By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, describing it as “an endearing page-turner” that is “dark, funny and thought-provoking.” In short, it’s another highly unique and darkly original tale from the award-winning author of The Straw Men, Killer Move and We Are Here. AMO is therefore delighted to present an exclusive online interview with master wordsmith Michael Marshall Smith where we discuss his latest novel, future projects, children, accident imps and the Devil!
Hi Michael, thank you for your time and welcome back to Alternative Magazine Online!
Thank you for having me back!
What have you been up to since our last interview in 2013?
Oh, stuff. Writing, mainly. As you know, writing is pretty all-consuming. There’s always something that needs to be written or edited or planned. Life has happened too.
Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence has just been released here in the UK — congratulations! I really enjoyed it, as I’m sure you could tell from my review. What’s the book all about?
The book came about in — for me — an unusual way. The first third was made up every other night, as a bedtime story for my son, Nate. For some reason we drifted to something else, but I’d become so fond of the characters and the ideas that I sat down at the computer and found out what came next, which is the last two thirds of the book.
Two themes emerged: the degree to which we write our own stories as we react to life and hack our way down the path; also the way in which those stories are shaped and influenced by what’s gone before, our own pasts and those of the people we love. Plus there’s a talking mushroom. And the Devil. And quite a significant squirrel. And Bach. It’s one of those books.
The title is certainly a mouthful! What came first, the story or the title?
The story came first — in the sense of the parts I made up for Nate. But soon after I took it over and started writing it as an actual novel, the title fell into my head. Most of my books have had short titles, two or three words. For some reason, this one wanted a LONG title. As with most other things to do with HANNAH, I went with whatever my back-brain felt it wanted. The best things in my life have felt channelled. This book was one of those.
The dust jacket by Micaela Alcaino is lovely. Did you have any input into its design?
None whatsoever, but in a good way. Usually I get shown drafts of cover illustrations, and I’ll comment, and make suggestions, and things change a lot, and it can take a while — and I’m hugely grateful that publishers are this accommodating. In this case HarperCollins sent me Micaela’s design and said “What do you think?” and I said “It’s stunning. Job done.” There was literally nothing I wanted to change about it.
Is Hannah Green written for adults, children or both?
Both. Its genesis was a story told to a child, but I didn’t really make any allowance for his age at the time (I’ve always talked to Nate the same way I talk to everyone, though hopefully with a little less foul language), and once I took the story over it became itself, whatever that may be. I hope it will appeal to humans of all ages, that it provides a child’s perspective on adult life, but also an adult way of looking at a child’s. Grown-ups and children are not so different, especially when the chips are down. I’m fifty two now. Except when I’m still fifteen.
How would you describe the title character?
Hannah is a smart young girl whose life has started to go weird, in ways she at first doesn’t comprehend. It’s easy to forget when you’re an adult how much of a child’s life is outside their comprehension and their control. Easy also, however, to forget how within each child is often a strong and intuitive understanding of what’s most important, and an ability to quickly read the reality of a situation. You have to grow older to realize that the idea of control is almost always an illusion.
If I remember correctly, Mark in The Servants (2009) is the same age as Hannah in this novel and both characters ring true. How do you write so authentically from a child’s point of view?
I hope you’re right, and that they do ring true… I’m hoping to get my son to read the book and confirm it for me. 🙂 If it is authentic I suspect it’s because I tried to strip out the grown-up accretions and remember what it was like before all that experience ossified me. Children are sharp, and often strongly — if inarticulately — aware of their emotions and the bottom lines of life. In the end all stories are just emotional journeys, writ large.
Another interesting parallel that can be drawn with The Servants is that both Mark and Hannah come from broken homes. Was there any particular reason you decided to revisit this theme?
That hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s true. Mark’s home is broken: Hannah’s is in the process of breaking. I guess in both these circumstances the world is suddenly uncertain, backlit in scary ways, which brings force of character harshly into play. I suspect also that this age is the point where children begin to distinguish between their mother and father (or mother and mother, father and father, depending on circumstance) and see them as individuals, with different characters, rather than one joint parental unit. That makes the world much bigger and richer and stranger.
Hannah is very close to her grandfather in the book. Were you close to your own grandparents?
Until I was eight we lived in a different country, so apart from a couple of visits I didn’t really know them. But after we went back to the live in England we saw them regularly, and in my early teens I’d sometimes go stay with my mother’s mother by myself in a tiny village in Cambridgeshire: she was good company, and a fiercely traditional but great cook, and I was always a child who (and my son seems to be turning out the same) was happiest hanging out with grown-ups. They know stuff. They’re more interesting. They’re different, while being exactly the same. My other grandmother was a force of nature — in her mid-nineties she was visiting people in an old persons’ home — people who were ten or twenty years younger than her.
Had you always planned to make the Devil an ally of Hannah Green as opposed to an adversary?
I didn’t really plan the overall scheme of the book at all. Partly because of the way it started — an episodic, made-up-on-the spot and in the dark, dredged out of my tired imagination when I’d already spent a day making stuff up for the grown-up and to-deadline novel I was writing. Once I took it over and started writing it for my own amusement, I wanted to follow the characters and see where they led. This is where they led.
How would you describe your interpretation of the Devil?
The thing about writers — or this writer, anyway — is they’ll make up a bunch of stuff, and after the fact invent some interpretation to make themselves sound clever. Whatever I say next should be taken in that context.
The character of the Devil came out of me trying to construct a story with him as an agent within a story. But as the process developed, I realized I was trying to do two things. Firstly, to revivify himherit as a trickster, the dark chaos that comes into our lives and must be incorporated into our souls. Secondly, to see him as a god amongst a group of gods, a subset of emotions and experience. The terrible loss in the switch to monotheism was the idea of a pantheon, a range of deities big and small, there to signify and explain the complex currents in our lives. Christianity boiled that fecundity down to Good vs. Evil. You don’t have to get far out of your teens to understand this is a huge over-simplification of the human condition. I guess I was trying to suggest this through my version of the Devil, to show how everything bleeds together — that the bad guy may be the good guy, and vice versa. Just as it is in our own lives. Sometimes the bad guy or girl is who you’re supposed to be. It’s not a life sentence. It’s just real life. And it may be who you really are.
Was Vaneclaw the accident imp as much fun to write as he is to read?
He really was. He is the character who was most obviously a function of me trying to entertain an eight-year-old in the dark… but subsequently also the one that’s me having fun. Long ago — before I wrote ONLY FORWARD — I was a comedy writer. If you can’t find the funny side of life, you’re dead. It was incredibly good fun to let that part of me back out of the box, to say “Okay, you — run with it. I’m not judging.” Regardless of how well HANNAH sells, I’m going to write a sequel, for the hell of it. That’s why I wrote this book, after all. That’s what writing is supposed to be about. And life, too.
I’ve previously mentioned how much I enjoy the locations you write about; you always seem to capture the spirit of each place so well. In We Are Here it was New York City, and in Hannah Green it’s Santa Cruz on the coast of Northern California. What made Santa Cruz – where you live – the perfect place to set this novel?
Partly it’s simply the fact that’s where we live — and so Nate recognized the locations. But it’s also perfect because Santa Cruz, though a sunny California seaside town with a great university and lots of surfing, also has deep pockets of darkness. There was a time when it was nicknamed the murder capital of America, for example, because there were two serial killers operating in the area at the same time. That’s… not normal. It’s also only an hour or so from Big Sur, which — while beautiful — has a strange and unearthly atmosphere. This is a special place.
Hannah Green is unlike anything you’ve ever written before! Was it difficult pitching the idea to your publisher?
Well, I didn’t actually pitch the idea. This is one of the very few books I’ve written because I felt like it, on my own time — which meant there was no deadline and no expectations. That of course meant I suddenly had a book, and needed to find someone who liked it… and thankfully Jane Johnson at Harper did. It was Jane who accepted ONLY FORWARD, so she has prior convictions in accepting unusual books from me… and thank god (or the Devil) for her. I’d also like to give a big shout-out to Jo Fletcher, one of the other great editors of our generation, who was one of the first people to make me feel this was a story worth telling.
I noticed this is a Michael Marshall Smith book! What made you go back to adding Smith on the end of your name? 🙂
The distinction between the names is one of publishing practicality. Though this isn’t like anything I’ve done before, in flavour it’s more like the Michael Marshall Smith novels than the Michael Marshall ones.
I loved revisiting The Straw Men last year when you sent me the 10th Anniversary Special Edition to review (thank you). It’s my favourite book, so I have to ask (as always)… will John, Nina and Ward return in a future Straw Men novel?
Thank you — that’s nice to hear. Of all the characters I’ve shared time with (apart from possibly Stark) , John, Nina and Ward are the ones who are most real to me. They genuinely feel like separate entities.
It’s been a while, and I’d love to know what’s going on with them, and have some pretty specific ideas. I’m holding fire for now because I’m involved in developing THE STRAW MEN as a TV series, which might take precedence… if it happens. Don’t hold your breath, but watch this space.
What’s next for you Michael?
I’m near the end of editing a new book. I’m thinking about a sequel to HANNAH. There’s a couple of TV things which may or may not come to something. But right now… actually literally right now, as I’m typing this, I’m on a plane to Europe. I’m going to have the first holiday in a very long time where I’m not behind on a deadline, and try to enjoy it. While thinking about what comes next, obviously. Being a writer is a life sentence.
Will you be taking a book with you on vacation?
Always. One of the reasons I have an iPhone 7+ is so I can have a vaguely book-like experience wherever I go, though I have to admit my weapon of choice now is a Kindle Oasis. I’m currently reading a James Lee Burke… I fell out of the habit of him for a couple of years, the upside of which is I have a few to catch up on. I also have manuscripts by Chris DeLeo and Steve Saville — and if you haven’t read these guys, you really should — and am halfway through a non-fiction by James Hollis. Plus I seem to have packed an actual physical book by Walter Benjamin. I’ll be amazed if I get to read more than 25% of this haul while I’m away… but I’ll try.
Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me, it’s always a pleasure. I can’t wait to read your next book!
Thank you for the questions, and also for doing what you do to promote our genre, and the written word!
For all the latest news about Michael Marshall Smith, visit (and bookmark) his official website: http://www.michaelmarshallsmith.com
You can also discover more of Michael’s beautiful photography by visiting his Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/ememess