In Blackwood, a young man named Colburn returns home to a small Mississippi town in the mid-’70s, where his father was hanged twenty years earlier. Even after two decades, the incident still cloaks Red Bluff in darkness. As Colburn searches for answers about his own role in his father’s death, he encounters a man, a woman, and a young boy from Michael Farris Smith’s previous bestselling novel, The Fighter.
Southern Review of Books editor-in-chief Adam Morgan called Blackwood “a stunning Southern gothic thriller, laced with kudzu and soaked in dread.” Michael Farris Smith lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and I recently spoke with him over email about his new novel. This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity — and to avoid spoilers!
With so many pivotal characters in Blackwood — Colburn, the boy, the kudzu, the house, the town of Red Bluff — whose story, primarily, did you intend this to be?
MFS: I don’t know if I can answer that. You’re right. It’s more of an ensemble cast than I’ve had in my other novels. It wasn’t by design, it’s just the way it turned out. There were days when I thought it was the nameless family’s story. There were days I felt it lean toward Colburn. Days I felt it lean toward Celia. Days I was sure it was going to belong to Myer. And I enjoyed that. I think a lot of that decision will come from the reader and who they seem to connect with more, or what thread seems to carry more weight. I’m not sure. I wondered sometimes how it would all spill together but didn’t worry so much about a “lead” necessarily. Merging these threads was part of the validation for me in the process of it. I’m still not sure and don’t want to be.
Though we don’t know his identity at first, we eventually find out one of the unnamed characters is Jack Boucher, the protagonist of your previous novel, The Fighter. Why did you return to that character in Blackwood?
MFS: It came to me late in the development of the novel, that this man and woman and teenage boy had to come from somewhere. They had to have done something before rolling into Red Bluff. So I sat down and tried to figure that out and I started with having them break down in this little town. When I described the vehicle, I wrote “foulrunning Cadillac.” And I knew I had heard that description before. I picked up The Fighter and looked at the opening scene, where they abandon two-year old Jack at the Salvation Army store, and the nameless couple is driving a foulrunning Cadillac.
That opened up their world for me in ways it had not yet shown itself. It gave them a backstory, it gave them complexity, it gave me plenty to figure out about these people. So their early scenes in Blackwood when the woman is crying and lamenting leaving the small child, when the teenager is remembering having the little boy sleeping on his lap, when the man is explaining they had to do it, they couldn’t feed him anymore, all of that made them alive as characters. As people. I didn’t want to beat it over the head, though. I like the subtlety of it. I like that each novel stands alone. I love that it married itself to The Fighter because I’ve never had characters spill from one novel and into the next.
Did you create the character of Dixon as a foil for Colburn? Or are they both just down-and-out souls “entrapped by the vagabond heart of the Deep South?”
MFS: That’s a good question, because it seems like under different circumstances, Dixon and Colburn would have probably been buddies. When I created Dixon I didn’t really think of him as a foil, I just thought of him as this guy that I think most people, especially from small towns, probably recognize, but as with everyone there is a lot more to him. There are things that keep him awake at night, that cause him heartbreak, that make him dream of something other than the life he has made for himself. He was an interesting study for me, to get that out of a character who seems to fit in so nicely to his surroundings.
One of your most endearing characters dies before the end of the novel. Were you worried about readers’ reactions to his or her loss?
MFS: Yes. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I worried . . . but not necessarily because of concern for the reader reaction. I wanted to figure a way out of it for [him or her]. Believe it or not, I consciously thought about it. But I’ve learned you have to get out of the way of the story, no matter what it is. I felt the spiral. I could see it coming. It would not have been fair to the story or to me to manipulate for the sake of manipulating it. I won’t lie, [it] got to me. I’ll probably think about [that character] for a long time.
The race of your characters is never identified. Was that an intentional decision? Could any of them be people of color?
MFS: I don’t see why not. I think there have been plenty of novels written about race in Mississippi, and there will probably be another twenty or so out this year, by people who might know about it, and by people who certainly don’t know about it…. I’ve been asked this before about my other novels and why I don’t write about race, or ascribe race to characters, and I’m trying to write about the human condition above all else. It seems to be the most important thing. . . Whatever colors the reader wants to see or imagine is okay with me.
By Michael Farris Smith
Little, Brown and Company
Published March 3, 2020