Michael Marshall Smith
 

 

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Please welcome our featured guest, author of the successful trilogy, Straw Men, and the new stunning thriller, The Intruders!

                     The Intruders
     Image copyright © Steve Double, 2006

 

Michael Marshall interview

1.  For those who haven't had the pleasure of reading your stunning new novel, The Intruders, how about a brief rundown? 

Well, itís largely about a guy called Jack Whalen. Ex-LAPD patrol cop, heís now living in a small town in Washington state with his advertising exec wife, Amy. Heís at a crossroads, not really knowing where his life is going ó and soon odd circumstances start to collide in his world. Amy disappears on a routine business trip, but then seems not to have disappeared after all. An old acquaintance of Jackís from high school pops up, and tries to enlist his help in solving an unpleasant homicide. Gradually these stories start to weave together, taking Jack toward dark places that are both unexpected, but also inexorably related to his past... and perhaps all our pasts.

 

2.   So tell us why Jack Whalen, a guy who seems for the most part to be witty, bright, loyal, brave, oddly introspective, and one that readers will love, doesn't seem to like himself very much, or for that matter, most everyone else? 

Thatís how people work, sometimes... maybe a lot of the time. It goes without saying that all ( or at least many) of us are at least two people: the way we present to others, and the secret person we know about and think that nobody else understands. Sometimes we believe that inner person is the special one, a better side unappreciated by others: at others we know ó or think we do ó that this secret person is dreadful, a waster and a fool, and that itís just as well he or she is hidden away from the public eye. This dualism is one of the things that can make everyday life very tiring at times. When you meet someone who appears truly integrated, theyíre generally either extremely impressive or very scary... and again, thatís part of what the book is about.

 

3.  Of course, it's Jack's cynical view of himself and the world that makes it difficult for him to accept what's really going on behind on the weirdness surrounding him.  And as it's this very subtle, but inevitable, shake-up of Jack's perceptions and beliefs that not only drives this plot, but also serves to slowly convince the reader, one has to wonder, did you first create Jack, a cynical "everyman", and then devise the perfect plot to shake-up his world, or did you start with this great idea for a story, and Jack was born of that?   

I suspect Jackís worldview probably just isnít really that far from my own, to be honest ó and so that perspective was built in right from the start. From there it was a question of discovering what events he was going to be pulled into, and they ó as usual ó arrived from whatever part of my head it is that comes up with these things, often outside my conscious control. Then itís a case of sitting and working out how all these opposing forces are going to interact with each other... thatís where the job of writing really starts.

 

4.  Okay, now your plot is pretty imaginative.  Where did it come from, and did you at any point get told by your editor, second-cousin, and great aunt Sophie to tone it down a bit?  And did you? 

Well, the basic thing I was interested in is ó as usual ó a feature of human nature: in this case, the way so many of us seem dualised, prey to impulses outside our control, at odds with ourselves. My wife and I had recently had a child when I started writing the novel, too, and in some of the long, dark watches of the night I started to wonder a little about how we develop as people, what forces shape up us both when weíre small and also later in life, and after a time this too began to inform the novel. The ideas at the heart of my books are often tiny questions I just happen to be interested in at the time: THE STRAW MEN, believe it or not, came about from me trying to come up with an explanation for why human beings started farming! Though these questions may provide the original impetus in my mind, the genesis of the book may not be clear (or even important) by the time itís finished... You have to start somewhere, but when you get to the road, that starting point may no longer even be visible.

And yes, the first response from my editor was along the lines of ĎMichael, what the hell is this?í We went back and forth on it for a while, and I made a few changes ó but in the end they were all pretty minor. I did wind up reconfiguring one scene to involve a different character, which Iím not sure is quite as powerful as the original version, but it was a major sticking point and you do sometimes have take your editorís word for it. Luckily Iíve been working with the same editor in the UK right from the start (for seven novels, and over a decade) and I trust her. If youíve spent six or eight months inside a book, you can wind up with a very subjective viewpoint ó you need someone to stand outside and give you another perspective. Iím certain that the novel is stronger from me going back and working on it... no novel arrives on the page perfect, thatís for sure!

 

5.  You have had great success with this blending of supernatural and suspense in previous titles.  What is it about that dose of the supernatural that appeals to you and motivates your imagination to create these types of tales as opposed to the good old stand-by detective stories?

I donít know ó I just always find myself having that kind of idea. I kept it pretty under control in the STRAW MEN novels, which are based largely in consensual reality (though the conspiracy does gradually get more and more... outrť, as the series progresses). I hope THE INTRUDERS stays just about within the realms of what people would be prepared to believe, too, as thereís a dividing line between being open to the Ďsupernaturalí and taking it so far that readers can choose to simply say ĎYeah, but thatís not realí ó and I believe the features of human existence Iím talking about in the novel are real, more or less. And the thing is, so very many of us are open to the other-worldly in real life. We all have our superstitions, few would be prepared to say thereís definitely no such thing as ghosts, and we all know places with weird atmospheres. All Iím doing it trying to integrate some of these facts of life into real-world fiction... not least because I think a world without these touches of magic would be a very sorry place to live.

 

6.  Your background indicates that your much earlier titles were even more infused with "horror."  What do you personally find to be the biggest difference between your writing then and now?   

When I was writing Ďhorrorí or dark modern fantasy, or whatever itís called ó which I only ever did in short stories, as my first three novels were thrillers set in the future ó I was (and still am) allowed to do anything, pretty much. You can go as far outside the Ďknowní or even Ďcredibleí as you like, so long as you bring the reader along with you through the stories and characters. The novels I write now tend to be filed within thriller or crime, and readers of those genres prefer to stay closer to the straight and narrow, for the most part. This is part of the challenge ó trying to structure a story that works as a noir tale, but allowing the subject matter to wander just a little way into paths that lead to darker places in the forests. I believe that very many of us are open to that kind of notion, even if we donít admit it to ourselves. Iím just helping people to explore ideas that may already be lurking in the back of their heads... And Iíve got another short novel out right now called THE SERVANTS which plays slightly more into the more dark fantasy genre...

 

7.   You seem the kinda guy who looks around and sees the weirdness in everyday situations, the "what if's."  How do you decide which ideas to use for a story, and which to shrug off in order to prevent being committed to a nice mental facility?  

When ideas come into my head, they file through a kind of internal immigration system. They get sorted into ĎHmm, yeah, could be a short story... hmm, maybe a film... hmm, might be part of a novel, but will need some other things to go with it... hmm, halfway decent idea, but I could see how the story would fall straight away and so thatís a little boring... Oh ó thatís interesting: letís see where that one goes...í

And Iíve never decided an idea is too out there. So long as you can make an idea drive a story about people who feel real, in circumstances that are real enough to support the idea and carry the reader along with you, then the stranger the idea, the better. A feeling of strangeness simply means the imagination is being forced to work a little harder than usual, to fit ideas together in new ways. Weíre all used to this feeling through our own dreams... why not try to access it in our waking lives, too?

 

8.  Now be honest with this one.  Do you ever scare even yourself; start looking over your own shoulder as you write?  

Nope. Never have. I guess being inside the story as itís written means you know where the ideas come from, how they came to fit together. If you know an idea is one you had while making the evening meal, or walking around the corner to buy a coffee, or flicking through CDs in Virgin Records, then youíre not likely to be too scared by it, I suppose... Plus thereís without question something cathartic about the writing process. Once youíve written something out, however harsh or personal or painful it was at first, it tends not to bother you so much any more.

 

9.  Do your stories ever leap off into different directions without your permission? 

Oh, god yes. Virtually every time ó and thatís fine by me. I try not to overly plan novels before I start, because you can always tell the stories which have been meticulously worked out ahead of time. They may have a clockwork logic, but that can be kind of dull to read. So Iím always open the characters or events within a novel suddenly turning on me and dragging the project in a different direction. It can be an agonizing way to work ó because you may become mired in periods where the book just wonít seem to move of its own accord ó but itís the way Iíve always done these things... and when it does work, it can be magical, as if youíre channeling a story arriving from somewhere well outside your own control but shaping it onto the page. Like a lucid dream, perhaps.

 

10.  What's your favorite part of writing a new book?  Your worst?

The best bits are precisely the ones where it feels like Iím not writing it. The arrival of the original ideas and characters. The days when thousands of words flow out of your fingers and you know where youíre going without having to ask, and the road is open and clear and fast. The sudden moments when you realise exactly why you introduced that event of character, apparently at random, two months before.

The worst... the times when itís not like that. When it feels like youíre pushing a big, big rock up a steep, steep hill ó a sentient rock, a rock liked it down on the flat plain and is afraid of heights and doesnít want to go anywhere, thank you very much. Those moments can come anywhere in the writing process, but for me they tend to cluster after the first few chapters when the original ideaís head of steam is tailing off, just before the halfway point, and a little before the last act. Theyíre not good. Not good at all. Itís like looking into your mind, expecting to see a new episode of your favourite TV show, and finding itís not on. That the series has been cancelled, in fact. And that thereís not even a television set in there in the first place. Those are the days you donít want to be as novelist ó or living with one!

 

11.  And finally, what's next? 

Rght now Iím in the early-ish stages of a new novel, which is behaving a little like a rock just at the moment. Iím also involved in the television adaptation of THE INTRUDERS (the BBC have optioned it for a possible series), co-writing and co-producing a feature adaptation of a horror short story of mine called HELL HATH ENLARGED HERSELF ó and in a month or so am due to adapt a Stephen King story for television. So Iíve got more than enough to keep me off the streets and out of trouble for the time being...

 

Biography of Michael Marshall Smith:

Michael Marshall (Smith) was born in England in 1965. He spent his early childhood in the United States, South Africa and Australia, returning to England with his family in 1973. He attended Chigwell School in Essex and then went to King's College, Cambridge, where he read Philosophy and Social and Political Science. He also became involved in the Cambridge Footlights, serving as a committee member and writing and performing many shows including the 1987 UK and 1988 US Tours. He subsequently co-wrote and performed two award-winning series of BBC Radio 4's AND NOW, IN COLOUR.

Smith worked for a number of years as a graphic designer and writer of corporate videos, while starting to write short fiction. These stories have been published in anthologies and magazines in the US, UK and Europe. He is a five-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, and a four-time World Fantasy Award nominee. Many stories have recently been collected in MORE TOMORROW AND OTHER STORIES, winner of the International Horror Guild Award in 2003. A previous collection, WHAT YOU MAKE IT, was published in the UK by HarperCollins.

His first novel, ONLY FORWARD, won the August Derleth and Philip K. Dick awards. His second - SPARES was optioned for film by DreamWorks and translated into seventeen languages. His third, ONE OF US, was optioned by Warner Brothers. His fourth, THE STRAW MEN, was an international bestseller, as was his fifth - titled THE LONELY DEAD in the UK (HarperCollins), and THE UPRIGHT MAN in the US (Jove). His most recent novel - BLOOD OF ANGELS - is out in paperback. THE STRAW MEN is currently being developed as a comic series.

In 2007 Michael was Guest of Honour at the World Horror Convention. A short novel under a new name - M. M. Smith - will be published by HarperCollins in 2008.

Smith has also worked extensively as a screenwriter, writing for clients in LA and London. He is currently co-producing and writing a feature film based on one of his own short stories (HELL HATH ENLARGED HERSELF), and will be adapting a Stephen King story for television later in the year. His seventh novel, THE INTRUDERS, has been optioned by the BBC and is currently under series development.

He lives in North London, with his wife Paula, a son and two cats.

 

And to read more of Michael Marshall Smith, please visit his website at:
http://www.michaelmarshallsmith.com

 

For New Mystery Reader's review of The Intruders