This interview with Lucius Shepard appeared in truncated (and slightly altered) form in Rain Taxi's print edition several months ago. Since it hasn't appeared on the web, or in this form, here it be...
PROLIFIC AND PRODIGIOUS
AN INTERVIEW WITH LUCIUS SHEPARD
Since the mid-1980s, Lucius Shepard has been among the most respected and unclassifiable of American fiction writers. His prodigious output of stories, novellas, and novels over the past 20 years, in a dizzying variety of genres, may be unmatched for its sheer range and quality. From the fantasy of “The Scale Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter” to the dark magic surrealism of the stories in The Jaguar Hunter to the gritty noir supernaturalism of Floater, Shepard has demonstrated an amazing versatility and skill. The qualities I most admire about Shepard’s work are his eye for the perfect detail, his talent for intimate characterizations, and the way in which political or social issues impact on the personal lives of his characters without being preachy. But most of all, what I love about Shepard’s work is its effortless quality. No matter what genre he’s working in, the man makes you believe in his stories from the first sentence to the last.
Born in 1947, Shepard spent several years overseas, including Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Latin America. He has been both a boxer and a member of a rock band, and has become something of an expert on both boxing and music. His fiction has won a number of awards in both genre and the literary mainstream. Publications from The Village Voice to The New York Times Book Review have lauded his work, with Booklist calling it “haunting and magical.”
His most recent books are the novels Viator (Night Shade Books) and A Handbook of American Prayer (Thunder Mouth Press), and the short story collection Trujillo, with a collection of his film reviews, Weapons of Mass Seduction, due out by the end of the year. I interviewed Shepard via e-mail in August and September of this year.
Who are the major writers that you respect, past and present?
Louis Ferdinand Celine, R. L. Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, Joseph Svorecky, Thomas Hardy, Robert Stone, Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Conner, Jose Luis Borges, Manuel Puig, Peter Mathiessen, Larry Brown, Thaddeus Konwicki, Alice Munro, E. Annie Proulx.
When did you start writing fiction? Did you ever think in terms of genre as a reader? As a writer?
In 1980. My first story was my submission piece for the Clarion East workshop. I’d read lightly in the genre, but hadn’t entertained any serious thoughts about working in it. Then my wife saw a chance to get me out of the house—one of my bands had broken up and I was depressed—and she submitted that story without my knowledge. I was accepted...and I guess that’s how I got into the genre.
I looked up your work in the Clarion archives when I went to Clarion East in 1992. I remember the moment of finding your work because I liked the sense of continuity it gave me, and the sense that the guy who had written The Jaguar Hunter had once been a student as well. What did you get out of Clarion, and did you attend any other writing workshops?
No, I’ve taught at a number of workshops, but I had just the one workshop experience as a student and that was sufficient to start me up. I think I was ready to write and I just needed the confidence that the workshop gave me. And that’s what I mostly got out of Clarion—the confidence that I could do this work.
Did you have any teachers outside of writing workshops during your formative years?
My father wanted me to be a writer, He taught me to read when I was three and provided me with a pretty fair education in the classics by the time I was twelve. He had me reading Shakespeare, the Romantics, Hardy, Conrad, Stevenson, et al. I didn’t understand a lot of it at first, but I must have absorbed something. I can still quote long passages of Shakespeare I learned during that time. But I did this at the expense of a happy childhood, and I went through a prolonged anti-intellectual phase; so I’m not sure whether it slowed me down or sped me up. I suppose it helped—things you learn as a child tend to stick with you.
Who are the major influences on you as a writer? What did you learn from each?
I became fascinated by the opening paragraph of Mishima’s Spring Snow, which describes some articles on a table, in particular a photograph. In describing those few articles, Mishima caught the character of an entire milieu. To say that one of my main influences is a single paragraph in translation may seem weird, but it’s true. I wrote paragraph after paragraph attempting mimicry. I always keep a copy of Spring Snow close. I suppose Graham Greene and Conrad were influence as regards my choice of certain materials. Flannery O’Conner taught me a great deal about the uses of ambiguity in relation to writing fantasy. I think my dialogue, when it’s effective, owes a good bit to writers like Robert Stone and James Lee Burke. Like most writers I absorb my influences osmotically, thus I’m unaware of many of them.
What was it like growing up in the South?
I spent my first few years in Farmville, Virginia. That was a real backwater, a little tobacco town that had private schools rather than integrate the public ones. We moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, thereafter. Daytona’s not a real place; it’s more like a stage set where every few weeks they move in a new cast of characters. The bikers, the spring breakers, the NASCAR people, etc. Living there, I always felt a bit like an outsider, a bit of a voyeur. As a result, by the time I graduated high school, I had acquired a healthy disrespect for large segments of the population. I liked the hurricanes, or rather liked their aftermath. I recall going out after one of them and seeing an enormous neon sign in the shape of a bowling pin sitting square in the middle of Route A1A. After that, I always rather looked forward to them. I lived next to a souvenir shop—I blame this for a lifelong fascination with blowfish lamps, baby alligator key chains, and such. I spent a lot of time in pool halls, catching sand sharks off a dock, getting trashed. I got into more than my share of fights, but otherwise it was a pretty typical childhood.
We returned to Farmville every summer for a while, and it was like stepping back into another time. My family was Virginia gentry, and that in itself in a whole other world. Some of them still use the word “nigra.” As I grew older, they became afraid of me. They commented on my beard, long hair, and earring as if by these comments they could shield themselves from the things they thought they represented. The last time I visited Virginia was to bury my mother. As I was walking across the burying ground, carrying the urn, my Aunt Betty, a woman who had thrown me out of her house 15 years before, came running up to me and said, “Lucius, we think you’ve handled this so marvelously. Ben Irving and I think cremation’s the absolute answer.” This by way of showing approval, appeasing me. I resisted the impulse to tell her to go for it. My relatives are Faulknerian. Southern Gothic. They sit around in brick mausoleums, clipping coupons, waiting for each other to die.
How did you get involved in the boxing scene?
I did some boxing as a teenager and I’ve been a fan since I was a kid; but I got involved in the machinery of the game through my friendship with the writer Katherine Dunn, whom I met at the Clarion workshop one summer. Katherine’s not only an aficionado of the sport, but is interested in its politics. She was writing a boxing column for a Portland paper and she asked me to cover some fights for her in Washington. During the course of things, I learned that men with neurological deficits who were suspended in other states were being licensed in Washington, including one who had been in a coma several months before. I saw one man, with a 7-23 record, matched with a heavyweight contender, who turned gray when he was knocked out. I also learned that the only ring doctor working in the state was a homeopath who owned a string of birthing clinics and clearly had no expertise with central nervous system problems. I also saw a number of fixed fights. I addressed the attorney general’s office, to no avail, and eventually I circulated a petition among boxing people and show biz people that served to effect some changes. One of the high points was Helen Mirren, who’s a boxing fan, carrying my petition on a silver tray around a New York party, asking for signatures. Anyway, since then I’ve been involved with the sport.
Do you think your knowledge of boxing informs your fiction in any indirect way—the strategies and tactics of it?
Well, good balance is the most important attribute a fighter can have. The ability to shift from offense to defense in a fraction of second, to coordinate his footwork with his hands so that everything is flowing. I strive for a similar balance between the various elements of my work...but that may be stretching the metaphor.
Did you and Dunn critique each other’s work after Clarion? Was she working on her classic novel Geek Love when you first met her?
She’d finished Geek Love by the time I met her. I wouldn’t say we critique each other’s work. Both Katherine and I are relatively private about our work. I’ve shown her a couple of things, and she’s writing a terrific novel called The Cut Man that I’ve discussed casually with her, but I wouldn’t say it ever rose to the level of critique.
Writing and boxing are just a couple of your interests. You’ve also been involved in music and written poetry. To what extent have music and poetry influenced your work?
I tend to listen to music too closely to be one of those writers who listens to CDs when they [write], and I don’t apply musical structure to writing. My experience as a songwriter allows me, I think, to incorporate better songs into my stories than most, when songs are called for, but that’s a tiny virtue. I suppose my years as a songwriter cause me to look at stories much the way I looked at song problems and this led me to experiment with voice more than I would have otherwise. The poetry has been more helpful. It improved my ear a lot, made me sensitive to prose rhythms, and I think that’s very important, because a good reader has a sense of the flow of those rhythms.
You just finished a novel. What’s the title and what’s it about?
The name of the novel is Viator. It deals with five homeless men who are sent to live aboard a freighter that was run aground on a remote section of Alaskan coast some twenty years before. The ostensible purpose of their sinecure is to evaluate the feasibility of salvage, but they suspect their employer’s motives may be charitable—they had a personal relationship with the man and the salvage value of the ship seems negligible. The last man to arrive aboard ship discovers that the other men have begun to display a variety of eccentric behaviors.
I also have just completed another novel. A Handbook of American Prayer, that treats of a man who, while in prison, develops a system of prayer based on his notion that prayer is not an act of faith but rather that it is “an immoderate act of physics.” When the book based on the system becomes a massive hit, much to his dismay he becomes a cult figure, with all the attendant complications, including a peculiar stalked who may or may not be his own personal god.
What sparked Handbook?
I was working as a bartender in an upscale bar in Nantucket in 1989, working with another guy who was a noted womanizer, when this good-looking, expensively dressed woman came in just after closing—we’d forgotten to lock the door. The woman started hitting us up for a drink. She’d had a fight with her boyfriend and gone off without any money. My colleague said, Show me your tits and I’ll give you a drink. The woman was a little drunk. After a conversation, the woman showed him her breasts, saying, “Don’t squeeze them too hard, I’ve just had a reduction.” Her breasts were all swollen and bruised and she’d obviously just had stitches removed. That was the inciting incident. I filed it away, thinking it might be the seed for something, and eventually it served as the conflict that led to my protagonist being convicted of manslaughter. The idea for the novel, that prayer wasn’t dependent on a faith in God but on saying the right words at the right time, arose from my consideration of his life in prison.
You’ve kept up an amazingly prolific pace over the last few years without sacrificing quality. How do you do it, and how many hours do you write in an average day?
I work a minimum of eight hours a day, six or seven days a week; but this occasionally increases to up to sixteen hours. Usually, I work on two projects simultaneously; I find I get a burst of energy by switching. As to how I do it, or, more pertinently, why—I suppose I feel that because I took a few years off, I feel like I’m playing catch-up.
Before you took a few years off, your work schedule was less intense?
It was more fitful, let’s say. I used to work just as hard when I was working, but I took long breaks when I wasn’t working at all.
What do you think is the biggest difference between your earlier fiction—say, around the time of The Jaguar Hunter--and your fiction over the past few years?
I hate to be simplistic, but I feel the main difference lies in the fact that I’m older and more experienced. I’ve ridded myself some of the conventions that weighted down my earlier work, and, as a result, I find I’m more nuanced in approaching the emotional lives of my characters, more precise in evoking them.
You’ve done a lot of traveling overseas and seen first-hand many of the settings you use in your fiction. To what extent do you think of your fiction as autobiographical?
It varies, of course, but some of it is extremely autobiographical, embarrassingly so—at least it would be if I were easily embarrassed. I suspect it is even more autobiographical than I know. I’ve used various settings with which I’m intimate, but more to the point, the emotional settings of my life inform all my stories. Sometimes an incident can trigger a story. Back in the day, I was in prison briefly in NYC, the Brooklyn House of Detention. A formative experience. I was 18 and was quite unprepared. This Puerto Rican guy cane up to me and asked if I was jailwise. I had the good sense to say, No, and he proceeded to enlighten me as to the unofficial regulations—many of them quite specific—that would allow me to survive the place. The experience eventually led me to write the novella, “Jailwise,” but it was the emotional memory that allowed me to write it. Imagination really didn’t play much of a part.
What role does politics play in your fiction? Do you feel fiction has an obligation, as Carol Bly believes, to in some way address societal ills and political disease?
I don’t know that I believe that fiction has any responsibilities, but—so long as you give the term a broad interpretation—politics plays a part in all my work and it plays a rather direct role in some stories, particularly in certain stories I’ve set in Honduras. I’m very interested in the repercussions of our foreign policy in Central America, particularly in Honduras, especially as it relates to the Mosquito Coast. I’m planning a non-fiction book that deals loosely with miscreance of two soldiers of fortune, Lee Christmas and Machine Guy Molony, who helped make the United Fruit Company an institution in Latin America, and with other bad guys who’ve set up shop in the area.
Is it always immediately obvious to you whether you should pursue an idea in nonfiction rather than fiction, and vice versa, or do you sometimes have difficulty deciding?
It took about fifteen years for me to figure out that the Christmas project should be non-fiction. I originally intended a novel treating of Christmas and Malony, but then I wrote a short non-fiction piece for The Nation on the subject and it became clear to me that it would be better handled as a book about Honduras, about Central America, both past and contemporary, using Christmas and Malony as a focal Point.
What has surprised you the most about reader reactions to your work?
In the specific, the fact that a certain person, a survivalist, took the text of my book, Life During Wartime, to be a roman a clef concerning what he called the Froot Loops, the conspiracy theory that claims all the recent presidents of the United States were gay, except for Richard Nixon, who was a woman. That person stalked me for a year. In general, I’m very surprised that some readers perceive me as someone who writes “guy” stories. That might have been true early on, but not so much now.
Another book just out is Trujillo, a short story collection from PS Publishing. Is this all your most recent fiction?
Trujillo contains about a third of it, but since it checks in at 690 pages, I didn’t feel I could make it any larger. It collects the best of my fantasy work done over the past few years.
Do you have any pet projects you’d like to get on with but haven’t had time yet?
Oh, yeah. A novel set during Hurricane Andrew and a novel set in the Middle Ages aboard one of the Ships of Fools. I’m looking forward to doing them soon.
Just to turn into James Lipton for a few seconds: What do you most fear? And what do you most love?
Actually, I had recent bout with depression during which I was unable to work, so I guess I fear losing the ability to work most of all. As to what I love, without naming names, that would be my girlfriend and my son.