In British author Smith’s The Farm, a son is torn between his parents’ very different stories about the circumstances leading to his mother’s enforced stay in a Swedish hospital.
What was the real-life inspiration for The Farm?
While writing Agent 6, in 2010, I received a call from my father in Sweden saying that my mum had been institutionalized. The news came out of nowhere. I set about making preparations to travel to Sweden, but before I could catch my flight, my mum somehow managed to leave the hospital, and she called me from the road saying that everything my father had told me was a lie: she wasn’t mad, he was involved in a criminal conspiracy. He was using the allegation of insanity to conceal his criminality. She was flying to England where she intended to tell me everything. I met her at the airport, and we went back to my apartment where she told me her story.
What was your parents’ reaction to the idea of your writing such a book?
Before they read it, they simply didn’t understand what the story could possibly be. When they realized it was fiction, and that none of the people in the story are real, they became much more relaxed, and understood how I’d merely taken the idea of that night in London: listening to a story and not knowing what was true and what was fiction—whether to believe your mother or your father, when you love both of them very much. They were both at the launch party in London, where I told my mum that the reason there are no acknowledgments at the back of in the novel is because the whole book is an acknowledgment of her incredible recovery. That whole episode, and now the book that has come out of it, has become a positive for our family.
Are there any themes linking The Farm with your Leo Demidov novels, set in the Soviet Union?
I think thematically they feel very close, even though the content is so different. They’re about family, trust, knowing each other, secrets, and ultimately about our ability to fight back against the dark moments in our life. I think the emotional message of the novels is very similar.
You once got a job in Phnom Penh with the BBC, working on Cambodia’s first soap opera. How did that experience influence your fiction?
I was warned explicitly before leaving the U.K. not to export my cultural values, my sense of how stories work, and to learn a new way of storytelling. But the truth is that no matter where we live, or who we are, there are stories that we keep telling, about love, about aspiration, about bravery and treachery. The characters change, the backdrop changes, but I have no doubt about the universality of great storytelling.