Interview: Michael Farris Smith

Readers of this blog will recall my review of Rivers a few weeks ago (and the rest of you can hardly wait to hustle off to read it, but first things first). I was impressed. So I decided to approach the author, Michael Farris Smith, for an interview and he graciously accepted. In addition to Rivers, he has a novella, In the Hands of Strangers, and a short-story prequel to Rivers, "In the Beginning", available for purchase. His short stories and essays have been published in a number of reviews, including the New York Times, and have earned him a number of awards.


In Rivers, the weather is an implacable enemy. Why did you decide to set your characters against such an overwhelming foe?

I wanted extremity and the idea occurred to me that it is difficult for a place and its people to overcome one natural disaster, but what if there was such a thing as an almost continuous barrage from Mother Nature? The landscape of the Gulf Coast opened up in my mind pretty quickly. What would it look like? How would we cope? What would we do? And who would still be there? It was a strange case of having a setting before I had any characters and I didn't try and avoid that, but just began to write it. I knew the people would show up. They always do. And I knew they would have problems and histories because the world was too tumultuous not to.

I understand you prefer not to outline your stories ahead of time, and it certainly seems to have worked well with Rivers. Has this approach ever caused you problems?

Strangely, that's the first time I've ever wondered that myself. My guess is I don't think it has necessarily caused me problems. I get bogged down when I think too far ahead, or even think too much. So I'd say no, but who knows if that's completely true or not. I honestly don't think too much about process. I'm afraid if I try to figure it out, it might go away.

Rivers is your first novel and it's often said the first novel is biographical. Cohen, the main character, fits into your demographic, although there are also clear differences. How much of yourself do you see in him? Or the other way around?

I think autobiographical elements exist in most work, some obviously more than others. I learned quickly as a growing writer that I didn't like including myself, or the people I knew, or my own experiences in my fiction. Probably because when I was in workshop in grad school, it was pretty obvious whenever someone was trying to pass off something that had happened to them as fiction. And it usually wasn't very interesting.

Cohen and I share some things: being raised in South Mississippi, being familiar with the ties to generational land. I think the long "I love..." passage that appears when Cohen is preparing to leave his home for the final time says a lot about the things he and I might share.

The thing that I share most with any of my characters is the emotions they experience. I sense loneliness, depression, the feeling of being lost, and I know that in both Rivers and The Hands of Strangers those are themes that arise.

Reviewers have often found some difficulty categorizing Rivers. Where do you think it fits in best? Were you aiming at any particular kind of story?

I felt like it was a Southern gothic novel in its earliest stages. And it still feels that way. But the further I got into it, the more I felt like it reached across genres. At times it felt like a Western. At other times it felt dystopian. When it was finally done, I'm not sure I even knew where to place it. Fortunately, I don't have to and it's not something I think about or worry about. I'm happy it has reached across genres, I think at last count I'm up to seven different genres I've seen it listed under. That's a strange thing to me.

I myself called it a literary, near-future dystopian thriller. ;o) What is next for you? Is the next novel in the works? And may I safely assume you are tormenting a new cast of characters?

I'm hopefully finishing up a novel revision and turning it in by the end of the year. And yes, I'm tormenting, don't know another way.

It's a good thing we don't treat real people the way we do our characters! Is this novel also set in the South? Will setting play as great a role this time or is there another focus?

There is a little bit of the South, a little bit of Paris, set in 1920. And yes, setting will play a role. It will always be a big part of what I'm doing because those are the kinds of novels and stories that have influenced me. Creating a sense of place is one of the favorite things I enjoy about writing.

Which leads in nicely to my last questions. Who would you consider your greatest influences? And what relatively unknown author would you recommend to your readers and why?

My biggest influences are Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, and Jean Rhys. Just as much for what I learned from them about work ethic and keeping the faith as for their work itself. I'd also throw Faulkner in there, and Truman Capote has recently become someone whose work I really admire.

As far as a more obscure writer, Charles Dodd White is someone who is writing great Appalachian novels and stories, just a poetic voice and great eye for detail. I'd tell anyone to read him.

Thank you so much for this, Michael.


My review of Rivers

Michael's website

Review: Rivers

Oh man! I mean, OH MAN! Tear my heart out, why don'cha, Michael Farris Smith!

I first heard of Smith and his debut novel Rivers on a Twitter chat where they were featured. It was an interesting chat, so I checked the author website and first pages, and decided it was worth looking closer. I am not at all sorry.

Rivers is a near-future dystopia. (And a thriller. And a literary novel. People who know me know how happy this is making me already.) Climate change has brought about an almost non-stop barrage of hurricanes battering the Gulf Coast states and as they increase in frequency and strength, the American government gives up. They draw a line ninety miles north of the coast, evacuate all but the most recalcitrant, and suspend all government services below the Line. Cohen is one of the most recalcitrant. He refuses the expropriation offers, ignores evacuation attempts, and holds out in one of the few houses left standing, riding out one hurricane after another. After all, he has a house. He has money. Most of all, he has ghosts, ghosts he doesn't want to leave.

Smith's mostly spare prose is haunting in its impact, as Cohen moves through the non-stop rain, eventually reaching a tipping point. He decides to leave, a group of women and children in tow. He is up against predators, mostly human, increasingly violent weather, and a host of logistic challenges that are monsters in and of themselves. There is a twist that I maybe should have seen coming but didn't, and flashbacks to a sunny vacation in Venice.

I often binge-read, devouring a novel in only one or two sittings. It was impossible with Rivers. I needed a break from the intensity and all that rain. Do not mistake this for a complaint or a criticism. It is a masterful book, which hits all the bases I look for to deserve the moniker of Gourmet Reading: superb understated prose, powerful characterization, and a plot that keeps me turning pages. In this case you can throw in an incredible depiction of the setting as a bonus.

So yes, if you are a fan of anything but light fluff, read this book!

Michael Farris Smith's website

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