APRIL 7, 2020
I HAVE BEEN haunted by Michael Farris Smith’s work since I turned the last page of Desperation Road, a novel that mines for humanity in the most troubled souls. In his subsequent novels The Fighter and Blackwood, Smith continues this search with even more unsettled characters and uncompromising circumstances. His novels burrow deep into the dark heart of the Gothic South and unearth terrifying beauty alongside startling desperation. Smith’s prose is both raw and poetic, like opera sung at a honky-tonk. His books are tinged with reverence, an intangible and nearly religious grace that watches over the often brutal events he describes, hinting at the possibility for redemption even in the most debased. Smith and I had the chance to talk on the eve of the publication of his miraculously beautiful novel Blackwood.
IVY POCHODA: I’m guessing the boy who gets abandoned at the start of Blackwood is the boy who becomes the titular character of your last novel, The Fighter. Tell me I’m right.
MICHAEL FARRIS SMITH: You’re right. I have a serendipitous explanation for that too if you’d like it. It didn’t start that way. In fact, that character revelation came very late in the process.
So, having characters from The Fighter make it into Blackwood was not part of the plan. In fact, I was getting pretty close to what I thought was going to be the final revision, but I had this derelict family on the edge of the kudzu-covered valley, and when the novel began originally, they were just there. No real explanation as to why. For some reason, that didn’t stop bothering me and so I finally decided, I have to figure out who these people are. So I decided to put them into a raggedy vehicle and bring them into town and that way I could figure out more of who they were, what they were dealing with, why they came this way.
The first line I wrote used the phrase “foulrunning Cadillac” to describe their vehicle. And then I thought, “Hey, that sounds familiar.” But why? I reached over to my bookshelf and picked up The Fighter, and the man and woman who abandon the small boy in the opening pages are driving a foulrunning Cadillac. It hit me like a ton of bricks. This was them. This was a few days after they have abandoned the boy. This was the other side of the story. It was like somebody walked into my studio and smacked me in the back of the head and said, “That right there is what you’ve been waiting on.” And it was true. That was exactly what I’d been waiting on to elevate Blackwood as a whole, complete, complex story. And in some strange way I feel like it has elevated The Fighter as well.
Man, that is amazing. I can’t imagine what that must have felt like. Although the same thing has happened to me in the course of several novels, although perhaps not on such a grand scale. Sometimes your subconscious knows something that is driving the writing process and it is up to your ego, or whatever your writing mind is called, to figure it out. I like to think that there often is something other than our conscious selves guiding us in our writing … And that allows for these not quite coincidences but moments of revelation to occur. That which was hiding in plain sight is revealed. But on a deeper level, I love how these connections between books put novels in conversation with one another. I think it’s important to imagine that our characters do not begin and end on the pages we write, but have lives after we are finished and had lives before we began. How much more did you learn about your characters once you figured out who they were?
I agree with all you said about the subconscious and so on. It’s such a great and strange feeling when something like that just takes over. Impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. But to the question — I learned everything. They went from being people you may pass on the street and casually recognize to being people who you know their thoughts, desires, lusts, needs, and what they are willing to do to get what they want. I learned that they were the driving force of the story, whereas before they seemed to be on the periphery, wandering in and out, participating when they wanted to. Suddenly they became the fire that burned. That thing I could not ignore and it cost me several weeks of revision to create their story, but those were the best, most inspiring writing days I could have asked for.
I just love that. I really do. And there’s something else that I love. Ever since I turned the last page of Desperation Road, the final image of Russell contemplating a statue of the Virgin Mary has haunted or, rather, remained with me. This transcendental moment of grace or reverence at the end of a novel that, until then, didn’t afford much of either. I am not religious myself, but this is something I try to do in my own writing: provide an elevated or suspended moment of beauty or grace at an unexpected moment. In Blackwood, I sensed you doing this but in a different way. I could be wrong, of course. I felt, as I read, that the earlier parts of the novel were peppered with almost religious moments of reverence, moments in which your characters were in communion with the land or some higher power. But as the novel progressed, these seemed to fall away. How important (if at all important) are these pauses to you in your writing?
That’s an interesting question. Now that you mention it, those pauses and moments of communion seem very important, because they are natural. We all have them. You can be standing in line at the grocery store or hear a particular song or notice the way the sun is setting and be struck with a memory, or moment of grace, or moment of regret, and you are suddenly taken away. Everything around us seems to stop and allow us that pause, that time to be alone with our spirit and emotions. Those are the moments when I think I feel most real, when the world waits for me while I experience something that is in me and will always be in me. Some call it religion and some call it spirituality, but we all have these experiences, and they are important because it is these things within that make us all different. And if it’s important to being human then I think it must be important to fiction and drama.
I really loved in Blackwood, as I said above, that as the novel deepens and darkens, there are fewer of these moments. It’s as if they are being consumed or smothered by the evil or darkness that at the outset initially only hovered at the edges of the story. What I was stuck by is how this darkness is represented by the encroaching kudzu. Normally nature reclaiming something is a benign or at least benevolent force. And if not that, something that we are to admire or root for — the triumph of the natural world over the follies of humans. But here you’ve subverted or inverted that trope. How did you decide to lay the blame on those vines?
It seems to be the nature of the kudzu itself to triumph and to choke out. Anyone who has driven across the South and seen a landscape smothered by the vines knows just how encompassing it is. But it’s not like a storm or some other natural force that makes a big noise or grand entrance. It’s slow, methodical, patient. The vines cover in increments over decades and generations until it just owns the world around it. And for some reason, it is largely ignored as a natural force so it takes what it wants without much, if any, obstacle. My initial notion for Blackwood was that of a man staring out across a kudzu-covered valley, beginning to feel like there was something from below whispering to him, beginning to feel like the vines may actually be coming for him, and how his being alone near this valley could wreak havoc on his imagination and spirit. The vines themselves feel almost like the owner to me, something that doesn’t want us here. Something that, when bothered, is willing to show you just how much it can suffocate.
One thing I love about your books is the tangential or rather almost intangible redemption you afford you characters. Which brings me to Colburn. He seems to be the center of Blackwood, but an unstable one. I guess I see him as a fragmented backbone on which you can hang all these other souls. How much of his journey were you aware of when you set out, and where did he take you?
To the question (another good one and again, strangely nail on the head) — Colburn was a different experience because he was an absolute blank slate. I never start out knowing much about anyone, but with Jack in The Fighter, I knew he was in a lot of physical pain, had suffered concussions and memory loss, was doping himself to make it through the day, he owed some money. Same thing with Russell in Desperation Road, I at least knew he was getting out of prison after accidentally killing someone. Colburn barely had a name when he walked back into the novel, 20 years after we see him briefly as a boy. He was the wild card. And I think this story needed a wild card. But when Colburn began to take me to places that made me uncomfortable emotionally, I knew that he was becoming what I needed him to become. I’ve learned to face that uncomfortable feeling, instead of backing away. That’s when things are being pushed right up to the edge. That’s when a character becomes capable of anything. That’s when you surprise yourself. I had a much longer journey to discovery with Colburn than I’ve had with other central characters, but that discovery drove me beyond what maybe even I thought Blackwood could be.
I guess it’s a strange thing to say that I “liked” the character of The Man, because, well, he’s not exactly charm city. But I really was drawn to the elemental way you created him — his regression that mirrored the kudzu takeover. I loved how his humanity and humanness slowly stripped away until he returned to the earth. But I wonder about characters like this: they cannot simply be a vacuum of evil or evil in a vacuum. And I sense with him, a larger story that led to this regression. Where in the world did this man come from, both literally and in your imagination?
It hit me pretty early on that this was a character who was going to go as dark as I’ve gone to this point. I don’t know why. I just felt his spiral from the very beginning. And like you mentioned, things have brought him to this and I know he’s had one of those hard, roughworn lives, a life he feels like has been a mistake that can never be corrected. His relationship with the kudzu and the dark beneath felt almost rewarding to me in some way. He could be alone at night, under the vines, disappearing in the shadows, away from the eyes of the “good people,” and just let himself go. Let himself hear the voices that have invaded his mind and spirit. Yes, it is the evil lurking. It is a dark and morbid direction. But I only wanted to allow him to be carried away, in whatever direction, to whatever depths, without intruding. It’s hard sometimes to just let a character fall, but it’s also wrong to get in the way. I only followed, willing and ready to see how far down he could go.
I’m wondering if we could take a moment for the women in your book who are treated with utmost respect but suffer badly. They appear at the edges of the story, but are instrumental — providing strength and balance in a disintegrating world. And several seem to be foils or mirror images of one another. I know that at the outset I always want things to work out for my characters, but I discover in the process of writing that would do a disservice to the story. Did you expect a better outcome for the women of Blackwood?
I probably expected a better outcome, just knowing how much a character means to me, but like we’ve said, you have to get out of the way and let the story go. And with the women, I’ll admit that I didn’t see their trouble come so far forward until the moment it came forward. I think that’s the benefit I get from not outlining or generally thinking too far ahead. When it hits the character is pretty much when it hits me. We discover together. I do know that the sense of strength and balance that comes from the women is a reflection of my own life: I have a mother, two sisters, two grandmothers, five great-aunts, four aunts, a wife, and now two daughters. Every room I’ve been in since I was born has been affected by women. Strong, smart, funny, caring, imaginative women. And now I’m trying to raise two of my own. I know this has had a huge impact on the way I write and develop female characters. They bear the weight in Blackwood, and maybe I felt like they were more equipped to handle it.