The Lair’s Just So, So Special: Robert Shearman

Par Kathleen Jennings

We love writer, director and playwright Robert Shearman – we don’t even have to kidnap him. He travels quite willing to the country of interview and stays for tea and cupcakes. It’s such a nice change, not to have to go through all that kerfuffle with the knockout drops and the malfunctioning vortex manipulator – and the law suits, oh so many law suits.

Mr S made himself available for a chat and kindly answered our random questions, filling us in on giving the reader a reason to come back, tackling absurdly difficult things, sacrificing a bit of one’s soul to make Frankenstein’s Monster sit up, and pushing things a bit to see where they break.

Dr Lisa: What draws you to the short story form?

Well, it sounds like rather a glib answer – but part of it is just that it’s reasonably *quick*. I’m quite a lazy writer. Stories can take ages to think through and plot and develop – but that still doesn’t feel like work to me, that’s the sort of thing you can do eating dinner or shopping, and you can work on several at the same time. But the actual *writing* – the nuts and bolts hard graft of putting it all down on paper – that’s pretty speedy. I know if I go out writing a new short story early on a Monday, that unless I run into severe problems or haven’t done my homework right, I can expect to come home on the Tuesday with a pretty solid first draft finished. I find the idea of something ‘finished’ – it’s such a lovely word, ‘finished’ – terribly reassuring.

But it’s not just as simple as that. And I think my love for writing short stories dates back to when I was a playwright. Part of the joy in writing for the theatre is knowing you can in some ways control the pace at which your story is delivered to the audience – unless they walk out in disgust, or feel an urgent need for the bathroom, once they sit down in their seats they’re not going to get a break until the interval. Short story reading is much the same. Someone might give up on a story if they’re not enjoying it, of course, but the chances are that if they stick with it they’ll consume it in one sitting. And so when you’re writing short fiction, there’s a certain power in knowing that it’s going to be a single collective experience without interruption – you’re in charge from beginning to end, given to them in one chunk. I think that’s wonderful. I think it gives prose writing a real immediacy you can’t get anywhere else, the sense that you’re offering a full meal in one sitting.

Dr Angela: We’ve talked previously about ‘the downward rhythms of a story’ and working with them when you write. How do you find a story’s rhythm? Do you always look for the sad, poignant note when you’re writing?

I think it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise the importance of rhythm. And it’s not something you can talk about easily to non-writers, because it just sounds pretentious – they generally focus upon where you get your ideas from, or how you motor your plots. But as a rule, ideas come pretty easily if you just keep an open mind, and plots just follow on when you tease out those ideas. I’ve a drawer full of good story ideas, from one line concepts to full synopses – and I can’t write them until I’ve found what sort of rhythm they should have. Sometimes it honestly takes years. I’ve got this truly wonderful idea for a story, I absolutely love it, about bear baiting adopted as a school sport, and how this porky non-athletic kid finds strength in this new unsuspected skill. I’ve been playing around with it now since 2007. I still can’t find the rhythm that will make it work. One day, though, it’ll be great.

It’s the rhythm that changes everything – especially, I suppose, in the short story form, where everything is so narrowly concentrated that you end up putting special emphasis upon style, pace, and tone. What I do, practically, if I think a story is nearly cooked, is I go into London for a long walk, with a notebook and pen, and I take it out on a test run. I put words down on paper, and usually the rhythm pretty quickly establishes itself. And it often catches me by surprise – I find that it’s more conversational than I was anticipating, or more formal, or that the narrative voice needs suddenly to be in the first or even second person. And the rhythm that those first trial paragraphs give me act as template for the story – and because rhythm wins over plot, I find that I throw out where I thought the story was going altogether just to be true to it.

The downward rhythm seems instinctively the most interesting path to go down usually. But I get wary of that. I think it becomes predictable. And I don’t actually believe in stories being too downbeat or cynical anyway, for the most part. Writing in itself is a form of optimism. You only bother to create art because you feel it’s a worthwhile endeavour, no matter how few people may appreciate what you’re doing – if you were truly nihilistic in your philosophies, you wouldn’t bother writing at all, you’d just watch a lot of afternoon television. What I often find myself doing now is taking a story to its natural conclusion, and finding in that a certain bleakness – and then I refuse to let it off the hook, and I ask myself “What happens next? What happens next?” And I suddenly find that I’m writing an epilogue, and that the epilogue may be longer than the story before it I thought I was finishing, and the epilogue will deal with the ramifications of that bleak ‘ending’ and try to find something more complex out of it, and more hopeful, and more honest. That’s the idea, anyway. Once in a while the epilogue takes on an even more downward rhythm, and I just have to accept that this is one story that is going to be very very black in tone. (And watch afternoon television as a consolation.)

Dr Lisa: You’ve had an impressive career in theatre as a playwright and director — can you tell us a bit about how this experience has helped shaped your prose when writing fiction? 

It’s a dangerous thing to say during an interview in which I’m just talking about myself, but – I think it teaches you not to be boring. When I started out as a playwright, of course, I wrote reams of long speeches and supposedly bouts of clever dialogue, and I defended them all to the hilt and didn’t want to be cut. And then you put them before an audience. And you hear the coughing start. And the fidgeting. You can see physical evidence of the way the people who have paid money to see your work are getting fed up. You can imagine each and every one of them, shuffling about in that darkened auditorium, hating your overwriting guts.

And at that point you’ll do anything to make the play more interesting. You’ll cut entire scenes down to a single sentence. You’ll try to make it faster, more urgent, cut the not-very-funny gag and go straight to the good one. You begin to learn there’s a real responsibility to writing, and the greatest one is not to be dull. Alan Ayckbourn, who acted pretty much as my mentor in my twenties, and who is the most successful British playwright of the last two generations, and who regularly commissioned and directed my work – Alan used to tell me you could say anything in theatre, and do anything, so long as you gave the audience a reason to come back after the interval.

I think the same thing is true in prose. Just give them a reason to move on to the next paragraph. You can be as experimental or as earnest as you like, and you should be – but there’s no point in any of it if they’ve stopped reading.

Dr Angela: You’re the Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh: how has that changed your life? Has it influenced your writing at all?

I think it has. I hope it has. It’s an odd sort of position, actually – people think I work as a tutor to the students, but I largely don’t. I give the occasional lecture. But for the most part I sit in my office, and write. My office has my name on the door – which I like, because it makes me feel terribly proper – and I keep it unlocked so that any students on the writing course can drop in and chat to me. Sometimes they want to thrash out particular problems with a piece of work, but usually it’s more about the daily routine of being a writer – the paranoia, the laziness, the worry that you’re a fraud and you can’t really write at all and some day soon you’ll get told to stop. My basic job, I like to think, is that I provide evidence for up and coming writers that you can do it for a living – and that there’s nothing especially mystical about it, and that all those fears they have are the same fears I face as well every day. I know that when I started out full time, a mindboggling twenty years ago now, I assumed that I was just busking it and that every other writer in the world was a sophisticate who knew precisely what they were doing. (I still half believe that.) If the one thing I have done for the very talented writers I’m working with is to let them realise that their concerns are pretty universal, then they’ll get that extra confidence to go on and do the next day’s graft.

I think it’s helped me realise the same thing by example. I’m a terribly nervy writer. I can’t sit still whilst I’m writing. There’s a part of my brain that keeps reminding me that every time I come out with a paragraph that if I delayed it and wrote the same paragraph an hour later it’d be made up of entirely different words and it might be better. It’s easy to forget, when you’re writing in isolation, that none of that matters much. Because these stories we write, they are ultimately just words. There’s a lot of interesting glue holding them together – but for all that, in a very real sense, they’re also just words. And however badly I maul them today, however bad my latest story (and in my time I’ve written some good stuff, but an awful lot of extraordinarily poor stuff too), no one is going to die because of it. I see the students struggle with the same problems we all do as writers, and they overcome them, and I’m inspired by that to try harder myself.

In real terms, the need to go back and forth between England and Scotland so much – and it’s a very long train ride – has forced me to be more disciplined. I have less time to write because of my university obligations. Correspondingly, I am forcing myself to write *more*.

Dr Lisa: Writing while sitting behind a desk vs. writing while walking around the city: Pros? Cons?

Sitting behind the desk feels like work. Walking around the city feels like fun! So all my first drafts for everything, regardless of medium, are done out of the house. In London I’ll walk in St James’ Park, or cruise the National Gallery or the British Museum. In Melbourne I’ll walk along the Yarra river, or pop into the theatre there and go up and down its escalators. In every city I always find places I can write. It means I can sit down somewhere, write a paragraph or two, and then reward myself by looking in a bookshop or at a painting whilst thinking up what to do with the next one. With my iPod in my ears, playing ambient electronic music on a loop, so the real world can’t get in.

I still have to sit behind the desk eventually. That’s when I take my handwritten first and second drafts and type them up. I’m a dreadful typist, I can only use two fingers – one for the caps key, one for everything else. So I’m very slow. This sentence I’m doing now has been especially painstaking. And because I’m slow, I’m forced to analyse every single one of the bloody words I scribbled away with such wild abandon when I was out having fun. This is when I do major surgery. I make huge cuts – because I can’t face typing up paragraphs that bore me, that’d just be awful. I try to make every sentence work harder. The first draft is fast and reckless, partly because my brain tells me I’m having fun playing outside, but also partly because it knows full well that whatever mistakes I make then I’ll prod at mercilessly later.

Dr Angela: How many of your stories tap into something personal? “At the Crease” in Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical strikes me as such a story. Then again, “Love Among the Lobelias” (one of my favourites) is obviously not based in reality … where did it come from?

Oh, anything will work, won’t it? It’s a dangerous thing, but we’ll draw on anything at all. We can turn good dates into bad ones, just by taking a more cynical stance on what in real life was earnest and sincere, and our loving partners will read what we’ve written and wonder why we’ve taken something pure and tarnished it somehow. I had an ex-girlfriend, many years ago, who was obsessed by the characters in my stage plays, always looking for the bits of biography between us. She never spotted the more blatant things, stuff I shouldn’t have put in because it too obviously was a comment upon her – that always gets hidden in plain sight. It was little moments that I used and distorted for fun, and that were completely fictionalised ‘what if’s that spun away from all reality, those were the things that’d hurt her.

So, I don’t know – I think that almost all of my stories have something very personal in them. It’s that little spark of honesty that gives a story life. A little bit of my soul cut away to make Frankenstein’s Monster sit up. It’s usually hidden pretty well. ‘At the Crease’ is a funny example, because the background to that tale is entirely true: my father genuinely was a great cricket enthusiast, and had the back garden redesigned when I was a little kid so we could go out there at weekends and I could practise batting and bowling, and I did indeed rebel. But that story feels quite removed from me, oddly, because all the emotional fallout that I wrote about simply wasn’t there – I don’t recall there being the slightest trace of blame for it. My father read it without a blush. It’s in the more fantastical pieces that I find myself risking much more, and genuinely drawing upon real life. I don’t even know I’m doing it sometimes. I can read stories back, years later, and I’m shocked and embarrassed by how much of my real self I gave away when I thought I was being clever and keeping myself close under wraps.

I remember the inspiration between ‘Love Among the Lobelias’ absolutely – and that’s rare, because after the story is written the inspiration is dead to you, usually, and you forget. I am a Woody Allen fan. A huge Woody Allen fan, actually – in spite of the fact the quality of his movies has dipped somewhat over the last decade – from the mid-eighties onwards a highlight of my year would be the day a new movie of his would come out, and I’d go and see it and bask in it. Ever since his split from Mia Farrow in 1992, where he fell in love (and subsequently married) his girlfriend’s adopted daughter, Woody has fallen from grace. I was at a dinner, and the woman I was sitting next to was telling me that she’d once loved his movies, but ever since the scandal she hated him; she felt betrayed by him; all of his work to her now was tainted. And maybe that’s the more intelligent response, but I have to admit – Woody Allen could be totally evil, he could reverse a car over my cat, and I’d still love his work, and I’d still divorce completely the art from the artist. I don’t want to be Woody Allen’s friend – I don’t care whether Dickens or Shakespeare or P G Wodehouse were nice men, beyond natural curiosity. I’m not fond of Wagner, but that’s more because he writes not very funny comic operas that last for five hours without any jokes in, not because Hitler liked him. And so I invented a story about the Devil writing romantic fiction – and it’s not *evil* romantic fiction, it has no unkind intent, it’s sweet and rather touching fiction, this is just something he’s writing in his own time and submitting to publishers under a pseudonym. And one day his novel gets published, and he’s so excited – even as he’s gutting fresh corpses sent to him from the world above. And then, sadly, he realises that the innocent intent doesn’t matter – and whoever reads his work, they’re damned. Because whatever else, they’re still the words of the Devil. (Sad.)

Dr Lisa: How do you keep up with fast-paced projects like Chain Gang and One Hundred Stories? Is it a thrill working without a net, or do projects like these give you mild heart attacks each week?

It’s a mixture of both, really. Chain Gang is an especially odd experience. I write an episode of my drama on a Thursday, the BBC get it into the studio with actors on the Friday, and then on Saturday evening it’s broadcast. At the end of each episode I leave a cliffhanger, and challenge the audience to send in suggestions for where the story should go next. My producer at the BBC sifts through these suggestions, and lets me have the one he’s selected on Thursday morning, and so the process begins again.

The last series lasted thirteen weeks. And for all of that time, over three months, I knew I’d be writing something every Thursday, and I couldn’t guess at what it might be on the Wednesday. (I would try, of course. I’d leave little open doors for the audience to take my story through. Every week they’d sidestep it and offer me something different. The gits.) And on Tuesday in Britain our listings magazine for TV and radio comes out, and each Saturday I would find my name inside, advertising a programme I hadn’t written or conceived yet.

It’s a wonderful experience. I’m doing it again next year, I think, but this time there’s an extra complication I’ve built in – so that the story diverges into two resolutions to the cliffhanger, so I have to juggle twin but contrasting storylines for the same actors each week. I’m terrified. You learn a lot. (Both of my Chain Gang series have won the Sony Award, for which I’m very grateful. I suspect it’s more because the judges can’t quite believe we tackle something so absurdly difficult.)

The One Hundred Stories project is slightly different, because after the weekly release of twenty stories I always put in a break so I can catch my breath back. But there’s a pressure always there, I need to keep writing and devising each week, as quickly as I can, just to keep ahead. And I’ll do anything I can to resist releasing a story I consider substandard.

I’m not quite sure why I put myself under this pressure. I suppose it’s because deep down I feel a bit guilty this is my job. Writing full time is a very nice job. I can, should I want to, spend all day in bed, or only wear pyjamas (and sometimes I do!). I think that if I have a job as self-indulgent as this, then the least I can do is commit to it properly, and push myself at it, and be disciplined, and keep finding ways of challenging myself. However hard it gets, it’s still easier than being a miner or a schoolteacher or a waiter.

Dr Angela: What kind of challenges did writing Everyone’s Just So, So Special present for you? It’s a complex, dense, varied, brilliant piece – how much life did it suck out of you?

That was a strange book to work on. I see short story collections a bit like concept albums – I don’t think they work very well if they’re just a bunch of reprints slung together, I think the stories in them should build into one unified whole that’s almost novelistic. (Hey, it’s a theory – and it comes out of the fact that my first collection was commissioned after only one single story sale, so I could write them all for a single purpose.) With EJSSS I wanted to write at first about history. Not stories set *in* history, but history as a concept – how do we identify with the past, how can we move on so easily from some atrocities but commemorate others, how do countries like Egypt cope when they forever dine off the weight of glory thousands of years old, how will countries like the US manage if they can’t shake off the tragedy of 9/11? You know, so good, fun stuff there, ha! With lots of strange horror tales, and strange romantic tales, riffing off those ideas, and exploring the themes, and seeing what would come out.

But as I was writing the book, my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease became all the more pronounced. And I would see this woman who had loved me and looked after me lose a sense of who she was as her memory was being taken from her. And the natural extension of writing about history is writing about memory – and I began to realise that this was what the latest collection was about, my own adjustment to seeing my mother die. I began framing the book as individual stories linked by a history of the world written by a madman who was losing the memory of his own daughter – and in his bitterness he was compiling a list of all the events of world history that demonstrated futility and mediocrity. And since there were twenty-one centuries AD, I wrote twenty-one stories – and the stories started building upon themes I detected in the passing centuries, and within the stories there are continual hints back to the daughter he has lost. All of it building to a very fictionalised, but emotionally sincere, account of my own mother.

It was a labour of love. I think it’s a very funny book, but I appreciate that it sounds like the bleakest thing on earth. I hope it isn’t. I think it isn’t. But it is definitely a bit of a show-off book. It’s trying to take the short story format and find something to do with it collectively that felt new and strange and personally urgent.

Dr Lisa: Random questions: What was the last thing you read? The last painting you looked at? The last song you heard? 

I’ve just been on holiday in Barcelona, so I read Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruis Zafon. Great fun, very Gothic, and summed up the city beautifully.

When I’m stalking the National Gallery I always take a peek at The Graham Childen by William Hogarth. Ostensibly it’s a family portrait of some smiling kids – but during the composition the youngest of the children died, and so this apparently happy picture is full of images of death and threat. It’s extraordinary, and chilling.

I love Regina Spektor. I think she’s just terrific. Her songs are so full of quirky ideas. There’s a song called ‘All the Rowboats’ that’s constantly running around my head, to the point where it’s beginning to annoy me – but it’s so clever, and so catchy, about all the pictures being imprisoned for life sentences in art galleries – even when I think I’ve escaped it, I’ll put it back on the iPod and remind myself.

Dr Angela: Your new collection, the awesomely titled Remember Why You Fear Me is out soon from ChiZine – how was that writing experience? And what’s next for Robert Shearman, Writer?

Oh, Remember Why You Fear Me is much more fun! It’s my first collection for North America, and it was suggested by ChiZine that they could reprint some of my horror stories from across my first three books, with a few uncollected ones thrown in. ChiZine are an astonishingly beautiful press. I’d first seen their work at World Horror Convention some years ago, and their designs are just gorgeous, and I bought their whole catalogue. The joy was discovering that the writing inside lived up in every way to the presentation, these were such exciting books. So I didn’t want to let them down, I wanted to give them a book that had the same boldness as the rest of their range. I’ve tried to construct this as a collection the way I would any other – to try and give it a proper identity, where all the stories bounce off each other to form a single whole. I had about seventy published stories to draw from, and I picked, I think, ten that I thought might help achieve that – and then I wrote another ten new ones, that spun off those old ones, and added them to the mix. My hope is that as a dark horror collection the new stories will seem fresh and surprising, and the old stories will seem fresh too presented in another context. We’ll see. I’m very proud of the book, and quite a few stories seem much stronger to me now they’ve been given a different home. It’s weird.

And then – I’m on to the novels! I’m at last writing novels. There’s a lot of very kind interest in them from a series of terrific publishers, so I’m hoping I don’t disillusion anyone. They’re quite strange novels, I think. (Well, there’s a shock.) I’m writing a new stage play at the moment, my first in about ten years! – and that will be on in London’s West End next year. I’m very excited by that – theatre was my entire life for such a long time, and this is like a homecoming. And I have another BBC radio series of Chain Gang – I’m pretty sure – and that’ll be on next year too. I finish at Edinburgh soon, just in time for me to grab a week or so’s snooze before starting new projects.

But the biggest thing I’m still involved with is my 100 stories idea. It was a very silly idea, born out of stupidity and arrogance. For the release of the EJSSS special edition, I announced that one hundred people could buy their own special story featuring their name. All the stories being utterly different. I honestly thought they would be pretty broad stories, no more than a couple of paragraphs each – but I found as soon as I got going that what made the challenge interesting was to try to write something full and complete. There was no point wasting my time or any readers’ time with a pointless story I’d dashed off. They vary between 1500 words to 12,000 words each – as the story dictates – and I release them on my blog, And it’s exhausting. I’ve been doing it for nearly a year now, and I’ve only just finished writing story 55. I’m proud of them, though, and I think they’re mostly rather fun – if someone has bought a story as a special treat, you don’t want it to be too downtempo! And all 100 stories will be released upon completion in, I think, four different illustrated books. In a funny way, it’s my way of saying goodbye to the short story form for a while. I doubt I’ll ever leave it altogether, but I’ll reprioritise my writing from that point on. And so in this long last hurrah I’m trying to do all the things with the form that I want to do, to push at it a bit, and see where it breaks.


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