|A Conversation With Michael Marshall Smith|
|An interview with Duane Swierczynski |
| July 1999 |
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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