Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with Lewis Shiner
TI: In October 2017, I attended the Wild Cards author event and mass signing in Santa Fe. Forty-one writers have contributed to the series thus far, and it’s always interesting to hear the stories of how everyone first got involved. You weren’t at the event, though, and so now I must know — What is your Wild Cards origin story?
LEW: In the early 80s I was married and living in Austin in a nicely furnished 2-bedroom duplex. I was part of a large contingent of writers that included Bruce Sterling,Steve Utley, Walton Simons, Leigh Kennedy, Lisa Tuttle, Howard Waldrop, andmore. Howard and Lisa were friends with George, who would periodically come to Austin to visit them, which in the past had meant sleeping on Howard’s floor and eating boiled peanuts. My then wife and I were able to offer George his own bedroom and a refrigerator stocked with food, and he lost no time in changing accommodations. Since he was staying under my roof, George decided to check out my short stories, and liked what he read. (No, I don’t think he would have lied about that just to get off of Howard’s floor–he could have just not said anything.)
He even blurbed my first novel. When he started to get serious about turning Wild Cards into an actual sharedworld anthology, he called me up. He emphasized the adult nature of the stories, so off the top of my head–maybe to see how far he was willing to go–I pitched him the idea of a black pimp who practiced sexual magic. George had no problem with any of that, but he said that a number of writers had already proposed characters from the lower strata of society, and that I was perhaps guilty of some racial stereotyping. So Fortunato became half Japanese and a high-class purveyor of “geishas” to the well-heeled. For the plot of the first trilogy I turned to an unpublished portion and outline I’d written for a horror novel set in a cemetery, called The Darkling. This novel started with the protagonist discovering “Pennies from Hell” working their way up to daylight from various graves, and links to Cagliostro and other Illuminati (courtesy of Shea and Wilson’s wonderful Illuminatus! trilogy). In those days we were feeling our way along blindly, not sure yet how this whole process would work. George was determined to have a “mosaic novel” for the third book of the trilogy, and two of us stepped forward with ideas for the book–me with the Astronomer and Walter Jon Williams with the Swarm. Walter and I were friends and had mutual respect for each other’s work, so it didn’t take us long to figure out a way to splice the two stories into one. George liked it, and we were off.
TI: So you’re a series elder so-to-speak. Kid Dinosaur was one of my favorite characters. What’s the story on him?
LEW: As we were wrapping up the first book, George put out a call for “red shirt”characters. This was an allusion to STAR TREK, where it always seemed like characters from engineering (in the red uniforms) were the ones sent down to the hostile planet to get eaten. George wanted to have a number of characters in place that the readers would assume were ongoing–until we killed them. George liked my idea for Kid Dinosaur–a pubescent teen who could assume the shape of any dinosaur–but only with the same mass as his human body. We snuck his origin story into a last-minute epilogue to the first book, and some of the other writers used him in the second one.
If memory serves, George realized at this point that Kid Dinosaur was potentially a very popular character and asked if maybe we should let him live. But I was ruthless. “That’ll just make it more of a shock when he goes,” I said. And it was.
TI: You campaigned for killing a character? Not George? Color me shocked.
LEW: Yep! George wasn’t nearly as ruthless back in those days.
TI: All right if we’re covering Kid Dinosaur, we have to address the other greatest hits. Who or what inspired your characters Fortunato and the Astronomer?
LEW: I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I know there are people that do, and I’ve always been fascinated by those belief systems. By the time I was writing the Fortunato stories I had a pretty good shelf of magic books, of which my favorites were the ones on Egyptian magic, as they had the coolest iconography.
TI: Did either of them surprise you while writing?
LEW: My characters usually do surprise me. You can’t really know them until you put them in situations where they’re reacting with others. Fortunato surprised me by being somewhat more aloof and calculating than I expected. The Astronomer we only really see from a distance, so I never really knew him very well.
TI: That’s interesting. Do you find it more challenging to write an interesting “good” person than to write an interesting villain?
LEW: Actually, I haven’t written a lot of villains, per se. Most of my fiction has people at cross purposes who are typically trying to do the best they can in the circumstances. So, yeah, it was challenging to me to write somebody who was that ruthless and inhuman. On the other hand, it wasn’t like he was chortling in pride over how evil he was–he was acting according to his understanding of the universe.
TI: I’ve asked you about your Wild Cards beginnings but not about the Lewis Shiner beginnings. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
LEW: I grew up in Oregon, Arizona, Virginia, Georgia, Sudan, New Mexico, and Texas. What was my childhood like? A continual process of being uprooted. Books were the only constant in my life–other than my parents, and we didn’t get along.
TI: In one word, tell me what living in Sudan was like.
LEW: Dry. It rained once–a few drops–in the six months we were there. For most of the time, I was the only US kid there my age, so that drove me even further into books. I learned to speak a little Arabic, but not enough to make any real friends among the locals.
TI: Were your parents members of the creative class? You mentioned you moved around a lot as a kid. Military family?
LEW: My father was an archeologist and my mother was a housewife (her chosen term).
TI: Did they encourage your career choice?
LEW: They were somewhat encouraging of my writing, very insulting about my attempts to draw, and absolutely opposed to my interest in playing music.
TI: Well I certainly hope you’re happily drawing now and playing an instrument of choice and with gusto. But it sounds like you knew when you were a kid that writing was the job you wanted.
LEW: Yep. I learned to read at 3 and write at 4, and at that point I started changing the stories I was copying. I started my first novel at 7. By the time I was in high school, I was quite certain I was going to win the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and live the literary high life in New York City. As it turned out, I only had two years (when I was writing comics) where I was able to support myself by writing.
TI: Let’s talk a little bit more about the craft itself. What tips do you have for aspiring writers? What common mistakes do new writers often make?
LEW: I try not to give a lot of advice. I see bestselling novels all the time that violate all kinds of rules that I hold myself to. But I’ll mention a couple of things that I think are reasonably universal. In terms of specifics, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of viewpoint. Though he gets dissed (I think unfairly) for his prose, Philip K. Dick was a master of viewpoint. You always know whose eyes you are seeing the story through; the vocabulary, even in third person, reflects the character; you never get some other character’s thoughts intruding. Solid, convincing point of view grounds the reader and lets her forget she’s got a book in her hand, which is always one of my goals.
In larger terms, I spent a lot of years trying to sell novels and stories that came out of my left brain–like THE DARKLING, which was a very formulaic horror novel. It was only when I started writing fiction that had personal significance for me that I started selling regularly. For me the best writing tends to grow out of obsessions–whether you’re Nabokov writing about butterflies, Austen writing about society, or Lansdale writing about racism.
TI: What are you reading right now?
LEW: I just finished CIRCE by Madeline Miller. It’s a somewhat unusual choice for me, in that it’s fantasy–I rarely read fantasy, and even more rarely read SF. But it’s very literary, beautifully written, and has a lot to say about tyranny–and therefore about our present political situation. I’m currently reading Roger Daltrey’s memoir, THANKS A LOT, MR KIBBLEWHITE. This is also a bit of an odd choice for me in that I am one of the few people on the planet who doesn’t like the Who. I do read a lot of rock biographies, though (music is my own obsession), and Daltrey’s comes off as really honest, funny, and human.
I’m also reading a novel in Spanish, EL HOMBRE QUE AMABA A LOS PERROS (THE MAN WHO LOVED DOGS) by the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura. Now this is exactly up my street–an epic novel with huge historical sweep, dealing with the assassination of Leon Trotsky and the political forces that shaped it. The book is available in English, but I can’t vouch for the translation.
TI: How about television and film wise. What are you watching?
LEW: As for watching, I don’t. I’ll watch videos on YouTube, but no TV and no movies. I feel held hostage when I have to sit and watch passively for long periods of time, and mainstream movies and TV shows generally disappoint me. On the whole I’d rather read a book, preferably the old-school kind made of paper. You can’t beat a well-made deckle-edged hardcover with beautiful typesetting.
TI: I’ll drink to that. Out of curiosity, do you type in a particular font? I find in a dark gray “Georgia” I do my best work.
LEW: I’m strictly old school, and type my drafts in Courier. Not just any Courier, either. The MS Font (Courier New) is too light, and Courier Dark is too dark. I spent $100 to get a really good Courier font (Courier10 BT) that looks just like my manuscripts when I typed them on my beloved IBM Selectric back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As for reading, my favorite font is Bembo. You shouldn’t have gotten me started on fonts.
TI: That’s hilarious. Moving on and quickly before we fall into the Courier abyss. Do you do any research for your writing?
LEW: I research obsessively, and sometimes I think I choose writing projects based on research I’m interested in doing. In the novel I just finished, set mostly in the sixties and seventies, I would be looking things up on every page–photographs of a particular location, the etymology of a specific word to see if it was used at the time, what TV shows were on at a particular hour. That’s in addition to reading stacks of books as general background.
TI: That sounds tedious. How long did it take you to finish writing it? Do you, or did you write seven days a week?
LEW: I finished my new novel back in September of 2017. I’d been working on it for nearly eight years. That burned me out pretty badly, and I haven’t written any fiction since. When I was working on it, however, I did write pretty much seven days a week.
TI: That’s a pretty good clip. Did you prefer writing in the morning or at night? What’s your daily routine like?
LEW: My preference was to write in the morning when I was fresh, but I also had a day job, so that meant I wrote whenever I could fit it in. I retired from my day job in December of 2017, so that, along with not writing, was a big change in my day-to-day. I volunteer two days a week, one day at the local library and the other at a non-profit thrift store. I do a lot of email with friends all over the world, and I have recently been contributing to an online music magazine, Tell It Like It Was, that went live in January 2019. And I read. A lot. That’s a real joy for me.
TI: Were there any particular books that influenced you when you were young?
LEW: My hero for much of my adolescence was John Steinbeck. I loved his prose and the fact that he was tackling not only universal issues of good and evil, but also specific political issues of the working classes. I also liked James Jones, especially From Here to Eternity.
TI: Did any movies capture your imagination?
LEW: I liked movies well enough, but my main focus was always books.
TI: You’ve written a lot about music in the Village Voice, Pulse, Crawdaddy, etc. What do you listen to when you’re writing?
LEW: Music is so important to me that it’s always in the foreground. Therefore I never listen while I’m writing–not even when writing emails. I listen while driving and cooking, but otherwise if I’m listening that’s all I’m doing. I listen to Latin music a lot, also swing music (new and old), 60s rock, 80s rock, world music, and a little classical.
TI: You mentioned earlier that your parents discouraged any interest in music as child, but you didn’t tell us if you listened. Do you or did you play any instruments?
LEW: I played drums in various unsuccessful rock bands from age 15 on. I play guitar a little (badly), and play bass even less often and with even less skill.
TI: Tell me more about your school days. Was there a particular teacher who encouraged you to write when you were a child?
LEW: No, I never had a writing teacher until my senior year in college. There was never any kind of creative writing class at any primary or secondary school I went to. So I’m basically self-taught.
TI: As an avowed bookworm, who is your favorite author?
LEW: At this instant–subject to change at any moment–I would probably name Sarah Waters. She writes historical fiction with the most convincing detail I’ve ever read. She is also a political writer, a suspense writer, and a wonderful stylist. You can see that she has been highly influenced by Daphne Du Maurier, another of my favorite writers. I’ve read almost all of her books in the last year and loved them all.
TI: What sort of influence has her writing had on you?
LEW: I can’t say that she (or Du Maurier) has influenced me–they are both very idiosyncratic writers–but they both certainly inspire me. Other favorites of the last few years are Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior), and Ann Patchett (State of Wonder). All of them write with deceptive effortlessness, all deal with major political issues, all create characters of heartbreaking depth.
TI: Have you ever faced writer’s block?
LEW: I never have. I’ve sometimes gone as long as two years without writing, because I didn’t feel like I had anything to say, but I wasn’t actively trying and failing to write something.
TI: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
LEW: I went back and forth between music and writing for many years. After I hit 30, however, the long nights and physical exertion got to taking a real toll on my body, so I made writing my priority.
On the other hand, you could say that I was lots of other things than a fiction writer, because I pretty much always had to have a day job to pay my bills. So I’ve been a construction worker, a graphic artist, a technical writer, and a computer programmer. Now I’m retired. If I had it to do over again, I would study art from a young age. I would love to have been a comic book artist.
TI: Speaking of comic books and veering into fandom, George R. R. Martin has been a part of the genre fantasy community for years. Do you consider yourself a convention-goer?
LEW: I was active in the SF community, including going to a lot of big conventions, in the 1980s. But by the end of the 80s I wasn’t reading or writing much SF and I lost touch with all that.
TI: Your latest book, Outside the Gates of Eden, comes out this month. Tell me a little bit about it and what inspired you to set pen to paper.
LEW: In 2010 I’d finished writing a fairly short suspense novel called Dark Tangos. Meanwhile I’d just finished reading Anna Karenina for the first time. I was thinking about what to write next, and I asked myself, “What would Tolstoy write about if he were around today?” Maybe he would ask what happened to the idealism of the sixties, and how we ended up with the greed culture of the present day. Within an hour I had the main characters and the basic arc of the plot and was ready to start writing.
I am not remotely claiming to be as good as Tolstoy, but I did want to tackle something really epic in theme and ambition. It took me eight years to write Outside the Gates of Eden, and it covers more than 50 years, with dozens of major characters–some fictional and some historical. The finished manuscript was over 1200 pages long (almost 900 pages in print) and I’m really pleased with the way it turned out.
TI: I can’t wait to pick it up. Looking forward, will we see you involved in any more Wild Cards projects?
I can’t see myself writing any new Wild Cards stuff, but you never know.
TI: Thoughts on the upcoming TV show? Which characters are you most excited to see come to life?
LEW: I hope Wild Cards becomes huge on TV, and not just for financial reasons. Obviously my emotional ties are to the “golden age” characters like Golden Boy and Demise and Peregrine and all of those guys. So if there was some kind of historical spin-off, that would be very cool.
TI: Thanks so much for your time, Lewis.
**Lewis’s upcoming novel, Outside the Gates of Eden, arrives in May of 2019.