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Feature
MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH: Why Only Use Grays?

"Writing is an art, but it's also a job. It's a vocation, but it's also a slog. It's what I do, and no more or less interesting than that. If you meet me in a pub, last thing I'm going to want to talk about is writing. I don't know anything about it. I'd love a game of pool, and you'd probably beat me, and I'd generally like another beer. But writing -- it remains a mystery to me, and I hope it remains so for ever." --Michael Marshall Smith
by Paula Guran

You may not have heard of Michael Marshall Smith...yet.

Smith The personable 32-year-old's second novel, Spares, reviewed in OMNI DarkEcho Horror, is now out in paperback from Bantam in the US. Optioned for film by Stephen Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG, Sparesis also being translated into fourteen foreign languages. The novel combines a shadowy hard-boiled detective scenario with a poignant but flawed hero, unexpected dashes of humor, some surrealism, and a philosophical and sociological basis for it all. Smith's third novel, One of Us will be out this summer and is already under film option by Warner Brothers.

Born in England in 1965, Smith spent much of his early childhood in the United States, South Africa, and Australia, returning to England with his family in 1973. He went to school in Chigwell, Essex, before going up to King's College, Cambridge, where he studied Philosophy and Social and Political Science. While at King's College he became involved in the Cambridge Footlights -- a comedy troupe that had produced most of the zanies who became Monty Python, among others. After University he earned his living as a graphic designer and writer of corporate videos, and started to write horror and dark fantasy short stories on the side.

coverMichael Marshall Smith won the British Fantasy Best Short Story Award in 1990 for the first story he'd ever written as well as winning the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer. He then followed this up with another British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1991. His first novel, Only Forward, captured the August Derleth Award for Best Novel 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. His short stories have been published in a variety of anthologies and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, including several volumes of the Dark Voices, Dark Terrors, and Mammoth books; the Best New Horror and Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series -- along with magazines like OMNI and Interzone.

Besides his fiction, Smith has written a number of screenplay adaptations, is currently completing his first original screenplay, and is developing a number of film and television projects as a partner in Smith & Jones Productions (with Stephen Jones). He lives in North London with his fiancé Paula and two Burmilla cats.

I think you'll find, as I did in the process of this interview, that Michael Marshall Smith is the sort of creator that you fervently hope will hit it "big" in films -- not only as a platform to launch a larger literary career, but simply because once in a while we'd all like to see one of the erudite, intelligent, talented good guys make it so that we can all have some faith in the balance of things restored.


DE: I understand you were moved around a bit as a child. What's the background on this peripatetic youth?

MMS: My childhood was structured by the fact that my father is an academic, and by my parents taking what was, at the time at least, the fairly unusual step of decamping from England to the US when I was one year old.

After a couple of years in Illinois we moved to Florida, which is the place I remember most from my formative years. When I was seven we moved to South Africa for a year and then Australia for a further year, before finally heading back to England. The odd thing is that during all the time we were "away," England was always thought of as "Home" by my sister and I. And it was only a good few years after returning there that we came to realize that we didn't actually feel that way about it any more.

During my teens we made many visits back to the US -- often as many as two long trips a year. Now I go back as often as possible -- not least to stock up on Tootsie Rolls, good salad dressings, and to eat good Mexican food, which you just cannot get in England -- and aim to spend some big chunks of time there soon.

DE: I suppose, then, we could credit Tootsie Rolls, salads, and tacos for you becoming a writer, but there may be some other reasons, too.

MMS: I started writing sort of by accident, sort of by occluded design. I went up to college with the idea of becoming an academic. Both of my parents were academics at the time, I was used to the life, it seemed like a cool option. Travel the world and teach people stuff. But before I even arrived at college I'd started writing little bits of comedy, with the hope of joining the Cambridge Footlights -- the celebrated comedy club which produced most of Monty Python, Emma Thompson and a number of others. I actually ended up spending most of my time engaged in Footlights and other shows as writer and performer, and er, didn't really work as hard at my studies as I should have. Through pure good fortune and native bullshitting ability I scraped a good degree in the end -- but not quite good enough to get a grant for the Ph.D. place I'd secured. So I went on the Summer Tour with the Footlights -- a three month tour of theaters around England, kind of the culmination of the whole deal -- not knowing what I was going to do.

SmithI'd mulled over the idea of writing before, but not very seriously. I knew my father wrote -- though his is non-fiction -- and so I knew it was possible. I'd just never really read anything which had pushed me into doing it myself. Then, one fateful evening in a pub, I bullied my friend Howard into reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, because I knew he'd enjoy it. In return, he exacted a promise that I'd read The Talisman. Up to that point, I'd been a little snooty about Stephen King, without ever actually having read any -- and I'd never heard of Peter Straub. I read The Talisman, and was hooked. I spent the Footlights tour seeking out every single King I could find, and by the end had (a) decided that genre fiction was something I wanted to check out, and (b) started my first short story.

This story was called "The Man Who Drew Cats," and was fortunate enough to win the British Fantasy Award -- which was a huge encouragement. Eagle-eyed readers might spot that I refer to two towns in the story, and named them "Stephensville" and "Kingtown" -- realizing my influences were probably showing.

I toyed around with stories for a while, and then had the great good fortune to meet Nicholas Royle. We became friends very quickly, and encouraged each other in our writing -- though Nick was already on the way to being established by then, and most of the encouragement went one way to start off with. A little later I met Stephen Jones, who's also had an enormous influence on my short fiction -- not least through publishing most of it. Two very good editors, two enormously good friends. Just lucky, I guess.

DE: Michael, I don't think you attract friends and editors like that by sheer luck. Considerable talent was involved as well...but I want to follow up the theatrical connection. Right off I can think of writers like Clive Barker and Robert Devereaux who started out in theater before turning to writing horror. It's maybe a somewhat banal observation, but people who perform or write for performance seem to have a deeper understanding of characterization than average. Perhaps another factor is that theater people seem to feel they are "outsiders." Your protagonist, Jack, in Spares, is, like any good noir detective or cyberpunk hero, something of an outsider. What elements of your protagonist, Jack, are drawn from your own experience?

coverMMS: Many writers -- and arrogant bastards of any profession -- feel themselves to be outsiders. I feel this too, but not in a negative way. I'm actually quite well socialized [he grins], but I like the sensation of watching stuff, and of being able to take advantage of the things the world offers without necessarily being beholden to any particular place or time. I love hotels and motels and airports and small bad restaurants on the edge of places no one wants to visit. When we were kids, my parents used to spend each vacation by basically packing us into the back of the station wagon and saying, "Okay. We're in Florida. Gonna drive to Seattle."

So they'd do that, and then drive back, and we'd look at a bunch of stuff on the way, and a bunch of stuff on the way back -- at least some of which I still have somewhere in my head. This meant I visited every state in the Union at least once; love the sensation of being on the move and having no particular place to be tied to; and I don't get travel sickness, even if I read.

Whether any of this is relevant to my characters, or indeed anything, remains to be seen... I guess none of them get travel sick either.

If I'm completely honest, I find it very hard to take the real world half as seriously as what I write about. Not because I believe that what I write of has any particular worth or significance, but because it concerns worlds which simply seem a great deal more real to me. Just as it takes me an extraordinary length of time to surface from dreams in the morning, I find it hard sometimes to remember that these worlds don't exist. I feel more like a travel writer or a journalist than a novelist, in some ways: These are the places I know, and the people I hear things about, and I'm telling other people about them too.

DE: Yet the profession of writing, itself, is part of the real world you inhabit --especially since, as is the writer's dream, you are able to do it full-time.

MMS: I had a couple of "proper" jobs before -- but both were, even at the time, simply ways of earning some money and keeping me socially integrated (more or less) while I worked. I organized a corporate video festival for a couple of years (for my sins -- a job I fell into entirely accidentally) and then started doing the company's graphic design. I went freelance as a graphic designer and earned a reasonable living doing that and writing corporate videos (for my sins, and for a whole bunch of other people's, I must assume), while trying to keep the work down to 3 or 4 days a week.

coverIn all this time, my "real life" was writing. I'm exceptionally lucky that things have turned out the way they have: I wasn't a real graphic designer, merely someone who likes typefaces and could use a Mac before most people; and writing corporate videos is not a job for a grown human. So yep -- it's write or starve: where "starving" covers both my finances and my emotional state of mind.

DE: We have some Smith life-inspiration and the write-or-die drive, but writers are also invariably influenced by what they read. What fiction writers do you see as influences?

MMS: It varies, and has varied. I think the writers which shaped my basic imagination most were probably Ray Bradbury (lyric wonder), Kingsley Amis (style of verbal humor), and Stephen King (storytelling). Subsequently, and at various stages, I've discovered and enjoyed Phil Dick, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Martin Amis, Jim Thompson, Ramsey Campbell, Joe R Landsdale.

DE: What about other influences on your science fictional futures?

MMS: I really don't know. When I was in my early teens I read Asimov and Clarke. Then I stopped dead, and haven't read any science fiction since. With very few exceptions -- Paul McAuley, Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, William Gibson before he lost it -- I just don't get a lot out of SF. The characters tend to be too wooden, the emotions too insubstantial, the plots too predictable. It reads like imaginative fiction written by realtors. Maybe I'm just not reading the right stuff.

I had no idea I was going to end up writing what some people regard as science fiction. Up to the point where I started Only Forward, I had only written "dark" fiction set in the present day -- with the single exception of "Dying," published in OMNI, which was a kind of dark fiction story set a little in the future -- dark fantasies, twilight horror, emotional tearings. Then suddenly there I was setting something in the future. With Spares I did it again -- having written no science fiction in the meantime. Then I wrote one science fiction short -- "Save As," printed in Interzone -- and bang, another SF novel. Go figure.

DE: Then you don't really see it as science fiction?

SmithMMS: I actually don't regard it as SF, to be honest. Dark thrillers which happen to be set in the near future, is I guess how I characterize them. The time in which they're set isn't what really interests me about them. Stories are stories, and are to a degree untethered in time. I'm not trying to predict how the world might be: I have enough trouble predicting what the weekend's going to be like. I'm just having fun with a way the world could be.

DE: I'm not surprised that you don't read much science fiction nowadays. I find that many fiction writers don't read much fiction at all; or if they do, they read very little -- especially within their own genre. Tim Powers, for instance, told me recently that he has yet to read any genre fiction published after 1970. So, what nonfiction -- political, historical, philosophical, religious, whatever -- influences you?

MMS: I read Philosophy at University, and some of that probably stuck. I was very interested in Zen as a teenager, and in my mid-twenties absorbed a lot of Colin Wilson's stuff, and hence took some short excursions Into Gurdieff and Ouspensky. At the moment I seem to be reading an awful lot about architecture -- including just having finished a great book by Stuart Brand called How Buildings Learn. It occurred to me while I was reading it that I've always been quite interested in the subject -- I was fascinated by my father's books on Frank Lloyd Wright as a child -- and that each of my novels has hinged around an architectural conceit: the Neighbourhoods in Only Forward, the MageMall in Spares, and Griffith Neighbourhood in One Of Us.

What influences me more than anything else is serendipity. I can feel a novel lumbering towards me over the horizon. Things start happening. I get slightly interested in something, and then other things will start falling into place. One Of Us, which is partly about religion, was prefigured by a series of nine coincidences involving religious matters I read, got sent, got given as gifts, heard on the radio, dreamt about...and this for a man who has no religion.

After a while I just give in and say "Okay already. So it's going to be about that." Who knows -- maybe the next one's going to turn out to be a futuristic thriller about vernacular architecture.

coverDE: I can see it now: "James Ellroy Meets Frank Lloyd Wright in a Sexy Dark Cyberpunk Adventure That Gives New Meaning to the Word 'Cantilevered'." But that's the thing about "genre" fiction: It allows the writer to deal with profound thoughts -- religious, spiritual, political, sociological -- in an entertaining manner. You are free to speculate and experiment to a much larger degree than in "mainstream" fiction. Is this, at least in part, behind the "why" of the manner in which you write?

MMS: Yes. There's a degree to which, as I just suggested, I write what's coming to me. But I'm glad to be writing in the "genres," because the freedom they give you, the capacity for invention and wildness and just doing what the fuck you want, is very important to me. I've tried writing 'mainstream' fiction, and maybe some day I'll move closer in that direction. But for the time being, whenever I try, I just end up doing something weird with it. It's like "You've got all these colors at your disposal: why only use gray?'

DE:This brings up something about the negative bugaboo of genre. In the UK, I gather Spares was published as a horror novel. In the States it can't be found in horror or SF, but in the mystery section of your local megabookstore. You've mentioned you don't really see your work as SF, more as "dark thrillers which happen to be set in the near future." So...?

MMS: Spares was actually published on HarperCollins' mainstream list in the UK, and as mystery in the States. The booksellers cheerfully disregarded both of them, and put it in the science fiction section instead. I wouldn't mind, but in many bookstores, especially in the UK, that means they put it on the "genre shit" table. "This is weird stuff, probably got horror or robots or something in it. Don't really understand it. But some of the book buyers like it, so I guess we have to stock it. But we'll put it on this little table here, near the back of the store, so it's obvious we don't really approve."

I consider myself as writing fiction. Period. Is 1984SF? Is Slaughterhouse 5 SF? Is The Bell Jar horror? Who cares? Every generation has a few writers who write "genre fiction," but raise it to a level, or are lucky or talented enough, to bust out and be considered -- or retrospectively reconsidered to be "mainstream." Doubt I've got the talent, but that's what I'm aiming for.

DE: Which means we have to wait a couple of decades to find out if you are a "literary success," I guess. This brings up a tricky question -- just how successful are you? In the US you are virtually unknown, although the paperback of Spares and its connection to a possible movie may change that rapidly. Hollywood has certainly picked up on you. Dreamworks reportedly made a "million dollar deal" with you for Spares. Warner Bros. has reportedly purchased One of Us, your next novel, for more than seven figures.

coverMMS: Successful? I wish. I'm doing okay, for the time being -- Spareshas sold IN 14 languages, for example -- but my answer would have to be "No." I'm lucky that Hollywood has paid a lot of attention to the last two novels, and they have both been optioned at high levels by exciting people. But I'm still on the lowest rungs of the ladder in every other regard, and deservedly so. I'm 32. I've written a bunch of short stories and three novels. I've got a long way to go, both in terms of development as a writer, and in terms of success. That's cool. Overnight successes generally don't happen overnight and tend to become overnight disappearances as well. Like anyone, I'd love to be rich and famous NOW. I mean right now, godammit, haven't I waited long enough? But I'm here for the long slog, and realistic enough to believe that's just what it will be. Plus I can hardly curse my luck thus far.

And note: both the film deals are options, not purchases. I'll believe something's going to happen when I'm sitting in the theater watching the first reel.

DE: What about the status of Spares?

MMS: It was optioned by Spielberg and both Robert DeNiro and Mel Gibson were interested in it as a property -- but nothing means much until the cameras roll.The news on Spares is that there were some exciting rumors a little while ago, and I believe the writer has finished a first draft, but I haven't heard anything recently. I'm meeting with my agent in a couple weeks, so I'll quiz him then.

DE:Tell me about your screen writing. You did a screenplay of Clive Barker's Weaveworld. You've done a treatment of Jay Russell's Celestial Dogs and a couple of other adaptations, and established a production company with Stephen Jones. Sounds like we should do lunch. What's a nice Brit boy like you doing turning Hollywood?

MMS:In fact, I wrote my first screenplay several years before my first novel. I can eat seared ahi and drink cranberry juice with the best of them -- just so long as I can go home at night and munch a cheeseburger with a beer and a cigarette.

Actually, though I love LA -- and Santa Monica in particular -- I have no plans to relocate just yet. Too easy to spend too much time in going-nowhere meetings and becoming just another person down the script mines. Screen writing is something I'm taking increasingly seriously, however -- because I enjoy it, and love films.

coverWhat's happening at the moment is that my scripts of Celestial Dogs and Robert Faulcon's Nighthunter are doing the rounds, and Steve and I are developing a number of other genre-based projects for film and television. We've got some really strong stuff, and I think stuff's going to start happening this year on a lot of it.

I've also just started my first original full-length script, which is going well, provisionally titled Where the Children Went. This movie is very much a Michael Marshall Smith project and idea. After some of my previous experiences of script development, I decided to keep it to myself -- and unpaid -- until I've finished it. No one's reading it until it's done.

For all of these reasons I'm happy to be doing my writing and developing in London for the time being, where no one hassles you as much.

DE: And One of Us? What's it like?

MMS: One of Us, I hope, is like a combination of Only Forward and Spares -- and a bit more besides. It has more of the good humor and "all bets are off-ness" of Only Forward but adds Spares' tight plot and range of characters. It's more multi-focused than Spares: still in the first person, but trying to draw a number of characters' lives into a greater whole. It's also my attempt to use the SF thriller format to say something significant about the world and reality we live in. Does it succeed? Who knows.

DE: And as a movie? Any thing to report there?

MMS: Just after Christmas I met with the President of Di Novi Pictures -- who are producing for Warners -- and they seem very excited. I also spoke with Denise Di Novi herself, who again seemed very up for it, and she is of course a producer with a great track record. A writer who sounds very strong is due to start scripting very soon...so it all sounds very positive.

DE: What's essential to know about you, Michael? What do I have to know before you feel I really can say I know you?

MMS: Tough one. That I mean well, I guess. There is only one thing I care about doing for a career, and that's writing: books, short stories, and screenplays. Writing is an art, but it's also a job. It's a vocation, but it's also a slog. It's what I do, and no more or less interesting than that. If you meet me in a pub, last thing I'm going to want to talk about is writing. I don't know anything about it. I'd love a game of pool, and you'd probably beat me, and I'd generally like another beer. But writing -- it remains a mystery to me, and I hope it remains so forever.

I'm just going to quietly get on with doing as much work as circumstance, life, and my innate laziness allow me, and hope that it's enough to make me stupidly rich and famous.

Failing that, I'll get by. "Not famous, but not poor'" would do. Dreams vs. reality: that's always the battle.


Photos of Mr. Smith by Nicholas Royle and Peter Stone.

DarkEcho

Copyright © 1998 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.