I cut my teeth on Larry Brown. If you’ve never heard of Larry before, let me introduce you by way of Michael Farris Smith. Both are Mississippi authors who aren’t afraid to stare straight into the hard stuff. Both write prose so clean it sings.
Larry was gone by the time I started reading him, but his books led me to Michael, or MFS for short. The first time I met MFS was at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. I remember being struck by his kindness, his authenticity.
MFS isn’t just a good guy, he’s also an award-winning author with a string of feature-film adaptations under his belt. If we were still sitting in City Grocery, I’d raise a toast to the recent release of Desperation Road.
Since we’re not, this “Shop Talk” will have to suffice. Cheers.
Eli Cranor: Sum up your entire career in a single headline. Go!
Michael Farris Smith: The headline might read “Man Returns to Mississippi after Full Decade of Drifting Days To Try and Write and After Ten Years of Failure, Rejection, Shuffle of Agents, Somehow Survives.”
EC: Do you write every day?
MFS: Yes, when I’m rolling and buried in something, it’s a Monday through Friday thing for me. I’ve learned not to force it, though. If I need to walk away for a few days, if life gets in the way and I miss a week or two, I try to let it rest, fill back up. I used to feel anxiety over that but realized when you come back it’s probably better than it was going to be.
EC: Word count goals?
MFS: I shoot for 1,000 words a day. Sometimes that comes in a streak of lightning and sometimes takes a few hours. But when I get there, I let it go. Even if I know what’s coming. I like to leave myself the place to start tomorrow, the thoughts to carry around, I don’t like the idea of emptying the well on one long sit.
EC: What do you write with?
MFS: I’ve always been a laptop guy. I like being able to move with it. I have had small studio space for the last 7 or 8 years, but I find a change of scenery helps. Even if it’s just sitting outside versus sitting inside. Coffee is also a tool of the trade. And cigars.
EC: When do you write?
MFS: For the past ten years my habits have been pretty much the same. Take the girls to school, go right to my work space, work first thing in the morning. I consider that my time. That way, I can be done, and then do whatever else I have to do the rest of the day, let my subconscious have it for a while.
The other answer is all the time. I don’t know how to turn it off.
EC: You do anything weird before you write? Like something that gets you in the mood?
MFS: After I drop off girls at school, I have a habit of riding around for about ten minutes, listen to music. There are usually a few songs that stick in my head, fit thematically with what I’m doing. That settles me, gets me ready. Gets the words singing through my head.
EC: Do you outline your novels? Just dive straight in? Or do some combination of the two?
MFS: Dive in. I really love working without a net. It’s important to me to never look too far ahead, I feel like that robs me of the discovery of it all. And if I’m feeling the discovery, then I think it’s likely the reader will feel the same thing.
EC: What does your revision process look like?
MFS: Overall, with the way that I work at around 1,000 words at a time, there is a steady edit going on. Before I start in the morning, I typically read what I did the day before. So when I get to the end of the novel, it’s already pretty close to what I want it to be. You of course have to sit back and do bigger things, like make sure everything agrees and makes sense in the story. But I don’t share the manuscript with anybody until I think it is ready. Not my agent, editor, nobody. Thankfully they trust that.
EC: Do you read certain books for inspiration?
MFS: I reread my favorites authors. Not entire novels, just pick up a book and open it to anywhere and read a few pages. Just to get that language, that rhythm, those images that keep our own wheels turning. A few of those books are Light in August, Outer Dark, The Long Home, Ballad of the Sad Café.
EC: Best advice for writers just starting out, especially when it comes to the actual act of writing/developing the habits necessary to craft an entire novel.
MFS: Even if it’s only 15 minutes a day, find that time to be habitual about it. I wrote six novels teaching full-time, married, raising two daughters, and doing all the other stuff that life asks for, and I got them all done because I decided to go to work on it every morning, even if it was for only 30 minutes, just to keep going and trying to get better. There is no substitute for that.
EC: Finally, WHY do you write?
MFS: I sometimes wonder myself. Then I realize I’m miserable when I don’t. I feel like I’m losing engagement with the world, the real and the imagined. And I need that. Whatever it is inside me, I need to let it out.