COLUMBUS – The rain became Michael Farris Smith’s friend in early 2010.
“Typically, extended rain depressed me like everybody else,” he said, “but I would wake up and hear it raining and couldn’t wait to get to work.”
Smith is an author and he got an idea, the kind that had him bouncing around with enthusiasm. He imagined a future where storm after storm slammed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“What if I took a Katrina-like storm and ramped it up 50 times over? Make the weather and make the hurricanes as big as they could be?” he said, sitting on his back porch in Columbus, as rainwater dripped off the roof.
In his dystopian world, the government gives up on large swaths of storm-ravaged land. A line is established. Everyone below it must fend for themselves. And the hurricanes keep coming.
“I started working on it in January 2010, and it rained all January and February. It was one of the rainiest winters since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “I almost think there was a little divine intervention involved.”
Cohen stands at the center of the story. He’s a widower who refuses to stray too far from the graves of his wife and daughter until he’s robbed and almost killed.
How far will Cohen go to get back what he’s lost?
“I knew all those deep, dark Southern elements would be there,” Smith said. “It felt more like a rough South novel to me than anything else.”
When “Rivers” was finished, Smith’s agent shopped it around to publishers. A deal with Simon & Schuster was in place nine days later.
That was in spring 2012. Since then, there have been rewrites and a bunch of waiting. Smith actually enjoyed the revisions.
“It was mainly about growing the story that was already there,” he said.
But the waiting hasn’t been much fun.
“That’s not something that comes easily to me,” he said. “My wife will tell you it’s very hard to live with me sometimes because I’m very anxious.”
In this case, the waiting was in the service of a great opportunity. Not everyone gets to work with a top-level publishing house like Simon & Schuster.
“They just wanted to make sure everything was right,” he said.
“Rivers” will be released Sept. 10, and it already has momentum. Reviewers combined to give it four and a half stars on Amazon.com. Indiebound named the book to its September Indie Next List, and Library Journal labeled it a hot debut.
During the wait between finishing the book and its publication, Smith got to read this from best-selling author James Lee Burke:
“Every once in a while an author comes along who’s in love with art and the written language and image and literary experiment and the complexity of his characters and the great mysteries that lie just on the other side of the physical word, writers like William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. You can add Michael Farris Smith’s name to the list.”
It’s clear to see why rainy days don’t get Smith down as much as they once did.
The 43-year-old is a native Mississippian and the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. The family moved around a lot, but Smith considers Magnolia his hometown.
He studied at Mississippi State University and the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Smith also managed to “dumb-luck” his way into living abroad in France and Switzerland.
He drew upon his overseas experiences for his novella, “The Hands of Strangers,” and visits to Venice influenced “Rivers.”
“In Venice, you can walk around a corner and suddenly there’s a stagnant lagoon. It smells bad, you don’t want to be near it,” he said. “Other times, you’re walking along the ocean or a canal, and it’s just beautiful. It’s almost other-worldly that the place exists.”
Smith was around 29 or 30 when he decided to dedicate himself to telling stories. That put him on the same timeline as one of his literary heroes.
“Larry Brown was about that same age when he started,” he said. “I had read Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers and Southern writers, but when I picked up Brown the first time and read him, I thought, this is what a Mississippi writer is doing now.”
Smith admired Brown’s storytelling style, as well as his work ethic and passion for the craft.
“He once said, ‘If I worked at it hard enough, I felt like I could do it,’” Smith said. “That was my motto, you know. And it still is.”
Smith never met Brown, and that’s a lingering regret.
“A lot of my heroes have passed away,” he said. “Writers influence you and you admire them. You get to a point where, at least, you pretend to be a peer, and then they’re not here to thank.”
At The W
For the past six years, Smith has been an associate professor of English at Mississippi University for Women.
“Rivers” was selected for The W’s Common Reading Initiative, so students, faculty and staff will read and discuss Cohen’s struggles against the rain, other characters and his own memories.
The W will host a book launch party from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 10. It’ll feature music and refreshments, and readers can purchase their copies of “Rivers” and get them signed.
Smith is on sabbatical for the fall semester, which makes sense because events are scheduled in Jackson, Oxford and Hattiesburg, as well as New Orleans, Nashville and Dallas, before the end of the year.
He’s focused on promoting the book, but that’s not his only plan. Smith expects to spend considerable time alone in his second-floor office with his laptop. He has another novel idea, the bouncing-around kind.
“I feel like I learned something about writing a novel during ‘Rivers,’ something about creating the dynamics to propel the story from page one to the end,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be another 10 years before my next book. I’m ready to be back at work.”
Meet the author
MICHAEL FARRIS SMITH’S debut novel, “Rivers” will be released Sept. 10. The 352-page book retails for $25, and it’s published by Simon & Schuster.
Visit michaelfarrissmith.com for upcoming events and other information.
Here’s a short list of appearances:
• 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 10 – “Rivers” book launch party, Mississippi University for Women, Hogarth Room, Columbus.
• 5 p.m. Sept. 12 – Lemuria Books, Jackson.
• 5 p.m. Sept. 24 – Square Books, Oxford.
• 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 4 – Book Mart & Café, Starkville.