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Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction.  In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.  He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel.  After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading.  The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.

Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however.  “To hell with Katrina,” he decided.  The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn.  “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later?  And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf?  What would the world look like?”  Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.

When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.”  Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.”  The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated.  This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.

With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character.  Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”

That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence.  The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen.  He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality.  These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.

Two recollections especially mark Cohen.  The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom.  Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.”  As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions.  Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading.  The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy.  One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story.  These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.

If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself.  With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him.  Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story.  Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him.  But he cannot do it—he cannot leave.  Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.

The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.

When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if michael farris smithhe will be a man of action or inaction.  Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really.  Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.  Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us.  I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic.  He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.

If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice.  Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand.  Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me.  The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.

If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.

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Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, dystopian literature, fiction, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers

Interview with Michael Farris Smith, Author of Rivers

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

michael farris smith 1

Thank you, Michael, for letting me ask you these questions.  Rivers left me chilled, gasping, and shaken to the core.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Not really. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was kind of a drifter. Change of scenery was something I really desired and needed so I didn’t stay in one place very long. But this restlessness took me to Europe for a few years and that’s when I began to read and that led me to the desire to write. I will say, though, that when it hit me at age 29, that’s all I wanted to do. Still is.

 

How would you describe Rivers?

Wow. That’s a tough one for the second question. I think RIVERS is about redemption, survival both emotionally and physically. I think RIVERS is about the odyssey of not only Cohen but of all the characters. There is so much to overcome. I wanted it to be more complex than simply good versus evil, and I hope it comes across that way.

What made you decide on the title?  Did you ever have any others in mind?

RIVERS wasn’t the original title. The original title had been used recently to my chagrin, but my agent and I were knocking around other ideas and when RIVERS was suggested, I thought it was perfect. It works on several different levels in the story. It’s strong, straightforward, Southern. Exactly what I wanted.

Michael, what was the impetus behind this novel?  How did you come up with the story?rivers1.jpg

There was no one thing, but several things came into play when I had the idea for RIVERS. Mississippi was still feeling, and is still feeling, the pangs of Katrina and something in me wanted to write a post-Katrina novel. But it wasn’t working and I was frustrated. At the same time I was also very much wanting to break from writing stories to writing novels and I wanted an idea that would, at the very least, picque interest. So I decided to quit banging my head against the wall with a Katrina story, and take the notion of hurricane destruction and the place and people that take the punishment and ramp it way, way up. What if a stream of hurricanes went on and on? What would it look like? What would we do? And then I started to work.

I want to talk more about Cohen.  He’s such an interesting man.  He’s a pragmatist, yet he stays in his home with the world practically coming apart around him.  He’s got a dog, a horse, and a whole lot of memories.  He’s haunted by the past.  Cohen’s a realist yet he also seems to be an idealist.  How did you come up with this character?  How easy or how difficult was it to make him so multi-layered and complex?  Is there any of you in Cohen?

I had an image of a man waking up in the middle of the night, on family land, on the Gulf Coast, after a big storm, and then he goes out to look around. And that’s really all I had. I just started to follow him, to see what he saw, to feel what he felt about what he was seeing. The layers eventually came, but I didn’t have a real game plan for Cohen other than I wanted to lay as much trouble on him as I possibly could and see how he would react. Turns out, he took a lot, and kept fighting.

I think there’s some of me in Cohen, like I guess there is in most all of my characters, but I don’t think there is much overlap. And least not consciously. He’s kind of a South Mississippi guy who grew up playing ball and riding around with a cooler of beer with his buddies and working with his hands, and that’s a pretty decent description of me.

Are there any plans on making a movie of this book?  I would love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen.

That’s a good suggestion. I’ll see if we can get him a copy.

Mariposa is another intriguing character and she also lets you talk about New Orleans and what happened there.  She’s also haunted.  How did you come up with the character of Mariposa?

Mariposa was so much fun to create because, like you said, she gave me the chance to use New Orleans and all the ghost stories and dark alleys of the French Quarter. I wanted some of the characters to be displaced, to have ended up in this situation by straight-up bad luck, and that’s how she came to be. I didn’t know when she was introduced limping along the side of the road that she would grow into the character that she grew into, but I’m glad she did.

How did Hurricane Katrina affect you and your friends and family?  Do you think Rivers would have ever been possible without Katrina?

I’m certain that there would have never been RIVERS without Katrina. It’s the first hurricane in my lifetime to have struck Mississippi and it had such an impact on so many people. I felt that impact and those emotions drove me through the writing of RIVERS.

rivers 1In Rivers, Cohen recalls a vacation he and his wife took to Venice.  It’s so interesting that they vacationed in the “floating city” given that New Orleans features so prominently in your story.  The low elevation of New Orleans means it’s like a bowl and this means it’s vulnerable to flooding.  Is there a reason why you had Cohen and Elisa tour Venice?

It started as a way to give some more information about Cohen and Elisa and their life before, so I sent them to Venice on a vacation for the sheer irony of the water. It was only about 4 pages, but my agent really liked it and suggested I write their entire trip. So I created about 20 pages of what their Venice experience was like and then sliced it up and put it here and there throughout RIVERS. It helped that I’ve been to Venice a few times and that is a place, much like New Orleans, with its own strange feeling. It’s so old, so beautiful and ancient one minute, then you turn a street and it’s decrepit and smelly. But it also has a haunting feel, and it seemed to be a good parallel to what was to come for Cohen and Elisa.

What kind of research did you do for Rivers?

None. I looked at a map once or twice to make sure I had the distance between places correct, but that’s it. I didn’t want to look at any footage of natural disasters or study hurricane patterns because I had a pretty strong vision of the place I was trying to create and I didn’t want it tainted.

Although this is speculative fiction, it is so powerful given our extreme weather this century.  If something similar happened in the United States, irrevocably altering the landscape of the Gulf South and the way we live, do you think things would progress as they do in Rivers?  Or would they be worse?

That’s a really good question and I’ve had this come up with other readers. About all I can say is I hope this isn’t a Gulf Coast that we ever see because there are many people in this world anxious to try and take advantage of calamity.

A great deal of loss permeates Rivers yet there is also a great deal of hope.  Was that an aim of yours when you set out to write the

michael farris smith 2story?

I think almost every story has to be about hope in some way. The novels and stories that I love center around hope and survival, whether it be emotional, spiritual, physical, psychological, whatever. The late, great Barry Hannah said all stories have to be about life and death and hope is in the middle of life and death.

I love Barry Hannah, another fellow Mississippian.  Did you have an ending in mind when you began writing Rivers or did the conclusion come to you over time?

I never have an ending in mind until I get there. I think planning too far ahead robs my characters of free will and that’s the last thing I want to do.

Which writers have influenced you the most? Who are some of your favorite authors?  What are some of your favorite books?

So many favorites: Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Jean Rhys, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote. Some of my favorite books are The Stranger, Joe, The Crossing, Death in Venice, Old Man and the Sea, Ballad of the Sad Café, Good Morning Midnight, Feast of Snakes, The Iliad, [and] No Country for Old Men.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

I like to be outside, chasing around my daughters, cooking out in the backyard, playing guitar, tailgating.

Our home state has produced truly magnificent writers—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, and Jesmyn Ward—just to name a few.  How does it feel to join their illustrious ranks?

It feels pretty good. There are so many great writers from this state, writers that you read and admire and aspire to be like, and then when you finally find your name mentioned alongside them, it’s surreal and satisfying and humbling.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading Rivers?

I hope that readers travel the same journey as Cohen and the others. I hope they are emotionally spent, that they feel the struggle, that they hope, that it’s an adventure.

What’s next for you, Michael?  Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on something but as always, you just wait and see how it goes. I’m excited about working again. There’s been a lot lately to keep me away from the healthy exercise of writing fiction and I’m ready to be back to it more consistently.

Thanks so much, Michael, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

Thanks to you and so glad for your enthusiasm for RIVERS.

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Friday, October 4 – Book Mart & Café, Starkville, MS: Signing from 3:00-5:00 pm

Saturday, October 5 – Barnes & Noble, Tupelo, MS: 2:00 pm

Tuesday, October 8 – Lemuria Books, Part II, Jackson, MS: Signing at 5:00. Click here to reserve a First Edition signed copy.

Wednesday, October 9 – University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS

October 11-12 – Southern Festival of Books, Nashville

Wednesday, October 16 – “Tea with Authors” at Mississippi Library Association Conference, Biloxi, MS

October 18-19 – Auburn Writers Conference, Auburn University

Tuesday, October 22 – Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS

October 24-26 – Welty Writers Symposium, MUW, Columbus

October 29 – Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

Friday, November 1 – Turnrow Books, Greenwood, MS

Thursday, November 7 – Texas A&M-Commerce, Dallas, TX

Wednesday, November 13 – James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Friday, November 22 – Lunch with “The Literary Club” in Columbus, MS

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Filed under author interviews, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, fiction, Lemuria Books, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers