|Name: MICHAEL MARSHALL (SMITH)
On the web: www.michaelmarshallsmith.com
On Twitter: @ememess
Michael Marshall Smith is a novelist and screenwriter. Only Forward, his groundbreaking first novel, won the Philip K. Dick and August Derleth Awards. Its critically acclaimed successors SPARES and ONE OF US were optioned by major Hollywood studios. He has since written the internationally bestselling novels THE STRAW MEN, THE LONELY DEAD and BLOOD OF ANGELS, and his menacing thriller, THE INTRUDERS, was adapted as a major BBC television series. He lives in California with his wife, son and two cats.
Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to chat with us.
Let’s start by talking about your latest novel, Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence. Can you tell us a bit about the book, and where it came from?
“Hannah” is unique amongst the novels I’ve written in that it initially came out of my mouth, rather than my fingers. Until about a year ago, I used to make up long stories for my son every night when I put him to bed. “Hannah” started that way —me making up random stuff in the dark, to entertain him (and hopefully eventually put him to sleep). After a few nights I realized I was enjoying it enough that I started making a note of whatever I’d said, and eventually it peeled away from the bedtime story and I started writing it as a novel instead. Though I think readers will recognize some of the style from Michael Marshall Smith books, it’s rather unlike anything I’ve ever done before… It’s certainly the most fun I’ve had writing in a long time.
It has been a while since we’ve seen a Michael Marshall Smith book outside of the small presses (unless I’m mistaken, 2007’s The Servants was the last). When you sit down to start a new story or novel, do you know who you’ll be writing as (suspense author Michael Marshall or horror author Michael Marshall Smith), or is that something that develops as the story progresses?
It’s clear to me before I write the first word. Partly because of subject matter — Michael Marshall, though he’ll stray some distance from “reality”, at least keeps the normal world within sight: whereas I generally allow Michael Marshall Smith to do whatever he likes. It’s also a matter of tone, though that’s less clear-cut. Michael Marshall Smith short stories tend to be a little different to the novels, for example. To be honest both writers are merely facets of the same thing, and I wish it was easier to write what the heck you like and put it all out under the same name.
As well as your many novels, you’re also well-known for your short stories and it seems in recent years there’s hardly a horror anthology goes by that doesn’t have a Michael Marshall Smith story in it. Do you approach short story writing in a different way to novels, and do you have a preference as to which you would rather write?
I love writing both novels and short fiction, and — much as with the name thing — ideas announce themselves as being for the shorter or longer form immediately. Shorts are generally my attempt to communicate one idea, or one event, or a particular atmosphere. Novels involve a wider range of material, more depth of character, and require a number of ideas working together. Sometimes I love that — weaving a broader and deeper tapestry. At others, what I want most is to come in hard and fast and get one thing banged into the reader’s head as strongly and quickly as possible: though a good short story can sometimes achieve more than a whole novel. I’d hate to have to give up either medium. Novels re where you get the big stuff done, but people generally write short stories for the love of it, because there’s not a lot of money in it — and so sometimes that’s where you’ll see their best and most personal work.
What’s next for Michael Marshall (Smith)? Can you talk about what you’re working on, and what we might see from you in the near future?
Well, right now I’m editing a new novel, but for a variety of reasons I have to be a little cagey about it. What I can say is that there will be something new from me in 2018, and I’m very excited about it — it’s the kind of thing I’ve been wanting to write for a long, long time.
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
Oh, there were lots. Less so now — after a while you settle into your own style, though you can still get interesting prods from new discoveries once in a while — but every writer starts by (consciously or otherwise) emulating the authors they love. The earliest inspirations to me were people like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick and Jack Finney, with a little Kingsley Amis and Douglas Adams and Raymond Chandler thrown in. Those would be the people whose influence is most clear in the first three Michael Marshall Smith novels. Then there was a second phase when I discovered what I think of as “The Three Jims” — Jim Thompson, James Ellroy and especially James Lee Burke, who were definitely instrumental when I steered into the Michael Marshall novels, with a darker, more noir tone. Every now and then I’ll discover somebody new, like Richard Ford, who makes me realize there are some other ways of approaching things, but after nearly thirty years of doing this I hope I basically sound like me now, and no-one else.
And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?
I used to. I was an inveterate re-reader, and would regularly return to “The Talisman” or “It” or any number of other King novels (or his shorts), and for a long time I’d revisit “Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis annually. As my reading time has shrunk, however, I’ve tended to try to read new things…
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Michael Marshall (Smith) look like?
It varies on what part of the process I’m in, but basically I get up — take my son to school if it’s my turn — get a little exercise, and sit down at my desk around nine. I’ll stay there until around five. That’s the plan, anyway. If the prose just isn’t coming, then I’ve learned to try to take that as a sign not that I’m lazy or can’t write any more, but that I’m just not secure enough in what I’m doing. In which case I’ll switch to something else, or go for a walk, or listen to some music for a while… and try to think about the project in more meta terms until I’ve got a better handle on it. That’s pretty much how it runs for most of the year, though once in a while there’s some variation: I’m off down to LA tomorrow for a few days’ work on a TV project, for example.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
Read a lot. Write a lot. Get yourself out there — find relevant conventions and meeting groups for the kind of fiction you write/like, and attend: it’s a great way to make friends, learn things, and meet agents and editors. Build yourself a thick hide, because a lot of rejection will be involved. Focus on discovering your own style and subject, and finding and nurturing a genuine audience (however small), rather than thinking you can suddenly growth-hack yourself to huge success by spending your time on social media self-promoting. Then read some more, and write some more. It’s a long road. Dig in. Accept the fact there will be long, dark nights. Keep going.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
Right at this moment I’m dividing my time between a James Lee Burke (I’d fallen out of the habit of reading him, and am now delighted to be back and catching up on the couple of Dave Robicheaux novels I’d missed) and non-fiction by a guy (another Jim!) called James Hollis who writes extremely well about Jungian perspectives on life. I’d never really any Jung until a few years ago, but then someone told me I’d basically been unwittingly writing from that angle for years, so I thought I’d check him out. The only “business” reading I do is when I’ve been asked to give someone a cover quote. I don’t really “research”: with me it tends to be that I’ll read some non-fiction for pleasure, and then a while later realize it might form the basis for some fiction.
Your 2007 novel, The Intruders, was given the small-screen treatment by the BBC with John Simm and Mira Sorvino in the lead roles. What did you think of the series? And would you like to see any of your other novels given the big- or small-screen treatment, with any dream cast or directors?
I thought they did a great job, and I was honored to have such a stellar creative crew and cast involved. Glenn and the team were respectful of the book while making the changes required to translate it to the screen, and I was very happy with the way they not only put the story across, but did so in a distinctive way. Personally I loved the way they also left a little work for the audience to do, but it’s a few viewers struggled with that approach. Attention span is lamentably short these days. I’ve never been a spoon-feeder as a writer, and I’m glad the TV series wasn’t either.
There are some other screen adaptations slowly moving forward, including both a short story of mine called HELL HATH ENLARGED HERSELF and also the STRAW MEN novels. THE INTRUDERS took nearly ten years to make it to the screen. This is not a business for impatient people.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
I’ve been lucky enough to at least meet and sometimes share a drink or meal with a number of my favorite writers over the years — Douglas Adams, Stephen King, Clive Barker — and others, like Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub and Neil Gaiman, have become friends. I would have loved to have met Ray Bradbury, of course, I suspect a long dinner with P. G. Wodehouse would have been a blast, and I’m sure that acquiring an appalling hangover in the company of Hemingway would have been very memorable. But to be honest my first choice will always be the writer, editor and horror supremo Stephen Jones. We drink whatever’s available and talk about whatever the hell we feel like, sometimes work, sometimes not. In the end, the friendships you make through writing will be at least as important as the work, probably more so. This is not just art, it’s your life.
Thank you once again, Michael, for taking time out to share your thoughts.