Michael Farris Smith’s new novel, RIVERS, just came out, and he kindly stopped by to answer a few questions! Please welcome him to the blog!
Your new novel, Rivers, just came out and it’s already gotten some amazing buzz! Will you tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to write it?
A couple of things led to Rivers. The first was that I wanted to write some kind of hurricane-affected novel, and Katrina was in the front of my mind, but I never felt comfortable making fiction out of that event. But I kept thinking about it and eventually the thought crossed my mind, What if something like Katrina went on and on and on? For years? What would we do, what would the region look like, who would stay in it and why would they? That world began to develop and I could see the devastated region and the idea excited me. Which takes us to the second thing and I was at a point where I was hungry to break through as a novelist. I had published stories and won some short fiction awards but I wanted to take that step. When I had the idea for Rivers, it seemed big and a little intimidating, but I was more than ready to give it a try.
You’re a native Mississippian and actually set the novel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but what kind of additional research did you have to do for the book?
I was actually careful not to do any research. When I imagined the region, and the storms, and the rag-tag characters, and the flooded landscape, I had a pretty good idea what I wanted it all to look like. I didn’t read any other weather-driven novels, didn’t look at any footage or photographs of storm damage. I felt like if I began to look at those images, then my own images would have been manipulated, and I didn’t want that.
Your main character is Cohen, a man still distraught over the loss of his wife and child. What do you like most about him, and why should we root for him?
What I like most about Cohen is something that was recently said by a reviewer, and that reviewer wrote that the most interesting thing about Cohen is that he can’t figure out if he’s the good guy or the bad guy. That is well said and that is the character I hoped to create, someone who has been emotionally crippled, and has isolated himself in the middle of this endless natural disaster, but then his hand is forced and he finds himself capable of all kinds of things he didn’t know he could do. And does he want to do them? I think as both the emotional and physical roads get tougher, he becomes more complex and conflicted, but he also finds that he has plenty left to give.
Why do you think people respond so strongly to stories that take place in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic settings?
That’s a good question and one I haven’t thought about much until recently. Maybe it’s a further escape, maybe imagining an “other” world is more fun or fearful or thoughtfully adventurous. Maybe it takes us to the edge of reality where we aren’t sure if the world is round or flat but we’re dying to know.
Who, or what, have been some of the biggest influences on your writing?
Living in Europe for several years was a huge influence because it was during that time that I began to really read for the first time. If I hadn’t done that, removed myself from my comfort zone, I doubt if I would have ever started writing. That experience gave me the chance to discover what I wanted to do.
I also think that becoming a father influenced my writing in a big way. It changes you as a person, you discover emotional dynamics you didn’t have before, you look at the world differently, with more caution and with more wonder, and that can’t help but be a creative influence.
far as who, my biggest influences have been Southern writers – Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner, Larry Brown, Harry Crews. But I’ve also read a lot of Russian writers like Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevsky. I like Ray Bradbury and Camus and the expatriates like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Anderson. Lots of different stuff.
What are you reading now?
Let’s see, on my nightstand is The Son by Phillip Meyer, The Outlaw Stories by Woodrell, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, and Jean Rhys’s Collected Stories.
What would you like to see readers take away from Rivers?
Another good question. I think the thing I always hope for as a writer is to provide an emotional resonance for a reader. I know what it feels like to be moved as a reader and it’s a wonderful feeling. I think Rivers is layered, that there is not only the ravaged, wet world, but a cast of characters, each with their own story, who are scratching and clawing to survive emotionally, spiritually, physically. I’d like for readers to feel like they have been in the storms and trying to survive themselves.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
It’s hard to argue with the good ol’ advice of read a lot and write a lot. I’m kind of amazed when I hear someone say they are going to write a novel one day, but they don’t read them. That would be like me claiming I’m going to be a gourmet chef in a New Orleans restaurant one day, but I have no interest in food.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be out and about for the next few months with Rivers, but I’ve also begun something new that I’m excited about. Gotta keep working. Plus, I’m always easier to be around when I’m getting words on the page.
It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.
Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees. The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline. Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.
Cohen is one who stayed. Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land. Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.
But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter. On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.
Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.
Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.