- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Around the time his 2013 novel, “Rivers,” was released, Columbus resident Michael Farris Smith had an idea for another story.

“I just liked the image of Maben and Annalee at the side of the road and everything they own is in a garbage bag,” Smith said during a recent book signing at Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore in Tupelo.

He soon realized the mother and daughter’s problems weren’t going away and he’d have to start writing if he wanted to see how the story ended.

“It felt so urgent to me from the beginning,” the 47-year-old said. “The more urgent things are, the more excited I am about writing the story.”

Lee Boudreaux Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Co., released Smith’s “Desperation Road” in early February. It’s a story about mistakes and vengeance and the heartaches that radiate from both. There’s hope, too, but it’s stripped down and devoid of fantasy.

The action plays out in homes, bars and backroads in McComb, where Smith lived during junior high and high school.

“I didn’t even think the book was going to be set there,” he said, “but when I had the idea of Maben and Annalee on the road, I knew they were on I-55 going from Louisiana to Mississippi. I thought, This is a place you know so well.”

Buddy’s, a McComb bar, appears in the story, and it was a surreal experience for Smith to walk through those doors after finishing the story.

“When you go back, you kind of picture the people who were in your mind and start looking around for them,” he said. “Once they’re in your head, they don’t have a tendency to go away very quickly. You kind of keep imagining them and wondering what’s going on.”

An active imagination is every writer’s friend, but it’s not always easy on the writer’s family.

“My wife has a lot going on and I have a lot going on, and I have six or seven people in my mind talking to me all the time,” he said. “It makes it difficult to focus.”

In addition to writing, Smith is an associate professor of English at Mississippi University for Women, where he teaches students how to tell their own stories.

“The most important piece of writing advice I ever got was help your readers see what you see,” he said. “You want it to be vivid, memorable.”

He advises novice writers to work consistently day after day. That can be 30 minutes or three hours. It’s all about turning ideas in the brain into words on a page.

“Most people have an hour a day,” he said. “You’ve got to do it. It’s not going to knock on your door.”

Smith follows his own advice in an office in downtown Columbus that’s reserved for creativity.

“It is for my stories and my stories only. I don’t take anything else with me,” he said. “I go after dropping my daughters off at school. It’s my second home, my own space. It’s a tremendous difference. I look forward to going there every morning.”

It can be difficult to focus on fresh writing in the middle of a publicity tour, especially when he’s also balancing family life and teaching.

He’s made a bunch of stops throughout Mississippi, including an appearance on Thacker Mountain Radio, which was a treat for the longtime listener.

“I’d never been in the audience before,” he said.

A multi-state swing is scheduled to coincide with Spring Break, so he’ll be attending book festivals, visiting bookstores and doing interviews.

On the new media side of things, Little, Brown and Co. asked him to take over the company’s Instagram account to post photos he’d taken of McComb.

It’s easier to get the word out when actual readers have good things to say. “Desperation Road” was chosen as an Indie Next Selection, a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick, an Amazon Best Mystery & Thrillers of the Month and a Square Books Best Upcoming Book for 2017.

Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Booklist have all published positive reviews.

Richard Grant, author of “Dispatches from Pluto,” wrote, “This book tore at my heart and infected my brain. It reminded me how powerful literature can be, and how often it falls short. Michael Farris Smith is a huge talent.”

According to author Ron Rash, “‘Desperation Road’ is an elegantly written, perfectly paced novel about a man and woman indelibly marked by violence. Characters who would be mere stereotypes in a lesser writer’s hands are fully realized, and we come to care deeply as they attempt to create a better life for themselves. An outstanding performance.”

Mississippi author Tom Franklin called Smith’s work “taut, tense and impossible to put down.”

That’s only a sampling of the positive reviews.

“It’s been nice to hear from people you admire and who influenced you as a writer,” Smith said. “That’s valuable and inspiring and humbling. It makes you want to sit down and write something new.”

When “Rivers” was accepted for publication by Simon & Schuster, Smith was thrilled and did his share of celebrating. But he didn’t get much new writing done between when the contract was signed and the book was released.

He took a different approach with “Desperation Road.” When he wasn’t working on revisions, Smith was in his office writing the next story. “The Fighter,” which is set in the Delta, is nearly complete. Smith also has written some 20,000 words on another story.

“I love talking about books,” he said, “but I always enjoy getting back to my quiet time. You’ve just got to keep going. I’ve learned that good ideas, when they appear, you’ve got to grab hold.”

That philosophy led him to “Desperation Road” and then to “The Fighter,” which is scheduled for an April 2018 release.

“If you want to be a writer, it’s not a one-shot deal,” he said. “It’s a career. It’s book after book.”

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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