The folks at Pocket Books have also graciously provided two copies of Bleak History to be given away to two lucky commentators. Giveaway guidelines are at the end of the post.
In addition to his novels and short stories, John Shirley has done screen writing including the script for The Crow and scripts for Deep Space Nine and Poltergeist: The Legacy. According to Wikipedia John's varied career has also embraced songwriter and singer, having fronted numerous punk bands, including the New York band Obsession, who were recorded by Celluloid Records. He has written lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult, such as several songs on the album Heaven Forbid.
Hope you all enjoy the interview. Welcome John!
SFG: Bleak History has just been released and is billed as fantasy. Would it be fair to characterize it as urban fantasy? Can you give us an overview of the story and how it came about?
Bleak History is most definitely urban-- it’s set mostly in and around New York City--and it’s fantasy. So, yes, it’s urban fantasy. But the novel also contains the idea that anything miraculous has some basis in a “higher law” that we don’t understand very well at our level. And while it has ghosts and demonic creatures and supernaturally powered heroes, it also has a strong internal logic that kind of bridges it, for me, at times, into other genres. Still, it has that urban fantasy Goth energy, that feeling of the dark powers bubbling just under the surface of what we take to be mundane reality. It is not a romance novel but it has romance, you might say the yin and yang of romantic and sexual relationships. It has a supernaturally empowered protagonist facing off with other darkly powered beings in a magical demimonde...so it’s pretty solidly urban fantasy, all things considered.
The novel is basically about a paranormally gifted ex soldier, Gabriel Bleak, burdened both by PTSD and a strange childhood—a childhood in which his brother went missing--and it concerns his confrontation as an adult with a diabolically twisted government agency. Also involves his weirdly destined, dangerous attraction to a non-magical woman agent, and his relationships to other supernaturally powerful people. An important concept in Bleak History is that magic has been suppressed, kept down in the world due to a device created centuries ago by Isaac Newton and friends--a device which is now failing, conferring magical powers on talented and often frightening people...
SFG: What can you tell us about your central character Gabriel Bleak?
Bleak’s day job is bounty hunter—he uses his supernatural abilities in that job but tries not to let people know he’s using them. He tries to fly under society’s radar. He fought in Afghanistan and is having trouble forgetting it. He can talk to people but doesn’t make close friends easily—he is not in touch with his family and his only close friend is an elderly man in Brooklyn, a Holocaust survivor who was the father of his deceased friend. Bleak is a man of contrasts. He’s a civilian, who loves rocknroll and has played in bands, but for a while he was drawn to the alternate family provided by the military. He has one booted foot in the world of the soldier, another in the world of a civilian rebel; he has one foot in the human world and one in the superhuman world; he wants a perfectly normal life, and he knows that isn’t possible for him, that there is another world, invisibly integrated with our world, which he can see, if he chooses, and which he cannot ignore. He is almost as comfortable with the dead as with the living. Some of them, anyway. . . He’s a lonely man. But he’s destined for a dangerous yet perfect love...
SFG: Are you planning future novels or stories featuring Gabriel Bleak? What other new projects do you have in the works that you can tell us about?
Bleak History is a self-contained story but I would love to expand on its world, and the ideas and characters in it. I left open that possibility, at the end, most definitely. It has a satisfying conclusion but some aspects are just open ended enough. In fact I suspect I have only just begun to create Bleak’s world...
SFG: You mention on your blog that Bleak History has been optioned for a movie. Is there any news about the project that you can share?
Bleak History was optioned by New Regency productions. They did “Mr and Mrs Smith” and various other films. Last I knew they were showing the manuscript of the book to writers...
SFG: You have a significant bibliography in genre fiction. Can you give us some highlights of the books you are most proud of and recommend some titles on your back list that readers unfamiliar with your work should try?
My book Demons, a kind of allegorical horror novel with apocalyptic elements, remains in print, and in fact is, I think, going into its third printing. It has a lot of fans. And it too was optioned for the movies, in this case by the Weinstein Company. They recently renewed the option. Another book under option is The Other End which is a book I’m quite proud of, as it is unique. Its’ conceit is basically me designing my own Judgment Day for the world, a whole OTHER end for civilization as we know it, contrasting with the old fashioned, rather backward-looking “Judgment Days” that oldtime religion gives us. This “Judgment Day” comes about in a unique way and comes from the other end of the philosophical spectrum than the usual one. My novel Black Glass: The Lost Cyberpunk Novel recently came out—just got a good review in Locus. My recent story collection LIVING SHADOWS got a review in the New York Times that I’m proud of, so perhaps that recommends it. My cyberpunk trilogy ECLIPSE, ECLIPSE PENUMBRA, ECLIPSE CORONA are available from Babbage Press. I’ve revised my horror novels Cellars, and In Darkness Waiting for InfraPress. My “classic cyberpunk” novel—really a kind of Jungian fantasy novel—City Come A-Walkin’ is still in print. I won the Bram Stoker Award for my story collection Black Butterflies and that can still be found—for those who like their fiction very dark! So those are books found on Amazon that people can use to get caught up on some of my backlist if they like...
SFG: Can you tell us a little about your writing process and routine? Is it different if you are working on a script versus a novel?
If one is writing a script ‘on spec’ it’s much the same, at least at first, before producers give notes, in terms of schedule and such—though of course the novels are much more concerned with prose quality. If one is hired in advance to write a script, it tends to be very much a collaborative project, whatever the credits say. One works with directors, producers, quite closely. I have just developed a science fiction adventure TV movie/pilot called “Synthetics” with the director Tibor Takacs and he had a lot of input. Novel writing is more solitary. I tend to start writing at ten thirty or 11, might write until around two, take a break, then write a couple more hours.
But a lot of my writing is done in my mind before I sit down. I take a walk and I imagine scenes and sort of file them away and then kind of download them mentally into my typing fingers, later...I have to have a lot of self discipline, to get work done, as I’m my own boss. I can’t let emotional states or bad moods slow me down—I make myself write when I don’t feel like it. For me, that’s professional.
Unlike many writers I often listen to music when I write, if it’s not too lyric heavy. It’s often very atmospheric, relatively heavy rock, with some kind of steady groove feeling--it affects my prose in a way I like...and it seems to soak up distractions, in some way. Also listen to Beethoven and Stravinsky when I write.
SFG: What books do you read when you have the chance? Any must have authors, series or genres?
Lots of historical fiction. I have read all of Patrick O’Brian and much of Bernard Cornwell—I’d love to write a historical novel myself, and have a plan for one—and I read a good many noir/detective writers, like Hammett, and Richard Stark and John D MacDonald, as I was developing as a writer, as well as espionage writers like John LeCarre. I have a tendency to apply their methods to writing that is in entirely different genres than those they worked in—it works quite well. I read a great deal of fantasy and science fiction as a boy and young man, Tolkien and Lovecraft and CS Lewis and Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson and Michael Moorcock. I still re-read Jack Vance, one of my favourites. I also am drawn to writers like Steinbeck and Kafka, who write about the human condition meaningfully... And I have a weakness for Robert B. Parker.
SFG: If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?
That’s the only question you’ve asked that is hard to answer. Because I’d probably lecture myself for hours. I’m definitely a “if I knew then what I know now” guy. It’d be tempting to go back and say, “Take that deal with the guy at Columbia records without arguing with him” or “stay away from narcotics” (I learned to do that, years ago, but it was rough for awhile.) But probably the best advice I could give myself, in one line, would be, “Observe yourself, try to really see yourself as you are, and so set yourself free. ” Or as the ancients said, “Know thyself.”
Thank you John for taking the time to answer our questions.
Thanks to the terrific folks at Pocket Books, I have TWO copies of Bleak History to giveaway to celebrate the launch of this new urban fantasy thriller. To enter is easy -
- Leave a comment or question about the book or the interview.
- Blogging about the contest gets you an extra entry. Leave the link as confirmation.
- Two names will be drawn at random. Two books to be given away.
- OPen to residents of U.S. and Canada. No P.O. Boxes please.
- Giveaway runs until Monday, Midnight, August 24. I'll announce the winners next Tuesday.