Interview with Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Shirley

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing John Shirley.

John Shirley is the author of numerous novels, story collections, screenplays (“THE CROW”), teleplays and articles. A futurologist and social critic, John was a featured speaker at TED-x in Brussels in 2011. His novels include EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, The “A Song Called Youth” cyberpunk trilogy (omnibus released in 2012), BLEAK HISTORY, DEMONS, CITY COME A-WALKIN’ and THE OTHER END. His short story collection BLACK BUTTERFLIES won the Bram Stoker Award, and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year. His new story collection is IN EXTREMIS: THE MOST EXTREME SHORT STORIES OF JOHN SHIRLEY. His stories have been included in three Year’s Best anthologies. He is also a songwriter (eg, for Blue Oyster Cult), and a singer. Black October records will soon be releasing a compilation of selected songs, BROKEN MIRROR GLASS: Recordings by John Shirley, 1978-2011. The authorized website is here.

John, since this is an election year, let’s start off with politics. You’ve certainly not shied away from politics, on your blog and on Facebook. Do you worry that this may alienate potential readers?

JOHN SHIRLEY: For me, I can’t worry about that and be a self respecting person.

VENTRELLA: Your novels EVERYTHING IS BROKEN and THE OTHER END are all about politics. What inspired you to write them?

SHIRLEY: I wouldn’t agree they’re all about politics. EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, however, is a political allegory as well as being a noir novel, a coming of age novel, a disaster novel (as opposed to a disastrous novel!), a suspense novel, and it’s set a bit in the future. So it’s got science fiction going on too. The trick of course is for all this to blend seamlessly. But good recipes can have a number of strong ingredients.

EVERYTHING IS BROKEN is a kind of LORD OF THE FLIES for the 21st century, perhaps. Its political center has to do with the value of community, of government itself (at its best); it shows what happens to a small coastal community, hit by a disaster, when its been stripped of its resources, its preparation, by Libertarians and Tea Party types and Privatizers. And it has ticked off some of those people. But there’s always plenty of support from the other side of the fence. It’s doing rather well. Lots of people are concerned about throwing the baby away with the bathwater—a sense of community being the baby in this case.

THE OTHER END was inspired by a desire to take the apocalypse away from the Christian right and give it to progressive people, if they want it. Why should the Christian Right define Judgment Day? And what would you do if you could create your own Judgement Day? And yes there are political overtones to much of it…It’s a fantasy about a Judgment Day that doesn’t come, exactly, from anyone’s usual idea of God…and that looks for real, social justice.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best reaction you’ve received from these political books?

SHIRLEY: Recommendations. Good reviews. Eg, “That staple of cautionary science fiction, the near future, becomes especially ‘near’ in this disaster novel from one of fantastic fiction’s most hard-hitting talents–EVERYTHING IS BROKEN emerges as a violent, vivid, viscerally upsetting and wholly unflinching nightmare of a novel, which profoundly illustrates the very point of having a civilization in the first place, and the risks we undertake by dismantling infrastructure in the name of short term savings. It’s not just a compelling read, but an important one–GRADE A.”—SciFi Magazine

VENTRELLA: Are you optimistic about the future or do you worry that the crazies on the right will cause more harm before things change?

SHIRLEY: If you mean the near future, the great worry, for me, is the Citizen’s United decision by SCOTUS, empowering billionaires and giant corporations and amoral people like the Koch Brothers to freely propagandize, to distort the President’s record, to spread the falsehood that Reaganomics, Tea Party economics, and so on, actually works to improve the economy. Actual economists dispute that fallacy. But people are buying into it. And as the Super PACs unleash more and more propaganda, politicians become more afraid of taking a stand, afraid of someone mounting a super PAC against them—and Congress becomes even more dominated by money, at the expense of ethics. If you mean the farther future—at this link is a transcript of the speech I gave to TEDx in Brussels last November, on why I’m “optimistic because everything will be terrible.”

VENTRELLA: Some of the threat of the tea partiers and their like is their anti-science position. What do you think causes that mindset?

SHIRLEY: They feel more comfortable with ignorance. It’s a sort of numb buffer around them so they don’t have to face life as it is. But also they’re being manipulated. Big Oil is opposed to accepting science on global warming, and they manipulate these people to mistrust science.

VENTRELLA: Have politics always influenced your writing? In other words, do you find yourself visiting political themes in your work?

SHIRLEY: A fair amount—and if it’s not that, I’m reaching for something meaningful, in some respect. Existential meaning matters too. Spiritual meaning. Philosophical meaning. And the human condition. I admire writers who dramatize the realities of the human condition. But it’s great when someone can combine some controlled degree of didacticism with entertainment—sometimes they have a major social impact. I’m thinking of the novel UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, the works of Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and Steinbeck. Kurt Vonnegut novel’s, too, affected people deeply, he had a lot of social resonance; so did the novel CATCH-22 by Heller.

VENTRELLA: What themes have you found yourself revisiting, even if subconsciously?

SHIRLEY: The struggle with addiction—in the past, I had to carry on a bare knuckle fight with it. Fortunately I won. . .My observation that people suppress their empathy, their compassion, all too easily; that they barricade themselves away from it. That dehumanization is sadly all too human…And issues of the necessary balance between too much government and too little. I’m not in favor of too much; but on a planet with 7 billion people, we cannot have too little. Environmental issues also crop up in my work—my novel DEMONS combines most of those concerns in one work of allegorical horror.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that science fiction and fantasy help to provide a better media in which to make points about current issues?

SHIRLEY: They’re ideally suited for it. Look at 1984, or BRAVE NEW WORLD, or Atwood’s anti-fascist science fiction, or Vonnegut’s social statements in SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. Philip K. Dick warned about mind controlling media and new tech that might be misused that way, in a lot of his books. Then there was John Brunner’s work, like THE SHEEP LOOK UP. You can model different kinds of societies, dystopian and utopian and everything between, in science fiction, like creating a literary computer model.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done so many different genres—what leads you to try so many new things? Does the story come first or the setting?

SHIRLEY: Sometimes it’s the marketplace, but it’s also a creative restlessness. I don’t like to be pigeonholed. It’s also freshening, energizing, to move onto another genre. It’s like traveling in a country you haven’t been to before—it’s stimulating.

VENTRELLA: You’re quite prolific: What keeps you going?

SHIRLEY: Partly necessity—I don’t have a day job. I do have quite a lot to say, a lot of stories to tell. I simply feel better when I’m productive, too. It’s what I am; I’m a writer to the bones. I’m not good at much else. Can’t fix a car.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done quite a few novelizations and tie-ins, such as BATMAN: DEAD WHITE, PREDATOR: FOREVER MIDNIGHT and DOOM. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing already in someone else’s world?

SHIRLEY: I did those things mostly for money—the most successful one was the Bioshock novel, BIOSHOCK: RAPTURE–but it’s also because they’re in arenas I enjoy. I do love Batman, was glad to play in that sandbox. They gave me a fair amount of latitude and it varies from editor to editor. The Bioshock game people were very hands on and that was difficult. One disadvantage is, one might have to revise more than one is really being paid for. But I always manage—in some cases, the project changes while you’re writing it. They’ve sent you a movie script, but at the last moment it was changed; you were supposed to write about this game but the second one just came out and they want you to do that too … And I prefer to adapt rather than argue.

In the case of Bioshock I knew the videogame world I was writing about pretty well and had enjoyed it so that helped. I enjoyed the Predator films and it was fun to write that book but one issue that comes up is, some fans are very possessive about the franchise they love. Some fans of the Predator comic book thought I ought to have followed its internal rules, its canon—but I didn’t read the comics, wasn’t required to. I just started with the movies and launched from there. I never contradict the underlying source material I’m using…but I do get to be creative within it, and that can be a bit of a buzz.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written scripts for movies and television–have you been pleased with the results?

SHIRLEY: It’s mixed. I wrote “The Crow,” with David Schow—couldn’t be pleased when Brandon Lee was killed in the course of the production. There are always issues of struggling with producer notes, and so on. As for television, it’s very much committee writing, and it’s hard for someone like me to learn that…but I did learn. I just wrote a recent television pilot, which we’re now shopping around, but I can’t talk about it except the name: Intruder Town.

VENTRELLA: Which do you think has been most successful?

SHIRLEY: I’ve had more television scripts that came out close to what I wanted, than in movies. The most recent movie I wrote was a low budget horror film. I was not happy about it. Can’t say more about that.

The Deep Space Nine episode I wrote came out nicely, thanks to Ira Behr, the producer. But it can be very frustrating and one can’t be too identified with the writing. You have to separate yourself from it more than if you’re writing a novel or a short story. . .

VENTRELLA: How much changed between your script and what is seen on the screen?

SHIRLEY: It’s the exception if there aren’t a lot of changes. There are always exceptions—Woody Allen’s films are auteur work, he’s the director, producer, writer, they naturally come out close to what he envisioned. Clint Eastwood, I think, once he has a good script, stays with it—eg the script for Unforgiven. But mostly it’s like your script has to run across no man’s land, with bullets flying…it’s lucky to get across it intact.

VENTRELLA: Do you find novels easier to write than short stories?

SHIRLEY: Short stories are finished faster of course, but that aside, there are things one can do in novels one can’t do in short stories. As long as you have a really strong sense of pacing, and don’t drop all the balls you’re juggling, you can get into more facets of character, more ideas, than in a short story. A short story is like a knock out punch; a novel is a whole long fight with many rounds and lots of footwork.

VENTRELLA: Which is your favorite?

SHIRLEY: Apples and oranges really…

VENTRELLA: Who is your favorite character?

SHIRLEY: From my work? Maybe Rickenharp from A SONG CALLED YOUTH—the cyberpunk trilogy is out now, as an omnibus, freshened up, updated, re edited, from Prime Books, and Rickenharp is perhaps the realest character…because he’s most like me. I’ve been a rock singer, he’s the leader of a rock band, I’m a lyricist and so is he (I wrote his lyrics, sometimes quoted briefly in the novels). He has drug issues and other issues—so do I. There’s a “street minister” character in my horror novel Wetbones I identify with a lot too, as he’s found a spiritual way out of addiction…

VENTRELLA: What would you ask that character if you could meet him or her?

SHIRLEY: Rickenharp? I’d ask him if he’d go to the recording studio with me, play some guitar, write some songs. And I’d ask him if he was self sacrificial—or self destructive.

VENTRELLA: And what do you think he or she would answer?

SHIRLEY: He’d say how much you pay me to the first question and laugh and say two sides of the same coin for the second.

VENTRELLA: Writers who are trying to make a name get hammered with lots of advice: The importance of a strong opening, admonitions about “writing what you know,” warnings to have “tension on every page” – what advice do you think is commonly given that really should be ignored?

SHIRLEY: Almost any of it can be ignored (apart from advice to be grammatic and literate and write in good sentences) if it’s irrelevant to what you’re doing. I have had to learn to write “more sympathetic” likable characters, but there are also times when I don’t need them to be sympathetic or likable. Ultimately one writes what works. Probably most people would have advised Anne Rice not to write a vampire character so sympathetically, in Interview with the Vampire, before it was published—but they’d be wrong! The book worked like gangbusters, breaking a rule. If you have the talent, the voice, the insight, make your own rules. If you’re not sure, follow the rules.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see starting writers make?

SHIRLEY: Nowadays it’s thinking they don’t need to be well read, they don’t need to know the difference between you’re and your, they don’t need to read outside their favorite genres—any half way decent writer had better read widely.

VENTRELLA: I’ve been surprised to find many writers who are also musicians (myself included) – why do you suppose that is?

SHIRLEY: I don’t know for sure. Jack Vance plays banjo. You really never know…But you know there’s a musicality in good sentences; there are good sentences in music…it’s all art, too…

I was always in rock bands. Like Sado-Nation—you can see me on youtube if you search for Sado-Nation with John Shirley there, performing with them in 1979 when I was quite young. So it’s always been a second track for me; and there are a lot of musical references in my books, and I listen to loud music, often, when writing and no it doesn’t distract me.

VENTRELLA: Who do you listen to? Who are your favorites?

SHIRLEY: I’m an old time Blue Oyster Cult guy, and in the late 90s I started writing lyrics for them (other lyricists for them include Patti Smith and Michael Moorcock), have written 18 songs they’ve recorded so I’m pretty partial to those. Mostly those are on their albums Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror. I was in punk bands, and was a big fan of the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Ramones. I am also a fan of psychedelic music, like Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, or Roky Erickson. I like the Stones, the Beatles. Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart. I’m a big Iggy and the Stooges guy too. Outside of rock I get into John Coltrane, certain classical composers like Stravinsky.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration with Blue Oyster Cult come about?

SHIRLEY: Mutual friends knew they were looking for a lyricist. Plus my first novel was named after one of their songs, TRANSMANIACON, and they were aware of it.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

SHIRLEY: CS Lewis, Tolkien, because I love the way those guys talk, Ambrose Bierce because I admire him and I want to ask what the hell happened to him, Edgar Allan Poe, same thing, Cyrano De Bergerac, Yeshua of Nazareth (a Gnostic teacher now called “Jesus”), Gotama Buddha, GI Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Mark Twain, Marcus Aurelius, Pythagoras…

And I would sit Wyatt Earp right next to me…I’m pretty into the Wild West and have written a novel about Earp, that I am going to send out when I get around to revising it…

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