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Friday, 5 May 2017

Michael Farris Smith

Lynne Patrick talks with Michael Farris Smith

Michael Farris Smith's second novel won a major award in the USA, and was named as one of the best books of its year in five different lists.
His short fiction has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a prestigious American award,  and his essays have appeared with The New York Times, Catfish Alley, Writer’s Bone, and more.
More recently, his novels have been published in the US by a small fiction imprint
specializing in quality literary fiction, and by No Exit Press in the UK.
He lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife and daughters.

Lynne:  Michael, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Your novels have been described as bleak and dystopian. Why do you choose to write about humanity at its lowest ebb? If I had to venture a guess, it would be that fiction deals with lives in crisis, and crisis is rarely a pleasant experience. Am I close?
Michael: Yes, pretty close. Quite honestly, I’m only interested in creating and writing about characters who are at the end of the rope. This makes them desperate, and desperate characters have a tendency to do interesting and unpredictable things, which always makes my reading experience more fun. So as a writer, I’m the same way. I want their lives to be on the brink, either emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, physically, socially, or a little of all of it.

Lynne: You've been compared with literary luminaries such as Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, even Ernest Hemingway. How does it make you feel when you hear that?
Michael: This is always a tough question to answer, but at its most basic, it can’t help but be anything other than extremely flattering. Those are the giants, the ones I look up to, and to even be mentioned in the same sentence is a humbling experience.

Lynne:  Desperation Road was presented to me for review as a crime novel, and in the UK it's published by a small press which specializes in crime fiction. But in the USA you're published by a small imprint
specializing in literary fiction. Do you see yourself as a crime writer, or a writer of literary novels? Or
maybe just a writer?
Michael: Maybe just a writer. I don’t think too much about it. And I really don’t think about it when I’m writing a novel. All of that is for others to decide and you’re not in control of it anyway. I’m only trying to write a great

Lynne:  Your work has been nominated for major awards; which would you prefer, the awards, or great sales figures?
Michael: This has to be the most dumbfounding question I’ve ever been asked. And I have no idea how to answer. I can put an award on my shelf but I can’t pay the bills with it. So…both?

Lynne: How does a new novel get started in your head? What strikes that first spark?
Michael: There is always some strong image in my mind I can’t shake, until the point where I have to sit down and see where it leads. That’s how all my novels have started. With Desperation Road, it was the image of a homeless woman and child trudging along the side of the highway, dragging all they own in a garbage bag. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I was worried for them, felt compassion and empathy for them, and that’s a pretty good sign to sit down at write.

Lynne:  Do you research first, or do you just sit down and write?
Michael: Just sit down and write. I do hardly any research

Lynne:  What process works best for you? Do you plan everything out in detail, chapter by chapter, or do you start writing and let it run? Do you know how a novel will end when you start writing? 
Michael: The first part of that is I start writing and let it run. I don’t plan too far ahead, just work a day, make a few notes for what may be coming next, and then go again the next day. I like the discovery of it, and I think that lends to discovery for my characters, and then hopefully for the reader later on. The second part of that is no, I have no idea about an ending until I get pretty close to it. I think that robs your characters of free will.

Lynne: You teach full time, and have a young family; how does writing novels fit into that? Take us through a typical working day when you're writing a novel.
Michael: I have to do it before everything else gets in the way. We get up in the morning, get the girls ready for school, and then I drive them to school and go right away to my work space. I sit down and know I have ninety minutes to two hours to work, so I go in focused and get to it. When it’s over, it can then fester in my mind the rest of the day and night, while I’m off being daddy or running errands or whatever else I have to do.

Lynne:  Small-town Mississippi is clearly a place you know well, and it shows. In Desperation Road you
succeed in capturing the
feel of the place: the slow pace of life, the laconic people whose emotions run deep, the overriding sense of 'oldness'. But to what extent do you have to research or imagine the specific locations, like Russell's father's home, and the  women's shelter? Or are they based on places you know?
Michael: These are places I know. I feel like I work to make setting an active part of the story, just like the writers I admire, and using places I know and love lends itself to that. I don’t like research and about all I do is look at a map to make sure I have the correct name of a highway or street. I’d rather be telling the story, using my energy to
create place and atmosphere in an emotional way.

Lynne:  By the end of Desperation Road, I kind of felt I knew the lead characters Russell and Maben and many of the others too, especially Russell's father. Great respect is due to you for creating characters who took on a life of their own and felt as if they went on living that life when they weren’t present on the page. Did they come from pure imagination, or are there real-life people in there somewhere?
Michael: I have always worked to stay out of my personal life, and away from people I know, when creating
characters. I think it’s only natural that traits of people and your own experiences will subconsciously find their way into the art you create, but I’m making them up for the most part.

Lynne:  A book is a very special thing. When you hold your first copy of a new novel, does it feel familiar – or completely different from the manuscript you initially sent out? Do you re-read it?
Michael: I think by that stage, it feels pretty familiar to me, but there is certainly something different about it, when it is a real thing. I don’t re-read entire novels but I will sit down from time to time and just open up and read a few pages of wherever I opened the book. Sometimes I’ll come across something I maybe forgot about or see a sentence or passage and think, hey that’s not bad.
Lynne:  Who do you write for? Is there a reader in your mind when you set out to write?
Michael: Just me. I think if you set out to write for anybody else you’re making it more difficult on yourself. I know there are writers who are particular in writing for certain audiences, but I don’t read them. I’m my harshest critic and I’m always trying to do better, so that’s tough enough.
Lynne: Finally, do you think there is a novel, crime, literary, or any other genre, to be found in recent developments in America?
Michael: Recent developments in America would be better fodder for a modern-day soap opera, but everybody would think it was too farfetched. If only it was.

Lynne: Thank you, Michael. And the best of good luck with your future writing.
Michael: Thanks, happy to chat.

Michael Farris Smith's published novels are
The Hands of Strangers (2011)
Rivers (2014)
Desperation Road (2017)
The Fighter (coming in 2018)

A review of Michael’s most recent book Desperation Road can be read here….

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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