Taking Characters to the Extreme: An Interview With Michael Farris Smith
Michael Farris Smith talks about his latest book, The Fighter, and why it’s sparking such strong emotions in readers.
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We’ve called Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith’s work deep, dark and redemptive in the past, but his new novel The Fighter takes those descriptions to a new level. He says “holy shit” has been a popular response to this novel, and it’s a good thing books of matches were created as part of the promotion. Reading about fighter Jack Boucher and the risks he’s willing to take with his body and mind will have you wanting a cigarette even if you’re not a smoker.
Smith’s latest main character has suffered concussion after concussion, living most of his life as a bare-knuckle fighter and nomad. Jack’s memory is failing, and he survives mostly on painkillers and the assistance of a notebook filled with names of his friends and foes. The novel opens with “Round One” of Jack driving from Vicksburg to the Mississippi Delta, with an envelope of cash in the glove box and a note telling him to deliver it straight to Big Momma Sweet.
Of course, things don’t go as planned, but Smith brings in tattooed carnival worker Annette as an unlikely savior for Jack. Just when you’re thinking he might give his characters a much-needed break, Smith puts Jack in a situation that lands him in the ring one more time.
We talked to Smith from his new home in Oxford about Jack Boucher, the small details that make this book so incredible and why he wants his readers to have strong emotional reactions to his work. He says this book has been the most personal for him—and also the most tender.
EZB Why did you write about a fighter character this time? Do you have any experience with that profession?
MFS: No, not like he does. I had a few typical parking lot, barroom fights like most small town Mississippi boys. Nothing like Jack Boucher, that’s for sure. My original thought was I had an image of a guy who was middle forties and his body was really breaking down on him. I thought what if he’s a fighter and what if he’s an illegal cage fighter. Things he would endure would be more likely to go undetected, concussions he’s had. As soon as I had Jack Boucher in mind, it all unfolded really quickly.
The physical pain, brain injuries, mental gaps, pain pill problem. He became extreme to me very quickly. I just wanted to push him and see how far he could go and what all he could endure. When I sat down to write The Fighter, the long chapter one soliloquy of how he hurts, what all he feels was the very first thing I wrote. I decided then that not only him, but everybody else I was really going to push to their limits.
Broken fingers and dislocated kneecaps and sprained neck and gashed skull and again and again and again the fists and knuckles and knees and elbows and he felt it all as if every blow he had absorbed and every blow he had delivered still existed somewhere in an invisible cloud of pain that draped and held him like some migrant soul in search of home.” – Chapter one
EZB: The detail of Jack’s failing memory and his personal notebook seemed so precise. Where did that come from?
MFS: It’s the way I tried to imagine his life to be. He’s a loner, he doesn’t have anyone he can turn to. A tremendous amount of that is brought upon himself. What would he do to cope with it? How would he get from one day to the next? He’s cognizant of losing his memory so he’s preparing himself. How do you prepare when you know you’re losing your memory in the middle of your life? I pushed Jack to his limits and he pushed me too as a writer. I went some places with Jack that emotionally I don’t think I did before. There where times when I had to step back from it.
EZB: You’ve said you want to “create emotions that move off the page and into whoever is holding the book.” Why are your readers’ emotions important to you?
MFS: I just feel like reading should be an emotional experience. When I read a novel, I want to be moved and scared and worried and I want it to make me think about the world around me. I hope my novels and my characters get readers to change the way they look at someone walking down the side of the road or someone fumbling with what little money they have at the gas station counter or not being able to remember something or get a family back together when it’s falling apart. I’m moved by people who try really hard, and I want them to succeed. I pull for my characters from the beginning. I want my readers to feel the same heartbreak and reward I feel.
EZB: Why did you choose the Delta and Clarksdale for the setting of this book?
MFS: I’ve been in and out of the Delta fairly frequently, and the Delta’s just such a complex, fascinating place. The landscape is different, it looks different. I kind of always wanted to set a book in the Delta and when I had idea for Jack Boucher, I thought I need something dark and desolate but still full of these eccentric characters. The Delta just fit all of those criteria. I really enjoyed moving Jack through the Delta. The Delta’s one of those places when you drive into it, you feel something different.
EZB: Place plays a big part in this novel and for Jack. He didn’t find his place with Maryann [his foster mother] until later in life and is trying desperately to hold onto it. Is this for himself, for her, or both?
MFS: I think he just realizes how badly he’s betrayed her whether she knows it or not. Jack’s a gambler, he always has been. He’s going to roll the dice and see what happens. When it hits and he’s got one prayer left, of course he’s going to chase that one prayer. It doesn’t matter what it is. He’s like that saying, ‘If all your friends jumped off the bridge, would you?’ He would be first.
EZB: This book has been called dark and poetic. Did anything specific inspire you and are you a poetry reader?
MFS: I’m nervous of subconsciously trying to adapt the voice of what I’m reading. Music influences the way the words are coming out of me. I was around gospel music growing up my whole life. I have music I listen to every morning before I go to write. I’ve always been hopeful that my prose had a lyrical quality to it.
EZB: You’ve been out on tour and headed to Australia and France. What kind of reception is the book getting?
It’s been strange getting ready to talk about this book now. The Fighter has been more personal to me. I’ve seen more of myself in The Fighter than I have in anything else. I can’t put finger on why. It’s something about Jack and his childhood and his relationship with Maryanne. For all its brutality—Publisher’s Weekly called it ferocious—I think it may be the most tender thing I’ve written. There are two people in there who needed one another so badly and found one another.
EZB: What’s next for you?
MFS: I’ve come to the end of a draft of something new last week. One thing all my novels have is you can tell it’s me. They’re the same but different.