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August 17, 2020
By Matia Madrona Query
A collection of personal vignettes examines the quiet hilarity of 21st-century married life

Considering the laugh-out-loud humor throughout Kyle Thomas Smith’s self-published collection of short essays, Cockloft: Scenes from a Gay Marriage, it may surprise readers to learn how he became a writer. “The short answer is trauma,” Smith says. His difficult early life greatly informed his creativity and sense of humor. “I was noticeably gay as a kid and, as such, was bullied and rejected at school, home, and everywhere in between,” he says. “I fell into a deep, decades-long depression, which sent me on a search for meaning and confirmation of my pain through music, literature, and art.”

Smith is happy to say that he made it through to the other side of his depression, crediting his success to “self-acceptance and intensive spiritual practice as a dharma student, and tons of time on the couch.” Though he wouldn’t want to experience such despair again, he values the introspection that depression facilitated: “It did help me to touch my depths, which is something I think every writer, every artist, and every voter must do. So, by the time I started to write, I could actually write with some insight—the archetypal wounded healer’s journey that so many people go through.”

"Well, we take ourselves with us everywhere we go, don’t we?"
After Smith’s first novel, 85A was published in 2010 by Bascom Hill, he struggled to write a second one. “The ideas weren’t there, and the inspiration wasn’t there; it was flat beer,” he says. “So, when I was 41, I did something I thought I’d never do: I enrolled in an MFA program.” As he continued to grapple with the novel, Smith found refuge and entertainment in writing what he calls “scattershot vignettes from my life and my marriage.” He decided to abandon the novel and instead focus on writing a “flash” thesis, which became Cockloft. “It all came together so organically,” he says. “My adviser suggested that we keep shuffling and reshuffling the deck when it came to organizing, and this helped to give the book its chaotic energy, which I think makes it more fun.”

There’s something especially fascinating about being privy to the inner workings of a couple’s day-to-day lives. Smith chronicles many small moments that are both relatable to readers and distinct to his relationship with his husband, Julius. Though he focuses primarily on his adult life with Julius, the essays also include lighter scenes from his childhood and adolescence. “I chose not to delve into any painful origin stories. But I shared the things I shared in Cockloft because they amused me and I thought they might amuse other people, too,” Smith says. “I ran it all past Julius first, and he was cool with it.”

For all the amusing mishaps that Smith relates—the titular cockloft (a small loft, attic, or garret space) was the setting for an unfortunate run-in with an errant squirrel—the essays are not far removed from pivotal societal events. Smith writes about the 2016 election and the crushing impact it had on him and Julius. It wasn’t an option for Smith to ignore such seismic changes. “Well, we take ourselves with us everywhere we go, don’t we?” Smith says. “And we’re always interpreting events according to our own highly individualized histories and perceptions.”

Naturally, being on lockdown in San Francisco has provided its share of new material for Smith. He’s grateful that he and Julius have remained healthy, though they haven’t escaped the psychological toll. “It’s also election season, and neither one of us has been that great at regulating our news intake,” he says. Moments of despair and existential panic are real—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also sometimes funny. “Oh, but did Julius ever have a Garbo moment the other day!” Smith says. “He lamented how we’re not in New York anymore, how he used to wear tailored suits to the office, how he even had a cologne called Mouchoir for the crisply ironed handkerchief that would peek out of the breast pocket of his suit coat.” Julius has traded those power suits in for an unkempt beard, short sleeves, jeans, and mismatched socks. So has Smith: “I looked at my feet and saw that I was wearing one mauve sock and one gray sock,” he says. “I was also wearing the same terry cloth robe that I’d been lounging around in for 12 years.”

Whether or not there’s a second collection in Smith’s future, he is content—and perfectly satisfied with his decision to self-publish. That said, he did initially seek out a traditional publisher for the book. He had an agent who pitched it to a number of different publishers. Though they all liked it, the very qualities that allow the book to stand out also made it a difficult sell; it fell into a nebulous space that makes positioning it in the market a challenge. “So I’ve just offered it up to the universe and let it decide where it wants to place Cockloft,” he says. “Even if it ends up just gathering dust on a few bookshelves, what does it matter? Writing the book was its own reward—and, as the character Lily Briscoe says to herself in the last line of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, ‘I have had my vision.’ ”