9.27.2005

Lewis Shiner Interview

Lewis Shiner has been a two-time finalist for the Nebula (Frontera, Deserted Cities of the Heart), a finalist for the Philip K. Dick (Frontera), and won the World Fantasy award for Glimpses.

Earlier comment here on "Perfidia" and others
Lewis Shiner's website
Contemporary Authors biography ($2.30)
Autobiography (free)
"Jeff Beck" and an excerpt from Glimpses recently appeared in The Best in Rock Fiction
Shiner books from Fetchbook

Throughout your career, there’s almost always a political presence in your stories. From the early “Kings of the Afternoon” (a somewhat blunt use of class as businessmen use alien technology to bring rogues to their knees) to the most recent “Perfidia” (a slow accretion of details that leads to an unavoidable, powerful conclusion), from lacing it into the background details in “Til Human Voices Wake Us” to the details being mere background to the politics “The Tale of Mark the Bunny.” Why are politics so important? Can we not escape them?

As I write this in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, I think we've all just had a lesson in how inescapable politics are. It was politics that diverted money from the levees in New Orleans to an immoral war in Iraq. It was politics that left black people to starve while white people escaped. It was politics, to push even harder, that kept the US from signing the Kyoto agreements to try to slow down the global warming that is fueling these killer storms.

Though "politics" is probably a misnomer. I am, and have been, disillusioned with the American political system for most of my life. Given two parties--one devoted to absolute greed and the other devoted to absolute compromise--there is no hope for positive change through voting. Politicians, in the end, just ratify the zeitgeist, and we live in an age of greed and fear. To change this country into one that might be worth living in, I believe we have to change the culture, change fashion, change the way people think. People have to realize that the interests of big business have, to paraphrase the I.W.W., nothing in common with the interests of ordinary working men and women. We outnumber the rich, and all we have to do is stand up for ourselves and take back our country back. They did it in Venezuela, and in theory we could do the same thing here. But we'd have to stop focusing on the idea of becoming rich to do that, and accept the idea of "enough."


A common motif is that humans let us down--not just any humans, but often the ones closest to us. In fact many have this as its central focus: In “Kings of the Afternoon” the main couple, who looked like they were befriending a kid in a dead-end job, end up getting in the way of the kid’s revolutionary plans. It’s the people we most unthinkingly depend on: the lovers in “Snowbirds,” “Mozart in Mirrorshades” “Scales,” “Primes,” “Jeff Beck;” the parents in “Promises” and “Kidding Around;” the crew in “Plague;” etc. Why do you find this such a powerful motif to mine?

On a personal level, it probably goes back to my parents, who repeatedly let me down--all their lives, really. But in the end, stories are about people. Sometimes they let you down, sometimes they show you unexpected kindness. The things that move me most are the moments of generosity, which I would like to think are also in my work--the junk dealer in "Perfidia," the band members in SAY GOODBYE (Skip excepted), Brian Wilson and Jimi Hendrix in GLIMPSES, etc.


Rock ‘n’ Roll, on the other hand, is our savior. In “Jeff Beck,” although it stands in the way of lovers, it helps one find himself (just as “The Kid” finds himself in “Steam Engine Time” even if he’s trying to force something new on a society that isn’t ready for it). Lee Harvey Oswald finds an angry solace from the politics of the world in “Oz.” In “Voodoo Child,” the protagonist is certain Jimi Hendrix will save the future (an excerpt from Glimpses). The most peaceful moments for the protagonist of “Twilight Time” are those spent listening to 1962 rock oldies. Even jazz/rock precursors (found in the Big Band leader, Glenn Miller) are so sacred that misdeeds are covered up to give people something to remember as a better time. What makes Rock or one’s contemporary music such a heady salve?

Music is such a direct experience. It can shut down the voices in your head, switch off the left brain's calculator, and talk directly to your emotions. I've had the experience both as a musician and as an audience member where an entire room of extremely diverse people put all differences aside and were wholeheartedly joyful together. I think it's a key, a template, a model of how we can be part of a community and get past the whole rugged individual image that has so screwed up this country.


There’s a buried--or sometimes stated outright--sense in your early to mid career, that the responsibility of making a relationship work relies on the male partner: “Jeff Beck,” “Scales,” “Kidding Around,” “Till Human Voices Wake Us,” etc. But lately, the male-female relationship has grown more complex in “Primes” and “Perfidia.” Has your sense of personal relationships evolved over the years, or does this seem something of a coincidence?

That's a pretty acute observation. You made me step back and think with that one. The answer, I hope, is that I've matured somewhat. Again, at the risk of hopping on the psychiatric couch, I took a lot of beatings--mostly emotional, but quite a few physical--from my parents, and it did leave me with the idea that pretty much everything was my fault. As a result, I ended up in too many relationships with people who blamed me for everything. That was what I was comfortable with. I don't think that's true any more.


You mention in Nine Hard Questions about the Universe that Frontera was a turning point in your writing career. Why do you think that might be? What did you learn in the process of writing that novel? Would you say that maybe each novel, or perhaps certain novels, have caused you to reevaluate your approach to fiction in some significant way? Considering my last question, has your last novel somehow thrust you into a new level of thinking about your characters as more complex? Do novels stretch the short story writer?

FRONTERA was a turning point at least partly because I'd been pretty successful at selling short stories, and for the first time I was writing a book with some confidence that it would sell. I think I did learn to trust myself more. The first draft was SO bad, but I was sure I could fix it. Whether the book is actually any good or not, it ended up being exactly the book I'd envisioned when I started it, so I count that a victory.

And yes, every book has been a huge challenge. That's part of what keeps me going through the enormously long process of writing and rewriting them, the idea that I've bitten off more than I can chew. It's very hard to explain, but at some point very early on I have this vision of the finished book, more of an idea of what it feels like than a plot summary or sense of the characters. A sense of the book's scope or ambition. That becomes the guiding light, and so far I've managed to write the books I've intended to write. I can't say whether novels stretch the short story writer, because I've never thought of myself as a short story writer. I've always seen the novels as my best work.

Do I see my characters as more complex now? I think they've gradually gotten more so, yes. That's been part of the process of learning to trust my instincts more and more rather than trying to adhere to a plan. Giving the characters room to surprise me. I had outlines for FRONTERA and DESERTED CITIES, but I just sat down and started writing SLAM with nothing but a bunch of unrelated scenes in my head. Every day I thought I would get to the end of what I knew, but at the end of every day there was enough left over for the next. GLIMPSES had a bit more structure, but I also winged a lot of it, and changed my mind as I went. SAY GOODBYE was very spontaneous--I just had the overall arc in my head when I started it. And I'm about five years into a new novel that has only started to take definite shape in the last nine months.


Your short story productivity has dropped off precipitously since the 1980s and early 90s. Is this because you think more in novelistic terms that short stories are fewer?

I think it's a symptom of age that the ideas don't come as thick and fast after a certain point. And the brutal fact is I don't have a lot of time to write. I can't make a living from fiction, so I'm tied to 40+ hours a week in a job that drains me rather than inspiring me. That means I have to make every minute of writing count. And for me, that means focusing on novels.

The other side of the equation is that I lost interest in SF around 1990 or so, and I've been unable to break in to the mainstream short fiction markets. There's not a lot of incentive to write short stories that will end up either unsold or in magazines with virtually no circulation. So I tend not to think in terms of short stories. Unless I get an idea like "Primes," which had enough of a fantasy angle that I could sell it to F&SF, while being character-based and political enough to interest me. Or I get an opportunity like "Perfidia," where Steve Erickson, whose work I respect and who has a great mainstream reputation, wanted a story for a high-profile literary magazine. He was willing to let me write something about 10 times longer than he was really looking for, and let me follow the story wherever it led me.

The bottom line is, I have to find projects that excite me enough that I want to write them no matter what--whether they get published or not, whether anyone but my friends ever see them. That way I can focus on the process of writing, and actually take pleasure in that, instead of being obsessed with trying to crack the bestseller list. And the thing that is most satisfying to me is to produce a book that I'll still be proud of down the line.