When I started writing Speaking of Risk, my intention was to do a piece on the risks inherent in high-concept work. That’s something that I’m currently struggling with myself, and honestly, when I attempted to write down my thoughts on the subject, I found myself too invested in parsing my own writing to be able to look at the it objectively. Still, I wanted to take on the subject in some form.
This summer I read an advance copy of a really wonderful novel, Rivers by Michael Farris Smith, which will be out from Simon and Schuster in September. Rivers is about as high-concept as it gets. Here’s a bit of the synopsis from the Simon and Schuster website:
“Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees. The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline. Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.
Cohen is one who stayed. Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land. Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.
But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter. On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.
Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.”
I got ahold of Michael, and he was kind enough to talk with me for a while about Rivers, risk, and how to manage big ideas.
Christopher Lowe: Since this series is about risk, I figured we’d focus on the range of risks that you took in the book. There are quite a few to my mind, things that could have easily turned badly in the hands of a lesser writer. I guess if we could start with the premise, which is in and of itself, a huge risk. Tackling not just a Gulf Coast hurricane novel, but tying in the dystopian with it, the biblical, all of that seems tricky as hell, so I’m curious to know how you approached it and how it came about.
Michal Farris Smith: How I approached it was, the idea kind of scared the hell out of me to be honest. I mean, I thought when I had the idea – and I hadn’t thought of any of those things you mentioned at the time obviously – but when I had the notion of a hurricane ravaged, futuristic Gulf Coast that is lawless and violent and somewhat like the wild west, I thought to myself, “Okay, that’s a pretty cool idea,” and I thought it was a pretty unique idea, but then the conversation I had with myself was “How are you going to do it?” and I kept telling myself over and over that this was the kind of idea I’d been waiting on.
I was pretty frustrated at the time with the lack of anything big happening for me. My novella, The Hands of Strangers hadn’t been published yet, hadn’t been accepted yet, so I was way out in no man’s land. And I thought, “This is what you’ve been waiting for.” It was kind of an intimidating idea. The landscape was going to be completely mine. The worldview was going to be completely mine, at least from a setting point. I just reached out, grabbed it, hugged it, and I knew the trick was going to be doing it the right way. That was the big thing in my mind. I felt like if I did this the right way, I had a chance for a pretty interesting story. So I just kind of dove in, rather blindly. I don’t read dystopian novels. I never have. I mean The Road is the closest thing I’ve ever read to anything like that. I was wary when I began of comparisons to The Road, so I was careful to make sure I had a lot of characters and a lot of subplots, a lot of things like that going on to kind of set it apart from what McCarthy did.
I was ready to reach out and slap somebody, for lack of saying it any more eloquently. I was a frustrated writer. I’d published a dozen stories, won five or six awards, I was past the stage of feeling like I was good enough, and that was even more frustrating. I kept being told about the novella, “Well, we’re not going to publish a novella from a first time author.” I’m like what the hell, if it’s good, take it, publish it, but stop telling me you can’t publish it from a marketing standpoint. So that hurt. I was ready to take a chance, and I happened to have an idea at a time when I was really desperate as a writer. Looking back now on it, I think “How the hell did I put all that together?” but I just went to it very enthusiastically every day. That was the best thing I could have done. Best thing any writer can do.
CL: You mentioned The Road, and already there have been comparisons. James Lee Burke mentions McCarthy in his blurb for you, and I’ve seen it on Goodreads in a handful of reviews already. I had read those things before I read the book, and I was expecting similarities to The Road. What struck me, though, was that it reminded me more of The Crossing, particularly the first half of that book, where Billy’s just wandering in Mexico with the wolf, and there are these stretches where no big action is happening but McCarthy makes you feel like every moment is vital. The first 100 pages of Rivers does that same sort of thing. Cohen’s out there, just wandering, he’s lost what little he had, and he’s going place to place, and it reminded me quite a bit of The Crossing, so I wonder if you could talk a little about that idea of how you keep a reader invested in stretches where it’s really just one character, a couple of animals around him, and beyond that probably 50, 60, 70 pages of him just walking, riding his horse, going place to place.
MFS: I think the best thing that happened was, in those passages where he is alone and out wandering, he’s been removed from his comfort zone. I will tell you that initially, I had a front 30 pages that were very quiet, that followed him around in his daily life a lot more than it does now. I thought “That’s not getting it.” I cut that down to 8-10 pages, where he goes to Charlie’s truck, and we meet other people and something happens. But then the passages you’re alluding to are a little later on, when he has to get out, when he’s on the run, wants vengeance, and he is on his own. I think it helped me in those passages when he is alone or with his horse, just facing the wild, that he was desperate, that he was injured, his heartbreak seems to grow in those pages. The storms never relent. There’s always rain, always thunder, all these elements to deal with, his fever, his busted up shoulder, his knock on the head, what roads can I get over, how do I get out of here, what do I do, what am I going to eat. That element in itself becomes a big thing. That helped me tremendously in those passages when he is trying to get back to find those people that he wants to find, that he is desperate for survival, more or less. He doesn’t know what the next 24 hours of his life are going to bring. His fever could go sky high, and he’d pass out or whether he’ll get hit by a bolt of lightning or if he’d get eaten by a wolf. I think the desperation really helped create some tension there. Because, you and I both know, characters by themselves don’t make for good long passages, they’ve got to have something gnawing at them or on their heels or something like in The Crossing that they are setting out to do. I like the comparison to The Crossing, because I love that book, and I love that first 100 pages, and I hadn’t really thought of that until now. That’s a good comparison.
CL: It’s interesting that you mention the desperation driving Cohen, because one of the things I was fascinated by, was that you have the central character who, in a tangible sense, has already lost the things that typically motivate a protagonist. At the start of the book, his wife and unborn child are already gone. He’s already pretty much given up trying to build the room, this addition to his house he’s trying to build to keep going, and he’s pretty much given up that, so the tangible goals, “I want to save my loved ones” or “I want to do this thing,” those things have already passed by. It struck me as very interesting how you were able to build the narrative around a character who didn’t have those straight forward motivations.
MFS: I hadn’t honestly thought that much about that. When I had the vision for Cohen, when I had the first sentence for Rivers, it’s a guy waking up in the middle of the night in the midst of storms. That’s what I had from the get-go. When I look back at what’s influenced me though, in terms of writing and advice from writers, what has influenced me more than anything, Raymond Carver stories always start after catastrophe. Almost always. A lot of his stories, the story begins after someone has become an alcoholic. After a divorce. At the tailing end of a crumbling relationship. And then you get to see how that character recovers from that. And if you look at it, Cohen’s the same way. He’s lost already. His first loss is his home; the Gulf Coast is gone. It’s not there anymore. He’s on family land, but essentially, it’s not family land anymore because all those deeds and all that mean nothing. It’s just a wide open marsh, more or less, and he’s lost his wife and lost his unborn child. “Now what do I do?” I think that makes him what he is though, because a lot of times he does things that he doesn’t realize he’s capable of doing. And you think about someone who has a wife and a child. My decisions now, on a daily basis, are different than if I was still a single guy roaming around. You think about someone in a desperate situation, which he is in. If he has a wife and child, he’s not going to act the same way. He’s got absolutely zero to lose. His only motivation is to save himself. For a certain point in the novel, obviously his motivations change, though. Perhaps because he has suffered such a tremendous amount of loss already, he is capable of doing the things he has to do to survive, to get through.
CL: To sort of switch gears a little bit, one of the big risky things that you do is that there are really overt references to and imagery pulled from the bible. At times, there’s just biblical language, and that seems like such a slippery slope to try to navigate. How did that develop?
MFS: You know what, that’s the one thing that probably seemed like less of a risk for me, because of my background rather than some of the other stuff. My dad’s a southern Baptist preacher, and I grew up in church whenever the church doors were open, and I grew up singing in the choirs, and I grew up in Sunday school. That language is language I’m familiar with, and the stories are stories I’m familiar with. It’s lyrical language. If you read the Bible, it’s lyrical, some more than others. Gospel music is very lyrical. Religion and spiritual imagery is filled with images like blood, and the cross, and a crown of thorns. They’re not all romantic images, they’re also violent images, they’re also images of redemption, images of temptation. It was kind of natural for me to have the hand of God or at least the thought of the hand of God in the middle of things. You know the saying, you never see an atheist in a foxhole. When Cohen is on the verge of horrific things, as a southern boy, whether he wants to or not, he’s been dragged to church at some point in his life. It was easy to conjure up those images in his mind.
As far as Aggie goes, you and I, and too many of us are familiar with people who take religion and manipulate it to their own purposes to take advantage of other people, rob other people, and so on. Aggie uses the notion of religion and Christ-like imagery to his advantage, but I don’t think he’s wholly using it as a ruse. In some weird way he sees himself as that character also. He goes back and forth with Cohen, using that language, and on the other hand, he shows that rough, redneck troublemaker that he is. But in Aggie’s moments alone, when we get to listen to his thoughts, see what he’s thinking, he’s somewhere in between the twisted Christ-like figure and the outlaw that he is.
Religion gets wrapped up all the time in daily life and harsh reality, and it was kind of a natural thing for me to do. I know that it is a risk because images of Christ and God and the spirits and forgiveness and redemption, everybody interprets those things in different ways. Everybody. But it felt like it belonged in the story.
CL: I’m glad you brought up Aggie because I wanted to talk about him. There are a handful of characters who are – I hesitate to use the word villain – but darker characters who you don’t align with the way you do with Cohen or some of the others. Aggie is just fascinating to me, for a lot of the reasons that you already articulated. Many of the characters who do bad things in Rivers, it feels like a natural human compulsion that when law breaks down, you do things you may not have otherwise done. Aggie strikes me as fundamentally different, and he’s such a dark character. He’s troubling in deep ways. I’m wondering how you approached that depth of dark complexity.
MFS: I think this goes back to what we set out talking about with the notion of risk. When I wrote Aggie, when I started thinking about him, writing his stream of consciousness, I just wanted to create a completely nightmarish character. I didn’t want Aggie to be like any other character you’d find in a book. There were instances throughout Rivers where I realized, “This has to be really amped up. Really jacked up. If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to go all out.” Aggie was one of those instances where I said, “I’m going to go all out with this character, and I’m going to make him as dark, as twisted, as manipulative, as strangely interesting as I can make him.” He was a tremendous amount of fun to write, and that’s maybe a weird thing to say about someone who is acting and thinking the way he is. I wanted to take a chance with Aggie. I wanted to create a character that would be unforgettable. That was my complete goal with Aggie. I want Aggie to make people uneasy.
CL: It worked.
CL: He goes so far into that darkness, becomes so unlikable that he then becomes likeable again in a weird way.
MFS: I’m glad to hear you say that because there are actually one or two strange moments in there when I feel sympathy for Aggie, which was a hell of a trick. Not everybody’s bad all the time, and not everybody’s good all the time. There are one or two really weird moments where you might have a twinge of sympathy for Aggie. So I’m happy that to at least one person it came across that way.
CL: Any other thoughts on the risks you took? Obviously, there are many more that we could talk about, but I’m curious which ones stick out to you.
MFS: Mariposa felt like a big risk to me. I had a vague idea when I introduced her of what she would become, and to me I had to figure out, “How am I going to get her from this to that?” And it was a long road to get her there, but I had her in the back of my mind from the moment she walked into the story. I was concerned if it would come off believably, so her character was someone that, like Aggie, I felt like I just wanted to go out on a limb and see how drastic she could become in her notion of change throughout the novel.
I will say one other thing that stuck in my mind as I worked on Rivers is a piece of advice I got while I was at Southern Miss from Steven Barthelme. He said to me in his office one day, “Your problem is, you’re trying to be the best writer in workshop. You’re not supposed to try to be the best writer in workshop.” He had a stack of books on his desk, and he pointed at Hemingway, and he said, “You’re supposed to be trying to be better than that.” Hemingway, Chekov, Flannery O’Connor, and he just went down the stack of books. So he says, “Once you stop trying to be the best writer in workshop and you start trying to be better than those people you’ll see yourself start to grow.”
I really thought of that a lot as I was writing Rivers because like I said, when I had the idea, it was a little difficult to wrap my head around, but Steve’s words stuck with me as I worked my way through it. I don’t know what I’ve attained, but it was that impulse to think about yourself that way that’s really helped drive me the last few years in the longer things I’ve been working on. It was Steve’s way of telling me “Get off your ass. Start working. Stick your neck out there.” I’ve thought about that a lot.
It was at the tail end of my time at Southern Miss, but that forty-five seconds was not only the best advice I got there, but I feel like it matured me instantly as a writer. Even though it took me a while to grow, having that concept in my head I think really drove me to where I eventually ended up.
Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction has appeared widely in journals includingThird Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Grist, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches English and Creative Writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.