Both growing up in rural Mississippi and living abroad among whimsical Paris cafes and witnessing classic Spaniard bull fights made novelist Michael Farris Smith a literary character within his own world.
Smith is the award-winning author of "Rivers," a novel based in the American South after a series of storms strike post-Hurricane Katrina, and "The Hands of Strangers," a novel based in Paris where a couple is confronted with the disappearance of their 9-year-old daughter.
"I can't imagine anybody who, when they're a child or teenager, (dreams of) wanting to be a writer, because it's such a strange thing to be," Smith said in an interview. "I mean it's still such a strange thing to me to go to the battle with everyday, more or less."
Smith, like most other young adults, never really knew what he wanted to be when he grew up, other than one dream that never quite expired—being a baseball player.
"When I got to be 21 years old, there was no more ball to play, and I wasn't interested in anything academically," Smith said. He ended up attending Mississippi State University when faced with the ultimatum of being a student or becoming a working man. Smith chose school, and shortly after graduating, he flew across the Atlantic to Europe and lived in both France and Spain, where he spent most of his time reading and writing.
"I was reading Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald and names anyone who went to high school would know," Smith said. "I was reading a lot because I had language gaps, and I was sitting in cafes and in my apartment, and I needed some entertainment, and that's really why I started (writing)."
Smith remembers reading Hemingway stories that took place in Paris cafes when he was sitting among French locals in similar cafes. "(Hemingway's) characters would go into the bullfights in Spain, and I had been to the bullfights in Spain," Smith said. "So I was beginning to find this connection. I read Faulkner because I'm from Mississippi, and I think everybody from Mississippi should probably read Faulkner, so I (also) made that connection there."
What really turned Smith to writing was Larry Brown, an Oxford firefighter who made himself into a writer.
"When I read his stories I realized, 'OK, this is what a writer living in Mississippi today is writing about,' and I connected with his characters," Smith said. "He was writing about characters riding around on the back roads, getting into trouble, and getting out of it, maybe not knowing quite how, and I just kind of knew that type of person he was writing about. It just seemed familiar to me in a way that maybe Faulkner didn't. I knew the land of Faulkner, and I kind of knew the people, but it was earlier than my time."
Smith was about 29 years old when he returned to Mississippi from living abroad. He had no plan and no job. At that moment, Smith had nothing to lose and realized he was going to give writing a try.
"The day I got my first publication at (a small literary journal), I jumped around like I won the Nobel Prize," Smith said. "I was absolutely thrilled. I think if you had a camera on me the day that I got an acceptance letter from my first story, and I got it for my first novel, I was equally happy and satisfied."
Smith says what most people don't realize is that everybody already has their own voice and style based on what they bring to the table, such as what they've read, the kind of music they listen to, who their friends are, what their family is like, if they go to church or don't, or if they play ball or don't.
"If you stay at it, you're going to have your own unique style because you're your own unique person with (your own) unique experiences," Smith says.
"Rivers" was named in numerous Best Books of the Year lists, and garnered the 2014 Mississippi Author Award for Fiction. His short fiction has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and his essays have appeared with The New York Times, "Catfish Alley," "Writer's Bone" and more. Two novels are forthcoming, "Desperation Road" (February 2017) and "The Fighter" (2018) with Lee Boudreaux Books, a specialty fiction imprint with Little, Brown. He lives in Columbus, Miss., with his wife and two daughters.
Meet Michael Farris Smith tonight, July 11, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. when Jackson Free Press Editor-in-chief Donna Ladd interviews him about writing, creativity, growing up in Mississippi and his recent column on HB 1523 at Coalesce in downtown Jackson (109 N. State St.) with a reception following with beer, wine and food. The event is free.