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Interview: Michael Marshall Smith
With the BBC recently snapping up the rights to his latest novel ‘The Intruders’ and a feature film based on one of his short stories, ‘Hell hath enlarged herself,’ in production, Michael Marshall Smith is one of the hottest British writers around.
From his early science fiction novels to his last four more contemporary books (as Michael Marshall), the author’s imagination about future technology such as cloning and artificial intelligence, and the way in which he integrates everyday technology into his non-science fiction novels, have added a new dimension to his writing.
I caught up with Michael in a pub in Kentish Town to ask him about his passion for Macs, the iPhone and why he thinks human nature will always bring out the worse in any new technology:
PG: You’re a bit of a technology fan – what gadgets are you looking forward to getting your hands on?
MMS: I’m looking forward to the iPhone. I know it’s not going to work properly, but I early adopt every Apple technology, from the message pad to the cube and so on. What I would really love is a sort of sub-notebook – the pads are small but they are just a little bit too big to carry round. I think they’d be the two things that I wanted.
PG: Apple likes to make a big splash with their products don’t they?
I know when the cube came out I was walking past it and thought ‘f****** hell that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen!’ even though it’s considered one of their failures. They are the only people who manage to do that kind of thing. I assume what they have done is that they have listened to what everyone has said about the iPhone and learnt from their mistakes in the past about putting something straight into the market. Hopefully they will have ironed out the problems by the time it arrives.
PG: So will the iPhone replace your Treo?
No, I’ll keep hold of the Treo because it works. It does everything I want to, and it synchs up well with my Mac. The thing about the Treo is that it lets me get my e-mails when I want them rather than constantly pushing them at me like Blackberrys.
PG: I’ve never really got the whole Blackberry thing…
No – I remember reading an Ian M. Banks novel where they had chips that told everyone where you were all the time, like GPS; but I WANT to get lost, and there are times I don’t want people to be able to find me. The moment you get an e-mail, especially about work, it sits there in your mind even if you are trying to get on with something else.
PG: A lot of your sci-fi novels have a fairly technologically dystopian world. Do you see technology as something that corrupts humanity?
I think they’re not dystopian about technology, but about human nature. I was lucky with the timing of Spares in 1996 because it came out around the same time as Dolly the sheep was created and there was all this talk about the implications [of cloning], and my book said, ‘with human nature what it is, what is likely to happen with this technology?’ I think the big problem that scientists in general make is forgetting what people are actually like. They don’t ask ‘well what happened the last time we did something like this? We are going to do it again, so let’s think about it before we actually do it.’
PG: Your latest book ‘The Intruders’ is contemporary, but one of the things that seems to work very well is the way in which you integrate things like text messaging into the storyline. You seem to make people’s use of technology seem very natural in your books – they just use them without trying to explain how they work or why…
We do tend to absorb [technology] into our lives and it does reflect that in the book. There’s a balance to find because you don’t want to be too techy, but the reality is that we are all used to e-mails and cell phones. You see old films where the whole thing hangs on finding a payphone and you think; ‘that’s not as relevant any more’. The stories that we can tell are affected by the technology we use. I’m sure there will come a point where I fall off the technology wagon and think; ‘what is this ‘instant hologram’ that everyone is talking about?’ and I won’t be able to integrate the technology into the stories that I want to tell.
I remember when the first mobile phone came out I thought; ‘who would need something like that?’ And again, when people started texting I thought; ‘Who would want that?’ but now texting is my main form of communication with a lot of the people that I know. There’s no expectation of dialogue, with e-mails you get the awkward conversations. I don’t think anyone uses it any more but I remember when people put NRN on emails, ‘no reply necessary’, but that seems to have been phased out. As soon as a technology comes out, human nature kicks in.
PG: As a Mac fan you don’t have much problem with crashes – does that mean you get out of the habit of saving your work?
I am an absolutely ingrained saver and backer upper. I have a .mac account so everything is backed up on a server. I had a laptop stolen a few years ago with 30,000 un-backed up words on it. It was actually non-fiction – it was just a bunch of notes I’d made about stuff. It was musings about life, the universe and everything from a particular time of my life that I am never going to be able to replicate.
I could have killed my wife the other day because our kid knocked her laptop onto the floor and completely totalled it and she had no back-up. She lost about six years’ worth of emails but she still hasn’t got a backup. I don’t know what it would take…probably losing 30,000 words of writing, and never getting it back again. I did try to rewrite what I had lost but I only got about five or ten thousand words back.
PG: A few years ago you suggested the internet was a pretty dull place, do you still feel this?
I don’t think the internet is dull: I think there are lots of things that it is very useful for, I just think it hasn’t found its feet yet – there’s a feeling that it’s going to be something else and I think it’s not there. I look at things like Second Life and I think; ‘if I was 15 years younger, that would be something that I could disappear into’, but I’m not. I’ve got too much stuff going on in my life and I really don’t have the time. I remember playing things like Sonic the Hedgehog for literally days at a time but I don’t have the time to do that any more.
I was talking about the last series of ‘Lost’ the other day. I loved the first series, and then, just when I felt it was getting good again, Virgin took over my cable and fell out with Sky. So I said I would wait for the box-set and my friend said ‘just download it’, but I can’t really, because, as someone who produces copyrightable material, I don’t really want to rip anyone else off.
You look at the huge studio and think; ‘I’m not doing them any harm’, but then you look at the person who is writing the script who is getting a percentage of a percentage of a percentage and you are actually taking money out of that guy’s pocket. I mean would you photocopy a book? This is something that we shouldn’t trivialise.
One of the things about the internet that I do worry about and I do distrust is that people are distanced from the things that they do. I look at forums or emails and, when you are writing by yourself on something like that, your sense of self is massively inflated and without some sort of checking process or a reality check on what your writing can do to other people, what comes out can be a little scary.
PG: And people’s ability to spell and use apostrophes as well?
I have vaguely fascist views on things like that. There should be grammar checkers in browsers; if you type something in and it doesn’t pass the test you shouldn’t be allowed to post it, on the grounds that if you can’t be arsed to find out how apostrophes work, which is very, very simple, why should we give a s*** about anything else you say?
My dad’s a professor and I talked to him about half an hour ago about this. He was talking about first year students who don’t know anything about grammar. People say we should do away with apostrophes but that’s like saying you could have an orchestra without an oboe, it does make a difference and so do apostrophes. So why should I care about your Amazon review if you can’t get that right?
PG: I hear you have a lot of projects on the go at the moment.
I’m working on a couple of things. I am adapting 'Hell hath enlarged herself' for a film. I’ve spent so many years as a screenwriter, working my arse off and going into meeting to be told can you do this, this and this. To be in the position of being one of the producers and being the one saying can you do that, that and that. It’s a difficult adaptation because studios and audiences don’t like back story but this has a big pre story.
One of my projects at the moment is that ‘The Intruders’ has been optioned by the BBC so I am adapting my novel as a feature length pilot and trying to come up with a bible for the series to come after that. That’s come in during the last month or so and swept everything out of the way because the BBC wants to move quickly on that.
PG: I think your books are pretty tricky to adapt; if you take something like Spares – the first two acts are relatively straightforward but the third is such a change of direction it would be really tough. I think that’s something you’ve got in common with Steven King – where he’s really tough to adapt for film.
MMS: I think there have been some decent Steven King adaptations; ‘Shawshank Redemption’ for one, although that was a short story so they could just point a camera at it and film the whole thing – but I think they did a good job. With ‘Intruders’, I’ve never tried to adapt or make a film out of one of my own novels – and it’s made me realise how much internal dialogue and flashbacks there are. There’s loads of stuff that needs to be moved around and actualised and dramatised. It’s certainly not straightforward.”
You haven’t got that Dr Watson character to help out…
Someone to say; ‘so what is it you’ve done here?’ No, a lot of my main characters are very lonely, and they don’t have that buddy thing to do so no, it’s not straightforward. A novel is a novel because that’s what it’s meant to be so trying to update it for another medium is quite a handful and often novellas are less complicated in terms of what can be done. With a lot of books there’s a lot more fluff which doesn’t need to be in and sometimes there are complexities that are in the book that you don’t need to do.
You’ll have to find a way to get the MMS rants in that feature in all of your books…
It’s a recognisable part of my books, but if you have a character, especially in the first person, then he is going to have things that are going to p*** him off…
Like massage as part of sex?
I really do hate it, and those rants are more transparently me than other parts of the book. There’s a lot of me in them. There were bits where I wrote from a female perspective in the Straw Men; I wrote from Nina’s perspective and I hope they weren’t too obviously wrong.
Do you feel like you are learning as a writer? Are there things from your older books that you would change if you re-wrote them?
There are always things you would change. For some of the books I think; ‘if I could have another go at that I would trim 1,000 words out of that’ or, ‘that was a tiny bit clumsy’ or there was a day that I wasn’t really inside it and I didn’t really catch it in the edit, but each thing that I have done I tend to think of as snatches of my life at that time. People often ask, why don’t you write a follow up to Only Forward? But I wrote it at 26 and if I were to write a follow up it would be very different unless I took Stark forward to the age that I am now. Only Forward laid out my cards very early – I don’t like going back I do prefer to go on.
You tend to give your characters happy endings; I suppose it would be a bit unfair to take them away!
Life tends to have a cyclical type of shape. Something horrible happens, someone dies and you laugh at the wake.
Is there any date when you are expecting ‘Hell hath enlarged herself’ to be ready by?
It’ll be ready when it’s ready. The script’s a long way from being ready – what we have money from the film council for is development, and there’s no point doing the development unless you have the script. We’ve only got one run at it and if you choose a script that’s not ready then everything with that name and with that subject is dead. So, there’s no way we’re moving onto the development process until I, and other people, are reasonably confident that it’s ready. It’s good to have a deadline, because they keep you pushing forward, but you can’t let that push you into doing something right now before it’s ready
Was it upsetting that Steven Spielberg optioned but ended up not using Spares?
It’s disappointing, from a financial point of view as much as anything because a lot of money would have been made. I certainly don’t see that a bad film necessarily hurts the book.
So you wouldn’t have been disappointed if, at the end of The Island – which had major parallels with some of the themes from Spares – said ‘based on an idea by Michael Marshal Smith’ at the end of it?
From what I’ve heard about The Island I would have been furious if they had done that, but if it had been a movie called Spares and had ‘based on a book by Michael Marshall Smith’ and they’d done a reasonable job of it then I would have been happy.
The thing with Spares is: there was a night when I was sitting in a pub not too far from here and I got a phone call saying: ‘Steven Spielberg has optioned your second book’ which was weird but nice, and also it was good publicity. The bad thing is the paperback version of the book died in the States because my publisher at the time thought ‘it’s been optioned by Spielberg and the film might be out about the same time as the paperback so we won’t bother to do any PR or marketing or whatever’.
So, it died after it had done well in hardback. People cared about the film for a long time, it dribbled on and there was an appalling script – which I’m not saying because it was my baby, but because it was an appalling script. Then there was all this stuff about The Island where for a year people were phoning me saying ‘what are you going to do about The Island’ and it got to the point where a journalist said that ‘you do know that three of the same producers that are working on The Island are the ones that were working on Spares’, but do you want to go up against the studios? It’s not something you need in your life.
The funny thing is, after I had stepped back from it this whole thing about a movie called ‘Clones’ came out which had been made a couple of years before I wrote Spares. I hadn’t seen it but somebody could have said ‘you wrote the book about that’. It’s just an idea; people have a facility in which they clone rich people.
Have you ever written a film-script from scratch?
I have; one called ‘Where the children went’ and one called ‘Friends forever’. ‘Where the children went’ was just a spec script I wrote by myself, for myself, and basically one element works quite well and another element doesn’t and I haven’t had the time to fix that. The other one I wrote and it was one of those where the director and I couldn’t agree on it, and the film company went down and the director walked away with the idea. My wife actually made me vow not to have anything to do with the film industry any more and she was very serious. I’d had this policy of writing a novel and then writing a screenplay for hire. The screenplay was meant to take two or three months but it never did – it always took nine or ten months so I started the next book very late which caused stress and hassle. There were a couple of things, and I thought; ‘I’m not even getting properly paid so I’ve had enough of this’.
I’m back involved again because Hell hath… is my own story, Intruders is my novel and so there’s more of a personal interest in what someone is doing with it. It’s a weird industry, it appears so glamorous and it’s so full of lunatics and banality and people who would literally sell their own grandmother.
I suppose that’s one of the things I sense about books, that there is an inherent honesty to them
People have said for ages the book is going to die but of course it’s not. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect technology, it’s portable, you can use it whenever you want, chuck it in a box for 50 years and it will come out and work straight away. You see a film and that’s it – you’ll never see it any other way, but with a book it’s different. I remember with a Martin Amis book, ‘The Information’, which I read when it came out and thought; ‘that’s not as good as some of his others’, but then I read it when I was much closer to the age of the main protagonist and I thought; ‘wow, that’s really much better than I realised’. You can revisit books; you can do that with films to a degree, but it’s not the same. I think it’s perfect tech as a way of delivering a story into someone’s mind.
You suggested that a lot of people only like your sci-fi and not your contemporary books or vice versa – do you find that strange?
That’s the weird thing; there are a very small number of people who read everything and like them all, but so many read only sci-fi or only horror. I suppose it’s what you look for in a book. Do you read it for the voice, their general world perspective or the way they tell stories? Or do you read it because it’s got talking fridges in? That’s the thing.
For years I’ve done this, it’s very often the first question; ‘when are you going to do another Only Forward?’ At a couple of events I did recently, someone said ‘Are you going to do any more Straw Men books?’ A writer has to move on, you don’t go on Friends Reunited and say; ‘I’m only going to be friends with the people I met at 18’ that would be lunacy, so people saying ‘this is the kind of person I am; this is what I like and that cannot change’ is very limiting. I like to think there are people coming with me as a writer, so I don’t have to say ‘f*** it’ I’m only writing sci-fi’ or ‘I’m going to create a dysfunctional detective and write 99 books’. That’s the easier route; it’s easier to write, it’s easier to publish, it’s easier to keep your fans, but I don’t have the attention span. I don’t want to do that.
One of the things I’ve taken a lot of stick for was killing Bobby in Straw Men. I really did regret it because Bobby is one of the favourite characters I’ve ever written, but when I started Straw Men I didn’t mean it to be a trilogy, so when I wrote the second book I thought ‘why did I kill Bob?’ It would have made getting into the second book a lot easier, changed the shape a bit and it might have been a better book. But Bobby had to die; sometimes the good guy dies.
The books of Michael Marshall Smith:
Michael has published several full length novels as well as many collections of his short stories. His story 'The man who drew cats' won the British Fantasy Award for best short story in 1991, and after three successful science-fiction novels, a move to horror brought a shortening of his name to Michael Marshall.
Only forward (1994): A genuine modern classic, Only forward follows Stark as he attempts to find a man in a future world where society is split. Amazing gadgets abound, but it is the characters and dialogue that catapult the book to the dizzy heights that it achieves.
Spares (1996): An ex-cop battling against drugs and his own past finds partial redemption in his quest to rid a downed shopping mall of an evil that is threatening the very bounds of reality. Cloning plays a big part in this second novel - which explores the inherent darkness of human nature.
One of us (1998): Set in the near future, 'One of us' sees a world where people are paid to deal with other people's memories and dreams, and asks 'how much of who we are is our memories?'
The Straw Men (2001): A move to contemporary fiction brought a change of author name, but the dark concepts, noir feel and opinions are instantly recognisable. A shadowy conspiracy of serial killers is discovered and tracked down in a thrilling paranoid classic.
The Lonely Dead (2004): The second novel in the Straw Men trilogy and the first time that Michael provided a sequel. Linking up with (some of) the main characters from Straw Men, the story continues.
Blood of Angels (2005): A thrilling finale caps off the Straw Men trilogy, and deals as much with what is within us, as what horrors await in the world.
The Intruders (2007): An amazing book that the BBC have recognised as a work of genius as they look for the next great thing for drama. Impossible to put down, clever, quirky and as resplendent with amazing dialogue and humour as all of Michael's novels.