|The Trans-Genre Man:|
An Interview with Michael Marshall Smith
|Interview by David Mathew|
Michael Marshall Smith is the author of three critically praised and highly regarded trans-genre
novels: Only Forward, Spares and One of Us. 1999 saw the publication of his first volume of short
"Putting the collection together was an odd experience,"
"A novel, when it's handed in, represents
6 months of hard work preceded by 6 months of vague musing. It's the story of maybe 9-12 months in my internal
environment. The collection includes the first thing I ever wrote 'The Man Who Drew Cats' -- and the most
recent -- 'What You Make It.' Everything I have written, and a good deal of my life, stands bracketed within it. Some
of the stories are like old friends, some like cranky acquaintances, but all feel as if they have a very personal
call upon me. It's 12 years of my life -- over a third of it -- and in a way it feels as if a chapter is
closing. Not least because something mildly interesting happened when I was wrapping up the collection...
"I was invited to the Edinburgh Book Festival on a Friday and so I went up there, taking my wife. After I'd done my thing I took Paula to a particular place in the city -- the Mound -- where I'd been sitting where I got the idea for 'The Man Who Drew Cats' 12 years before. At that time I'd been on the Cambridge Footlights tour around the country for three months, had just discovered Stephen King, and was enthusiastically reading everything he'd ever done. That afternoon I saw both a chalk artist and a child crying within half an hour and -- bam: got the idea for the story. It was odd standing there 12 years later and remembering it, just as I was putting the collection together. Odder still, three days later I was present at the launch for King's Bag of Bones, his first visit to the country in 17 years. I was introduced, and I think I said 'Bleufgh.' It was a case of 'Does not compute: brain cannot handle this level of input.' I'm as proud of the collection as of anything I've ever done, and I hope other people like it too."
The notion of closing one chapter of his career seems appropriate. After all, it was 'The Man Who Drew Cats' that started it. Less than a decade ago, Michael Marshall Smith's name was not connected, in any way, to genre fiction. "At that time I was, in theory, vaguely an actor, in the sense that I was doing comedy for Radio 4 with some guys I knew from college. We did two series of a show called And Now, in Colour. And I had an Equity card, and thought I ought to try to use it." There was a short article in Fear (R.I.P.) which recorded a particular audition that Smith attended. "The story in Fear was to do with the fact that in one of the very few auditions I was called to at that time I was asked whether I'd have any problem appearing in a nude scene. I said 'No. Er, no. Not really, no. Ah... no'... So many times that it was probably clear that the last bloody thing I wanted to do was appear in a nude scene. The world has enough bad things in it without naked footage of me. Probably not a very significant episode... I was doing the radio comedy and had a day job organising a festival for corporate videos. I then redefined myself as a so-called 'designer' -- mainly because I had and could use an Apple Mac before most people -- and then spent a while also writing corporate videos for all manner of people (M&S, Lloyds, Abbey National, Vauxhall, Electrolux) before taking the plunge and becoming a full-time writer when I adapted Weaveworld for television. I wrote 'When Go Lived in Kentish Town' (one of the unpublished stories in the collection) during the corporate video writing phase, and it probably says just about everything about how I felt about doing them."
But first came 'The Man Who Drew Cats,' and the honours that it received. "I won my first two awards -- the 1990 BFS awards for Best Short Story and Best Newcomer -- for that same first story, 'The Man Who Drew Cats.' Not only did it not occur to me that it might win an award, [but] when I turned up to that first Fantasy Convention I didn't even know there were any such awards. Then I read the programme, and found I'd been nominated for both. When I heard that I'd won them, it was a case of being completely light-headed with disbelief. One of the best days I've had, I think.
"The gap between me writing 'The Man Who Drew Cats,' getting it published and then winning the awards was probably 2-3 years. In the meantime, I had already written further stories. In fact, the first story I had accepted, though it came out just after 'Cats,' was 'The Dark Land' -- which appeared in Nicholas Royle's seminal Darklands anthology. And actually, it was Nick who gave me Clarence Paget's address (the guy who'd been running The Pan Book of Horror) to send 'The Man Who Drew Cats' to. Steve Jones and Dave Sutton had taken over in the meantime and created Dark Voices, and the story got forwarded to them. I am one of a great many people who got their very first start in the genre largely through Nick's support and encouragement." And the plaudits did not stop there. "I have subsequently won two more Best Short Story awards -- for 'The Dark Land' in 1991, and 'More Tomorrow' in 1996. In between I won the Best Novel [August Derleth] Award for Only Forward in 1995. I've had three World Fantasy Nominations, but none have come to anything..."
Despite the nominations, Smith finds it difficult to answer questions about his favourite self-penned pieces. "I guess I have a love/hate relationship with the stuff I have written," he explains. "I've just reread Spares and, with the exception of a couple of what I would now regard as slightly sloppy portions, I think that's probably as good as I've done, along with some of the short stories -- 'More Tomorrow,' 'Foreign Bodies,' 'Hell Hath Enlarged Herself.' My favourite stuff is slightly different, and stories like 'A Place to Stay' and 'What You Make It' would be amongst them. I like 'What You Make It' because it's the nearest I've come to combining the slightly different sensibilities of the short stories and the novels. Along with One of Us: the novel's probably not to everyone's taste, particularly the way in which I chose to end it, but it's what I meant."
As mentioned above, Smith likes to mix his genres. "I was pretty single-genre until I wrote Only Forward (the first novel). All of the stories written before that were set in the present day, in recognisable environments, and were -- for the want of a better label -- 'dark contemporary fantasy.' When I started Only Forward I decided to do what the hell I wanted, disregarding every possible commercial or genre boundary. And it was enormous fun. Only Forward remains some of the best fun I've had writing... 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. It's not conscious: it just comes out that way. 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, because both the market and readers are much more geared up for single-genre works -- I always seem to end up subverting it. And from subversion often comes comedy -- the last ingredient. I only really 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...
"As to what other genres I could incorporate, I'm not sure. Don't really fancy romantic fiction, to be honest. I remember trying to write a story for a women's magazine, years and years ago, simply because there was a market there. Within two pages it had become ungovernably zany. I'd like to head a little more in the direction of mainstream thriller, possibly, and to move back into the present day. I'm not entirely comfortable with being 'science fiction,' which is how people often want to categorise me..."
To categorise Smith would be an extremely difficult endeavour. His influences, to put it politely, are diverse. First of all, there are the detective, or crime, writers, who came late into his life: "With the exception of a few Raymond Chandler, which I read in my early teens, I didn't read any more crime fiction until I was in my late 20s. At this stage I discovered Jim Thompson, James Lee Burke and James Ellroy (the three Jims) -- and they undeniably had an influence from then on. Spares certainly shows a heavy noir influence. I've now read everything that they've done about three times -- which is what I tend to do with authors I like -- and so could probably do with discovering some new people."
And then there were the other genres.
"In horror, it's Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, H.P. Lovecraft. In science fiction (assuming a broad definition) it's Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Jack Finney. I've barely read anyone else, to be honest, though I've just discovered Alfred Bester and he's very entertaining. Plus I can hardly deny a big Douglas Adams influence -- though that was more from the radio shows, which I listened to a million times. In comedy/mainstream it would be Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Woody Allen, Fran Liebovitz. I've recently discovered Don DeLillo and Philip Roth and am enjoying them. I only found Joe R. Lansdale's stuff a couple of years ago, and I love him too. I like voice writers: people for whom it's not the story, but the way you tell it -- right down to what order the words go in, but without letting craft get in the way of transparency."
Spares, to a certain extent, exploited Smith's feeling's about the Vietnam War -- and this also counts, surely, as an inspiration. "There's definitely an extent to which that's on the agenda," he confirms. "I was reading a good deal about the Vietnam war at that time, and wanted to say something about it. I ended up following what appears to be my usual technique, which is often making stuff up, and then reading it afterwards to see what I appeared to want to say. One of the most interesting things about the Vietnam War is the effect it has had on the general American psyche. Like the assassination of JFK, it was a major traumatic event which had no sense of closure. There are a billion theories, but still they don't know who killed their much-loved president; similarly it could be argued that America didn't actually lose the Vietnam War, just that they stopped fighting it -- thank God. Neither event feels over -- and I think that it's this which has given them such resonance for the American people, who like closure, and who had come to believe, through their dominance in the world, that they would always have it. Both events also revealed an until-then hidden dark side of the American character, which has taken some internalising. I find this interesting not just for its own sake, but because it stands a clear comparison to the way in which psychological processes work in individuals, the ways in which pasts hang on to haunt and inform and destroy peoples' presents. In my mind, the idea of a Vietnam vet has become romanticised to represent a kind of former self, who did bad things which were sometimes outside his control -- and who is now still alive in a world which has forgotten or vilified him. The question now is not whether he was good or bad, but whether he will ever be able to find any peace."
As opposed to such stark realism, Smith was also influenced by surrealist art and movies. "When I was at school there was a guy who suddenly got very into surrealism, and infected a few of us with the bug. We didn't quite go to the lengths of playing banks of radios in sealed rooms, but we spent a lot of time being, saying and writing things that were very surreal. One of the first things I can ever remember writing, in fact, was a 10-page stream-of-weirdness thing that would make your head pop. At the same time I got quite interested in Zen, which has a similar approach to breaking the normal patterns of thought. I like Dali, and Magritte -- but apart from that I don't think there's been much lasting influence in my artistic taste: though I'm sure there has been in the way I think, and the things I find interesting. Humour also has both a surreal and a zen quality, as much of it involves setting up an expectation and then undermining it. The mind enjoys that feeling of conceptual freefall occasionally, I think."
Cartoons, even, had their say when Smith's emotional software was being written. For example, 'The Dark Land' had the Dali-esque quality of a very dark cartoon. "I'm not really aware of this as an influence, but it's possible. Some of the times I can remember being most scared as a little kid was by cartoons -- Pinocchio, for example. The best cartoons can also have a kind of dream-like illogic to them which also appeals to me -- and of course from an early age you learn to accept reality distortion in cartoons. Everything I've ever done distorts reality in some way, and that's probably why it has that quality." Smith also studied philosophy at university, which had a subtle influence on his career in writing. "English philosophy is often less concerned with huge ontological ideas and more with issues of language. In its broader conception, however, it does have an interest in psychological and sociological concerns, which often crop up in what I do. I think the key thing that I got out of studying philosophy was an understanding of the way words and ideas work in arguments. I don't directly refer to this in what I write -- because that kind of writing tends to come across as pretentious -- but I'm sure it has an influence."
The inspiration that so few writers wish to mention is the one that sends part of the brain to sleep, while activating other portions of the same organ. "I am -- how shall I put this?" he says, "not unacquainted with the effects of certain recreational pharmaceuticals. Who is, these days? I've never, however, used them to help me write. It doesn't work. The problem with drugs is that every idea seems cool: what you may gain in freedom of thought you lose in critical acumen. It's like that story of the Hollywood screenwriter who dreamt night after night of this perfect plot for a movie. Dreamt the whole thing, start to finish -- but in the morning, it's forgotten. Finally he thinks to put a notepad by his bed, and when he wakes up in the middle he painstakingly writes the whole plot down, and the goes back to sleep, safe in the knowledge that this career-making story has been saved. Next morning he wakes up, reads what's on the pad. It just says 'Boy meets girl.' A far more lucrative, and not dissimilar, source of ideas is dreaming. Dreams are the ultimate virtual reality, in which someone who knows how your mind works (that is, yourself) strings together real-seeming but very zanily connected streams of events and ideas and emotions. I've got a lot of ideas that way, including the layout of the city in Only Forward, half of the story 'The Dark Land' and the basic idea of One of Us. Plus they're not illegal and don't give you flashbacks or the occasional suspicion that you're being tailed by the Albanian secret police."
Michael Marshall Smith believes that there will be university courses of the future for the genre work of this century. Because? "I know that at a conference last year someone presented a paper entitled 'All-consuming crimes of consumption: Detective fantasies in the novels of Michael Marshall Smith,' which is kind of cool. I think that some contemporary genre fiction is amongst the most significant, interesting and zeitgeisty being written -- reflecting changes in and interpretations of what is happening to society, at a level which is far in advance of what most mainstream fiction even attempts. Especially in the last 15 years, a good deal of the most significant changes in our society have been concerned with advances in science, and cultural realignments, and genre fiction is ideally placed to deal with these. Meanwhile mainstream fiction keeps churning out novels about what it's like to be in your 30s in North London. Interesting, but not exactly groundbreaking -- especially as with genre fiction you can do that stuff as well as all the rest."
Many of his experiences were formed by the country about which he writes so convincingly: America. "America is basically a second home to me. I grew up there as a small child, and then returned many, many times with my parents -- most of whose friends live there. And since then I've been back often by myself, including for a whole month in 1998 when my wife and I drove right across the country from Boston to LA, via most places in between. Though I am unquestionably English, a lot of my heart lies in that country. All of those childhood memories one has -- favourite sweets, television programmes, where you went for holidays and so on -- are American. It's Mr Rogers and Gilligan's Island and Sesame Street for early television, and eating Reese's Pieces and Babe Ruths and Lowry's Season Salt and drinking Dr Pepper, and going to Crescent Beach and Cedar Key in Florida. Of course you can get a lot of that stuff here now too. There's just something about the place which feels like home: even down to the moment when I leave the airport and smell the air for the first time. That sounds kind of stupid or fake, perhaps, given that I was born in the UK and have spent most of the last 25 years here, but that's the way it is. I sound English and have English speech patterns, but I never watched Blue Peter or Morecambe and Wise or had a favourite football team: I simply don't have those references. On the other hand, I don't really have convincing American references either. I'm somewhere in between two different countries or realities, which probably explains some of what I tend to write about. I'm a foreigner in the place that feels most like home, but actually not unhappy that way."
All this said, he is not particularly keen on setting his work in other countries. Explaining it thus: "When I was growing up, my family really did the travelling thing. In addition to the US, we lived in South Africa and Australia. We also visited South America, Haiti, Mexico. We went on long, long camping holidays to every country in Europe. We even camped in Russia back in the Brezhnev days -- my father is an academic with a strong interest in the former Soviet Union. That was a trip, I'm telling you. So I feel I've done the schlepping, to be honest. I'm not camping again. I love hotels, motels, airports -- all of those interzones. Probably the effect of seeing so many of them in formative years, which has also made me prone to want to move around. When I moved to London I lived in six flats in five years -- mainly just so I could have a new area to get used to, a different corner shop. I like geographical change. I don't really have a yen to set anything in any other country at the moment. I think you have to be very careful with that kind of thing. It comes across rather like a 'This is what I did in my holidays.' However hard the writer tries to be casual, it usually come across as tourism. It's a very subtle thing, being too hung up on street names, or mentioning particular features you know about... I do it too, when I write stuff set in America. I think it's very difficult to convincingly own a geography in writing unless you know it very well. And I believe one of the most important things a writer has to do is remove every possible barrier between himself and the reader. If the reader doesn't believe in the place he's having described to him, she or he is not going to fully engage with the story. There's too much authorial intrusion."
Since becoming successful, life has become more stressful for Smith. "The problem with 'success,' to the very limited degree to which I have achieved it, is that as soon as it's happened, it's gone -- in the sense that the goal posts move. I can remember how I felt the first time I sold a short story: overjoyed, gob-smacked, like a new life had opened in front of me. Now, though it's still a nice feeling, it's not the same. Similarly, the markers for novels and screenplays and everything else move too. You want to sell more, earn more -- and write better, too. Plus you get into a maelstrom of deadlines and expectations from both readers and publishers which means that writing feels a hell of a lot more like a job than it does when you're doing it for yourself and in your own time. Also there's this pressure to keep producing novels on a regular basis; and novels are big fuckers, and don't always want to be written. They don't for me, anyhow. Still, it's the only kind of work I want to do, so I can hardly complain. The only real pressure I feel is that of trying to get better."
So, how long does it take him to write a book?
"The physical process has taken me about 6 months each time. For most of that period, I'll be working on the book, though I tend to take weeks off here and there either to do something else or because I can't see where to go next. Before that there's a nebulous period in which, while working on other things, I just sort of wait for ideas to come, and stick to each other. That process can take up to a year, because I don't really work at it very hard. I just see which ideas stick around in my head, and very gradually an extremely nebulous form begins to emerge. The difficult thing is trusting that this form has the potential to be a novel, and taking the plunge to pursue it. I hate that bit."
He has become involved with films. For one thing, he was commissioned to write the script of Clive Barker's Weaveworld. This commission was not without its problems.
"Weaveworld is about to go to a second draft, with another scriptwriter. My involvement in this project was both one of the most exciting things I have done, and one of the most troublesome. It was the first piece of professional scriptwriting I did, and I was delighted to be working on so major a project and such a fantastic book. I really think that Weaveworld is one of the most significant genre books written in the last 30 years, and that it will make a groundbreaking mini-series. I think it has a good chance of being done well, too, because everyone I ever talked to at Showtime (the American producers) was really behind the project and the prospect of doing it properly. Unfortunately there were some very complex production issues involved, a lot of personal acrimony at levels well above my head, and the end result was that I ended up working like a dog for 18 months -- much of it without seeing any money -- and ended up being -- how shall I put this? -- given what I regard as an object lesson in the level of trustworthiness in some parts of the movie business, over the full payment of fees in particular. There was then a long hiatus while the production was realigned, partly to remove the producer in question.
Unfortunately by the time this was sorted out I was already late starting a novel I was contracted for, and I couldn't just drop everything and get on with another draft -- never mind the fact that the project by that stage occupied a somewhat complex position in my emotional landscape. There has been another delay since, but I heard late last year that another writer has now been attached, and that the project is proceeding. I hope so. It really deserves to get made, and a lot of people have put a lot of effort into it. I would have loved to have seen it through to the end, and would very much have valued working further with Clive, but it just didn't work out that way."
Nor has this project been the only film-related assignment. For example, Spares was optioned for Spielberg's production company, but little has happened since. "The wait is mind-bendingly frustrating if you allow yourself to think about it, so you have to try not to. There was a two week period late in 1998 when it was announced that Spielberg, rather than make Memoirs of a Geisha next, was going to make one of two SF projects instead -- one of them being Spares. In the end he chose to go with the other project. This doesn't mean that Spares isn't going to get made, just that it's not happening... yet. You have to let this stuff wash over you, or you'd go insane. And the prospect of having someone of that talent involved does make it a little easier, of course. Meanwhile Di Novi Pictures are moving ahead on One of Us; when I met with them late last year they were waiting for a first draft of the script to be handed in. I'm not involved in the scripting of either of these projects: both were sold within weeks of me finishing the novel, and the prospect of spending 6 months taking out things that I'd just spent 6 months putting in was hard to contemplate. I'm also of a very fledgling status in LA as a scriptwriter (fledgling? Still in the egg, more like) and so it's much better that the jobs go to people with more experience and credit -- who can hopefully bring some objectiveness to the material. So long as they don't then fuck it up, of course."
(This interview first appeared in the magazine The 3rd Alternative.)
David Mathew studied English at university, worked as a teacher in Cairo and Gdansk, and is now a full-time writer and journalist. He is working on a biography of Ramsey Campbell and has recently completed a novel. He is also co-designing a game show.
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