September 8, 2013 12:27:07 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Sept. 10, 2013. That red letter date has been a long time coming on Michael Farris Smith's calendar. It was ear-marked many months ago by publishers Simon & Schuster as the official release of the award-winning short story writer's first full-length novel, "Rivers."
"It's been a long wait, a lot of anticipation, an emotional roller coaster," Smith said Wednesday, dressed in worn jeans and a Ramones T-shirt. When not writing, he's often playing guitar, composing songs or performing with bandmates in the Golden Triangle. There will be little time for that in the near future, however. Tuesday marks the beginning of a book-signing itinerary that will take the Mississippi University for Women faculty member from New Orleans to New Jersey in the months ahead.
The first public signing is Sept. 10 in MUW's Hogarth Student Center W Room, from 5-7 p.m. Smith's home community book launch is presented by MUW, Catfish Alley magazine, Friends of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library and the Columbus Arts Council. Light refreshments will be served. First edition hard cover books will be available for purchase and signing.
Smith sat down Wednesday to candidly share bits and pieces of the road that brought him to this point. It wasn't necessarily a smooth one.
"I came to writing after I'd been living abroad for a few years and done a lot of reading for the first time in my life. Over time, I began to feel like writing fiction was something I wanted to try. I gave myself to it and decided I was going to do it or fail miserably trying," he said.
Smith's short fiction would go on to garner numerous awards. He was even nominated for a Pushcart Prize. But his eye remained trained on penning novels.
"I think the idea (for 'Rivers') came about because I was pretty desperate to break through at that point as a novelist," the Mississippi native said of the extraordinary story he began putting on paper in January 2010. He had given himself one more year to pursue writing, a year to make something happen, before moving on to something else. "I was feeling a little hopeless."
His idea was, what if instead of writing a little hurricane novel, he wrote an extraordinary hurricane novel? He knew the concept was big. He knew it would be challenging to write. But then, as he said, "everything is a challenge to write."
The novel is set within catastrophic climate change along a Mississippi Gulf Coast ravaged by years of violent storms and hurricanes and unrelenting rain. Devastation is so widespread the federal government has instituted "the Line" 90 miles north of the coast. Anyone below it stays at their own peril. Shattered by the loss of his wife and unborn child, the central character Cohen has been unable to abandon their home. But after he's attacked and left for dead and his house ransacked, he calls on everything within him to avenge what he's lost and head for a new life above the Line.
"I loved writing it; I loved it from the first raindrop," the author shared.
"Rivers" was ultimately acquired by Simon & Schuster senior editor Sarah Knight whose bestselling novelists include James Lee Burke and Chris Cleave. She said, "'Rivers' is glorious in its scope and imagination, a story of truly Biblical proportions that held me rapt until the final, heartbreakingly beautiful scene. Michael Farris Smith is a rare talent and I am thrilled to help launch his career at Simon & Schuster."
From the pulpit
Smith counts Larry Brown, Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner among his influences. And then, there's his father.
"Dad is a Southern Baptist preacher, and even as a kid I loved Sunday School and the stories ... Samson and his hair, the parting of the Red Sea. Those stories are filled with images, with hope, failure, temptation and redemption," he said with feeling.
Battles of faith, battles between a man and his own spirit, are about the toughest you can go through, he continued. And those are the battles that parallel the punishing physical elements in "Rivers."
Smith's novel doesn't officially release until Tuesday, but is already in its third printing. Early reviews like, "A story so powerful, I thought it was going to ignite every time I picked the damn thing up ... " from Frank Bill, author of "Crimes in Southern Indiana" and "Donnybrook" have driven advance demand.
Comparisons of Smith to writers including William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx by New York Times bestselling writer James Lee Burke have created a buzz -- as has inclusion on a number of recognized must-read lists for September.
After months of waiting for Sept. 10 to dawn, Smith is ready, eager to meet readers and talk to them about the book, eager to see what comes next.
"I get to wake up Tuesday morning and do an interview with a New Orleans radio station; that's a great way to start the day," he smiled. "We've been very fortunate."
Smith is represented by Peter Steinberg of The Steinburg Agency, whose clients have been nominated for and awarded Edgars, The Pulitzer Prize and The Story Prize among others.
The Columbus author has been awarded the Transatlantic Review Award, Brick Streets Press Short Story Award, Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship and the Alabama Arts Council Fellowship Award for Literature. He is a graduate of Mississippi State and has taught creative writing at MUW since 2007. More information about Smith and his work is available at michaelfsmith.com.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.