Interview with John Shirley by Paula Guran
The last time Cemetery Dance published a JOHN SHIRLEY book, it was SPIDER MOON, a gritty novella of wild hopes and shattered dreams. DEMONS, now under option by the Weinsteins for director Jim Sonzero, was his first CD book. His new novel, THE OTHER END, is nothing like either one but is still inimitably and distinctly a work that no other author could have created. Like most all of his fiction it *wakes people up*. Even if you've read his couple of dozen novels and numerous short stories -- and thus been confronted with visceral horror, stung with the snap and snarl of his groundbreaking cyberpunk, introduced to the denizens of some very dark streets, and been taken right over several edges -- THE OTHER END will take you to yet another reality.
CD: What is this new novel, THE OTHER END, about?
JS: THE OTHER END is an "alternative apocalypse" novel. When you have dominionists, armageddonists, right-wing theologies and theocrats creating this end-times paranoia, like the Left Behind books-the best selling books (and basis for movies) that dramatize the dominionist fantasy about the fulfillment of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, the Rapture, the destruction of non-fundamentalist-Christians, the coming of the antichrist and other hallucinatory material. The Book of Revelation was actually about the Roman empire and has nothing to do with predicting our times; the Rapture is not mentioned, the antichrist as such is not mentioned. These people made up their own bullying pseudo-theology to browbeat others into submitting to their right-wing bigotry. If you just accept their version of what a Judgment Day would be like, you're letting them create a paradigm that affects people's decisions. You're letting them justify a world in which gays are oppressed and even moderate Muslims are not tolerated and art is put through an ideological filter, and people are submissive to the power brokers claiming to be Christians.
So -- what if you could create your OWN end-times, your own Judgment Day? What would you create? This is mine. It isn't God, per se, and definitely not aliens, behind it all, but it is a kind of Judgment Day--a Judgment Day that the left, instead of the right-wing, might envision.
CD: You mentioned the "Left Behind" books -- those managed to make the end of the world and religious doctrine entertaining enough to sell millions of copies. How did you approach making THE OTHER END entertaining while still delivering your message?
JS: I don't get into a big expositional rap about theology (or so-called theology in the case of the Left Behind authors), as those books do, I don't explain what's going on till late in the book, though you get enough clues to keep you going; I dramatize remarkable, emotionally charged events. I come at it all from a completely different point of vie, too, which I think readers will find refreshing and that is itself entertaining. I engage in entertaining satire.
Since the book is not about a Christian apocalypse per se (though it's not unfriendly to Christ) and it doesn't present a Judgment Day brought on by any interpretation of "God" and there are no "aliens" arriving to save humankind -- part of the entertainment is the mystery, and the solving of the mystery, of who's behind it.
CD: You've taken an interesting tack in promoting THE OTHER END. Could you tell us something about Signs of Witness (http://www.signsofwitness.com/)?
JS: THE OTHER END mentions a website called Signs of Witness at signsofwitness.com which chronicles signs of the end times. Though I interpret the signs differently I recognize them (in the context of the book-in real life I don't see End Times coming unless they're brought about by human blundering) and lay some of them out...The website would collate them. So we decided to create a *real* signsofwitness.com, "the interactive site that tracks putative signs of the supposed apocalypse and end times for unbelievers, believers and the unbelieved." I call it an Alternative Apocalypse site. It's almost part of the novel-a kind of "virtual" extension of the book.
CD: What sort of reaction have you gotten so far to Signs of Witness?
JS: Tens of thousands of visits to the site -- a consistent high level of interest. People are entertained, freaked out, amused, intrigued by it. Lots of other sites have linked to it. There is a "cumulative effect" of going through its many posts, that people remark on, sounding shaken.
CD: Do you think it is the business of fiction writers to address social and spiritual issues?
JS: I think it's the business of people of conscience. Upton Sinclair, Steinbeck, Vonnegut-they all wrote entertaining books that were meaningful too...it can be done.
CD: Despite the "social responsibility" of your fiction, you are also known for writing extreme or violent or visceral or even shocking fiction. How do you reconcile the two?
JS: I sometimes feel it's necessary to shock people to wake them up-and the real world is startling in its ferocity. I reflect the real world or, anyway, I reflect that ferocity, at times. THE OTHER END, though, is sort of inverted-it's not a novel of horror or some grand vision of "punishment". It's a novel of hope, with some horrific elements.
CD: Do you have hope then? Do you think humankind can overcome the "horrific elements"?
JS: Humankind won't be destroyed-we're too many and too resourceful. Civilization as we know it can be destroyed. We will, I think, go through an "apocalypse" caused by our own mismanagement of our society, psychological pressures, sociological triggers, and ecological bumbling, and it will be catastrophic but it will amount to losing a number of people out of the lifeboat but others will make it to shore. For every greed-headed non-empathetic kneejerk individual there are others capable of thinking for themselves, capable of looking for constructive solutions. So I'm hopeful. yeah.
CD: Do you feel horror, science fiction, fantasy have any special meaning these days? They are sometimes viewed as pure escapism.
JS: Nothing wrong with pure escapism. But some of the best science fiction/fantasy/horror is metaphorical-it seems to resonate symbolically, deep into the heart of life, and we take a deeper satisfaction in it knowing that it has more meaning than an amusement park ride.
CD: Music's always been your "other career" -- your own bands, lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and others -- what do you listen to these days?
JS: I've been listening to stoner rock a lot, though I don't get stoned, not for years. I listen to a new band called Witch (people from Dinosaur Jr in it) and Wolfmother and Monster Magnet. I like the neopsychedelic flavor and the fact that, unlike the White Stripes (a good band, but...) they rock *without irony*. There's too much irony in rock and it saps the energy. I also like artists like PJ Harvey. And I still listen to Iggy Pop and Sisters of Mercy...
[John Shirley's own music can be heard at http://www.darkecho.com/JohnShirley/hear.html]
CD: You and a new story were recently featured in the venerable magazine WEIRD TALES -- what sort of story did John Shirley write as a "weird tale"?
JS: "Buried in the Sky" is about young people left alone in a gigantic high rise apartment building which starts to transform, within itself; impossible things are happening, and one of the family goes missing-our young heroes realize there's a diabolic force at work, subtly cultivating the dark power of our worst impulses...It's a semi-Lovecraftian piece, evoking Lovecraftian terms, in places, a kind of fusion of near-cyberpunk with Lovecraft.
CD: You've reached the stage in your career where you are an influence on other writers. How do you feel about that?
JS: Flattered. I've been influenced myself-by Ballard, Philip Wylie, Vonnegut, Ellison, Celine, some others-and glad to contribute to the general pool of methodology and expression.
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John Shirley's novels IN DARKNESS WAITING and CELLARS have been recently reissued by Infrapress (http://www.infrapress.com/) as has novel A SPLENDID CHAOS from Babbage Press (http://www.babbagepress.com/). A new collection of short fiction, LIVING SHADOWS, will be published by Prime this spring. You an find out more about him and his work at http://www.john-shirley.com/ and chat with him on his Message Board.