WRITERS TELL ALL
For the record, I make a purpose of recommending and promoting authors I don't like, which means there are very few straight white men I enjoy reading, let alone interviewing. There was Joe Hill, Lou Berney, and a few others, and now I'd like to add Michael Farris Smith to this very exclusive list. Interviewing Michael and getting some really great answers from him was an absolute blessing. I cannot remember who recommended his work to me, but on behalf of us, thank you. And please know that just because this interview focuses on his most recent book, 2018's THE FIGHTER, that doesn't mean you shouldn't read every single one of his works. I have read them all multiple times in preparation for interviewing Michael, and also just for fun. Like Alice Munro with her stories, Michael can fit most in a couple hundred pages than many major writers can in over 500, and just like Toni Morrison, Michael's sentences are so beautifully and uniquely crafted they sometimes take many rereads to grasp the full punch behind them. Without further adieu and all that, here's Michael Farris Smith:
Matthew Turbeville: Michael, it is such a pleasure to get to interview you. I forget which one of your amazing peers recommended The Fighterto me, and I’m sure whoever it is will gladly admit they suggested the read, but it’s an absolutely phenomenal book. I always like to start off with basic questions before we head into the heavy stuff—so I guess, my first question to you would be what inspired The Fighter, and what helped push you through the writing process along with revisions and eventual publication?
Michael Farris Smith:
The Fighterwas the most direct, uninterrupted experience I’ve had with a novel so far. I had the idea, and then I had about 10 months waiting on Desperation Roadto release, and I just sat down and it came to me like a bullet. Just one day after the next, never looking up, and six months later I had a draft I was very excited about. I wish it could be like that every time.
MT: There’s something so enchanting about the Deep South. As someone from South Carolina, which is really, really deep in the South, I love reading these stories. I was wondering what advantages setting a novel like The Fighterin the Deep South had for the story, and possibly what disadvantages it provided?
MFS: I don’t really think about place in terms of advantages or disadvantages. I love using setting as a character in itself, and certainly many Southern writers and influences of mine do the same. I just think that if you are writing about a place you know and love, then both the beauty and the ugly and everything in between will show itself honestly. Certainly the Mississippi Delta fit perfectly for The Fighter, I think the isolation and desolation of the region mirrored Jack Boucher and all he was up against, physically and emotionally.
MT: You have a very poetic and also intense voice, the language helping to power the reader through the story. What novels and other works of literature were most important to your development as a writer? Which books or authors helped to shape your voice?
MFS: Hemingway was an early influence. Mostly because I read him way before I started writing myself and I didn’t know that he was teaching me to write a good, strong declarative sentence. Then there was the discovery of Larry Brown and his hard-earned success. I would also add Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Jim Harrison, William Gay. As far as stories, the very first stories I really knew were from the bible and Sunday School. My dad was a preacher so I was always in church and those stories came alive for me, and filled with such great images, with such extreme emotion, with failure and redemption.
MT: What are your other favorite books set in the Deep South, whether they fall into your own genre or whether they are in a completely different sort of storytelling? Who are the core Southern writers who have paved the way for you, as well as historical events in the South, and perhaps your own upbringing?
MFS: I think I mentioned most of the writers above, but I’d also add Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Brad Watson, Tom Franklin into the group. Barry Hannah certainly taught me a lot about how just imaginative fiction could be, that you can break all the rules, all that matters is if it works. As far as events, I’d point again to my background, growing up in the church. I was always around gospel music, which I think had a big influence on the way my sentences came out when I began to write. I love the lyricism of language and I don’t see how the music could not have had an impact on that.
MT: There’s this idea of a man, brutal and vicious as a fighter, juxtaposed with how tender he is with his foster mother and then, later, a girl who claims to be his daughter. How did you balance these two elements, and what do you think this sort of character says about men today? Would you say the protagonist of The Fighteris realistic as a modern man?
MFS: I think it’s just trying to create a character like a real person, with real complexities, with a heart and soul. I loved how Jack transformed during the writing. It obviously began with the physical notion of a man and the world he had encountered, but getting into the psychology of it, into the relationships that brought him there, trying to find out what he loved, that was so interesting. I learned a long time ago that every one who walks into your novel, you have to treat them like a real person. So that’s what I tried to do.
MT: When you write about the South and stories like these, what do you keep in mind when approaching a novel that could be stigmatized or looked down upon as a Southern novel? What do you think are the stigmas or stereotypes you fight against when writing a novel like The Fighter?
MFS: I don’t think about it. That’s for everyone else. Certainly there are stigmas that come with the mention of a Southern novel, whether fair or not. I’m just trying to write about the human condition, the struggles we all face. I don’t really think of it as “writing about the South” as much as I think of it as writing about the places and people I know.
MT: As I mentioned before, the novel features a very strong and sometimes violent main character who constantly goes back to his loving and helpful foster mother, and is surrounded by an assortment of women. What do you think is your purpose in writing about women in fiction, and what are you trying to say both about women in the South, and women in modern day America?
MFS: Like I mentioned before, I’m just trying to create characters that are real, whether they are women or men. I’ve been fortunate to have been around and been raised by strong, creative, courageous women. A mom, two grandmothers, nine aunts, two sisters, and now a wife and two daughters. Whenever I’m asked about how I create the women in my novels, I take it as a great compliment, both for being able to portray the women as strong and impactful, and for the reasons why I came to realize them this way.
MT: I’ve had not only readers but agents and editors read my own work and tell me, “This just doesn’t seem possible” to which I generally reply—at least recently—“I’m pretty sure anything is possible now that Trump is president.” In relation to The Fighterand any of your other books, what do you believe are the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome in writing them? What do you think is the hardest part of writing a book, and what aspects of writing have been the toughest when getting representation from an agent or selling a book to a publisher?
MFS: This varies, depending on what stage you are at in your writing life. For me, right now, the biggest hurdle is maintaining the discipline to get to work each morning and continue to try and create at a high level. I have a wife, two daughters, teach some classes, have plenty of responsibilities to my writing life, and then just life in general. So for me, it’s maintaining focus on what I’m doing and doing it consistently.
MT: What is your writing process like? Do you write in the morning, afternoon, evening, or night? Do you set a certain number of words or pages a day, or just write for a certain time period? What do you think is the best setting for a writer to get the maximum amount of work done?
MFS: It’s important to be habitual, and I’ve learned that over the years. I have a work space outside of my home, a little studio space. I get my girls to school in the morning and then I go right to it. I much prefer working in the morning, before life can get in the way. I shoot for 1,000 words a day, whether I have an hour to work or three hours. If I can get to that studio at 8:00 am, four or five times a week, a novel can begin to appear in a few months. But you gotta go.
MT: In The Fighter, you have successfully made an unlikable—or, potentially, unlikable character very likable. What efforts did you have to take to make this possible? What are some advice and tips you’d give writers who want to make their protagonists more likable or relatable?
MFS: I think you just have to realize that every character needs to be treated like a real person. No one is good all the time, no one is bad all the time. And all of us have reasons as to why we have become what we are. The same thing for characters in a novel. I’ve just learned to really dive into a character, discover what brought them to become what they are, what drives them, what do they think about or do when no one else is around.
MT: How many books did you write before you sold your first novel? Were you always a writer, even as a kid, or did the art form come to you later in life? What do you think is the most important tool a writer can have in shaping their craft?
MFS: I didn’t start writing until I was about 29. And like everybody else, I have a novel and probably a couple of halves of novels in a drawer somewhere, or more likely a landfill. It’s hard to say what the most important tool is that a writer can have, because it varies, but I will say that if you want to do it or are in the middle of doing it, stamina is pretty damn important.
MT: The Fighteris, relatively speaking, a rather short book that packs in a lot material with a serious punch—just like the novel’s main character. Can you describe how you plotted out the novel, and if you knew the ending from the very beginning of writing the novel? What is your writing method like?
MFS: I don’t plot or plan or outline or anything like that. All of my novels have begun with a very strong image I can’t get out of my head and that’s how I know it’s what I should sit down and try to chase. For The Fighter, it was Jack, all busted up, driving through the night, in some trouble, and I just started to follow him to see what got him into this place in time. I think a lot of beginning writers believe you have to know the story before you sit down to write it and that’s not true. You discover it as you go along.
MT: What books would you recommend to our readers who love your writing? And what books would you recommend in general? What can we expect to see coming from you in the future—I know there’s a new book set for release, but I’m sure our readers would love to hear something about the future release!
MFS: I recommend the writers who influenced me, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, Jim Harrison, Flannery O’Connor, among others. And I would also suggest to read author interviews, that gets you behind the curtain. I have learned so much from reading interviews of writers, musicians, artists, actors, anyone who lives in the creative realm.
MT: Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to conduct this interview with me. It was such a pleasure reading The Fighteragain and again. I am so thankful that it was recommended to me, and also that you agreed to be interviewed for www.writerstellall.com--we love your fiction and will continue to look forward to more books by you. Feel free to close the interview with any thoughts, suggestions, questions, or other ideas you might have had while being interviewed by me. And thank you again.
MFS: Thanks for the invitation for the interview and very happy The Fighter struck you. Wish I knew who recommended it to you, I owe them a beer.