An Interview with John Shirley
by Alexander Laurence
John Shirley is the author of many books of fiction, including
most recently New Noir (Black Ice Books) and Wetbones
(Blake). He adapted James O'Barr's The Crow into a
screenplay a few years back, which has now become one of the
latest tragedies of Hollywood when actor Brandon Lee was shot on
the set of its filming. Shirley lives in Alameda, where in
addition to writing, he works with his latest band, The Panther
Moderns. Larry McCaffery has called him "The Post-Modern
Edgar Allen Poe."
- Alexander Laurence
- You are a very prolific writer. What are you working on
- John Shirly
- I have a book called Silicon Embrace coming out next
year. The Exploded Heart is coming out on Eye Books,
which is a collection of punk/fantasy stories basically,
written between the seventies till now. There's also a
political suspense thriller called The Brigade which will
probably be a movie. By the time it's a movie I would
want to end all association with it because they're sure
to screw the film up.
- There seems to be an amazing number of genres of writing
now in the Science Fiction category. You have written in
quite a few of them. What are exactly the differences
between fantasy and horror and cyberpunk??
- There's a kind of magic realism crossover between fantasy
and surrealistic writing which has its roots in people
like Andre Breton and Alfred Jarry. But I've done a lot
of paperback originals that were marketed as science
fiction and horror, and were that superficially. I
managed to be a science fiction writer for the
"Eclipse" books fairly well, although sometimes
in those books I did a snake side winding motion into
magic realism. There's a lot of genre stuff out there
that transcends genre. It's rooted in one genre or
another. Elmore Leonard is rooted in the crime novel, the
detective novel, but when he's really on, he transcends
genre writing. That has always been my ambition. I don't
know how well I achieve it: to have the dynamics and
energy of a genre, but to grow out of it.
- When you first started writing and publishing these
novels, you were also playing in bands. How did those two
separate activities go together?
- In the 1970s, I was in several punk bands. I was in some
white funk bands in New York City after that. I was the
lead singer or vocalist. I'm still in The Panther
Moderns. We have a record coming out in Germany, and
something else on a Beggar's Banquet compilation of
alternative bands. It's sort of an avocation. My main
thing is scripts and books.
- Before you were in these punk bands, you wrote a vampire
novel called Dracula In Love, which is very fashionable
- I did. I wrote it twenty years ago at a remarkably early
age. I was about eighteen. It took a few years to sell
it. It resembled the recent Dracula movie by Coppola. My
book started with Vlad the Impaler in modern times--you
find out about this tragedy in his life that propels him
into Vampirism. He's at war with God. So it's a broad
coincidence. It's a very intense, twisted book fueled by
my adolescent sexuality which was running my life. At the
time, I was living in Portland. The book came back into
print last year. It was my puerile attempt to make a
mystical statement. At the end of the story, Dracula gets
absorbed by this earth goddess. Actually, he gets sucked
in her vagina. It's similar to this other story in New
Noir. Except in this other story, "Skeeter
Junkie," it's a struggle between the vagina and the
giant mosquito. But the male figure, the giant mosquito,
escapes. In Dracula In Love, he's actually drawn in and
goes through a transformation, recognizes his true
nature, and goes into a communion with God. All this is
part of a vampire novel which must have totally baffled
most vampire novel fans.
- During the 1970s, did you record any songs?
- I recorded some stuff for the Celluloid label. They did
Afrikka Bambaataa, and The Golden Palominos. I almost
signed with the elder John Hammond who had a subsidiary
label at Columbia. I didn't know who he was. He was this
old man who looked like Gary Moore telling me to get rid
of my band and work with the guys he wanted me to work
with. No way! And I thought that he would come crawling
back. But then I found out who he was, and I came
crawling back. Then, he had a stroke, so I blew my shot.
John Hammond wanted to record me, but I blew it. You
don't get another chance like that. This was the guy who
discovered Dylan and Springsteen.
- I know that you were somehow involved with Blue Oyster
Cult. That made me wonder if you wrote the lyrics of
- No, I didn't write "Godzilla," but I've written
many lyrics for them over the years. How I met them is
another story. Somebody who's a friend of mine, who knew
them, knew that I was a writer, and knew that I was a fan
of theirs, and put me in touch with them. The band (Blue
Oyster Cult) are the paradigm for bands like Metallica.
They created speed metal. If you listen to their live
albums, Blue Oyster Cult did things that others basically
adapted for their own purposes. They had cryptic and
really interesting literate lyrics. It wasn't just about
getting laid. They did have one song about a woman
fucking a big black dog. They had the best lead guitar
player, Buck Dharma. He's still around. They created an
atmosphere for me that was like stained glass windows,
that colored my first few novels. My first novel is
called Transminiacon, which is named after a Blue Oyster
Cult song. So lately, I started writing lyrics for them.
One, I actually got some money >from ASCAP. It was on
a movie soundtrack. The song is called "Demon's
Kiss." I wrote lyrics for a few songs on Blue Oyster
Cult's new record, out on Atlantic. Most of my energy
goes into books and movie scripts. The whole movie thing
is probably the worst, most destructive thing, that has
happened to me, since I got over drugs. On the other
hand, I make money from it, but it's so dispiriting. I've
sold five or six film scripts, and I live entirely from
being a writer--part of it is from selling those scripts.
- You wrote The Crow, adapted from James O'Barr. That was
your first produced script, so to speak. When will that
- The movie is being released next year through Miramax. It
has a great soundtrack. They shot the actor, and that was
a mistake. It's usually a bad policy. They shot Brandon
Lee. Sheer incompetence was the cause of Lee's death.
Fortunately, I wasn't down there on the set. I was almost
a producer on the film, and if I had been, I would have
been sued. Fortunately I washed my hands of it. I don't
know how much of me will be in the final version. My
general vision of how to adapt The Crow graphics is
- How did all the writers we now know as Cyberpunk or the
Mirrorshades group: yourself, William Gibson, Rudy
Rucker, Bruce Sterling, and Marc Laidlaw--how did that
come together? Who organized those early anthologies?
- Bruce Sterling is mostly responsible. He was like Frank
Zappa was for the freaky music scene in LA. He's the
godfather: Bruce Sterling. I met most of those guys
through Bruce, who started corresponding with me after
reading one of my early science fiction novels. I've
written a lot of novels. It's difficult to remember them
- The whole Cyberpunk movement happened fast and the
writers mostly worked independently of one another, yet
it seems that there was some similarity stylistically.
How do you account for this?
- We had done parallel work. It was like steam-engine time.
We were writing on similar themes because it was what
somebody who had a slightly literary bent, who was
writing science fiction would naturally do at a time when
technology was having a big sociological impact. Also I
think that everybody was having an anti-authoritarian
backlash during the Reagan years. Cyberpunk is fairly
individualistic and anti-authoritarian. We were the kind
of guys who grew up reading Phillip K. Dick, one of the
premiere oddballs of modern American writing and science
fiction. His imagery is dark, urban imagery. Dick's
writing had a big influence on Cyberpunk. And that whole
scene continues to have an influence on filmmaking, even
with films that aren't science fiction like Black Rain.
That vision of the future is relatively accurate I think.
It's going to be dark and screwed up for a while. I don't
think it's going to be an apocalypse or a holocaust, but
I think were going through a dark, ugly stretch. Anybody
with common sense could see it coming because of the
stress of over-population on our resources.
- How did you meet William Gibson?
- Don't let anyone tell you different: I discovered Gibson.
I met him in Vancouver BC, years before Neuromancer. We
were on the same panel at a science fiction convention.
We were the only two guys on the panel who knew who
William S. Burroughs was. It was a science fiction panel,
you understand. When we were talking about Burroughs:
Gibson and I were talking about William Burroughs and the
others were talking about Edgar Rice Burroughs. We
instantly locked gazes, as they say in popular fiction,
and talked afterwards. He said that he was writing short
stories, and I inwardly cringed. Most of the time, when
you're a writer and people come up to you and say "I
am writing some stuff, will you look at it?" It's
usually horrible writing. Then you have to be honest and
crush their egos or sidestep the matter. But Gibson was
so intelligent, that I told him that I would read it. So
he sent me a few short stories, and it was like the first
time you hear Jimi Hendrix play a few notes, you know
this guy can play guitar. Gibson's very distinctive.
After reading a few paragraphs, I knew he was a virtuoso.
- Could you talk about your elaborate writing process?
- When I write, I usually do most of it in my head, in some
sense. I see pictures of scenes. I usually see key scenes
of entire books, and certainly this is true of short
stories. If I wrote a short story that didn't end very
well, it's because I didn't see the end ahead of time. My
best stuff is engaged with that process of visualization.
But I am really in love with words. I get drunk writing
words. I don't drink or do drugs, but I get so carried
away with writing that I get inebriated from it. I think
it's because I'm wired to be a writer. I think a better
writer performs a similar task to shamans. That is what
Silicon Embrace is about: contemporary shamanism.
- I think that one of the interesting features of Wetbones
was its social commentary.
- I'm incapable of writing without social commentary. I
like to think that it's integrated and not really heavy
handedly didactic. I try to find the natural drama in
social struggle. In Wetbones, it's about the individual
struggle with addiction, but also society's addiction to
things. It's entirely a parable.
- One character in New Noir enters a fugue state and
- That is a metaphor for television. But it's also about a
state of mind that people go into when they become purely
a set of reflexes with a vindictive agenda. When people
start a war, psychologically they become two-dimensional.
They have lost the third dimension of empathy and
conscience. The capacity to see from someone else's
viewpoint. That, socially, is the third dimension.
Empathy. This guy is able to dehumanize others to the
point where he can cause car wrecks for his own
amusement. He has been trained to do that because he is
fixated on getting his gratification from screens:
television, movies, stage scenarios, which are a screen
in his head.
- Many of the stories in New Noir are about characters
involved in the more illegal pleasures and destructive
elements of life.
- Most of it was drawn for my own personal experience. It's
true. I was a cocaine addict; I was smoking cocaine. That
was some years ago, but it's very vivid in my memory. The
whole experience was quite instructive. It forced me to
come to terms with myself in a more objective way. I
think the worst people in the world are drug addicts, and
the best people in the world are ex-drug addicts. That
may sound vain, but that is not how I mean it. Nobody can
be entirely objective, but to get over addiction, you
have to step outside yourself. I was involved in a lot of
seedy scenes in different parts of my life. When I was a
teenager, I was involved with certain areas in the other
side of the law, and I was involved in prostitution. I
drew on all those things for New Noir. People on the
street, and people on the fringes of society, have a more
realistic view of society in some respects. I'm not
saying that crime is ever justified, but in a certain
sense, it's a little bit more honest.