Some of you know that I have avidly followed the work of Michael Marshall Smith since he launched his debut Only Forward in 1994. He successfully published many sf/noir novels and short stories but really hit the UK book charts hard with his mind-bending The Straw Men in 2002. It did extremely well, and I absolutely loved its weaving of the crime genre into a dark conspiracy thriller.
Then came two sequels [of sorts] – The Lonely Dead [aka The Upright Man in the US], and Blood of Angels. So we had a Straw Men trilogy and Michael shared with Shots eZine why his ground-breaking conspiracy thriller became the start of a series. The article is archive here
If you’ve not read Michael Marshall [Smith] – then I would refer you to a lengthy article and interview I recorded with him five years ago for January magazine and is archived here [http://www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/mmarshall.html]
That was the history lesson.
Now back to 2007, because you have a dark delight ahead of you in April: Michael Marshall returns with an exceptional thriller entitled The Intruders, from HarperCollins UK, which blew my mind.
I just love conspiracy thrillers and The Intruders is just that but more. It mixes Michael’s parallaxed view of life, mingling the noir with a sense of menace that grabs you, filling your mind with dread. There is an element of horror and the pay-off makes you question what you consider the relationship between life and death may actually mean. I really cannot say any more lest I spoil the big surprise that sits at the end of this novel, like a demon clutching a handgun pointing directly into your face.
My review is here: http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/reviews2007/reviews0207/the_intruders.html
So I called Michael up, and decided to find out what’s new in his world, and also to try and understand more about The Intruders. Don’t just lock the doors when you crack the spine of this book, ensure you call the services of a security company, and buy a gun - because you will be scared, make no mistake – Because they’re all ready inside and perhaps resistance is futile…
Ali : Michael – Welcome back to Shots Ezine!
Michael : A pleasure to be back!
Ali : I’ve seen from www.michaelmarshallsmith.com that you’ve been rather busy; what have been the highlights and lowlights over the last year?
Michael : It’s been busy, that’s for sure. The background throughout has been the writing of my new novel, The Intruders. It took up a lot of foreground, too. At the beginning of 2006 I also co-wrote (with Stephen Jones) an animated horror movie for kids, called Monstermania, which is currently at the pre-pre-pre-production/development/whatever stage. I’ve managed to get a few Michael Marshall Smith short stories written, for once, and from August onwards have also been involved in writing a feature adaptation of one of an earlier story, Hell Hath Enlarged Herself. Just before Christmas I got a 50,000 word novella done too - so work-wise 2006 was generally a year of getting stuff done ... and getting stuff done is always good.
Ali : After Blood Of Angels, I thought you were leaving crime-fiction for a while, and I was most surprised to hear about you penning The Intruders –
what made you change your mind?
Michael : I never intended to leave crime fiction, in the same way I never really intended to join it. I’ve always thought of what I do more as ‘noir’ than crime, and essentially the core perspective has been the same right from the earliest novels. Those happened to be set in the future, and so got labelled ‘sf’ (and died in the crime market); the last three novels were set in the present day, so they’ve been seen as ‘crime’ (thus perplexing sf readers). To me it’s all been the same, just with changes in emphasis.
Ali : So tell us what we are likely to expect?
Michael : My dream is to find a way of bringing all the kinds of material I like –
crime, noir, horror, the weird and unusual and dark – into one novel, in a way that doesn’t put off any of the fans of those sub-genres. The Intruders, though very largely a crime or thriller novel, is a first step in that direction...
Ali : I see The Intruders is out in the UK in April, are there plans for US release?
Michael : Yes — The Intruders will be coming out in hardcover from William Morrow in August. Morrow is a new publisher for me and I’ve been delighted with the response to the book there.
Ali : Like The Straw Men trilogy, there is a central conspiracy going on in The Intruders, and a big one to boot, so where did the seeds come from for the central idea [without giving away the ending]?
Michael : In just about everything I’ve done at book length, I’ve been trying to think about aspects of human nature, the type of cultures and society we live in. What drives us, what shapes our world - and how so much of our behaviour now has its roots long, long ago. We forget we’re an animal, in both negative and positive ways. The idea at the centre of The Intruders has to do with seeking to explain certain fundamental aspects of the way we are, our inherent dualism, and the unknowability of other people. Like most of these things I’ve done, the central idea started out as a conceit, but now I kind of believe it to be true...
Ali : Conspiracy theories appear to interest you, as you reference them in The Intruders - so what can you tell us are your top three conspiracy theories and why they interest you?
Michael : There’s only one conspiracy theory: Something is Going On That I Don’t Know About. And the natural human response to this is to develop a more specific theory which says: Something is Going On That Most People Don’t Know About, But I Do, And It Explains Everything, So There. Virtually all humankind’s conceptual thought boils down to something like this - Gnosticism, UFOs, 9/11, life after death, JFK, witches, religion, myth and legend in general - and is most simply enshrined in the notion that God moves in mysterious ways. ‘Conspiracy’ is an attempt to inductively solve life’s oddities and mysteries, to put the theorist in a position of power through allowing him or her to peek behind the veils, and thus to resolve the anxiety of feeling ignorant or confused. So I don’t really have any favourite three - my enjoyment instead comes in seeing how they work together, representing different facets of the same crystal, especially if they give some fresh (albeit usually plain wrong) way of understanding the world.
I’ll tell you my least favourite, which is the Death of Diana. There was no conspiracy there - her driver was simply going too fast, and the British public was dying to wallow in mawkish tabloid grief for a while - and frankly, I don’t care anyway. Her death is of real import to her family and friends only, and that’s the way it should be. Any other interest is intrusive. Plus, to be honest, I found her really annoying.
Ali : Have you seen In Plane Site and Loose Change 2 – which purport to consider the events of 911 to be part of a wider conspiracy?
Michael : I haven’t seen either of those. 9/11 isn’t high up my list of favourites either, simply because the idea that people might have known about the attack ahead of time - as the president is alleged by some to have known about Pearl Harbor, and let it go ahead in order to bring the US into the war - doesn’t change anything about my understanding of the world. So our political leaders work in ways which are intended to be mysterious and clever, but are actually cack-handed and short-sighted and dangerous? Well, duh.
Ali : Reading The Intruders late into the night did give me chills, especially the sense of menace you build up, but how difficult was it not to let the cat out of the bag too early on?
Michael : It’s always one of the key tasks in a crime or thriller novel, especially when there’s – hopefully – suspense working on both plot and thematic levels: the unwinding of a story, and of an idea. It’s particularly acute when you’re working from a multi-perspective viewpoint, because it’s easier to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes when they’re only learning things through the life of someone who doesn’t know what’s going on. But bad guys don’t spend their entire lives rehearsing their plots and secrets in their heads - so you just have to spend time with them when they’re doing stuff which is informed by the greater story, rather than giving it all away...
Ali : Apart from a sense of foreboding that ripples through the narrative of The Intruders, there are huge elements of tragedy such as the murders of innocent people that come into contact with ex-LAPD cop Jack Whalen and Gary Fisher, right up to Whalen’s marriage problem, the missing ten-year-old girl Madison and her relationship with the mysterious Mr Shepard. How difficult is it to write such heart-wrenching stuff, without getting too deep into pathos?
Michael : I actually don’t see this stuff as heart-wrenching. People die, relationships dissolve. But people are also born, and new relationships start. It’s all part of a continuing cycle of human life. There are no truly unhappy endings, because you never know what’s around the corner: people get over things, they move on, they adapt and they cope, and that’s a very positive thing about us. And by the same token, there are no truly happy endings, either.
Ali : Interesting that much of the action is based in and around Seattle. Does Seattle have any resonance with you and have you spent much time in that city?
Michael : I love Seattle. I’ve only spent a few weeks there all told, but the first time I visited I immediately thought “I like this place a lot”. It’s partly to do with the city itself, its neighbourhoods and history and the market and bay (plus great seafood and bookstores), partly its location — in sight of both sea and high ground, with the Cascade Mountains (which featured in The Lonely Dead) only a couple of hours inland, and the extraordinary Olympic Forest about the same distance around the bay. Seattle has just about everything a city needs, while remaining of walkable size. That whole area of the US - the Pacific Northwest - is one of my favourite places in the world. There’s something about Washington and Oregon that harks back to an earlier era, both of the settlement of America and the times before our species was little more than a blip on the map. It feels old, and mysterious, and a lot of it’s pretty deserted, too. It’s also one of the few places in the US where a gentleman can still smoke in a bar, should he wish to.
In preparation for writing The Intruders I shipped myself off to Seattle for a week by myself. I stayed in a hotel downtown, which I left at 8:30 each morning and hiked the streets pretty much non-stop until 5:00, pausing only for lunch, bookstores and Starbucks. By the end I liked the city even more (and was being greeted by local tramps each morning) and the story I had in mind had become firmly shaped by the environment and its history.
Ali : I know you and your wife recently had an addition to the family – and I got the feeling that worked itself into the narrative – am I right?
Michael : Yes, I think it did. It certainly got me thinking about childhood, and early childhood especially, in a way I never had before. Particularly during those long watches when I was downstairs with a baby before 5:00 am, waiting for children’s TV to start - meanwhile cursing myself for not being tougher about television, like I thought I would be, and feeling I should be teaching the little critter Japanese or yoga instead - and waiting blearily for the sun to appear... There were times when I thought the book would never get written, to be honest, but I suspect it’s better for the experience.
Ali : What are the practical realities having a baby around the house for you and your work?
Michael : Put it this way - in an ideal world, I would have handed in the book eight to ten months before I did... Things have levelled out now, but the first year and a half of sleep deprivation was pretty brutal. My wife and I were talking the other day and we realised neither of us can actually remember Christmas 2005. We know it happened, but we can’t recall a single thing about it. This could have something to do with the fact our baby elected to wake at 4:30 every day for a month either side of the festive season. That, plus the change in the house from being a sepulchrally quiet work environment to noisy zoo (my son has a better social life than I do, and there’s generally another baby or two kicking around the place) certainly took some getting used to. But now it means that a couple of times a day I have a very cute toddler hectically barrelling into the study demanding to be allowed to play on my computer for a while - and it all seems as worthwhile as I knew it would.
Ali : The Intruders does have a little genre cross-over like The Straw Men; how supportive were your publishers in a world dominated by genre classifications?
Michael : There were some teething troubles, that’s for sure - and in the end I wound up making a few adjustments to bring the book within their comfort zone. I’m happy with the result, and the editing process certainly helped refine some elements of the story. The book industry is very structured by rigid genre definitions at the moment, and you attempt to blur them at your peril. But now we have a book that Harper is supportive of and my new US publishers appear to be backing to the hilt, so that’s great. I’m never going to sit very comfortably within one genre or another, and will take large sales hits as a result. I can live with that.
Ali : Talking of genres I see that you are Guest of Honour at Fantasycon 2007 in England as well as Guest of Honour at the World Horror Convention in Canada. Do your Michael Marshall Smith horror/sf readers read your Michael Marshall crime fiction, and what do they make of it?
Michael : There’s some cross-over, but predictably it’s nowhere near 100 per cent. There are some sf readers who simply won’t read anything that’s not set in the future, and the Michael Marshall books aren’t, so that’s that. But there were many readers of the kind-horror Michael Marshall Smith short stories who wouldn’t read the sf novels either, so it goes both ways. I’m sure the bulk of the Michael Marshall readers don’t even realise these two other strands exist - which is why I say that at some point I’d like to find some kind of synthesis of all these things. The only question is whether it would sell more than about four copies ... but you know, sales aren’t everything. Writing’s a way of life. I’m more concerned with fighting the age-old battle to not be too crap, than I am with what bookshelf I wind up on.
Ali : I keep hearing rumours that the horror genre is coming out of the shadows. As someone familiar with that genre, do you feel horror is coming back as it did in the late 1970’s?
Michael : I keep hearing these rumours too, but I’m not sure what they’re based on – other than the fact, perhaps, that a few ‘literary’ writers have dipped their toes into horror-like territory in the last couple of years, with some success. I think it’s got a way to go. The genre’s struggling against publisher prejudice and reader wariness - an awful lot of dreadful rubbish got published toward the end of the boom in the 1980s, and horror writers are still paying the price. They’re quietly making things worse, too, often, by pandering to the lowest common denominator in the horror readership, as core readers are not always the most discerning. What the genre needs is what it’s had several times before: someone like Clive Barker or Stephen King or Robert Bloch to come out punching, presenting a vibrant new take on the field - who can cross over to a mainstream audience without compromising the integrity of the horror.
Ali : Talking of things horrific, the violence in The Intruders is full-on right from the opening, and very shocking throughout the work, with some of the character[s] being plain evil. What’s your take on the role of viscera in crime fiction?
Michael : It’s funny - you say that, but there’s actually very, very little open violence in the book. I don’t like the visceral approach in crime, and didn’t like it in horror either. You don’t need to see guts, just as – most of the time – you don’t need to show what goes on behind the bedroom door. If you understand why someone’s raising a gun or knife or hand, and what the cost of it’s going to be to the victim (or why those two people are walking hand in hand up to the boudoir) then why waste time dealing out a blow-by-blow? It panders to low instincts, gets in the way of lean story and character exposition, and makes the genre/s look bad to outsiders. It also insults the intelligence of the reader: you can afford to cut the scene five seconds earlier - they know what’s going to happen, and it will be worse in their minds than anything you can sit and type out. There’s a certain thrill from being confronted with extremes, but it’s a cheap one, and fades pretty fast.
Ali : I felt also that in The Intruders you really got into characterisation in a big way, which many ‘high-concept’ tales lack. Can you tell us how you weave believable characters out of the ether?
Michael : I’m glad you felt that, but if it’s true then I have no idea how it happens. The characters of a novel are usually amongst the first things to come into my head, as if arriving there after separate plane or road journeys, a little weary and out of sorts, an interlinking story already beginning to coalesce between them. During the period of writing the novel they’re at least as real to me as my family and friends are. As the media of virtual communication become more and more prevalent, face-time is going to be used less and less as a marker of friendship or ‘knowing’ someone. I have a great friend who lives and works in LA, for example, and I haven’t seen him properly - bar a quick drink in a Santa Monica bar eighteen months ago - in nearly five years. He’s still very real to me. The fact I’ve never stood in the same physical space as Jack Whalen or Ward Hopkins, or all the people who weave through their lives, doesn’t make them any less ‘real’. Though I’m a little glad they don’t actually live in my street.
Ali : Technology plays a big role in The Intruders from Blackberrys, mobile phones, SMS, internet, GPS, digital imagery, digital music, etc., so are you a techno-man in real life?
Michael : Tragically so. If there was anything I could do to get an iPhone into my life right now, I’d probably do it - even though I know full well (after many, many years of being an early-adopter of Apple kit) that it probably won’t work quite as I hope. But we’re all getting that way. When I’m away from home I communicate primarily by SMS, especially with my dad, who’s in his seventies. My aunt (who’s a similar age) is a whiz at putting together stuff on her Mac, and spends half her evenings on the internet. Everyone’s got a digital camera and an MP3 player. This stuff is now nearly as transparent a part of our lives as telephones and television were when we were growing up. Any fiction which doesn’t take account of this is simply not reflecting the real world. The way we interact and live is changing: our ability to become informed of the actions and moods of distant others (through the cell phone and email) is so important and new as to be almost equivalent to the gaining of an additional sense. With this - given our fractured human nature - also comes anxiety (what happens if I can’t get hold of her! How come he’s not responding to his email rightaway!), and potential darkness of a hundred different kinds. Any genre fiction should be reflecting our species’ state of play, as it stands, right now. That means getting a handle on this stuff, and bedding it into our fiction as it is in the real world.
Ali : Your thoughts on the internet in The Intruders were interesting, in so far as it is now becoming a ‘tool’ [for lack of a better word] for the powers that be to keep tabs on humanity?
Michael : The internet’s a strange place. A lot of the features that people go on about - MySpace and YouTube, for example - don’t seem too interesting to me. It’s the same old same old (cliques, friend lists, showing off) merely done in a different medium. But the ways in which it’s changing our interactions – and our perceptions of distant others – are fascinating. And because it largely removes the constraint of peer review – and indeed any kind of arbiter of sense or truth –
it’s becoming a repository for some very odd ideas: which co-exist on a flat plain with everything else, just as everything in a digital photograph seems to exist in the same depth of field. In Baudrillard’s terms, it’s a growing simulation of thought – another step in the death of reality.
Ali : What electronic gadgets can you no longer live without?
Michael : Computers, obviously - I live my whole life on them. I’d hate to be without my Treo phone, too (at least until I can get my hands on an iPhone) - as finally I’ve got a device that I can call, text and email from, which also syncs my addresses, calendar and notes with my Mac. I’ve got a great Canon digital SLR that I love using - it evidently has some chip in it that makes even clinically average photographers look as though they know what they’re doing (some of the time). But even more than gadgets, my life is run around software. I spend more time with Word than I do my wife and child put together, and there’s a great new piece of Mac note-making software just out, called Scrivener, that I’ve been involved in beta-testing – and which has genuinely changed the way I work. And I love having a .mac account, so my key files are automatically backed up to a server in California every night. And ... the list goes on and on. If someone ever turns the power grid off, I’m in deep shit.
Ali : I felt that the ending of The Intruders leaves an opening for a follow-up. And could you see a collision between the [surviving] characters that populate The Straw Men trilogy and The Intruders perhaps?
Michael : You’re an astute man. Some sort of cross-fertilisation had occurred to me as a possibility, and the eagle-eyed reader may spot a foreshadowing of that already in this novel. But at the moment I’m not completely sure what I’m going to write next ...
Ali : What about your film work? I heard that your story Hell Hath Enlarged Herself has you in the producer’s chair as well as helping in the screenwriting?
Michael : That’s right. I’m one of the producers in a co-production of this story, which has development funded by the UK Film Council. We’re currently at the early script stage, and the first draft is being read by financiers right now. I’m co-writing the script with another two guys, who work as a team, but I also get to the do the producer thing every now and then too - i.e. listing a bunch of things I think are wrong with the script and then asking someone else to sort it out. After years of being the guy who always got told to sort things out, I’m liking this new arrangement very much indeed.
Ali : I know you are published by big publishing houses like HarperCollins, but you also appear in the smaller independent press such as PS Publishing and Earthling [to name just two] – can you tell me the differences working for the big and the small publishers?
Michael : Three differences, I guess - money, pressure and freedom. With the big publishers you get the first two; with the smaller presses, you don’t - but you get the last one. I have a great relationship with Harper and have been with them for seven novels, and over a decade. The relative sales of the past three novels, however, mean they’re justifiably keen that I produce books that are consistent with what’s gone before - so they don’t scare the horses (or pre-established readership). They also want them on time, weirdly, and get awfully pushy when you suggest that the year after next might be a good time to see the next one, or just ‘at some point in the future’.
Working with smaller presses tends to mean you’re under less pressure, and may also confer the freedom to go a lot further out into left field. I’ve just written a long novella for Earthling (Paul Miller is an utter delight to work with, and one of the most professional human beings I’ve ever encountered) and I’m very pleased with the result.
Ali : And what’s this about your piece in ‘How to Write a Blockbuster’ and how did this come out?
Michael : Ha, yes. We’ll, it’s not a ‘piece’, as such - more a few nuggets of so-called wisdom. Mine mainly involve cats, and I’m not sure how helpful they’ll be... I have no idea how you deliberately set about writing anything, never mind a ‘blockbuster’. But the book as a whole looks pretty good.
Ali : What’s on your reading table currently? And what books have you enjoyed recently?
Michael : I’m finally getting back into some fiction, after a long time off. I’ve found myself going back to what I think of as ‘early late period’ Stephen King – books like Bag Of Bones and Hearts In Atlantis – and realising they were even better than I thought the first time. Aside from that I’m taking a slow and pleasurable trawl through Calvin Trillin’s food writing ... and dipping in and out of Jean Baudrillard as I see fit. I love his stuff.
Ali : Finally what’s on the horizon for Michael Marshall, as well as Michael Marshall Smith?
Michael : Well, the Michael Marshall story for 2007 is The Intruders, together with starting a new novel at some point. Michael Marshall Smith will have quite a few short stories published, including a three-story collection exclusive to the World Horror Convention, and is screenwriting on a couple of projects.
And I could reveal that 2008 may even see a third variation on my name reaching print, but that’s another story ...
Ali : Thankyou for your time and insight.
Michael : My pleasure and I appreciate the interest from Shots Ezine.
More information on Michael Marshall [Smith] is available from:
Michael Marshall (Smith) is published in the UK by HarperCollins:
- Only Forward
- One of Us
- What you make it
- The Straw Men
- The Lonely Dead
- Blood of Angels
- The Intruders
Previous articles/interviews with Michael Marshall [Smith] are archived at Shots Ezine :-