Inner City Sanctums
Clay Smith, literary director of the Texas Book Festival, on his Old World meetsModernity home
Fall is the busiest time of the year for Clay Smith, literary director of the Texas Book Festival, and in October, especially so. For the latest installment of Inner City Sanctums, I spent some time with Clay and his trusty canine companions, Lucy and Ethel, inside his own inner city refuge: a lovely 1924 bungalow nestled in the heart of Hyde Park. Find out what he does to relax, what he’s looking forward to most at this year’s festival (October 22nd - 23rd) and how he strives to respect history, while leaving his own unique mark at the same time.
With 40,000 visitors, 250 authors and 900 volunteers expected this year, what have you been doing to stay calm in the busy time leading up to the festival?
It’s stressful for some people to be in boot camp, but it de-stresses me during the book festival. I go to one called Urban Animal four times a week at 6:15.
Your head must be swimming with hundreds of author names and book titles right now. Do you have any time to read for leisure right now?
I refuse to read any of the festival books during October because I have to create a space when I come home where I just don’t think about the book festival. Even when I was working as the Austin Chronicle’s book critic, I had to have my own books to read at home that weren’t for work. I need my own space. But right now, I’m currently between a young adult novel published in 1968 and Dog Sense: How the New Science of Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. (Note: There is a festival book lying on his bedside table—but he insists he’s not reading it.)
Do you have a motto or mantra?
It’s very simple: grace under pressure.
What are you looking forward to most about this year’s festival?
It’s very hard to produce and coordinate the festival and to get the right mix of writers each year, but the great thing about my job is that the ideas are new every year. We have new authors, new literature and new events every year. For instance, I’m really excited about Saturday night’s Lit Crawl, which is new for us. It’s a collaboration with American Short Fiction and the East Side, with several venues, including Shangri-La, Blue Starlite Drive-In and Public School, authors including Susan Orlean, Chuck Klosterman and Chuck Palahniuk, and an after party at the new craft brewery, Hops and Grains, set to open later this month inside a recently renovated warehouse on East 7th Street.
But the desire to respect the architectural history of a place doesn’t mean you can’t change it and that you can’t add something of your own to it. It’s a way of respecting history, but trying to add something to it at the same time.
Would you say that your home is your personal inner city sanctum?
Yes, definitely. It’s small but it’s just the right size for me. It feels like my own little cabin. It’s so nice to come home to, especially in the fall when I’m busiest.
With original exposed shiplap walls from the 1920s mixed with charismatic details like the imported Moroccan tiles in the bathroom, classic illustrations of natural history from Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosity framed on the wall and the conceptual, modern work of Walter Pickering, your home is a delightful balance of Old World sophistication and international modernity. What was your inspiration?
It was two-fold: one was to preserve the original feeling of the home. Like the shiplap, these interior boards of the house, were already exposed, so I didn’t want to do anything to cover that up. Also, the original history of this neighborhood was much more working class, while now it’s considered a significantly nicer part of town. And part of that is because these bungalows that were built in the 1920s and 30s have such a structural integrity, an eternal nice design, and I wanted to do everything I could to maintain that. There are people who would argue that you just have to maintain it very strictly to the details of when it was actually built and not modernize it in any way, but I don’t agree with that. For the most part, I try not to have an ego about the house and just let it be. But the desire to respect the architectural history of a place doesn’t mean you can’t change it and that you can’t add something of your own to it. It’s a way of respecting history, but trying to add something to it at the same time.
Any designs you wanted to steer away from?
You go into some people’s houses, and you feel like you’re walking through a museum. And it’s beautiful and they have great taste and everything is done just perfectly, but it has to be a little more personal and messy for me…to really feel like you’re sharing something with people who are coming to your house. I don’t ever want to live in a stodgy, museum-type place.
Clay’s dining room is a testament to a love of warm, inviting spaces. It’s a happy, cozy room where Clay hosts frequent dinners for family and friends.
I bought the print in the dining room in Palermo, Buenos Argentina—it’s just two sheets of thin wrapping paper—but it just looks like they’re having so much fun. I like to tell people they’re my real family—the one that always gives me presents and never forgets my name. But no one ever believes me. And whenever I have a dinner party, the figurines (collected from all over, but mostly from Toy Joy) are arranged to be having a dinner party too.
There are books in every room in the house, tucked into shelves, spilling out of your bedside table and stored in the open aired attic space above the hallway. What books do you have the best memories of?
I have really good memories of reading 100 Years of Solitude in high school. It was one of the first times that I felt that I wasn’t reading for homework. Also, Anna Karenina.
You’ve worked and lived in New York City and Los Angeles with companies like Sundance Film Festival. Why did you choose Austin to live and work over anywhere in the world?
There’s something about Austin’s art organizations, the spirit of all getting along together that makes nice culture happen here. For example, the Austin Film Festival is happening the same weekend as the book festival, so instead of fighting for venue space or fighting for the same list of writers, we all got together and talked about it. And now we’re sharing a number of writers and screenwriters, including Chuck Palahniuk and Jenny Wingfield, so it’s going to be great. I don’t know if that would happen in very many other cities.
I’ve also always been somebody who has a strong sense of place... but that said, if I’m going to be in Texas, this is the only city I’m going to be in. I mean I love far West Texas. I was born in West Texas, but this is the place for me.
Imagine the book festival has come and gone. Now you have an entire week off to travel—guilt free—anywhere in the world. Where would you go?
I think I’d stay for a long time at Maison Couturier in Veracruz, Mexico.