In the creepy and cavernous old building, Michael Farris Smith sits on a stool and shares a haunting passage from “Blackwood.” The virtual reading on the author’s website, filmed by Joe York, may resonate even more than its book-tour equivalent during this COVID-19 pandemic. The echoes of its isolation, the decay of its setting, the hum of dread and the cutaways to the insidious vine that devours Mississippi hillsides—that’s where this story goes and mercilessly yanks readers along.
“Blackwood” is the fifth novel from the award-winning Mississippi writer, whose books have appeared on numerous Best of the Year lists, earned him praise as a powerful voice in contemporary fiction and caught the attention of Hollywood.
With a scene-driven economy of words and an abundance of vivid imagery, in “Blackwood” Smith conjures a Southern Gothic landscape where the tendrils of trauma and whispers of ghosts lurk at the edges. The small, sad and dying town of Red Bluff sits on the edge of a big valley covered in kudzu, the richly imagined setting for a story of beaten-down souls and elusive hope. Characters are on that edge, too, poised for a pitch into madness or just on the brink of danger or salvation.
‘Thinking About the Vines’
Smith, son of a preacher then at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was born in McComb. His mom’s roots in nearby Tylertown pulled his parents back to Mississippi. He lived in about a half-dozen small towns across the state early on, ending up in Magnolia, south of McComb in Pike County.
He recalls the tennis courts and public hoops across the street from his boyhood home, and the kudzu that grew up around the fence, snaked down the slope behind and formed a canopy. “We’d go over there in the summertime and build forts,” he says.
Wherever he lived as a kid, kudzu was there. Strange, he says, this experience of seeing it his whole life, and then in recent years, noticing it anew. And seeing it as an intrusion, with its own ideas.
“Blackwood” marks the second time a landscape started Smith’s story, as the Gulf Coast and hurricanes previously did in “Rivers.”
“I started thinking about the vines … I just began to notice it in different ways. In spooky and haunting ways,” he says.
Smith let his imagination run with it, envisioning a valley completely encased in kudzu that swallowed cars and creeks and houses whole, and the small town on its edge. He thought of what happens in small towns, and the ghost stories that pass from one generation to the next. What if people heard or heard tell of voices from the valley? What if the kudzu had its own life?
“It became a storyteller. … Many times, I could almost feel it breathing,” he says.
‘So, I Blame It on the Church’
“Blackwood” is a dark, dangerous and heartbreaking journey that hangs around long past its last page. A harrowing opening in 1956 finds young Colburn confronting a suicide. Twenty years later, he’s drawn back to his hometown—a return that coincides with the arrival of a family of drifters whose lifeline is as frayed and fried as the engine of their beat-up Cadillac.
Aside from a few moments of black comedy or saucy respite, the book’s unsettling path is marked by secret burdens and startling violence, the access to grace, and the desire of some to do better, be better than fate or their natures allow.
His darkest book to date? Smith doesn’t disagree. “In the very beginning of ‘Blackwood,’ I just felt the spiral of it.” And, when the drifters appear, and the man finds the kudzu valley for the first time, hears the voice and takes possession of the shadowy world underneath, “I knew then, I knew it was going to go down. Not down, necessarily, but that it was going to be dark and creepy.”
Several reviewers and interviewers say it’s his most spiritual work as well, Smith says. “I guess they’re relating to the battles the characters are going through,” and the novel’s final pages. “I’m glad that’s landing with readers,” he says.
“I think I’m just drawn toward stories that really challenge you on an emotional level and a spiritual level,” Smith says of that dark magnet. “It may be that my first introduction to storytelling came in Bible stories.
“As anyone who’s been to Sunday School knows, those stories are about some serious stuff. They’re about temptation and loss and redemption and seduction and failure and repentance—all those things. And then, they’re filled with great images. Dark images. The old rugged cross … the crown of thorns … the parting of the Red Sea for the good guys to get across and then closing over the bad guys. Daniel in the lion’s den, and you know he’s sent into the lion’s den to be eaten, which is as gnarly a death as you can think of. That taught me a lot about the depths we’re capable of, and the use of images to tell stories.
“The closer I came to becoming a writer, those were the same kinds of stories I was drawn to,” Smith, chuckling as he adds, “So, I blame it on the church. How about that?”
“Blackwood” is Smith’s third novel destined for the screen; he’s finishing the script now for directors and brothers Parker and Graham Phillips, who also are set to direct the feature “Rumble Through the Dark” based on Smith’s 2018 book “The Fighter.” His 2017 “Desperation Road” was also optioned for a film; Smith wrote the script.
“They’re all in various stages of movement, which is good. I’ve learned with Hollywood, that’s all you can hope for,” Smith says. “I’ve been fortunate. The directors for ‘The Fighter’ and ‘Blackwood,’ and the director for “Desperation Road’ love the story I told, and wanted me to tell it in a different way for the screen. … Hopefully, all three are coming to shoot in Mississippi.”
‘We Drank a Beer and Talked About Things’
Smith says his move to Oxford from Columbus three years ago was good for the whole family—wife, Sabrea, and daughters Presley, 15, and Brooklyn, 9.
“I think I was just ready for a change of scenery.” He continues the routine he kept in Columbus, with a separate writing space for work. Now, his studio is in Water Valley—a 15- to 20-minute daily drive to recover from hectic morning routines, listen to music and get ready to work.
“It’s very important for me to be habitual about it, and dedicated to it,” he says.
The author finds motivation in Mississippi’s literary legacy. William Faulkner, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Eudora Welty and Willie Morris were the writers Smith was reading even before he figured out he wanted to do it himself. “I saw what could be. I saw what was possible in these other writers. … Why couldn’t I do it, if I worked hard enough?”
He started down that path at 29, the same age Larry Brown did, and found a partnership in the parallels. Smith met Brown’s son, Shane, on a Mississippi Book Festival panel a few years back. Since his Oxford move, they’ve become friends, and have sat together at the little writing shack Brown built in Tula, a tiny community southeast of Oxford in Lafayette County.
“We drank a beer and talked about things. I remember Larry’s essay about building that cabin. And, sitting on the deck with his son, it was a very circle-of-life type of thing. It was very rewarding, and validating in a way.”
Smith is happy he came to writing later, he says, after years of reading, observing, living different places, soaking it all in. “When I did get ready to write, there was a real seriousness to it. … I had things to say that I wouldn’t have five, six, seven years earlier.
“It’s not for the faint of heart, and you have to commit yourself to it. … Mississippi just inspires me with all the things it offers us—all the complexities and all of the contradictions, all the vibrancy, all the religion, all the liquor stores. I don’t have to look very far to see or imagine characters in this landscape.”
And, if Smith sees a way to improve that landscape, he takes it, such as tackling issues like Mississippi’s House Bill 1523, the “religious freedom law” that many criticize as anti-gay legislation. “If I have a voice and can speak up about things like inequality handed down from the highest office in the state, I should speak up,” he says. “We put up with a lot of that in Mississippi. It’s time to turn a corner and I feel like, if I can help with that, I will.
“Mississippi is in my blood, in my heart, and I think that is the reason it aggravates me to the point I won’t let it sit there any longer. I have to say something.
“You can’t be hurt by something you don’t love. And if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t care what happened to it, and I want it to be better. I want it to keep getting better,” for his children and future generations. “There’s still too much of the old-time religion.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, the original story indicated that “Blackwood” is Michael Farris Smith’s third novel. It is his fifth. We apologize for the error.