Tuesday, October 1, 2013

TC Book Review & Interview: Bestselling Crime and Horror Fiction Author Michael Marshall Smith Returns to Speculative Roots with New Collection 'Everything You Need' from Earthling Publications

Cover Art by Vincent Chong

Not every author pounding the keys these days regularly receives accolades from the likes of Neil Gaiman and Graham Joyce, and fewer still have experienced major market success in dark fiction under two pen names that are remarkably similar, dropped surname or not.  But Horror writer Michael Marshall Smith (who writes as Michael Marshall for his Crime novels) isn't just any author.  He’s that rare breed of Bestseller who can hopscotch back and forth over often stubborn dividing lines in contemporary genre literature with the ease of playground children, collecting accolades every time his soles touch the ground.

After experiencing global success with his most recent crime novel, Killer Move (with his next, We Are Here, currently available in the UK, arriving stateside in 2014), Michael Marshall throws on the careworn Smith rucksack and burrows down into his Horror roots with the collection Everything You Need, published just last week by Paul Miller’s award-winning specialty press Earthling Publications.  Smith, who got his early start in radio comedy writing and performing for the BBC, moved into penning Horror in the early 1990’s, selling the first short piece he ever wrote, "The Man Who Drew Cats," which earned him a 1991 British Fantasy Award for Short Fiction in his debut outing.  Not a bad way to start a career, which only ascended from there, taking in numerous other honors (including four more British Fantasy Awards, an August Derleth Award, and a Phillip K. Dick Award) and critical accolades until the present day.

Which brings us to Everything You Need

This is a rich and varied collection, not just spanning genres, but breaking them in twos and threes, and sometimes committing the cardinal sin of not adhering to any at all.   The stories on the whole are dark and fantastical, often subtle, intensely thoughtful, even playful, with one piece embracing an interesting exercise in meta fiction.  In these eighteen well-crafted tales, Smith seems to work out all the demons that have been collecting in the basement, bringing to bear a muscled arm steeled by decades of writing acclaimed Speculative and Crime Fiction, further seasoned by fatherhood, marriage, and a move from the Old World to the New.  A knowing yet still refreshingly curious wisdom infuses these stories, making them at once relateable while simultaneously intensely innovative, drawing on themes and unsettling situations not easily mined by those who haven’t lived the way Smith has, done what he has done, seen what he has seen, either with his eyes open or closed.

As my reading time has been so limited lately, I worked through this collection slowly, taking it with me to various locations, reading in the morning, at lunch, and in the wee hours.  I can remember specific weeks, even months, based on certain stories read during those times.  We lived together for a bit, this collection and I, and when I was finished, it felt as if I had been through Something, emerging out the other end somehow altered, containing new, often unwholesome truths.  I had circumnavigated a queer but vaguely recognizable globe, taking in a vast array of heady sights, sounds, and disquieting sensations not commonly found in my own backyard… unless I did a little vigorous digging.  That’s a special kind of writing, able to replicate the familiar tinged with the profoundly alien and infinitely ominous.  This is the stuff of Michael Marshall Smith.

It is difficult to find a weak link in this group of three times six, and many of the stories are quite exceptional, stacking up against anything written today.  The book opens with "This Is Now," one of the best pieces in the collection in terms of creating pure dread based on weaving something unexplainable into the worn cloth of the commonplace.  Based on the interesting (and wonderfully illuminating) story notes included at the end of the book, my mind drew jittery conclusions about what was happening that didn't quite match up with what the author intended, which I'm sure would please him greatly.  "Unbelief" dips into Smith's reservoir of Crime, while "Walking Wounded" deals with a recurring theme of relationship issues, wrung through the author's unforgiving meat grinder.  "The Seventeenth Kind" shows Smith's humorous (spelled "humourous," I reckon) side with a creative, madcap satire of QVC, followed by a glimpse into another three letter world (OCD) via "A Place For Everything."

The next three stories - "The Last Barbecue," "The Stuff That Goes On In Their Heads," and "Unnoticed" - represent an incredibly powerful trio that gets to the meat of the collection, with the latter story vying for best of show.  "The Last Barbecue," paired together with "The Things He Said," share a similar foundational Horror subgenre that I (and pretty much everyone else these days) really enjoy, but which I won't spoil here.  Needless to say, they are two pieces bringing a refreshing melancholy to a trope easily buried under mounds of moldering flesh.  "The Stuff That Goes On In Their Heads" intensely resonated with me as a father, with a concluding stanza that is as devastating as it was unexpected.  "Unnoticed" just hums with Big W Weird, reading like a slow burn Ligottian headtrip, set in Smith's new home of Santa Cruz, California.  Creating unsettling situations without relying upon immediate threats, instead trusting the atmosphere and mood, is a very difficult thing to pull off successfully, but MMS knocks it out of the park.

The pace of textured storytelling continues unabated with "The Good Listener," which busts out of any confining genre, and stands proud as an ode to that peculiar distance that grows between most fathers and their ever-questing sons, who are so often forced to find out who their dad really was only after the old man is gone.  "Different Now" treads familiar Smithian ground of choices made and the looming specter of regret, becoming horrifyingly tangible in the form of labyrinthine London topography.  A very powerful piece that made me physically uncomfortable.  Set in a similar postal code is "Substitutions," which brings a "what if?" element to something as superficially mundane as home grocery delivery.

"Author of the Death" shows that the creation undertaken by writers doesn't necessarily stop when the computer is shut off or the manuscript goes to print, and playing God on the page isn't without residual consequence.  "Sad, Dark Thing" - the three word phrase suggested by noted editor and Smith's long time friend Stephen Jones - was the first story written by MMS about his new home in northern California, and it reads like he's been living there his whole life, exploring those dusty, forgotten roads between towering trees, unfortunately finding out where they eventually lead.  An honestly spooky story, which deftly gets to the marrow of good and classic Horror.

"What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night" garnered the British Fantasy Award in 2011, and it's easy to see why.  This is a bleak, terrifying tale, arresting in its originality (and simplicity), which once again draws from primal terrors born of a) a fear of the dark, and b) keeping safe one's family.  This story stayed with me long after I read it, and pops up often when waking up during the darkest, quietest times of the night.

The penultimate tale, "The Woodcutter," reads like an instant classic (or modern fairy tale?), and could anchor a much larger piece, set in the universe that this story creates.  It is interesting that the protagonist is a street magician working his trade in London, while the story itself was the very first started and completed from Smith's new home in the United States.  Sometimes it is easier to see a place half a world away, when the wider canopy fades into the ether, and the details never before noticed begin to emerge in the mind's eye.  The collection closes with the title piece, that again mines the subtle Weird, and leaves the reader walking away a bit dazed, totally impressed, and also a bit hopeful.  Again, another rarity in speculative fiction.

Overall, Everything You Need is aptly (knowingly?) titled, as the collection does indeed have it all for any fan of cerebral dark fiction.  Michael Marshall Smith proves that you certainly can go home again, and do so as a conquering hero returned, as long as that home contains a healthy amount of unnatural shadows and things that just... don't... quite... fit..

I sent smoke signals up the great Pacific Coast Etherway, and Michael was lovely enough to check the skies and make a return fire of his own.  Please enjoy my conversation with this veteran writer, global traveler, and cross-genre celebrant who shows us all that tunnel vision in one's writing career can cut off so many unexpected vistas that are howling to be seen.

When writers write about writers (meaning, themselves), they all look like MMS in their heads.

First of all, thank you, Michael, for taking time to sit down across from this virtual, yet no less chipped Formica table to chat with The Cosmicomicon.  With the recent release of your anticipated collection Everything You Need, I know your time is in precious supply.

Let’s start off with a bit of background for the woefully uninitiated.  How and why did you begin your writing career?  Did you always know that you’d become a writer?

No. Actually, I thought I’d become an academic. My father had a distinguished career in that sphere, and my mother spent time there too — so I knew it could be a route to an interesting, engaged life, with plenty of time for family and possibly the opportunity to travel the world. I scribbled a few things when I was a kid, mainly because I was an enthusiastic reader, but it was writing comedy for Footlights shows at Cambridge university and then BBC Radio that started to open it up... along with the realization that in my chosen field, philosophy, I was always going to be riding with stabilizers on. Finally it was reading a Stephen King novel on a three-month theatrical tour that flipped the switch and told me that’s what I wanted to do. I wound up spending the rest of the tour reading everything of his I could lay my hands on, and by the end of it had the idea for my first story – THE MAN WHO DREW CATS. I saw a man doing a chalk drawing on the sidewalk in Edinburgh, where we were playing The Fringe, heard a child crying nearby, and the two collided into a story right there and then. It’s the hope of that kind of occasional gift from the gods that keeps you hooked...

Why Dark Fiction?  What is it about the dark stuff that shaped and/or directed your Muse?

I don’t know — it’s simply always been that way. I've tried to write material with nothing of darkness in it, but it doesn't compel me enough to keep going. I need the doors of reality to be pulled open a little wider — not for the sake of it, but because that’s how I believe the world is. Some people are that way, too. It’s possible it’s even genetic... my mother (already working a heavy job as head of social work in a London hospital) once took a year’s sabbatical to study for an MA in Death Ritual... and my sister has expressed consistent interest in becoming an undertaker. We’re a remarkably cheerful family in person, though...

You made your bones first in comedy writing and performing for BBC Radio, and then as an author of Horror/Genre Fiction, but have arguably achieved your greatest commercial successes in Crime Fiction with your more recent novels.  Was the expansion or shift from Horror to Crime intentional - or indeed, calculated - or more organic?  Asking the obvious, but is there a greater readership in Noir/Crime than Horror?  Why or why not?

There’s definitely a bigger crime/thriller readership than for horror, but that played no part in my thinking. There was no thinking: I lack whatever part of the brain you need for sensible career decisions, as my record proudly shows. I inadvertently made the switch when I wrote THE STRAW MEN. I’d wanted to write something about serial killers and conspiracies for a long time, and knew it wouldn't be as strong or credible if it was set in the future, as it might distance readers from the reality — so I set it in the present day instead. I also toned down the humour a lot, as it wasn't inappropriate to the subject.

Aside from that, I didn't see any real difference to what I’d been doing before... but publishers and (some) readers sure as heck did, hence the name change and an apparent swerve of genre. I've been trying to get back to more general dark fiction ever since... The thing about writing for a living is that there aren't many roads across the terrain, and you can have to drive a looooong way around to get back to where you started. In the meantime I've simply tried to write stuff I care about, and books I feel I can stand by.

Your first published short story, “The Man Who Drew Cats,” garnered a British Fantasy Award in 1991.   Quite an auspicious debut.  Did that put pressure on you to deliver right away on your next published tale?  Was the “sophomore slump” a concern?

To be honest, I was so surprised and so gung-ho that any pressure washed over me — and of course I’d already written a few more stories in the meantime. Those early years were very exciting: I didn't know what I was doing, and tried to place no limitations on what I wrote, or to care about what was going to happen. I wrote whatever popped into my head, and then moved on — often not even bothering to try to place the stories for months or even years afterwards. I've still got a couple of pieces from back then that I've never tried to sell.

Second Novel Syndrome, on the other hand.... yi yi yi. That was tough. Writing SPARES nearly finished me off. Sadly, I've learned since about Fourth Novel Syndrome, and Seventh, and Eighth...

How has the genre fiction writing industry and readership changed from the early 1990’s?  By all accounts, the explosion of popularity in Horror Fiction of the 80’s had pretty much withered under the haze of hippy/grunge in the 90’s.  Were you concerned about the changing marketplace once you had arrived as one of the bright new voices in Speculative Fiction?

I have always been a complete numbskull when it comes to commercial awareness, and have never thought about any of those issues clearly. The 1980s were big times for horror, yes — so of course I wrote three kinda-SF novels instead. Horror imploded as a novel format, except for the heavy-hitters... but it will be back. We need horror. We believe in it more than just about anything else. And I mean proper horror, not this teen nonsense currently in vogue. A large part of me still hankers to settle down to the big horror novel I assumed I was getting into the business to write... and which I still somehow haven’t even attempted. In the meantime I’m exploring the boundaries around thriller and suspense and the otherworldly... I tend to wander through the forest to see what’s there, rather than in hopes of getting anywhere in particular. You have to care about the marketplace, of course, but to be honest I’m not hoping for bestsellerdom when I write... I just feel lucky to be published at all.

Who are some of your favorite writers (living, dead, and somewhere in between), and who do you think influenced you most (as fave authors aren't always the most influential)?

Favorite authors would be Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, James Lee Burke, Jim Thompson, Richard Ford, Jack Finney, and doubtless many more... I’d be hard-pressed to work out which have exerted an actual influence — it’s easier for others to do that — and it’s changed over time. Ramsey Campbell and Nicholas Royle in the early horror years, Bradbury and Douglas Adams with the sf, then Burke/Ellroy/Thompson when I got to mystery... But I also think it works by you picking up the little touches that make sense to a style you’re already working toward, long before you know what it is.

Discuss briefly some of your peers that were around in the beginning of your career, and either are still hammering away, or have faded into the eaves.

The first and most important peer was one of the greatest living dark fiction short story writers, Nicholas Royle. We met by chance when I went to work at a company he was leaving. He’d already published a slew of stories and was a huge help as mentor and inspiration — not to mention becoming a great friend. I met Mark Morris soon afterward, and Conrad Williams, and Kim Newman, Christopher Fowler... and of course Stephen Jones, who has ended up being an extraordinarily important part of my life.

Everybody’s still working. We have good years, and bad years, and you treat both those impostors the same. That’s the job.

I know you’re close with renowned editor Stephen Jones.  How did this relationship start, and how has it grown since the beginning?

Steve and I got on pretty well from the start, though obviously I was kind of in awe of such a legendary figure in the field. We met at the London British Fantasy Convention where I was nominated for THE MAN WHO DREW CATS – a story he’d published for his re-imagining of the Pan Books of Horror, under the name Dark Voices. Since then we've started to work on more and more together — film stuff, design, and lately conventions. When Paula and I were considering moving out family to California, Steve was the one person who I knew I’d be seeing less often, and the thought gave me serious pause: there’s no-one in the world I’d rather hang out in a pub with. Luckily we’re both fluent emailers, so things are ticking over despite the miles...

In Everything You Need, your stories run the gamut, from Science Fiction Horror to quieter personal pieces, Noir and the straight-up Weird, to the darkly comedic.  Did you set out to write under a theme or genre when you started putting these stories together?  Did you intentionally go back to your Horror roots for this book, or are these just the stories that flowed out of your pen--  er, fingers when you sat down to write?

These are just the stories that have come. It’s quite a different collection to my first one, as I write many fewer big narrative pieces these days... the stories tend to be shorter, and far more varied in tone and style. I guess the big ideas often end up in the novels, and what I’m seeking is an outlet for more oblique and experimental ideas, moods and tones.

Your geographic background is quite varied, with a childhood spent in the United Kingdom, United States, South Africa, and then back to the UK, before emigrating to the central California coast a few years back.  Moving from your adult life in London to the U.S., how do you find the New World in the 21st century?  Does settling down in America give you new fodder from which to construct stories?

America has always felt like a second home — and also where I go to dream. Apart from ONLY FORWARD, my first novel, all the books have been set here. In a way, being here makes it harder: instead of relying upon memory and imagination (where I’m often happiest) I’m surrounded by reality which needs reflecting properly, too. That’s a new challenge. I dealt with this by writing a novel set mainly in New York City, while living in Santa Cruz on the other side of the country... You can’t say I’m not perverse.

From a cross-Pond/outsider’s perspective, what is it about the English that seem to embrace and propagate the bizarre and unusual?  More to the topic, do you think there is a difference in British and American writers and their handling of matters of the Dark?

The English certainly do love the shadows, and have a particularly unsettling and insidious way with them. Who knows why that is... maybe the weather. Or the dark Celtic genes. Or indigestion. There’s definitely a difference in how we end up manifesting the bizarre: I’m not sure America could have produced an M. R. James or Ramsey Campbell.... but on the other hand, England couldn't have given the world a Stephen King or Ray Bradbury. There’s great stuff coming from both sides...

You've garnered as many or more awards than most any other Speculative Fiction scribe currently working.  What is left for you to accomplish?  What are you still striving for as a writer?  What fuels you to put ink to paper?

It’s lovely to receive awards, of course, but they’re for things I've already done. You have to keep moving on. I want to write more books, better books, different kinds of books. I want to keep trying to do what I've always attempted — to move people, and explore ideas about what kind of people we are, and to make shit up in a way that transports people for a little while. And to the side of that, but equally importantly, I’m fueled by the need and desire to support my family. Art’s a great thing. So are stories. But feeding and housing the people you love are far more important.

As a professional author who has been successfully writing full time for years, and surely trotted around the block a few times, what advice can you give beginning or part-time writers who seek to make it a career rather than merely an after-hours pursuit?

I wish I knew. The best I can come up with is that if you want to do it, you should do it. Write. Read. Write and read some more. Be open to what the market says it wants, but also be vigilant about making sure you’re true to what you want, too – because in the end you’ll be both more distinctive and happier that way. This approach may stop you having a bestselling career (which we’d all love, of course) but writing should only be a part of your life, even if you’re doing it full time. Being there for your family and friends, and being happy or at least content... that’s going to seem a damned sight more important when you’re lying on your final bed and the darkness starts to seep in around you.

What can you tell us about Ememess Press?  From where did its unusual name originate?

The name is pretty simple — a phonetic way of writing “MMS”, for Michael Marshall Smith. It’s also my Twitter handle. The idea there was to find a way of putting some of the eighty-some short stories I've had published back out into the world, to give them an extra life. The short form is the lifeblood and backbone of horror and dark fiction, and it seemed a shame they were just languishing there on the hard drive... it’s been really nice to get feedback from people who hadn't read them before.

Where do you see Horror going as a genre?  What is the future, as you see it?  The usual tropes have been run into the ground, and then dug up again and again.  How can Horror Fiction widen its appeal, or should it?

I simply don’t know. You’re right, the tropes have been flogged to near-exhaustion, especially vampires and zombies... but there will always be something new to say about them in response to changes in society: one of horror’s great strengths is that it has always been a socially-informed genre, one which reflects and interprets and illuminates what’s going on around us. Blatant commercial over-mining may cause certain ideas to be run into the ground from time to time, but you can’t keep a good trope down... sooner or later they’ll rise from the grave, with new things to say and new ways of scaring us. Horror widens its appeal by writing better and more widely-accessible books, by proving it’s worthy of the attention that ‘literary’ or ‘mainstream’ critics and readers often deny it.

What’s next for Michael Marshall Smith, or even that bastard Michael Marshall?

Well, MM is supposed to be working on the next novel, and kind of is, though I’m deliberately standing aside from it at the moment, as I’m not happy with its core. MMS has been bubbling under for a while, and is getting impatient for more time in the sun. I've written something on the side over this summer which would come out under that name, assuming it ever sees the light of day... it’s not sf, but it is pretty damned zany. We’ll see if I can get anyone interested... I hope so. I’m often asked when I’ll start writing more MMS stuff, but the truth of it is that it’s a lot harder to get that kind of story published now than when ‘he’ was working full-time. The market has rigidified... I was lucky to write the MMS novels when I did.

So, what’s the deal with English food?  Deserved of its reputation, or is that a bunch of bollocks?  And do Brits actually drink room temp beer?

Ha :-) For a long time, English food was indeed pedestrian (though you could say the same of large swathes of the mid-West, too, right?) In the last couple of decades it’s kicked up a lot of levels, however, and now — especially with institutions like gastropubs, which have no real parallel in the US — I believe the country could go toe-to-toe with most (except France, obviously). There are indeed a lot of English beers that are meant to be drunk at room temperature, but I've never been a fan. I’m much happier with the cold-served Ambers and IPAs of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California...of which, thankfully, there are many. In fact, I might have one now.
The word Smith, right where he belongs.
Thank you again, Michael.  The Cosmicomicon wishes you a boatload of success for Everything You Need, and all of your books before and after.

(c) 2013 by Vincent Chong

No comments:

Post a Comment