The Original DarkEcho Interview:
January 1996

by Paula Guran

This interview first appeared in the newsletter DarkEcho and has become an ongoing, updated part of this site.

The only problem with interviewing John Shirley is that you can't use the really good stories...

Author_ImageQ: You have a semi-legendary aura about you. Let's start with you being the "godfather of cyberpunk." Folks like William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, Marc Laidlaw and you were the progenitors. You even "discovered" Gibson. What is cyberpunk? How did this all happen?

A: Did you have to ask me a question that takes ten years of story telling to answer?

It was steam-engine time for cyberpunk. Gibson was writing NEUROMANCER when Ridley Scott was doing BLADERUNNER and I had just done CITY COME A WALKIN'. My first novel TRANSMANIACON often had a cyberpunk feel to it, too. We just reacted against the glossy Star Trek/Asimov future that we'd been fed; we didn't see that coming down. Plus, culturally we were interested in injecting all kinds of other influences into science fiction like the better detective writers, and the better post-modern writers like William Burroughs, Pynchon etc.

The influence of the rock scene (and certain drugs, like speed) can't be discounted. I was the only one of the group who was an actual punk-rocker. I was lead singer of a buncha bands like SADO NATION, OBSESSION, some others. The prose felt like music to me; my music was rock. Balls-out rock.

CoverGibson met me in Vancouver when I was there for a convention; he gave me a short story, which impressed me, I gave it to Terry Carr; others I recommended to Robert Sheckley, who was then editor of OMNI. Gibson's early short stories created a sensation. He had the feel we were all looking for, but he had it DOWN.

Bruce Sterling gathered us together under the cyberpunk aegis, through a little magazine he edited (the name of which I forget,) and through snailmail correspondence -- there was no email in them olden days.

Q: In horror, you could also be called as least an uncle to "splatterpunk." Where does that come from?

A: My own link to it comes from the fact that I always wrote in extremes -- if I wrote horror, I pushed it to extremes. It was the punk thing to do.

My actual progenitors in writing were as much painters and songwriters as writers; I was into the dadaists and surrealists and Italian futurists and conceptual artists and early performance artists -- extreme people. And in music into hardcore, bloody nosed rock like the Stooges. So when I wrote Cover DRACULA IN LOVE, I pushed out the edges of what was "acceptably sick" in horror. Same in CELLARS and IN DARKNESS WAITING and my short stories, like "I Live In Elizabeth" in HEATSEEKER. I was willing to use perverse sexual content too, early on, before Anne Rice and friends. I was there first, frankly.

Q: Tell me about THE CROW. I hear David Schow usually get the credit for the screenplay, sometimes with no mention of you. What's the story?

A:THE CROW came about like this: James O'Barr created the comic book, art and story, for Caliber comics. I found the comic, an obscure black and white comic, and took it to Jeff Most and we took it to Edward R. Pressman, who eventually sold it to first Paramount and then Miramax (after the Paramount thing fell through.) I was attached as the writer. I wrote numerous drafts of a treatment, and then FIVE drafts of the script. The first five. Then I had a fight with Cotty Chubb, one of Pressman's producers, and was dropped.

CrowThey then brought David Schow on. Schow tried to eliminate everything I'd done, even names that didn't need to be changed, locations that didn't need to be changed, so that when WGA arbitration came up he could shove me out of the picture. However, the director, Alex Proyas, resisted this.

Much of what Schow wrote was cut from the film. What remains is mostly James O'Barr's stuff, with my take on structure, general story, tone, etc., and some lines and situations from Schow. What they ended up with was the comic book. James O'Barr is in effect the real screenwriter. I'm credited along with Schow but he got first position because he did more drafts than I did. However, much of what he wrote in those many drafts wasn't used. Schow did a good job and his mark is on the movie; so is mine.

Q: You weren't always clean and sober, you obviously know the street. How did a nice boy from Houston wind up that way? Tell me about the bad old days and how it effects your writing.

A:I was born in Houston but didn't grow up there; mostly I was a boy from Oregon, but never a particularly "nice" one.

How I ended up that way is a very personal matter. I will tell you that at the end of the sixties drugs were everywhere, and I was a stone weirdo, a misfit, an outsider, the classic alienated punk kid, and one of only three long haired kids in my high school. I was very political, in my under-educated way, and published high school underground papers and this got me into trouble. I was kicked out of school for this, and for disruptive political actions, and for staging "dada marches" and for "public display of affection" (kissing, feeling up my girlfriend at school), a remarkable number of times before they finally expelled me for locking a teacher (harmlessly) in the closet and taking over the class so I could lecture it on why they were all going to die in nuclear holocaust. The principal of the school heard the sobbing teenybopper girls in the class, (I was telling them they'd be gang raped by radiated lunatics,) and the teacher pounding on the closet door and kicked me out of school and...

PunkThen PUNK ROCK came along, god bless it. I moved to Portland and then to New York City, where many punk rockers became involved in the sex industry, stripping, etc., in order to live without having a square job. I got into some pretty underground scenes -- I just wasn't suited to a regular job. Wasn't COMPETENT to do a regular job.

Only short stints, a day or three here, in jail. Peripheral involvement in dealing MDA and pot.

I was a rock musician and underground sf/fantasy writer so, of course, I often had a girlfriend (or wife) who had a good job. Often they were strippers. What do you call a rock musician without a girlfriend? Homeless. My story becomes very very complex about mind.

Q: But you eventually got straight...

A:It took me several tries to get clean from cocaine and other drugs. It's something one works on for life, really, though years go past sober. I didn't start to mature, to become whole, till I'd given up booze and drugs. I want to say this though: I was a binger, and never did write under the influence of booze and drugs, not directly, though drug experiences, remembered, may have informed some writing.

Q: Music: What about the punk bands and your involvement with Blue Ouml&;yster Cult? Your musical influences? Where are you with it now?

CoverI just always loved the mysterious, atmospheric, intricate, intelligent but tough sound of the Blue Oyster Cult and jumped at the chance to write lyrics for them. My first novel TRANSMANIACON was named after one of their songs.

Rudy Rucker used to say that cyberpunk was about more information per square inch, so to speak, more intensity, more more and more. ("I want MORE!" - Iggy Pop)

Punk was, too, to me. To me, that wall of sound was information, was metal sculpture in soundwaves, was aural telepathy. I had more than my share of bottled up rage and here was the corkscrew. Plus, I was one of those guys, when I was young (I'm 42 now,) who thrived on ticking people off, being the gadfly, being the Symbol of the Outsider. Consciously. Punk was made for my shattered inner self; my lack of a centered self-image. It was also a legitimate reaction to the mindlessness, the SLEEP of society. I sensed that we were all asleep; in my clumsy, misdirected way I was trying to awaken. I still am.

Q: You wrote your first novel, DRACULA IN LOVE when you were still in your teens ...

A: Yeah. Took me a couple of years to get it published.

Q: Since then you've written prodigiously and widely:. some magic realism, fairly straight SF, cutting edge "horror," fantasy, splatterpunk... and it works on many levels. There always seems to be social commentary and redemptive value. Where do you write from? How does it come out?

A:I used to write more or less the way the surrealists painted: directly from the unconscious, tying it together as I went along. Now I try to use two hands on the clay of the sculpture: one hand the unconscious, the other conscious, as conscious as possible. I start with an AIM, a monomaniacally focused AIM.

Also I consciously suck up the input from the world, and try not to get too subjectively involved in it; I try to remain objective. I used to say I used Dali's "paranoid critical method" of almost paranoid objectivity, and I still do to some extent, although I'm also interested in understanding character and the human condition in its subjective, suffering-it-as-we-go sense.

I have always assumed both chaos and meaning in life; it's never been a problem for me to see these things side by side. And there is a place, a Tao point if you like, where they are resolved with one another. Chaos is order from the distance; order is chaos in small segments. All this informs my writing. It's my surfboard.

I know that life is cruel, and tragic; I know also that life is significant: that is, it SIGNIFIES. It is sending messages. Incorporating all this leads me through magic realism, fantasy, horror, real-world noir, and science fiction.

CoverSocial issues cry out to be addressed. How can I ignore them? A writer can make a difference -- Dickens actually affected what laws were made. I'm not saying I have, I'm sure I haven't, on any broad scale. But I try. At the same time I am WIRED to tell a good story. I was born a storyteller (when I was a kid they called it LYING, but...never mind). I used to regale the other kids with adventure stories. I'm a born storyteller who has a need to express meaning. to search for meaning, and who feels always a link to musicality.

Q: Another obvious aspect is the depth of your work. You have some heavy influences. You've mentioned Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti; in literature there's William Burroughs and Philip Dick...who, what else?

A: I don't read horror fiction, not since I was a boy. When I want to read horror, I read history.

What else? I read a lot of biographies; I try to get that kind of feel without its dryness, increasingly. I'm influenced by C. S. Lewis's space trilogy, (especially THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH,) by J. G. Ballard and by people like Elmore Leonard and Hubert Selby and for that matter, Lou Reed. I was influenced by Louis Celine and Baudelaire, especially when I was younger.

coverI was influenced by film makers, especially Fellini, early on, and Nicholas Roeg -- I mean, I was influenced by them in the way I wrote short stories and novels. I tried to create cinema in the mind of the reader. My novel A SPLENDID CHAOS is an attempt to do an interplanetary Fellini movie in prose. Sort of...

Currently I admire Cormac McCarthy, but I don't try to write like him. Philosophically I gravitate to anything that can harmonize my innate skepticism with a spiritually inclusive point of view. I don't take to fuzzy edged new agey bullshit.

Q: What about the screenwriting?

A: What about it? I'm writing a new spec script, an "actioner," as they say in VARIETY. I've got a number of unsold screenplays. Who hasn't, in the business? I make a fair amount of money writing television: I have to do that because of the enormous child support payments I must make to two ex-wives. I see my kids as much as the ex-wives will let me.

Jeff Most and I are still working over (me as writer, he as producer) Robert McCammon's STINGER. I have a great script of Rudy Rucker's SOFTWARE that's stuck in development hell.

Jeff Most is also closing a deal with Alliance to film my script THE BRIGADE, based on my novel, a suspense/action picture.

My fantasy for kids about Wyatt Earp and a literal ghost-town, THE MARSHAL OF CENTRAL PARK, has interested the agent of certain child-stars, and is being taken by them (and Jeff Most) to Disney and Universal, where the child-stars have deals. We'll see.

Q: So TV is the "day job." Any of it you want to claim as yours?

A:I developed and wrote the pilot for a show called PRIMAL SCREAM that will be shot soon for the Showtime Channel. It's horror set in the real world...I did an episode of a new show called POLTERGEIST I rather like. It is a sort of horror anthology show with a continuing cast having various horrific supernatural adventures as they investigate the paranormal.

I did an episode of a very interesting upcoming show called PROFIT. A good show...I did a DEEP SPACE NINE episode but I'd rather forget that.

I am developing a miniseries for Warner New Regency television to be called either Pangaea or Mystery Traces (so far) about many, many strange things, including visitors coming en masse from another dimension.

Q: Other than the day job, what are you working on now?

A:CoverBy turns, the novel SILICON EMBRACE, a vampire story for Nancy Collin's BLACK HEARTS BLEED RED, which is a new vampire collection by "master" vampire writers, recording new material with the Panther Moderns which will be on a CD released along with the book of SF punk stories, THE EXPLODED HEART (from Eyeball Books I hope this summer.). The current music is progressive, sort of King Crimsonish, sort of Zappa edged, modern rock, involved, maybe a certain flavor of the Doors about it, and a flavor of Goth. I do lyrics and lead vocals. Also developing a show I created for NBC called HELIX. Will they ALLOW ME to make it a good show? I don't know yet.

Q: Why aren't you more famous, John Shirley? Do you want to be?

A: Why wasn't Edgar Allan Poe more famous during his lifetime? Up to a point, it could be useful; beyond a certain point, tiresome.

Q: Oh, then, like Poe, you see yourself revered by future generations?

A: I'd be very surprised if future generations revered me. Some of my work may be appreciated on levels it isn't appreciated on now. There are levels to be appreciated, I assure you.

©1996 Paula Guran

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