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Today is April 19, 2021

Michael Farris Smith

Writing books he wants to read

By Steven Ward

Michael Farris Smith

Visit Today in Mississippi’s Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/TodayinMississippi/ to watch author Michael Farris Smith read from “The Great Gatsby” and talk about three of his favorite books.

Before Mississippi writer Michael Farris Smith decided to pen a prequel to one of the greatest American novels in history — “The Great Gatsby” — he read the book three times.

The first occasion was in college. The book left no impression on him at that time. The second time he read it he was living in Paris and reading many of the “Lost Generation” writers of the 1920’s who called the French city home as expatriates. During the second reading he recognized why it earned its reputation, but the book didn’t mean much more to him than that.

The third time he read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic was in 2014. This time, he was awestruck.

“It was the most surreal reading experience I’ve ever had. The emotions of it really shattered me. There was so much displacement, loneliness and disillusionment of home,” Smith said recently during a visit with Today in Mississippi in Oxford.

Smith couldn’t stop thinking about the book and he decided then that he wanted to write a prequel about the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway.

Smith, 51, released his sixth and latest novel, “Nick,” in January and has garnered national and international attention including a rave review in the New York Times.

Smith, a member of North East Power, lives in Oxford with his wife and two daughters.

“Nick” takes place during World War I in France and New Orleans. The first part of the book alternates between Carraway’s harrowing and grisly experiences fighting the Germans in the trenches and tunnels and his time on leave in Paris where he falls in love with an artist he meets in a café. Following his wartime experience, Carraway, struggling with what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, lands in New Orleans. There he meets another war veteran and his estranged wife and becomes entangled i their complicated and violent relationship.

The novel ends where “The Great Gatsby” begins — with Carraway moving to West Egg, New York and living in a cottage across the Long Island Sound from an enigmatic figure in a mansion.

Because “The Great Gatsby” is such a beloved book, Smith said he knew before writing “Nick” that the criticism would be swift and decisive.

“It’s been good, bad and weird — all of the above. I knew I was going to have a target on my back so to speak. Some of it even came off as vindictive. But I wasn’t not going to write the book because of criticism. I wrote the book I wanted to read. All my books are the books I want to read,” Smith said.

Besides the New York Times rave, Smith’s “Nick” has won accolades from the Washington Post, Garden and Gun, Entertainment Weekly, O Magazine and Town and Country.

South Mississippi roots

Smith’s writing career is one that started late in life.

“I didn’t start reading for pleasure until I was in my 20s,” Smith said.

Smith was born and grew up in and around McComb and Magnolia.

The son of a Southern Baptist preacher and a teacher, Smith got used to moving around because of his dad’s vocation. The family lived in Georgia for a little while as well. Smith said the moves instilled in him a geographic restlessness that still stirs in him today.

“I enjoy a change of scenery,” Smith said. Smith, who said he was no book worm, was an athlete. He played baseball in high school at Parklane Academy in McComb and later for two years at Southwest Mississippi Community College in Summit.

“The ballpark was like our social mecca. I loved being outside. I was a ball player. I went to practice and played in games. That was my life. After baseball was over, I was lost,” Smith said.

Smith went to Mississippi State but had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.

“I wasn’t passionate about anything at that point,” he said.

Smith earned an undergraduate degree in communications because he said he “had to take the least amount of math courses.”

Reading and writing

After he graduated from Mississippi State, Smith got restless and moved overseas to live in Geneva and Paris. He spent a lot of time in cafés catching up on the writers that moved to Paris during the 1920s.

“I was reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald and about how they were away from home and I was away from home. Hemingway went to the bullfights in Spain. I went to the bullfights. It all piqued my curiosity in unexpected ways,” Smith said.

Smith’s time in Europe was when he fell hard for reading. The reading and time away from Mississippi got him thinking about writing for a living.

Smith said he had no idea how or where to begin.

“I came back home. Moved in with my parents. I was 28 or 29. All my friends had families, had real jobs. I had no job. No anything,” he said.

Smith figured he could study creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi.

The idea was improbable at best.

“I had a 2.5 GPA. I bombed the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and had no writing samples. Instead of applying by mail I decided that I would drive to Southern Miss and talk to the administrator,” Smith said.

Smith spoke to a woman in the administrative offices about his background, his experiences overseas and what he wanted to do. Miraculously, he said, he was admitted to the program.

“I had no idea how hard it would be but for the first time in my life since baseball, I felt like I really loved something,” Smith said.

Smith earned a doctorate in creative writing and got a teaching job at Auburn University in 2003.

During this time, Smith wrote tons of short stories. Some of the stories were published while many more were rejected.

Smith kept at the writing but moved back to Mississippi in 2007 to take a teaching job at the Mississippi University for Women. He left that job last year to write full time.

Smith sold his first novel, “The Hands of Strangers,” when he turned 40.

Later, Smith wrote and sold four other novels before writing “Nick” — “Rivers,” “Desperation Road,” The Fighter” and “Blackwood.”

Smith has earned a national reputation for penning gritty Southern literary tales about blue collar Mississippians. Much of his writing was influenced by one of his heroes, Oxford writer Larry Brown, who died in 2004.

“I picked up Larry’s book of stories, “Big Bad Love.” I had never heard of Larry Brown at that point. I read it and was stunned. I recognized the people in those stories. I knew them. They were my friends and relatives,” Smith said. “That book showed me how I could write about Mississippi.”

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