I have a radio interview coming up with Stu Bryer for Norwich Radio Station WIXH 1310.
When preparing for this, I made a list, as I always do, of influential writers. My mind always goes blank when someone asks me, so I always have this emergency list close by when I think there’s a chance I’ll be asked the question.
One writer who is always on the list is John Shirley. I read his collection Heatseeker soon after it came out in 1989. I wasn’t published then; in fact, I wasn’t sure I could be a writer at all at that stage of my life. I’d written plenty, but I wasn’t sure if the strange way I wrote, the awful things I wrote about, would find readers.
Reading Heatseeker, which is vicious, brilliant, brave and unrelenting in every story, inspired me to keep going. It made me realise I didn’t have to write easy fiction.
So when I was offered the opportunity to ask John Shirley some questions, I realised I had only one. The answer Shirley gave inspired me all over again.
My question: I’m fascinated by the ‘spark’ that starts stories, and will sometimes try to pinpoint this in other people’s stories.
The stories in ‘Heatseeker’, which I read during my formative years as a writer, have so much heart, guts and anger to them.
I’d love to know what the ‘spark’ was in these stories. What set them off? I’m particularly interested in the brilliant “What Cindy Saw”, “Sleepwalkers” and “Six Kinds of Darkness”.
John Shirley’s answer:
I was always looking for a way to use allegory to express my feelings about the world, without being so allegorical it lost the reader. Sleepwalkers (there’s an improved version of that in Living Shadows) was partly based on some experience with people using drugs–I wasn’t using that one, but I was living with them–and partly with some experience of the street prostitution scene. It wasn’t an organized prostitution thing, with pimps. It was about people surviving day to day. And people who endured working in it went into a kind of trance, almost, a compartmentalization, a sort of sleepwalking through it, so they could bear it. That seemed to me to be a real phenomenon and at the same time a metaphor for what people went through as they adapted to the realities of life–they learned to “sleepwalk” through life, to shut themselves down so they could bear it, more and more…in whatever walk of life they were in. Six Kinds of Darkness was literally a song I wrote, I used to perform, and it’s very much about the feeling that we lose ourselves in media, and in desperate escapes. I was deliberately evoking a rocknroll energy and again the influence of the drug scene was there. (I don’t take drugs now, not for many years, and I never took any *while* writing, but some of my stories were a bit influenced by some drug experiences). What Cindy Saw was a kind of mix of existential horror and surrealism, and also an attempt to take the reader into a radical state of esthetic experience. It was influenced by Dali’s idea of the Paranoid Critical Method, the idea that if you see ordinary things as if you had never seen them before, jettisoning your associations, you get insights. So it’s an attempt to get the reader to accept surreality as standard reality and vice versa. All of these stories were in fact reactions to the world–my struggle to find some kind of transcendant meaning despite the grim realities…John Shirley
His new collection, In Extremis, described as containing his most extreme stories. I’ll be ordering it when I get back home.