Michael Farris Smith untangles the vines that bind in ‘Blackwood’

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Photo by Philippe Matsas

Author Michael Farris Smith

Oxford-based author’s latest novel is a Southern gothic thriller set in small-town Mississippi

It may be hard to imagine today, but once upon a time, kudzu — the scrappy, stubborn vine that blankets hillsides across northern Mississippi, taking the form of virtually everything it encounters — was praised as a cure-all for challenges that arose from logging and large-scale farming.

Horticulturalists first imported kudzu from Japan and sold seedlings as ornamental plants in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that it took root in the Southern imagination. That’s when kudzu was championed as a way to stop the erosion of deforested hillsides in the Appalachian piedmont regions of northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

With those inaugural plantings established, it was next hailed as a foraging crop for livestock that would “work while you sleep,” according to the 1949 book “Front Porch Farmer.” The federal government paid farmers up to $8 per acre to plant their land in kudzu. But it proved difficult to bale and the vines were easily damaged by trampling livestock.

Yet, its climb continued. The vine’s popularity peaked in the next decade as the Kudzu Club of America swelled to 20,000 members. The South’s long growing season and abundant sunshine and moisture accelerated growth, and it began to spread out of control. In 1970, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally classified kudzu as a common weed. But it was too late.

Kudzu loomed in author Michael Farris Smith’s peripheral vision while he grew up in small towns in Mississippi and Georgia, dulling the landscapes it covered as it worked to consume them entirely. The “sinister” vine, as Willie Morris once wrote, followed him to Oxford, Mississippi, and down Highway 7 to Water Valley, where he keeps a workspace.

“I’ve seen it and been around it my whole life, but really just began to notice it,” says Smith, sitting in his Water Valley writing studio. “Even the way it grows over trees and power lines and the shape that it tends to take — it seems like a perfect metaphor for life and death and things that you can’t get rid of, things that are chasing you.”

Photo by Joe York

Michael Farris Smith

Smith was driving those winding Hill Country highways one morning when his imagination began to wander through the vines and underneath three-leafed growth that resembles poison ivy, another pernicious “leaf of three” common across the South. Once he got to his studio, he sat down and immediately started to describe the landscape he saw.

That burst of inspiration grew into the tangled lives and landscapes of “Blackwood” [Little, Brown], his latest novel and fourth overall. Under a sky that feels permanently twilight, encroaching kudzu is choking the life out of Red Bluff, a declining Mississippi town whose troubled residents are either running away or marching directly into the heart of darkness, guided by a malevolent force that lies under the kudzu.

Smith wrote the book’s original opening scene with a character standing on the edge of a valley imprisoned in kudzu, starting to lose his mind as the vines crept closer to him every night. But the farther along he got, the more the story felt unfinished. Until one day he sat down to figure out why.

“I said, ‘I’m just going to open up a blank document and I’m going to bring them into town and find out where they came from and where they’re going,’” he says. “’I’m going to have that car break down, and that’s why they’re stuck.’ And when I did, I described their car as a ‘foul-running Cadillac.’”

The phrase sounded familiar, so he grabbed a copy of his 2018 novel “The Fighter” [Little, Brown] and thumbed the opening pages. The couple who dropped off their newborn son at a Salvation Army in “The Fighter” drove the exact same car. It was a watershed moment — suddenly the characters in “Blackwood” had a backstory, and the madness that spreads through Red Bluff had a source.

“It changed everything,” he says. “I called my editor and I told him what I had just figured out, and he goes, ‘Don’t worry about sending it to me next week. You just fix it and send it to me when you’re done.’ That was the moment “Blackwood” really became the story that it is.”

Writing about the supernatural can go one of two ways, Smith says. You can either go completely toward it, like in Stephen King’s “The Shining,” or you can leave it ambiguous and undefined, like a present evil you can never resolve. Smith isn’t sure where the supernatural ends and madness begins for the characters in “Blackwood.”

Photo by Philippe Matsas

Michael Farris SMITH in Lyon 07-04-2018

“I think people will hear what they want to hear,” he says. “Any whisper in a small town, in stories that are told over and over from one generation to the next, certain people are going to want to believe them and certain people are not going to want to believe them. The people who are willing go look for it, whether it’s good or bad, or dangerous or safe.”

Smith grew up in a deeply religious family with a father who was a Southern Baptist preacher. Every Sunday morning, he sat next to his mother on a bench in front of a piano while she played and sang. The gospel music and sermons of his youth had a formative influence on how he writes and the lyrical images he conveys in stories like “Blackwood.”

And like in the epigraph he chose for the novel — a biblical passage from the Gospel of Matthew 8:20 that reads, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” — the characters in the pages that follow are restless, in constant search for a resolution they can never find.

“I don’t think I realized that until I was at the end of it and it hit me that, this is a whole ensemble of characters and none of them can get what they want,” he says. “I’m not even sure that they understand what their real problems are. As I kept telling this story, these characters almost began to devolve instead of evolve. Which is a little bit frightening, to be honest.”

Blackwood Reading from Joe York on Vimeo.