Transcript for Michael Marshall Smith – World Class Fiction Writing

welcome to the human experience podcast

the only podcast designed to fuse your

left and right brain hemispheres and

feed it the most entertaining and

mentally engaging topics on the planet

as we approach our Center please make

sure your frontal temporal and occipital

lobes are in their full upright position

as you take your seizure consciousness

relax your senses and allow us to take

you on a church we are the intimate

strangers thank you for listening

what’s up guys Xavier Catania here is

such a fun light-hearted episode with

the very warm Michael Marshall Smith who

I would regard as a world class fiction

writer if you’ve ever wanted to know

what is in the mind of an established

writer from the process to writing

itself and literally everything in

between Michael has been in the realm of

fiction writing for at least a few

decades and he has the awards to back up

the caliber of his work so many thanks

to Michael for making time to be on the

show make sure you get to his website

Michael Marshall smooth calm to get to

his work you can find us on Twitter

Facebook and YouTube all at the human XP

guys we survived on listener support so

get to the human xpcom / donate buy us a

cup of coffee lunch or dinner if you’re

into what we’re doing here

it helps us sustain not only the show

but the level of content we can get to

guys on a regular basis without much

further ado here is mr. Michael Marshall

Smith thank you so much for listening

the human experience is diving into the

realms of fiction writing as we speak to

our guest mr. Michael Marshall Smith

Michael my good sir welcome to hxp hi

good to talk to you

Michael you have a wide-ranging career

in in writing and you just give us your

background how you got into writing and

who you are for anyone that may be

listening that doesn’t know please sure

well I mean I’ve been writing I suspect

for about 20 years I started off in in

short fiction I guess the easiest label

for that short fiction would be horror

fiction but it’s of a particular sort of

type which is more to do with unease and

dread and being unnerved rather than you

know vampires and I mean I have I’ve

written about vampires but I’ve always

tended to come at it from a kind of a

maybe more more English low-key

perspective and so that’s that’s what I

did for a number of years and then it

occurred to me that I should start

trying to write novels and sort of just

with completely off my own bad I started

writing a novel which eventually became

something called only forward and my

complete surprise it ended up being a

rather sort of surreal zany science

fiction novel which is completely

different to anything I’d done before

that was accepted and got published and

so suddenly I was somewhat committed on

that path which I was happy to do

because that’s what my head was full of

at that time so I wrote a couple more

books in that vein one called spares one

caught one of us and then had kind of a

switch of genre and found myself writing

present-day kind of conspiracy thrillers

the first of which was called the straw

men and from then it sort of developed

I’ve sort of ended up almost with these

two different strands Michael Marshall

who tends to write the more present-day

more real-world fiction and Michael

Marshall Smith who is rather more

experimental your first published story

the man who drew cats won the British

fantasy award in 1981 for best short

story your novel only your first novel

only forward one

the August Derleth award for best novel

on and and then you won the the philip k

dick award and then you were nominated

for the World Fantasy Award in 1995 1996

and 1997 wow you’re just covered in

trophies for me it’s it’s writing is it

can be such an excruciating thing I mean

you should you’re looking at this page

and nowadays I mean I guess you’re using

a computer to write and the it’s just

it’s getting past that initial just that

blank page that is just staring at you

and how do you how do you gain

inspiration what is your muse well I

mean you refer to the sort of some of

the early successes and they you know

they were great I mean you know how

extraordinary have your first short

story win an award and so on and they

you know these are these are these are

lovely things in there they’re good for

the ego and they’re good for your

initial confidence because as you say

when you first start out you know you to

a degree you have no idea what you’re


I mean to be absolutely honest as a

writer you you may spend the rest of

your life feeling you have no idea what

you’re doing but that’s that’s part of

the writers job and what writers process

and but but a little burst of early

confidence is good but to be actually

honestly you know the job remains the

same over the years and over the decades

and as to where you get your ideas I you

know nobody knows the answer to that

question I’m I’m as likely to get an

idea wandering around the aisles of

Safeway as I am to be sitting in my desk

or or concentrating it’s it’s it’s one

of the both magical but also slightly

scary things that the initial the

initial idea the spark the thing that

you may end up spending the next year

and a half of your life dedicated to

will come from a place that you can’t

name and you can’t there’s no map too

you just have to trust that sometimes as

I say you wandering around you’re

looking for capers and suddenly paying

oh what if a man was doing this and such

and such a thing happened and and off

you go and it’s that’s that’s the you

know I sometimes think that that being a

writer is you know people think of as a

solitary job and it really is a very

solitary job but within that it’s almost

like running a small company that

happens to live with Union in your own

head it’s like you know as a start-up

you know in your head and the somebody

is responsible for getting the words

done somebody who’s responsible for

dealing with

and there is some man or woman who’s off

down a corridor somewhere no one’s quite

sure where the offices and every now and

then they’ll come running to the main

room say here’s an idea and you look at

it you think now that’s been done or you

look and you say oh interesting and then

the whole company turns around and

that’s what they’re working on for the

next year and a half and it’s it’s it’s

a strange mental process would you say

that your first short story the man who

drew cats winning the award would you

say that that had a positive effect on

you or or did it how did it affect your

mentality to win a win an award so

quickly in your career um I think I

think you know like a lot of like a lot

of life events it had a variety of

effects I mean the first was obviously

confident you know the first short story

that I completed was given an award and

you know there were concrete positive

things that came from that in that at

the awards ceremony where I where I was

where I got that the thing there was an

editor there and she said

congratulations to me as I came down

from the podium sort of thing and at

that stage I was halfway through writing

this incredibly speculative oh well this

will be my trunk novel but let’s give it

a try anyway not one so I sent her a

letter because this was back in the days

when you sent letters rather than emails

saying you know I wonder if you’d be

interested in the short story collection

and she very politely pointed out to me

that short story collections from

unknown writers are not something that

major publishers regard with much

enthusiasm but if I wrote a novel then

she’d like to see it so that gave me the

impetus to finish the novel and I sent

it off to her she said yes we’ll take

that and so you know the positive

effects were very straightforward an

award plus someone agreeing to look at

my first novel with a kind eye and bang

off you go of course there’s then a

variety of pressures that come from that

as soon as you do something you feel

that you need to do it again and if you

don’t do it again then maybe you’re not

doing it as well as you were last time

and the way the publishing market works

particularly now more so now than then

is that you can very very rapidly get

pigeonholed into niches that are then

quite difficult to escape from so

there’s always you know it’s it’s

there’s always more than one thing

happening absolutely

so Michael where where would you say

your biggest challenge was I mean you’ve

been writing for quite some time

and you’ve gone from I think you started

out writing comedies alright a long time

ago I did I did comedy at university yes

I went to I went to Cambridge and I was

a member the footlights and I had a lot

of fun writing writing skits then for a

couple years after me and some of the

guys who I’ve done in a college we had a

couple of radio shows for BBC Radio we

had a TV pilot and we wrote for other

people and Sanne for a while that was

very much what I was what I was doing

and then I had a kind of epiphany moment

where a friend of mine I’ve been

badgering him to try and read one of my

favorite books a book called lucky Jim

by Kingsley Amis and he’d been sort of

dragging his feet on that and he’s

finally said we’re in the pub and he

said all right I’ll read this damn book

but you have to read one that I’ve just

read I said okay and he handed over to

me and it was the talisman by Stephen

King and Peter Stroud and that just kind

of flicked a switch for me and I got by

the time I got to the end of that book I

thought okay this is the kind of thing

that not only do I want to write this is

the way I want to spend my life and very

rapidly I found that my imagination

stopped finding you know in those days

if I’d have been wandering around the

supermarket I’d have had an idea for a

skit and then pretty rapidly it became

instead that I’d have an idea for a

short story and so that I think was the

first thing so dragged me more into that

into that sort of area okay you have

quite the career I’m just looking at

your biography and you’ve you’ve

produced for various films you’ve done a

couple short stories you’ve written /

produced you have writer credits how how

are you accomplishing this well I I mean

I should stress that a lot of those

credits are extremely low and sometimes

speculative levels I mean my mind my

career in the film in TV industry has

has hardly been stellar but I think you

know you know in the old day I mean this

is something that’s increasingly true of

the job or the lifestyle or the life of

being a writer which is that it’s not as

similar as it used to be it used to be

that there would be a certain amount of

money around and yes you could be one of

the super bestsellers but there was also

a strong midlist a place where people

you know wrote books in a timely fashion

year after year and they’d be paid just

about an hour and they’d have enough of

a career that midlist it has been

much disappeared in publishing these

days there are now publishers tend to be

very focused on either the guaranteed

bestsellers the people who you know

whack it out of park year after year

after year partly because there’s a

there’s a sitting waiting audience that

just sort of perpetuates that situation

and so they’re either looking for those

all they’re looking for the newbies the

people who have wandered in with you

know a very interesting first book that

they can then just you know do something

with the idea of people who are

producing interesting stuff year after

year after year that’s for the time

being and this this is I hope cyclic or

something that will move on from but for

time being that that eras market has

been quite squeezed out and so what a

lot of writers are finding is that you

need to spread it around a bit you need

to you need to turn to a little bit of

screenwriting you need to try and do a

little bit of stuff on the web you need

to it’s a it’s a portmanteau career

rather than just being the one straight

thing and I think a lot of writers also

find that I mean I’ve written I guess I

think it must be about 90 short stories

now and there are some ideas that come

to me and they’re a short story they’re

not going to be a novel and they they

don’t feel like there should be a script

they’re gonna be a story and you know

part of the job is trying to recognize

what’s the best home what’s the best

shape for these store these ideas that

come to you and so that’s why there

tends to be a little bit of variety

within people’s careers because they’re

making these sort of strategic choices

what do I do this is not a book so what

do I do with it and I’m I’ve always been

comfortable writing in those different

formats and so I try to keep doing it

entreat them and I find this process

intriguing so your first after your

first successful story you became good

friends with a variety of different

writers and editors how did how did

having that level of contact and

interaction how did that benefit your

writing and your kind of your career and

and the way you moved forward well I

think I think it benefits on a couple of

levels I mean I started hanging out with

with a small coterie of sort of English

short story writers who’d been nicknamed

the miserab lists because at that stage

basically you’re all you know single

guys in our mid-20s living in in rainy

London writing to be honest and cried

miserable short stories often often

influenced by people like in a Ramsay

Campbell so you know eerie little tales


out sort of you know single men or women

who’d been done wrong by their partner

and whose life was going to yeah going

to hell and what was good about that is

that you know it is a very solitary task

around there are days when you just

think what am i doing why am i doing it

is anybody gonna care and to

occasionally in it’s partly having other

people read your stuff but it’s pass

it’s also in some ways more importantly

just having some peers and some

like-minded people to hang out with I

mean particularly with whole writers you

get a bunch of horror writers in the pub

you’ll notice two things one they never

talk about writing and two it’ll be the

most fun you’ve ever had because they

tend to be extremely light hearted

people you know I think people think all

writers is these really grim dark gothic

people but they never are they tend to

be just just people like a beer and like

like a chat yeah and so if you’re trying

to forge a fella fairly solitary

lifestyle as a writer than having that

recourse from people who do to spend

some time with people who do understand

the kind of thing you’re doing is

important but I think also from a more

career in commercial point of view it’s

also it’s like when when people ask me

you know how to write become a writer

what are the early steps particularly in

genre fiction I think the most important

thing you can do is to go to some good

conventions because party you’ll meet

like-minded people partly also in the

bar you may meet the the woman or man

who is going to be the person who’s six

months from now is putting together an

anthology on a particular topic and if

they’ve met you and if they’ve read your

other stuff then they are more likely to

look with favor upon something that you

submit and so you know people meeting

people like Alan Dale how or in

particular you know man who’s you know

gone on to be you know my best friend

Stephen Jones who’s an absolute Titan in

there in the figure of genre fiction

there’s no question that meeting these

people and being inspired by them and

having them give you confidence and

support it’s it’s desperately important

particularly in the early stages when

you were writing your own fiction you

were working as a graphic designer and

viewer in the corporate world earning a

living I mean how did how did your

writing routine kind of vary from back


and where you are now burning and living

as a writer now because I imagine that

writing books when you’re starting out

can’t pay very well and yeah I mean must

be difficult to earn a living as a

writer it is I mean I you know short

stories paid next to nothing could be

absolutely understood for a long time

that’s that’s what I was doing I mean I

you know you write short stories partly

for the love of it you know if you like

the form I mean I see I think there’s

certain ideas in certain genre and you

know dark fiction I think is definitely

one of them where a lot of the best work

is actually done in the short story form

so there’s many reasons to love it for

its own sake but it’s also a way of

basically we’re finding your craft

getting a sense of what kind of writer

you are what kind of thing you’re

interested in what your voice on the

page is gonna sound like but you’re

right they you know you they won’t buy

you a cup of coffee to be absolutely

honest and in terms of working as a

graphic designer I was a kind of fake

graphic designer I I got a day job

because I needed one I had by that point

already made the decision that I was

gonna try to be a writer so I just

needed to find something to do and I was

working for this company this is back in

the days when all graphic design was was

you know some weird magical process

where you gave the word to somebody they

took them off they made bromine’s out of

it they were cut up they were cutting

back and my father was an academic

happened to get a deal on a at a very

early Macintosh and I basically took

that over from him and rapidly realized

that you know the desktop publishing

revolution was actually gonna change

everything and so I kind of sideswiped

into saying okay all this stuff which is

taking you days at a time I can do this

in half an hour and so I basically kind

of lagged as we seining and myself er a

semi career as a graphic designer

because that you know I can write good

copy star from that basically was was a

way I earned a living I also wrote

corporate videos which have you know

basically training videos for corporate

Co so basically I was just finding a way

of using my my limited skills to to pay

the bills while I while I wrote and I

didn’t actually go full time as a writer

for quite a long until after I think was

just before my second book came out

because I lucked into an opportunity to

do a massive sort of screenwriting job

which was converting

parker’s we’ve world into a eight part

TV series which has still not seen the

light today 20 years later but it was

enough but I I took the plunge and said

okay I’m getting just about enough money

here that I gotta call myself a writer

and go with it and that’s that’s

basically what happened

Wow yeah it’s intriguing is there a

certain type of genre or what is your

opinion on John risotto as a whole do

you find them to be restrictive or do

you find that when you pick a specific

genre that it helps do certain genres

help books sell better I think I think

the genre issues of is a very naughty

one again you talk to writers and they

all have very different takes on it

sometimes it can be extremely helpful it

depends what drawing you’re in a crime

for example crime or mystery is a very

marketable profitable reputable genre if

you say that you’re a crime writer then

people go okay you write those mysteries

they’re very successful I like mysteries

it’s you know that that can be there can

be a great help and there are certain

other dramas if you say you’re a science

fiction writer then people go it’s kind

of dirty I’m sure you know some of those

you know people with glasses and you

know might might you join that but it

doesn’t sound like my kind of thing

although having said that they will then

happily watch science fiction material

in the cinema but they don’t think that

it’s the kind of thing they want to read

and at the very bottom of the pile is

you kind of almost don’t want to say

you’re a horror writer because people

will just dismiss that as the sort of

you know it’s the true ghetto fiction

despite the fact that you know some of

the great you know I think it’s

unfortunate in some ways that Stephen

King spent his whole time writing horror

subjects because I think it’s a pro

stylist he’s extremely good or rather

writers like you know Tom’s Locati or

led Baron or Shirley Jackson or Peter

Straub who are beautiful prose writers

knew right at least as telling me about

the human condition as anybody else but

because they’re perceived as Horror

Writers is a kind of negative cachet

about those Yama’s and so a lot of

writers can find that they find

themselves backed into a sort of genre

position that’s hard for them to escape

and that can be unfortunate particularly

if it happens to be Shauna that’s that’s

out of fashion at the time so I’m a

Plowman right I’m very happy to be to

write in a variety of dramas over in

Harvard science fiction of a crime of


novels and that’s not because I don’t

know what the hell I’m doing or maybe it

is I don’t know but it’s there’s

something about each of these different

fields that appeals and I kind of don’t

see why I should limit myself it’s a bit

like saying to a painter okay great you

have to only use blues for the rest of

your life and it’s like well there’s a

lot you can do with blue but I’d like

access to some of the other some of the

other colors and I and you know as the

best genre fiction writers demonstrate

there’s absolutely no reason why you

can’t alt write anybody insecure

literary fiction plus you get to have

monsters and cool stuff and a sense of

wonder and and all that other stuff so

for me it’s getting the best of both

worlds but you have to be aware that is

a career decision yeah absolutely

hey Michael when you’re when you’re

coming up with characters for your

novels your book do they reflect people

that you encounter in your real in your

life or I mean is this just purely

imagination or thinking I never do the

the sort of romantic laughs reflection

of people in real life it’s just never

it’s just never didn’t to be absolute

honest characters come to me I am I

don’t make them up the the way a book

tends to start for me is that I will

have a basic idea it’ll be a sort of

well what if or wouldn’t it be weird if

or wouldn’t be horrible if and that

tends to be the basic idea and then

around that to a degree outside my

control initially some possible

environments and events will start to

accrete in my mind and with that will

come some characters often a sort of

sense of voice and then there’ll be a

couple of core people who basically just

arrived my head and say okay well I’m

part of this thing I’m going to be one

of the people who are involved in this

situation and maybe driving it and that

tends to be the initial kit that I’m

delivered with by whoever it is who

works off down the corridor and the in

the you know novel writing start up

business then comes the bit we have to

say okay if this looks like what I’m

gonna be doing next what else do I need

and you say well probably me need a

character who’s a bit like that actually

I probably need to evolve this kind of

environmental situation this kind of

event will probably need to happen and

that’s when you start to make some sort


conscious decisions as opposed to just

accepting what it is that you’re back

brain is handed to you and then that’s

the point at which a lot of grown up

authors would sit down and say okay he

was a wedding great sheet of paper I’m

now gonna rigorously plan this out so

that I have everything worked out yeah

yeah I am unfortunately not a grown-up

writer I still tend to prefer or

unconstraint to work in a far more sort

of free-form okay I’ve got a sense of

what’s happening here a sense of where

I’m going let’s just sit down and see

what happens it’s my preferred way of

working I’ve tried the other way once or

twice and it’s been okay but for me the

journey that the walk along the path is

going to be at least as interesting as

any other part of the process and you

never know quite how you’re gonna get to

where you want to go and so I tend to I

tend to work that way which can lead to

some very very long dark periods where

you’re lost and you have no idea where

you’re going next but it seems to be

something I don’t have a choice over

they say is there something that you

have kind of relied on or is kind of

your secret that no one really knows

about that maybe well tell you what I

see it’s just menu I mean is there is

there something that you kind of go to

that maybe is a little bit unusual or

just something noteworthy that we could

share with the people listening that may

inspire them into you know kind of

finding their own their own way I think

it’s difficult I mean I think you know

what everybody including including

career writers hoping for is that kind

of the Magic Bullet the silver bullet

that makes it that makes it easier the

the guaranteed the guarantee technique

the guaranteed source of inspiration the

guaranteed way of working and I don’t

have one with that I’m just gonna come

right out there and say that I think I

think part of it is probably because

they’re you know there are two ways of

approaching writing and neither of them

was necessarily better than you know

that there is a degree to which you can

just see it as a sort of journeyman

thing almost like a pop writer you say

okay I’m good at producing stories and

I’m just gonna turn these things out and

it almost stays separate from you

or self or your being or you can write

from your own life and have a very

personal relationship with what it is

that you’re writing I think a lot of the

best writers tend to be of that camp and

I think if there is a if there is a

secret and there’s a very interesting

question it’s not one I’ve actually sort

of approach like that so if I falter a

bit because I’m actually thinking in

real time okay try try try not to do I

think it is it’s there are some things

that you need to do if you want to be a

writer you need to write obviously and

you need to read if you don’t do those

two things it’s simply won’t happen

people who think that they can write

novels without having some awareness of

what’s being written in the field both

now and in the past without refreshing

themselves it’s you know that the the

writing muscle is very close in the mind

to the reading muscle and by reading you

you help exercise the writing muscle so

I think that’s that’s deeply important

you also need to put yourself in a

position where where you you realize

that you need to you need to be a little

bit kind to yourself and you need to

sort of understand that it’s not always

gonna be easy and there are certain

pressures you can put yourself under

which is simply not going to help you

and I don’t know I don’t know where you

stand on foul language on the show but

this a.m. doesn’t you’re fine okay good

oh okay a stream the cursing is about to

come in now and there was a there’s a

Hemingway quote which I’ve shown dad

ages ago but actually we we learned a

year or two ago and he said and the

first draft of everything is

and that has been one of the most useful

quotes that I’ve sort of relearned

recently because a lot of people put

themselves particularly on their writing

a first book under a huge amount of

pressure to produce perfection or

something like it and that’ll kill the

novel stone-dead and it’ll kill you and

it won’t get finished if you accept the

fact that it is it’s a process that that

I think is more than anything else the

key so-called insight that I have which

is that writing is not an event it’s a

process and you will it will take you a

while to come up behind you it’ll take

you a while to get to the stage where

you’re ready to write it you will then

write a first draft which will almost

certainly be and if you reassure

yourself for that and say not only is

this not my it’s not my

problems this way everybody does I’m

racking through a first draft or

something right now and this is my 14th

novel or something in two or three times

a day I said doesn’t matter just get it

down to the matter if it’s crap just get

this first draft out because until

you’ve got a first draft you don’t

actually know what it is that you’re

writing then you go back and so it’s the

it is that process thing and you know

whatever works is the other thing you’ve

got to find your own individual process

it may be that working in a coffee shop

works for you it may be the music on the

background works it may be you need

absolute silence it may be that

handwriting is a more visceral way of

doing it for you and that even though it

takes longer and is more tiring it’s

just you you’re able to access your

inner whatever it is more securely that

way so it’s sorry there’s a very

long-winded answer to not answer to your

question but I think respecting the fact

there’s a process and taking the time to

discover what yours is that I think

rather than thinking oh this guy on the

website you have to do it this way or

someone else applies it the only way to

get publishes that way there may be

useful nuggets to be gleaned there but

you also have to understand that it’s

this these are somebody else’s way and

you probably won’t be securing what

you’re doing until you’ve found your own

so kind of finding your own process and

also understanding that whatever you

release the first draft is not going to

be perfect and removing that that sense

of needing to be perfect right away that

pressure moving that removing that

pressure away that that tends to help

absolutely I mean because you know

removing barriers is part of the process

not feeling you have to write to any

particular genre not worrying too much

about the audience to start off with not

worrying about whether all your

sentences are perfect I mean there’s a

time for it and you know again later

parts of the process I mean I I have a

particular bugbear about word doubling I

died I want to see the same word

appearing more than once in a paragraph

come in list it words like handle though

and you know I can get bogged down and

just making sure that my prose is up to

a standard that I hope to aspire to and

so there’s a time for that but like

anything else in life you can often feel

that you’re very hemmed in by by

barriers and some of those are very real

but some of those will be ones that for

sometimes good reason sometimes bad

reasons you place there yourself and the

fewer barriers you can put between you

and you know the empty page wants to be

filled voids want to be filled nature

abhors a vacuum it’s there waiting you

just have to get the barriers out of the

way yeah wow that’s very profound so

something something Michael that you do

is you shift between these two names

usually lived between using Michael

Marshall Smith and then just Michael

Marshall what prompted this modified

name idea and and in what ways would you

feel that that you know writing under

these these separate names affect your

writing well I mean the the the truth

foster that is that they was initially

not my decision I mean basically I’d

written dark you know horror ish fiction

short fiction for a number of years

under the name Michael Marshall Smith I

then wrote my first book only forward

which they said in the future therefore

was theoretically science fiction

although it’s it’s kind of surreal and

it has a lot of darkness in it didn’t

seem any big deal for me because as far

as I was concerned it was all just a

speculative weird fiction that had a

fairly similar voice going through it

then after writing two more books of

that time spares and one of us I’d

always been fascinated by the idea of by

the phenomenon of zero colors and I

thought I had a take on it along the

lines that you know we tend to as as

received so often in life we tend to

ring-fence certain types of behavior and

say okay that’s not us this is

unrelenting evil that we cannot

understand and that’s quite a comforting

way of approaching the world but it

seemed to me that serial killing

actually represented the far extreme of

a kind of neurotic behavior that we’re

all to one degree or another prey to and

I read up I spent a lot of time and this

was sort of a hobby because I was

writing a fiction of the time reading a

lot around the area of serial killers

and and becoming more and more convinced

that actually they weren’t that

different I mean some as they horrific

they are and this is not a defensive

circus in any way but anyway I felt I

had a take on

and eventually for I can’t gonna write

this so I wrote a book called the straw

men which initially had some fantastical

elements in it but in the end wound up

being a conspiracy laird modern-day

mystery novel that I had quite a

different I mean the voice was similar

but the texture was different partly

because it was less humid than the

previously been in before because I

thought me you know serial killers and

they’re not funny

that’s not let’s you know break down the

jokes and it wasn’t said in the future

because I thought you know I want to try

to make a point here if I sit this in

the future that can be distancing so

that said in the present day by the way

I ended up with a novel that was

actually you know qualitatively quite

different in some ways to our publishers

eyes and they looked at this and I said

seriously what the hell you write the

science fiction stuff for the jokes and

the talking phryges words this but they

they liked it enough and finally I

haven’t had enough potential that they

were prepared to you know publish it as

my next novel ins probably actually

strong has been most successful thing I

ever did or I’ve done so far but they

said we’re gonna have a problem here

because readers come to you expecting

one type of thing and you’ve had it them

something which is completely not that

type of thing also there may be a new

audience out there who you didn’t want

the strange science fiction but will be

up for this kind of thing you know

because it wasn’t that long after the

sort of the big Thomas Harris I forget

what it’s called the the fourth one of

those and so my American publishers said

how about we we do some sort of name

change just to signal to people and I

came up the idea of saying okay but I’m

not going to change you some completely

different because that would be weird to

me how about I just lop off this list

and they said okay we’ll go with it and

and at the time I sort of because

there’s a you know I’m sure you were

that the certainly deceased

you know British writer Ian banks who

who wrote more general fiction under Ian

banks and then used Iain M banks for for

speculative science fiction and maybe

the other way around

and I thought okay there’s a precedent

there maybe you can have two strands so

you write the very weird speculative

cross you’re on with stuff under Michael

marshal Smith and something that is a

little bit more grounded in very

commercial fiction you write under under

my commercial and that kind of made

sense to me and I wrote I wrote two more


instrumental G but unfortunately I found

that that the the person in the backroom

of the startup kept coming with weirder

and weirder ideas each time and so the

Michael Marshall book started slowing

slightly more back towards Michael

Marshall Smith material not in terms of

science fiction but in terms of the

maybe the more horror and easy

supernatural short stories and so in the

end it hasn’t worked especially well

because I haven’t kept the distinction

very clear partly because the

distinction just simply isn’t very clear

in my head it’s possible that life

would’ve been a lot simplified if

they’ve kept that distinction clear but

I don’t like traumas I don’t I don’t

particularly believe in them I think

there’s a there’s a sense of wonder and

as you know I think all of us however

much we may pretend otherwise on a day

to day basis know that there’s something

else going on some people put that into

a religion box some people put it into a

spirituality box some people put it into

a Hillary’s emails box you know but

there’s this sense that behind the veil

there is some dread truth that we’re not

being told and the job of for me of

fiction is to every now and then just

not throw the door why but open the door

and say you know reality does a stop

where the walls of our house stops the

stuff outside the window and we know

it’s there we know that sometimes we

think that we know the phone’s going to

rain just or at 4:00 it rings we have

our little superstitious rituals before

we do something although there are

things that make us feel more

comfortable in life there are things

that make us feel uncomfortable in life

and many of these are not rational we

are open to this and I’m mistrustful of

any sort of body of thought or any type

of fiction which completely shuts the

door on that and so that’s why I’ve

tended to end up sort of messing up the

consensual reality distinction because I

basically don’t believe in it yeah

that’s a perfect segue actually into my

next question which is you know you when

you were growing up you had an interest

in Zen and reading philosophy at your

university Colin Wilson Gurdjieff among

others do you still carry this interest

in philosophy and are you influenced by

the esoteric metaphysical side of things


I mean I think I think in in adolescence

and and why was ecology I did I did

study philosophy at Cambridge I found

you know particular como San Carlos was

a huge eye-opener to me because he needs

that user visa his prose is good he’s a

he was a very wide-ranging you know

writer in terms of subjects and a great

sort of aggregator of and and curator of

different thoughts and you know he read

a lot of even a lot of slightly dubious

nonsense as a lot of these people do but

he was deeply inspirational in terms of

sort of saying think about the world

this way it doesn’t even matter to

degree whether it’s true you know I have

to find this now you know cuz I just I

remain interested in in fourteen

material and conspiracy stuff and that

kind of thing to a degree you know truth

is a very moveable feast and very often

things that regarded as being truth and

you see this in science to whatever it

may claim to the contrary it’ll okay

here is that here’s the status quo in

terms of what we believe about this

subject and that is the truth and anyone

who suggests otherwise is wrong and then

ten years down the line it’ll be oh but

we found out this other thing so that

turns out that was all wrong but this

new thing is completely right and

anything else you say is wrong and so

that’s anybody’s thought that does that

and isn’t open to the idea that actually

wrongness probably you know outranks and

importance rightness because it’s often

wrongness of the leaders in the right

direction and I think that’s something

that I got from a lot of those sort of

thoughts and ways of just regarding the

human the human beast and the human mind

as being somewhat more interesting then

was often pretended I think I think that

is something that has absolutely staying

with me and in the last couple of years

for variety of reasons I’ve ended up you

know finally getting read around to

reading some young and some of his sort

of interpreters in a way that I can’t

believe I never really had before but

maybe you know and again it’s gonna

sound a little bitter but maybe you know

certain things come to you at the right

time when when your life is ready when

you are ready to receive them yeah and

you know I’m not a particularly woo I’m

not a particularly hippie person in

general but I am prepared to think that

there are currents in our life there is

there is development that happens within

something that might as well be called a


and that every now and then life will

bring you up to certain points and make

you realize things about yourself and

that’s when you’re you should be open to

the broader ways of trying to explain

them right rather than trying to stuff

them into very small boxes so yeah I’m

still I’m still interested in that kind

of stuff

yeah I think that in a previous

interview you you said that one of your

biggest influences or one of your most

influential things was serendipity and

you you mentioned an example in your

story one of us but began to take form

via a number of coincidences that

emerged in your life at that time

what were those coincidences wait has

this happened to you before or do it’s

it’s a process it’s a process that I and

again this is just one of your you know

it relates back to what I was saying in

terms of particular process I mean with

one of us it was a particular vendor

however the particular song happened to

meet and you know because one of us

wouldn’t happen to be a big song at that

time in the in the UK the journalist

Bond song and very often I what I try to

do when I’m at the beginning of a book

and throughout but particularly the

beginning of the book is put myself into

what I kind of think offers flypaper

mode because there comes a point where

an idea has become sufficiently sort of

real to me that in a way it kind of

influences my perception of the world

not in some you know bizarre way but

it’s just my head is sufficiently geared

towards that one idea that it’s it’s

like the white van I mean I’m sure you

probably call it something else but the

or the white car you buy a white car

suddenly you see four times as many

white cars on the right because your

perception is shifted I mean that’s one

that thing and once that an idea gets to

a certain point in your head I think you

then actually see me objectively start

seeing the world differently you start

seeing things that fit in with the idea

that youth the you’re starting to sort

of inculcating your head it’s like it’s

like a your consciousness is a lens as

you start looking through a lens

filtered by any certain thing you start

to see more and more and more that

exactly and I think I think it’s so it

may be a semantic decision or not

semantics but it’s it’s in terms of does

the world actually change or does your

perception of the world change and so

you know our coincidence is something

that are real or Accords

something that is that is a function of

the way that you’re perceiving the world

and to be honest it doesn’t really

matter but either is just as interesting

as a phenomenon yeah

and so I do tend to find that that

serendipity or coincidence or me simply

perceiving the world slightly

differently because of shift in

perception or shift in the direction

that my inner self is facing does tend

to be quite a strong impetus to some of

the initial writing process the the

reality of of being a writer unfortunate

is that you are then sometimes have to

to rein that back in because you know I

found sometimes with books I mean this

torment is for exactly that excuse me a

classic example this because it you know

it’s basically a serial for a novel but

what in addition to the the things that

I was talking about earlier they sort of

being interested in you know that the

psychological underpinnings of that

phenomena I sort of was just addressing

the question of you know why I did

humankind start farming and that it was

a question that occurred to me and it’s

all these questions that people still

not quite got to the bottom of because

initially it seems counterproductive

because it led to a lack of freedom

there were there’s more disease because

we were living together was a it was a

massive reduction in the variety of our


there are a number of things that seem

actually to be counterproductive to to

the quality of human life and so no

one’s quite got their head around why

that changed happened and again that

became something that was interested in

and initially in the first trottle

strummin it was a huge chunk of random

esoteric speculation about this and then

you go to the second raff and you think


Michael this is very interesting to you

but nobody else gives a damn and it’s

stopping the plot moving forward and

what was initially two chapters got bald

down in the end – I think – listen the

page so you’ve you know sometimes the

serendipitous things that actually get

you to write the thing you have to then

you know kill your babies and look back

and say that was great it’s great with

those tips directly there but it turns

out there was an elevator around the

corner so the readers that one couldn’t

want to go out that way wow it’s a

fascinating kind of hearing you discuss

your the way you’ve developed your

writing style what influences it and

what kind of inspires it another thing

that you seem to be kind

big into is photography I mean when did

you discover your enthusiasm for taking

pictures and I mean something that you

say on your in your on your shop is that

the pictures I create are influencing my

writing and the writing influences for

further images these two things seem to

flow together for you mmm how do they I

mean where when did you first start and

how do they flow together well I mean I

I’ve always been in you know interested

in the visual I mean I think if my life

had gone slightly differently I probably

would have ended up maybe being either

an artist or an architect rather than

the writer cuz that’s something that

I’ve always you know I had a I had

interest in those subjects well before

actually considered being a writer and

something that I find when I’m writing

is that I know that I’m not doing my

best work or I know I’m not ready to

write in this I haven’t absolutely

unless I can visualize the environment

as clearly as I can visualize real-life

environments so that kind of internal

visionary process I suppose I don’t mean

visionary I mean having a vision has

always been important I know you know

way back in the day so enjoy taking

photographs and so on the stuff that I’m

doing in the moment is is a kind of new

development in the last couple of years

where I just found that there was

certain types of ideas and emotions and

and atmospheres and I don’t know beats

of beats of soul if that doesn’t sound

too strange that were just easier for me

to express in a visual way than they

were you know you know in a written way

and that is something that you know I’ve

ended up getting a great deal of I know

where pleasure is the word but it’s

something that has become you know very

much a part of my life over the last

couple of years and yes there’s

definitely a a kind of symbiotic

relationship between the writing in the

images sometimes it’s all star going out

of my head that I don’t have any other

particular way of expressing I haven’t

found any other way of expressing I find

I can express in an image and sometimes

I will see something in and have a

thought about that and find that that

influence is the writing and again maybe

this you know partly relates back to the

idea of process whatever it is that

keeps your inner motor purring wherever

it is that keep

you’re yourself self feeling that is

engaging with the world and with things

that you you feel you need to express

and so on I think whatever works

whatever it is that keeps you that keeps

you working keeps you thinking that

keeps you feeling things these four I

think that that’s very important I think

that’s you know that and that’s part of

the sort of role that it has in my life

at the moment yeah and I mean you you

also you know along with kind of sharing

your your pictures on Instagram you also

created a website to to get artists to

share their work how do you pronounce a

BIR yeah I mean that’s something that I

want to work on a little bit more I’ve

started that about a year or so ago and

unfortunately because of work pressures

I haven’t done as much of that well I

should but it’s something I’d really

like to to move forward it spelled be

IIT dot space i I just pronounced it bit

space because other words it’s gonna be

lead space or some some such a weird


I mean it’s called be IIT space because

he came from a quote from I think Thomas

perjury basically said you know why do

you why do you there’s a I forget who

was some famous Mountaineer was so you

know why do you climb mountains and he

said because it’s there and I think it

was Thomas Burgi was asked the question

why do you write and he said well

because it isn’t there and I you know

that is part of that I think that part

of the creative process you feel

something you see something that isn’t

there and that that desire almost need

to take this thing which has a strong

reality to you within your head and and

make it concrete is a big part of the

creative process and something I just

found when you know I was I was putting

up the pictures on Instagram and

Facebook and Twitter for you know for my

own reasons for my own satisfaction like

is to degree and I found that the people

were responding to them sometimes you

know people were putting on captions for

ones that I hadn’t put on captions for

and then a couple of people actually got

in touch with me and they’d written you

know short pieces and in some cases

quite long short stories which which

were basically riffing off the picture

that I put up and I thought what that’s

quite interesting because you know again

you know right back at the beginning of

you’re a chanting you say where do ideas

come from him ideas can come from

anywhere from the islands Safeway or

from some picture that some random guy

put up on Instagram and that that lights

a tiny spark in your head and out comes

a piece of fiction and I find it

interesting and I thought well you know

these people have written these things

it’d be nice for them to be read by

people so I created this site and

because you know the creative process

the writing process can sometimes be

hard people need feedback it’s nice for

people to get feedback and it’s also

nice if there’s anything that can help

people in terms of saying okay well

maybe one of these images will help you

to put them up and so that’s what I

started doing without sign it you know

this this forty or fifty pieces up there

now we’re and it’s not just my pictures

as a couple of other people are

contributing pictures now and there’s

also some music this couple I mean I way

back in the day used to do a bit of

music and so on sort of

it’s about derivative soundtrack type

stuff so I put up those and a musician

friend of mine called Suzanne Barbieri

in the UK has put up some staff and as I

say it’s I really want to sort of take

this to a kind of Phase two but it needs

that you need far more more

sophisticated software to do it and it’s

more more time for me someone finished

this this new book that I’m writing

hopefully give that a little bit more

time definitely does sound interesting

to have you kind of leading these these

other writers and picture takers and and

and starting that up so Michael I have

kind of a funny interesting story for

you I happen to be part of this it’s

it’s a group of about 40 people we’re

friends and we just kind of have like a

Facebook group that we kind of just hang

out in one day a few weeks ago a month

ago I asked a question to this group of

friends I asked who who in your life who

who is someone that has completely

changed the way you think in your life

and someone that is alive that I can

interview and your name came up and the

person who mentioned your name her name

is Louise Louise has a few questions for

you she wants to know how’s your

relationship with writing changed over

the years yeah hi Louise if you’re

listening that’s a incredibly nice thing

to hear and thank you I guess it has

changed I mean a so sub-question the

hero’s journey that I somehow wonder

away from was how the processes writing

has changed when I was first doing the

graphic design stuff and so on when you

first start writing it’s a kind of

romantic quest it’s you versus the world

it’s it’s something that nobody else

knows or believes you could do and to be

absolutely honest you don’t know or

believe that you can do either in this

you know you’ll be doing some other job

too to pay for your time and to pay for

the stuff that you need and there is a

real sort of you know you against the

world sort of feeling about it and so at

that time I I you know I had a full-time

job and I was I would get back for me

and I would write until 2 o’clock in the

morning and I would write all day at the

weekends and he had that sort of feeling

about it and I always actually felt that

I did a lot of my best work in about 9

o’clock ten o’clock eleven o’clock in

the evening because the world was quiet

nobody’s phoning you out there’s no

pressures it’s just you in a quiet room

darkness outside and that always used to

be my best time you know cut to 20 years

later there are evening meals to be

cooked there is homework to be

supervised I have been a professional

writer for two decades that doesn’t work

anymore that that that’s that kind of

process has had to evolve so on two

levels one the way in which you do it

changes because the work because of the

way one’s life circumstances change but

also it stops being a solitary quest and

it starts being a job you have deadlines

you have expectations from readers and

publishers you have expectations which

you set yourself in terms of saying okay

well that’s not quite good enough or

hang on a minute that’s just the same

thing again shouldn’t you be still

evolving shouldn’t you be doing

something different shouldn’t this it so

becomes on the one hand it becomes

easier because you’ve done it for a long

time on the other hand it becomes harder

because you’ve done it for a long time

so yeah difficult question yeah please

also want to know do you enjoy the

process of writing have you ever felt

uninspired to write and if so what did

you do to kind of reinsert your self

there are many many many many many

occasions on which I felt on his bed and

inspired to write there are many many

many occasions of which I

I had any other job in the world it’s

you know as anyone has tried to do it

it’s not it’s not it’s not easy and

sometimes it’s a life sentence too I

mean there’s a great quote from a

screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan who says

you know being a righteous like having

homework every night for the rest of

your life and that’s that’s true there

is a it’s pixie you says yeah you should

be doing this you’d be doing this should

be doing this it’s not something you can

sort of take time off form and they’re

all sometimes weighing you down and

having said which there are days where I

will sit down and I will then look up

for hours later and have no idea what

happened and find that I wrote 2,000

words and that those those are those are

semi magical times and it’s a bit where

those afternoons or even those half

hours where stuff just comes out of the

back of your head and you think I have

no idea where this is coming from and it

seems to be working so I’ll just keep

talking it down while while it’s still


those are there’s a great you know that

you feel quite integrated as a person

you felt you’re doing something that’s

that’s distinctively you those are

there’s a great moments I would say

there are numbered in me approximately

fifty to one by the times when it’s a

struggle and it’s uninspired and during

those periods you have to do two things

one remember that you know being a being

a clothes artist is a job and if you

wait for inspiration then it’ll never

happen and you know it’s it’s again

isn’t that great Thurber quote about see

to the old newspaperman’s crisis I don’t

want it perfect I want it to stay and a

lot of being a writer who’s doing that

you just need to get the stuff down and

then worry like about whether it’s any

good and then the other part of it is to

again defer back to something I said

earlier discovering your process

discovering the fact that there will be

days when you get no words done but if

you go out and you walk around the

street and you have that half inkling

that says oh maybe I need to do this

that’s worth a day on which you write

3,000 words because ultimately piecing

together those sort of insights will be

what gets the job done Leah you know

cranking out words that shouldn’t be

hard if cranking out words is hard then

you might want to consider another job

but it’s chasing those one of the wisp

ideas and the internal man management

that’s that’s the stuff that you need to

suddenly learn about yourself

Louise also she says that she’s read

that you don’t like to discuss an idea a

novel or story before it’s finished yes

how how do you how do you choose the

ideas that you are going to work on oh

yeah it’s true I have an almost

pathological definitely superstitious

fear of discussing an idea beforehand

but to me it always feels it’s almost

like telling the punchline of a joke

before you before you’ve told the

elements it’s partly that and it’s

partly because to a possibly excessive

degree I do get sort of rather invested

emotionally and personally in the stuff

that I write I don’t fall I’ve just said

about it being a job I don’t you know

part feel like they did fail you know

each each of the things I’ve written a

lot of me goes into them and so they do

you feel extremely personal in and

despite the fact they don’t splurge on

all the stuff on into books I’m actually

extremely private rather rather


and I don’t let this stuff out just by

saying it if it’s if it’s Gunn come out

I need to have written it and spent a

lot of time where there and sort of got

it to the point where I think okay this

is okay this is worth reading this is I

feel that I’ve said the thing that I

wanted to say and so that’s there that’s

the process that I personally need to go

through publishers hate this because

what they want before you start and

certainly when they’re buying a new book

renews later books is they want to be

told what they’re getting and so there

is that process where you have to write

down a proposal for books and that that

is one of my least favorite parts of the

whole thing because it feels like I’m

just sort of you know it feels like I’m

walking naked down the street to that

stage and that’s something that I do not

enjoy doing now so in terms of the the

further bit of the question is it’s a

it’s a gut feeling with ideas for me

what I tend to do is if I think I’ve got

an idea for a novel I don’t write it

down I have huge files of other stuff

little snatches of random dialogue


you know sketches of places ideas for

little things but if I think it might be

a novel idea I deliberately don’t write

it down because I think if it takes

writing down for you to remember it

that’s not gonna get you through a year

and so I tend to just leave those and

when I tend to find with the ones that

I’ve ended up committing to is that

flypaper mode switches on and other

ideas will start to to stick to them a

character or a fuzzy idea of a character

will wandering from someone say you know

that idea that you had I could be part

of it or I’ll go a place and think ah

this is the kind of place where this

kind of thing could happen and so I and

again this is just a deeply personal you

know process and probably wouldn’t work

for anybody else but it tends to be to

me the ideas have to prove themselves to

me I don’t pick them they eventually

keep they just gives like the man from

Palo but in Reverse they they just keep

knocking at your door saying now forget

about me because I’m your next thing and

sometimes sometimes it may take ten

years they had the book I’m writing at

the moment I had the first Inklings of

the idea for it about a decade ago it’s

never been the next thing that I wanted

to do until four months ago when I

started the first draft so it’s you know

it’s oh it’s a long and winding road at

times you just have to trust that in the

end you’ll get what you want to be what

a process that’s so incredible her last

question I must have missed in the

research I’m sure you will get it I

think uh maybe it qualifies in the realm

of super fan are you still using the

same Apple keyboard for a long long time

I did use the same Apple keyboard and it

did almost approach the level of

superstition you know I would keep I

would keep changing up that the the CPU

and the machine itself but there was

this one keyboard and wasn’t the very

first one that I’d use but it was I’d

quite official stories have been written

on it

only for the first few books I think

maybe even as far as strong enough

further yeah it just became the thing

and again it refers back to what I

talked about talked about in terms of

barriers earlier there was no barrier I

knew where my fingers were on there cuz

I can i can type about as fast as i can

think on the right keyboard and so it

became something of a deal to me that

that i still had this keyboard but then


course USB came along this was an old

one of the really cool APB buses or

something and said then I think I

actually got an adapter for a while I

was that so light now sir but then

eventually you have to say you know it’s

not the keyboard if it’s not the

keyboard it’s some other part of the

thing it’s not people I still have the


I don’t currently have a study I’m

looking their living room table at the

moment cuz that’s that’s sort of working

for me but it’s somewhere in the house

is that keyboard and ya know that meant

a thing but now I know it’s it’s each

other yeah I mean I must say that you

know some of the stuff that I’ve said

and also to what I must say a very

interesting questions and thank you for

that it makes itself as though I’ve got

this this whole thing worked out

something complicated you know some

we’re very well worked at a process it’s

it’s been chaotic throughout I just I

just do what seems to sort of make sense

and I hope that you know as a sail okay

no I

thoroughly we’re you know we’re running

out of time here I thoroughly enjoyed

this conversation it’s really fun to

just kind of dive into you know the mind

of someone I deemed successful in

writing and you’ve been doing this for

quite a while I mean I want to give you

the opportunity to I mean is is there

something that you would kind of send to

your fans a message anything like that

well I did purely and simple you know

thank you for reading because you know

it goes without saying that without

people reading and without kind comments

and you know I I wouldn’t have the

freedom and the and the luxury to do

what I do you know I work hard at it and

I hope I hope this stuff out there which

is which is resonant with which is worth

reading and also just to say simply you

know I I’m on Twitter I’ve got I’ve got

a website I’m on Instagram you know

please get in touch please just let me

know your thoughts ask me any questions

you want to know why don’t you give us

your your website in your Twitter please

yeah the the website is

mes s oh yeah please get in touch always

happy to hear always happy to sit


any questions and as I say you know

thank you for enabling me to do what I


yeah we’ll definitely make the website

and the link to your Instagram and

Twitter available when we put this

episode out Michael it’s been a pleasure

sir thank you so much for lending us

your time and making the time to to talk

to us absolute pleasure to say thank you

for the questions pretty much the

interesting questions iMovie nos has

been a total pleasure you guys have been

listening to the human experience we

have been talking to mr. Michael

Marshall Smith thank you guys so much

for listening we will get you guys next



Share Button