An Interview with Lucius Shepard
by Nick Gevers
Lucius Shepard published his first SF story in 1983, and was soon recognized as one of the finest authors of short fiction the speculative genres had yet seen. His early stories (1983-9) were characteristically set in Central America and other parts of the Third World, and evoked the beauty and terror of their locations with a fevered ornate intimacy that recalled Joseph Conrad at his most intense and haunting. The best of Shepard's complex dark fables of this period were assembled in the superb World Fantasy Award-winning collections The Jaguar Hunter (1987) and The Ends of the Earth (1991); later pieces, such as those gathered in Barnacle Bill the Spacer (1997, retitled Beast of the Heartland in the USA), were perhaps less sure, less compellingly engaged with the politics of their subject matter, but retained a cogent moral force. Shepard's published novels are Green Eyes (1984), a striking foray into the metaphysics of Death, Life During Wartime (1987), a dense exploration of Central America through the lens of a future war, Kalimantan (1990), a long novella of Borneos here and elsewhere, and The Golden (1993), a vibrant apotheosis of the vampire novel.
Shepard is currently embarked on an energetic new phase of his writing career; his skill with the novella form is strongly evident in "Crocodile Rock" (F&SF, 1999), "Radiant Green Star" (Asimov's, 2000), "Eternity And Afterward" (F&SF, 2001), "Aztechs" (Sci Fiction, 2001), and "Over Yonder" (Sci Fiction, 2002). Two fresh works of novel length have recently appeared: Colonel Rutherford's Colt (an e-book from ElectricStory.com), and Valentine, an unusual and multi-layered love story, just out from Four Walls Eight Windows.
I interviewed Lucius Shepard by e-mail in March 2001, with additions in February 2002.
NG: Your works are characterized by a remarkably opulent style, one baroquely hallucinatory; yet your subject matter -- generally at least -- is the gritty detail of human adversity: the plight of expatriates, fugitives, hoboes, lowlives, oppressed Third World people, and so forth. How and why did you evolve this unusual (but extremely effective) marriage of style and content?
LS: My father began teaching me to read when I was three. As soon as I proved capable of parroting words, he had me memorise lengthy passages from Shakespeare and the Romantic Poets, also Yeats and Thomas. These writers, with their rhythmic and ornate line, were thus influential in the extreme on my own work. As were the works of Jane Austen, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, et al. My father had attended Trinity College in Dublin, and admired British and Irish writers. He had been a writer himself and the friend of writers when he was a young man. One of my prize possessions is a letter written to him by William Carlos Williams congratulating him on my birth. Why my father gave up writing, when it seemed he was at the beginning of a career, I have no idea -- he was an extremely private (perhaps "closed-off" would be more descriptive) man, and I never understood what he was about. But he determined that if he could not become a writer, I would, and this was the point of my home education. He proceeded to direct me along this path with rather more force than is today deemed healthy or reasonable, and as a result, when I reached my teenage years, I determined that I would NOT become a writer, and I refused to write anything until much later in life. (I did place third in a writing contest in prep school, but I achieved this accolade by plagiarising a short story by Liam O'Flaherty -- I've had occasion to wonder what Mr. O'Flaherty would have thought about his work coming in third to two high school kids from Georgia.)
At any rate, this decision not to be a writer, and to offend my father's sensibilities in every way possible, led me to become a musician, and to cultivate friends of whom he would disapprove -- a good many of them small time drug dealers and various other second- and third-tier criminals. I find as a result that I now enjoy the company of "lowlives" far more than I do that of my colleagues, or the members of any class that would consider themselves elite. The kind of dishonesty one experiences in the company of thieves is of a far less pernicious variety than the sort one experiences when in the company of the so-called upper or educated classes. Even more pertinently, I've discovered that the companionship of thieves, carneys, hoboes, musicians, et al, affords me access to stories that are more reflective of the life of the world -- this, of course, is a completely biased and unsupportable opinion. I'm certain there are wonderful stories to be told that concern the wealthy and the powerful, the erudite and the effete, and so forth. I simply don't care to hang out with such people.
My father was a member of what is called the Virginia gentry. His family, and my mother's, owned plantations; their ancestors fought on General Washington's staff, and they could trace their lineage (or so I was told) back to British nobility. These are matters in which I have a profound disinterest. I like to think that my parent's line stopped with them. Though my personality incorporates a vestigial and rather ineffectual altruism, a corresponding sense of responsibility, and something that I suppose might be called "taste", I am myself, for all intents and purposes, a lowlife.
NG: How autobiographical is your writing? You're very extensively travelled, you've had a colourful and varied life; your stories certainly seem to reflect this experience vividly…
LS: All my work draws from experience, but that's hardly a news flash -- so does the work of every writer. But a good bit of my work is extremely autobiographical. My first novel, Green Eyes, turned out to be a weird invocation of a writer's workshop I attended -- at the time I was writing it I didn't see this, but now it's quite clear. Some of my stories ("A Spanish Lesson", "A Traveler's Tale", "Black Coral", "Life of Buddha", etc) are very autobiographical in that they reference not only locales I have visited, but states of mind that I have inhabited and actual events in which I played a part. A very few ("The Black Clay Boy", for instance) are only marginally so. But even the least autobiographical pieces reflect my emotional climate.
NG: Your early story, "A Spanish Lesson", famously draws quite an extensive moral at its conclusion; and you appear generally preoccupied with means by which some core of individual integrity can be defended (even if unsuccessfully) against the vicissitudes and temptations of human existence. Are you a moralist at root?
LS: I wrote the ending to "A Spanish Lesson" in response to one of my teachers telling me that a story should never end with a moral. I thought the oldest stories all ended with morals, either implied or otherwise, so what could be wrong with doing so now? As to whether I may be considered a moralist, I feel this is the sort of question best answered by an objective observer. I'm not even sure what a moralist is. Viewed through a post-modern lens, a moralist might well be seen to be an idiot...a label I would resist. When told that my stories display a preoccupation with "...the means by which some core of individual integrity can be defended etc.", I wouldn't deny it out of hand. At the same time, I believe that to a large degree people are actors playing themselves, thus it's entirely possible that at heart I am utterly pragmatic, unromantic, unconcerned with the human condition, and self-deluding. But giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I'll say, Yeah, absolutely.
NG: Many of your more notable stories of the 1980s, with Life During Wartime as their summation and "Surrender" as their concluding broadside, dealt very critically with the USA's direct and indirect manipulation of the affairs of Central America. What first drew your attention to this issue, and how do you view the present, post-Cold War, state of things in the region, and, by extension, in the Third World generally?
LS: I've travelled in Central America since I was a child, and lived in the Yucatan and Honduras. It should be evident to one and all that the seven nations that comprise the region are the satellites of the United States. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said about Somoza, the late dictator of Nicaragua, "That Somoza's a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch." It's a matter of record that often when the United States has a need to flex its muscles, whether to impress some third party or to take attention away from domestic ills, it launches a military expedition against a Central American nation. George Bush's adventure in Panama is a textbook example. I recall sitting in my living room and watching a national newscast anchored by Dan Rather on the day of the invasion. Rather turned in an Oscar-worthy display of maiden-auntish outrage at President Manuel Noriega's involvement with the cocaine trade. My God! What a monster! Corrupting America's kiddies! Of course any journalist worth his salt knew long before that day that not only was Noriega a cocaine trafficker, but that it would be difficult to find a former president of Panama who was not a cocaine trafficker. Noriega was merely a patsy, a faithful ally and an enabler of the CIA's regional excesses, whose downfall served temporarily to boost Bush's declining job approval numbers.
In my opinion, the current state of the region is more-or-less as it has always been. Millions of people live in poverty under the rule of oligarchies and puppets and villains of various other stamps. However, US trade interests in places such as Mexico have made an already brutal environment hellish. For example, the NAFTA trade agreements have transformed Juarez into a nightmarish city where death has seasonal flavour. Autumn, when the drug harvests are made, brings cartel executions and armed struggle. Winter is known for its fires that, started by defective heaters, destroy entire barrios. In the spring the epidemics begin. Summer brings gang war. During the holidays people are prone to hang themselves from trees in the public parks. NAFTA was intended to create jobs, and it has done. The trouble is that the hours are so long and the work so onerous in the NAFTA-created factories, the annual turnover rate in most of them is over 50%, and over 75% in many. The wage paid the women who work in these factories is just enough to permit them to make ends meet if they spend their off-hours as prostitutes. The pollution in certain areas of the city ranks with the worst in the world. I spoke with a doctor in an obstetrics clinic in Juarez who told me that once or twice a week she sees catastrophic birth defects of the sort she might ordinarily expect to see two or three times during her career. But it's the bottom line that gets all the attention. To quote one ex-head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Guatemala City, who said smiling: "...these folks will work for nothing 15-16 hours a day, and they don't care about those environmental things."
I fully expect the Gumpish power-mad fratboy who is now America's Top Shithead to copy dear old dad and find a reason to launch military action in the region at some point during the next four years, though it's possible he may forego the tried and true, and head directly to South America so as to escalate the War on Drugs... And what a war it's been! It's a goddamn ad campaign. I will say that it's produced some great T-shirts. Many of the young crack dealers in my neighborhood treasure those faded Reagan era Just Say No shirts passed down from their crack-dealing moms and dads.
As for the rest of the Third World, Africa, Southeast Asia, the subcontinent, etc., I don't have any recent experience in those areas, so I only know what I read -- but I'd hazard a guess they're not doing any better.
NG: A periodic sidebar to your Central American stories, featured in "Black Coral", "A Traveller's Tale", and "Aymara", is certain English-speaking but "Sponnish"-ruled Caribbean islands not far offshore. How grounded in reality is this setting?
LS: The setting of "A Traveller's Tale" and "Black Coral" is in reality the Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras. In particular, the island of Roatan. At the time I was first there, Roatan was much as described in the stories. It's been considerably built up since, but much of the modernisation was erased by a recent hurricane. The inspiration for "A Traveller's Tale" was an actual event -- a group of idiots decided that the island was the perfect place from which to contact extraterrestrials and set up an attempted colony in a pestilent spot known as the Burying Ground. All the people in the story are based on people I knew on Roatan. The island is home to the world's greatest storytellers -- you can walk into any non-tourist bar and within minutes you'll be regaled by the most amazing tales concerning the local history: gun- and rum-running and revolution and pirate lore. Jean Baptiste's great treasure is purported to be buried off the west end of the island. In "Aymara" the interview with the old Bay Island fisherman concerning the mercenary soldier Lee Christmas is taken verbatim from tape recordings I made in 1976. It was an amazing experience. The guy was in his late 90s, still hale, but blind from cataracts -- as mentioned in the story, the cataracts were so thick that in the lamplight they looked like silver nuggets lodged in his sockets. He recalled the entirety of Christmas' speech to his troops given prior to the Battle of La Ceiba in 1902, part of which I quote in the story. I have so many story ideas as a result of my visits to the islands, I'm quite certain I'll never write them all.
NG: To what extent do you perceive yourself as a "genre" writer? Is your association with SF, Fantasy, and Horror accidental, a result of chance encounters and circumstances, or is it intrinsic?
LS: What I consider myself to be is less important that how I'm seen, and I suppose that now that's as a genre writer. That may change over the next few years. I came into the field by accident more-or-less. A band I was in broke up, one I'd had high hopes for, and I was moping around the house, watching a lot of daytime television. I'd written half a story, and without my knowledge, my then wife, hoping to get me out of the house, sent it in to the Clarion Writers Workshop, which happened to be a genre workshop, and I was accepted. If she had sent the fragment in to a general fiction workshop, I would likely never have written any fantasy. I'm not well read in science fiction and fantasy. As I child read the usual bits -- Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, etc. -- but I was never exposed to the writers from the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. I did read The Martian Chronicles in junior high but thought it overly sentimental. Most of my background in science fiction comes from my days as a musician, when I often looked for some light reading to pass the hours on the road. The first science fiction I read that really zonked me was a book by Jack Vance called Emphyrio. After Vance I came to Ballard, Aldiss, Wolfe, and so on down the list.
NG: So which contemporary authors, genre and "mainstream", do you most admire?
LS: Among the writers of general fiction I admire are Peter Mathiessen, Josef Svorecky, Denis Johnson, Patrick McCabe, Barbara Manning, Katherine Dunn, Alice Munro, Tim Gatreaux, Larry Brown, John Banville, Russell Banks, etc. etc.
As for the genre, I enjoy the work of my contemporaries, but I find less and less new things to interest me. In my view, the genre's gone in the crapper the last fifteen years -- not much newsworthy has happened in that time other than the proliferation of the series book. I like Ian MacLeod's stuff quite a bit. Tony Daniel has major potential. Andy Duncan looks like he has some good chops, though I've only read a couple of things. My favourite science fiction writer remains Jack Vance.
NG: Sports and music are recurrent subjects of your writing -- boxing and rock music in particular. How closely involved have you been in these spheres of activity?
LS: I was in rock bands for about ten years, so I know the bottom levels of the music business to an extent. I played a good many of the armpit bars in Michigan and a number of others throughout the Midwestern United States. They were like nasty little churches that celebrated a Saturday night Sabbath and had rituals that involved clumsy dancing and vomiting. I met women who named themselves after their body parts and guys whose tattoos sold drugs. I had a great time, though being the dictator of the bands I was in often proved to be a source of frustration -- rock musician is a term that should incorporate the notion of being challenged in its meaning. I consider myself a pretty fair songwriter and I once was a decent singer. Now I just listen.
As for boxing, I boxed amateur as a kid and I'm a devotee of the sport. I also have dabbled in the politics of boxing. Recently another writer (who would prefer to remain anonymous) and I managed to effect some changes in the State of Washington's boxing oversight. Mostly we were interested in stopping matches involving fighters who were on medical suspension in other states. Washington was so lax they licensed a boxer who had been in a coma several months previously. We harassed the commission, started a petition that went the rounds in New York and LA and Las Vegas, all the boxing centers of the USA, and managed to hold the commission's feet to the fire. As a result, the sport in Washington is somewhat cleaner and more protective of the fighters than it was. Which pleases me no end.
NG: Coming more specifically to your modes of writing: you seem especially comfortable at novella length. What is it about the short novel form that attracts you?
LS: Novellas have sufficient length for depth and characterisation, and are not long enough to become tedious. Some of my favorite books are novellas -- Svorecky's The Bass Saxophone and Emoke, Heart Of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, Death in Venice, etc. A good many novels I've read lately would have been much better off as short novels, including some large enough to be suitable for use as implements of execution.
NG: Three especially brilliant novellas of yours, "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule", "The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter", and "The Father of Stones", have featured the Dragon Griaule, that monstrous epitome of evil influence. How did you conceive of Griaule? What does he in fact represent? And: you've composed a novel to conclude the sequence, haven't you?
LS: The idea for a 6,000-foot-long dragon on and in which people lived occurred to me at the Clarion Writers' Workshop in 1980. One afternoon I went out onto the Michigan State University campus, parked it under a tree, smoked a joint, and started trying to generate story ideas. "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" was one of the ideas I came up with. I recall I wrote in my notebook the following words: "Big Fucking Dragon." Shortly thereafter I wrote, "Kill him with paint." Surely a moment that will be immortalised in the pantheon of under-the-tree-sitting moments, right up there with Newton and the apple.
I've always hated dragon stories, hated the entire elf-dragon-unicorn axis. The very notion of high fantasy causes my saliva to get thick and ropy. But as an exercise, I was attempting to create a dragon whom I could respect in the morning. As far as what Griaule represents, when I was writing the story he represented a Big Fucking Dragon. I'm an instinctual writer, I rarely have a clue about what I'm doing. Prior to starting a project, I usually have a notion of a beginning and an end, but about the middles, I'm shaky. And as for subtext, theme, et al, I'm totally clueless about these elements until very late in the game. After its publication, some said the story was about the nature and the costs of creativity. Sounds right to me. Looking back, I seem to recall I was thinking a great deal about Ronald Reagan, and I believe now that my subconscious created the dragon as being emblematic of the Republican Party.
The final part of the Griaule story will be told in a novel called The Grand Tour. I should be done with the last rewrite by mid-summer. The main character runs guided tours of Griaule, and the tour referred to by the title is one he leads on the last day of the dragon's life. It is, by turns, a love story and a mystery. And it has a subtitle which I'm certain no publisher will let me use:
THE GRAND TOUR
"Being the greatest fucking story ever written about a man and a woman in terms of dragon on a rainy March Sunday halfway along to the gravel pit and under..."
The book was not, of course, all written on a rainy March Sunday, but it was on such a day that I dropped several hits of acid and sketched out the plot and a number of the scenes.
NG: Your first two full-dress collections, The Jaguar Hunter and The Ends of the Earth, are amongst the exceptional books of the last fifteen years, and your third, Barnacle Bill the Spacer / Beast of the Heartland, is also impressive. Many of your stories, including several key novellas, remain uncollected; do you have any plans to assemble them in single covers soon?
LS: I have written enough new stories for a collection on their own. I don't propose to collect previously uncollected stories -- most of them don't strike me as being very good. My last collection was kind of a clean-up collection, and I deeply regret some of the stories it included. In the future I intend to be more discriminating. I'm writing a series of stories based on the experiences I had when doing an article for Spin on train tramps or hoboes. A couple of these stories will be put between covers later in the year by Mark V. Ziesing.
NG: You've published only three full-length novels thus far, although you have others in progress or awaiting publication. Which of the three -- Green Eyes, Life During Wartime, and The Golden -- satisfies you most in retrospect?
LS: None of them. I haven't looked at them since they were written and I have no plans to do so. I don't believe I've been capable of writing a good novel until recently. If pressed for an answer, I guess I'd have to say that Life During Wartime is my favourite of the three, in that I understand obliquely that it contains some good work. The stuff I write is dead to me the moment it leaves my desk. I don't keep copies of my books around -- I find their presence deeply oppressive. So any judgement I might make on my own work is likely to be bleak.
NG: But your third novel, The Golden, is astonishingly intense, surely one of the pinnacles of vampire fiction, and ambitious on other levels also. What inspired the extraordinary architecture of Castle Banat? And is a sequel (vampires in Borneo) still a possibility?
LS: A number of readers have said that Banat brought Gormenghast to mind. I read Peake when I was a teenager, and it's possible his influence was involved; but I wasn't thinking about his work when writing The Golden. I simply like big, intricate things. Especially buildings. The architectural fantasies of Piranesi were the chief source of inspiration for the decor of Castle Banat.
The Golden was actually a prequel to a novel I intended to write set in Borneo. I was just experimenting with the vampire palette, and I ended up writing a small book. There will be another novel, but it will stretch the concept of sequels a bit. It's going to be a much larger book with a contemporary setting. I don't think there will be any vampires in it -- something will have happened to them, and they will have been reduced to the status of folklore; but that legend will play a part in the story. It will focus to an extent on the politics of the region, corruption, et al. The story will incorporate a very large and intricate house in the highlands of Borneo and treat with the Bree-X scandal, which involved corporations salting gold mines in the interior of the island. I see it as being a fantasy novel without any true fantasy elements.
NG: After a career pause in the late Nineties, you've resumed writing with a succession of powerful new SF and Horror novellas -- "Crocodile Rock", "Radiant Green Star", and "Eternity and Afterward", the last of which, an odyssey through the illusory yet real Heaven and Hell of a Muscovite nightclub, surely ranks among your greatest works. Do you have further SF or Fantasy projects in mind, in addition to The Grand Tour?
LS: I would like to do a science fantasy novel set in a far future Brazil, focusing on a period of time at the end of and shortly after a very long war. The writing of Life During Wartime was extremely frustrating for me. I sold the novel as a science fiction book with the title of Psiderweb. It eventually was published as a mainstream novel. I was forced to do a great deal of rewiring, and as a result the novel is a hybrid, and not at all what I wanted or intended. I'd like to compensate for that by doing something along the lines of the novel I originally planned to write, a book that will reflect whatever development I've managed as a writer. This one, if I write it, will be considerably more fantastical in setting and characterisation. But it will essentially deal with the character of soldiers.
I'm also, much to my surprise, working on an epic science fantasy poem set in a far future earth. Its working title is "Conduct", from the tenth hexagram of the I Ching. I have no designs to publish it, though I may end up making a nice illustrated book out of it. The setting is a quasi-utopian Far East in which the past has been recreated to suit the image of the present created by SUN TAI, a machine mystic who may be the avatar of the age and has reordered the universe on a quantum level...
"...so almost all that should have ever happened had, and some things that once were, now had never been."
Writing this kind of thing may be a symptom of some mental pathology, but I find it relaxing to do a few lines a day, and my lady friend likes it. Children may also find it amusing.
NG: Of course, you've been producing fine stories outside the speculative genres too (stories still rich in fantastic imagery), several of which have appeared in Playboy. Do you find writing "realistic" fiction a different sort of experience? And am I correct in saying that you have "mainstream" novels and novellas on the go?
LS: I'll be turning in at least one mainstream novel this year, a thriller of sorts entitled A Startled Outcry, which deals with the death of a beautiful woman and various questions of personal identity. I have a more-or-less mainstream short novel entitled Valentine that will be published next year. Most of the things I'm intending to work on fall into the categories of either general fiction or mystery fiction. I don't think that science fiction and fantasy will be kind to a writer of my tendencies at this point. The scifi/fantasy market makes up about 7% of the total of books sold, and I suspect that most of those are series books or books that I would for other reasons not care to read. The idea of literary science fiction has been gleefully chucked aside, even though the field's most formidable early figures, men like Wells and Orwell, were primarily literary writers. As a consequence, if I want to be read by any sort of audience, I think I may be well served to ply my trade elsewhere.
I enjoy writing genre stories, but I find science fiction and fantasy difficult to maintain at novel length -- partly because I have trouble suspending my own disbelief for that long. General or mainstream fiction affords me the opportunity to relegate plot to a less dominant place in the story and focus more on character. In my view, the best stories I've written have been non-genre pieces. I feel much more comfortable dealing with the small moments that configure a non-genre story than I do with the grand moments and exposition required by fantasy and science fiction.
Then, too, the writing of a long science fiction or fantasy novel involves a great deal of what-if gameplaying, most of which I do not enjoy. The extrapolation of scientific and/or sociological trends is not something I care to engage in on a regular basis. For a while I toyed with the notion of writing an alternate history novel; but when it came down to it, I realized I wasn't at all interested in alternate histories. Our own history is depressing enough. And, further, I could think of no value another such book would have -- the thought that it might shed some important light on actual history seems ludicrous. Though I did greatly admire Keith Roberts's work along such lines, it was his writing I loved, not necessarily the invention of the plot and setting. I suppose that those who write alternate history books can answer these questions to their own satisfaction, but I cannot do so to mine. Ideas hold little fascination for me. I'm interested in them only so far as they are embodied by people in the living of their lives. I think I do best when I concern myself with emotional truths and stay the hell away from anything that pretends to be clever.
[Addendum, February 2002: Many books by Lucius Shepard are "in the works". The following is Shepard's summary of the projects currently on the table:
[I'm just working on Novels. Two Trains Running (a collection of two hobo stories), formerly from Ziesing, will be out from Golden Gryphon. Colonel Rutherford's Colt (already an e-book) will be a limited edition from Subterranean Press. Louisiana Breakdown, a long novella, likewise. I've got a novelette due out from Ellen Datlow's Sci Fiction, "Emerald Street Expansions". A novella for a ghost story anthology by Ellen called Limbo. About to unleash a few more stories. The Iron Shore (a three-novella collection) will be out from Four Walls Eight Windows at some point, maybe early next year. In process of finalising The Grand Tour--it proved more of a problem than I thought.]
(This interview originally appeared in Interzone 168, June 2001)
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