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“Very few of us are heroes, and all of us at some point in our lives are villains whether we know it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, and that’s how I see the vampires in my story. They’re predators, that’s how they survive, so people view them as dreadful, evil creatures, but is a snake evil, is a crocodile or shark evil?”

March 15, 2011

Arts & Literature, Interviews

DarkMedia Interviews Michael Smith:

Caballo Blue’s Michael Smith is an art director living in Chicago with his two crazy macaws, Mitch and Bruno. He sometimes let’s his imagination run wild.

When did you begin work on “Caballo Blue”? What would you like your potential readers to know about it?

I began writing the story in January of 2010, but I had come up with the idea, or the ideas that I assembled it from, in 2008. I had been talking about it to my family for quite some time, and they were always encouraging me to actually write it, so my New Year’s resolution for 2010 was to begin writing the story and get a website up and running. I think it’s the first New Year’s resolution that I’ve ever kept. I began posting chapters on-line August 1, 2010, but I haven’t done much to promote the website. I’ve used it to gauge readers’ reactions, and so far the feedback has been very positive. I honestly had no idea what to expect. Professionally, I am a graphic designer.

I’ve never written anything before, even casually, so this has been a very new experience for me. Fortunately, I had a very clear idea in my mind of the concept and themes, and it was just a matter of getting myself started. My New Year’s resolution for 2011 is to make Caballo Blue a success…but, of course, “success” is one of those words like “value” and “quality,” it’s very open to interpretation.

You just published your 30th installment. Have you planned how the story will end, or will it continue to evolve over time?

The story wraps up with Chapter 32, but I’m planning it as two books, possibly more. Some elements will come to a conclusion while some plot-lines, and other things that began to develop and surface later in the story will form the basis of the next book. “Book one” will have a definite feeling of conclusion, but it will also heavily anticipate what’s to follow in “book two.” I don’t want to do merely an extension of the first book, so some of the characters, while staying true to their original concepts, will find themselves significantly changed in the aftermath of “book one” while others go through the more subtle transformation that comes from introspection and self-awareness. “Evolve” is a good word. The story will evolve rather than just continue.

What prompted you to write and present your work as an “on-line serialized” tale and not a book or e-book? How successful have you found the format? Is it something you would do again, or recommend to aspiring writers?

As I mentioned, this is my first experience as a writer, so the whole process has been new to me. I know there are many writers’ workshops around, and I know many people have found them to be very valuable and helpful, but I’ve always had a delightfully dark and cynical view of the word, so whenever I see a group of people congregating in a similar personal pursuit I always think, “Oh no! egos, competition, and a lot of marking of territory,” so I thought presenting the story on-line in weekly installments would be an opportunity to see how it played out and grew, or shriveled up, over time in a real world setting. I’ve gotten reaction and feedback from average readers which has been very helpful. The material on the website is a work in progress. I think it’s pretty close to it’s final stage, but I’m beginning the process of reworking and revising the story. Presenting it in weekly chapters on-line has also given me a fresh perspective on it. I’ve been able to remove myself from the “whole,” and have been able to almost see it as if I were a reader myself. Now that I’m reviewing the entire piece, I have a good idea of where I need to change things and what I need to revise. I think the character of Alexios needs to come into clearer focus earlier on, and I think the story needs to have something dark and disturbing near the beginning. I’m pretty satisfied with the latter two thirds of the story, but I plan to make significant changes to the first third. I’ve seen benefits from working this way, so I plan to continue this same process when I get into “book two.” It’s probably not a process that would work for everyone. I’ve opened myself up to scrutiny thirty-times rather than all at once, and while I haven’t heard anything negative, it’s still sort of daunting to wonder what the reaction will be each week.

One comment that I have heard from a number of readers is that once a week isn’t enough. Many people wanted it book form so they could have the whole thing at once. I’ve already begun the revise/rewrite process of the section I want to change, and once that is finished I’ll start to query agents and see if I can stir up any interest in getting it published. This summer I’ll begin posting “book two” to the website. I also think working this way has opened up other opportunities beyond traditional publishing, so I can investigate and explore a variety of options. I like that sort of freedom. I don’t feel bound by one limited path. I can consider getting it published, going the e-book route or even somehow making the story and website interactive.

How would you describe your vision of the vampire? Hero? Monster? What “rules” or traditions do they adhere to, and how did you decide which portions of the general mythology to use and/or exclude?

Very few of us are heroes, and all of us at some point in our lives are villains whether we know it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, and that’s how I see the vampires in my story. They’re predators, that’s how they survive, so people view them as dreadful, evil creatures, but is a snake evil, is a crocodile or shark evil? Vampires are different from those animals, of course, in that they’re also human, so they must be judged as individuals more than by their nature. The vampire Peter suffers from self-doubts and insecurity. He knows that he’s viewed as frivolous, and in fact, he is. He lives in a strange “Barbie’s Dream House” type home that he created for himself, and surrounds himself with two beautiful glamazons. He’s gone through the ages chasing one outrageous scheme after another (at one point he wanted to live in one of the Great Pyramids like a pharaoh). He seems harmless, be we get the impression that feeding is also entertaining for him, so underneath his frivolous exterior is a very dark element. The vampire Alexios is completely different. He sees himself as almost god-like, and has a very disturbing world view. He sees an endless cycle of destruction and creation that he wants to be part of, and he ends up instigating some of history’s darkest tragedies. But when he kills a hapless college student to feed on we get a sense of remorse, he seems troubled when he sees his dead victim as a person. We initially assume he was behind JFK’s assassination, but in fact he wasn’t. What we get is his opinion, his “take” on it. He can view it broadly, in concept, as part of how he sees the world working, but he’sunnerved when he opens a newspaper and sees the iconic, grainy photo of JFK and Jackie smiling in their car just as the motorcade was taking off. Is he absolute evil or a very damaged soul? My challenge with Alexios was to present a character who was responsible for some of history’s greatest horrors and somehow make people feel a nagging sense of pity for him.

So…the vampires in Caballo Blue aren’t heroes, but whether they’re villains or tragedies or some complex combination, I’ll let each reader decide.

The mythology. I got rid of it…all of it. I only kept the barest of essentials. Every morning our alarm clocks go off, we get up, go to work, come home, get ready for the next day and go to bed. Our lives are filled with rules, regulations and responsibilities. Personally and professionally we spend most of our time jockeying for position in some way or another. Everything is a battle in someway. For me, one of the most attractive features of death is the freedom from all of that…”freedom, freedom, free at last.” I think vampires are enticing to people because they’re freed from the shackles of life. They live in the forbidden world of night when most people are sleeping because there’s too much work waiting for them in the morning, but night, that’s where the fun is. There’s always been a lot of mythology associated with vampires, but in recent years they’ve been larded with more and more of it. The vampire covens and nests and nations, the royalty and hierarchy and the pecking orders, the wars and politics…who wants an eternity of that?! I’ve got that everyday already. So I ditched it all, and just kept the basics. My vampires are free to just be who they are. They can develop in ways that are free of guidelines and rules. I didn’t want them to feel formatted and restricted by themes and concepts that have been covered in many other places. That’sone good thing about fictional creatures…they can be re-interpreted and re-imagined. I wanted to envision vampires in a more pure form as solitary creatures facing their eternity as best they could.

Who, or what, is your greatest inspiration as an author? Why?

I’m a huge fan of the late-great director Robert Altman. I loved they way he could take a dozen-or -two characters and tell a story with very little conventional plotting. He could be incredibly cruel and kind in equal measures, and he always touched a nerve in a very real, very personal way even when he was dealing with strange and eccentric situations and people. He always found something surprising and very human (good or bad) in his characters.

I like history, and saw a great opportunity to fit in bits and pieces of it into Caballo Blue without trying to turn the story into a historical novel. We’re effected by the events that take place around us, on the other side of the world, and from the past, so that’s how I wanted to use the historical devices. They’re presented as vignettes, but they seep down into the story. The characters are impacted by the events whether they realize it directly or not. And of course it establishes Alexios as the darkness that hangs over everything in the story.

Also, I have to admit that I was influenced by a rather dark outlook on life. A friend of mine is an actor who has starred in many horror films, playing a lot of wonderfully dark roles, Bill Oberst Jr. He told me something interesting, “Somebody recently said I was ‘a dark artist’ who ‘gets the essential loneliness of life.'” “The essential loneliness of life,” I’m sort of fascinated by that, and I think most of the characters in my story are struggling with it. It’s a lonely story at its heart. Plus, I wanted to take even terrible, despicable characters and give them a glimmer of humanity. I wanted to make people grow to like them even if they didn’t want to. Bruce Worthington the patriarch of the cannibalistic Worthington family can be genuinely charming at times, and underneath the evil, Alexios is a tragic figure. Evil is a concept that’s most intriguing when ambiguous. Bond villains aren’t very interesting, they’re one-dimensional. Life is a contradiction, and I wanted to bring that into the story. Nothing is simply black and white, but everything ends up a little bit sad.

What is your favorite book to give as a gift and why?

T. R. Pearson’s A Short History of a Small Place.

He’s an author I’ve enjoyed for many years. It’s a wonderful book where a single comma can separate laugh out-loud-funny from achingly sad…and the man can write a sentence two miles long! It’s a difficult book to describe, but it’s driven more by a vast cast of characters than plot. I’ve given it, loaned it and recommended it to many people.

What are you reading right now?

I’m just starting And the Show Went On by Alan Riding It’s about cultural life in Paris during the Nazi occupation years of 1940-44, and how the intellectuals and artist reacted by either co-operating, working on as if nothing had happened or joining the resistance.

What’s the best way for your readers, and potential readers, to support you and your work?

Right now they can go to the website http://www.caballoblue.com, and hopefully one day, not too long from now, they can buy the book to treasure for years to come! This summer I plan to have “book two” in the works should start posting the chapters then.

What advice would you give other up and coming writers? What’s the best, or worst, advice someone gave you?

My advice: Follow your own voice. Write what you like. Take a chance. No one else will do it for you. One of the best descriptions I ever heard of David Bowie was, “He created a starring role and cast himself.” He did it in a very big way, and very few people could ever pull that off, but he followed his vision and he believed in himself…and it paid off.

The worst advice: to start everything over and make it a romance. I’m not a romantic person, I’m not interested in romance. There’s plenty of romance books out there that are done much better than I would ever do. I kept confidence in what I was attempting to do, and I’m glad I did.

Finally, what’s got you excited or inspired?

To be honest, I’m excited that, for the first time in my life, I’ve left my comfort zone, did something completely different, and put myself on a path that might lead somewhere new and exciting. It’s never too late.
________________________________________________________

Michael, a Featured Member of DarkMediaCity, can be found at www.caballoblue.com.

To continue the conversation about Michael, or any of our other interviewees, please visit DarkMediaCity: The Interviews.

(All interviews are the exclusive property of DarkMedia, and may not be reproduced or shared without permission, excepting the posting of links.)

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