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Lewis Shiner Interview

Lewis Shiner  
Interview by Gavin J. Grant

After surviving being the "poster child for the evils of rock-and-roll," Lewis Shiner has worked at a record store, flirted with the penurious life of a full-time writer, and worked off and on at various computer jobs. In the meantime he has built up a body of work prodigious in its range and increasing skill. Perhaps it was growing up mostly in the South that gave him his way with storytelling, but even when he was being hailed as a new-wave cyberpunk writer, the critics couldn't help but be impressed with the writing underpinning the stories. His novels have ranged from the Central America-based Deserted Cities of the Heart, through the skateboard-themed Slam, to Frontera, set on Mars. Music has come to the fore in his latest couple of novels, Glimpses and Say Goodbye. Glimpses is a must for any pop music fan of the 1960s, and Say Goodbye will tell you more about today's music scene than any amount of MTV. Tell us about yourself.

Say GoodbyeLewis Shiner: I'm 50 years old, an only child, and from the time I was born until I started high-school, we moved once a year -- if not to another town, at least to another part of the same town. My father was in the Park Service, and on top of that my parents seemed to have horrible luck with leases and landlords. I learned to read when I was three and started writing fiction (or something resembling it) shortly thereafter, so I've literally been writing as long as I can remember.

I have an English degree from Southern Methodist University and since then I've worked mostly as a programmer or technical writer, with a few sidetrips as a graphic artist, construction worker, and professional musician. For a few years I supported myself writing comics for DC and Marvel.

I'm currently living in Durham, NC, and working in the marketing department of a high-tech testing company.

Your latest novel, Say Goodbye, features a young female singer-songwriter trying to break into the big time. Are you a big music fan?

Since high school, I've gone back and forth between music and writing as my dream careers. I played drums in rock bands from 1967 to 1981, when the physical effort of four sets a night just got to be too much, and I've done a bit of home taping since then. I play mediocre guitar and can fake just enough bass and keyboards to be able to do all the instruments myself. And a few years ago I took some voice lessons, which was a really amazing thing.

As a fan, I listen to music at work as much as possible, everything from doowop to reggae to salsa to Radiohead. We've got great college stations on the radio here, so I'm always getting to hear new stuff.

Glimpses, your previous novel, seemed to have considerable autobiographical elements, whereas the protagonist of Say Goodbye is a woman in her twenties. Was that a stretch?

GlimpsesSay Goodbye is actually my most autobiographical novel. In 1992 my freelance writing career collapsed -- the comics industry was going through a sea-change, and I couldn't get any work there that I was comfortable with, and I couldn't support myself on my novels, so I had to go back to work. I wanted to write a novel that attacked the common wisdom that if you try hard enough, you can always get anything you want. Because I'm so interested in the music business, I kept seeing story after story about bands that were going through much the same thing I was. There was a band called Ednaswap, for instance, that had a really fabulous first album on a major label, and they couldn't catch a break. Natalie Imbruglia even got a monster hit by covering one of their songs, "Torn," but they couldn't get on the radio.

Pop music was a way of externalizing and dramatizing a lot of the internal struggles I was going through as a writer. And there's also the fact that I hate books about writers.

What do you think the differences are between musicians starting out today and in the past, say the 1960s or 70s? Is there a correlation to the book world and its new writers?

No question it's harder today. The expectations of record companies are like those of publishers -- everybody has a blockbuster mentality. On the other hand, I think it's a lot easier to go the indie route these days. Right now that's more true with musicians than with writers, but a lot of the stigma of self-publishing is starting to fade as the commercial publishers get deeper and deeper in their best-seller ruts. The Web has the potential to further that kind of change, both by letting authors distribute their own books, and maybe even eventually letting anybody produce electronic books or print-on-demand books themselves. The next few years may get interesting.

You've written in many genres -- fiction, mystery, and science fiction and fantasy. Is it a conscious choice to cross genres? Or are you just writing what you want to write?

I've always ended up writing the books that I wanted to read and couldn't find in the bookstore. Slam, for example -- I really wanted to read a novel that talked about the skateboarding culture, and there just weren't any, so I had to do it myself. I don't think about genre much, just about the best way to deal with whatever story and characters I want to do.

SlamAnd if you look at my work, all my novels have more in common with each other than with other novels of a particular genre. They all, for example, have characters trying to deal with their own pasts by means of a particular belief system -- whether that system is particle physics, as in Frontera; Mayan apocalyptic beliefs, as in Deserted Cities; anarchy in Slam; rock and roll as salvation in Glimpses; or the capitalist free-market economy in Say Goodbye. Mostly I think they're about what happens when people get what they wish for. That's a recurring theme in the novels and the short stories.

Genre labels have probably done me more harm than good in the long run. The science fiction label is a turn-off for mainstream readers, whereas science fiction and fantasy readers -- at least my audience within that group -- seem to be smart enough to find my books even when they're not on the science fiction shelf.

Comics seem to be gaining literary respectability. Can you see yourself working in the field again?

I would love to write comics again. I never changed -- the field did. The Image [a new publisher] comics "revolution" (some might call it a counter-revolution, or devolution) back in the early 1990s caused DC, where I was doing most of my work, to get back into traditional superheroes in a big way. I never could get into writing costumed characters. I had also just finished a Tarzan mini-series for Malibu, but they went under before we even got to the stage of finding an artist. I could never convince Vertigo to take me seriously, and I couldn't find anyone else who wanted to publish the kind of stuff I wanted to write. At the time my comics career went south I had spent about six months working on a proposal -- including sample scripts, a year's worth of plots, even sample pages that I drew myself -- for a series called Luna that I was totally committed to, but I never did find a publisher.

You end up finding uses for things, though. In my current novel-in-progress, I've got two major characters who are the writer and artist, respectively, of an independent comics series called Luna.

Are you at all interested in joining the indie/small press revolution?

I've joined it. I've got a mainstream story collection coming soon from Subterranean Press, and [publisher] Bill Schafer has being really great so far about letting me pick the stories I want and get a design and cover that I'm happy with. Joe Lansdale and I also did a collection of our private eye stories with Crossroads Press a couple of years ago, and that was a good experience as well.

At one point, I thought I was going to end up going the self-publishing route on a permanent basis. After a long series of agent problems, I had reconciled myself to the idea that I would have to publish Say Goodbye myself. I had found a printer and was sketching cover designs, and was planning to sell the book from my Web site. Whatever money I got I was going to plow back into reissuing my earlier books in uniform trade paperbacks. Then Gordon Van Gelder at St. Martin's stunned me by buying not only Say Goodbye, but picking up reprint rights to Glimpses and Slam as well.

Do you think something like Napster for books -- say, Bookster? -- would be popular?

If you're talking about electronic books, I don't think the time for that medium has come yet. The players are expensive and I've yet to be sold on the concept. I'm still enamored of the physicality of books, as are most of the readers I know. There's a fundamental difference between books and music, in that, ever since CDs became the state-of-the-art, people have been listening to music on computers, whether they called them that or not. People still don't read much on computers -- most people I know, if they have to read anything of length from the Web, print it out first.

In terms of finding used books, the Web is nothing short of miraculous. On a whim I tried searching for a book I'd been looking for over 10 years, and turned up half a dozen copies in no time flat -- but we don't need a Bookster for that.

Do you think the web will have a positive effect on hard-to-categorize authors such as yourself?

I haven't seen it in terms of sales figures or anything tangible, but one can always hope. I know people are finding me through my website, and the mail is very gratifying.

Are you working on anything?

I have a couple of things going on. Believe it or not, I'm working on a crime novel that involves some local North Carolina history, which may seem like a big departure for me. The truth is that I wrote two crime novels in the late 70s that never saw print, and published a few stories in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine in the early 80s. I did a short story called "Dirty Work" for a small press anthology, Dark at Heart, that Joe and Karen Lansdale edited, and it's one of my favorites among my own work. It's a challenge for somebody like me, who is strongly anti-violence, to write about cops, and I'm still not sure if I'll be able to pull it off. Certainly I've got an awful lot of research ahead of me, and it may be years before I find out if I'm actually going to finish it or not. Everything moves very slowly because of my day job.

The other thing I'm doing is writing a screenplay for one of my novels that's been optioned. The nature of the movie business being what it is -- so few movies get made for all the options that get sold -- that I don't feel like I should say anything more about that at the moment. I'm concentrating on enjoying the work, which is fun, and not thinking very far ahead.

What have you been reading recently?

The Wooden SeaScreenplays. Books about screenplay writing. Books about cops, including fiction and non-fiction. I've got Jonathan Carroll's new book, The Wooden Sea, sitting on the shelf waiting for a rainy day. I'd have to say he was pretty much my favorite writer, so I tend to wait until I can savor him without interruption.

Do you have a good local bookshop?

We have a particularly good one in Durham, the Regulator. It's near the Duke campus, and it specializes in local writers and regional publishers. Like all the really good independent bookstores, the folks who run it keep their ears to the ground and they really know their business and know who's who in the area.

I'd also like to say a word for the Durham Libraries, which are great. With limited time and budget, I don't buy books like I used to, and it's wonderful to read about something in the Times Book Review and then find it at the local library. It lets me take chances on writers I wouldn't try otherwise.

For the past two years North Carolina bookshops have been picked as the Publisher's Weekly Booksellers of the Year, first Malaprop's in Asheville, then Quail Ridge in Raleigh. What's going on down there?

Lots of writers, for one thing. We've got colleges and universities all over the place, both in the Triangle and in the Asheville area, and when you've got colleges you've got readers and writers both. Between Quail Ridge, the Regulator, and McIntyre's Books[1] south of Chapel Hill, you've got a healthy competition going on, so we get lots of readings, and the customers get lots of special attention.

[1] McIntyre's Fine Books & Bookends, 2000 Fearrington Village City, Pittsboro State, NC (919)542-4000