Kudzu preys on everything, even troubled characters, in Mississippi writer Michael Farris Smith’s latest novel Blackwood.
Take one look at the cover of Michael Farris Smith‘s new novel, and you’ll know he’s in some new territory as a writer. Just when readers thought he took things to the extreme with character Jack Boucher in The Fighter, he returns with a landscape of fear and ghosts—and a story about the wickedness that lurks in all of us.
His reckless fighter character Jack Boucher makes a surprise return as well, adding a deeper layer to this novel and connecting Smith’s two most recent books in a way that will resonate with readers. Covering the landscape in Blackwood are the kudzu vines Southerners know so well. The green leaves have swallowed up everything—even the town of Red Bluff, Mississippi’s, deep, dark secrets.
Main character Colburn has returned to Red Bluff to confront his own conflicted past. He meets and falls in love with local bar owner Celia. Meanwhile, sheriff Myer is confronted by a strange family of drifters. All of these characters are stuck in Red Bluff for one reason or another, and it’s going to take a series of mysterious disappearances among the thicket of kudzu to set them free.
We interviewed Smith by phone from his home in Oxford, Mississippi, right before he set out on a monthlong book tour for Blackwood.
Erin Z. Bass: This cover is so striking. How much input did you have and what kind of response are you getting?
Michael Farris Smith: The Fighter cover I loved right off the bat. They sent me Blackwood and not anything else, just the image. My jaw dropped because I thought it was such a unique vision for the cover and all the different ways it spoke to the novel. I’ve heard from so many different people about it. You kind of have an idea of what you think it’s going to be. I assumed it was going to be some dark, murky-looking landscape. I walk past it on the bookshelf at my house and I’m like, goddamn that’s a good-looking cover.
EZB: The kudzu leaves inside for each chapter are a nice touch too.
MFS: There was something different about this one. I didn’t put chapter numbers on it, so when we got ready to start the copy edits and all, I said, ‘I don’t want to put chapter numbers, but why don’t we do something with the art?’
EZB: You just touched on this, but this book does feel different. You’ve dabbled with the Southern Gothic before, but you went all the way with Blackwood.
MFS: I think my characters are often spiraling out of control at the beginning, but probably because of the landscape and the way I had imagined this valley and the darkness and the shadows, I just had a feeling these characters were going to go down paths I hadn’t been down yet. And then I just allowed them to do that. It kept getting darker and darker and darker, but I don’t know how you stop it.
Particularly the man with his dive into madness, and I think Colburn is largely the same way. I just got to the point where I was happy to let it go into the deep and as dark it would go. It kept me awake at night and gave me nightmares, I admit that, but I wasn’t going to get in the way of it.
EZB: You surprised me with the Jack Boucher connection. Can you explain how that came about?
MFS: You have serendipitous things happen to you as a writer every now and then, but I was almost through with Blackwood, or what I thought was going to be the finished draft. The draft that I was getting ready to send to my editor, the man, the woman and the boy have kind of been there all along. Something wasn’t sitting right with me, because I felt like I didn’t know them. I said, ‘I gotta figure out who they are.’ I opened up a blank document and I said, ‘I’m going to bring them into town in a busted-up car and when I sat down to write that scene, I used foul-running Cadillac and I thought, I’ve used that before. I picked up The Fighter and sure enough, right there on the opening page, it says something about a foul-running Cadillac. I was like holy shit, they had a Cadillac when they abandon Jack Boucher. Now they had their own story. I picked up the phone and called my editor. I had a lot of new work to do, a lot of rewriting to do, and it elevated Blackwood in a way it was not elevated up to that point. In some ways, I think it’s elevated The Fighter too.
EZB: Do you have any movie updates for The Fighter or Desperation Road?
MFS: They are casting for The Fighter [going by the name “Rumble Through The Dark”] right now and trying to get the lead. They are planning to shoot in the Delta. Parker and Graham Phillips from “The Bygone” are the directors. Desperation Road has a director and is beginning to cast also. And Blackwood has already been optioned by the same people as The Fighter.
EZB: You might need to transition into a screenwriting career.
MFS: The great thing about writing the scripts is I’ve got to keep my hands in it. I think both scripts, they are the novel, which makes me very proud. I think we’re going to put the story on screen that’s in the book.
EZB: Back to Blackwood, the kudzu is taking over the town of Red Bluff in this book. It’s a harmless vine, yet you give it a sinister, strangling quality.
MFS: It was an experience in starting a novel that was very similar to Rivers. The first thing I had was the landscape and what was going on with the weather. My jumping-off point was the kudzu and this valley that was just swallowed by it. And then I thought if it’s on the edge of a small town, we all know how stories get told from one generation to the next and ghost stories and whispers about things you might have seen or heard. The vines are so invasive and so I think predatory in some sense—and so patient too—in the way that they just take everything. That probably had as big an impact on what’s happening to the characters as anything.
EZB: It’s also an image that any Southerner can relate to.
MFS: When you see these huge clumps, and in North Mississippi you just see these acres, where kudzu has gone up the light pole and covered a house and covered a tree and you think how long that took and how much almost had to be forgotten to allow this to take over in such a way, because it is so incremental. Acres and acres of landscape across the South that have been ignored while kudzu has been allowed to just swallow it. Every time I see a house buried in the kudzu, I think, what happened there? At one point, someone lived there and there were maybe children playing in the yard. It’s like things below have a life of their own.
EZB: I love that idea of whole houses and an “underground” beneath the kudzu. That was scary to me.
MFS: It scared me too. I thought it would be more of something like “The Shining,” where there was this supernatural thing that kind of drove it and you would never really see or figure out. Or “True Detective” type stuff, where there’s something out there that’s very strange, you know it’s evil, but it’s also very real. And we can’t find it, which makes it all the more scary. To know there’s something real out there doing very dark and evil things, but in a way you can’t put your hand on it and you can’t find it, that’s much more horrifying.
EZB: Although this book is different from your previous work, the characters are still very much “you.” Can you tell me about them?
MFS: I can’t even remember who it started with specifically. The boy, for me, was some of the more interesting parts to write. The time I spent with him were some of the more emotional parts for me. When he’s pushing the shopping cart around town and being shooed away and the way he handles it. You see him being very human and trying to participate however he can. He was the hardest to let go.
In the same sense, the woman, his mother, you find out her leaving her baby [Jack Boucher] behind wasn’t as heartless as you think it might have been. Those were the things that grabbed ahold of me and hurt me. The man is involved in that whole scenario too but has a completely different experience. This descent into his mental illness and his violent way of reacting to the world and this discovery he makes beneath the kudzu feels like he’s won some kind of strange, morbid lottery.
You might see those three standing at the dumpster one day and think they’re the same person, but they’re not the same person. They have their own emotions and complexities and things that hurt them, just like the guy driving past with his air conditioning on. The humanity in them might be at its strongest.
Colburn is carrying this shadow around with him from his childhood experience of walking in on his father’s suicide. You just never know what somebody’s carrying around. When he meets Celia, we see him begin to recover from that because she is kind of the spirit he needs. I was interested in her being free-spirited and forward-thinking, but she seems almost tied to this small, dying place. She won’t leave, but she’s handling it in a very different way from everyone else with a strange kind of optimism.
EZB: What about Sheriff Myer? I liked him.
MFS: I liked him too. Myer, he realizes when all this begins to happen, that he is unprepared for it and time has passed him by. He realizes he should have been paying more attention his whole career now. There’s no way to get ready. He’s out of time. There’s a sense of loss in him even though he’s supposed to be a symbol of hope for everyone. He’s overmatched, and he keeps going further and further away from being able to deal with it. He and his wife were like these moments of normality in the novel too. Two people married for a long time and they have jobs and go about their business, but when tragedy hits, everybody is the same all of a sudden.
EZB: It does feel like everyone is stuck in this town, and we all know small towns like that.
MFS: This little town thinks it’s oblivious to this evil in the woods. The story they have is the story of Colburn’s father, and that was 20 years ago. There’s a feeling of stagnation in town, almost like a time capsule, but then they’re brought into the present almost abruptly.
Dixon is the guy everybody who reads this book is going to say, ‘hey I know this guy.’ He’s the small-town guy, shooting pool at the beer hall, who can’t get over what happened in high school. He’s hurt as bad as anybody around there, but he doesn’t know how to fix things either.
EZB: What are you working on next? Any chance you’re going darker?
MFS: I’m going dark, but in a different kind of way. My sixth novel will be out next year. I think you’ve got to take chances, you know, take different types of risks. As a writer or artist, that should be the sign that you’re onto something. If nothing’s alive in you, it’s certainly not going to be alive in the reader.
Blackwood is out Match 3 and is one of our 11 Spring Reading Picks. See them all here.