Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Interview: Lucius Shepard

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Lucius Shepard is the author of several novels, short stories, and novellas. Over the course of his long career, he has been nominated and won various awards including the John W. Campbell Award, The Hugo, and The Nebula Awards.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Let's talk about your latest short story collection The Best of Lucius Shepard. How did Subterranean Press end up publishing it and what was your criteria for picking the stories in the book?

Bill Schaeffer asked me and I said, Sure. Simple as that. I actually didn’t pick most of the stories. I might have gone another way, included more of the later stories, different ones, but I’m happy with the book. People have complained that there’s no introduction—I could care less about an intro. The book is huge, over 600 pages, and I imagine Bill, like me, was pleased to sacrifice an intro so we could squeeze in another story. The stories I did pick were just ones I had a fondness for, like for instance, "Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?" I loved the narrative voice in that one so much, I’m writing another story about the same character, Maceo, called "Bad Hair Day". "Hands Up" wasn’t a popular story, but it’s a writer’s story, one writers might appreciate more than readers. Matter of fact, that and "Stars Seen Through Stone" were the only stories I was sure of. I would have liked to include "A Traveler’s Tale", which I think was my best early story, but you can’t have everything... though if I’d had to choose the stories myself, I might have wound up with only a handful of stories and a bunch of fragments.

You're a writer who's been published for more than two decades. What would you say is one of the biggest differences between your writing back then and your writing now? Do you have moments like "oh crap, I wrote that" or are you proud of all your babies?

The biggest difference between my writing 20 years ago and now, I don’t write as many terrible stories. I've learned not to go down so many wrong roads. I’m more precise with my language and I have a larger emotional palette. I use less adjectives, and I’ve learned to use adverbs. I don’t write quite as descriptively as once I did (there’s less emphasis on sensory detail) but that’s by choice and I do a much better job at evoking psychological nuance. Thus my characters are more well defined though where they are at any given moment is less so.

I’m not proud of anything I’ve written and I’m downright ashamed of quite a bit. I aspire to be proud of something someday.

You've written everything from short stories to novellas to novels. What length do you find yourself most comfortable with or does it all depend on the story?

Well, yeah, the story usually dictates its own length. In my case, I usually generate stories that seem to fall between 20 and 60 thousand words, the novella-short novel range. But part of that has been dictated by financial necessity, having to make money in the short term rather than utilizing the wiser and more lucrative strategy of writing novels. I’d like to think that but for fortune I’d be sitting on 10 more novels at least, but I don’t know. Actually I wrote a novella about that very subject called Dog-Eared Paperback Of My Life that’s coming out next year, about an alternate me who discovers my/his work while looking up his sales on Amazon and goes on a sort of odyssey described in one of the less financially successful writer’s books. I don’t think people will like it because the main character is a jerk, to put it mildly, but hey—never lie about yourself in prose, unless you’re writing something the police are going to hold you to.

Anyway, I’m trying to become a real novelist now. We’ll see how that works out.

In Nick Gever's interview with you at Infinity Plus, you mentioned that early on, you made a decision not to be a writer due to your horrible experiences with your father. What was the tipping point that made you pursue writing as a profession?

My band broke up. I was in my early thirties, and I looked around and said, Shit, I better find some other way of making a living. I didn’t want to wind up in an armpit bar playing ‘Melancholy Baby’ on the harmonica to a bunch of drunks who remembered me from when I used to be a local celebrity and came out to see me for old time’s sake. I had no skills except a certain facility with the English language, so I wrote half a story, based on this old man I had known down in San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. I didn't much like it and gave up on it. I was a mess. Depressed, drinking a lot, watching crud like Jim Baker and Pat Robertson on TV. I liked to mock them—I used to do a great imitation of Pat in the old days, spinning his Wheel of Fortune with the names of cities written on it and squeezing his eyes shut and saying, ‘Right now, the power of our Lord Jesus Christ is healing a case of gallstones in Quincy, Indiana.’ But I’m a southern boy, one of their own, and as much as I despised them, I came from that place they inhabited, where they honed their chops—I was prone to be victimized. One day while I was watching, the preacher told everybody out in TVland to put their hands on the TV set and ask Jesus to come into their heart. Well, damn if I didn’t lay my hands on the TV and I was just about to close my eyes and concentrate real hard and pray for Jesus to help me, when I became aware of what I was doing and jerked my hands away. Close fucking call. I might have felt a static discharge and mistaken it for divine intervention. That’s how bad off I was. So I told my wife what I had done and the next day she mailed my half-story off to the Clarion workshop without my knowledge. I remember on the day I got the acceptance letter, my horoscope in the Detroit Free Press said, ‘You will receive good news about a manuscript.’ How weird is that? When I read the letter, well, I knew Jesus couldn’t have been responsible, but I half-believed that the Big Red Dude was involved.

So that, and the workshop itself, which gave me confidence that I could do this, were the tipping points.

What are your current goals as a writer?

I’ve always had only one goal and that’s to write something that outlasts me. Still working on that. Currently I’m writing a sort-of vampire novel that I hope will win the Nobel Prize.

That might be a joke, in case you were wondering.

Are there any recent/new writers whose works excite you?

I don’t have time to read as much as I would like, but yeah, there are a few names : Kathy Sedia, Ben Peek, David Moles, Ben Rosenbaum. John Langan, Nathan Ballingrud. I don’t know if Laird Barron qualifies as a new writer, but I respond to his stuff. Michael Cisco has been around for a while, but he would be new to most people, unfortunately. Chris Barzak is newish—I dig him. Ysabeau Wilce is very cool. I loved that novella she had in F&SF. There are also writers who are relatively new to me like M. Rickert and Holly Black, but have been making waves for some time. I’m sure I’m leaving people out.

I'm a big fan of The Inferior 4+1. Since I'm interviewing you and not the rest of the crew, how did you get involved with
The Inferior 4+1 and what's the origin story behind it? Why is it named The Inferior 4+1?

Was it Paul Witcover who came up with the name? I think so, though Paul Di Filippo may have been the guilty party. There was a comic called the Inferior Five (I never read it), so since we were four and planned on having the occasional guest blogger and didn’t want to be sued, we chose to call it what we did, or the I4 for short. There's supposed to be a banner beside the logo of the Inferior Four with the legend: Making the World Safe For Indie Writers. But no one’s gotten around to putting it up so far. Which is typical of us indie people.

Me and Liz Hand and Paul DiFi were going to do a group blog with Bruce Sterling, but Bruce wanted to make the blog a commercial enterprise and none of the rest of us had the energy for that, so we dragooned Paul W into joining. We just thought we ought to have some sort of web presence, no matter how pitiful. And that’s how the I4 became the media giant it is today.

Claiming that you've had an adventurous life is an understatement. What's the biggest hurdle you've had to face?

The death of my first wife in a car accident was certainly one. I was very young and it basically unhinged me. I did some things during the following years that I’m not proud of in the least—I think I indulged my grief, I chose to become a lunatic because it was easier than the alternative. I’m finally writing something about that, a short novel called Extras, which will be in a collection I have coming out from Golden Gryphon in 2010, so I’m not going to talk about it more here. I’ll just say that it still affects me, still governs choices I’ve made and make, and is probably responsible for a number of failed relationships.

The death of my friend and mentor, Robert Izdepski, who was a tireless worker for human rights in Central America... that was a bad one. We had a ton of things cooking. A documentary film (for which I planned to write the narration) about the oppression and plight of cane and banana workers in Nicaragua and Honduras, among other projects. I don’t know who can carry on his work. He was my moral referent and the most necessary individual I’ve ever met. He’d just won a court case in Honduras against the Dole Corporation, an almost impossible feat, and had a heart attack while celebrating on a trip to Costa Rica with two of his kids. I was merely a tiny part of his team and I’m hoping one of the kids will pick up the burden and get in touch with me. I was planning to write a book about Bob... but it required his participation, so that’s gone. That’s one hurdle I don’t know if I can get over.

I could go on, but I’d get too upset.

What kind of music do you listen to when you write?

None, actually. The trouble with music is that, having been a musician, I become too analytic about what I’m listening to and get caught up in it. What I do to prevent myself from getting too squirrely with all that silence is I turn on the TV low, usually to soap operas or the Lifetime Channel. I’ve written most of my stories with the Guiding Light or some G-rated battered wife movie on in the background. The only music I’ve ever been able to ignore is dub, and that won’t even work for me now. I’ll never be one of those guys who can show how cool (or uncool) they are by listing the bands they listened to while writing at the front of their books. It’s too bad. I know lots of obscure bands and I’d love to be able to say, Yeah, I wrote this while listening to Six Organs of Admittance, the Drones, Da Bedi, Alisha Kandisha, Ahlam, Oneida, the Necks, and Ta Dungen. Though I suppose now I sorta have.

You used to be part of a band. Did you ever consider of playing in a band again?

Now? Nope. Unless it’s a fun kind of thing, like playing a one-off set at a con. Even then, I’d be reluctant. My voice is scarily out of shape. Being in a band takes too much energy and time. I’m an obsessive, and I’d want to get it right, so it just wouldn’t be productive for me. Ten years ago, however, I might have been tempted. My ex-brother in law keeps trying to get me in a studio so we can lay down some tunes. Maybe I’ll go for that, because I still enjoy singing and writing music.

How did you get your start in boxing?

I kept getting in fights at school. In the 8th grade, I think I got into some kind of altercation every single day at lunch period. So one day I was at my semi-weekly appointment with the juvie officer (I was on sort of unofficial probation) and he took me to a gym and handed me over to this boxing coach. I was a big kid for 12, and I took to the training pretty well. Boxing coaches don’t mess around with the spiritual side like teachers of karate and tae kwon do. They just say, this’ll knock somebody’s head off and I appreciated that. I liked hitting things, especially when the things were people trying to hit me. But I could have probably used some of the spiritual stuff to ameliorate the ‘hit him in the liver’ approach of my coach. Learning boxing simply made me more of a junior badass. I doubt that was the juvie officer’s intent. Anyway, I boxed for 2,3 years and then got KOed by this guy who looked like a pushover but was very fast. I never saw it coming. When I woke up I didn’t know what had happened. After that, I limited my fighting to bars and such, where I wasn’t as likely to get knocked out.

Is there any tie between your familiarity with boxing and your fascination with martial arts movies?

Yeah, I’m sure there is, and my affinity for many varieties of violent behavior can, I’m sure, be traced back to my childhood; but the past is dead and now I just like watching men or women fight, whether in the movies or the ring or the cage. I’m entranced by the violent arts: boxing, grappling, the martial arts, self-defense systems that are purely efficient like Krav Maga, and so forth.

Like my friend, Katherine Dunn once said of herself, I’d watch a knife fight in an alley. Sometimes I try to come up with some nifty-sounding raison d’etre, but the truth is that while I’m interested in aggression, its causes, its male and female incarnations, etc., I simply enjoy a good fight. But I do like martial arts movies, especially the wuxia of King Hu and the films of Sammo Hung and Bolo Yeung, some of the films of Jeff Speakeman like THE PERFECT WEAPON and Marc Dascascos... Few people are aware that Dascascos’ parents pioneered in the development of martial arts in this country and he’s one of the rare martial arts stars who can actually fight. You can see him fighting his own style in THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF and a quickie he made called DRIVE. Of course I like Bruce Lee films, too, and Sonny Chiba and early to middle period Jet Li. Martial arts movies are usually fables or simple stories with complex violence. That could be almost be a description of my life, a big part of it, anyway—maybe that’s another reason why I like them. They reflect a measure of my reality in a more dramatic and pleasing way.

Who's your favorite martial artist and why?

Right now it’s Tony Jaa who was in a movie called Ong Bak a few years ago and was all set to become the next Asian superstar, when personal issues intervened. Now he’s back on track and Ong Bak 2 is due this fall in the theaters. What I like about Jaa was his movie had no wire work, it was all about his unbelievable athleticism (some of his stunts were almost superhuman), and his fighting style, which is a primitive form of Muay Thai, very efficient and brutal. I don’t believe he has the charisma of a Bruce Lee, but I believe if the two men actually fought, Jaa would have a very good chance of winning

Do you have any commentary on the public's recent fascination with mixed martial arts?

I love MMA. When I’m home I sometimes go over to Team Quest’s gym and watch folks like Dan Henderson, Chris Leben, Ryan Schulz, Randy Couture (he’s since moved on), and Matt Lindland train. I did an article for Playboy on Chuck Liddell and spent several days with him while he was training for the Quentin Jackson fight. The training these fighters (men and women) undergo is amazing. When they’re getting ready for a fight, it’s not unusual to see them in the gym 8 hours a day, that in addition to cardio work. Most of them are well-spoken, intelligent people with college degrees and have traveled the world as college athletes, so when you have to write about them they’re much more likely to treat you as a professional than many other sports stars.

As for the public’s fascination with the sport, I expect it breaks down this way. The uneducated fans like the blood and the violence, though in reality, MMA is a lot less violent than boxing as regards serious injury. Getting hit a few times with four oz. gloves (usually all it takes) in an MMA fight doesn’t do nearly as much damage as having your brain slapped around a couple of hundred times in a boxing match. The educated fans dig on the techniques involved, but also like the blood and the violence. The MMA fighter cross-trains in Brazilian ju jitsu, grappling, boxing, Muay Thay (kickboxing), and usually one form or another of karate. On the elite level, guys like Fedor Emelienko, George St. Pierre, BJ Penn, Anderson Silva... those men’s skills are incredible. Bottom line, anyone who’s into combat sports responds to violence. I don’t attempt to explain or justify that, it’s just true. I have friends who claim to be interested in the varieties of aggressive behavior, and I don’t doubt that’s true—but they like combat sports as much as I, so their intellectual attachment is a corollary to their visceral one.

On another level, why the public likes it is due to the intelligence with which the sport has been marketed. The Fertiti Brothers and Dana White, who own and run the UFC, knew the demographic they were after and marketed the sport with heavy doses of aggro metal and good-looking women. Doesn’t take a genius to come up with that marketing strategy, but boxing still hasn’t learned the lesson and, as a result, boxing fans as a demographic are growing older and older.

Speaking of movies, how did you end up in that particular industry?

I took a break from writing in the mid-nineties and offered to prostitute myself. Fortunately there weren’t that many takers or I might have wound up wearing black Hugo Boss shirts and taking meetings for a living and believing everything I said. That was a particularly unpleasant period of my life. I was working with people I didn’t respect and that led me to do a lot of very unenlightening drugs. I’ve always had self-esteem issues and LA exacerbated them. Fortunately a few interesting stories have come out of that period. "Larissa Miusov" in Eclipse and a story Playboy has but hasn’t published yet called "The Company He Keeps", and a couple of others. But for the most part, my time in show biz was a waste. I made a lot of money (compared to what I made writing fiction), but I pissed it away, so the whole thing was a wash.

I’m fussing with another Hollywood story, "Dreamburgers At The Mouth of Hell", which may be my definitive statement on the subject.

What are some of the challenges in writing movie reviews?

Well, the main challenge in writing movie reviews for me is in finding good movies. There just aren’t that many good genre movies, in my opinion. Occasionally we’re blessed with one, but for the most part we’re forced to look at what I consider sub-par (to be kind) entertainment. Unlike many reviewers, I refuse to grade on a curve. The idea, for instance, that summer movies should be given a pass because they’re ‘thrill rides’ is bogus—they cost ten bucks, don’t they? They pretend to be entertainment for adults, right? Take a film like DIEHARD. Made in the what... late 80s? Twenty years later and we get excrement like NATIONAL TREASURE and SWORDFISH and ULTRAVIOLET and DOMINO. Compared to those films, DIEHARD is a freaking masterpiece of character development and plot. If we're to grade on a curve, I’d use a film like Diehard as about a C, C+. So finding good movies... that’s the biggest problem. The second biggest problem for me lies in convincing people that I’m not a snob because I hate their favorite movie. People react to that by claiming I don’t like anything except films with subtitles or no budgets, and I have to explain that there’s a reason for that—because with the rare exception, that’s the only place you find a developed story and more than cardboard characters anymore. Take THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, for instance. One of the most puerile, ludicrous, infantile pieces of dreck that ever was flushed down the Hollywood toilet. I mean it’s like a fucking Disney movie about convicts. Yet people love it. Maybe they look at it as a fantasy, but even fantasy has to have a foothold in reality. There’s none in TSR. Being best buds with a black con might get you shanked today; in the 1940s it would have been a sure thing, even in Maine. And does anybody else think that Andy locking himself in the warden’s office and playing opera over the PA would have gotten him in deep doo-doo with the entire population? There’d be a line around the block waiting for a shot at offing him. Convicts are not, generally speaking, opera lovers. Now if TSR had been a parody with comical songs, that would have worked, maybe. Oh well. For the record, I like a whole lot of crap. Romantic comedies, martial arts films, bad horror and scifi films, etc. I ‘m just of the opinion that there should be something other than crap to go along with it. It’s a radical view, I admit.

Otherwise, film reviews are a snap. They’re fun. It gives me great pleasure to insult bad actors and directors who should be putting on Civil War pageants in Drainpipe, Arkansas.

As far as the publishing industry goes, what's the biggest change (or lack of it) that you've witnessed in the past twenty plus years? What's something you want to change about it?

I think the biggest change has been in myself, waking to the realization that Lord Jim and Ulysses were standalone novels, that they required this special designation to differentiate them from the standard trilogy. Seriously, though, I don’t know what I can add to the usual cant. For various reasons, publishing has become increasingly more like Hollywood than like publishing used to be. And when I came along, the old publishing world was already heading down that road. I remember Russell Banks once told me how he’d sit down with Ted Solotaroff and his manuscript would have about a thousand post-its on the pages that Ted had written, and they would have this one- or two-week long dialog about the post-its before they made any editing decisions. I never had that experience with an editor, not even close, and I would have welcomed it, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Hell, I still don’t. But editors were already too busy to edit when I entered the game, doing focus meetings and sales conferences and playing corporate reindeer games and etc. They wrote ‘editorial letters’ that gave a few broad hints about what they thought needed to be done, but nothing in detail. I’m sure there are those among them who can edit and have edited, but nowadays they’re even busier not editing than they used to be. So that’s one thing I’d change—I’d bring back the Maxwell Perkins experience into editing.

A publisher told me over a beer one day: We don’t publish books, we build careers. That‘s a nice slogan, very snappy, makes a good jingle, and it should be the title of someone’s book about publishing, or the name of a new breakfast treat. It implies a partnership with one’s publisher. If only it were true. If only publishers nourished talent and helped guide it along the proper course, instead of jamming it into a slot and selling it as something it’s not and then punishing the author for daring to write a book that wasn’t commercial enough or too commercial or whatever. So that would be another thing I’d change: Authors and publishers would be in partnerships together, rather than one treating the other like yesterday’s cole slaw.

I’d also make sinful publishers run a gauntlet of dominatrix romance writers armed with goads and iron flails... but that’s probably too realistic.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Careerwise, I don’t think I should be giving advice to anyone. Writerly advice, well, just the usual. Write a lot. Write all the time. Be obsessive with it. Steal stuff from writers you admire. Never carry a camera—rely on your memory and your senses to record and interpret the world. I remember when I first went to Egypt I took a trip out to this oasis named Siwa and I came back with about five hundred pictures of sand and little memory of doing other than taking pictures. After that I threw the camera away. Miniature tape recorders are good in order to get to know how dialogue really sounds. After a while you won’t need one. It’s like in school when I used to write cheat sheets—by the time I finished writing them I had the answers down pat and didn’t need them. But recorders are useful for focusing your ear. Theodore Roethke once said, Facts are jewels. They are jewels for a writer. The specifics are what connect with a reader, what give him that special sense of place. Develop your ear and your eye, and you’ll be halfway there. Write what you know, but know as much of the world as you can. Go get yourself a scar and a tattoo. Do some living. Take some risks. It amazes me how many writers I meet who haven’t done much besides go to school and write and hold down a few jobs. Maybe that works for them; I’m certain it does for some; but I remember what my freshman advisor said to me the first time we met. He asked, What do you want to be? I said, maybe a rock and roll musician, or a writer. He said, What are you doing here?

You can always go to college, but you can’t always be 19 or 20. So my best advice would be to live a few stories before you try and write one. Feel some shit. Get intense. Forget who you want to be and be who you are for a while. You may be surprised by what develops. Living that way will give you a bunch of material and teach you a hell of a lot about narrative. Having to talk your way out of trouble in, say, Medan, Indonesia when it’s pouring rain and this little swarthy guy in sunglasses and khakis with a big gun is about to take you for a drive... that can be extremely instructive about the art of bullshit, which is indispensable for a writer. You might not survive it, but look at it as a learning experience.

How about advice for aspiring movie reviewers?

The way things are going, I guess I’d ask, Why bother? If you’re going to get a pay check for reviewing, chances are you’re going to be forced to like damn near everything that comes out of the Hollywood pipeline, or else you’ll be fired. I know a number of reviewers in the print media who have faced this issue and caved. I guess it’s still an easy gig, going to free movies and telling lies about them, but it sure doesn’t offer much in the way of a sense of accomplishment or self-respect. Don’t fall into the trap of worshiping pop culture and thinking that you can make a difference, maybe improve the product, by engaging it on a serious critical level. You can’t. One of the most important functions of the pop culture industry is to generate reams of criticism, both positive and negative, for every artifact produced by the culture industries. By gently chiding these people, suggesting improvements, etc., you’re simply becoming part of the process, playing their game, and they have no reason to pay attention to you. My way, a way I’ve found occasionally gets the attention of movie producers and directors, is to ridicule them, to piss them off if that’s possible.

I had a dust-up with an internet critic recently, a true believer who felt that my methods were tired, and the only real way to influence Hollywood was through gentle persuasion and serious critical engagement. After I got through being pissed off, I wrote a long piece that I was going to post on my blog (but chose not to) that stated pop culture studies and criticism has been carried out in the academic and other spheres for the last fifty years. During that time, while the technical production values of movies and TV shows have improved greatly, the concepts of story and character development have taken a brutal beating and suffered a steady decline until we’ve reached the point that there are treatments written (I’ve seen them) for Hollywood films that specify there will be no emphasis given to character development whatsoever. So encouraging the industry with polite criticism has been proven not to work. To my mind, this is unequivocal, and a case can be made that this sort of criticism has actually exacerbated the problem. Popular studies courses have invaded university curriculums all across the nation. Courses like Princeton’s Getting Dressed, which allows students to discuss ‘jeans and baseball caps, flip-flops and high top sneakers,’ and Penn’s Society at Play, which concerns itself with the significance of coffee shops, malls, Disney movies, the Simpsons, and films such as ‘Pretty Woman.’ To be fair, there are more scholarly courses available that offer the deep bullshit of social critics like John Hartley, whose latest book examines the phenomenon of supermodels and the films of Arnold Scharzenegger, focusing particularly on T-2. Frankly I don’t need an in-depth analysis of T2’s content, political or otherwise. It requires neither Cliff Notes nor an academic filter to understand. The main reason most often given to questions asking why these studies are significant is, so we can learn more about ourselves. Fuck learning about ourselves, at least on this childish level. We’ve become a culture of piddling self-indulgent narcissists whose principal occupation is trying to justify our lack of intellectual rigor by proclaiming ourselves intellectuals in every trivial facet of our lives, in our adolescent obsessions with Dr. Who and Airtender and so forth.

So yeah, I try to make rude noises and wreck bathrooms and yell at the corporate assholes who forcefeed us crap. Why not? The alternative doesn’t seem to do any good. I don’t know if that’s advice, but it’s all l’ve got.

Anything else you want to plug?