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] Ė 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
archived here [http://archive.shotsmag.co.uk/features2005/m_marshall/m_marshall.html]
If youíve not
read Michael Marshall [Smith] Ė 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
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
Michaelís 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://archive.shotsmag.co.uk/reviews2007/reviews0207/the_intruders.html
So I called
Michael up, and decided to find out whatís new in his world, and also to try and
understand more about The Intruders. Donít 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 Ė Because
theyíre all ready inside and perhaps resistance is futileÖ
Michael Ė Welcome back
to Shots Ezine!
Michael : A
pleasure to be back!
Ali : Iíve
www.michaelmarshallsmith.com that youíve been rather busy; what have been
the highlights and lowlights over the last year?
Itís been busy, thatís 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. Iíve 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.
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 Ė
you change your mind?
Michael : I
never intended to leave crime fiction, in the same way I never really intended
to join it. Iíve always thought of what I do more as Ďnoirí 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 Ďsfí (and
died in the crime market); the last three novels were set in the present day, so
theyíve been seen as Ďcrimeí (thus perplexing sf readers). To me itís 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 Ė
horror, the weird and unusual and dark Ė into one novel, in a way that doesnít
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
Michael : Yes
ó The Intruders will be coming out in hardcover from William Morrow in
August. Morrow is a new publisher for me and Iíve 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 Iíve done at book length, Iíve 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 weíre 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 Iíve done, the
central idea started out as a conceit, but now I kind of believe it to be
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?
Thereís only one conspiracy theory: Something is Going On That I Donít 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 Donít Know About, But
I Do, And It Explains Everything, So There. Virtually all humankindís 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. ĎConspiracyí is an
attempt to inductively solve lifeís 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 donít 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.
Iíll 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 donít care
anyway. Her death is of real import to her family and friends only, and thatís
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 Ė which purport to
consider the events of 911 to be part of a wider conspiracy?
Michael : I
havenít seen either of those. 9/11 isnít 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 - doesnít 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.
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?
Itís always one of the key tasks in a crime or thriller novel, especially when
thereís Ė hopefully Ė suspense working on both plot and thematic levels: the
unwinding of a story, and of an idea. Itís particularly acute when youíre
working from a multi-perspective viewpoint, because itís easier to pull the wool
over the readerís eyes when theyíre only learning things through the life of
someone who doesnít know whatís going on. But bad guys donít spend their entire
lives rehearsing their plots and secrets in their heads - so you just have to
spend time with them when theyíre doing stuff which is informed by the
greater story, rather than giving it all away...
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 Whalenís 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 donít see this stuff as heart-wrenching. People die, relationships
dissolve. But people are also born, and new relationships start. Itís all part
of a continuing cycle of human life. There are no truly unhappy endings, because
you never know whatís around the corner: people get over things, they move on,
they adapt and they cope, and thatís a very positive thing about us. And by the
same token, there are no truly happy endings, either.
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. Iíve only spent a few weeks there all told, but the first time I
visited I immediately thought ďI like this place a lotĒ. Itís partly to
do with the city itself, its neighbourhoods and history and the market and bay
(plus great seafood and bookstores), partly its location ó 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. Thereís 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 itís pretty deserted, too. Itís
also one of the few places in the US where a gentleman can still smoke in a bar,
should he wish to.
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 Ė and I got the
feeling that worked itself into the narrative Ė am I right?
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
childrenís 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 itís better for the experience.
Ali : What
are the practical realities having a baby around the house for you and your
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 canít 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 thereís 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.
The Intruders does have a little genre cross-over like The Straw Men;
how supportive were your publishers in a world dominated by genre
There were some teething troubles, thatís for sure - and in the end I wound up
making a few adjustments to bring the book within their comfort zone. Iím 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 thatís great. Iím never going to sit very comfortably within one
genre or another, and will take large sales hits as a result. I can live with
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?
Thereís some cross-over, but predictably itís nowhere near 100 per cent. There
are some sf readers who simply wonít read anything thatís not set in the future,
and the Michael Marshall books arenít, so thatís that. But there were many
readers of the kind-horror Michael Marshall Smith short stories who wouldnít
read the sf novels either, so it goes both ways. Iím sure the bulk of the
Michael Marshall readers donít even realise these two other strands exist -
which is why I say that at some point Iíd 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 arenít everything. Writingís a way of life.
Iím 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 1970ís?
Michael : I
keep hearing these rumours too, but Iím not sure what theyíre based on Ė other
than the fact, perhaps, that a few Ďliteraryí writers have dipped their toes
into horror-like territory in the last couple of years, with some success. I
think itís got a way to go. The genreís 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.
Theyíre 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 itís 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.
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. Whatís your take on the role of viscera in crime
Itís funny - you say that, but thereís actually very, very little open violence
in the book. I donít like the visceral approach in crime, and didnít like it in
horror either. You donít need to see guts, just as Ė most of the time Ė you
donít need to show what goes on behind the bedroom door. If you understand
why someoneís raising a gun or knife or hand, and what the cost of itís
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 whatís
going to happen, and it will be worse in their minds than anything you can sit
and type out. Thereís a certain thrill from being confronted with extremes, but
itís 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 Ďhigh-conceptí tales lack. Can you tell us how you weave
believable characters out of the ether?
Michael : Iím
glad you felt that, but if itís 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 theyíre 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 Ďknowingí someone. I have a great friend who lives and works in
LA, for example, and I havenít seen him properly - bar a quick drink in a Santa
Monica bar eighteen months ago - in nearly five years. Heís still very real to
me. The fact Iíve never stood in the same physical space as Jack Whalen or Ward
Hopkins, or all the people who weave through their lives, doesnít make them any
less Ďrealí. Though Iím a little glad they donít actually live in my street.
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?
Tragically so. If there was anything I could do to get an iPhone into my
life right now, Iíd probably do it - even though I know full well (after many,
many years of being an early-adopter of Apple kit) that it probably wonít work
quite as I hope. But weíre all getting that way. When Iím away from home
I communicate primarily by SMS, especially with my dad, whoís in his seventies.
My aunt (whoís a similar age) is a whiz at putting together stuff on her Mac,
and spends half her evenings on the internet. Everyoneís 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
doesnít 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 canít
get hold of her! How come heís not responding to his email right away!), and
potential darkness of a hundred different kinds. Any genre fiction should be
reflecting our speciesí 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
Ali : Your
thoughts on the internet in The Intruders were interesting, in so far as
it is now becoming a Ďtoolí [for lack of a better word] for the powers that be
to keep tabs on humanity?
Michael : The
internetís a strange place. A lot of the features that people go on about -
MySpace and YouTube, for example - donít seem too interesting to me. Itís the
same old same old (cliques, friend lists, showing off) merely done in a
different medium. But the ways in which itís changing our interactions Ė and our
perceptions of distant others Ė are fascinating. And because it largely removes
the constraint of peer review Ė and indeed any kind of arbiter of sense or truth
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 Baudrillardís terms, itís a growing simulation of
thought Ė another step in the death of reality.
Ali : What
electronic gadgets can you no longer live without?
Computers, obviously - I live my whole life on them. Iíd hate to be without my
Treo phone, too (at least until I can get my hands on an iPhone) - as finally
Iíve got a device that I can call, text and email from, which also syncs my
addresses, calendar and notes with my Mac. Iíve 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 theyíre 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 thereís a great new
piece of Mac note-making software just out, called Scrivener, that Iíve been
involved in beta-testing Ė 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, Iím 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?
Youíre 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 Iím not completely sure what Iím going to write
Ali : What
about your film work? I heard that your story Hell Hath Enlarged Herself
has you in the producerís chair as well as helping in the screenwriting?
Thatís right. Iím one of the producers in a co-production of this story, which
has development funded by the UK Film Council. Weíre currently at the early
script stage, and the first draft is being read by financiers right now. Iím
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, Iím 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] Ė can you tell me the differences working for the big and the
Three differences, I guess - money, pressure and freedom. With the big
publishers you get the first two; with the smaller presses, you donít - 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 theyíre justifiably keen that I produce books that are
consistent with whatís gone before - so they donít 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 Ďat some point in the futureí.
smaller presses tends to mean youíre under less pressure, and may also confer
the freedom to go a lot further out into left field. Iíve just written a long
novella for Earthling (Paul Miller is an utter delight to work with, and one of
the most professional human beings Iíve ever encountered) and Iím very pleased
with the result.
Ali : And
whatís this about your piece in ĎHow to Write a Blockbusterí and how did this
Michael : Ha,
yes. Weíll, itís not a Ďpieceí, as such - more a few nuggets of so-called
wisdom. Mine mainly involve cats, and Iím not sure how helpful theyíll be... I
have no idea how you deliberately set about writing anything, never mind
a Ďblockbusterí. But the book as a whole looks pretty good.
Whatís on your reading table currently? And what books have you enjoyed
Michael : Iím
finally getting back into some fiction, after a long time off. Iíve found myself
going back to what I think of as Ďearly late periodí Stephen King Ė books like
Bag Of Bones and Hearts In Atlantis Ė and realising they were even
better than I thought the first time. Aside from that Iím taking a slow and
pleasurable trawl through Calvin Trillinís food writing ... and dipping in and
out of Jean Baudrillard as I see fit. I love his stuff.
Finally whatís on the horizon for Michael Marshall, as well as Michael Marshall
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 thatís another story ...
Thank you for your time and insight.
Michael : My
pleasure and I appreciate the interest from Shots Ezine.
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
articles/interviews with Michael Marshall [Smith] are archived at Shots Ezine :-