“Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures”: An Interview with Michael Farris Smith

Michael Farris Smith’s new novel, Desperation Road (Lee Boudreaux Books) comes on the heels of his highly-successful second offering, Rivers (Simon & Schuster, 2013), which was a sort of speculative novel that imagined a world in which the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been ravaged by a series of incessant hurricanes, forcing the government to draw an imaginary boundary (the Line) just north of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Anyone who chooses to live below that line has to fend for themselves. Rivers was taut and riveting, with echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, as well as the sense of place and character captured by fellow-Mississippian, the late Larry Brown. So how does a writer follow-up a book like that? Michael Farris Smith’s answer is Desperation Road, a book that is just as suspenseful and true to life in Southwestern Mississippi as Rivers, but this time taking place in the less-speculative reality of the present day. Farris Smith also features a female protagonist this time around: Maben, who’s on the road—and on the run—with her young daughter at the opening of the novel. What follows is a series of violent and seemingly-chance encounters that suggest a sort of fatalistic belief in life, that there are no real “accidents” and everything has already been set forth for us by some larger and knowing hand. But this is not to suggest that there’s a lack of hope in this seemingly-dark book. Because there is much hope to be had for these characters, whose lives intersect on a dime, it might seem, but only as part of a greater design. Whose design that might be is up to the reader to determine.

Fiction Southeast sat down with Mr. Smith to talk about Desperation Road, the writing life, and what’s on the horizon for him in the coming months as his book nears its release date in early February 2017.

FICTION SOUTHEAST: Could you talk a little bit about what it was like trying to follow up a novel like Rivers, which was very well-received critically and very successful overall? Did you (or do you still) have any anxiety that your next effort wouldn’t live up to the first book? Or, as an artist, is that something you can’t allow yourself to think about?

MICHAEL FARRIS SMITH: It’s easy to say you don’t think about it, but it’s nearly impossible to shut it out completely. Probably what I wondered about most was not whether I could write something to match up against Rivers, but just how to write a novel in general. Most days I sat down and thought, Okay, so how did you do this? But, as it usually happens, once you start working, those anxieties tend to flake away. It happens every time, once you set your mind and imagination into motion. The only answer is to work hard and love the story you are writing. And that’s what I did with Desperation Road and really never thought about Rivers again once I set Maben and Annalee walking along the interstate with the sun beating down.

FSE: While we’re still on the subject of anxiety, I think it’s safe to say that most artists probably suffer a bit from the “anxiety of influence.” Naturally, reviewers and readers want to make comparisons between your work and another writer’s work. How do you feel about that? Are there ever times where you think those comparisons can be detrimental to a writer?

MFS: I think it’s only logical those comparisons are made. Every artist that’s ever lived is the sum total of many things, but a big part of that are the artists he or she admired, examined, wanted to be like. I’ve been asked before about the comparisons and I always answer I can’t help but feel anything other than flattered and humbled to be compared to McCarthy or Faulkner or Brown. Those are my heroes. But I don’t want to imitate them, though I want to emulate them and their production and find my own voice, which I feel like is happening. I think it’s only problematic when a writer is working too hard to sound like someone before them, or taking the comparisons too seriously, and those writers don’t usually last anyway. My advice is take a comparison as a pat on the back and keep trucking.

FSE: Desperation Road features a lot of violence, but it seems to be tempered with a bit of grace as well, a sense of redemption for its beleaguered characters. Would you say it’s fair to apply Flannery O’Connor’s assessment of her own work—that its subject “is the action of grace in territories largely held by the devil”—to your writing? I guess I’m asking if you think extreme violence in fiction can ever be redemptive? In other words, do you agree with the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” that the grandmother really would have been a good woman had there been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.

MFS: I love that Misfit line. So yes, I pretty much agree with both your and Flannery’s assessment on violence and its role. I think damn near anything can be redemptive, and I don’t use violence as a ploy or apparatus, but if it fits into the story or scene that I’m writing, then there it is. But I also think there is a line to be drawn, there is such a thing as too much, you have to be able to move on from the violent imagery or it turns repetitive. And boring. You have to move on from it and build something with more depth and richness. Create the complexities that live on either side of those actions. And that’s where grace and redemption tend to show up. I hope that’s what I do.

FSE: Since I mentioned Flannery O’Connor, could you talk a little bit about the religious aspects of your novel? Of course, we have the image of the statue of the Virgin Mary, which seems to play a prominent role in your book, but then there’s also the epigraph: “and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Do you believe this, or do you want your characters to believe it, or both.

MFS: I do believe it. That verse speaks to empathy, something which seems to be sorely lacking these days. And I want my characters to believe it and to have empathy. For all the things that are mentioned about my work being dark, I think this same darkness is what gives my characters the opportunity to show courage. To have love. And I don’t mean romantic love, but simple love for humanity. The love and courage to help someone who can’t help themselves, no matter the consequences. I think the religious symbolism in my work comes from it being part of my language, having grown up the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, and many of those stories in the bible deal with the same kind of themes. Help those who are helpless, no matter the odds against or the possibilities of reward.

FSE: What about the idea of fate in your work? I mean, it’s probably not a coincidence that Maben’s and Russell’s lives intersect in the ways they do. Or is it just a coincidence? Do you believe a larger hand is at play in our lives or in the lives of your characters? Or is it really all just chance?

MFS: Well, I guess that’s the question we all ask ourselves at some time or another. Is there a plan? A larger hand guiding us? For my characters, I guess that larger hand belongs to me, but I don’t want them to know that. And this is a large reason why I don’t plot too far ahead or do any type of outline. I want to find out what is going to happen to them right about the minute they find out. I didn’t begin Desperation Road knowing how Maben and Russell would cross, or what binds them together. My notion is if it is a journey of discovery for me and my characters, then it will be a journey of discovery for the reader, which is very important. So maybe it is the same way with life. Maybe that larger hand has an idea of where we are going, but isn’t exactly sure until we get there. And it’s only then that everything else makes sense or we can join the pieces of the puzzle together.

FSE: There’s a scene in Desperation Road in which the novel’s main antagonist gets locked up overnight after causing a scene at his son’s baseball game. That was one of the most realistic renderings of a jail and its denizens I’ve read in a while. How did you make that scene so believable?

MFS: Sometimes we create things from experience, from having been there. Other times, we create things from our perception of a scenario or event, from images gathered from what we’ve seen or stories we’ve heard. And then other times, we create based on a combination of experience and imagination. I’ll just say the jail scene falls into the last of that lineup.

FSE: Both Rivers and Desperation Road are literary novels, but also contain elements of suspense (and in the case of Rivers, perhaps even science fiction). How do you walk the line between genre fiction and literary fiction? Does it really matter to you if someone considers your work “literary” or not?

MFS: It doesn’t really matter. Between Rivers and Desperation Road I’ve counted about twelve genres they’ve been listed under. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s hard enough to write a novel, and then if you start thinking about things like audience and genre and categories, then it gets even more difficult. I’m trying to figure out how to rid the work of anxiety and this is one of those ways I do it, find a story to love and write it. Besides, once you hand the novel to someone, it belongs to them now. They will interpret it however, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I think my novels cross some boundaries in terms of genre because I get bored easily and I want something to happen, so there is maybe a propulsion in my work that moves it away from a typical “literary” work.

FSE: What do you think about the terms “Rough South” and “Grit Lit” as they are applied to your work? Do you think terms like that can be helpful or harmful to writers?

MFS: I imagine it’s both helpful and harmful. For me, I love those terms and so it makes me want to read something that falls into these categories. I’m also happy if this is one of the “schools” my work fits into. For others, those terms conjure up images automatically, so maybe they avoid work with these labels because of those stereotypes, and it robs them of what may exist between the covers. It’s a toss-up.

FSE: I know a lot of Fiction Southeast‘s readers are curious about other writers’ processes. So since I have you here, could you tell them a little bit about when you write and how much you write per day? I know you teach full time and have two daughters, so how do you balance it all? Is it like what Faulkner said when someone asked him if he wrote every day or only when he was inspired; and his response was something like, “well, I write only when I’m inspired, but I’m inspired every day at nine o’clock”?

MFS: It’s funny you mention the Faulkner quote because it’s pretty much what I live by. Except instead of nine o’clock in the morning, it’s eight o’clock for me. We get up and everyone gets ready, then I drive my girls to school about 7:45 and I go right to my workspace in downtown Columbus. One room, a couple of windows, a table and chair, a laptop, a coffeemaker. And from eight until about nine-thirty, that is my time. I go in there ready to work and try to focus and then after my time is up, I can go teach or cut the grass or be daddy or whatever it is I have to do, satisfied that my most important work for the day is done. And then I have the rest of the day to let it soak in, let me think about it. So when I go back the next morning, I’m ready again. This is not something I came to easily. It took me a while to figure out I need to be habitual and focused, and this has made a big difference in my output and consistency, and I think in my voice as well. I shoot for a thousand words a day, Monday through Friday. Sometimes I get it and sometimes I don’t, but this schedule keeps the tool sharp. If you sit around and wait for it, the chair will get pretty hard.

FSE: I think most aspiring writers might be happy to learn that you can mostly get your work done in under two hours a day. Do you feel that if you work longer than that, you’ll get tapped out? I have heard a lot of writers claim to write for five hours a day. Sometimes I think that’s unfair (and possibly untrue) for a young writer to hear—it’s as if they’re saying that if you don’t have that sort of time, then you shouldn’t be writing. What do you think a reasonable goal is for a writer who’s just getting started, one who hasn’t written a novel before?

MFS: Having or needing five hours a day to write is not realistic. Whoever says they do such either represents a tiny percentage of writers, maybe 2 or 3 percent, or is full of it. I guess there are people out there who have that much time, but I don’t know who they are. But even if I had it, I’m not sure I’d use it. I do get tapped out. When I leave my workspace after having had a solid outing, my mind is drained. I’m a little scattered. It takes me a while to get situated back into the rest of the day. It’s difficult on those days when I have to leave working on a novel to go and teach, the mindsets are so different. Sometimes there are days when I will go back to write a little more after a break or walking around the block a few times, but I don’t know if I’d do that every day. I like to leave something in the tank for the next time. But the whole point is this: you have to commit to a regular schedule if you want the work to pile up. Thirty minutes a day. An hour. Three hours. Whatever. My second child was born right in the middle of Rivers, so I finished it with an infant, a 5-year old, a full course load, and a wife who traveled two days a week for her job. But I did it by sitting down and working hard with whatever time I had. There will always be excuses and if you think you need five hours a day then you’ve already found one.

FSE: I know you’ve recently switched publishers (Desperation Road is coming out under the relatively new imprint, Lee Boudreaux Books). Are you at liberty to talk about that at all, specifically how it relates to the “business” of writing and publishing?

MFS: I probably shouldn’t say anything about it, so I won’t. Except that I made the right decision and I feel very fortunate to be working alongside Lee Boudreaux.

FSE: Lastly, tell us about what’s on the horizon for you and for Desperation Road?

MFS: I’ll be hitting the road in February, March, and April. I hit the great indie bookstores in Mississippi, and then do the same in Atlanta, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Nashville. I’ll be down in New Orleans and do some festivals and such. I like this part. I know some writers don’t, but I do. I figure I sat alone in a room for a year while I wrote it, then waited another eighteen months for it to come out, so I should get out there and enjoy a few free drinks.

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