MFS is a Literary Powerhouse Who Writes His Own Rules. On Sabatigo, He Helps You Re-Write Yours.
Updated: May 16
If there's anybody writing fiction today who is more gut-punching and from-the-heart than the literary sensation Michael Farris Smith, we'd like to meet them. Known as MFS by legions of adoring readers who've been on his bandwagon since his debut novella, he has produced a breathless string of novels over the last decade, three of them optioned to Hollywood.
As he "tours the world" via Zoom in support of Nick--his much-awaited prequel to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby--MFS slowed down long enough to give Sabatigo the most exciting "yes" we've had all year: He agreed to be our Storytelling Disruptor and Artist-in-Residence for the 2021-2022 Journeys. What this means is that Sabatigoers will have the amazing chance to learn the narrative arts from a true master, while he also does periodic readings from two of his novels that are set in Paris.
Professor of Literature and Creative Writing
When MFS was a beloved professor of Literature and Creative Writing on the faculty at Eudora Welty's alma mater, the Mississippi University for Women, he was known as Dr. Smith. Back then, his writing studio was where he carved out privacy and separation from family and undergraduates to write, tucked above an old 19th-century building in the center of Columbus, Mississippi. He pushed out stories and then a novella, building on the training he'd gotten as a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern Mississippi's celebrated Center for Writers. All the while, he gave lectures, ran workshops, graded exams and helped hundreds of students learn to write with power.
But as he lived the professor's life in a bucolic little college town, his writing increasingly teemed with the power and the bashed-in glory of the struggles his characters faced, often from a fury of forces bent on their annihilation. His sharp-shock novella The Hands of Strangers set the tone early, as it systematically spools out what makes every parent tremble even to consider, all set with wintery Paris as a backdrop to total desperation. Rivers continued the power-flood of MFS' voice, this time unleashing in a not-so-distant future--where water is overflowing shores and banks everywhere--chaos and brutality both as natural phenomena and metaphor. (Think Cormac McCarthy but even harder, or just take Esquire's notes seriously: "This book is raw and scary.")
Among the Stands of Kudzu: The Writer Walks Alone
The accolades and shimmering notices proliferated as Desperation Road and The Fighter established MFS as one of the greatest living writers of a Southern voice. He left his comfortable academic perch, and set to what it means to be a writer without a day-job. MFS moved to Oxford, knowing literary ghosts were serious factors there, from the kudzu stands to the Ole Miss campus and beyond. But with global attention now trained on his every published word, MFS continued his artist's stomp over a hard landscape of broken-hoped and anxious-hearted Mississippians, among whom he lived as a local, giving a breathtaking architecture to the longing and despair his cast of ever-so-human characters makes so tragic and true. (While cleverly following a tradition Emile Zola, Gunter Grass and others developed of the after-thought sequel/prequel, where a new novel's unfolding provides an origin story to the one just before it, but almost inadvertently, and only to be noticed by close readers. Note: MFS has obsessively close readers among his legions. They live for the tiny secrets hidden in the pages.)
The Lodestone of France
If Mississippi and MFS have always returned each other's compliments, the writer hasn't accepted being defined solely as a Southern voice or writer of dirt/noir. On the contrary, the world beyond the South was where MFS first found his powerful voice and honed his ability to make characters so real they seem to pop right off the page. As a young professor, he'd lived in France and germinated his novella there, while teaching in a tiny town ("like home in Mississippi but with a better bakery") with an ancient monastery as his campus. With free weekends to travel and make Paris a regular haunt, the fledgling genius of MFS' creativity attached itself quickly to the same "rush of being elsewhere" that had escalated countless creatives before him:
I don't know if living in France did for me what it did for Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Baldwin and a million others I've read and wished to God I could be. But being over there sculpted in real ways what I see and how I think. Not just Paris either, but the towns of the countryside. I wrote the French parts of Nick from my old notes, absolutely. But I also wrote them from beautiful and sad things I saw and felt there that are just with me, inside and always. Can't be forgotten. Can't be tamed. Just there.
Getting the Green Light
On the long list of celebrated cultural creators who don't act like celebrities, there's nobody who outranks MFS. He buys his own beer when it's your turn. He asks about your kids first. He takes a whole afternoon with you and apologizes for seeming rushed. He waves away any talk about what it means that his die-hard fans only call him MFS:
"I thank the high powers every day that my readers love the work and have this devotion to what I do. It means everything to me, and it puts the food on my family's table. But I'm just me. There is no MFS when I'm at home, dreaming where the work might go. I write for a living. We all do something. There's nothing to see here, really, but just my work, my family and me.
Except there is a keen ambition that drives MFS, even if it's fully contained within his creative energy. And that ambition is swing-for-the-fences big when it comes to legacy, literature and his own place in the family of writers. How could it be otherwise, now that he has given us Nick Carraway's intricate and brutal backstory, at the exact moment when the copyright expired on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and a prequel to the book became legally possible? Nobody shuffles into writing the Gatsby prequel. Of course MFS grabbed this ring with intent, producing in Nick's character, in Judah and in the other citizens who line the book's horrible survivor's-walk away from the killing fields of the Great War that rarest of rare literary facts: a masterpiece.
MFS may well have the most intensive and intimate Wonder-Walks of our sessions in Paris and Berlin. Why? Because the tiny cafes and curtained windows of the hillside that steps up from Gare de l'Est to Montmartre is sacred ground to MFS. So much of Nick had its emotional quickening on these streets. The hovel where the protagonist and his lover hide-away from the world at war during Nick's leave: It's right there, where the climb up from Pigalle gets serious. So MFS will insist on reading from his novel in that cloyingly special space of Paris. While the author explores his own creative process with our group and speaks about what drives his stories. And what can most potently drive their own.
Going back-and-forth with MFS on his Wonder-Walks will be his friend of 20 years, Dr. Doug Mackaman, CEO of Sabatigo and Disruptor-at Large:
MFS and I hold this era of the Great War in pretty sacred ways. For 25 years I've taught college students in the shadows of that war and have written widely on it myself. To be there with him and discuss shell-shock and what life and death on the Western Front was like will be unrivaled in experiential intensity. MFS gets it so right in Nick that my only worry is Hollywood won't. We'll finish our big Nick session on one of the quays at the train station called "Verdun." Sabatigoers will have a wallop of perspective there. MFS will read the heartbreaking farewell Nick has on one of the platforms, right by the gilded plaque reminding all posterity that this war killed 8,000.000 men and maimed for life that many more."
It's said that MFS favors hole-in-the-wall wine bars in the Bastille neighborhood of Paris. To truly roll out his literary analysis and storyteller's secrets, we'll be sure our Disruptor lets us buy the first demi of 1664 to start things up.