Author Interviews
7:14 am
Mon June 9, 2014

'The Farm' Is A Terrifying Break From Reality — Or Is It?

Originally published on Mon June 9, 2014 3:01 pm

In the spring of 2009, British author Tom Rob Smith received a disturbing phone call from his father. "And he was crying," Smith tells NPR's David Greene. "He never cries. And he said to me, 'You've got to come to Sweden. Your mom has suffered a psychotic episode, and she's in an asylum.' "

Then, Smith's mother called. She had just been released from the psychiatric hospital in Sweden, and she said everything his father had told him was a lie. "She wasn't mad. My dad was involved in a criminal conspiracy, and she was flying to London to tell me the truth."

Smith was positive that when his mother landed at Heathrow, he'd be able to tell if something was truly wrong the moment he laid eyes on her — but, in fact, she was perfectly lucid and convincing. "I barely said a word. I was listening to her for about four hours. She was the most incredible storyteller. It really reminded me of being a child again and having a parent tell me a story — a very disturbing story. And I love my both my parents, and I had never been put in a position where I had to choose between them.

Tom Rob Smith is used to putting his readers in such a terrifying position. He's a thriller writer, known for a trilogy that began with the book Child 44, about a serial killer in Stalin's Soviet Union. He mines historical events for his fiction, but for his new book, he turns to the deeply personal story of what happened to his parents.

The novel is called The Farm. It's about a couple who — like Smith's actual parents — had retired to the Swedish countryside. The mother in the book is named Tilde. And the pages are filled with her telling her son Daniel about the crimes she's witnessed — and how everyone's dismissing her as a madwoman.


Interview Highlights

On going through the same problems as his characters

There were several points where I didn't know what to believe ... because the fundamental question is, how well do we know people? And I was being asked that night, and the reader when they read the book will be asked the same question: How well do you know someone? Whether it's your father or your mother. And you know, you hear these stories on the news of people, and they're like, I can't believe my lover or partner did this; I didn't have any idea. And it's quite possible they had no idea.

And there is this sense that people hold things, these secrets, these things inside of them, and that we are shocked when we glimpse them. And often we don't glimpse them. They stay hidden for their whole lives, and when they're sort of glimpsed, there's that moment of real fear. And this was the moment for me. I was thinking: Have I missed something completely on my father, or have I missed some terrible trauma on my mother? Either which way, I had missed something ... and so that was the sensation I wanted the reader to have.

On what he wants people to take away from his experience with his mother's mental illness

There is the sense that they should talk about it to people. There is a secrecy that envelops it, and to me that's totally baffling, because there's such great potential for talking to other people about their experiences in the past. And it really helps — it's of enormous help just not to feel quite so lonely about it. The stigma, I mean, it's interesting. The stigma of it was perplexing to me. We are, as people, we get ill — that's what happens, and hopefully we get better, and that's something, sort of, to celebrate.

On his mother's recovery

She's very well. I mean, the book couldn't have been written if she hadn't have got better. ... [My parents] read every draft, actually. They were involved quite intimately. ... I think in some ways, this is about trying to turn it into something positive, and once they embraced that, then I think they kind of saw what I was trying to do.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the spring of 2009, British author Tom Rob Smith received a disturbing phone call.

TOM ROB SMITH: I got a call from my dad, out of the blue. And he was crying. And he never cries. And he said to me, you've got to come to Sweden. Your mom has suffered a psychotic episode. And she's in the asylum.

GREENE: Then Tom Rob Smith's mom called. She had just been released from the psychiatric hospital in Sweden.

SMITH: She told me that everything my dad had told me was a lie. She wasn't mad. My dad was involved in a criminal conspiracy. And she was flying to London to tell me the truth.

GREENE: He was sure that when his mom landed at Heathrow Airport, and he laid eyes on her, he'd be able to tell immediately if something was wrong.

SMITH: The truth is when she arrived, she was perfectly lucid. And she was more than that. She was incredibly persuasive and coherent. And when I took her back to my apartment and listened to the story, I barely said a word. I was listening to her for about four hours. She was the most incredible storyteller. It really reminded me of being a child again and having a parent tell me a story, a very disturbing story. And I love both my parents. I'd never been put in a position where I had to choose between them.

GREENE: Tom Rob Smith is used to putting his readers in terrifying positions like this. He's a thriller writer, known for a trilogy that began with the book "Child 44," about a serial killer in Stalin Soviet Union. He mines historical events for his fiction. But for his new book, he turns to the deeply personal story of what happened to his parents. The novel is called "The Farm." It's about a couple who, like Tom Rob Smith's actual parents, have retired to the Swedish countryside. The mother in the book is named Tilde. And the pages are filled with her telling her son, Daniel, about crimes she had seen. And how she was being dismissed by everyone as a madwoman. I wonder if you could read a little bit of that.

SMITH: Sure. (Reading) I've been framed, not as a criminal, but as a psychotic. Your instincts are to side with your father. There's no point denying it. We must be honest with each other. On several occasions, I've caught you staring at me, nervously. My enemies declare that I'm a danger to myself and to others, even a danger to you, my son. That's how unscrupulous they are, vandalizing the most precious relationship in my life, prepared to do anything in order to stop me.

GREENE: So a lot of what we learn in the book - and it's Daniel's character hearing from his mother. I mean, you're putting readers in the position of trying to decide. And because all of it is so plausible, you're sort of left with that tension. You're saying you went through the very same thing with your own mom?

SMITH: Absolutely. I mean, there were several points where I didn't know what to believe. I remember thinking, I'm not sure because the fundamental question is how well do we know people? And I was being asked that night. And the reader, when they read the book, will be asked the same question. How well do you know someone, whether it's your father or your mother? And, you know, you hear these stories on the news of people. And they're like, I can't believe my lover or partner did this. I didn't have any idea. And it's quite possible they had no idea.

And there is this sense that people hold things, these secrets, these things inside of them. And that we are shocked, when we glimpse them. And often we don't glimpse them. They stay hidden from them, you know, our whole lives. And when they're sort of glimpsed, there's that moment of real fear. And this was the moment for me. I was thinking, have I missed something completely of my father? Or have I missed some terrible trauma of my mother? Either which way, I'd missed something. The question is what thing had I missed? And so that was the sensation I wanted the reader to have. This whole book is about, in a sense, re-creating that night, that night sitting there, at my table listening and really really that sort of uncertainty.

GREENE: Were there uncomfortable moments as you laid out this story?

SMITH: Uncomfortable moments? Well, actually, I would say it was cathartic, more than anything else. It was a way of me dealing with something that was very difficult and traumatic. And trying to say, these things happen to us as people and we have to try and take some positive from them. They seem so unrelentingly dark. But there is, in this story, a sort of sense of healing. And so the uncomfortableness, yes, but I think it was about try to turn that into something positive and not just brush it under the carpet, which was a very British thing to do.

GREENE: Is there something that you want people, who may have gone through the pain that you did, with having someone very close to them going through a psychotic episode, you want them to take from this?

SMITH: Yeah, there is. I think there is the sense that they should talk about it to people. There is this secrecy that envelops it. And it's, to me, totally baffling because there's such great potential for talking to other people about their experiences in the past. And it really helps. It's of an enormous help, just not to feel quite so lovely about it. The stigma - I mean, it's interesting. It was - the stigma of it was perplexing to me. You know, we are, as people, we get ill. That's what happens. And hopefully, we get better. And that's something sort of to celebrate.

GREENE: Well, we should say, fortunately, your mom got treatment. And I wonder how she's doing today.

SMITH: She's very well. I mean, the book couldn't have been written if she hadn't have got better.

GREENE: Have your parents read the book?

SMITH: Yes, they read every draft actually. They were involved quite intimately. I think, that - I mean, my parents left school at 16. They - you know, they started their own business. And I think, they have a sort of intrinsic modesty, which is they couldn't imagine - when I told them - because I told them even before I was going to write the book. They were like, I don't get what the book will be about. You know, this - well, yeah, I understand it. It took place in Sweden. And there's kind of - they didn't really understand it. And then when they read it, they were like, oh, you've made it all up from this concept. And I think that's when they started to sort of get it. And I think, in some ways, this is about trying to turn it into something positive. And once they embraced that, then I think it was - they kind of saw what I was trying to do.

GREENE: Tom Rob Smith, always good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

SMITH: Thank you.

GREENE: Tom Rob Smith's new novel is called "The Farm." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.