An Interview with John Shirley

by Alexander Laurence
(c) 1994

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 now?
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.
AL
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??
JS
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.
AL
When you first started writing and publishing these novels, you were also playing in bands. How did those two separate activities go together?
JS
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.
AL
Before you were in these punk bands, you wrote a vampire novel called Dracula In Love, which is very fashionable now.
JS
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.
AL
During the 1970s, did you record any songs?
JS
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.
AL
I know that you were somehow involved with Blue Oyster Cult. That made me wonder if you wrote the lyrics of "Godzilla."
JS
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.
AL
You wrote The Crow, adapted from James O'Barr. That was your first produced script, so to speak. When will that be released?
JS
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 there.
AL
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?
JS
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 all.
AL
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?
JS
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.
AL
How did you meet William Gibson?
JS
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.
AL
Could you talk about your elaborate writing process?
JS
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.
AL
I think that one of the interesting features of Wetbones was its social commentary.
JS
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.
AL
One character in New Noir enters a fugue state and becomes two-dimensional.
JS
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.
AL
Many of the stories in New Noir are about characters involved in the more illegal pleasures and destructive elements of life.
JS
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.


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