Prose Interviews Author and Screenwriter Michael Marshall Smith
Smith is originally from Cheshire in the United Kingdom, lived in London for twenty five years, and now resides in Santa Cruz, Northern California. He writes under two names, with novels as Michael Marshall Smith and as the author Michael Marshall with the Straw Men book series. He is also a screenwriter.
In spite of seemingly countless achievements and accolades, however, Marshall tends to be very British in his modesty.
We asked how it was that he initially got started and if there was a catalyst for him to put words to paper.
“My father is an academic, and wrote a lot of non-fiction,” he said. “I was aware of this process from an early age — dad in his study on a Saturday morning, clattering away on the typewriter, or marching off across a Soviet carpark to take a picture to illustrate a point — and so the idea of producing a book-shaped thing was never alien to me, nor a task that seemed inconceivable. I knew it could be done, by people who in most other regards appeared entirely normal.”
“I wrote a couple of short pieces in my early teens (abortive novels, of YA adventure/thriller types). The next time I tangled with words in anger was to write comedy sketches, as I spent most of my time at university writing and performing for the Cambridge Footlights. I was on a three-month theatre tour after graduation when a friend suggested/insisted I read The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and that’s the book that flicked the switch. I tracked down everything in print by both, and by the end, I’d decided this was the job for me. Even in the darkest days, I don’t question that decision. I can’t actually do anything else.”
As an aside, Marshall added that he has met Peter Straub a few times over the years, most recently at an event in San Francisco earlier this year. “It still does my head in that I’m allowed on the same stage.”
When asked if he had a preference within the formats he writes in (novels, short stories, or screenwriting) and if the three institutions ever conflict, he explained:
“I like novels and short stories about the same, because they give me different things.
“There’s a lot more space in novels for depth of idea and breadth of canvas and spending time with characters. But short stories have a brevity and focus which is sometimes exactly what you need, and the best way of communicating a story or mood. Plus they’re a lot shorter, obviously, which can be nice when you’ve just fought your way out of a long tussle with a novel. I wish I wrote more shorts — so much of my time these days seems to be taken up with novels, along with occasional wary visits to ‘the real world’.
“I enjoy screenwriting, though remain doggedly unsuccessful at it. Screenplay can be useful in reminding you — when writing novels or short stories — that you can and often should *show*, rather than *tell*. In prose it’s very easy to get lost in editorializing and interior monologue, and both have their place. But the most lasting and resonant emotional effects will usually come from putting an event in front of the reader and letting them react on their own.”
Upon being asked whether the creative process differ in his various streams of writing, he goes on to say that, “with shorts I do no planning whatsoever. As soon as I get an idea or mood or ending situation that strikes me with sufficient force, I get writing. It may receive a rethink later (though just as often not), but every first draft of a story is written as fast as I can. I don’t want to think about it, for fear of pinning the butterfly to the board too early, or getting tired of the idea.
“I should plan novels far more rigorously than I do, but the process bores and unnerves me, so my approach is to accumulate ideas and scenes and a sense of the overall shape, and then start. This can lead to some very long dark nights when I have no idea what happens next, or have tied myself into a plot pretzel, but so far I’ve always managed to reach the finish line in the end. I’m dogged, and extremely patient, and always get where I want in the end, however long it takes.”
“Screenplays have to be rigorously planned out before you begin, and in that medium this can actually be the fun part. Every line you write is likely to be changed at some point, so there’s no use getting too hung up on the words — it’s the ideas and shape and mood that counts. With prose, you stand a chance of being able to write sentences that’ll make it into the final version.”
Many of us are aware of the character of Paul Sheldon in Misery, who celebrates the end of writing a book with an otherwise untouched cigarette and a glass of whisky. Does Marshall have any similar rituals?
“Sadly, nothing more interesting than making another cup of coffee and heading outside for a cigarette. It’s a pretty epic moment when you type the last line of a big project like a novel, and push back from the desk knowing that part’s over, but the moment is always tempered by anti-climax and the knowledge there will be weeks or months of edits ahead… to the point where when you’re finally finished, you may be sick to death of the book, the whole idea of writing, and yourself. At which point an extended visit to the pub is generally called for. Does that count?”
He writes differently under the names of Michael Marshall and Michael Marshall Smith. Prose wondered if he had a preference.
“The distinction is vague to me, to be honest. Yes, the Michael Marshall Smith novels were “science fiction”, in a way nothing else has been since. And more zany. But a lot of the Michael Marshall Smith stories could equally well have been Michael Marshall, and the novel I’m editing at the moment wouldn’t be incomprehensible as Michael Marshall Smith, except for not being sf — and not having much humour. It’s all part of a spectrum in my head, though sadly not in the publishing world.
“MM has written a lot more novels than MMS now, though only one short story. MMS does all the screenwriting. It’s all… well it’s all part of the same thing. The one thing I really miss from the MMS novels was being able to do more humour — I miss that. I’ve not made a concerted attempt to separate the two strands, but that’s because I have the planning abilities of bedrock. My so-called career is a mystery to me. And much of life.”
The Straw Men series of books blew many people away with its deeply disturbing and delicious darkness. We asked Smith what he thought of the world’s fascination with all things evil.
“I think it’s always been that way. I’ll bet that ninety-five percent of the tales told around Neolithic cave fires were about bad men and strange women and dark nights and the things that can happen in them. Warnings.
“We all have a sense of the dark currents that swirl around and within us, and that’s what gave rise to myth and religion in the first place: people reaching for metaphors to unlock the internal and external struggles in our lives, the interplay of fate and freewill and destiny.
“So much of this stuff is occluded from us on a conscious level, too, which is why we need story to dramatise and externalize. The sense that something is going on behind the scenes or outside our control, is inherent to the human condition because so much of our own nature is hidden to us. I suspect also that the relative comfort — and cushioning — of so much of the world’s entertainment-consuming public gives time to consider such matters, along with a nagging feeling that something, somewhere is coming for them. We’re waiting for the hammer to fall. While we wait, let’s imagine what kind of hammer it’s going to be.”
Having lived in the States for many years now, we asked him if there was anything he really missed about the UK.
“I miss a couple of friends a great deal. Otherwise… I do miss pubs. I love a bar, but a pub is a different thing. And I miss English banter: that “we’re going to be viciously rude to — and about — each other, and ourselves, and the world, and everything in it, and it’ll be fast and furious and involve a lot of very bad language, but we all know it’s in verbal play with no harm done and no offense meant, or at least no offense that can’t be solved by another beer”. That doesn’t exist here in the same way — or at least, I’ve found only a few people I’d risk truly weapons-grade banter with.
“And sausages. I miss good sausages. Luckily we have a great butcher nearby who does something like an English banger, but in general they’re hard to find. Unlike widely-available sausage-shaped things made with Chicken & Mango or Turkey & Blueberry (yes, seriously), which are an abomination. Oh, and I miss proper samosas, by which I don’t mean fancy little ones, but those cheap greasy things you get in corner stores. And Taramasalata, which I can never find here. And Cadbury’s chocolate, obviously.
“So I miss a few foods, and occasionally I miss British telly (specifically that period around Christmas with all the festive idents), but otherwise not a lot, to be honest. I’m lucky to live in a stunningly beautiful part of a striking and fascinating country, amidst people who are kind and considerate and interesting, and I don’t feel I’m lacking much from the UK.
“Not to mention that the political situation in the UK at the moment would make me want to walk into the sea and never come back.”
We set the scene. Prose is at Michael’s local pub in Britain. It’s our turn to buy a round, so we ask what he’s drinking.
“That’s a tricky one. Back in England I tend to lazily default to the cooking lagers because the “Premium” ones disagree with me, in the sense of making me really very drunk. So I’m afraid you’d find me knocking back pints of Carlsberg and its ilk, because I’ve never found my place in lukewarm real ales (though I’m increasingly partial to a Newcastle Brown or a Boddingtons, if served cold).
“I’ve been in Northern California for four years now, and the range and quality of local craft beers defies comprehension. Given the chance I’d head for an IPA like the Sierra Nevada or Langunitas, or better still, an amber like Boont or Fat Tire. Or if I was hoping to get any work done the next day, a Kona Longboard or Big Wave or New Belgium’s Slow Ride.”
If you visit michaelmarshallsmith.com you’ll see that his photography is fairly remarkable as well. We asked if there are any other artistic talents yet to emerge.
“[Photography] is a welcome break from dealing with words and something I find I channel a lot of emotion and thought into. As for other talents, not really. I can play the piano and guitar a bit, and used to do a little ‘composing’ (in the sense of recording things that sounded like John Carpenter soundtracks)… I’ve recently started trying to de-rustify my piano fingers by learning some of my favorite Bach, but writing takes up most of my time. Writing and not-writing. That’s a full creative schedule.”
Finally, we ask the Brit if he wants a UK Proser to send him some quintessentially British Walkers crisps.
“That would be lovely. Ready salted, please. Though I’d swap a crate of them for a single box of Paxo Sage & Onion stuffing, one of the few things I bother to schlep back after a trip to the UK…”
As Prose pops to the local little red letterbox to send off the stuffing, we urge you to check out Marshall’s 10th Anniversary edition of Straw Men and the 20th anniversary edition of Only Forward, both are available now from Harper.
He is also currently editing a new book (title TBD) as well as working with director Fabien Martorell on a couple of projects, including a feature version of Killer Move. You can also see a short film of Smith’s Unbelief that’s doing remarkably well at festivals by the same director. Additionally, Michael is working on developing Spares as a TV series.
Originally published at blog.theprose.com on October 21, 2015.