“It had been 613 days since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline….” In Michael Farris Smith’s debut novel Rivers (which Kirkus starred), the Line separates government-protected, functioning society from the storm-ravaged, dangerous and unaided Gulf Coast region. Climate change has brought on a stream of catastrophic hurricanes, and after years of the same, the storms appear to be endless. Most people have evacuated the region, but some—like the story’s hero, Cohen—have their reasons for staying behind.
“When I decided to write a hurricane novel, I decided to go all out…to see how reckless, forceful and merciless I could make it on the characters and on the landscape,” Smith says. Early on in our conversation, he made it clear that this book is not a Katrina novel. Though Smith is from Mississippi and is very familiar with the novel’s setting, Rivers isn’t based on his personal story. Instead, Rivers is Smith’s attempt to break out as a novelist. “When I set out to write initially, I wanted to get to the point where I was writing novels,” he says. His goal for Rivers? “To stick my neck out and see what happens.”
Smith has written a story where each character’s neck is on the line every second of every day. Cohen’s choice not to evacuate is due to his inability to leave behind his dead wife and unborn child—early victims of the storms. They are buried in the yard behind the house that Cohen built for them, the house that shelters Cohen against the ever-worsening weather. Smith began Rivers first with the desire to push his limits and second with the idea for Cohen’s character: “I had the image of Cohen in my head—a guy who wakes up in the middle of the night in the middle of one of these storms…and I just started from there.”
As Cohen leaves his homestead for the Line, forced to battle his ghosts as he encounters other people who rely on his strength and his will to survive, the weather is a continuous and looming presence; it consistently finds new ways to test the characters and bring them to their breaking points. The themes of natural disaster and climate change are at the forefront of the novel throughout, but Smith insists that he is not trying to drive home a point. “I think it’s hard enough to write fiction without trying to make any kind of statement” he says. Though he does recognize that the novel could be received as a type of warning. The dystopian feel of the novel is evident from page 1, and Smith realized the book was going to have elements of other genres right away: “I’ve seen [Rivers] classified as a Western. I’ve seen it classified as science fiction,” he says.
The type of novel Smith feels he was creating as he wrote, though, is first and foremost a Southern literary novel. “My heroes are Southern writers: Faulkner, Larry Brown, William Gay, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor….Some writers might not want to be defined as a Southern writer or a Mississippi writer, but that’s a label I’d happily wear,” he admits.
Southern identity is a prominent feature of the story, felt through Cohen in particular: He’s a loyal man, bound to his land, to his family, to his memories, to his home. Above the Line might as well not exist—until certain events prove to him that the need to survive is greater than the need to hang on to what’s his. This Southern sense of identity resonates with Smith, who says he modeled Cohen’s mentality after his grandfather: “He built his house and he had 100 acres, and he lived to be 90 and he died there right on that spot where he spent his whole life. And it was his and it was a part of him.”
I asked Smith what the saying “write what you know” means to him, since Rivers combines familiarity and uncharted territory. Rivers is not Smith’s story, and yet this Southern identity permeates the text. His answer makes it all clear: “ ‘Write what you know’ to me has always kind of been an emotional investment; what emotions do I connect to, what emotions do I understand….I interpret it as an emotional suggestion.” Sure, Smith is familiar with the Gulf Coast, but he’s also familiar with the emotions that drive the story: “loneliness, restlessness, anger.” One great thing about writing a novel, Smith says, is “having characters in my head for that long. You really feel like you are sharing the lives of these people.”
While Rivers is a literary exercise—the product of Smith “sticking his neck out”—it’s an exercise executed beautifully. For Smith, what stands out most about Rivers isn’t the altered, storm-ravaged South he’s created; it’s the “notion that no matter how bad things are, no matter how bad things hurt, we still have a chance. I think that’s probably Cohen’s story, although it’s the story of most characters in the book. They couldn’t be in a worse situation, but they keep fighting.”
Chelsea Langford is the editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.