December 2004

Adrienne Martini

features

An Interview with Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard’s bio itself reads like a fantastic work of fiction. He traveled to Ireland in a freighter at the ripe age of 15. He’s been a bouncer in a Spanish nightclub. In Germany, he worked in a cigarette factory. During the 1970s, a broken car led him to settling in Detroit for a bit, where he also joined a rock band. It would be challenging to find a job Shepard hasn’t had at one time or another. He’s even been locked behind a desk, processing paperwork for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. This may be where his knack for unsettling surrealism emerged.

The 1980 Clarion workshop marked a turning point on Shepard’s nomadic resume. By 1981, he’d published his first short story, “Black Coral,” in New Dimensions. The traveling continued but, now, Shepard was writing from the field, covering the war in El Salvador as a freelance journalist. In the last 25 years, he’s published more than three dozen short stories, as well as a dozen novellas and novels. He’s been nominated 10 times for a Nebula and has won one, six times for a Hugo and has won one, picked up the John W. Campbell award in 1985 and one World Fantasy award. And in the middle of all that, he took a few years off to figure out if he really wanted to be a writer.

As it turns out, he did, and he’s been busy. This year alone, in addition to nonfiction pieces that help pay the bills, Shepard also has released quite a bit of fiction. Most recently, Four Walls Eight Windows published A Handbook of American Prayer, which is a meditation on murder and faith. Almost simultaneously, Nightshade published Viator, a jazz-influenced, hallucination-filled novella about a drifter, a boat and Alaska. Both are heady reads and prove that Shepard is only beginning to discover his finest work.

One Sunday morning by phone from his Washington State home, Shepard took a few minutes to muse about his work and drink a cup of coffee.

How did Viator start?

This sounds stupid, I know, but I wrote the first long sentence of the book. I liked it. I thought it was really good. A long time ago I’d read a novella by a Polish writer that I admire named Svorecky that used long sentences. I thought -- my sentences are pretty long anyway so why don’t I try to mess with it. Then I realized inadvertently -- writing is like taking a rubbing of your brain -- that it was reflective of the main character. It helped to transmit the confusions and the growing nuts-ness of him. It was sort of a happy accident -- or I had it in mind unconsciously all along. I’m a pretty instinctive writer. I don’t really plan things out too much.

How many books do you have coming out over the next 12 months? How many came out during last 12? It feels like…

…a lot? [laughs] This year I had Viator and American Prayer and Trujillo and Two Trains Running. I think that’s all. I have a book of film reviews coming out next year, published by Wheatland Press, then Trujillo is coming out as a novella from Nightshade. Those are next year. I’m writing a really long vampire novel now, kind of a Godfather length, so I probably won’t have much coming out besides that. I had a short story collection that was scheduled for ’05, but I suspect it’ll be ’06 before it gets out.

You’ve been writing for over 20 years. Which experiences stick out in your mind? Has it been everything you expected? Different from what you’d expected?

At first, when I was writing, I really just was writing. I didn’t have any expectations. That’s probably one reason that I took a break. I was getting a lot of offers to do things that I didn’t want to do. Someone even offered me a Conan franchise. I told them I’d do Conan the Intellectual.

I just was confused and I wasn’t liking what I was writing. Now I think I have some expectations that were engendered during my gap. I know what I want to write. I know what I like. I can relegate doing money things with doing the things that I want to do. I kinda went unbalanced during the first go-round. I don’t know what expectations I have: hopefully, to make a living and to do some good work.

What are the money things?

I’m doing a vampire thing for money. It’s a cool idea, though, so I can live with myself. It’s not like I’m writing a Danielle Steele novel. If I had my druthers, I’d be working on something else. I’d be working on this book called How to Survive the Coming Nuclear Holocaust. It’s a novel I’ve kicked around for about ten years about a fake holocaust. It would have really been timely during the millennium. It’s about a bunch of survivalists who are scammed into thinking the world has ended. That would have been perfect.

Tell me about Prayer.

It’s the longest novel I’d written until the vampire novel. It’s kind of a weird book. It’s a funny book. I try to read my books, but I look at them I can see all the holes. Maybe ten years after I can look at it and think that maybe there are some sentences that aren’t so bad. I’m in love with it when I’m writing it. Immediately afterwards it’s dead. I have to get the stinking corpse off of my desk. But Prayer -- it’s a weird book for me. It’s not as totally depressing.

What do you have in your office?

I’m just looking at it. It’s a mess. It’s like a paper storm. I’ve got a CD player. Bread.

What kind?

Timberline Lodge Winter Wheat. I’ve got a bunch of vitamin pills and a bunch of books piled everywhere. Reference books. Lucky books. Then I have a 3 or 4 Picturestornes. I have a 16th century Buddhist shrine. Papers. More papers. Some empty Diet Pepsi cans. A dirty fork.

Basically I work about 10-12 hours a day. I work on two or three projects, normally, because I find I can do that more easily than just working on one. When I started writing again, I put myself in a financial position where I had to write. So I’ve been writing to survive the last 3 or 4 years. Now it’s getting easier.

It’d be hard to call your life to this point boring. But what do you wish you still had the opportunity to do?

I think I still have the opportunity to do most of it. I’m going to go to Mongolia.

Why Mongolia?

I don’t know. I saw a documentary that had these kind of idiosyncratic little towns, where the nomad culture was meeting the real world, I really like those kinds of towns. They’re really raw, bald ugly towns. I’m a connoisseur of desolation. Plus, since I was a kid, the words Ulaan Bataar have really resonated. It sounds like a Conan novel.