobody should take their philosophy seriously at all. Most religions operate like cults. I was disappointed, but unsurprised by Christianity’s response to the Trump administration and its policies. The Christians and churches who embraced Trump’s divisive messages and actions proved to be the hypocrites we expected they were. Christianity is losing its appeal because most of the church leaders have made their operations little political outposts of hate. Christians need to stop acting like an oppressed class and go back to what churches should be doing and that is teaching about Christ. If a church becomes a political player or wants to be a political player, fine, but here’s your tax bill. I’m suspicious of churches and religious organizations that want to spread their word and recruit people and baptize people and convert them. That is cult behavior. Some people argue that all denominations of Christianity are cults. I don’t know, but I do know that Christianity demands that you worship Jesus and give your life over to Jesus and you must live for Jesus. That’s a real burden. Both for you and Jesus. I would feel more comfortable reading the words of Jesus and trying to live what he preached as opposed to worshipping him. That seems rational to me. That seems to me to be a much better place to be as a person than to blindly idolize another. Most people are getting wise to organized Christianity and that is not a good sign for its future financial health and organized religion is always and has always been about the money. Trump and his gang exploited American Christianity and exposed many of these people and churches as true frauds. One thing, though, MAGA and Christianity do have in common is they create myths and fantasy scenarios and fake history and want all of us to obey their fairy-tale dogma. Christianity has become a dangerous proposition for many, many people. Mike Pence is the poster boy for the big Christian sell out. He sold his flimsy, sissy soul for ambition and when Trump put a bounty on his head he didn’t even fight back. He’s one of the weakest men in our society and is making a narcissistic run for the presidency. He will never be president. He’s a hypocritic, Christian fool. Every time he speaks ten people become atheists and six become democrats. That’s his influence.
12. In contemporary times self-introspection and self-reflection are lost from people’s lives as quoted in “Society, Suspicious”, “If you want to live as a free man, celebrate yourself. If you want to be a slave worship a stranger. Everyone’s full of shit, especially me.” What are the things according to you which lead people lost from their true self?
Knowing your true self is a constant, lifelong pursuit. I believe self-knowledge is the meaning of life. If you open your eyes, mind, and soul to the world and are agreeable to change and to possibilities self-knowledge is more elusive. Expending energy on a stranger who you believe will help your life is self-slavery. Nobody lives your life for you, but you. You need to make your choices and live those consequences.
14. The character Jim Morrison is the most interesting character in the novel. Can you explain in your own words about this character?
Jim Morrison is, or was, an actual person. He was the lead singer for a band called the Doors and died at the age of 27. There were rumors surrounding his death and a conspiracy that he faked his death and is still alive. All of it is complete make believe but the rumor of his fake death persists to this day. His bandmates furthered the conspiracy. He was a poet and entertainer and artist who tended to push the limits of reality. He was a filmmaker as well. If you read about his life, you will know why I chose him to be the book’s cult leader. He was the only choice. But if you read the book carefully it may not be Jim Morrison at all…in fact…
15. According to you, music has been your long companion through your writing journey. Have you ever tried to find rhythms within you?
We’re all instinctively drawn to music. That is all it is, instinct. First came weird gruntings from early man, music came next, specifically the drums and then rhythm. It is unavoidable
16. Humor is one of the best assets of your novel, which has poked fun at the powerful section rather than weak people, but you have also greatly balanced it with the questioning nature and political criticism. Do you think being hilarious is a way to touch the untouched ideas more deeply?
Humor clarifies everything at the end of the day, most days. People respond to humor a lot easier than some dude giving it to you in straight up Ivy League speak. This book is not a political book at all. Politics are just the backdrop. The only political angle is that you are either for or against American democracy. The election deniers get punched in the face but that’s their fault. I look at the election deniers this way: COVID was a world-wide mutual trauma shared by everyone alive. It’s not the solitary battle of eyelash cancer. We should treat ourselves as mutual survivors. Look at each other with respect. Not all of us suffered a death, but all of us suffered. And then we went out and voted. More than ever before, America voted and that election was called the most secure in the history of the United States by both Democrats and Republicans. Then we allowed a bunch of psychopathic, narcissistic, thuggish, losers sow fake doubt and try to lie to us about the soul of our democracy. That pisses me off. America had an opportunity to show the world the greatness of our democracy, but that patriotism was denied US. I mean, everyone should know this so humor might work. Shit, we should be patting each other on the back, in my opinion. Were not coming out of this thing without scars and we’re struggling to find our societal footing, but c’mon, America, we are remarkable people.
19. Can you talk about your writing process for this book and how you approached blending different writing styles and genres?
I write all the time. I write on my computer, journals, notepads, sticky notes, napkins, and then try to piece things together. I have wanted to style and structure a novel the way I did for a long time and the opportunity presented itself after I quit a job at an awful law firm during COVID. I started to write a negative online review of the company and as I wrote I decided to make it into a novel. Nothing is more passive/aggressive than an online Glassdoor review and throwing a handwritten note taped to a brick through their glass door would mean doing time in the county jail. Then the insurrection occurred and the theme of the novel became clear.
21. You also like the works of literature by Irvine Welsh, Thomas McGuane, Tom Wolfe, the Beat poets, Flannery O’Conner, and Charles Bukowski. What did you use their thoughts as inspiration for in your work?
I wouldn’t call these writers my inspiration or aspiration or anything like that. Irvine Welsh is a Scottish writer probably most famous for his novel Trainspotting. His characters are unforgettable and his stories are outrageous, hilarious, sad, and honest. I’ve read some of his novels more than twice. He nearly got me fired from a job because I couldn’t put his books down. Thomas McGuane is the most underrated writer in America and he needs his due. Pick up his book, Nothing But Blue Skies, and you won’t be able to put it down. That’s a guarantee. Tom Wolfe was sensational. He wrote about astronauts and Wall Street and Ken Kesey and I randomly read from his book A Man In Full a couple of times a week. The Beat poets’ jazz-influenced, manic, maniac verse will live forever. Flannery O’Connor wrote about the absurdities of racism and racists in southern America from her home in Milledgeville, Georgia suffering with Lupus; Charles Bukowski had the heart of a lion and the soul of a Zen monk. I could go on and on and could add more to this mix, but these are the writers I read over and again. Sometimes you just gotta let the masters do their thing. Except for Welsh, I generally read American literature. I’ve been in this book club for a few years now and I get books from all over the world. The world is filled with incredible writers, but I guess I’m guilty of being America First when it comes to fiction.
22. You have extensively written about American culture; is it just out of interest, intuition, or something more specific that led you to discover your land?
I’ve been everywhere in America from Hawaii to Alaska, Maine to San Diego, Seattle to Key West. This land is my land. I’m an American literature expert. An American culture expert. It’s an ongoing fascination and frustration to be an American. Another advantage to democracy, freedom, and letting everyone be themselves is the constant changes and evolution and demise or rise of ideas and art and music and life. I observe my fellow Americans and our differences and our dreams. Trump and MAGA tried to destroy democracy and those folks want fascism. Fascism and authoritarianism will crush voices, ideas, progress, individuality, empathy and growth on day one. Making America Great Again means going backwards and that is never going to happen. It’s a fantasy these folks think can become reality. Cities in America are constantly changing and rural areas are constantly not changing. That is a big part of the divide in America. That’s not the conclusion of an elitist Harvard study. Those are the words of those living in small town America. Rural America does not want any change at all. They would like to live in an America that may have existed once and want the rest of us to shape up or ship out. They’re anti-freedom, anti-individual, anti-American in my opinion. If there are other complaints, I’m open to listening. And I guarantee you I am not being a critic. You don’t need to be a political analyst to understand how the last two voting cycles were all about Rural vs. City. I can tell you this, our cities right now definitely are a huge cause for concern. We are going to come together at some point. I have this feeling we will. We’re speaking the same language, but living entirely different lives. Weird, but true, that can happen in 2023. We’re all mutually fed up and are having trouble finding a way to break bread. But the first step in the bread breaking is to come to the table with identical facts, because the facts are the facts. Inventing facts is non-negotiable, you’re out.
America, if you’re not inspired by it, you’re not paying attention. Anyone blasting, banning, cancelling someone who is brave enough to be different misses the point of America. Our democracy needs a structural overhaul. Any stranger can see that. Term limits, one person one vote, national and local referendums to remove any moral power from the Supreme Court. There is no combatant argument to the one man one vote solution. Anything against that is guilty of a polluted, processed thinking (bologna, to the lay-person), or any real argument would be based upon an unsettling history. One man one vote will be a uniter, not a divider. A clear, fair election would make it easier to look a neighbor in the eye at the grocery store and give him a “we’ll get you at the next election” nod of the head. I mean you’re still going to key his F-150 and he’ll ram his cart into your Prius, but at least there’s some civility. Most people who want to stick with the electoral-college system are the same people who believe and deplore the “we live in an everyone gets a ribbon society.” I got nothing to say to them. What’s fair is fair. Democracy in the United States could be much better than it is. We cannot ever again elect presidents who lose the popular vote by the millions. Trump lost two elections by a combined 11 million votes. That’s just idiocy.
24. “Society, Suspicious” is about conspiracy theories and cult-like behavior. What is the psychology behind the functioning of QAnon and MAGA?
They’re not entirely synonymous. I know several MAGA backers and they love my book and agree with almost everything I wrote. They weren’t at the Capitol. They were at home pissed off like most of us at the people who tried to overthrow the government. They’re just Republicans. But we all saw the hard-core MAGA folk scaling the walls and breaking windows and spraying bear spray and tasing cops and that’s a different culture within the MAGA tribe. They came to take over. Some, maybe most, did so because they have a blind belief in Trump and feel like he is calling them. He is the leader, their leader, the cult leader. They were willing to go to war for their leader. Those people probably believed the election was rigged as well. Suckers, right? But others within the tribe knew it wasn’t rigged and they were willing to go to war for him. Those people are terminally messed up and will never be able to adequately function in society and when MAGA goes away they’ll find another equally violent, idiotic cause to make others miserable. Most of the MAGA crowd are narcissists who idolize a narcissist. They lost, their ideas lost, and yet they believe they are so much better than others that they can take what isn’t theirs by force. Same with the QAnon gang. They believe they are smarter than everyone, more enlightened than everyone, and more clever than everyone. They’re simply making shit up and passing it off as some intellectual pursuit. A PsyOp kind of thing. Both MAGA and QAnon are cults there’s no doubt about it.
26. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar quoted, “Imitation is easy, invention is difficult ” and this has been greatly emphasized in your stories as well. Uniformity is needed for society, and imitation is needed by powerful people. Do you think people choose to imitate or it’s out of people’s choice?
We’re all products of our genetics, training, and environment. Choice, for me, can sometimes be a very tricky concept. A person may be born to be, or taught to be, or validated to be who they are and I think that may put the idea of choice, in the absolutist sense, in the “gray area” column. That’s why I do sympathize with a lot of cult victims.
28. You mention being able to intuit a person’s belief system based on their views of the NBA. Can you elaborate on this and how it relates to your writing?
Let’s put it this way. I have heard the dumbest, racist, or racially confused, garbage from many people when they are asked to give, or volunteer their opinions about the National Basketball Association. Not basketball, but the NBA. These people fill out their brackets every March and watch the NCAA tournament not because they are fans or that they pay attention during the season to any games, but people like the thrill of gambling and some of that fundamental college ball endgame drama. But that darn NBA…It doesn’t necessarily relate to my writing but I do like to hear others’ opinions about the NBA. Try it sometime. Ask someone what they think of the league. You’ll hear some really weird things.
29. Were there any challenges you faced in writing this novel, particularly in terms of structure or subject matter? And what are your suggestions for new authors?
I think things went pretty smooth writing my book. As for new authors, read everything you can, listen to music all the time, find your voice, and, in the words of the Beat Poets, “Just go, man! Go! Go! Go!”
30. Can you share any upcoming projects or works in progress that you are excited about?
I write all the time and have some ideas. I’m pushing this book for now. I believe in it and I worked with Atmosphere Press and no matter what happens I’ll let them know first. Working with Atmosphere was one of the best business decisions I have ever made.
Experience the unique and thought-provoking voice of Freeman Smith in his latest novel, Society, Suspicious. Join the hilarious and sometimes insufferable protagonist as he seeks revenge on America by starting a cult, fabricating imaginary social media windmills, and challenging readers to confront complex issues of human rights, nationalism, and democracy. This genre-bending novel is a must-read for those seeking to engage in meaningful dialogue about the direction of our society.