The Cemetery Dance Interview: Michael Marshall Smith

Author photo of Michael Marshall Smith
Michael Marshall Smith

I can think of several reasons to use more than one name, and most of them involve getting away with some criminal activity. But if you are Michael Marshall Smith, each name represents a category of sorts for bringing stories, novels, and screenplays into the world. 

The first time I saw The Anomaly at Powells Books in Portland, Oregon, I didn’t know who the author, Michael Rutger, was.  But the description of “Indiana Jones meets X-Files” was right up my alley, so I bought the book, loved it, and it wasn’t until after I finished reading that I searched online and found Mr. Rutger had already written several books I enjoyed, including the influential (and Stephen King praised) novel The Straw Men, under a different name. The Straw Men, by Michael Marshall was later re-released by Cemetery Dance in a special edition that included pages of Smith’s handwritten notes for keeping tracking of all the twists and turns.

Although born in England, Smith spent much of his early childhood growing up elsewhere; America, South Africa, and Australia. His early work, written as Michael Marshall Smith, was mostly horror and science fiction. But when Smith wrote The Straw Men, a novel about serial killers, it was so different from his other novels that he and his publishers decided a name change was in order to market the new work. 

That book became part of what was eventually a trilogy that includes The Upright Man and Blood of Angels. Smith continued to write under the Marshall name for his next four supernatural/suspense/thriller novels before returning to Smith for his 2017 novel Hannah Green and her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence.

With The Anomaly, Smith once again took on a new name for what is turning into a wonderful series that follow Nolan Moore, a YouTube documentarian who investigates paranormal phenomena. Part mystery, part thriller, and all adventrure, the new Rutger novel, The Possession veers straight into horror when Moore and his team look into a what may be a case of witchcraft in a remote American village.

Whatever name he goes by, Michael Marshall Smith has an uncanny ability to write intense and exciting books. He was kind enough to answer some questions via email. 

(Interview conducted by Tyler Jones)

CEMETERY DANCE: What does your writing process look like? From coming up with an idea to having a completed draft that you’re happy with?

MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH: With short stories, my preference is to come up with an idea, do basically no planning, and just write it—going back and fixing and reshaping when necessary. With a couple of exceptions, the shorts I’ve been happiest with have come from thinking “What if such-and-such happened?” or “Here is a place or person—what’s going to happen next?” and sitting down and banging it out as fast as possible. 

I’m not a natural-born planner with novels either. I sometimes wish I was, because it can be a lot faster that way, but planning makes me bored and frustrated and anxious and distracted and annoyed. The writing is the part I enjoy: making stuff up, in real time, on the page. Empty pages don’t scare me (though I use various bits of software depending on the task at hand, my favorite prose environment is still a blank Word document)—it’s pages of notes that do. I also have a (possibly self-serving) belief when the novelist discovers the book on the page it can lead to a more interesting texture than one that’s been doggedly mapped out ahead. 

The cover of The Servants by Michael Marshall SmithThe one time I’ve successfully planned a novel was with The Servants: I had the basic idea, mapped it out chapter by chapter during a flight from London to New York, and then wrote it in three weeks when I got home. But that was a short novel, with just one central idea to enshrine: most of the time I find planning is like pinning a butterfly to a board. Sure, it’s there, and you can look at it. But it’s dead.

So with the others… it tends to work as follows—but please be advised I do NOT advocate this as a process. It’s just the way I seem to do it, and has driven me nuts at times.

An idea will occur to me—the Big Underlying Idea. I never write it down. I figure that if an idea’s going to be worth a year of my life and a chunk of my career, it’d better have enough resonance and sufficient ability to self-advocate that it’ll stick in my head.

Gradually other stuff will coalesce around that initial notion. A location. A probable ending, though that often changes. Some characters. A few events. Additional core concepts—because I believe you need two or three working together (or against) each to make a novel feel thick and rich. I may note some of these down. 

Then eventually, generally because a deadline is looming, I’ll fire up Word and start writing. Usually in a linear way, though sometimes I’ll think “Okay, I’m going to need a chunk about this at some point, so I’ll throw it down now while it’s in my head” or “Christ, this character really wants to say this stuff right now, so I’ll note it down”—and I’ll put that stuff in their own files for deployment later in the draft. 

I’ll write for as long as I can that way, but two or three (or more) times in each novel I’ll hit a horrible wall and have to back away. Then I’ll “go to the pad,” which means sitting with a notepad and pen and trying to map out what’s next, which generally results in a bunch of drawings and arrows and stuff that may not even be helpful, but seems to enable me to break through the wall so I can get on with the next chunk. 

And I’ll basically keep doing that until I’ve got a first draft—the last twenty thousand words of which generally happens very fast. 

I’ll step away for a day or two. Now I know what the book is, and so the job is making sure it makes sense. I’ll spend a few weeks rewriting, re-weighting, reshaping, and cutting at least 10-15 percent, much of that from the first third (I always over-write the opening chunk, while I’m finding my feet and am not really sure where I’m going, or why). I’ll also try to make sure that the ideas are clear enough, because I know I have a tendency to leave them a little buried for some readers.

This will result in the Real First Draft, at which point I give it to my wife, and hope to hell that she likes it. It addition to being smart and (generally) kind, Paula brings the advantage that she never really reads my kind of books otherwise: so I’m implicitly testing whether they work on a “general fiction” level, rather than just for genre readers. 

When she’s done, I’ll address any observations she has, along with thoughts I’ve had in the meantime, and then finally pack this Actual First Draft off to my editor. And then spend a couple of weeks hoping to hell that he or she likes it. 

I’ll address their notes in a second draft. Then do another draft for myself, and it’s generally at that point at the earliest that I start to feel that I’ve got a measure of what the book really is, and stand a chance—however temporarily—of being “happy” with it. 

That will change during any further drafts, then the copy-edit and the galleys, by the end of which I will be convinced that it’s the worst piece of crap ever written, and should be destroyed, and that anybody who’s read it should be shot, in case they’ve been contaminated by it. 

I won’t go near it again for a couple of years, at which point I’ll read the book in paperback, and generally think “Well, that’s okay.” Or at least, it is what it is. 

What is one thing you know now that you wish someone had told you when you first started writing?

It won’t get any easier. That wouldn’t have stopped me, but it would have been nice to be forewarned. 

Looking over your career, is there one book, or story, in particular that was difficult for you to write emotionally?

I’ve always found writing an effective way to work through emotions and life events (though usually not consciously), and so even books that deal with heavy subjects have come pretty easily. The one that comes closest to being hard on that account was The Lonely Dead (called The Upright Man in the US), because my mother died soon after I’d started it. 

And maybe, for similar reasons, The Servants, which has a sick mother in it—though I wrote it a couple years after she died. 

Did you know that The Straw Men would be a trilogy when you started the first book, or was that something you decided later?

Cover of The Straw Men by Michael Marshall SmithThat was a later decision. I wrote The Straw Men because I’d long had an interest in serial killers, partly because I felt (rightly or wrongly) that I had some understanding of what was going on with them, a take that I hadn’t seen done before. The subject kept picking at me, and it got to the point where I needed to get it out of my system—especially when characters and events started coalescing in my head. It was very different to the three novels I’d written before, however, and I went into it thinking I’d write it, then move on. 

By the time I got to the end of the later drafts, however, I was getting a strong sense that I wasn’t done with the subject, and especially with the characters. Fifteen years later they still feel every real to me—which is just as well, as we’re just starting TV development of the series at the moment. 

Straw Men was a difficult book to finish because of the transition from the earlier ones. What I was originally aiming for was a kind of modern, gritty fantasy, starting off very real-world but then edging further and further into the strange. When I submitted, both agent and editor were fulsome with praise when they started reading, and then went ominously quiet. Eventually both admitted they hated the second half. 

After a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth, I threw the second half of the book away and rewrote it from scratch. There’s no question it’s a better (in the sense of “more marketable”) book as a result (though the process nearly killed me), but I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if the first version had got a better reception. It would have been a more natural bridge from what I did before, prevented the need for a second writing name, and might even have been a kinda-interesting new genre. 

The “different to what had come before” also provoked my first name change, to Michael Marshall—who has now written the majority of my novels.

In your novel The Intruders there is a portion that takes place in Cannon Beach, Oregon, just an hour’s drive from where I live in Portland. How did you come to include that town in the book?

Cover of The Intruders by Michael Marshall SmithThere was a period when my wife and I seemed to wind up in the Pacific Northwest whenever we went on vacation—mainly because we liked it so much. That’s why the area crops up as a location in several books during that period—The Upright Man, Day of Angels, The Intruders and Bad Things. We stayed in Cannon Beach a few times and loved it. 

I’m also very attached to Seattle as a city (before writing The Intruders I flew there and spent a week by myself, walking the streets for seven hours a day, trying to get the measure of it) though I haven’t been back in a while, sadly. 

The Devil factors heavily into your novel Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence. Were you raised in any particular religion? If so, how did that influence your current belief system?

I was raised in no religion. Though my mother opened the doors to The Beyond a little in her later years, both my parents (particularly my father) were functionally atheists while I was growing up—though not dogmatically so. It was more a kind of “We don’t believe in God”—and with my father, who’s an academic, and has been at times of a somewhat Marxist persuasion, this was because of an awareness of how organized religion has been used as an instrument of social control—“but feel free to explore what everybody else thinks. And make sure to respect it.” 

I’ve never been an atheist, partly because of a slightly Logical Positivist bent (I studied Philosophy and Social and Political Science at Cambridge in the 1980s, when Logical Positivism was very much the received hermeneutic tool), which observes that the statements of atheists are no more empirically demonstrable than those of the religious. 

Do I believe in a supernatural/paranormal deity, or set of deities, that exist somewhere in some meaningful sense and direct our lives from without? Not really—though it’d be kind of cool, and I’m increasingly prone to believe things purely because I think it’d be interesting, rather than out of a conviction they’re necessarily “true.” At the very least most religions enshrine longterm observations about the currents that exist within human existence at both cultural and personal levels, and so are worthy of respect and consideration for that. 

If pressed, I guess I believe the writers who come closest to encapsulating the spiritual aspects of human life are not the overtly religious, but neo-Jungians. 

Nolan Moore explores the unexplained and paranormal. Is there any unexplained phenomena you would investigate if you could?

I’m conflicted on this, because if there’s anything I hate, it’s the unknown being explained. I love mysteries, that frisson of not knowing whether something’s actually “true,” just enjoying the idea that it might be. I’ve been fascinated by the unexplained and paranormal since I was a child, and one of the things I’ve loved about coming up with (or meeting, because that’s genuinely how it feels to me with certain characters) Nolan and Ken is that they’ve finally given me a route into exploring some of these ideas in a fictional setting. 

So in real life, I want to let the mysteries be. But in books, I’m all for it: it’s just a question of deciding which to look into and speculate about next…

Much of what you post on Twitter is critical of President Trump and his administration. If you were to write a story about where you want the US to be in 5 years, what would it look like?

Much though I loathe Trump and his lackeys (and the cold-hearted Republicans who’re riding their backs and getting their agenda done in the shadows cast by Trump’s endless distraction techniques), they’re only saying the quiet parts out loud. People like them have existed all along, as have the ones who voted for him. I was genuinely aghast to learn that what I’d assumed was a gradual inexorable transition into a kinder and more liberal society was nothing of the kind, but I was probably dumb for thinking or hoping that in the first place. 

We’re at a time when many societies’ shadow is to the fore. There’s a sense of a trickster god operating, too—as if many people are voting and emoting as much out of a desire to be perverse, to act out, after years of “behaving.” It’s possible this was inevitable, and I’d love to hope that it being revealed will lead the way to people realizing that there is a vast amount of communication and reaching out to do. However dumb or objectionable or ill-informed I may find other people’s views and positions, they’re often sincerely held, and bridging those gaps is going to be the job for the next ten or twenty years, assuming we don’t want to live in chaos and division forever. 

The practical change I’d like to see in five years is sensible gun control. No civilian needs a silencer, and they sure as hell don’t need an assault rifle. They should be banned tomorrow. Or preferably, this afternoon. 

You write novels and short stories, as well as screenplays, and you’re a talented photographer. Are there any other art forms you dabble in? If not, what is something you wish you could do, or learn?

My other main dabbling is music, which was very important to me in my teens. I studied classical piano, played the cello and church organ, and then got into electric guitar. I kept playing a lot until a few years after college, and then drifted away from it—there wasn’t space in my life for getting into a band or something else that would have kept me focused. For a couple of decades I’ve barely played, apart from sitting down and tinkering on the piano once in a while. 

I’ve recently decided that’s dumb, and have been trying to revive my rusty skills on the guitar, and to get better, too. Early days on the latter quest—but the good thing about being a writer is all the typing keeps your fingers strong. 

Cover of Michael Rutger's The PossessionDo you have any other adventures planned for Nolan Moore?

I do. In fact, a second one is coming out this July. It’s called The Possession, and it’s a little different—more of a psychological story than high adventure. I’ve not worked out what to do next in terms of novels, but there will definitely be more Nolan Moore adventures after that.

The Anomaly seems like a bit of a throwback to the adventure stories that were a pedal-to-the-metal escape from reality. Was this a conscious decision, or simply where the story took you?

It was where the story took me. I’ve never written “high adventure” before, or even read any. But once Nolan and the team were in the Grand Canyon, the story took on a life of its own—in a way that only comes along so often and is huge fun when it happens. Though I generally need a deadline to get me working, it’s the books I’ve written without one that have been the most fun (Only Forward, Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, and The Anomaly). 

I had the basic underlying concept in mind before I started (in fact, it’d been in my head for ten years, and I’d originally meant to write the story as a movie, in a quite different setting) and only finally started the book because I was between contracts and wanted to write something I’d enjoy. I sensed The Anomaly might be it, and it was. 

If I were to give you a first class plane ticket to anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?

Japan, probably. I traveled a LOT as a child—we lived in the US, South Africa and Australia, and visited a ton of other places including Russia when it was still the USSR—but have never been to Japan, and I think I’d like it. 

How has living outside the US for much of your life influenced your writing, your view of the world, and in particular, your view of the US? 

I have a curious relationship to the US, and feel both outside and insider. I was born in England, but my parents moved here when I was one. Lived here for seven years, then a couple of other countries, before moving back “home” to England. 

But we still came to the US every year, and it took me quite a while to realize that this place felt far more like “home” to me than England did. When I started writing novels, I realized it was also also where I came to dream—in the sense that almost every novel has been set here. Then, eight years ago, my wife and I suddenly decided to try living here for a while (something I’d been wanting to do for decades, but the timing had never been quite right). 

And now I’ve spent over a quarter of my life in America, and we’re citizens, and frankly I see no reason to ever leave (though I reserve the right to change my mind if some member of the Trump family becomes president for life). 

Yes, there’s a lot of crazy in many corners of the world (England’s doing a pretty fine job of being insane at the moment), but there’s something about the texture of US politics, and perhaps the country as a whole—it is, of course, still young, and has a fabric built of the mingling and clashes of so many different races, cultures, and ideologies) that makes it uniquely fascinating. 

What’s one book you read recently that you’d recommend? 

The book that’s most impressing me at the moment is The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff —a deep dive into the way the mutant growth of companies like Facebook and Google, and their methods, are curdling the economic and cultural underpinnings of society. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book of genuine academic rigor that’s so beautifully written. 

Fiction-wise, I’m in something of a dearth period I can’t seem to find much which really engages me. Though I did recently enjoy Eric Guignard’s Doorways to the Deadeye—a modern fantasy worked around the hobo code, with a compelling story and a lovely voice.

What’s one film you saw recently that you’d recommend?

I have to admit that I’ve been watching far more TV than movies in the last couple of years. The advent of streaming services has meant something of a boom time for genre entertainment, and I’ve particularly enjoyed some shows I’ve seen coming out of Europe. 

The recent high points for me have been Hotel Beau Sejour (Belgian), Dark (German), La Treve (Belgian)—all on Netflix—and also Les Revenants (French). 

If you got to require the president to read one book, what would it be?

I honestly don’t think there would be any point. You could put the best and most resonant piece of fiction (or non-fiction, because the guy could truly benefit from a little depth psychology, from someone like James Hollis, whose work I love) in his hands, and even if you could get him to read it, or at least point his face at the page, I don’t think he’d get it. 

I’d prefer to simply have a president who reads on their own initiative. 

Tyler Jones is a horror writer whose fiction has appeared in the Chuck Palahniuk-edited anthologyBurnt Tongues, the Literary Taxidermy anthology One Thing Was Certain, and online at Coffin Bell. His interviews/articles have appeared in Gallows Hill Magazine, and forthcoming in Dark Moon Digest. The film rights to his short story “F For Fake” sold to a Sundance Award-winning producer. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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