999 edited by Al Sarrantonio
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A Conversation With Michael Marshall Smith
An interview with Duane Swierczynski
July 1999

Michael Marshall Smith

 
Michael Marshall Smith
Born in Knutsford, Cheshire, in 1965, Michael Marshall Smith (at age 1 or so) and family moved to the USA, first Illinois, and then Florida. At 7, he moved to South Africa then Australia, spending a year in each before finally returning to England in the early 70s. He went on to study Philosophy and Social & Political Science at King's College, Cambridge, where he became involved with the Cambridge Footlights, a comedy revue troupe that had produced such luminaries as the Monty Python team, Emma Thompson, David Baddiel and others. Then it was on to be a revue comedy writer and performer with "The Throbbs" on the BBC Radio 4 series And Now In Colour....

His first story to be accepted for publication was "The Dark Land" (winning the BFS award for best short story in 1992) although the first to be published was "The Man Who Drew Cats" winning the British Fantasy Award for best short story in 1991. His first novel, Only Forward, captured the August Derleth Award for Best Novel in 1995. Smith won yet another British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1996 and he has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1995, 1996, and 1997. In 1996, his 2nd novel Spares was bought by Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks Studio.

To keep afloat when he first started writing, Smith worked at scripting corporate vacuum cleaner videos and organized a corporate video festival for a couple of years, before starting on the company's graphic design. This led to freelancing as a graphic designer, a career he continues today.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Spares
Michael Marshall Smith Tribute Site

 
What You Make It
One of US -- USA
One of US -- UK
Spares -- USA
Only Forward

Other SF Site Interviews
F. Paul Wilson
Tim Powers
Michael Marshall Smith
Thomas F. Monteleone
P.D. Cacek
David Morrell
Chet Williamson
Ed Bryant

999 Review
999 Table of Contents

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Ever read a story by an author and suddenly become seized with the need to find every single thing that he/she has ever put on paper? For me, this happens with alarming regularity. Usually, though, my new-found treasure -- be it the work of Alfred Bester, Charles Beaumont, Philip Dick, Robert Bloch or Fredric Brown -- turns out to be of finite supply. That's because, more often than not, the author turns out to be... well, dead.

So imagine my joy when I discovered that Michael Marshall Smith wasn't dead. In fact, he wasn't even old, or middle-aged. He's only in his thirties, and yet he writes with the power and voice and insight of someone much older, or at least someone who has travelled some interesting roads. His novel Spares reads like Raymond Chandler and Clive Barker trapped in a surreal Philip K. Dick universe, and was optioned by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks. Smith's most recent novel, One of Us, was also optioned (and has just appeared in the US in paperback). But what got me started on my Smith-kick were his brilliant stories in various anthologies, most especially the Year's Best New Horror series by Stephen Jones. Boy, this guy is good, I remember thinking. I sure hope he's not dead.

I'm happy to report Smith is alive and well in London, along with his wife and cats. I recently contacted him to discuss his 999 contribution, "The Book of Irrational Numbers," the lure of Deadwood, the curse of Hollywood, and other frightening topics.


So, any worries about the supposed upcoming Y2K disaster?

I'm fairly relaxed on the whole Y2K thing, to be honest. I think that, if anything, it demonstrates an interesting human need to live in a cyclic fashion. We need our ups and downs. It used to be the coming of the seasons and the harvest, but now that we can buy strawberries regardless of the time of year, I guess we are looking for other cycles to worry about -- and the passing of a millennium is a nice big one.

It is interesting that lack of foresight back in the 60s has led to this situation, but it remains an arbitrary concern -- merely caused by the way we think of numbers. When you see my story, you'll see that numbers form the basis of it.

Yep -- your story, "Book of Irrational Numbers," is indeed heavy on the math. Did you come up with those cool number puzzles yourself? They were fascinating, even to a math-phobe like me.
Most of them I got from a variety of other sources. A few of them make for quite startling -- if very nerdy -- party tricks.

When you first had the idea for this story, did you have the 999 anthology in mind? It seems so perfect.
Actually, no. I'd been playing around with number ideas for a while, and it's distantly possible that some might appear in the next novel, which I'm currently trying to flog into life. When Al [Sarrantonio] e-mailed me about doing a story I realized I might have something there, and tried it out. So in some ways it was the right request at the right time.

I know that you recently made a road trip across the United States. What's the weirdest thing you saw?
In some ways the thing that surprised me most was that we drove 5000 miles in three weeks, across about 16 states -- without a single flat tire, a problem with the car, running out of gas, not being able to find somewhere for the night, getting into a difficult situation in a bar, finding ourselves in some back street and feeling the hairs on the back of our necks rise with rising terror, or bad weather. The whole country showed us its absolute best.

At one point, we stopped at a place called Deadwood, and found ourselves in off-season surreality. Due to the gaming laws, Deadwood has become a kind of ultra-small and very antiquated Las Vegas, populated mainly by people over the age of 70. We cruised into this tiny town wedged into a snowy gulch, eyes wide with tiredness, and were confronted by little packs of happy septuagenarians walking the streets, jingling change. We found the main hotel, which was so much like the Overlook from The Shining that it wasn't funny. As we lugged our month's load of luggage up to the entrance, an arriving coachload of very old people mistook us for Honeymooners, and gave us a standing ovation, with much cheering and jocular suggestions for the night's activities.

The lobby hadn't been redecorated since the Wild West -- we discovered later that some legendary figure of yesteryear had been gunned down in a place just down the road, now a tiny slot machine emporium. The lobby itself was sprinkled with slot machines, with old people sitting and playing them. The much-vaunted restaurant, celebrated by signs in the lobby with almost hysterical enthusiasm, was shut. We checked into our room, then took a walk around the decaying old town. Had a little supper in a place that was, er, authentic. Then went back to the hotel, where my wife insisted on playing the slot machines. She put a quarter in. Twenty dollars came out. We decided to call that a sign, and went to bed. The radiator in the room was so hot, so moltenly extreme, that we were genuinely concerned about burning to death.

Next day we got up, saw the Devil's Tower (Close Encounters), crossed the Big Horn Mountains via a pass which was just crying out for dinosaurs to wander through it, and into a region of Wyoming that was exactly like Mordor from Lord of the Rings -- strange sludgy hills and featureless valleys, dotted with distant burning wells, under a glowering sky. The trip was kind of like that, on the whole.

Do you see your work fitting into a particular genre or tradition (or I should say, genres or traditions)? Or do you pretty much think to hell with genre -- just tell an ass-kicking story?
Absolutely. I'm not really very interested in boundaries. I enjoy books and films from all genres, because they all have very distinctive pleasures to offer. When I'm writing, therefore, I tend to find myself wandering through different territories, depending on the demands of the story I'm trying to tell. Science fiction is very good at communicating a sense of wonder; horror a contemplation of death; noir the fundamental emotional underpinnings of life -- greed and love. If I try limiting myself to one particular window on the world -- and I have tried, believe me -- I always seem to end up subverting it. And from subversion often comes comedy. And finally, there is a voice and reach that some mainstream writers can achieve that I'd also like to tap into.

I only believe in one distinction: that between fiction which slavishly adheres to the consensual view of what is possible, and that which is prepared to have a little fun with reality. All of the genres fall into that latter category, and that's why I enjoy writing in them. I'd love to develop a kind of meta-genre, which borrows from all and yet takes literary fiction on at its own game -- that of describing and interpreting the real things which happen in real people's lives.

That's a great distinction.
The only problem is that publishers and booksellers -- and, to a large degree, readers -- tend to like their books set up in neat little rows. They like labels. And now I often find myself being called "slipstream," which was initially formed as a kind of anti-genre battle cry of "Writes stuff which doesn't fit into the other genres" -- and has now just become a label in itself. Go figure.

Do you have any bizarre writing habits the general public should know about?
Not really. Generally I work in my study, without music, but with at least one cat on my lap at all times. When they were kittens they could both fit with me sitting normally. Now I have to sit in a half-lotus for there to be room for both of them. I have a second chair at the desk which the male cat often uses instead. We come downstairs in the mornings and go to work together in our own chairs. He dozes and I type. Then at the end of the day we go downstairs again together.

Very occasionally I will use one song to get me through a patch, putting it on repeat and writing until I'm done -- the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" and the first half of the soundtrack from The Rock being two recent examples. Sometimes I go all old-fashioned and retreat to the sofa with a pad and pen. I also find that I get a lot of good thinking done on long train journeys.

My one fetish is that I have been using the same computer keyboard for about eight years, despite having changed computer about five times in the interim. One of these days it's going to wear out, and Apple don't make this model any more: could be the end of the words.

Is it true that your British Fantasy Award-winning story, "The Man Who Drew Cats" was the first story you ever wrote?
Pretty much, yes. While I was at college I spent most of my time writing and performing with the Cambridge Footlights -- a comedy dramatic group which produced people like Monty Python and Emma Thompson. At the end of my final year, I went on a three-month tour around Britain with them. I had a fairly lowly role in this particular production, largely limited to playing musical instruments and doing a couple of scene change -- covering comedy voice-overs from the wings.

I had just discovered Stephen King at the time, and spent my spare moments, of which there were a very great many, devouring everything of his I could find. I latched onto him rather later than the rest of the world, but luckily this meant there was a huge backlog for me to immerse myself in. I might not have discovered him at all but for a suggestion from my friend Howard: after years of my badgering him to read Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, he finally relented one evening in a pub-on the condition that I read The Talisman by King and Peter Straub. I dutifully went out and bought it, and settled down with a skeptically-raised eyebrow -- having at that stage never read any horror fiction.

I was hooked, and have been ever since. Without King I might never have become a writer, and so if you want to blame anyone, Howard's squarely in the frame. He liked Lucky Jim, too, so that worked out nicely.

The Footlights tour ended with a two-week stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, playing the graveyard shift at the Assembly Rooms. The days were free, and instead of wasting them watching 12 different productions of The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, I spent them wandering around Edinburgh -- surely one of the world's most beautiful cities -- and drinking endless coffees while wrapped in The Shining and The Bachman Books and The Mist.

One afternoon near the end of our run I was sitting on the steps of the big gallery at The Mound -- a pedestrian area in the centre of the city. Some distance away a man was painting a huge picture on the ground with chalks, and nearby a young child started crying wretchedly -- I don't know why. From these two chance events came the idea for "The Man Who Drew Cats." Stephen Jones and David Sutton bought it for Dark Voices II, their re-launch of the Pan Books of Horror, and it went on to win the British Fantasy Awards for best Short Story and Best Newcomer. This attracted the attention of my publisher, and the rest, as they say, is geography.

Had I taken a different turn on that day, gone for a different walk or sat facing in a different direction, none of that would have happened. I don't know about you, but fate scares the shit out of me.

You've had two books optioned by Hollywood, and have done a fair amount of screenplay adaptations. So far, how's the experience? All you ever seem to hear are horror stories about how directors and producers completely screw over the writer.
The experience so far has been typically frustrating, but far less than it could have been. I got my first introduction to the place through doing an adaptation of Clive Barker's Weaveworld. I was hired, in a somewhat haphazard fashion, to write the whole of an 8-hour television miniseries version of the book. It was the first screenwriting I had ever done, and I was utterly psyched to be working on such a seminal story, and for the chance to work with someone who I admired enormously.

The actual process turned out to be rather wearing, partly because there was a production company in England, the network in the US (Showtime) and various other agencies (the BBC, and a Canadian company) involved from time to time. It involved 18 months of drafts and redrafts, each of which was scrutinized by up to nine people, some of whom had only tangential relevance to the production. Eight hours is a lot of script: think of it as four feature films back to back, all based on the same original material. I wasn't paid for a very long time, and when I was... well, let's put it this way: it provided an object lesson in trust. I finally got a first draft finished that we were all happy with, but then there was a long hiatus while the production was realigned to remove one of the production partners -- who'd managed to royally piss off everyone else involved, including me. This basically left me on hold for nine months, not knowing if I was still on the project, or even if there still was a project.

Finally Showtime came back to me and said "Okay, let's go..." but by that time I was late starting a novel I was contracted for (Spares) and so I had to ask for more time than they felt able to give. So... the project went quiet for a while, as they looked for other writers. Then last year I heard from them that they'd found one, I handed over the disks of my draft, and it's history. It's a shame, because I would have liked to see it through to the next stage, but it just didn't work out that way. Life moves on.

It was a very, very useful introduction into the industry. I saw both the worst of the Hollywood process (financial misdeeds, lies, endless redrafts and waiting) and the best (working with Clive, working on such a good book, working with Showtime, who were great to me and really want to do the book justice). I think it helped give me the beginnings of the kind of insight into the way the industry works which can only come through experience.

Any updates on your optioned novels?
As for the options, they're proceeding in true Hollywood style. DreamWorks extended their option on Spares, after a script by the guy who wrote The Avengers (I'm afraid so) didn't quite... work out. There was an interesting two-week period last year when it was announced that Spielberg wasn't going to do Memoirs of a Geisha after all, but was choosing between a project called Minority Report (a script based on a Philip K. Dick short) and... Spares. In the end they went with the other project, at least partly, I suspect, because it was a script, whereas there's still no workable screenplay for Spares. Spares is still apparently a favoured project, however, so it may just be a matter of time...

In the meantime, I was recently sent the first draft script of One of Us, which is being produced by Di Novi Pictures (and Heyday Films) for Warner Brothers. The writer, a guy called John Sweet, had done an excellent job of getting inside the book, and I was very pleased to be consulted by Di Novi at this stage. I made a few suggestions and observations, and he's now on a second draft. I must say, it was great to be on that end of the process for once, being able to make suggestions -- but then not having to be the poor bastard who has to go away and pull his hair out trying to place them in a script he's already spent months working on.

What's next on your plate? Any story collections in the works? Sequels to any of your novels? Adaptations? Merchandising tie-ins?
Next up publication-wise is a short story collection. It's currently only being published here, by HarperCollins, and is called What You Make It. It may well come out in the US as part of a future deal. There are 17 stories -- including "The Man Who Drew Cats" -- and the most recent, the title story. Very little of it is even tangentially SF, and I'll be interested to see how the people who have come to me through the books react to it.

I'm currently working on a couple of screenplays, including an adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane stories -- which I'm really enjoying. Next up is another novel, which I really should have already started.

Can you give us a sneak preview? Or is it too premature?
It's a little too premature, to be honest. My publishers have just asked me for 100 words on the novel, which is going to be pretty late, at this rate -- and I haven't even managed to come up with that, yet...

Basically it's shaping up to be a contemporary thriller, though the central ideas should have sufficient out-of-kilterness to make up for the loss of a future setting. I hope.

Do you ever discuss your current project with your wife or friends? Or do you prefer to have them read it completely fresh when it's completed?
I never, ever discuss a novel or story with wife or friends before it's finished. It's partly a superstition, I guess, partly also the fact that I'm often finding my way during the writing of the piece. Also I have sometimes found that discussing an idea before I've written it down rids it of some of its power for me -- kind of "Oh, well, I've said it now, so I can't be bothered to write it."

Okay, I've just gotta ask: Who's your favourite Beatle?
I can only answer on a personal -- rather than a musical -- basis. My answer is probably George Harrison. He shut up, got on with playing the guitar, produced some reasonably cool music once the band had imploded, and then made a success of doing something else afterwards. Plus he's aged better than the others, and was extremely gentlemanly about Eric Clapton nicking his wife. A good chap.

Copyright © 1999 Duane Swierczynski

Duane Swierczynski recently escaped New York and is now a pen-for-hire living in the small town of Forty Fort, Pennsylvania. His long-awaited novel, SECRET DEAD MEN, might actually appear early in the next century... depending on how this whole Y2K thing shakes out. In the meanwhile, you can find his work in such varied publications as Details, Men's Health, and Sparks! The Trade Magazine of the National Static Cling Research Foundation.


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