Interview: Michael Marshall (Smith)

Michael Marshall SmithMichael Marshall Smith shot to fame with his first SF novel Only Forward, which won the August Derleth and Philip K. Dick awards and is now regarded as a modern classic. With his fourth book, published as by Michael Marshall, he crossed genres into crime and he now regularly writes in both fields. [For more details, check out his website here.] During the promotional tour for his most recent novel We Are Here, he spoke with Paul Simpson…



You said in your blog that We Are Here was a story that has stuck around in your head for a long time. Where did the initial idea spring from – was it one of those “what if…?” thoughts?

Yes, it was. It’s been around longer than I realised: I did initially write a version of this idea as an original screenplay quite a long time ago. That never really came to fruition, but it just would not go away – the idea of things that we put away that decide that they don’t want to be put away. It was something about the atmosphere: as much as anything else for me, sometimes the questions are, as you say, “What would the world be like if this was the case?” or “What would the world be like if this wasn’t the case?”

What made you choose New York and environs to set it in?

The idea needs an urban setting, which becomes increasingly clear as you read the book. I tend to write a lot on gut and intuition, and it just felt like the right place for it. Also, I happened to walking around New York when I started thinking, “Right, this idea is not going to go away, I need to face up to it and write the thing.”

The only two cities that I know well enough to set it would be London or New York, and it just felt like it made more sense for it to be set in New York.

Any reason for not setting it in the UK?

Partly habitual: all of my novels have been set in America. There are certain other things that feel better set there. America, for one reason or another, has always been the place where ideas have occurred for me to set. New York seemed appropriate.

There are lots of stories I want to tell about London: there’s a big TV series which I’ve been trying to get off the ground for about ten years which is all about London, and the history of London, and that feels inherently about London. This idea didn’t feel as inherently set in London; it seemed to manifest itself in my head set in New York so I went with that.

We are hereMany English writers bring a different perspective when they’re writing about America; do you find you have a perspective on the place that American friends just can’t understand?

I think that has to be the case. There’s a balance you have to pull off. You don’t want to end up writing something that feels like, “This is where I went on my holidays.” You have to be careful not to pile on too much detail that makes the reader think, “You’ve just spent three weeks wandering around there with your wife and child, or you’ve spent way too much time on Google Maps.” You want to try to make it feel fairly as if it’s the place.

There are certain types of novel you can write if you are utterly immersed and living in a place. This might be the answer to your earlier question: I lived in London for 25 years and felt very much in it. It’s instructive to write about places from an outside perspective, to have an outsider mentality, the freedom to just step to one side and see a place. and that’s inherent to the story of We Are Here. Maybe that was another unconscious reason for setting it in a place which I know reasonably well, but will always be an outsider there. That was quite important to the story.

I’m not sure anyone who wasn’t born and bred there does become part of New York; it always feels to me like a place you go to…

I think you’re absolutely right. Rather trite and obvious as it may be, to me London, Paris and New York are the cities – there’s just something about them. But I think you’re absolutely right with New York. New York tolerates you on its streets, it doesn’t welcome you with open arms. You take it as it is.

I know London pretty well, but I suspect to an outsider, London is pretty similar; this place doesn’t have to be your friend, and doesn’t want to be your friend. You have to engage in some sort of relationship and treat it on its own terms.

ServantsWhat about other places you’ve lived, such as Brighton?

I have written some things set in Brighton: I wrote a short novel called The Servants  set there and that is inherently about Brighton. There is nowhere else it could be set. But I don’t want to transfer: I don’t want to say, “Here is an idea – where shall I put it?” It tends to be, “Here is an idea set in such-and-such a place”. I tend to honour that. Whenever I get an idea for something, whether it’s a book or a screenplay or especially a short story, where it is set is the first thing I know in some ways. It always feels very odd to me if I can’t say, “This story is set here”.

I think locale is very important in stories, and functions as one of the major characters. Stories happen to people, but they also happen to places. You’ve got to set it where it makes sense to set it.

Some of your books are published as Michael Marshall, others as Michael Marshall Smith – is that division slightly artificial?

It was never a ploy – I know some people think I was deliberately doing an Iain Banks [whose mainstream fiction is by Iain Banks; his SF by Iain M. Banks]. It was really publishing expedience. When I handed in The Straw Men, it was, to their eyes, very different from what I had done before, and this was a way of coping with that.

I find it a bit of a pain in the arse to be honest because I don’t see that much distinction. Even when I wrote The Straw Men, which is quite different to some of the Michael Marshall Smith stuff, I didn’t see it as being a big deal. I’d be very happy to see Michael Marshall Smith on the front of We Are Here because, in some ways there’s a clear resemblance with the Michael Marshall Smith – the short stories, maybe more than the novels.

I sometimes make the distinction: I still write a number of horror and genre stories and they feel very comfortable in the Michael Marshall Smith name. But on the other hand, this year the first Michael Marshall short story will come out in a Steve Jones anthology, and that’s somewhat related to the Straw Men books and so on, so it made sense.

I tend not to think that clearly about it. It’s something that’s happened and makes a degree of publishing sense, so I go along with it.

There have been references online to We Are Here as “The Forgotten”. Why the change of title?

That wasn’t even the first title! When I was writing the book I called it The Followers, and that to me was the title that made the most sense, partly because of what is happening in the book, and partly because of some of the thematic stuff and the metaphorical stuff that is there. But it’s one of those things that happens in publishing: it was felt not to be strong enough. I cast around and came up with The Forgotten, but it turned out that David Baldacci has just released a book called The Forgotten, so we had to rethink.

We Are Here is a title I actually like, as a title, and particularly with the package of the book. It’s beautiful, and absolutely stunning.

How much input did you have into the cover?

I’m always consulted on these things, but I very much think that I’m not a book designer, and I am very happy to cede control to people whose job it is to and whose expertise it is. All the good stuff on that cover came out of Orion; it was beautifully designed by them. Of all the book jackets I can remember, it’s the jacket that seems to me to most suit the book and the material and the kind of stuff that I do. I’m delighted with it.

AOnly Forwardre you aiming to do more science fiction in the mould of your first three novels?

This is a question I do get asked on almost a daily basis, and it’s really nice – what I take from that is the fact that I’m very lucky that people still care. I would love to write another Michael Marshall Smith type novel. Whether or not it would be science fiction, or more a strange urban fantasy… they were always a little borderline, those books. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms by some science fiction aficionados that they’re not “real science fiction”. I don’t know quite what they mean, but that sort of ‘totally throw open all the doors’, just write what is fun and interesting to write – I do really miss doing that and I have one idea in particular that I would love to do that way.

It’s simply a question of finding the time, as much as anything else. The schedule of getting a Michael Marshall book done on a regular basis takes up a certain amount of time; there’s work on screenplays and short stories which take away time; and it’s nice to have a little bit of a life! It’s just a matter of time. I’d love to: I miss that freedom and the fact I was having so much fun communicated itself through those books, and it might be one of the reasons it would be nice to do one of them again.



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