One of the most influential speculative fiction writers to emerge from the 1980s, Lucius Shepard has built a name for himself with a lush and varied body of work. Drawing on a rich life experience that includes a career as a rock musician and extended stays in Latin America, Shepard's work has resonated with readers, winning two World Fantasy Awards, a Hugo, a Nebula and a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Some of his best-known works include the novelette "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule," the collections The Jaguar Hunter and Barnacle Bill the Spacer, and the novels The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter and Life During Wartime. His most recent works are the short novels Valentine and Louisiana Breakdown, but at any particular moment, he may have several more projects in the works. . . .
Jayme Blaschke: You took a break from your writing career through most of the '90s. What prompted that?
Lucius Shepard: It wasn't most of the '90s, it was like. . . well, maybe it was most of the '90s. It was from about '92 to '98 when I started writing short fiction again, so I guess that qualifies as "most." Basically, I just didn't like what I was writing. I was kinda writing stories that were cynical, that I was just writing to sell.
It was probably a dumb career move, but I think it probably made me a better writer -- just sitting around, thinking about it, trying different things. I was unhappy, though, doing what I was doing. Now, I'm doing what I'm doing, so we'll see what happens.
JB: Have you noticed a significant difference between your writing then and now?
LS: Definitely. Now, there's more precision. There's more complexity. There's voice. It's probably less ornate -- at least the stories I've been writing the last couple of years -- less ornate, but with more depth and sense of character development. More complex use of shifting points of view. You know, just structurally more sophisticated. Kate Wilhelm told me I don't have plots, I have structures. I think that's an appropriate term.
JB: Your writing has a very distinctive flavor to it. Is this the natural Lucius Shepard voice, or is there a conscious effort on your part to cultivate a unique voice?
LS: I think it's both. I never did much in college, but I was home educated a lot. I had a serious grounding in the classics, romantic poets, a lot of heavy iambic pentameter -- you know, 'flowery speech.' So, what I like to read is people who write well. I like sentence-to-sentence good writing. I like how Gene Wolfe can write, and people like that.
People calling some writers stylists and others storytellers is kind of a bullshit thing, because, that's to say Gene Wolfe couldn't tell a story? Or William Faulkner couldn't tell a story? People of that sort? I just think it's those people who write sentence-to-sentence better. They're not writing page-turners, maybe, but I don't think "page-turner" is the definition of storytelling.
JB: You come from an environment that pushed you to become a writer, but you rebelled. Obviously, you eventually came full circle and became a writer anyway. Do you feel you would've become a writer had that strong push not been there?
LS: That'd be hard to say. That'd be tough. I don't know how to even begin to answer that one. It's just like saying, "What if water wasn't wet?"
If I had the same parents, and they hadn't pushed me so hard toward what they liked, maybe I would still become a writer. I might have become one quicker. Generally speaking, when my kid was younger, we found things that he liked to do. We just encouraged him -- we didn't chain him to it. He was always into drawing and building things, and now he's an architect much earlier than I was a writer.
JB: What is your writing process? How does your fiction develop?
LS: That's all different, you know? I mean, some stories gestate for a long time -- years. I've got a story I'm working on, a novella, called "Unknown Admirer." It originally began with me knowing this woman on Nantucket who started receiving boxes of household items from a prisoner in Walpole, who she didn't know. Nobody understood what was going on there. Every week she would go to the post office and get a new package of books or utensils or tablecloths or whatever. How this guy knew her, or why he was doing this, nobody ever ascertained.
So over the years, I wrote this story called "Unknown Admirer," where it turned into a younger woman -- the woman in Nantucket was elderly -- who's been divorced and starts getting gifts from an unknown admirer. And the gifts change her. They break down the image she's built of herself as this icy, reserved woman, but she can't find out who's getting her these gifts. And she may never find out in the story.
That story took 10 years. I've other stories where I've just gotten pissed off and written a story in an afternoon. It's weird.
Basically, I don't outline. I just get an idea of a story most times. I find that I think best about what the story's going to be when I'm writing it. Once I have an idea of where it's going or where it starts, I just start in writing it and let the story build itself.
JB: When discussing your Dragon Griaule stories, you've said you got the original idea while smoking a joint under a tree, and while writing it you would drop acid. What role does altered consciousness play in your creativity?
LS: The first story I sold was "Black Coral," which I sold to Marta Randall for New Dimensions. I wrote the first draft of that on LSD. So I guess it was instrumental. <laughs> I mean, I don't use drugs as much as I used to. It used to be about the only way I'd get myself working, but I'm more disciplined now. So, I think I've kind of generated an altered consciousness in that way. I don't do that too much any more.
It started out when I was in bands. My cousin had this really beautiful barn out in the country. This old barn with boards missing and stuff like that, with all these swallows. I'd go out there and write songs. I'd go out there and drop acid and write six or seven songs in a day. So, when I started writing, that sort of came to with it.
JB: What influence has your musical background had on your writing?
LS: Well, not much. Rock-and-roll music was something I was doing, probably, to avoid writing. I'm starting to write some stories now that have musical backgrounds, a rock-and-roll background. But generally speaking I don't think it's really had that much influence, except it just gave me some more life experience -- some of it abusive. But abusive life experiences are really good for fiction.
JB: Backtracking, you've got a fourth Dragon story coming out--
LS: Got a fifth. Well, I just finished one. I haven't sent it anywhere yet.
JB: Is that "The Grand Tour?"
LS: No, that's coming too. This one is called "The Liar's House," then there's another called "Beautiful Blood" -- it's about a narcotic distilled from the dragon's blood -- and "The Grand Tour." What I'm doing with most of these stories is I'm framing them with this other story, which is about this-- I don't know why I'm even talking about it. But it, in itself, is pretty damn long. I'm not sure how it's going to work. I may appendix one of the stories. I may incorporate others into the text. I don't know. Right now it's this great -- I guess some people call it a "fix-up" novel, but it really isn't, because that's the way I always saw the dragon as being: this long series of connected stories within this larger frame. So it's not a fix-up. That's how it was designed.
JB: Do you see the Dragon cycle of stories having a definitive end?
LS: Yeah, it does. Definitely. The story that is the frame is the resolution to that story, and it takes place in contemporary times. It takes place in this world, and not, as is suggested in "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule," an alternate universe. The frame actually takes place in our day and time, and has a resolution that is kind of interesting.
JB: You have lots of projects in the works at any given time. Do you find it easy to shift from one to another?
LS: Yeah. It comes from schizophrenia! <laughs> I work long hours. I work 10 hours a day, minimally. So, when you do that, it's best to shoot from one story to another, because if you do 10 hours of one story. . . I might write 6-7 pages, but if I shift, I'll probably do 10-11 pages. I get more done. You just get stale after writing on something for 4-5 hours. You get stale, get tired of it. When you shift to another thing, it gives you a little burst of energy. For me, it's easy. Sometimes you get a wild hair and just go with one thing to the exclusion of everything else, but that's if you get on a roll with it. It's always good to have a couple of other things going for me, just in case I get up in the morning and I'm having problems thinking about this one thing. So, hell, I'll just jump.
JB: Louisiana Breakdown is one of your most recent publications, and it's earned a strong critical response. What's your perception of that book now that the creative process has run its course?
LS: I was just interested in writing something that felt "Louisiana," you know? It's interesting, because of all the criticism of that book, the negative stuff has been, "It's too short." But I just didn't want to write it long. It was just a little fantasy story, and what I was interested in was evoking a kind of feeling of non-New Orleans Louisiana. The Cancer Alley Louisiana on the Gulf Coast, which is a specific atmosphere that nobody messes with too much. For me, it was just a fun story to write. I didn't have a whole lot emotionally invested in it. I just really liked writing the evocative kind of descriptive prose, the dialogue with kind of Cajun Chickeree accents. This was fun. It wasn't a big deal. I mean, I think it's a cool story, but it's not like I spent every drop of my creative blood in its creation.
JB: How about The Handbook of American Prayer?
LS: Now, that one I'm spending more of my blood!
JB: Have you finished it?
LS: I'm revising it, but it's about done. It was weird, because I lost the novel the first time I wrote it. It was about halfway done, and I lost it off a primitive laptop. They couldn't data reclaim, and I just got really pissed off and said, "To hell with it." I'm really glad I lost it now, because it's better.
JB: Is it a different story now?
LS: It's more intricate. It has basically the same parameters and plot outline, but the character's different. It's depthier. The main character is different. It's smarter. It's more realized than it would've been when I first started it.
JB: Apart from the challenges of writing it twice, why did this story demand such an investment from you?
LS: Well, I liked the story is all. I thought it was a good story. It's a story about a guy who goes to jail for manslaughter, and while he's in prison he develops this system of prayer he calls "prayerstyle." He begins praying for little things: Cigarettes, a visit from his girlfriend, a letter. And he starts writing prayers for other convicts, these poetic kinds of prayers. He makes these little notes, and he begins to believe that prayer is not really about religion -- it's more a moderate act of physics. It's the exertion of will upon the universe. It doesn't necessarily have to be directed toward any particular deity.
He begins to take notes on the process. He shows it to his writing teacher in prison, the teacher sends him to an agent, he gets published, gets out of jail, marries a woman, goes to Arizona and becomes incredibly famous because the book is picked up as a huge, new age kind of thing. Also, it's a kind of literary thing, so it's selling on two fronts. He becomes like the cult figure. His first name is Wardlin, and he gets a cult of people who call themselves Wardlingites, who dress themselves like a figure in one of his prayers that crops up now and again called "The Lord of Loneliness."
What happens in the book is maybe this figure actually manifests. It's kind of interesting. It's really about fame and the reactions of people to it. It's about a whole lot of weird stuff. I'm not sure. I just really like the story of this guy. I like the character, this disaffected soul who tries to change himself and may or may not succeed.
JB: Another project you have in the works is Guy Stories. Where does that one stand?
LS: That may not happen. My agent recommended that I not do that one. The first part of that was a rather long story called "Colonel Rutherford's Cult," which Subterranean Press is bringing out. My agent said, "Let me just try and sell it as a novella," and I don't know how that's going. Basically, he thought I should not do it. And I may or may not.
The character, Jimmy Guy, is a character I really like, so what I'm going to do is do a couple more stories and eventually collect them as Guy Stories. It was originally intended as a three-part novel, which was basically three novellas, linked, forming the parts of the novel. So, what it may end up being -- which is a minor difference -- is three novellas, linked, that are not a novel. <laughs> I mean, it's a weird distinction! But my agent thought it was just too eccentric for the mainstream press. I think.
JB: What appeal does short fiction hold for you?
LS: It's short! I don't have to labor over it for years. You know, I'm about to start doing some really big books, so we'll see how that goes.
Basically, my fiction isn't all that short. I'd say my stories average out to be around 23,000 words -- somewhere around there. I'm writing the odd novelette now, 15-16,000 words, but most of my stories are in the mid-20s up as high as 45-50,000 words. I just find that kind of length really satisfying. You can tell a pretty ornate, pretty intricate plot. Or else you can develop characters pretty strongly in that kind of limitation. As soon as I get through this dragon thing, I'm going to start doing regular-type books.
I think I know enough now how to do them. I really don't think I knew how to write a novel, and I think I do a little bit more now than I did. Also, one of the novels I've written, Life During Wartime, is just messed up. I wasn't sure what it was supposed to be. I sold it as a science fiction novel, and then midway through it they told me it was a mainstream novel. I was like, "What the hell?" I was just really confused, and it ended up being a hybrid.
If I'd written the novel I originally contemplated, it would've just been a combat novel with kind of a psychic element. And ESP element. I think that would've been a much better book. But they got me a little bit confused there, and it was my fault for letting them confuse me. Nonetheless, it'd have been better if they just left me alone. But I think I understand the process better now.
JB: You're outspoken politically, and said several years ago that you expected the current Bush administration to orchestrate a 'tidy little war' in South America. Has our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan spared South America this fate?
LS: I think no. It depends on who wins the election that's coming up. I think Venezuela is a set-up for war because of oil. Because you've got all the problems down there that politicians love to trumpet: You've got drugs, you've got left-wingers, you've got radical students, you've got indigenes in rebellion, and basically you've got oil. You've got lots of oil. I'm not so naive as to say that this whole thing was about oil, but I believe it was to a great degree. It's not just about that. It's also about Middle Eastern balances and how they're perceived by this administration, which is scary.
Originally, I thought there might be a Colombian war, but a Venezuelan war will be just as dirty, just as ugly. I think it's possible that they're going to have to "stabilize" Venezuela. If that's what they're doing.
JB: Are we spread too thin to go into Venezuela? We're in Iraq and Afghanistan, and may be going into the Philippines next. . .
LS: Yeah. I just think it's ridiculous, man. I mean, what is he trying to do? Let's see: Terrorism exists because people are oppressed. That doesn't justify it, but that's why it exists. People feel oppressed. So, what you do to put down terrorism is oppress terrorism. You kill more terrorists. Well, you can't kill all the terrorists, because in killing the terrorists, you create more terrorists. You need to address the causes of terrorism.
You know, that's a real liberal standpoint, but nobody's ever really tried it, so how the hell do they know it doesn't work? This doesn't. Yeah, you can have setbacks, but when you're talking about a terrorist network -- especially one that's funded by religious fanatics -- you're not going to stamp it out. We should've learned a lesson in Vietnam, that people who have been at war in the way the Vietnamese had been for a hundred years aren't going to go down easy. The Arabs, with their particular mentality and spirituality and stuff, they're not going to go away just because we dropped some bombs on them.
I mean, there's no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a pig. But the United States has supported pigs throughout history. Somoza in Nicaragua, for instance. We just choose our pigs. It's like Franklin Roosevelt said about the original Somoza: "Somoza's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." To think that this was a humanitarian effort is absolute crap.
JB: A lot of your fiction has been based in Latin America. What is it that you find so alluring south of the Rio Grande?
LS: I just like it down there, man. That's basically it. I find it real interesting. I think, partly, one of the reasons I'm interested in Central America is because Central America is the United States' Balkans. They stand in relation to us the way the Balkans did to the Russian empire. We use them in weird ways. The Honduras Mosquito Coast -- it's going to be real interesting what happens down there, because they've just discovered vast reservoirs of oil down there. Now you have indigenes who are fighting, basically, for a cut of the pie. People who've been exploited by their own government and every other government to come down there. It's going to be real interesting to see how that plays out, because they're all packing.
So, that's another possible scenario down there. It's not as big a problem as Venezuela perhaps would be. A government like Nicaragua could walk into the Mosquito Coast and stomp them pretty quick. But stomping out the Misskito Indians, basically effecting a genocide is what you'd have to do, and that wouldn't be very American.
JB: What writers do influence you?
LS: That's a really tough question for any writer to answer, because it's always easier, I think, for someone else to see. I know this is bizarre, because I really don't like his work -- but in a weird way probably Hemingway. I'm not really a Hemingway fan, but I think I understand what he was trying to do a little bit, and I understand how this macho shit got in the way of it. I'm thinking I'm trying to eliminate the macho shit a little bit from what I do. I'm not trying to compare us as writers. I'm just trying to say I see this thing I want to do that I think he wanted to do, so I want to do it in a way that's maybe a little more pure, if I can get there. I don't know.
Certainly, reading people like Poe and Faulkner, James Joyce, Gene Wolfe, H.G. Wells, George Orwell, people like that, they all played a part. As far as Spanish language writers, probably the most influential one in my book is Manuel Puig, who is the guy who wrote "Kiss of the Spider Woman." I just find his stuff really good. All of those people are in there.
Also, I'm writing a series of stories that are really space opera stories, which are all set in the same universe. This comes as an absolute surprise to me. My major influence in that would be Jack Vance, because I always found his work to be really, really fun. I think Vance was the kind of writer, who, had he started out in the '70s or '80s rather than the '50s, he would've been a much different kind of writer. He would have tried a lot more if he wasn't trying to just dash out pulp. I think he had that ability, and some of his stuff shows that he did. But other stuff of his you can tell that it's very hurried. This is not to criticize anybody -- I'm sure he's quite happy with his own work.
JB: I'm surprised there weren't more South American magical realists mentioned there. Has that tradition had much influence on your writing?
LS: You know, I like it, but I don't really see it as an influence. I suppose in a few stories there's been an influence, but certainly nothing I'm writing lately. Maybe it is and I just don't know it, but it doesn't ever feel like an influence on me. That's all I can say. I've liked reading some of the stuff down there, but I really find Gabriel Garcia Marquez kind of tedious. I like some of his stories, but I found 100 Years of Solitude kind of became almost a brand of fiction rather than fiction itself. So I'm not a big admirer. I really liked Jorge Luis Borges and I really liked Manuel Puig, people like that.
The way I look at the world isn't a magical realist world. I see people living inside their heads so deeply that everything has become a fantasy. I think people are basically insane, and we've all got this flippy voice-over going on that captions our actions. That's all we are, in a weird way, except when we really focus -- and then we're something else we can't get a hold of. So, I think you're talking about a race of insane monkeys who've learned how to operate machinery. I don't look at that as being a magical realist viewpoint! <laughs> In effect, there may be some similarity, but in motivation and essence, it derives from a different place.
Copyright © 2004 Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Jayme Blaschke, a graduate of Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism, resides in Bastrop, Texas. His work has appeared in such markets as Interzone, The Ant-Men of Tibet and Other Stories and Writers of the Future. An interview collection, Cosmosis: Creators of Science Fiction and Fantasy Speak, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press.