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Exclusive Interview – Michael Marshall Smith. He would like everyone to be cool.

mmsmith02A favourite author of mine is Michael Marshall Smith (sometimes he goes by Michael Marshall). I still remember the first time I came across one of his books. I was heading on a train journey and was looking around a book shop for something to read. I picked up Only Forwardand on the back it said “May we introduce you to Stark. Oh and by the way – good luck…” I bought it and devoured it on the train. It had lashings of science-fiction, thrills, horror, action and Jeamland. There was also an awful lot of cats in there doing weird cat like things.

His second novel, Spares, followed Jack who went on the run with clones bred for spare body parts for celebrities. The rights of this were sold to Dreamworks who basically did nothing with it. When the rights lapsed a film called The Islandappeared. That was the film that was all about clones that were bred for spare body parts for celebrities. Hmmm.

As mentioned above he also has work as Michael Marshall and this started with The Straw Men and The Lonely Dead which are the first parts of a thriller series set in todays world that deals with serial killers, ex-CIA types and possibly Bigfoot. The Straw men has also been adapted into a comic book series by Zenoscope Entertainment (Newsarama have a review of the first issue)

He has written many other things and I highly recommend you check them out. His official site has a full bibliography. He is also on Twitter.

Recently I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Michael Marshall Smith and without further ado here it is.

You have written stories in the world of science-fiction and the world of thrillers with some overlap between the two. Are there any other genres you would like to write? Would you ever write a comedy for example?

Well, in some ways I already *have* written comedy – the first three novels (though science fiction) had parts and ideas that were hopefully amusing, and even in the more overtly serious recent crime and thriller novels I try to maintain a lightness of tone.

Comedy’s a tricky thing, however. I believe *every* novel should have some emotional and metaphysical light and shade – just as there’s always a laugh or at least a smile just around the corner in real life. Humans makes jokes at *funerals* – it’s what we do, the nearest to magic we have, and novels should reflect that. Comedy always needs something to work against, however – darkness to shine light upon. Straightforwardly ‘comic’ novels rarely work for me. I prefer bringing together different genres and approaches – thriller, horror, sf, literary, noir, a touch of comedy – and seeing what happens, rather than trying to force ideas to one genre alone. Sadly the publishing industry generally feels differently about the whole thing… But hey, they’re my books 😉

An underlying theme in many of your books is of another world just outside of ours. That and cats of course. When you were a child did you play with imaginary friends in any of those imaginary worlds?

I never had an imaginary friend that I’m aware of. I made things up from a very early age, however, and moved around the world a lot – living in America, South Africa and Australia before my family came back to the UK – and so I was pretty used to my own company. I can remember telling myself stories and willfully misinterpreting reality from early childhood, so perhaps I was functioning as my own imaginary friend. Just as well – no-one else would have me.

The first issue of The Straw Men comic book has just come out. Would you ever consider writing a comic for DC, Dark Horse or Marvel? If so what character would you like to take control of or do you have?

Actually, they’re three issues into it now – I just received copies of the most recent one.

Writing directly for comics is not something I’ve considered yet. Comics weren’t a part of my childhood, and so aren’t rooted in my adult life either – though I’m well aware that a lot of very interesting stuff is being done there at the moment, and that in fact a great many readers are turning to that medium first when looking for a certain kind of freshness of ideas. I guess because I’m accustomed to thinking in terms of prose or screenplay, most of my notions get pre-pointed in those directions before they even make it out of my head. Plus there’s the fact that to start working in comics I’d need an illustrator, whereas with prose I’m my own boss… Having said which, I’m working with an artist on a children’s book at the moment, and enjoying it enormously. Seeing the images he can come up with apparently at the drop of a hat really enlivens the working experience…

I have no interest in taking over someone else’s character, really. I get frustrated enough at myself for not making something of many of the ideas I already have. Something I *would* like to do is investigate adapting one of my first three novels to graphic format – probably either SPARES or ONLY FORWARD: dramatizing the original story first, then establishing the world as a starting-point for further adventures. It’s just a matter of finding the time, as always… If any comic publishers out there are interested, let me know!

Could you possibly let me know a little more about the illustrated children’s book you mentioned?

It’s basically a rather silly and zany story I wrote a while back and didn’t really do anything with, but have finally started developing with Uli Meyer, the animation director with whom Stephen Ones and I are writing an animated monster movie for kids. It’s early days on the book yet, but looking great so far…

In your books, you have referred to alien Greys, Big Foot and other secrets of the world. What is your favourite cryptozoological entity? Which real-world conspiracy theory makes you nervous?

No conspiracy theory makes me nervous, because I actually know the Whole and Utter Truth About Everything. I joined the conspiracy. It wasn’t so painful.

I’m fascinated by the Fortean – the unexplained, the anomalous, the stuff that makes Science twitchy. I actually don’t even care if any of it’s true – a sense of wonder is *far* more important to me (and to humankind in general, I believe) than the so-called ‘truth’, which is a moveable feast at the best of times. That’s why the *unbelievably* annoying and insufferably smug Richard Dawkins had better enjoy his time in the sun, because people will be happily believing in the nebulous and unprovable long after God-Is-Dead Boy is dead himself…

The one Fortean subject I really can’t get excited about is UFOs. Surely it’s time for those guys to shit or get off the pot? Either stop buzzing the planet – freaking out precisely the kind of people that no-one’s going to believe – or make your presence properly known, for god’s sake. And then start handing over all the cool futuristic stuff you presumably have. Like power sources that don’t screw up the planet. And cigarettes that aren’t bad for you. If you don’t actually *have* this stuff, then don’t even bother coming, as far as I’m concerned. The world’s odd enough as it is, and also we’re short on parking.

I believe that Jim Thompson is one of your favourite authors. Recently it has been announced that Kate Hudson, Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman and Ned Beatty are going to star in the film adaption of The Killer Inside Me. Does the thought of a favourite novel being turned into a film fill you full of dread or do you look forward to the film?

It fills me with dread. I love film, and good films can *of course* be made of great books, but they’re in a minority — and they’re never the visual version I created in my head while I was reading it. Jim Thompson’s work in particular has an utterly of-itself quality, a sense of unfolding in some terribly fractured, noir universe that’s just half a step to the side of ours – and no-one’s ever going to capture that for me. And even if they *could*, I’d still rather read the book. Words-on-a-page can do things that film never can; just as film can do stuff a book can’t. My favourite films are almost without exception those that were written as films, rather than adaptations – though adapts of short stories can work well. Film is a grown-up medium now, and as such works best when it’s being itself.

Thanks for the heads-up, by the way: now I have to avoid not only the film, but all posters for it… I’m even going to have to unread that last question, so none of the actors’ faces seep into my recollection of the book… Yep, I’m pretty hardcore about this kind of thing 😉

What was the first film you ever watched? Do you think this had any influence on any of your stories?

The very first? I’m not sure. But I have early memories of seeing Pinocchio, which kind of makes sense… The darknesses of childhood, the struggle to be real, parallel worlds of the imagination, people’s varying interpretations of the universe and how to act positively within it… Those remain the big and permanent stories so far as I’m concerned.

How close is The Straw Men to the big screen? After what happened with Spares do you have all your fingers crossed on this one?

STRAW MEN is very much at the toddler steps stage. Benderspink have certain rights to the series of books, and are starting to develop those rights. That’s all I actually know right now – I’m waiting for an update.

The situation with SPARES merely confirmed what I’d already learned through experiences in the film industry as a screenwriter: no-one can be trusted, and every single person in the greater Hollywood area would sell their mother to make a deal. I say that with a wry smile rather than any rancor. My heart’s in prose, and so I can go to LA and enjoy the fizz and fun and sense of possibility without taking any of it too personally. I *would* like to get paid this time, though…

Hell Hath Enlarged Herself has been in development for a while can you tell us a little more about that? When can we expect to see it?

When hell freezes over 😉 More seriously, it’s going to be a while. It’s been in development for about three years now – and it took the first year of that to just get the contracts thrashed out. The wheels of the film industry grind exceeding slow, at times. But it’s in development with the UK Film Council (a co-production between Cuba Productions and Lightstorm), and there’s – finally, after a number of drafts – the beginnings of a script we all like, so hopefully the path leads forward from here… I’m a producer on the project, and co-scriptwriter, though his draft has been primarily shaped by the two other writers, Marcelo Anciano and Toby Tobias.

What was the last thing you read or watched that had you saying to yourself, “I wish I’d thought of that?”

I tend not to get that feeling with stories or ideas, as stories and ideas all feel quite personal to me, and so – for better or worse – I’d rather be dealing with mine than anyone else’s, no matter how cool or intelligent or wildly commercial other people’s ideas might be.

I get prose envy far more often: Martin Amis can always make me shake my head with baffled admiration, for example. So many times I’ve read some random sentence of his and thought: “Not only did I not realise that idea could be said that well – I didn’t even know the idea was there to be articulated in the first place…”

What was the last book you read and would you read it again?

The last book I read was a slim novel called In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, and I’m sure I’ll read it again. It’s a strange, melancholy, beautiful book. All his stuff’s great. The last novel of size I read was THE LAY OF THE LAND by Richard Ford, which was stunning. So many of the Great American Writers seem to get away with just going on and on and on and on… Ford is no slouch in terms of generating words in quantity, but pretty much every one counts. And there’s that lightness of touch again, too – a style that evokes the real texture of reality.

In a perfect world who would you love to see playing Stark, Hap Thompson or Ward Hopkins and the Upright Man?

Whoever can get the project green-lit at a major studio without over-balancing the script or annoying me too much on the screen. Sorry, but I’m a stone cold pragmatist when it comes to that kind of thing…

Though I always liked the idea of Jeff Bridges for Hap Thompson :-)

What was your favourite film of 2008?

2008 was a very quiet year for me, film-wise – in the sense I simply didn’t get around to seeing many movies. Most of my spare watching time was spent devouring THE WIRE from first to last episode … I loved that show. It represents an interesting new sub-medium, too. It wasn’t really television: no-one actually watched it on TV, everyone bought the box sets and watched it in film-length chunks, at their own pace. It was kind of a TV/film/prose hybrid… Which may be the way of the future.

What are your thoughts on the future of the World now that Barack Obama is in the White House?

I think he’s a smart, interesting man who’s on the side of right – and I do feel more positive about the world stage than I did before. Having spent a lot of formative time in the United States, and having a huge amount of affection for the place, I hope the change in administration will stop people in the UK and the rest of the world from making moronically knee-jerk reactions to everyone and everything that comes out of America.

I just also really, *really* hope that everyone is remembering that the guy doesn’t have any magic spells, and remain realistic in their expectations. The downside of being a celebrity president is that you are subject to celebrity rules – like having your adoring fans suddenly turning against you, all at once, with the viciousness of a psychotic mob.

And the only celebrities who truly get raised to godhead are the ones who die young, remember.

If you were Supreme Overlord of the Earth what would your first decree be?

That, you know, everyone just be cool, okay? And also I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee.

Your top 5 films of all time?

I have two major parts of my brain missing. One is the ability to remember names. The second is the ability to make lists. I *always* forget crucial books, films, songs…

And how do you rank movies like ALIEN or THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND or REAR WINDOW or ANNIE HALL or LA STORY or HALLOWEEN against each other? Then there are the films I have huge affection for – like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which I used to put on the in the background whenever I was unpacking into a new apartment – but which wouldn’t be in the top five if I was being serious about it. Plus there are the movies which have a few hair-raising (in a good way) moments, but which don’t stand up overall… Or absolute gut-punchers like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, which represent outstanding film-making but which I probably won’t make myself sit through again.

I can’t make lists. Don’t try to make me. Lists involve making choices, and if I could do that, do you think I would have three different writing names and have written in five different genres??? I want it all. All ways. Always.

What is your favourite piece of science fiction technology from TV, film or literature?

Those doors that go shiwsh-thuk and open and close automatically. Utterly bloody pointless, but I guess I watched Star Trek at a sufficiently formative age that it stuck. Yeah, sure there are lots of other cool gadgets in film and literature, but you just *know* that half of them won’t work properly, will fail days after going out of warranty, and will be replaced by something better and cooler and cheaper. I just want the doors that go shiwsh-thuk. Then I’ll know the future’s here, and that it’s time to go down the (virtual) store and see what else has rolled in.

What will we be reading of yours next?

The UK paperback of THE SERVANTS is out round about now, but the next big release will be the UK paperback and US hardcover of BAD THINGS, the new novel – out in April and May respectively…


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