by Z.S. Roe
From The Hunger Games to World War Z, dystopian and apocalyptic fiction has quickly become a mainstay in contemporary pop culture. But given the often bleak and frightening depiction of our future in these novels, it’s sometimes puzzling that readers are so drawn to these genres.
“You know, I don’t know why [that is],” said Mississippi author Michael Farris Smith when I said the same to him. “Maybe people like to be moved to fearfulness on some level. Maybe readers and moviegoers like to for a little while feel like they’re being placed out on the edge of the world.”
It’s a question he’s going to have to get used to answering. This month, Smith’s debut novel, Rivers, hits bookstore shelves. Set in the near future along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Rivers follows Cohen, a lone man who’s chosen to live below a government instituted boundary known as the Line. In the wake of a great climate shift and endless hurricanes that have ravaged the coast, the government has simply given up. Below the Line, you’re on your own.
In other words, Smith’s debut novel is something of a dystopian thriller with a dash of post-apocalypse; but that was never his intention.
“I didn’t think too much about it when I was writing it,” he told me via Skype from his home in Columbus, Mississippi. “It didn’t really occur to me that it was science fiction or dystopian, but when I started getting responses from people, those were the words that popped up. To me it was just a Southern novel with a little bit of a twist.”
Unlike many aspiring writers, Smith didn’t consider pursuing fiction writing until he was in his late twenties. In fact, he didn’t even read much fiction until a few years before then. “I probably would have never started reading much at all if I hadn’t lived abroad for a few years,” he explained, telling me about his years in Switzerland and France. “I spent a lot of quiet time in apartments and on trains [… and] I started reading to fill up some of that time. The more I read, the more interested I came to be in reading, and I just found myself really enjoying it and, really, my imagination just came to life.”
Rather than return to a nine-to-five job, Smith decided to pursue fiction writing full time and enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Centre for Writers. “I was 29 when I told people what I was doing and they thought I was a little bit strange,” he said. “But I just told myself that I wasn’t going to quit until I gave it everything I have, and that’s how we got here today.”
Originally, Smith (now in his early forties) set out to write a novel set in the midst of hurricane Katrina, but was never satisfied with the results. “I stopped and started a couple times because I felt like I was not doing that [tragedy] any justice,” he said, “and I didn’t want to fabricate the hurt, the emotions, the loss of people who’ve actually suffered through it.”
Even so, the subject of storms wouldn’t leave him. “I thought to myself: what if Katrina just never stopped?” he told me. “I began to imagine a world where there was one hurricane after another with hardly any break in between. And if this went on for five or six years, what would that region look like, and what would be the response to it by people who lived there?”
When I asked Smith about his decision to have Cohen choose to stay below the Line despite the inherent dangers to Cohen in doing so, he remarked that this is something we often see in places of crisis around the world, with the devastated New Orleans being the example closest to him. “People have an attachment to place and always have and always will, and they don’t want to give that up,” he explained. “They love the land, they love their home; they love the memories that hover around those places as much as they can love any physical thing. And therefore it would take literal death to remove them from it.”
Perhaps it is in this way that Smith’s novel will stand apart from others in the genre: his is not a story of dystopian spectacle, but of personal loss and despair, redemption and rebirth. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that advance praise for Rivers compares Smith to such literary greats as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. One way or another, though, Rivers is sure to make a big splash.
Michael Farris Smith’s Rivers was released on September 10, 2013 by Simon & Schuster. For more information, you can visit his website here.