MICHAEL FARRIS SMITH author of RIVERS
In the tradition of Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, and James Lee Burke, Rivers is an enthralling, darkly beautiful novel set in Mississippi against the backdrop of a series of devastating storms that pummeled the American South in the years since Hurricane Katrina.
In the near future, a climate shift has caused massive damage to the Southeastern United States, eroding the coastline and forcing people from their homes. But one man has stayed behind. Cohen’s wife and unborn child were killed during a mandatory evacuation, and when he returned home to bury them, he never left, building and rebuilding his house as the rain, wind, and darkness worked against him. [READ MORE]
It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land. It rained now, a straight rain, not the diagonal, attacking rain, and it seemed that the last of the gusts had moved on some time during the night and he wanted to get out. Had to get out of the house, away from the wobbling light of the kerosene lamp, away from the worn deck of cards, away from the paperbacks, away from the radio that hardly ever picked up a signal anymore, away from her voice that he heard in his sleep and heard through the storms and heard whispering from all corners of the short, brick house. It rained hard and the early, early morning was black but he had to get out.
He stood from the cot and stretched his arms over his head and felt his way across the room in the faint lamp light. He slept in the front room of the house. The same room of the house in which he cooked and read and changed clothes and did everything else but relieve himself which he did outside next to where two pines had fallen in a cross. He wore long johns and a sweatshirt and he put on jeans and a flannel shirt over them. When he was dressed he walked into the kitchen and took a bottle of water from a cooler that sat where the refrigerator used to be and he drank half in one take and then put the bottle back into the cooler. He picked up a flashlight from the kitchen counter and he walked back into the front room and went to a closet in the corner. He shined the light first on the .22 rifle and then on the sawed-off double-barrel shotgun and he chose the shotgun. On the floor was a box of shells and he opened it up and there were only two left and he loaded them.
He turned and looked at the dog, curled up on a filthy towel in the corner of the kitchen.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I ain’t even asking you.”
The rubber boots were next to the cot and he pulled them on, picked up a sock hat and the heavy duty raincoat from the floor and put them on and then he walked to the front door, opened it, and was greeted with the roar of the rain. The cool air rushed on him and the anxiety of the walls inside disappeared into the wet, dark night. He stepped out under the porch and then went around the side of the house, hundreds of tap tap taps on his hood and water to his ankles and the flashlight pointed out in front, the silver streaks racing across the yellow beam.
Around the back of the house, Habana whinnied. He opened the door to what had once been a family room and was barely able to avoid the horse as she raced out into the back field. She ran small circles, Cohen holding the light on her and her steps high in the moist land and her neck and head shaking off the rain but her own anxiety being set free in the downpour. He let her be and he stepped inside and took the saddle from the ceramic-tiled floor and once she had run it out, he whistled and she came over to him and he saddled her.
With the sawed-off shotgun under his arm he led the horse down the sloppy driveway to the sloppy road and they rode half a mile west. He rode Habana carefully in the storm, the single beam out before them, but he knew the route. They moved around trees that had fallen years ago and trees that had fallen months ago and trees that had fallen weeks ago. Back off the road abandoned houses sat quietly, lined by barbed wire fences brought down by the fallen trees or by the wild ivy or both. After an hour or more, they came to the fence row that had at one time been cleared all the way to the sand in order to lay pipe or cable or something that was supposed to help lift them from their knees but that had been abandoned like everything else.
The rain came stronger as he turned the horse south and they splashed through the brush and mud. There had once stood an electrical pole every hundred yards but only half of them remained upright and the lines that had once linked them together had been rolled up onto giant spools and taken away. Habana buckled several times in softer spots but fought on and in a few miles they came to the clearing and there was only ocean in front of them and beach to the east and to the west. He shined the light down on her front legs and they were thick with mud and he told her she did good and he stroked the side of her wet neck. They stood still in the rain and it washed them clean.
He turned off the light. Blended now with the sound of the storm was the sound of the wash against the shore, the tumble of the whitecaps. A cold wind blew in off the water and he pushed the hood from his head and felt the wind and rain on his face and he leaned his head back and felt it around his neck and ears and it was in those moments that he could feel her still there. Still there when there was only the dark and the sounds of what she had loved. He closed his eyes and let the rain soak into him and she was there at the edge of the water, the salty foam rushing around her ankles and her hair across her face and her shoulders red from the sun. He let himself fall back and he lay stretched across the horse, his arms flailing to the sides, the barrel of the shotgun pointing down toward the wet sand and the flashlight dangling in his fingertips. The rhythm of the waves and the crash of the rain and the solitude and the big black world around him and it was in these moments that he felt her there.
“Elisa,” he said.
He sat back up in the saddle and pulled on his hood. He looked out across the dark ocean and listened and he thought that he heard her. Always thought he heard her no matter how hard the wind blew or how hard the rain fell.
He listened, tried to feel her in the push of the waves.
Thunder roared out across the Gulf and then far off to the west a string of lightning turned the black to gray for an instant. And the rain came on. Twice what it had been when they left the house. Habana reared her head and snorted the water from her nostrils. The ocean pushed high across what was left of the beach and the thunder bellowed again and Cohen raised the shotgun and fired out into the Gulf as if this world around him was something that could be held at bay by the threat of a bright, orange blast. Habana reared with the sound of the shotgun and Cohen dropped the flashlight and got hold of her mane and she leapt forward a little but then steadied. He patted her. Talked to her. Told her it’s okay. It’s okay.
When she was still, he got down and felt around for the flashlight, and then he mounted again. He turned the flashlight on, then off, and he turned Habana and they started back.
“It’s getting worse,” he said to Habana, but the words were lost under it all.
Cohen stood at the kitchen window with a cup of coffee. The dog, a shaggy, black and white, shepherd looking thing, stood beside him and chewed beef jerky. Cohen stared at the pile of lumber, switching the coffee cup from hand to hand, trying to bring himself into the day. The morning was a heavy gray and the rain had eased some. Maybe enough for Charlie, he thought. The pile of two by fours and two by sixes were so wet that he figured he could pick up one and simply fold it end over end. The grass and weeds grew high around the lumber as it had been sitting there for years. He sipped the coffee, looked away from the lumber pile and over to the concrete slab that stretched out from the back of the house. The last frame he had built, months ago, was in a splintered mess in the back field. Almost got to the last wall before another one came and lifted and carried it away. Twice he had gotten two walls done. Twice more he had gotten to the third. He had never gotten to the fourth before they were destroyed.
It wasn’t going to be a big room. She won’t need a big one for a while, Elisa said. Then you can build us a big house with rooms like concert halls. With whose money, he had wanted to know. She shrugged and said we’ll worry about that then. So it was going to be an average room, built on to an average house, protected by the same blonde brick as the rest of the low-ceiling, ranch-style house. An average room for what they expected to be a much more than average little girl. Her place to sleep, and play, and grow. Four years ago the foundation had been poured, before it was impossible to pour a foundation, before it was impossible to imagine such things as building a room onto your house.
Now all it did was rain. Before the storm. During the storm. After the storm. Difficult to tell when one hurricane ended and the next one began.
He sipped the coffee and then lit a cigarette.
Gosh damn wood will never dry out, he thought. And he had thought and thought of ways to frame a room with wet wood, onto a wet slab, that would stand against hurricane force winds, but he hadn’t made it there yet. Unless God changed his laws he wasn’t going to ever get there. He scratched at his beard. Drank the last of the coffee. Watched out the window and smoked the cigarette. Then he decided to go and see if Charlie was around.
You were living in the South during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. How did that affect or inspire you in writing Rivers?
MFS: The emotions that Katrina stirred in me as I watched my home state suffer through that storm stayed with me for a while. There was just such a sense of awe with everything involving Katrina. The strength and power and the catastrophic force that can arise and demolish at almost any time. The lack of prejudice in the force of Mother Nature.
I remember trying to call and email friends and family who had been right in the heart of Katrina’s path, and there was nothing in response. Complete quiet. And then the images appeared of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and of New Orleans, and of all the small towns across the region that had been crippled, and this mournful feeling settled in me, like it settled in most all Mississippians.
It wasn’t too long after Katrina that I had begun to try and move from writing short stories to writing novels. I probably began at least three different drafts of a “post-Katrina” novel and then tossed them away after thirty or forty pages. The story felt fake, and by that, I mean that I didn’t feel like I was doing the region, or the characters, or the actual survivors of the storm the necessary justice. I hadn’t been forced from my home in a fishing boat. I hadn’t come home to a slab of concrete. I hadn’t lost a business. The last thing I wanted to do was write a post-Katrina story that wasn’t authentic. So I quit that idea.
But being from South Mississippi, the hurt that Katrina inflicted stayed with me. It was a couple of years later, and I was still trying to write novels. I’m not sure why I began to think about the storm again, but I did. The difference was, this time I began to wonder what it would have been like these last few years if Katrina had never stopped. Or if perhaps after Katrina, there had been another hurricane just as violent, and then after that another one, and then another, and so on. What if this went on for years? What would the Gulf Coast look like? What would be the plan? Would anybody be crazy enough to stay down there?
All of a sudden, I had the landscape. I had a story about hurricanes and their physical and emotional impact. Now all I needed were the characters who were going to inhabit the region and along came Cohen, waking up in the middle of a black, rainy, gusty night in a family home on family land. And whether consciously or subconsciously, I began to release my emotions about Katrina onto this new landscape, and Rivers came to life.
You mentioned moving from short stories to writing novels. How did you get started as a writer?
MFS: You might say that several things that happened to me that had nothing to do with writing “started” me as a writer. Living abroad in Europe for a few years certainly had that impact. It moved me out of my comfort zone and I met so many people, saw new places, heard new voices. Most importantly, I began to read as I was living abroad. I couldn’t understand foreign television so I read in my apartment. I read on the train rides. I read sitting in the cafes. I had never read much before so all I knew were the big names – Faulkner, Hemingway, Dickens. So that’s who I read. It turns out those were some pretty good writers to start with.
I look at the day I walked into Square Books and picked up a collection of stories by this former firefighter named Larry Brown as a big day in turning me into a writer. I’d read mostly classics up until that point, but when I read Larry Brown, I realized that I knew the people in his stories. I knew the Mississippi he was writing about. The stories seemed extra real and that was the first time I can consciously remember thinking, I wonder if I could do this?
I didn’t physically sit down and try to write until I was twenty-nine and somehow talked them into accepting me into the Center for Writers at Southern Miss, but it was these other moments and experiences that I look at now as being the real beginnings of becoming a writer.
Apart from Larry Brown, who are your biggest influences?
MFS: Other Southern writers – Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, William Gay, Carson McCullers. There has always been something about the Southern voice and the role of place that feeds my imagination. My bookshelves at home are filled with these writers and others like them. But in grad school I was introduced to a lot of new writers who also helped to drive me along. Jean Rhys, in particular, back in Paris in the 30’s wrote some of the most striking novels I’ve ever read. Just tough, brutal characters who do not flinch, no matter what. I was also introduced to some Russian writers and I still read Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol. Hemingway and the other Parisian expatriates also belong on this list, as much as for what they were doing aesthetically as for the works themselves.
Rivers could be described as dystopian fiction, yet the story is grounded much more in reality than other dystopian novels. How do you see Rivers both fitting in and standing apart from that genre?
MFS: My own instincts about Rivers being something a little different were reinforced the first time I shared it. I let a friend read the initial thirty pages, and his immediate reaction was that the thing that made the story scary was that he could imagine it actually happening one day.
I see why some people would describe it as a dystopian novel. I admit that I’ve had to look up the definition of dystopian fiction since I wrote this book. I had a general idea of what it meant, but since Rivers seems to reach across genres and appeal to different audiences, I wanted a clear definition so that I could see for myself where the story stood with that term. And it stands pretty close. There is the crumbled society, the element of fear in daily routine, the speculative nature of the future, and even the political consequences if you consider the decision made by the government to abandon the region. Many of the elements are there.
The one element that doesn’t quite seem to fit is that in most dystopian novels, nature is avoided. Or perhaps nature has been destroyed as the result of nuclear war or some other man-made catastrophe. What I liked about writing Rivers was that the destructive force was nothing that anyone, anywhere could control. The destructive force was completely out of human hands. And there is also the possibility to go and be somewhere else. The characters aren’t forced to stay below the Line. Somewhere, though it’s uncertain exactly where, people lead normal lives. In that way, Rivers felt like a straight story to me. Sometimes it felt more like the Wild West than anything.
My biggest concern is to write a story that feels real. That is difficult enough without trying to factor in audience or genre concerns. I think you could argue almost all fiction is “other worldly.” Faulkner created his own world. Cormac McCarthy has created his own world a few times. If you’ve ever read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, you know that she created her own fanatical world. Did those writers create more or less of a world than someone like Ray Bradbury? I don’t know. Rivers certainly has its own landscape, but what was most important to me was to not let the landscape be the complete story. While the landscape is intricate and plays an active role, the story had to be about the characters trying to survive, about the spirit and hopes and regrets and trials of those involved. No matter what genre you’re talking about, or what world the characters are walking around in, what ultimately makes good stories is the human emotion, the rise and fall of those involved.
Okay, that was a tough one. Let’s give you a break. Who would play Cohen in the movie? Aggie? Mariposa?
MFS: Surprisingly, this one is also kind of tough. Let’s go with Christian Bale as Cohen; Powers Boothe (who I really love as a villain) as Aggie; and Zoe Kravitz as Mariposa. And maybe I would get to meet her dad.
If you were stocking your storm bunker, besides batteries, whisky, and painkillers, what would you want to have on hand for the duration?
MFS: My guitar, a Nerf hoop, a few Stephen King novels to read by the candlelight, a gas-powered deep fryer and a cooler of catfish filets and shrimp, a good pillow, a handful of cigars, and a pair of hip waders in case we sprung a leak.
Dear Reader,As I write this letter on behalf of a book which won’t reach stores until September 2013—nearly a year from now—the East Coast is recovering from Hurricane Sandy, a storm that took less than twenty-four hours to inflict unfathomable damage to 20 million people in about 7,000 square miles in the Tri-State area. Meanwhile, Venice, Italy, known as “the city of bridges” which span its historic canals (Venice is featured prominently in this novel) is experiencing unprecedented flooding—people are quite literally swimming through the streets. And we all remember another storm eight years ago that caused massive damage to a little town called New Orleans, and the entire Gulf Coast, which is where the story of Rivers begins.What if Hurricane Katrina had never ended? Only a few days after Sandy in New York City, there was looting, fires, and lines for gas across three states. How long would it take, how much could a community endure before neighbors helping neighbors turned into neighbor against neighbor, and how long before everyone who can, just runs for high ground?It would be easy to call Rivers a dystopian novel, but the fact is, it’s closer to frightening reality. My husband’s family was displaced after Hurricane Katrina—lifelong New Orleanians who saw their homes, schools, and businesses destroyed. It didn’t take much imagination when I started reading Rivers to see how quickly things could get out of control. And yet, this novel has so much more than just a haunting premise.The journey of our hero, Cohen, is nothing short of Biblical. It is a morality tale; it is floods and storms and vengeance. It is death and rebirth and salvation. It is equal parts literary novel, Western, love story, and thriller. Rivers deserves every comparison that will undoubtedly be made to the writing of Cormac McCarthy, James Lee Burke, Kent Haruf, and other masters of the form.It will be interesting to see where we all are next year—whether another storm rises to take Sandy’s place and whether Michael Farris Smith’s world becomes a shade more real. Until then, it is my sincere pleasure to introduce you to Rivers. I hope you’ll be excited to read the excerpt and find out more about this extraordinarily talented guy.Yours,Sarah Knight | Senior Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org