Embrace What Scares You: An Interview with Michael Farris Smith

When the religious extremist group hunting her child’s father discovers them, Jessie returns with her son to the home she fled in her youth and begins to make sense of her broken childhood in the midst of a deadly chase. Salvage This World, the seventh novel by Michael Farris Smith, explores the enduring nature of love amid a crumbling Southern landscape plagued by turmoil, both natural and man-made. 

Michael Farris Smith is an award-winning writer whose novels have appeared on Best of the Year lists with Esquire, NPR, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, Oprah Magazine, Book Riot and numerous other outlets, and have been named Indie Next, Barnes & Noble Discover and Amazon Best of the Month selections. He has also written the feature-film adaptations of his novels Desperation Road and The Fighter, titled for the screen as Rumble Through the Dark. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife and daughters. We spoke in March, shortly after devastating tornadoes ravaged areas near his home, which brought to mind the tumultuous weather that is a main thread in Salvage This World

What’s it like writing dystopian fiction at a time when it feels we’re wading into dystopia as our reality?

Salvage this World is really a prequel to the novel Rivers. In Rivers, the hurricanes have become so frequent that the government has drawn this line around the Gulf Coast and says they aren’t going to govern it until all this weather is done. I always thought I would come back to it, at least indirectly. In my mind, Salvage this World is about 8 years before that. I was interviewed for Rivers and was asked about the dystopian element, and that was the first time it hit me that it was going to be interpreted as dystopian, because it felt so real to me. So with Salvage this World it feels more real to me than Rivers does because there are certainly elements of Rivers that we haven’t seen yet. But in Salvage this World you see towns that are slowly eroding. You see people leaving and not coming back. You see the economy shrinking. I think that’s why Salvage this World is kind of a hurtful novel for me as well, because I can see these people and truly imagine these things and almost reach out and put my hand on it. 

One of the main threads of this novel follows a tent revival called Temple of Pain and Glory, run by Elser, a “hardlooking woman” whose sermons “were filled with hellfire and damnation. A doctrine that camouflaged a more pure theology of greed and dread and lust. A mindfuck of religion.” To me, she was the most compelling character – the hearse she drives around, and her backstory. How did she emerge in your mind?

I swear sometimes you’re just sitting there and you know it’s time to bring someone else into this thing and they just pop in there. I think what I wanted in Elser was almost a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and I thought putting this person – this very manipulative, gritty, driven person – in the form of a little, wiry old lady who looks like you could pick her up and put her in your pocket, putting her in that form would give her that dynamic of being the one in control of all this. Someone who has real charisma and personality characteristics that she uses as her weapons instead of brute force. It was more fun for me to do it in this way. To also put her in front of a congregation underneath a tent, and have her delivering her message and her fiery tone one minute and chastising the next and almost motherly another –  that was a blank canvas. There were a lot of interesting things to play with her. I wanted someone that I could push to the limit and keep her in the realm of believability and not have her become a caricature. The moment she showed up I was very excited. The days of writing her were the most exciting for me, when I’d be walking into the room knowing she was going to do something. She was very unpredictable. I liked that about her. 

As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I’m curious how your own childhood experiences with revival may have shaped the Temple of Pain and Glory. What was that journey like, for Holt to find it and Elser?

It would be crazy to say it did not inform or influence it, but my upbringing was not as renegade as the Temple of Fire and Glory; it was more brick and mortar – not as intense. There was an intensity of what to do and how to do it, though. Revival week was a huge week; it was the week of the year in our church. I’m not sure why. I think even as a kid, I was curious about that. What makes this week any more special or holy or possible to save souls than next Sunday, or two months from now? And I think that does, now that I talk about it out loud, there is an intensity to revival week where the stakes are raised. The time is now. You can’t wait another minute. It’s up to you to make the decision. There’s a time limit. And I’ve seen it, the call at the end of the service goes on and on and on, and people just get up and go; who knows how much truth is in it at that point. My experience serves the Temple of Pain and Glory, and some of the things I saw behind the scenes – maybe even more of that than a service or the invitation at the end. 

You’re known for writing about the human condition, and this certainly comes out in the father-daughter relationship between Wade and Jessie. It’s deep and complex. There’s two decades of hurt and loss that they revisit throughout the novel. They’re haunted, in a way, and their reconciliation takes many turns. As you unpacked their story, what were some of the things that stood out most to you?

It was really interesting to me because right out of the gate I knew this was going to be the story of a father and a daughter. I have two daughters, and that’s likely why I stayed away from this topic for so long. But now I have one who is 18 and one who is 12, and I think anyone who reads Salvage this World and has a teenage daughter will probably recognize a lot of the dynamic between Wade and Jessie. That was the thing that really grabbed hold of me and scared me a little bit. But I’ve also learned that the thing that scares you a little bit is the thing to embrace, that thing that pushes you out of your comfort zone and out into the water where your feet can barely touch. That was the driving point for me. This was a story about a father and a daughter beyond anything else, and that’s what it will always be to me. Maybe one day I’ll read this and laugh – we’ll see. 

The prose is incredible. It is rich and contextual and vivid. All of your work is this way, not just in Salvage This World. Do any of the lines or sections stand out as your favorite?

There’s the scene where Wade takes Jessie to the beach when she’s little, and then in the middle of the night something is gnawing at him and he picks her up and takes her home, and that’s the time when they get lost and find the Bottom. The road literally comes to an end, and there’s this mythical place that he’s heard about his whole life. That was a section I can think of, a passage that really stood out to me because it allowed me to do the things I really love to do, which is to get into a character’s emotions and subconscious and write them with some intensity and some darkness. 

And that was such a pivotal scene because Wade looks back on it and wonders why he couldn’t just let Jessie sleep and wake up and take her to the beach the next day, but it’s that night where he learns where the Bottom is, and it’s so pivotal for what happens in the end of the novel.

My life has been such a series of that – one thing happens almost accidentally, and then you look back and you see the breadcrumbs of the trail and you can’t help but be thankful that they happened. I met a guy at a bar in Dallas that gave me the chance to go to Europe, and if I didn’t get the chance to do that at 24, when I had nothing to hold me back, do I pick up reading as entertainment? When I come back to Mississippi, if I don’t meet the woman that I marry a month after I get back, how quickly do I get frustrated with writing and say that really isn’t for me and I pack my bags and head out to California or wherever? There’s something like that in all our lives. Even weird decisions we make are eventually going to matter.

Which character did you connect with most?

Wade, because of the father daughter relationship. I think in my mind, Wade and I are about the same age. I think Wade’s got some things in him he can’t quite explain, that he can’t quite put a finger on. I think it would be fair to say I’ve had similar experiences – I think we all do. There’s no way to define each and every thing that moves within us, our feelings and emotions. I would probably relate to Wade the most because of what he holds on to and what he’s lost and the protective nature as well, but in his solitude also there are things that I relate to and that make him as close to me as any other character has been. 

Without giving any spoilers, can you share what it was like for you coming to the end of the novel and seeing the story unfold the way it did? Did you grapple with how to reveal what Elser finds? Or what Jessie loses?

I’ve often said – and this is weird – but writing the end of the novel is often the easiest for me. I’m like everyone else; I don’t know what happens until I get there. I wish I had a better answer that I had this planned or I knew what my strategy was, but when Wade is in that truck and going toward the Bottom, I have no idea what’s coming out of it, and I’m curious myself. Getting to the end of a novel is great because you know there’s no tomorrow. I know I’m at the end, but I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. And you sit there and write and then you have this feeling that I’m done and I’ve done everything I can do to it. I haven’t ever really had to re-write any endings. I’ve revised them, but I haven’t gone back and chopped them off and re-written them. I’ve thankfully gotten there organically. The ending for me was this great sense of discovery. I can’t really attribute it to much else. And hopefully that translates to the reader.  

Salvage This World
By Michael Farris Smith
Little Brown and Company
Published April 25, 2023