Michael Marshall Smith

British novelist, screenwriter and short story writer

Michael Marshall Smith (born May 3, 1965) is a British novelist, screenwriter and short story writer. When writing thrillers, he writes under the name Michael Marshall.


Released as The Upright Man in the U.S.
  • It was dry and cold, not bitter, but with the kind of steady chill that makes it hard to remember being any other way. I tried to imagine people living out here once, and couldn't. It must have been long ago. The land felt like it didn't want anyone bothering it anymore.
    • Prologue - Yakima
  • Nobody likes to see a body, but it's better than seeing a ghost. Bodies just make you doubt the world and the people in it. Ghosts make you doubt everything, and to doubt it in a part of the mind that has no words to answer the question, where the comforting promises you make yourself are neither believed nor even really understood.
    • Prologue - Yakima
  • Forests in the day are friendly places. They remind you of Sunday walks, swooshing leaves, holding a parent's big, warm hand, or providing that hand yourself. At night the woods take the gloves off and remind you why you're nervous in the dark. Night forests say "Go find a cave, monkey-boy, this place is not for you."
    • Ch. 1
  • It was all a matter of hard work and luck, and Ryan didn't mind either of those. No, the stuff that wore you down was the parts where no amount or work seemed to make the difference, where luck simply wasn't there and wasn't coming and you couldn't seem to explain that to someone who had their heart set on the world being the way it was supposed to be, instead of the way it was.
    • Ch. 4
  • There's nothing like the waiting room of any office of the governmentor its allies to remind you of how lucky you are. You enter a nonplace, nontime. You sit on battered chairs in murky blues and greens that nobody ever names as their favorite color. You stare at the signs that have no bearing on you, nonspecific communiqués from the land that punctuation forgot. You wait until the waiting loses all sense of direction or purpose, until you become like a stone deposited in a field millenia ago by a careless glacier. You are here. This is all you have ever known. In the meantime you are stripped of any sense of individuality, of the idea that you might be different from anyone else in the room except by virtue of your particular problem; and so you become the problem, defensively, accepting it as identity, until it swells and suppurates and becomes all you are. As a species we'll tolerate being close to others, but not so close, and not in those circumstances and when we feel so small: we become rows of dry, fretting eyes, hating everyone around us and sincerely wishing our neighbor dead so we can move up one place in the line.

    Or maybe it was just me.

    • Ch. 5
  • My limited experience of such things told me that you get closest to the truth by not giving it advance warning that you're coming after it.
    • Ch. 5
  • One of the big things about being a man, she'd noted, was that being good, doing the work, wasn't enough. It had to be generally acknowledged that here you were, damn well seeing to business.
    • Ch. 6
  • Must be a strange life these days, for toes. A simple twist of fate and they could have been the big boys, the much-feted opposables, spending their days busy carrying things and controlling machinery and touching interesting parts of people's bodies. They don't get to do any of that. Instead they just get pushed into small, dark leather places and forgotten about, and when they're let free they often seem little more than a strange fringe on the ends of your feet.
    • Ch. 7
  • A pencil is a simple and predictable piece of technology. There's only one way of it working (it will function when it is sharp), and an obvious failure model(too short, too blunt, no lead). With a car, especially the kind of limp-along rust bucket most of us got for our first ride, it's more complex. There's coaxing involved, especially on cold mornings. There's that noise that never amounts to anything but never goes away, random stalls you begin to put down to the cast of the moon. None of it means it's broken, just that it requires friendly attention, that it has needs. Gradually you acquire a ritualized relationship to it, a bond forged by its unpredictability, by the fact it has to be dealt with. Which is how you come to know people, after all: not by things they have in common with everyone else, but through learning your way around their eccentricities, their hard edges and unpredictable softnesses, the things that make them different from everybody else.
    • Ch. 11
  • All the difference in the world are as nothing compared to this: the difference between being you and being me. It makes the chasms between gods and men, between men and women, between dead and alive, seem almost trivial.

    You are you. She is someone else. Between lie the stars.

    • Ch. 14
  • It had taken me a while to work out what I got from this. You didn't watch in the hope of seeing something exciting. Just the opposite. You watched because the very lack of discernible activity, of presented subject matter, made the view itself seem more real. If you watch something in particular, all you see is that thing happening. You see the moment, the event, and you are distracted from the long, slow tide of eventlessness underlying it. If you watch nothing, then you see everything. You see the thing as it is.
    • Ch. 15
  • Fashion makes me furious. It always has. This summer we're all going to be wearing vermilion, are we? Says who? When we see a bikini made of squares of brightly colored plastic, why do we pretend anyone will wear it? Because, I snarled at Nina, this is what capitalism does to show off. It's our culture flopping out its dick. "Hey, you shadows in the non-English-speaking choas — just look at our surplus capacity. If we can piss all this time and effort away on such vacant crap, just imagine the gold and guns and grain we must have stashed away, how well fed and happy the citizens of Our World, Inc., must be." Except they aren't happy, and some of them aren't even very well fed — but nobody knows or cares what happens back behind these billboards for a better way of life, because life for the people who matter just keeps getting better. The whole country is turning into a muffin-padded panic room where MBAs and soccer moms sit reading books on how to love themselves more, as if that could even be remotely possible. They've turned smoky, cool coffee shops into places where the perky go to iBook the novel that will prove just how sensitive they are; made fuggy, scary bars into places that feel like Employee Relaxation Facilities of forward-thinking megacorporations. I was in a bar recently and it smelled of incense — how fucked up is that? Not smelling of cigarettes is bad enough , but spice lavender? Inside is not supposed to be fresher than outside, can't they see that? You can't stop being afraid just by pretending everything that scares you isn't there.

    Part of the problem, I went on — my voice now easily as obnoxious as any around us — is that I could remember a world in which nobody ran. Now running is the new giving to charity. Running is wisdom. Running is the absolute good, our ritual walkway to the gods' approval and beneficence. Run and all will be well. If we were in charge of the Catholic Church, sainthood would be conferred according to the time the candidate spent wearing Nikes. "Sure, Father Brian did good works and saved lives and stuff, but what were his splits on the mile? Fater Nate? Forget it. That guy never ran a half-marathon in his life." We have lost all sense of proportion, all sense of what is reasonable or sane, while around the world the countries that don't have the time or luxury for this bullshit are getting ever more pissed at us for behaving like we own the whole playground. But who cares, right? A great new diet is racing up the charts! J-Lo got herself some new bling — just look how pretty she is! Who gives a crap what's happening in dusty shit-holes where they don't even speak American? Life's great! Crack open a decaf Zinfandel!

    • Ch. 15
  • As he drove, he was conscious of the web around him. The web of streets, of people, of places, and of things. The other web, too, the new world. This parallel place, with email address private driveways, it sdotcom marketplaces. You could find out so much there, running reality through your hands likea god's. Everything on the web is information; but everything is on the web, these days; so the world has become information. Everything has become an utterance of this thing, of this bank of words and images: everything is something it is saying, or has said. It's about buying, and looking, about our habits and desires, about contact with others, about voyeurism and aspiration and addiction. It is us boiled down — our essence, for better or worse. It is no longer passive. It is telling the story of us, and sometimes that story needs work.
    • Ch. 16
  • Death is real. Death changes things. Everything else is filler, merely a message from our sponsor.
    • Ch. 16
  • Hotels see a lot of life. Hotels get kicked around. The action the average city hotel sees would give a normal house a nervous breakdown in a day. In the small hours the building has some time to itself, to think its big, slow thoughts. To wander the halls then was to sit down with some big brick animal in darkness and listen to it breathing at rest.
    • Ch. 17
  • The curse of the middle-aged man was knowing — or believing — that he'd told all he had to tell. Soon as you suspect that, you started wanting something, anything, to prove it wasn't so: and that's where the mistakes started, when the bad things happened.
    • Ch. 20
  • You got through a day and wondered what your reward was. It soon became evident the prize was you got to withstand tomorrow too. You got through it, hour by long hour, but at the end you looked up without much expectation. You had begun the understand the score. Sure enough: today's prize was the same. Outwardly calm, but with a scream building like the sound of a long-forgotten steam engine in the back corner of a basement, you got through that tomorrow too, and a flat hardpan of further tomorrows after that. You got through enough of then to realize you'd been had, that there aren't tomorrows after all but the wretched stretch of an endless today. What can you do? Rebellion gets you nowhere.
    • Ch. 21
  • Hell is being alive, and being alive is all there is.
    • Ch. 21
  • First time you hear something, it sounds outlandish and broken and like it doesn't make sense. But once it's been in your head awhile it's as if the other thoughts in there wriggle out of the way to give it some room.
    • Ch. 27
  • I realized then why we respond to the sound of the waves, and the falling of rain, and wind in the trees. Because they are meaningless. They are nothing to do with us. They are outside our control. They remind us of a time, very early in our lives, when we did not understand the noises around us but simply accepted them in our ears; and so they provide blessed relief from our continual needy attempts to change our world in magic deed or endless thought. Meaningless sound, which welove against the anxiety of action, of pattern-making, of seeking to comprehend and change. As soon as we picked up someting and used it for a purpose, we were both made and damned. Tool-making gave us the world, and we lost our minds.
    • Epilogue - Cannon Beach

Associated Content Interview (October 23, 2006)


Online text

  • The United States is different because I've spent a lot of time there since, and so there's more of a continuum. It's definitely the U.S. that has the deepest roots in my soul. I spent my childhood believing I was English, and would one day be going home. But when we came back to live here, I started to realise how much of me was bedded somewhere else. Whenever I walk out of an airport in the U.S. and smell the air, a bit of me feels it's coming home.
  • My favourite memories involve the actual process of writing sketches - just a few guys lounging around in a room talking nonsense, until suddenly an idea would start to coalesce, and you'd start nudging it toward fruition. I've never laughed so much before or since. Also, there were those very, very few nights where you'd be on a stage and some strange contract developed between performers and audience, and everything you did was funny. That was magical - and a direct visceral experience that you never really get from writing prose.
  • I'm not a great believer in writing courses, though it must be said I've never been in one. It probably depends on what kind of writer you are. I'm very un-analytical about what I do. I don't plan much for the first draft. I try to let characters come out by themselves, rather than designing them. But other writers work differently, and for them the teaching process - which at least forces you to consider what you're doing, and why - may be very helpful. At the very least a creative writing course mandates someone to spend a period of their life just writing, which can be hard to do otherwise. But beware of thinking too much about what you do.
  • I've made my best notes sitting outside cafes on busy streets, or in murky bars in foreign cities. I sorted out a big series of problems in the novel I'm just finishing while sitting drinking a long line of solitary beers in a bar in a small coastal town. The hangover was pretty brutal, but I'm not sure I'd have found the solutions any other way. Part of the job of being a writer is learning how your head works - when to push it, when to step back. This kind of self-management is actually far harder, I think, than learning how to write decent prose.
  • I'm not sure I'd want to pick the brain of any author. Some writers have a lot to say about what they write and why they write it. Others don't. I've met a lot of writers who have an awful lot to say in the bar, but whose books seem curiously empty.
  • I don't think there are any irredeemable themes or tropes, just ones that are waiting for a fresh eye. Horror, science fiction, and fantasy deal with the eternal verities, the subjects that have always - and will always - speak most deeply about who we are. That's why they're the most fascinating genres, and why they're always there to be reinvented. At the very least you can ask, "This subject has been done to death now, so why are we so obsessed with it?" - and take a new angle from there.
  • If I had my time again, I think maybe I'd try to be a cook. I love food and am endlessly interested in recipes, weirdly enough. But now, the occupation of "cat" would probably be nearer the mark. Sleeping. Gazing into the middle distance. Occasionally making rapid movements for no real reason. I could do that.
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