Michael Farris Smith talks about his new novel Desperation Road, called “an important literary event” by Robert Olen Butler.
Mississippi-born Michael Farris Smith admits that his work is often times dark—how can it not be when you’re inspired by Flannery O’Connor?—but he says his new novel Desperation Road is ultimately about love and courage. And he doesn’t mean romantic love either. If there’s one lesson readers will learn from Smith’s main character Russell, it’s that helping just one person in need can change your life forever.
“I just mean love for one another, for humankind, for reaching out to help someone who just needs one person to reach out a hand to them and the courage to be brave and to keep fighting,” he explains. “I hope readers will take that away, that they will see the redemptive power and see the courage and the grace and the love that exists there also.”
Smith’s explanation is also an insight into his writing process, which involves taking risks and piling on the bad stuff to see whether characters have the strength to keep going. Both of these strategies are evident in Desperation Road, as a homeless mother and daughter struggling to find shelter meet up with a man recently released from prison.
“I didn’t really have much of a start other than this image of this woman and child walking along the side of the interstate in the middle of the summer carrying a garbage bag filled with everything they owned,” Smith says. Their names are Maben and Annalee, and Smith begins the novel with this mother and daughter experiencing one fateful night that sets them on the run. After that, he just followed the story to see where it went.
Placing a young child on the side of the interstate is one of the risks he chose to take as a writer, raising the stakes for danger and tugging at readers’ heartstrings. “I want the stakes to be as high as they can possibly be,” he says. Young Annalee is also what causes Russell to become involved with this bedraggled pair, despite his own problems after spending 11 years in prison.
In her mind she began to trace her steps, to calculate what had gotten her here, into this night, with this sleeping child that she couldn’t care for, with the wolves outside waiting to get her. But it was as if she were trying to fit together arbitrary pieces of different puzzles.” – Chapter 11
In the vein of Sundance’s Georgia-set show “Rectify,” Russell is dropped off at a parking lot in his hometown of Magnolia, Mississippi, (also Smith’s) fresh out of prison. He immediately notices new stores and neighborhoods that weren’t there before but also finds that old grudges, loves and vices remain the same.
“What he did was his own fault,” says Smith. “He can’t blame anybody else, but he does come out and he sees that home is different in some ways, but he’s still got to deal with the mistakes he made.”
Smith shows his prowess at depicting the landscape by taking Russell on long drives down Mississippi country roads and showing the reader the place his character calls “home,” no matter how conflicted he might be about it. Cutting his teeth on major Southern writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown and William Gay is what Smith credits to his mastery of setting.
“Those writers obviously put an emphasis on place and setting as its own character,” he says. “When I began to write for myself, I also wanted to create place and setting and use that to really drive a story forward, because it engages me so well as a reader. I just settle into those books and those writers with such ease and feel the heat or feel the cold or see the woods and the snowfall across the land. I just love it when the place plays such a large role in the story.”
My road is the road that brought us all here led by what hand I don’t know. But here we are and I can’t let this go. It’s just her and the child and it’ll get worse and worse and some of us can take it but some of us can’t and some aren’t supposed to have to.” – Chapter 49
Those who read Smith’s last novel Rivers will know that he also excels at creating a sense of home and family even if the physical locations they were once tied to have been destroyed. In Desperation Road, Russell has lost the fiance and life he once dreamed of having. Despite a local bully’s attempts to wreck the new life he’s starting to rebuild, Russell manages to carve out a slice of home and share it with Maben and Annalee.
Smith says that moving abroad after college caused him to fall in love with western Europe and also long for his home state of Mississippi. He now lives and teaches in Columbus but says “home is a collection of emotions more than geography. I have this kind of affinity for place, because place is varied, so maybe that has something to do with the reason my characters aren’t quite sure of where their place is. When they do realize it, they try very hard to grab ahold of it.”
Released February 7, Desperation Road has received high praise from Tom Franklin, Ron Rash and Richard Grant. Wiley Cash described it as “forged in a fire stoked by the ghosts of Carson McCullers, Larry Brown and William Gay.” With the centennial of McCullers birth coming up later this month, we wondered whether Smith was inspired by her when writing this novel. He said he’s read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe probably a dozen times and that it continues to teach him about writing and storytelling. “That to me is such a wonderful example of how you can create a layered, complex, hurtful, emotional story in 80 pages,” he adds.
Desperation Road is a bit longer, coming in at almost 300 pages, but it’s obvious that Smith is cementing his place in the Southern literary canon. And despite all of the comparisons to some of literature’s biggest names, he’s not copying anyone. Desperation Road is a story all his own: deep, dark, redemptive and hard to forget.
“I’ve learned as a writer that everything matters,” Smith says. “Every person that walks into the story, everything anybody says, every place anybody goes, it all matters.”
His next book, The Fighter, is due out in April of 2018 and promises even more redemption set to a backdrop of the Mississippi Delta.