Michael Marshall Smith on Words, Writer’s Block and Hannah Green

Everyone has a story to tell; each one of us writes poetry – some, without even realising. That stream of consciousness that runs in our veins? It’s poetry waiting to be written. We believe in the power of words, and that power is what urged us set up PoetsIN.

It’s because of those inner streams, that we are bringing you all a regular interview feature, Writer Profiles. An interview with a writer. This week we’re honoured to bring you an interview with 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 such as Hannah Green and her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence as Michael Marshall Smith, and as the author Michael Marshall with the Straw Men book series. He is also a screenwriter and a genuinely top bloke for talking with us.

What’s your relationship with words and how has it evolved?

I love words. I have six feet of etymology books on my shelves, and while I’m watching a French cop show on Netflix at the moment I find myself constantly pausing it to note down phrases. Thankfully I’m watching it alone, because that would drive anybody else insane. For reasons I don’t understand (my grasp of the language is actually very rudimentary) I find French idiom fascinating. An expression for “twilight”, for example, is “entre chien et loup” — which means “the time between the dog and the wolf”. How cool is that? Or “chacun voit midi à sa porte” (“everybody sees mid-day from their own door”) for “everybody’s life gives them their own perspective”. There are countless examples in English too, of course, of the way metaphor captures our lives, and how the shifting meanings of words over time illustrate changes in society… I love that.

Also the way in which comparing languages reveals assumptions about who we are, and how we live: “I miss you” in French, for example, is “Tu me manque” — “your absence causes in me the state of missing you”, which is subtly different to the English, and therefore instructive. As is the way some Amerind languages would phrase “There is a man in a forest”, instead saying “There is a forest, and in the middle of it, a man” — placing the human in the bigger context, rather than diminishing the world by declaring the supremacy of the individual. A deep dive into language will teach you far more about human nature and experience than either psychology or sociology, I think.

When it comes to books, I have always been drawn to writers who take words and sentences and put them together in the best ways: wise, funny, unnerving. I simply won’t read a book where the prose isn’t good enough — though that most definitely includes writing where someone’s taken the time and thought to boil it down to being very clear and direct and unfussy. When I rule the world, thesauruses will be banned. If you don’t have a clear understanding of the nuances of a word, then don’t use it.

It’s always been the words rather than the story that’s been most important to me.  That probably stops me from writing truly commercial fiction, but it is what it is.

How long have you been writing, what’s your favourite style of writing and why?

I wrote a couple of things in my mid-teens, just pastiches of books I was reading at the time. I started writing properly as I left college, kicked into gear by discovering Stephen King, and Peter Straub. So I guess that’s about thirty years now.

I like writing that is clear, direct, and concise, yet honours language and takes the time to have fun with it. I want a book to show me things about the world and human experience, without bashing me over the head with the author’s “wisdom” or jerking me out of the narrative. I like each sentence to have poise, but for the paragraphs to slip down like a glass of water, or mouthful of tea at just the right temperature, or much-needed sip of wine, depending on circumstance.

You recently released the sublime Hannah Green and her Indefeasibly Mundane Existence. It was truly magnificent. Where in the world did the inspiration come for it?

Thank you! HANNAH is the most fun I’ve had writing since… well, probably since ONLY FORWARD. It began from me making up a bedtime story for my son. For a long time I made one up around some characters from a TV show he liked back then. He’d be in bed, and I’d be sitting there in the dark, and I’d pull the characters through whatever events I could conjure that evening: the advantage of this over reading from a book was that if I could tell he was getting sleepy, I could slow down the narrative and help shepherd him into the Land of Nod.

After about two years with the same characters, I’d gotten to the point where I’d done just about everything I could think of to them, so I started something new. After a few nights I thought “I’m quite enjoying this”, so after he’d finally fallen asleep I started jotting down whatever nonsense I’d randomly made up that evening. For some reason I stopped telling that tale (I think it got derailed by another attempt on my part to get him to read to himself, preferably Ray Bradbury) but later I realized I wanted to know what happened next: so I went back, reworked the stuff I had, and kept going with it.

I had no contract, no publisher, no particular hope of anybody else seeing it… so there was a sense of freedom that you seldom get as a professional writer (and which I personally hadn’t experienced since ONLY FORWARD, my first novel). That probably explains why it came out the way it did!

Many of us within our groups (and the charity itself) have experienced occasions where writing has helped us overcome times of pain, anxiety and mental illness. Describe the first time you realised the true of power of words.

The first short story I wrote was straightforwardly an attempt at catharsis. Not in that I consciously embarked upon for that purpose, but the story was — looking back — clearly related to things that had recently happened to me. A girl done me wrong, basically, my 21-year-old heart was broken, and I was mad and sad about it. Getting those feelings out, externalizing them into a tale happening to other people, was the best and only way I could find of trying to get a little objectivity about them.

That’s part of what writing is about, and for. And the longer you do it, the closer you inch toward understanding that if your heart is broken, you probably had a big hand in it.

I (PoetsIN Co-Founder Paul) write my best stuff when in a rage, heartbroken or fighting depression. Are you affected in similar ways?

I seldom write when specifically in those kind of moods — or at least, not large pieces that I’ll hope to use. I’ll jot notes (sometimes long ones), and write properly about them later. But states like heartbreak, melancholy, depression, anxiety — they’re deeply stitched into the psyche. It’s not like sometimes they’re there, and sometimes they’re entirely absent. So one approach is to bash out raw material when you’re in the full chaos of those feelings (to capture the visceral reality, and get them out of your head) and then work them into prose or story when the seas are a little less severe.

I’m not sure that anything truly good has ever been written by someone untouched by rage, heartbreak, or with no experience of the soul’s darker and more challenging side.

Describe your writing process and how you approach projects.

It depends. With short stories, I’ll register the sudden arrival of an idea — or put out mental feelers for one, if I’ve been asked to submit on a specific theme — and wait until I’m ready, and then bang down a first draft as fast as I can.

Novels are a whole different thing. Once again the process feels somewhat channeled for me (I wish it wasn’t, but that appears to be the way it is), so I’ll have to wait around until an idea of set of characters or atmosphere announces itself. I go into what I think of as “flypaper mode”, being open to what’s happening in the world, or trawling around research sites on the web, reading apparently random books, until somethings starts to coalesce in the back brain. When it’s finally announced itself to me, then I have to take the leap of faith, jump off the cliff, and commit the next year of my life (and chunk of my career) to it.

If you can possibly avoid it, don’t work this way: it’s very stressful 🙂

Depending on the style you are writing in, you tread a line between fantasy and darkness, always with a black humour threaded throughout. Do you think this may just be the secret to maintaining good mental health in everyday life?

To be honest, that’s not a style I’ve chosen. It is, for better or worse, just the way I am. I tend to be very open and honest in my prose, and stories: I have to hope that people want to hear what I have to say, and the more authentic that is, the better  🙂

But I do think having the environment to look at the darker side of life, and both honor and laugh at it, is helpful. I’ve written in a number of genres — SF, thriller, crime, semi-literary, supernatural, semi-comic, noir — and hung out with writers from all those fields. The strange thing is that the most relaxed people of all, the most fun, are the horror writers. It’s like they’ve got all the shit out of our heads and onto the page, and so we’re free to just talk cheerful random bollocks and drink a lot of beer.

Many writers love to read. What’s your favourite book and why?

God, impossible to say. There are books that have had a big influence on me, books that have been inspirations, others that have just been pleasures. Reading is essential to being a writer — and can perform as much like raw material as real life itself. My favorite book changes from day to day. Naming one would feel like infidelity to all the others — just as when people ask me which is my favorite of the books I’ve written.

What is your favourite quote and why?

I’m almost as big a fan of quotes as I am words in general, so I’d find it hard to choose: I have huge Evernote notebooks full of them! But one I keep coming back to — and again, for some reason it’s in French, again, and I promise I’m not trying to seem smart here, it’s simply that the French are good at this shit — is this:

“La vie contemplative est souvent misérable. Il faut agir davantage, penser moins, et ne pas se regarder vivre”.

(The contemplative life is often miserable. We should do more, think less, and not watch ourselves living).

Nicholas-Sébastien Chamfort

Maximes et Pensées

Writer’s block, real or a myth?

That’s a good, big question. Both. At the same time. The way “writer’s block” often feels, the way it usually presents itself, is thus: “I’m shit. I can’t write. I have no ideas, can’t make this work… there’s nothing there. I should stop pretending to be a writer”. All of these things — assuming you are, in fact, a writer, which not everybody is — are wrong.

Instead over the years I’ve come to learn (or at least believe) that writer’s block is a helpful message, passed along from the subconscious. What it’s actually saying is that you’re not ready. It’s telling you that the idea you’re working on is insufficiently clear in your mind, or is malformed, or needs reframing. Either that, or that something about your internal or external environment needs adjusting.

If you are a writer — if you want to do it, have to do it, and have demonstrated that you have some skills and talent — then writer’s block isn’t about you, and it is not a message of failure. It’s a non-verbal part of your creative mind saying “You’re standing outside a house, and there’s a story in there, and you have to get inside. But stop trying to get in through the front door. It’s not working. It’s locked. Try the back door instead. Or a window.” It’ll be that, or, sometimes: “You know what? Today’s not the day to get inside. Do something else. Read. Go for a walk. Go to Safeway. Cook. Tomorrow may well be the day. Come back then, and you may find you had the key in your pocket all along.”

Many writers have a Calvinist, self-punishing work ethic. If a day passes without them hitting their word count, they take it as a disaster, a sign of laziness and failure. But I’ve learned there are days on which I write zero words, but instead have the half-realization or semi-idea that puts everything else in shape, and opens the road in front of me… and that you will not get a book written without those days, and they may be more critical than the ones where you dutifully crank out a couple thousand words.

Writer’s block is not an enemy, but your friend. And always, always remember that great Hemingway quote: “The first draft of everything is shit”. It’s incredibly liberating.

As a successful novelist and screenwriter, do you feel a constant pressure to better yourself in delivering to a public hungry for your books?

Leaving aside the hundred caveats I’d like to put to the idea that I’m “successful”, then… yes and no. Of course I want readers to keep coming back, and to feel it’s worthwhile to do so. And in addition, you have to keep showing the publishers what they want (or think they want, or that Sales & Marketing tells them they need this week). That can be debilitating, though, and often I have to say to myself “Okay, this may be dreadful, and probably people won’t like it and the publisher will hate it, but this is what I’m drawn to write… so just get the damned thing written, and worry about the rest of it later”.

What’s next for Michael Marshall Smith/Michael Smith (no pressure)?

Right now I’m embarking upon a new novel, and struggling with it. That’s happened many times before. I’ll get over it. It’ll get done. I’m also involved in an attempt to bring THE STRAW MEN to television, co-writing a pilot and bible with an old and experienced friend of mine. We’ve got some great producers on board, so who knows. I’d also like to write a follow-up to HANNAH, so I’m keeping my ears pricked for ideas for that… There’s always something to think about, plan, muse on… as the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan said: “Being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life”.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂

Michael blogs at www.michaelmarshallsmith.com once in a while, and is on Twitter as @ememess.

He also captions some of the photos he takes on Instagram — where he’s also @ememess and you can buy copies of his sumptuous prints on Etsy. What are you waiting for? 

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