'Brilliantly written and as scary as hell. A Masterpiece' is rather high praise for Michael Marshall, especially as those words are written by Stephen King on his thoughts about Marshall's debut The Straw Men. The novel really is far from a debut, more of a change of direction for Michael Marshall Smith, known for both his surreal SF/Horror novels and short fiction. The title, The Straw Men Marshall credits (with thanks) to Douglas E. Winter, another fellow horror enthusiast, now better known as a crime writer after his own blistering, John Woo-influenced debut novel, Run.
The word of mouth vis-à-vis The Straw Men has been remarkable, but then again its author is a remarkable and award winning writer. His first published story, The Man Who Drew Cats won the British Fantasy Society award for Best Short Story in 1991, as well as Best Newcomer. After more short stories his first novel Only Forward was published to great acclaim and it went onto win both the August Derleth Award, as well as the Phillip K Dick Award. His second novel, the critically acclaimed Spares, was optioned by Spielberg's DreamWorks studio, but has remained 'in development' since. It was ironic that in 2001, it was rumoured, and in Hollywood rumour is everything, that Spielberg decide not to proceed with Memoirs of a Geisha but that he was choosing between Marshall Smith's Spares and Philip Kindred Dick's Minority Report. I guess you realise which film got to the green light first? Irony is something that you find in abundance within Marshall Smith's work, as well as in our own reality.
So who is Michael Marshall Smith ? He was born in 1965 in Cheshire, but his family relocated to the USA when he was an infant. Then aged seven his family moved again, but this time to South Africa, returning back to England in the 1970's. After University at Kings College Cambridge, he entered writing by a chance encounter with the novels of Stephen King and Peter Straub, and since then, he has picked up awards too numerous to mention for an array of short stories and three ground breaking novels. Smith worked for the screen for a period of time, adapting many works, including Clive Barker's Weaveworld for an 8 hour TV Series.
As I indicated at the start of this article, Stephen King acknowledges the talent in Michael Marshall's crime debut The Straw Men. It is interesting to note that Michael acknowledged King's influence covertly in his introduction to What You Make It a masterful collection of his short fiction. So like most things in life - the world just like the contents of a Michael Marshall Smith story - it is not short of irony, especially as he is indeed a graduate of King's College in more than the conventional sense.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to Michael at Crimescene 2002 after he shared the stage with the novelist Robert Wilson and Peter Guttridge of The Observer. The interview itself provoked a great deal of thought, as I enjoyed listening to Michael's insight, probing deep beneath the skin, to flay and reveal what lies underneath - The human condition.
Ali : Many of our readers will be unfamiliar with your work, could you give us a 'potted-history' of your career as a writer?
Michael : Sure, I started off writing short stories, probably bracketed under horror, not visceral horror, but I guess, more Twilight Zone-style stories, with what I would call a 'weird things happening' style. I then started writing a horror novel, but then decided it just wasn't working and then almost by accident wrote a science fiction novel. Only Forward. I wrote two more after that, Spares and One of Us, which were 'noir' influenced and near future science fiction novels. I was becoming increasingly aware that my work seemed to be spilt into two segments. Firstly there were the short stories which were all firmly rooted in present day but leaning toward horror, and then there were my science fiction novels. I suppose It's not really about whether my work is science fiction or whether it's horror. It's really about the types of things I'm trying to say inside the story. All my work has I suppose a 'noir/crime' feel. They are about the fundamental things that make up human nature, such as love, hate, death, greed, lust and the things that drive us to do, what we do, so I guess these are all the noir themes that lurk in the darkness. I also play upon the influence of the past, and trying to deal with life in general. I guess this all culminated in my new book The Straw Men, which I wrote assuming that it would be released under the name Michael Marshall Smith, but by the time I'd finished it, it was clear that it was sufficiently different that it made sense to publish it under a slightly different name.
Ali : If we can go back in time a little. My favourite novel from your SF period is Spares which I believe is still under option at SKG Dreamworks. I feel despite it being under the SF category, it would appeal to many crime readers. Would you care to comment?
Michael : Sure. The basic concept behind Spares was the idea that in the 'not-too-distant-future', wealthy couples when they conceive a child, would take out an alternative life insurance policy for the baby. This life insurance takes the form of a clone created from the foetus, which would be grown in parallel with the 'real' child in a facility hidden somewhere up in the hills. If anything happened to the 'real' child like if it got a disease, or lost a limb, then they would be able to instantly fix the problem by going to the 'spare' and taking what body-parts they needed, and give it to the 'real' child. I wrote this about 5 years ago and it was given a big impetus because I literally finished it two weeks before the 'Dolly the Sheep' furore erupted in the press and the subsequent controversy behind animal and human cloning. It was a very happy combination of circumstances.
Ali : I know many crime fans who have read your work despite the SF Label.
Michael : Well I think that my earlier work may well appeal to crime fans because although my first three novels were written in the Science Fiction genre - I must explain that I'm not at all interested in spaceships. I am however very interested in the people that pilot those spaceships, as they are going through exactly the same human experience that we do back in today's world. A lot of SF novels about technological processes are basically in love with the technology. There is this idea that any scientific advance that takes place in a world that allows 'perfect people' to make 'perfect decisions', about what we do with these advances. That in my opinion is complete bollocks, as the thing that actually makes the decisions is human nature, and human nature is geared up to some very basic motivations. So 'The Perfect Person' may conclude that human cloning, the way described in Spares, is morally wrong. On the other hand, what if it is was your child who suffered a terminal injury and was going to die? Would you change your opinion on 'Cloning' then?. Real people are very susceptible to 'moral-drift' very quickly, so what I wanted to do was to explore the way that technological advance would interact with human nature. So it doesn't really matter if governments ban cloning - because if people want clones, then it will happen. So what does it say about us? and what does it mean? Its pointless wasting time debating these points, human nature will make the decisions for us, and not technology.
Ali : That is a very interesting theme that marbles all your work. Can you tell us a little about how you started as writer, especially some background on your award winning short stories?
Michael : The first thing I wrote was comedy. I was at Cambridge and appearing in 'The Footlights' and so I spent three years writing sketches and pantomimes. This culminated in a three month tour of provincial theatres throughout England. During that time, a good friend of mine who I had been pestering to read a Kingsley Amis novel for years, finally agreed and he said 'Alright, fuck it, I'll read it, but you've got to read one of my books.' And he gave me 'The Talisman' by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and I read it and thought 'Yes, that's what I want to do' - I want to make up that kind of stuff. I spent the rest of the three-month tour clawing my way through Stephen King's back catalogue. At the end of the tour I wrote a short story called The Man who Drew Cats and once I'd done that I pretty much realised that, that was what I wanted to do. I then had a succession of jobs which I didnt care too much about because I knew exactly what I was aiming for. I was very lucky too, as I won a couple of awards for short stories at the right time. I then decided to have a crack at writing a novel, which ended up being science fiction - Only Forward, confusingly for me, but Harper Collins accepted it and that's how it started.
Ali : We were talking earlier about your reading tastes, which include James Lee Burke, and you opened up your novel Spares with a quote from Jim Thompson's classic The Killer Inside Me' ,so could we talk a little about your reading tastes within the crime genre?
Michael : My favourite crime writer I guess is Jim Thompson especially his work in the 40s to 60s. I guess you'd call it pulp, as I feel that there's this inherent layer of weirdness in what he does. In fact, I recently read The Golden Gizmo only a couple of weeks ago which I hadn't read before and enjoyed it immensely. Also James Ellroy - I loved the 'L.A. Quartet', and, of course, James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series, as well as his Billy Bob Holland books. I really like John Connolly and his Charlie 'Bird' Parker series. Connolly's work is fantastic as it's very gothic, very thoughtful, very dark, very pure.
Ali : and full of redemption?
Michael : Yes Redemption. And tackling the 'inner demon' and I think all the writers I mentioned deal with those themes in some shape or form, in fact they all deal with the thing that really fucks you up. It's like the Vietnam experience which often turns up in US crime fiction, as well as many other genres, as it has a special place in American Culture, because they came to terms with loss on such a grand scale, it was something that they just didnt expect. It formed a 'scar in their collective psyche'
On a personal scale, I suppose it's like the time when you do something in your teens and fuck it up badly, and someone gets hurt, or perhaps someone dies. It's the 'scar in the psyche' that affects you forever, and we've all got them - it could have happened when we were 8, or 12 or 30. There is no time limitation to these type of events, and that is often what makes a person interesting. It may well be something that they never talk about, but it forms a part of everything they think and do, and hence the 'scar' forever shapes their lives.
Ali : Very interesting. Moving on to your new novel, The Straw Men, what was behind this?
Michael : I've been interested in serial killers for a very long time. Not the serial killer novels, but the actuality of serial killers. I developed a personal theory about what it is that they do, and why they do it, and what they are thinking about when they do it. There is no reason to believe that my theory is any more right than anyone else's theory, except that it was my theory. Very often serial killing becomes trivialised - it's turned into - 'look here's the bogeyman, and he sticks butterflies into people's mouths because of some weird dysfunctional childhood'. I love the work of Thomas Harris dearly, but very often the serial killer genre borders on the burlesque, rather than having any real psychological depth or credibility.
I was interested in doing a serial killer novel, and going back to what we talked about in Spares vis-à-vis looking deep into human nature - you see human nature fascinates me. Human nature to me is what is interesting about the world, and I often wonder 'why are we this way?' and also to hold a little flag to remind ourselves that in our current post-modern society we believe that everything has been compressed into a perpetual present. It's as if everything has been re-invented, so that 'we' can experience everything 'now'.
Actually there have elapsed hundreds, no, thousands of years now, that we (as 'Man') have been 'us'. In fact we've been 'us' or something resembling 'us' for well over fifty or sixty thousand years, never mind the stuff that was quite like 'us' that came before, what we refer to as 'Man'. So this idea that you could know everything about 'what it is to be human' by concentrating on everything after say, the birth of Christ, to me seems ridiculous. So with The Straw Men I wanted to work within the confines of a crime novel/mystery suspense thriller touching upon the theme of serial killing, but I wanted to look a little wider, perhaps deeper about what it is, that makes us what we are.
Ali : How did your publishers view the book as it was a departure from your previous works?
Michael : What happened with the novel was quite
interesting. I wrote the first draft and they loved the first two
thirds of it, but were not sure about the last third at all. This was
a big shock to me, because everything I've ever handed in, they've
been as happy as Larry with. It's very often the case that the
specific suggestions made by editors or producers won't be to the
author's liking - but they definitely show that something needs doing.
It's the writers' job to work out what is wrong and fix it.
Ali : Do you see yourself like Ian (Iain M.) Banks alternating between SF and thrillers akin to Michael Marshall for crime and Michael Marshall Smith for SF? Incidentally how did the name change come about?
Michael : The name thing came about by sheer coincidence. Initially The Straw Men was going to come out under Michael Marshall Smith, both here and in America. Then in America last year a book called 'Straw Men' by Martin J Smith came out, and the US publishers thought that's a weird coincidence, and it's just going to confuse things, so they suggested the idea of truncating my name. It was a bit of a shock initially, as I've been working under Michael Marshall Smith and publishing stories for over ten years under that name, so it was a little weird. But then I thought about it, and realised that this book is quite different, and I will want to write more stuff like this, but I also know that I want to continue to write more science fiction or even possibly fantasy stuff. So maybe these two names do make some sort of sense. After that I decided that having the same book published under different names in the US (Michael Marshall) and UK (Michael Marshall Smith) would be too weird, so I thought, no fuck it, let's have those two compartments. Part of the problem I realised is that when I write, I follow my intuition, which can lead to crime, or SF or even Fantasy) so I guess, the readers and publishers need to have an idea what they are getting. Having the two names really helps. They are both still me, and I would hope that there are a subset of people who understand and accept genre crossing and read both.
Ali : Well thank you, Michael Marshall or is it Michael Marshall Smith? We wish you great success with The Straw Men
Michael : Thank you.
The Straw Men is available in Hardcover from Harper Collins priced £10-00
Michael Marshall Smith's previous three novels and collection of short stories are available in paperback from Harper Collins :-
'One of Us'
'What you make it'
Official Web Presence : www.michaelmarshallsmith.co.uk
Interview recorded at Crimescene 2002 London on Saturday 13 July 2002
Shots E-Zine wish to thank Michael Marshall Smith for his time in recording this interview.
but we also have 5 copies to giveaway. Simply send your name & address by email with Michael Marshall Offer to email@example.com Deadline Sept 10th 2002