Alexis M. Smith on Alternate Histories, Earthquake Aftermaths, and Writing “Something I Would Devour”


With her second novel, Alexis M. Smith has pulled off an impressive feat–neatly expanding her range as a writer without losing sight of the strengths that made her first novel so appealing. That debut was Glaciers, a sharply observed book about a librarian’s everyday routine and the bond she forms with a onetime soldier. Her new novel, Marrow Island, is set twenty years after an earthquake devastated the Pacific Northwest; in it, the possibility of connecting with an old friend prompts its narrator to journey to a mysterious commune. The same attention to detail and atmosphere that I found so compelling in Glaciers remains present here, but there’s also an increased level of tension, and a lived-in feeling that makes the altered history feel deeply familiar. I talked with Smith via email about the creation of this novel, literary thrillers, and a lot more.

Memories, concealed histories, and complex interpersonal relationships are all a hallmark of your fiction. Do you generally have a sense of these things before you write, or do you discover them through the process of writing?

A little of both. I like to have an end in sight–usually a scene that hits a certain note, or reinforces the theme in some way–so that I know what I’m writing toward. Then I wind my way from beginning to end, seeing what comes up along the way. For Marrow I had more of a plot in mind than I would normally–key moments and events that I knew needed to happen at certain points–and the surprises came along as I moved the character from moment to moment. How to get a character to a point in time and space–there’s so much possibility there. It doesn’t always work, of course, so sometimes the surprise is in how you get your character out of a place you’ve written her into.

Marrow Island is, in some ways, a very different reading experience than Glaciers, though I also found plenty of the same themes: questions of obligation and duty and desire permeate both narratives. Were there aspects of this novel in which you consciously sought to explore different techniques than you did in your debut?

I definitely wanted to write a strong plot this time. Glaciers is concentrated and poetic, but light on plot. It’s a “quiet novel,” as it was supposed to be, and I favored discrete moments over action. There are a lot of reasons why I wrote Glaciers the way I did, but the biggest one is probably that I had never written a novel before; I was in poetry . The experience of writing that book gave me the confidence to take on something bigger with the next one. I’m a huge fan of a certain type of literary page-turner (think: The Handmaid’s Tale or We Have Always Lived in the Castle), novels with suspense and twists and imminent peril and unexpected endings. I felt like this was an opportunity to try to write something like those books–something I would devour.

After Marrow Island‘s prologue, the plot divides into two sections, one before those events and one after. Did you have that structure in mind from the beginning?

The structure was one of the surprises of the process. I wrote the prologue and first chapter, and tried to tell the story linearly. But it didn’t feel like there was enough at stake, and I was getting bored already. All of my second chapters attempts went on the shit heap. In desperation I started free writing from some point in the future and loved the voice–it was Lucie, but she was changed somehow–and I knew that I had found the architecture the story needed. Skipping back and forth in time and place like that was much more energizing for me, and made me think harder about how much to reveal in those alternate chapters, how to reveal more about the characters without giving too much away.

In an interview for Portland Monthly, you talked about revising Marrow Island to be set in an alternate version of the present day. As your immersed yourself more in this new timeline, did the narrative change from its original direction?

The book was always set in an alternate present-day, actually. There was plenty of revision, of course, but the timeline didn’t change. The plot changed over the course of the writing for some of the reasons plots always change: certain events didn’t “work,” or certain details needed to come later to build tension, etc.

Do you have any particular favorite works of fiction set in alternate timelines?

I’ll admit I haven’t read many alternate timeline novels–at least not recently, so they aren’t coming to mind. I try not to read too closely to what I’m writing, if I can help it, either in form or theme. (I read lots of short stories and poetry and long form non-fiction while I was deep into writing the book). But I love old horror and stories of the uncanny (my dad had shelves of it when I was growing up and we watched shows like The Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories), which sometimes alter reality in subtle ways. Of course Margaret Atwood’s speculative novels are high on my list of favorite books. Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers (a novel I did read while writing Marrow) is set in a strangely off present reality where clairvoyants go to college to hone their skills. I can’t think of another story that alters geological history like Marrow, but I’m sure I will as soon as I get up from this desk…

Has the fact that this is set in a present time that isn’t quite our own led to any attention to Marrow Island from readers of speculative fiction?

The book did make it onto a list of sci-fi fantasy novels coming out this summer (though I wouldn’t categorize it as either, and I don’t want to mislead anyone looking for true novels of those genres), but at this point it’s just too soon to tell.

What drew you to the San Juan Islands as one of the settings for this novel?

On your average regional map, the San Juans look very close to the mainland, and to each other, and to Canada. (Some reviewers have described the San Juans as “off the coast of Seattle,” which is not accurate, they are farther north, nearer Bellingham, Washington and Victoria, B.C.) There are over a hundred islands in the archipelago, some not much more than rocks and a few trees and birds’ nests, others populated by year round and seasonal residents, with all the amenities of the mainland. On a map, you might think all you need is a row boat to get from one island to another, but when you’re out there, everything feels much farther away. Water is a terrific barrier: you could feel quite safe out there, distanced from problems of the mainland; but you could also feel isolated. Imagining the toll the islands would take in an earthquake of large magnitude–and what the response-time would be for the mostly mainland first responders–made them ideal for a setting about a big disaster. Also: the whole Salish Sea is just shockingly beautiful landscape/seascape/skyscape.

The biosphere of Marrow Island ends up playing a significant part as the novel deepens. Were you basing the plot on recent scientific research?

When I first imagined the disaster that would devastate the islands, it was pretty simple to look around at the geography of the Northwest (prone to earthquakes) and manmade disasters (the fossil fuel industry is an endless source) to find inspiration. What I didn’t know was how the Colonists were going to clean up the mess. My son’s dad, Nick, gets the credit there: he handed me Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets, which is this amazing book all about the role of mycelium in ecosystems. If you don’t know Stamets, he’s known in some circles for discovering a connection between access to mycelium and bees surviving colony collapse. He’s a champion of mushrooms and the planet and I’ll forever be grateful to Nick for handing me that book. It made complete sense for the story. And it instigated a personal fascination with fungi that continues to this day.

Do you have a sense of what you’d like your next project to be?

A novel about rioting against white capitalist hetero patriarchy.

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