Monday, December 3, 2012

THERE'S A MAD ONE IN HERE: CHRISTOPHER SHEARER

PATIENT: CHRISTOPHER SHEARER
ILLNESS: WRITER


• When did you start writing? Why did you pick the genre you write it?

To answer this question—the first one—I’m going to have to tell you about my grandmother, because she’s really where it all began. She was a special woman and one hell of a “writer.” At 17 she won the Atlantic Monthly Young Writer Award and she made her living as a librarian and a professional storyteller, which I imagine is a perfect job. She travelled the world, and people paid her to tell them stories. She didn’t write anything down; she just made it up on the spot, and she was a master at it. She became friends with many of the best writers of her time, genre writers, because those are the stories she loved (as an aside, after she died, I went through her libraries—yes, there’s more than one—and she had all the classics out to be seen, but behind them she had mysteries and sci-fi and horror and fantasy from way back. Books by Algernon Blackwood, Lovecraft, old, old Poe collections, Chandler, Hammett, Paul Cain, L. Sprague de Camp, Ted Sturgeon, A.E. van Vogt, Asimov, Bradbury, Lester del Ray, Arthur C. Clarke, and on and on). She was friends with and a contemporary of people like Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson and Harlan Ellison, and Rod and Carol Serling, who were guests at my parents’ wedding. She was Rod’s boss at the Dayton Public Library in Dayton, OH, when he was struggling to sell anything, and was a librarian at Ohio State, which is where she met Ellison. I don’t know the story behind the others, but it doesn’t matter. She was one of those people who had so much life inside of her that it spilled over. You just wanted to be around her, or at least I did. And then there were the stories. God, she had stories.

The happiest memories I have are of me, maybe 2 or 3, small, running into my grandparents’ room with a book and asking her to read to me. She never read the story as it was. She’d read a sentence or two and then she’d take it wherever she wanted it to go, but the best part was that at some point, she’d stop and she’d say to me, “then what happens?” And we’d go back and forth making up stories for hours, all while grandpa grunted and complained. It was the best time I’ve ever had. That’s where it began, with her in that room.

Now, when did I start publishing? Well, we moved around a lot when I was growing up (probably around 40 different places before I was 10), so I was never in any school for very long, but I remember writing and drawing comic books and taking them to school to sell, and people bought them, which I think is strange and wonderful. My first “sale” came when I was ten. My brother and I had moved in with our mother, and things had settled down. My teacher at the time wanted us to write a story, and I did, turned in late, as all my work was, but I did. She read it and somehow it ended up with the local paper, who published it and paid me. It wasn’t much, I don’t think. I can’t remember for sure, but they printed the story, and then it was reprinted by the local high school and then in a collegiate journal. Then two poems followed. My dad was a minor poet, part of the “dirty realism” movement, and I wanted to be like him, so I tried. They were published too. Then the bullying started big time, and even some of the teachers got in on it. I didn’t write anything for publication for a long time after that.

Years later, out of school and working on the fringes of the music industry, I just looked around and knew I wasn’t happy. All I wanted to do, and when I think about, all I ever wanted to do, was write stories. So that’s what I decided to do. I went back to school and took a creative writing class, where I wrote four stories. Three ended up being published (the fourth will never see the light of day—it’s Lovecraftian, and I don’t want to play in anyone else’s world). The first was to a now defunct ezine called Demon Minds (there’s something else with the name, but it’s not the same). That story won their reader’s award and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The other two were published in literary journals and both won Penn State University’s Best Short Story Award, which I won three times in my three years there.

As for how I chose the genre, well, if I’m honest, I don’t know. I could speculate about the horrors of my childhood, at least the first ten years—and it was truly horrifying—or go on about my grandmother’s influence, but I don’t think that’s it. I just write what I write, and I’ve published stories as literary, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery. I’m known, I think, as a horror writer, but I don’t know that what I write really is horror or really is any of those genres. It’s something different, and it’s just me.

• Where you get your ideas from? Do you journal at all?

I wrote an essay recently as part of Fantasist Enterprise’s “Awakenings” series (http://fantasistent.com/2012/10/18/all-the-stories-i-remember/) about this. For an in-depth answer, you should go there and read it. In short, however, I’ll say from everything.

I do not journal. I did when I was younger, in my musician days especially.

• What’s a normal (writing) day like for you?

I’m not much of a sleeper, getting maybe four hours a night. Usually I’ll read a few hours before work and then I’ll write when I get home until I go to bed. When I was finishing the rough draft of my novel, however, I wrote every minute I could—including a few days that began at 4am and ended at midnight without a break.

• Favorite author or book? Who are you currently reading?

My influences are legion, and I could go on for days. Some highlights would be Charles L. Grant, T.E.D. Klein, Charles Beaumont, Bradbury, Brian James Freeman, Gary Braunbeck, Tim Waggoner, Robert Aickman, Tom Piccirilli, Glen Hirshberg, Shirley Jackson, Arthur C. Clarke, David Mitchell, Cormac McCarthy, Henry James, Steve Rasnic Tem, Joe Lansdale, David Goodis, Harlan Ellison, George R. R. Martin, T.C. Boyle, Ray Carver, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Martin McDonagh, Shakespeare, Dickens, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Hopkins, Philip K. Dick, Dennis Etchison, Sarah Langan, Tim Lebbon, James Morrow, King, Raymond Chandler, Heinlein, Daryl Gregory, Robert McCammon, Dan Simmons, Larry Connolly, Ron Malfi, Rio Youers, John Dixon, Norman Prentiss, Norman Partridge, Michael Marshall Smith, John Connolly, and the list goes on. I’m a big fan of the magazines Fantasy & Science Fiction, Cemetery Dance, Black Static, Interzone, Subterranean, Weird Fiction Review, and I read just about every story printed in each.

As for what I’m currently reading, I’m co-chair of the 2012 Bram Stoker Award Jury for Long Fiction. I’m reading for that, which means a lot of novellas. Some highlights from this year have been Ron Malfi’s The Mourning House, Ray Cluley’s “I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing,” “Sandition” by Helen Marshall, The Men Upstairs by Tim Waggoner, Torn by Lee Thomas. Right now I’m about halfway through The Underdwelling by Tim Curran.

• Do you prefer writing poetry or prose? Why one over the other?

I prefer writing prose. My poetry has been well received, but it makes me feel like I’m emulating my dad, which I don’t want to do.

• Do you write in silence or with noise (tv, movies, music)?

Silence. Hearing the words and the sounds of the words is as important to me as their meaning. I say everything as I write it, and I’m constantly going back over everything, reading it aloud to get the sound right. I couldn’t do that—at least not effectively—with something playing.

• Do you have any weird habits when it comes to writing? Do you type or write longhand?

No weird habits, but would I necessarily think anything I did was weird? That’s an interesting question. No. No weird habits.

• Would you consider yourself a Plotter or a Pancer?

I’d be bored if I knew what was going to happen. I don’t plot.

• What do you think is the hardest aspect of the craft?

Starting. I’ve never found any part of writing to be difficult. It’s fun. Even editing is fun for me. The only thing I struggle with is getting my ass in the chair to do it, especially if I’m not in the middle of something. To remedy that, I’ll often end a day in the middle of a sentence or even the middle of a word. Then I’m ready to go the next day.

• Current projects?

I’m editing a novel right now and always writing stories.

• How do you balance being an editor and being a writer? (Or double jobs, being a mom, etc.- apply to your situation)

As with everything else in life, I just do it. One of my great influences on the way I live my life is Jean-Paul Sartre, who said that people are only what they do. So I do. 

As for how I handle being a mom, I don’t know. It’s amazing that I can pull it off. ;-)

• What do you think people expect from you with your writing? EX: Can they always count on a good gross out?  

If I was writing to gross someone out, I think I’d quit. That holds no interest for me at all. William Faulkner said, “The only thing worth writing about is the struggle of the human heart.” Harlan Ellison called it “People.” Philip K. Dick said it was “What it means to be human.” I think they’re all saying the same thing, and I agree. I want to write about those times when people have to face something inside of themselves and either choose to overcome or accept or embrace it, or not. That choice, that moment, that essential human struggle. That’s what interests me. What causes that to come about could be a million things, and I’d like whatever it is in my stories that brings about that “struggle of the human heart” to be something new, something the world hasn’t seen before.

As for what people expect, I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’m writing the stories that are mine to write.

• Advice for aspiring writers?

Read, know your genre, ask questions, write. You need to read so that you know what’s been done and also how to write: how stories are put together, how to reveal something, how to hold back, how to do pacing, when to do something, when not to, etc. You need to know where your genre’s been so that you know where it can go. I don’t want to read a Lovecraftian story. If I want Lovecraft, I’ll read Lovecraft. Same with anyone else. He’s just a very tired example. You need to do your stories, not someone else’s. You can only find your stories by writing, and you only know what is truly yours by reading everyone else’s. And ask questions. When I was beginning, I received a lot of advice from Brian Freeman, Tom Piccirilli, and Glen Hirshberg because I asked, and that continues. I ask questions all the time, and writers are usually great about telling you what to do, just be suspicious when they tell you what not to do.
 

BIO: Christopher Shearer’s writing has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Big Pulp, Horror World, the charity anthology Dark Light, and many more. In the past five years, he’s received 3 Penn State University Best Short Story Awards, a Demon Minds Best Short Story Award, and 2 Pushcart Prize Nominations. He works as an editor with Cemetery Dance Publications and is a featured book reviewer on FEARnet. In addition, Chris is co-chair of the 2012 Bram Stoker Award Long Fiction Jury, and an MFA candidate in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program, mentored by Tim Waggoner and Lawrence C. Connolly.

It’s Christmas time, so I’ll plug two charity anthologies:

The first is Hazard Yet Forward, which includes my story “A Feast in Dreams.” The proceeds of your purchase will go toward helping my friend Donna Munro, who is battling breast cancer. It includes authors like Michael Arnzen, Lawrence C. Connolly, and Nalo Hopkinson.
 

The second is Dark Light, which includes my novelette “Long Wait.” The proceeds of your purchase will go to the Ronald McDonald House. This anthology’s TOC reads like a who’s who list of modern horror including Steve Rasnic Tem, Tim Lebbon, Tim Waggoner, Gary McMahon, Lisa Morton, Graham Masterton, Joe McKinney, Ray Garton, and on and on.