The task of providing some introductory overview of author Lewis Shiner’s life and career is, while not quite Herculean, certainly daunting. Shiner might be characterized as primarily a pop artist-cum-magical realist, or a sympathetic but sharp-eyed chronicler of American subcultures, or even a futurist (if a futurist of a somewhat grim outlook.) His fiction, both in its form and content, is entangled in complicated relationships to music as well as comic books and graphic storytelling. And Shiner has been cast in various roles throughout his writing career: early on, as one of the “founders” of the cyberpunk aesthetic; mid-career, as one of the first writers to embrace fully the alternative economies of the globally-networked world cyberpunk had prophesied back in the 1980s. Perhaps Shiner is one of the last, true “working writers” in America, the kind of hammer-it-out-at-the-Selectric guy slogging down the road from small magazine to small magazine to publishing house, the landmarks that now sit scattered and largely vacant, like ghost-towns-in-waiting on America’s literary map. Yet Shiner has clearly yet to exhaust his ambitions, and he remains just as much a pioneer as he’s always been, a model for who and what the 21st Century writer will need to be in order to survive in this new wilderness. Let’s assume, then, that we can say that Lewis Shiner is all of these things. Which, I would argue, and as his status as one of the earliest contributors to the magazine proposes, Lewis Shiner is a prototypical Black Clock author. In other words, intensely independent, and in every respect.
The following interview was conducted via email over the first two weeks of June 2010.
BLACK CLOCK: What are you working on right now?
LEWIS SHINER: The first thing on my to-do list is to finish setting type for a reprint of my novel Glimpses. What’s happening is, I’m bringing my entire backlist back into print, thanks to the good graces of my publisher, Bill Schafer at Subterranean. He’s letting me design the covers and set the type for all the books so that I can get exactly what I want. Black & White and Deserted Cities of the Heart came out last December, and we’ve got Frontera all set to go as well. We were originally going to save Glimpses for last, as that’s the book that I get the most fan mail about, but then something came up.
Which was an audiobook version, done by Stefan Rudnicki of Skyboat Road Company. Stefan is another really loyal supporter of my work, an award winning producer, director, and actor who did a wonderful job on my two previous audiobooks (Say Goodbye and an anthology called Missing Persons). Stefan is determined to get something happening for me in the audiobook market, so we wanted to get a paperback edition out there to support what he’s doing.
So once I get the typeset and the cover finished for Glimpses, I’ll wrap up Frontera and get that off to the printer. Then I’ll get back to finishing the final draft of a new novel called Dark Tangos. It’s set in Buenos Aires in 2006 and 2007 and deals with the fact that Argentina has only now gotten around to putting the guys on trial who actually implemented what they called El Proceso back in the 70s—the Dirty War, where they kidnapped, tortured, and murdered an estimated 30,000 people, most of whom were never found. The protagonist is a guy from the U.S. who gets caught up in all this political stuff because of someone he meets while dancing tango.
Once I get that done, I’ve got a new novel in the planning stages that I’m excited about. If it works out, it’s going to be huge, like 1000 pages, covering 40 or 50 years, cast of thousands, all that kind of thing.
All of this while working my day job and taking salsa classes and trying to keep up with my friends in email.
I’d be interested to learn more about how you came to be associated with Subterranean. When and how did that relationship begin? It also sounds like Subterranean has granted you a level of creative control over your work rare in the publishing industry. Is that fair to say? And, if so, how has your experience with them in this regard been different from your past experiences with publishers?
Bill first approached me in the late nineties with the idea of doing a story collection. It so happened that I had been holding back a batch of stories for just such an occasion, and it was clear that I wasn’t going to get a major conglomerate publisher interested in it. But I had a very clear idea of what I wanted. The stories were all mainstream or slipstream, and I wanted a look that reflected that. I’d also had a number of bad experiences with covers, the most recent, with Say Goodbye, being the worst. St. Martin’s had agreed that their first cover proof, which I called the “glowing alien hand” cover, was a complete dog, but then they came back with what I called the “Nicaraguan rape victim” cover. This one was so bad that I threatened to pull the book and return the advance unless they dropped it. Their third attempt, which had nothing to do with the book except that it had a woman in it, was bad, but at least it wasn’t an outright insult to the readers, so I had to go with it.
Say Goodbye was also my first experience with type design. They sent me a proof of what their designer had come up with, and I made a counterproposal. The designer worked up my specs, showed both designs to his boss, and his boss picked mine.
So I told Bill I would love to do a collection, but I had to have absolute control over the cover and typeset. And, remarkably, he agreed. He set up me with Gail Cross, his designer, and we worked really closely together. She totally got into the project, to the extent of building this huge, beautiful sandcastle in her driveway and Photoshopping it into a beach scene that we picked together. She consulted me on absolutely everything, a dream experience for me. And the best part was that Bill and Gail were really happy with the results as well. This was Love in Vain, a book I am still really proud of. And Bill and Gail and I got to be friends in the process.
The book came out in 2000, as I was working on my next novel, Black & White. That one took eight years to write, and I have to admit I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder when the time came to market it. This would have been the summer of 2007. I made a list of six top agents in New York, and I had a recommendation to each of them from either an important client or a close friend. When I didn’t get the response I wanted, I took the book to a handful of publishers that I knew well enough to approach without an agent. That didn’t work out either.
So I went to Bill and asked if he’d take a look, and he loved it. Because things had turned out well with Love in Vain, I was able to push a little harder and ask to actually design the cover and set the type myself. Bill made Gail look over my shoulder all the way, and she basically taught me how to do her job—how generous is that? And I got what I wanted.
The thing about working with Bill—aside from the fact that he’s a tremendously nice guy—is that he is very, very good at what he does. He knows who his customers are, he knows what they want, and he can predict pretty accurately how much a book is going to sell. As a result, he’s making a profit while the conglomerate publishers are losing their shirts. And he’s making much nicer books than they are—sewn spines, cloth covers, beautiful painted dust jacket art. The difference between working for a company that’s making money and one that’s scrambling in desperation is huge.
Another thing about Bill is that he trusts his own judgment. That’s pretty rare in New York publishing, where how they feel about a book is tempered by the author’s track record and what everybody else in the company thinks. Bill, to my everlasting gratitude, likes my work. He doesn’t care what category it gets filed under, and he can set his print runs to accommodate the size of my audience.
Neither Bill nor I are going to get rich from this deal, but I get great looking books that I’m really proud of, and I think Bill is at least breaking even on me.
Final book design is something I think many (beginning, in particular) writers don’t give much thought to, only to learn too late and rather unpleasantly how important it actually is. The novel is more than just the words on the page, ultimately…
What was the best creative experience you ever had with a major publisher?
Purely in terms of a creative experience, I would have to mention Slam. My editor at Doubleday was Pat LoBruto, and he and I just clicked. He totally got the book, and had wonderful suggestions, and we spent some great hours on the phone together. We’re still friends today. Unfortunately he was not there during the production stages, where there were lots of problems. Like, I had to rewrite the flap copy hours after getting out of oral surgery because what they had was unspeakable and they didn’t show it to me until the last minute. And Chip Kidd—who is an outstanding designer—had a bad day when he did Slam and got the brilliant idea of doing ragged right margins on the right hand pages, and ragged left margins on the left hand pages. The only problem being that ragged left destroys the paragraphing. Fortunately one of the editorial assistants smuggled me out a preview of the typeset, and I called my new editor and showed him at least two places in the first ten pages where it was literally impossible to tell who was speaking, to the extent that the meaning of the book was changed. And he backed down before I had to go to the wall, but it was another of those incidents that took months, if not years, off my life.
So for an overall good experience, I would have to go back to the first time. Everything with Frontera was simple and straightforward. It was an SF paperback original, and they had a nice piece of art lying around by Vincent DiFate, a guy who did gorgeous paintings of rockets and planets, and they tweaked the colors so it would look like Mars instead of the Moon, and there was my cover. It was mostly red and black, which were the hot colors for paperbacks at the time, and I’d always liked DiFate’s work, so I really had nothing to complain about. My editor was Betsy Mitchell, whom I’d worked with when she was editing at Analog, and we got along well. She liked the book and didn’t ask for much in the way of changes. It got good distribution—it was actually in the rack at my local grocery. It didn’t sell very well, but I don’t think that was in any way the publisher’s fault.
Given the state of the publishing industry, i.e., crumbling (shades of that sandcastle), do you think it’s still possible for young / starting-out writers to have a comparable experience with a big house?
I think so, especially in SF. It is much, much harder to break in than when I was starting—there are fewer magazines, fewer anthologies, lower circulations, and so on, but you can still get a buzz going as a short story writer, and that creates excitement about your first novel, and editors still love that thrill of breaking a new writer. The truth is, it’s much easier now to sell a book as a first-timer than as somebody who’s got a bad track record.
In connection with Love in Vain, you mentioned your work in the context of slipstream. But that is not the only genre in which you work. How would you describe your relationship to genre?
I seem to be the only person around who doesn’t care about genre. I know I’ve said this before—I think there’s more in common between any two of my books, regardless of genre, than there is in common between one of my novels and another novel in the same alleged genre. Which is to say, Frontera, which is nominally “hard” science fiction, is more like Black & White, which is a literary suspense novel, than it is like some other hard SF novel. Or to put it still another way, if you like Frontera, you’ll probably like one of my other books.
Like most writers, I write the same kind of stuff as I read, and I read Westerns, detective novels, literary novels, whatever. And I will point out that one of my favorite writers, Jane Smiley, has published a Western (Liddie Newton), a whodunnit (Duplicate Keys), a sitcom (Moo), a couple of historical novels (Greenlanders, Private Life), a Hollywood novel (Ten Days in the Hills), etc. Don DeLillo has written SF (Ratner’s Star), a spy novel (The Names), a sports novel (End Zone), all of them great books that played by (and with) genre conventions. I’ll read anything Jane Smiley writes—I don’t care what it’s about. The things that I look for in a novel—evocative prose, sympathetic characters, stimulating ideas, prickly little splinters of the real world—don’t have to do with genre.
Mr. McSweeney’s, Chip Kidd… surely Slam was one of his earliest assignments?
Kidd was already pretty famous when he did Slam. I was a fan of his, so I was doubly disappointed by what he did on my book. I’m not just talking about the typeset, but about the cover as well—here’s a novel about skateboarding and anarchy, with all kinds of visual potential, and he turns in art that makes it look like a postmodern novel of homoerotic love. But book design is a creative art, and you can’t knock one out of the park every time.
I was lucky to have great cover art for Deserted Cities of the Heart by Bob Hickson—it was commissioned by the Bantam New Fiction line, back when they were going to make me a mainstream star. But the editors and I couldn’t agree on what good writing was—they literally told me that I needed to use “bigger words and longer sentences”—so I got kicked back into the SF ghetto. I was deliberating going to another publisher entirely, but I had seen the cover art and that made me stay with Bantam, albeit in their new SF hardcover line.
And with Glimpses they got Honi Werner, one of the top cover painters/designers in the world, to do the book, and her art was gorgeous. Again, I was a big fan of hers and she would have been at the top of my list if I’d gotten to pick, and unlike Kidd, she didn’t disappoint.
Your experience seems to me to highlight one of the more fascinating consequences of publishers’ attempts make sense of a marketplace in which the book is not the primary commodity, i.e., publishers no longer rely primarily on the book, with its design, layout, blurbs, and carefully composed author photos, to communicate to the reader that not only is this a book worth reading, but here is a writer worth following. Publishers, in effect, offer less and expect more of their authors in terms of creating a marketable “brand.”
Obviously, web presence is a major aspect of such branding. And, like nearly every writer working today, you have a presence on the web (http://www.lewisshiner.com). But unique on your website is the sheer amount of writing you make available to any visitor for free, via your “Fiction Liberation Front.” Which is another way of saying that your website is less image and more substance. What gave you the idea for this project? How did it actually come about?
By 2007 the handwriting was on the wall—or on the web, if you will. Print publishing was clearly in trouble, especially as far as short fiction was concerned. And short fiction had always been a problem for me. I could sell short SF or fantasy, but I had never cracked the serious mainstream markets. Mainstream fiction in the U.S. is dominated by graduates of MFA writing workshops who now teach in some other MFA writing program. You only have to look at the biographies in the back of Best American Short Stories to see what I’m talking about. If you’re good enough, or lucky enough, or connected enough, or whatever, you might be able to overcome that, but I never did. And I am not cut out for academia.
So if I wanted to get my stuff out there where people could see it—and I did—I needed to put it online. The question was, how do I get paid? I talked to a lot of people, and the only answer anybody could give me was, “get a sponsor.” I couldn’t stand the idea of having ads for SUVs or network TV shows or Big Macs on my website—even assuming I could land a high-profile sponsor like that—so I just said “to hell with it.” It’s not like there’s that much money to be made from short fiction anyway. So I decided to be my own sponsor. It’s a way of making my day job less onerous, thinking of it that way.
Did you encounter any difficulties along the way in terms of regaining the rights to your work?
There was no problem with getting the rights to my stories—generally magazines only buy first serial rights, which leaves you free to reprint once the thing has been published. In cases like Subterranean, the online magazine that my publisher runs, where I had a new story last year, I simply link to the site from Fiction Liberation Front.
Novels are a different story, but in my case it was all part of the synergy. As I was conceiving of FLF, I was also conceiving of bringing my backlist into print (and I had been careful to get the rights back to all my novels as soon as the contracts expired). Bill at Subterranean had been reading the same studies I had, which all say that giving your book away online only increases sales of the print edition. Which makes sense—most people don’t want to read an entire novel sitting at the computer, so having the book online really serves as a teaser. Of course as the Kindle and the Nook and the iPad get more popular, that may change, but so far there is a hardcore audience that still wants a print artifact, and I am part of that audience. So with each new Subterranean trade paperback, we put the PDF up on Fiction Liberation Front.
I picked the name as a way to grab attention—ditto labeling my introduction a “manifesto.” And it worked—the bOING bOING website gave me a great plug, and I got a lot of favorable publicity in various blogs. It upped my street cred with the anarchist community, and still serves as a good hook for talking about my work.
What sort of input or reaction did you receive from other writers? Did anyone caution you against “giving your work away”?
The only real dissent was that one SF writer called me a “scab” because he thought if we all banded together and insisted that we wouldn’t put our stuff online unless we got paid well for it, we could bring publishing to its knees. Being the lefty and unionist that I am (I’m a member of the Wobblies), that stung, but I was unable to take his argument seriously.
Probably the biggest impediment was the sheer amount of work involved—all told, 67 short stories, nearly all in both PFD and HTML format, plus nonfiction, screenplays, audio, video, and two novels (so far). I was afraid that I would run out of steam, and there were periods of several months at a time when I didn’t post anything. But then somebody I didn’t know would write and say, “Hey, what’s happening with FLF?” or “When are you going to put up some cyberpunk?” and I would go back to work. Toward the end, which was January and February of this year, with the end in sight, I posted a ton of stuff, with the result that all of my short fiction (except collaborations and one story that I hate) is up there. And the collaborations are coming.
Assuming that the FLF could be described as an “experiment,” how might you describe the results?
I am really proud of the fact that if somebody wants to read one of my stories, it’s out there. So the work can stand or fall on its own merits. It would be nice to be able to make a living writing fiction, but given that that’s not happening, at least my work is available. There are so many writers who can’t say that.
Despite your association with the science-fiction, slipstream, cyberpunk etc. genres, and aside from forward-looking projects like the FLF, one theme that threads through nearly all your work is history, or, better yet, the present’s compulsion or need to intervene in the past (and vice-versa.) The plots of both Glimpses and Deserted Cities Cities of the Heart orbit around characters who can become unanchored in time (Eddie Yates in the latter, Ray Shackleford in the former) and your most recent novel, Black & White, links genealogy to larger patterns in America’s collective life in ways that recall both Faulkner and the Chandler-esque detective novel. What about history fascinates you? Has your own work as a fiction-writer—someone who “merely” makes up stories—altered your understanding of or attitude towards history? If so, how?
The present is always intervening in the past, isn’t it? That’s what memory does. On a personal level, the level of nostalgia, you get a book like Glimpses, in which one character accuses the protagonist of trying to have sex with his own past. On a cultural level, the level, say, of modern Mayans preserving the myths and cultures of their ancestors, you get a book like Deserted Cities of the Heart.
When I was a kid, history was the art of memorizing dates—which I was lousy at. So I thought I hated history. I was in my 30s before I understood that the French Revolution, which had always been in one compartment, happened in the same half-century as the American Revolution, which had always been in this other compartment. And that the American Revolution had actually helped inspire the French. And how very similar ideas about democracy had gone down two wildly divergent paths.
It turned out that I loved history when it dealt with connections and characters and concepts, and I ended up learning about history by writing about it.
At one very basic level, history is important to my writing because I don’t have a lot of imagination. When you steal from history, you get some really fascinating characters, and you get lots of background and plot and scenery. It’s your job to make these people convincing, but you get a leg up—at least in confidence—because you know they did exist, and there must have been reasons they did what they did.
Plus, you can find the seeds of everything in the modern world by looking at the past. You can really see this in some of the short stories—”Gold,” which is about Jean Lafitte, and “White City,” about Nikola Tesla, come to mind. Lafitte was actually an early, self-taught socialist, and Tesla was the prototype for the scientists who think technology can solve everything. They provide a great armature for talking about greed, or science, or any other facet of the modern world, because once you put those ideas in a different context, like the past, it lets you see them differently. This decontextualizing is what the best SF does, but I never had the patience or the skills to do that kind of world building.
Your quoting Glimpses reminds me again what a complex relationship that novel has to the American nostalgic mode. Shackleford’s initial ventures into the past are escapist, in one sense, but, ultimately, he cannot avoid taking responsibility for what he hears on his journeys into the past. Were these complications ones you set out to explore in writing the novel, or did they only begin to emerge as you began writing and—to use that language again—began to learn about these people and this world?
Glimpses had kind of a funny history. I started out to write a mainstream novel about a guy whose father died in a diving “accident” in Mexico, basically what is now the “In Transit” chapter of Glimpses. I worked on it for a year, but I wasn’t getting much of anywhere—there was something missing. There wasn’t enough story, or enough weirdness, or something, and I was not excited by it.
So I took a break and started writing a quickie short story about a stereo repairman who could conjure up lost albums. This I was excited about, and I kept backing up and adding more to the beginning of the story, and it kept getting bigger and bigger, and finally I realized I was going to have to account for why this guy needed to do this so bad, and who he was, etc. I’m not too bright sometimes and it took like two or three days for me to realize, “Hey, what if his father died in a diving ‘accident’ in Mexico?”
At that point it really took off, and when I caught up to the Cozumel section, it was now interesting to me again.
But yeah, from the start of the short story version I knew it was going to end with Ray not getting what he wanted in terms of finding the music. I knew that it was totally unhealthy to be that obsessed with the past. On the other hand, I was being obsessive myself, so part of the reason for writing the short story was to talk myself out of my own obsession.
I’m curious: how did you feel about Shackleford, the character, while you were writing Glimpses? Now that 15 (give or take) years have passed since the novel’s initial publication, and since we have now cycled through revivals of both the ‘70s and the ‘80s*, do you view Shackleford or that novel any differently?
*What is it Pynchon writes in V? That, as Americans, we seem particularly susceptible to “a great temporal homesickness for the decade we were born in”?
“A great temporal homesickness for the decade we were born in”… I have that too, but in this case it’s a homesickness for the years you were in high school, which I think is even stronger. And there was, in fact, something really special about the sixties. It was one of the only moments in history where the most powerful nations on earth were so prosperous that the national zeitgeist could turn to issues other than basic survival—issues like civil rights and spirituality and art. Where so many kids had so much money that thousands of bands could spring up across the country.
At the time, I was daring myself to go places I had never been in my fiction before. I was inspired by a writer named Jonathan Carroll, author of amazing novels like Land of Laughs and After Silence. There were lots of moments in Carroll’s novels that made me squirm with discomfort—it was the same effect as watching someone break down emotionally in front of a huge crowd of people. I admired his courage for being able to sacrifice his dignity in the name of honesty, and wondered if I could do that.
To that end I came up with a verbal style for the book that verged on the inarticulate. I was really going after the cadence of spoken rather than written English. And I put a lot of intensely personal stuff in there. I would think of putting something in the book and I would recoil in shame and fear and think, “Oh no, I couldn’t put that in there.” And I took the very fact that I felt that way as a sign that it had to go in.
There are certainly a lot of differences between Ray and myself—for one thing, Ray is not an artist and not a verbal person. We have (slightly) different musical tastes. I was always more of a cynic. But still, it was very autobiographical, painfully so.
In fact, Glimpses is now my least favorite of my books. There are a million reasons for that, including the fact that it evokes all these bad memories of my parents. It evokes my first marriage, which was pretty unhappy at the end. Lori is largely based on a couple of women, one of whom I had a disastrous love affair with, the other of whom I married and had a disastrous marriage with. I read the scenes between Ray and Lori now and think, “My god, you idiot, run away.”
And the very things I was trying to achieve now bother me. I don’t like the style, which seems very obtrusive. I don’t like the sentimentality. And while, ultimately, the book makes a point about the dangers of nostalgia, there’s a certain contradiction there, because it makes the point by wallowing in it. It’s like making a pornographically violent movie to advocate pacifism. It’s very clear that Ray’s uncontrollable nostalgia is literally killing him by the end of the novel, but I think most readers—and I myself—read those scenes and say, “Okay, let it kill me, I don’t care! I’m eating soul food with Jimi Hendrix in Harlem!”
Let’s talk a bit more about Black & White, your most recent novel and one for which (I’d wager) you feel a bit more authorial affection. (Though I feel that Glimpses is also, in part, about the virtues of fandom.) What motivated you to write Black & White?
I moved to North Carolina in 1996. Within a few weeks of moving here, I got to be friends with the receptionist at the place I was working, Pam Footman. She was the one who first told me about Hayti. I immediately recognized that this was a book that needed to be written, and, as usual, I went around looking to see if somebody else had done it so I wouldn’t have to. No such luck.
The initial stage of a book is like setting up a piece of screen wire in my brain and seeing what gets caught in it. The story of Hayti is the story of a highway, and that made me think of my Uncle Bob, and his quote about concrete highway embankments being full of dead bodies. Which led me to a protagonist who was a highway engineer, which led me to memories of my days as an architectural and engineering draftsman, back around 1970.
I get annoyed by some of the books and movies that deal with racism purely as a historical issue. “Gosh, things sure were nasty back then. Glad that’s over.” So it was important to me that the novel not end in the sixties, but show the same racism still going on, just in different ways. So that meant there had to be a second generation protagonist in the present day. And that led to the usual father and son issues, but it’s a little different here because Robert, the father, is only ten years older than me. Michael, the son, is much younger than me. So that changed the dynamics a good deal.
Anyway, it didn’t take long before the screen wire had enough junk in it that it started looking like a novel.
Could you talk a little more about what was happening / what you were doing / where you were in the decade or so between the publication of Say Goodbye and Black & White?
Mostly I was working on Black & White. I did a huge amount of research, including skimming through every issue of the Carolina Times, the newspaper that was published in Hayti, between 1964 and 1970. And I was struggling with the form of the book, and with personal issues, like an ugly divorce.
Plus, I was suffering an attack of this delusion I used to get from time to time that there was some way I could still make a living from writing. I took time off to write a thriller screenplay called The Next that’s about—wait for it—vampire lawyers. A natural, right? Not according to Hollywood. My protagonist didn’t pack enough fire power and kill enough people to be a real “hero.”
And I went through a phase where I thought I could make Black & White into the first novel of a police procedural series. I spent a couple of years on that. But in the end, I don’t like cops, and that proved to be a fatal handicap.
Finally, in 2004, I got laid off from my job at the same time that the screenplay washed out in Hollywood. I sat down and thought, what would I write if I knew absolutely that it would not get published? What would I want to write just for its own sake? And the answer was Black & White, but in its original incarnation, as a literary suspense novel. It took me five months to find another job, and in that period I got a good running start on a draft of the book that was close to the final form.
There was this perception that Black & White was some sort of “return,” but really, I never left. I’m just slow.
I want to go back to something you mentioned in your last response, which I think is superb advice for all writers, published and unpublished, seasoned as well as aspiring, traditional, experimental and “popular”: “what would I write if I knew absolutely that it would not get published? What would I want to write just for its own sake?” Yes, write that.
If you could unmoor yourself in time and deliver some advice to the young author you were, what might it be?
Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything I could say that would help. I already understood that I would probably need some skills that I could parlay into a day job. I could tell myself to give up, that it wasn’t going to work out, but I wouldn’t have listened. I can’t think of anything I could say that would lead me to anyplace but where I am.
As a kind of belated follow-up to the genre question… and prompted by your mention that Black & White at one time led the life of a police procedural… one of the aspects of your work that has always impressed me is that, while you are definitely a novelist of ideas, you are also not afraid to be a novelist of action as well. (I’m thinking particularly here of Deserted Cities of the Heart.) Things happen, there is real, external conflict, there may even be gunfire and explosions, but these elements are just meant to divert the reader until the next “meaningful” (i.e., “literary”) passage.
I don’t think of the action sequences in my books as diversions so much as physical manifestations of the ideas that are in conflict. In Deserted Cities of the Heart, for example, you’ve got the Fighting 666th, this rogue offshoot of the US Army, you’ve got the Marxist rebels, and you’ve got Eddie as some kind of new age messiah. How are these ideas going to work themselves out in the real world? Not by a televised debate, that’s for sure. If you don’t put Eddie’s ideas to the test in front of live ammo, you’re not being intellectually honest.
Likewise in Black & White, it’s well and good to talk about racism, but it says so much more to be staring down a couple of hundred guys with white hoods and axe handles. It’s the same debate, but now we’re playing for keeps. Now you can feel what I’m talking about, not just understand it conceptually.
In that sense, your novels feel very cinematic to me. Have you been particularly influenced by film?
To me there’s a big difference between the kind of confrontation I was just talking about and your typical car chase in a Hollywood movie, which resolves nothing, reveals nothing, just wastes your time and leaves you right where you were before you started.
I don’t think I’m an especially visual writer. I try to put myself in the scene, but the details I come away with are as likely to be smells or sounds or physical sensations as they are visual images.
I am probably less of a film fan than anyone I know. I haven’t been in a movie theater in seven years, go months at a time without even watching a DVD, don’t have cable. On the whole, I’d rather read. These days my girlfriend and I like to watch movies in Spanish to practice the language, and we’ve seen some great ones, especially from Argentina—El secreto de sus ojos, Hombre mirando al sudeste. But I hate pretty much everything from Hollywood because it’s so violent and so loud and so predictable. And that’s just the comedies. [apes Rodney Dangerfield, tugging on his tie]
Back in the early ‘90s I watched some movies with a friend who’s a film student, and he showed me how absolutely everything is telegraphed in advance in a Hollywood movie, by the music, by the characters’ reaction shots, even by the cinematography. My favorite example is from James Cameron’s Abyss—Cameron is just so Hollywood. There’s this big moment where the flying saucer is going to come up out of the Abyss. The camera suddenly pulls back, and here is this tiny guy standing on the edge of the cliff, and you know, beyond any question, that a) the ship is about a second and a half from appearing, and b) it will exactly fit the dimensions of the frame. No surprises here, everything by the numbers.
Is screenwriting anything you’d be interested in getting into again?
Despite everything I just said, I like writing screenplays. I like the rigid structure, love that moment when the course of the movie changes at the end of first act. At one point, when I was still trying to do Black & White as a cop novel, I worked on a screenplay version for a while, just to tighten the structure and figure out the ending. And it really helped.
So yeah, I’d write a screenplay again, but only if somebody paid me to. And that’s not likely to happen. Hollywood and I just don’t see eye to eye.
It’s amazing to me how many aspiring fiction writers seem to give little consideration, as you say, to how ideas will play out in actual interactions and circumstances. Everything is internal to the characters, and, even if the world around them is vivid, it is usually only so in that that world is a reflection of their internal states.
But to turn some attention to states of another sort: of all your novels, Slam seems to me the most grounded in Texas and quintessentially Texan experiences. Though not a “native Texan,” how important, if at all, was your experience growing up in Dallas in your growth as a writer?
I think it would be hard to find a city with less personality than Dallas. It was settled in the first place because it was a convenient location to put up a few banks—there’s no natural beauty, and no particular geographic advantage like the port in Houston or the river in Austin. It’s just a bunch of suburbs, with an architectural style so dull that a friend of mine used to call it “Texas Borax.” So my stories set in Dallas tend to be about traffic jams and urban sprawl.
I totally agree with you about Slam. Even though there are regional writers that I love, like Thomas McGuane and Frederick Barthelme, and even though I have dear friends who write books that are very Texan—Joe Lansdale and Neal Barrett and Marshall Terry are obvious examples—Slam was the closest I ever got to a real Texas novel.
If the setting is vivid in Slam, it may be because, unlike Dallas, the Texas coast has so much personality. It muscled its way into the book, like it or not. But you have to remember that I moved constantly as a kid, an average of once a year. I was 13 when we first moved to Texas, so even though I “identify as a Texan” for want of any other designation, I’m not a “real” Texan. Whereas somebody like Joe Lansdale is Texas through and through. I think he takes a coffin full of Texas dirt with him when he travels so he can sleep in his native soil.
Even though I lived in Dallas for 15 years, it was never home. When you ask me what the word “home” conjures for me, nothing comes to mind.
The ‘80s and early ‘90s seem, in retrospect, to have been a time during which “regionalism” had some literary cachet. Like, it might actually have been to a writer’s advantage to be from or based in a place neglected or overlooked or dismissed by a good chunk of the rest of the country. True, this aesthetic could lead writers into a desperate preciousness, but—and Joe R. Lansdale strikes me as a great example—it could also inspire writers to be much less beholden to any of the rules and pieties associated with “literary fiction.” Has that been lost as literary culture has continued to be more and more concentrated in large, NY-based publishing houses? I don’t know. But it does seem more and more difficult for authors to make a case for certain coordinates having a literary presence, Dallas being one of them. Yet Dallas is wrapped up, and in complicated ways, with Texas and all its mythos. Go figure.
I am a native Dallasite, and I’ve set multiple pieces of fiction “here,” but I have no illusions about the place. Though it has its hidden pockets of weirdness, it can never be as fringe as another place also characterized as plastic, vapid and crawling with those people Dr. Thompson dubbed “greedheads”: Los Angeles. Which leads me to my next question: could you talk a little about your association with Black Clock—which is both very much connected to the L.A. literary community and national in its ambition / scope—and what your experience has been as a contributor to the magazine? How did you come to be associated? What is it like to write for the magazine?
Steve Erickson is the reason I’m involved with Black Clock, plain and simple. He contacted me when he was planning the second issue, the “lost music” issue, and asked for a story because of Glimpses. I’d been following his work since Days Between Stations made such a huge impact back in the mid-eighties, so I was really flattered that he knew and liked what I was doing. I pitched him an idea off the top of my head, about the mysteries around Glenn Miller’s death, and he told me to go for it. I sent him an email when I started to actually write it and realized that it was going to be really long, like 15,000 words (which is what it turned out to be). He just said, “No problem. Write it.” He had a couple of minor suggestions when I turned it in, which were quite sensible, and didn’t freak out about the length, which is way in excess of what the magazine usually publishes. I got to read proofs, which is important to me, and the magazine itself looked great, so all in all it was pretty much a perfect experience. You don’t get a lot of those as a writer.
So when I finished Black & White, I wanted to get some literary credibility for it. Steve offered to print an excerpt in Black Clock (which he did, as “Wonderland” in issue #8), and it was again a really happy experience. If I wrote more short fiction, I’d be knocking on the door more often, but my ideas tend to be novel-length these days.
For somebody in my situation, to get the support and encouragement of somebody like Steve is huge, and I can’t thank him enough for the help he’s given me.
As a novelist, how would you describe the health of the novel (as a form) right now? Where do you see the novel going in the next decade? And where do you expect to be then?
I expect to be sitting here at this desk, writing away—when I’m not at my day job, which I hope I’ve still got. My books will all be available through Amazon and through Fiction Liberation Front, and if my body’s willing I’ll still go out dancing once or twice a week. It’s not the future of riches and fame I originally saw for myself, but it’s a future I can live with. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
I am so out of touch with any kind of literary establishment, I can’t tell you how healthy the novel is right now, let alone what it’s going to be like in ten years. Certainly memoirs are all the rage right now, though their appeal is lost on me. People surf the net and watch TV instead of reading. Critics in the New York Times Book Review regularly trot out all the old postmodern clichés about fiction being irrelevant.
But I believe we need narratives to make sense of our lives and our world. I know I personally start pining for a good novel if I spend too much of my reading-time on research or other non-fiction. In the last few weeks I’ve bought brand-new novels from Jane Smiley and Lionel Shriver and Ted Mooney (in hardback, from my neighborhood indie bookstore), so that reassures me that at least for now there’s enough supply to meet my demand.
Ten years from now? I don’t know what form it’ll be delivered in, but yeah, I think the novel will outlive the people who keep eulogizing it. I know a good number of people in their 20s and 30s who are passionate about literature, and, even if they have to circulate PDFs in email, or whatever the equivalent is in ten years, they will still want it.
As will I.
Lewis Shiner is the author of six novels, including Glimpses, Black & White, and Deserted Cities of the Heart. His shorter work has appeared in Black Clock, The Mississippi Review, Southwest Review, The New York Times, and many other publications, and was recently gathered in Collected Stories from Subterranean Press.
by Joe Milazzo
an Assistant Managing Editor of Black Clock and Director of Community Education and Outreach at The Writer’s Garret in Dallas, whose writing has appeared in Electronic Book Review, Tea Party, In Posse Review, Drunken Boat, Antennae and Black Clock