The Cemetery Dance Interview: John Shirley

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John Shirley

A renaissance man of ink and design, John Shirley has seen over 40 of his novels and almost a dozen short story collections published to date, spanning from 1979 with Transmaniacon and Dracula In Love to present with Stormland and The Feverish Stars. He’s written for television on such classics as Robocop and The Real Ghostbusters, as well as for major films like The Crow staring Brandon Lee. No genre border can contain him, but he’s probably best know as a cyberpunk OG. He can blend sci-fi and dark fantasy like no other and not only supports The Blue Oyster Cult with lyrics to rock out to, he’s still going strong with his own punk band, The Screaming Geezers.

Sitting down with John was the perfect opportunity to pick the brain that masterfully knows how to pluck the chords of our deep subconscious while bringing to light creations of humanity which are as apt to save us as they are to bring us to our eventual doom. Join the conversation as we discuss his latest collection, The Feverish Stars, his recent novel, Stormland, and what a day being John Shirley looks like, and beyond.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: John, you obviously have quite the eclectic writing style. Your stories delve into hard sci-fi, speculative, cosmic, horror and punk. You’ve also worked on scripts of some of my favorite films like The Crow.  You’ve also written lyrics for The Blue Oyster Cult and have your own functioning punk rock band as well.  Which branches of your creative tree were you first passionate about before branching off to the next outlet?

JOHN SHIRLEY: I write from inspiration, unless I’m specifically hired to write for a franchise (like my novel Bioshock: Rapture), and even then I try to bring much that is personally creative to it. I generally start from ideas, and I go instinctively with the genre that best expresses the idea. But I’m certainly drawn to horror, to science fiction, to fantasy — to the realm of the fantastic. I have a recent novel from Hippocampus called A Sorcerer of Atlantis — and the impulse there was partly nostalgia for old fashioned sword-and-sorcery writing, and a desire to revive it, but also I wanted to bring something fresh and vital to it. That was a genre I’ve wanted to write in since I was in middle school, and I decided to finally do it, dammit. 

I wrote horror novels partly because it was a great time for that genre in the marketplace, and partly because I grew up loving horror in film and fiction. As for cosmic horror, I was drawn to Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith as a youth, and always identified with that vision.  I have a whole collection of stories out, Lovecraft Alive!, which is me riffing on Lovecraftian fiction. And I write poems and lyrics inspired by the Weird Poetry subgenre; many of them were published originally in ST Joshi’s Spectral Realms journal of weird poetry. There’s a new book of my cosmic horror poetry (rhyming, of course), from Jackanapes Press, called The Voice of the Burning House. And yet I’m still writing science-fiction and cyberpunk — my newest novel is Stormland, and it too is a fusion: near-future science fiction, climate fiction, detective fiction, with horrific elements. 

cover of The Symbol Remains by Blue Oyster CultAs for passion, I’m a passionate songwriter, have done it all my adult life and been lead singer of four bands. And I’ve got five songs — my lyrics — in the Blue Oyster Cult’s first new studio album in twenty years, The Symbol Remains. It’s a hit album and that’s a big thrill for me. You can find the album on YouTube, as well as every place you can buy albums — fans of Lovecraft should appreciate the song “The Alchemist,” inspired by the first story HPL published. Sadly, I didn’t write the lyrics on that one but I recommend it to fantasy and horror fans. Great song, cool video.

When did you first realize you had the talent and the desire to make a career out the words you created? Second to that, was your plan to always mix up the genres you geared your writing towards, or was it more of a natural tendency to write without the borders of any hard fast genre?

I knew as a kid I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t much good at anything but storytelling, and I had a natural bent for writing. Sentence structure seemed wired into my brain. I regard the various genres as colors in a palette to paint with. Take the example of science fiction — I often tried to bring other forms into it, in a way. My novel City Come A-Walkin’ included song lyrics and so do my Eclipse novels (the cyberpunk trilogy, A Song Called Youth, re-released by Dover). I tried to recreate some of the energy and rhythm of rock music at its best in those novels. City Come A-Walkin’ is not only science-fiction, it is a kind of urban fantasy, or magic realism work, too. But it influenced cyberpunk — William Gibson wrote an introduction to the current edition of it, and credits it being an influence. 

So it’s really syncretism. Synthesis. Fusion. I was one of the original group of cyberpunk writers and still feel an identity with that form because it was very much charged with the energy of music, it was very much about our basically dystopian view and finding a way through it. It still matters that way.

How do you manage so many outlets for your creativity without making a straitjacket your default fashion? Do you tend to tackle one branch at a time, or do you tend to enjoy multiple projects at once? I suppose I might be asking you to describe a productive day in the life of you if you care to outline such a day with us.

cover of Stormland by John ShirleyI manage it because I can, I guess. It’s just natural to me. I work on one thing at a time, as a story or novel requires my full creative attention. Usually I write the thing till it’s done, over a period of months, but occasionally I put a thing aside and go back to it later. It took years to really finish Stormland, partly because of ongoing research and partly the way the story evolved in my mind. But generally I just dive into a thing and stay there till it’s done. I feel I have to really live it. I guess I do write lyrics in an ongoing way too, but they don’t require as much time. I work on lyrics and poems hard, with great attention, but they flow from me pretty naturally. In fact if my band gives me a riff, starts playing a pattern for me to work with, I can improvise lyrics on the spot in real-time, that rhyme, that fit into the meter, that are cohesive. They’re usually story based. I don’t keep all those lyrics usually, I edit it later, but they’re often the basis of songs. 

A day in my writing life? It varies with project but in general I’ll try to write a few hours in the morning, when my mind is fresh.  If I have trouble getting into it I go back and edit what I’ve written before to immerse myself once more, and of course to improve the text. I’ll break to do something else with my mind, like play chess online, and then I’ll walk the dogs, work in the garden, help with housework. Then I eat a meal and go back to writing.  I often listen to music when I’m writing, and change the form of the music to fit what I’m writing. Music doesn’t distract me, it becomes the atmosphere I’m working in. Later in the day I do errands or go to rehearsal. Occasionally I’ll have to have a phone or Zoom conference. I sometimes still write scripts and I have written one recently, a science fiction tale, for a company in another country…and we have to have our conferences on Zoom, which is convenient considering the pandemic. Writing movies or television is usually a process with lots of input from producers and the director.

If I can compare your short form to your long form writing, I’m thinking about your recent collection of shorts, The Feverish Stars, and your recent novel, Stormland. With your shorts, I enjoy how you packed a surprising amount of story and thought provocations into such a tight space. With your longer works, even during moments of relative meandering, every word is deliberately designed to draw us deeper into the minds of your characters and the chaotic world they inhabit. Does your approach and preparation for novels verses the short story differ and, if so, can you walk us through the process for each?

Certainly writing short stories is different than novels. Naturally short stories have to be more concise and usually they’re more linear. Also, short stories are about implication, obliquely evoking the larger world of the story, rather than really detailing it; novels are about creating that world more fully. The voice for a novel can have more variety, more points of view. Usually a short story is one or two points of view.

cover of The Feverish Stars by John ShirleyAnd then there’s contrast in the type of voice, of the style, in the two formats. I was always a sponge for writing styles and methods for storytelling, so growing up reading Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont or Harlan Ellison or the Weird Tales writers, and people like Machen and Ambrose Bierce and O. Henry and the great science-fiction short story writers, there were countless storytelling methods to draw from. I just picked them up from lots of reading — but I was always conscious that I wanted my own voice, not just influence, not derivation. I wanted as much originality as I could have, while being able to use all the “moves”, the “chops”, the tonal control, the styles and methods I’d learned. All writers are influenced by those who went before, but the great thing is to find a voice and a style that works for you. So I have developed a voice, or perhaps voices, that are distinct to my approach to whatever I’m writing, and at this point it’s second nature. I do have a story arc in mind, which can change if I think of a better idea, when writing a novel or short story. But I also let my creativity offer variations or new directions as I go. Fairly often, there’s also something I want to say — maybe it’s philosophical, or metaphysical, or maybe it’s a social issue I’m angry about, or wish to satirize — and that of course influences the way the tale is written. But I always put entertainment first. 

As you were putting the stories together for The Feverish Stars, what factors did you consider when choosing the order the stories appear in?

It was hard to decide the order! But I just went with my intuition. One factor was trying to have each story chosen to contrast with the one before it. I wanted wild variety. I trust in my voice, my themes, to provide a cohesion.

I hope you don’t mind if I put you on the spot here, but of all the stories in the collection, which are you most proud of or pleased with, and why?

In The Feverish Stars, the first story, the novelette “A State of Imprisonment,” is, I think, an example of many things working well together: suspense, science-fiction, social satire, horror elements, an inventive setting. The title piece “The Feverish Stars,” which is about Lovecraft as a teenager having an experience of cosmic horror, is I think one of the best-written stories in the book. Though my stories always have a coherent throughline, I am influenced by surrealism, and by JG Ballard, and my story “Dreams Downstream” vibrates with that kind of imagery, in a way I like. There are two Halloween stories, and one of them, “When You Called Us, We Came to You,” is also a social statement while being effective horror and, I think, magic realism. It’s dedicated to the memory of Harlan Ellison.

While there’s mixed opinions about the relevancy of intros and outros in book collections, there’s no arguing that when you have an introduction as poignant and to the heart as the one Richard Christian Matheson provided for your collection, the only thing it can do is add value to an already outstanding book. How did the intro come to be, and what does it mean to you personally?

I asked RC to do it, and he generously consented, is how it came to be. The publishers like having an intro by a name writer, it doesn’t hurt sales, but more importantly I knew that RCM would be insightful and eloquent. I was not disappointed. It means a lot to me to have his approval, as he is a great artist.

Reading through your work, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that one of your many underlying themes is the fear and impact of virtual reality. VR and its tragic shortcomings takes a front seat within several of your stories — and in fact is a primary theme in Stormland. I get the impression you see no positives for such technologies. How do you see our obsession with virtual, and perhaps to a greater extent, augmented reality, faring for us today and how do you feel we might be best able to manage avoiding some of its perceived and ongoing pitfalls in society now, but in the years of advancements in VR yet to come?

I use VR as an example of media that seems almost designed to be worriedly addictive — but there are good uses of Virtual Reality, of course. Any technology can be misused. It’s just that humans seem so prone to finding the way to misuse technologies! My band has a song called “Cell Phone Zombies”: “Cell phone zombies, smartphone slaves, cell phone zombies, internet craves, Cell phone zombies, lost in their heads, cell phone zombies are the new, living dead.”

The internet should be a great technology for people but it’s the source of one of the modern world’s greatest dangers, misinformation. Anti-vaccine propaganda, lies from the far-right about the election, Russian propaganda — it’s all destroying our ability to agree on basic facts. The internet is also used as a medium for numerous crimes, most topically, now, extortion from ransomware. And yet the web has done  much good too. We’re doing this interview using the internet! So it’s a complex picture. But VR can be misused as a propaganda instrument, you could be imprinted with dogma without even knowing it, and as it gets more and more engaging and immersive, it will be more and more addictive.

I found it interesting that Stormland was released in April of 2020 soon after COVID-19 dug its heels in. While bleak, violent and volatile as the world in these pages were, there was also a determination to survive, to prevail and to fight to improve the world within Stormland and beyond this new broken down world. Now over a year later, what might you be working on now that reflects your feelings as you look back over the past year and reflect on the way the pandemic has divided so many and the way in which the world has perhaps changed for better or worse? 

I’m struck by how social media falsehoods are literally killing people: many people now regret believing the anti-vaccine lies — regret it too late, as they lay dying in hospitals. Or as their children die. People in many places are unable to get regular non-pandemic medical care because the drive against masking and vaccines has caused an increased spread of COVID-19 and the Delta Variant, which has made hospitals in places like Florida full to the brim. Then there are the worldwide spread of wildfires, and the clusters of extreme storms, that seem to scarily validate my novel. Oil companies and their political pawns have worked to undermine public understanding of the very real danger of climate change — and its very real source, the greenhouse effect from our pollutants. So now we’re paying the price. It all comes down to people disastrously mistrusting science and scientific consensus. Science is an ongoing, complex process, but it does form general agreed-on viewpoints on medicine and climate science. The undermining of science is endangering civilization. We have to work to become a more scientifically literate nation.

On the flip side of nihilism, of all the advancements in technology, either conceived or in progress, which are you most looking forward to seeing come to fruition?

Self-driving cars if they’re ever really reliable would be nice. We’ll need high-rise farms, as I predicted in my fiction way back, because our environmental mess is damaging our ability to provide food crops. They’re coming, and it can’t be soon enough for me. I love animals and would love to see a healthy, affordable lab-grown meat, that we could eat instead of having to have our nightmarish slaughterhouses. 

To wrap things up, John, do you have any parting words about what you’re working on now, what new releases we might be able to look forward from you, any pearls of wisdom or words to live better by? The stage is yours, my friend.

I’m writing a novel set in the Old West, revolving around a man and woman — and the woman is a scientist. She’s a naturalist, as they called them then, in the old west. It’s an exciting western, coming from Kensington’s Pinnacle line, called Axle Bust Creek, but it’s also about women and science in the 19th century. I plan to turn it in to the publisher next month. So, another synthesis. 

Words of wisdom? Look for ways to communicate with all those people you can’t talk to on the issues. Whatever side you’re on, look for a way to communicate, to cultivate mutual understanding. Unless we can do that, we’re going to be like people arguing in a lifeboat on a stormy sea. They’re so busy arguing, they forget to work together to row, and bail. And they’re in danger of drowning.

Thank you so much for all your time, John. Your talent and insight is much appreciated, to say the least.

Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.

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