Michael Farris Smith: Rewriting the Laws of Nature

Story Birney Imes| Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

The fall of 2009 was a dispiriting time for Michael Farris Smith. His novella, The Hands of Strangers, had not found a publisher; he was 20 pages into a new novel that wasn’t working; and his days were consumed with the demands of the two-story Victorian he lives in with his wife and their two daughters near the campus of Mississippi University for Women where he teaches creative writing. “I was wondering if this was going to keep going on or not,” Smith said about his life as a writer. “To be honest, things weren’t working for me.”

He was trying to write a post-Katrina novel but felt like he wasn’t doing the subject justice. How do you evoke the essence of something so powerful and cataclysmic, something so shattering on so many levels? “I’d felt an emotional impact from Katrina; everybody knew somebody who felt the hurt,” he said. And then comes the idea.

“What if I amped up Katrina 50 times over; what if I went to some wild weather extreme with this steady flow of hurricanes that never stopped? Imagine one natural disaster on the heels of others for years; what would that look like?”

He stopped what he was doing and wrote it down, though it was hardly necessary. The idea never left him; at night he would lie in bed thinking about it.  From that point on everything changed.

Not long after that a small press in North Carolina accepted his novella. The affirmation energized him, gave him a new confidence. If that wasn’t enough, in January 2010, when he finally had time to throw himself into his new book, it started raining.

“I think it rained for five or six weeks with barely a break. It was like God said, ‘I’m gonna let it rain while you are working on this.’ I would just sit there and stare out into the gray day and listen to the water on the roof. It was kind of magical, for lack of a better term.”

A book in which there is incessant rain written during incessant rain. When it stopped raining, Smith was halfway through the first draft.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in late May, Smith sat down to talk about his writing life and upcoming novel, Rivers, due for release in September by Simon and Schuster.

Smith, 43, is tall, slender and loose-limbed; he’s wearing a faded Led Zeppelin T-shirt, scuffed up jeans and Adidas sneakers. One wouldn’t be faulted for thinking him a front man in a rock band or a guy about to go out for a game of pickup basketball. Those assumptions aren’t far from the truth. When he’s not teaching, writing or being Mr. Mom for his two daughters, Smith sings and plays guitar for the Wild Magnolias, a local Southern rock band, and basketball figures prominently in his past. Like his writing, Smith is clear and down-to-earth. No pretense here from this man of letters; the writer comes across as a regular guy, someone you might strike up a conversation with while waiting for your coffee order.

“I tell my students the best thing about being a writer is that you are your own boss, and the worst thing about being a writer is you are your own boss.”

Smith, photographed in the waters of White’s Slough in Columbus

Writing is a tough business and every reader a critic. Smith learned this in the third grade. When his teacher handed him a certificate declaring him winner of a county-wide, Daughters of the American Revolution-sponsored essay writing contest, Smith, said, “I can’t believe it.”

“I can’t either,” his teacher concurred.

Chances are that same teacher wouldn’t believe the blurb on Simon and Schuster’s website for her former student’s debut novel: “With enormous passion and reverence for the post-Katrina South, Rivers evokes the ravages of nature as never before. It is an enthralling, gorgeously written tale of survival and redemption that heralds a major new voice in literary fiction.”

Kendall Dunkelburg, one of Smith’s colleagues at MUW is equally effusive: “With prose as unrelenting as a hurricane, Michael’s new novel Rivers picks you up on page one and will not let you go. … Rivers imagines a not-too-distant future in such vivid detail we expect it to happen next week, even as we pray it never will.”

The path to literary stardom, a fate that may well await Smith, has not been linear or predictable. Though, like any life looked back upon with the clarity of hindsight, Smith’s has its own logic.

After graduating from Mississippi State with a degree in public relations, Smith took a job with the National Basketball Association setting up outdoor basketball festivals … in Europe, of all places.  For three years Smith lived in Geneva, Switzerland, and worked 25 cities from one weekend to the next promoting basketball. When he took the job, the idea of becoming a writer had not entered his head, but on train rides from city to city he read and the idea of writing supplanted a career in sports marketing.

“I was at an impressionable age in this very new place meeting new people all the time. It gave me a chance for the world to open up for me, also for me to figure out who I was and what I was interested in.”

He applied to the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Back in his home state — Smith grew up in Magnolia, outside McComb — he met his future wife and earned his doctorate. Later, as an instructor at USM, Smith went to France for the school’s study abroad program. The job afforded Smith and his wife, Sabrea, the opportunity to travel in France. A missing child poster in a train station gave him the idea for The Hands of Strangers, the story of a young married couple’s desperate search for their daughter who goes missing during a school field trip to a Paris museum. About Strangers, Publishers Weekly gushed, “A fantastic debut … In this anxiety-ridden little gem, Smith captures the essence of the helpless, making more of an impact than most novels three times its size.”

For Smith, writing is a day-by-day voyage of discovery, a sort of Walter Mitty exercise.
“I begin with an image in my head or a character in a certain situation,” he said. “I put them in that scene and just follow them. I like walking around weeks and months with the character in my head. I really get to know them; they become real people.”

The tortuous editing process behind him, Smith is satisfied, optimistic. “My editor said to me, don’t send it back to me until you feel like you would put this out with your chest poked out. What she was trying to say is that every word counts and everything matters.”

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” he continued. “I’m very proud of the book, but it’s out of my hands now.”
This fall Smith is taking a sabbatical from teaching for the requisite book tour. Chances are, as he’s signing books and accepting praise for Rivers, the idea for his next book will be germinating.

“When you start writing, you’re not thinking about selling books, publishing contracts and book tours. Now that it’s here, it feels good. The challenge for me now is writing a book as good or better than Rivers. It’s a challenge. If you’re not going to be challenged as an artist, what’s the point?”