Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Robert Shearman

Thank you for taking some time to chat about “Featherweight.” I was fascinated by this chilling story and surprised by the turns it took. What inspired the story?

Sometimes the idea for a story comes out of nothing much more complex than wanting to evoke a feeling. I had been writing lots of rather wild, rather expansive things — big “what if” stories, in which you come up with an absurd take on the world, and then see how far it can be explored. And I remember feeling the urge to write something in contrast that was much more claustrophobic. Not just in place, but in time — I wanted the challenge of reining myself in, and making every second tick by, making every little action crucial.

I had the rather simple idea, then, of trapping a man with the dead body of someone he loves. Playing upon the instinct to escape from the stark reality of death, but being forced to stare it in the face. And the idea that that person he loved would begin to transform into some sort of threat appealed to me.

Coincidentally, around this time Stephen Jones invited me to contribute a story for an anthology he was compiling about angels. Now, I have difficulties with angels. I spend a lot of time writing at the National Gallery in London, and it doesn’t take long for you to realise that all the angels that pop up in the pictures of the Renaissance aren’t quite as beatific as you’d think. They look fat and bored — they look curiously malevolent. They stare down at the main action of the pictures as if they couldn’t give a rat’s arse about the religious significance of what’s going on — they’d sooner be somewhere else pulling the wings off butterflies. So putting angels as the amoral monsters at the heart of my story really amused me. I’d walk around the galleries, sketching out the paragraphs, and look up at all the pictures — and feel as if I were taking some little revenge on them!

I read that you often write the first drafts of your fiction in art galleries. Can you tell us a little about your writing process? What’s a typical writing day like for you?

Like most writers, I know, I love the idea of the job, but have a fairly ambivalent attitude to the actual process of sticking down words one after another on to a piece of paper. My brain, quite frankly, is lazy, and would much rather be doing something else. So I try to fool it. I try to pretend that when we’re out writing, it’s an accidental byproduct of doing something much more fun.

I’m very lucky, because I live a short bus ride from the centre of London — and London is an exciting city to be in. Just walking around it can be hugely inspiring. I have a series of regular haunts I’ll go to — art galleries and theatres and walkways along the Thames — and I’ll take my notebook and my pen. I’ll enjoy the sights. And whilst I’m enjoying them, I’ll make sure I write a few thousand words before I’m allowed to go home. It doesn’t matter how long it takes — some days my brain is more cooperative than others — but if nothing good comes out on to the page for a few hours it doesn’t stress me, because I still have something exciting to look at. Eventually the words will start to flow.

I just think writing is frustrating enough a process without it being something that bores us too. And my hope is that if I can be excited by being out in a teeming city, no matter whether that excitement is remotely relevant to the particular story I’m concocting — then a piece of that excitement might make its way down on to the paper too.

You work has been described as the bastard offspring of Philip K. Dick and Jonathan Carroll. What have been some of the major influences in your writing?

Well, I’m a comedy writer by instinct. That’s where I started — writing comedy plays for the theatre. And so most of my influences are comic too. I discovered a love of short stories when I began reading Saki in my teens. He’s so witty, but there is a wonderful sinister edge to that wit. Woody Allen movies have been a huge part of my wanting to be a writer — I love the way that fifty years on, he still produces his annual movie, and though the work is somewhat inconsistent in quality, at his best his films are this extraordinary mix of emotional drama and weird fantasy. The plays of Tom Stoppard are what made me want to pick up a pen in the first place — again, there’s a joyful playfulness to how unpredictable he is.

You work in a variety of forms, from short fiction to television to radio to stage. What are the challenges of switching between the different forms? Do you have a preference for one over another?

Theatre will always be a great love. It’s all I wanted to do with my life until I was in my mid-thirties — and there is still no greater (or more frightening) sensation than sitting anonymously in an auditorium of several hundred people waiting to see how they’ll react to something that came out of your head. I didn’t start writing prose until so late — my first book wasn’t written until 2007, and I’m amazed I even did it, I never assumed I’d be able to. And ever since then the short story has delighted me and challenged me and exasperated me in a way that I’ve never felt before. Right now, if you made me an offer, I’d stick at short stories until the day I died.

Switching between the forms is something you have to do, of course — but the key to it is to celebrate the medium you’re writing in. I love writing radio drama, for example. I love the games it plays with an audience who are, by definition, blind to the action. It’s funny, but a story will occur to me, and right away I’ll know whether it’s destined to be prose or drama, and if it’s drama whether it’ll be better served by stage, radio, or television. The medium isn’t something you impose upon the story — the medium is the story, right from the moment you dream it up. In the same way that each short story decides its own length and its structure before you put a single word to paper — you need the reader to feel that this is the only way this story can be expressed, you don’t want to feel you’d have been better off watching it as an action movie.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about “Featherweight”? What’s next for you?

There are a couple of plays of mine — quite old ones! — that are set for revival in New York in the spring. I’m not part of the production team, but I think it’s always helpful to offer advice if it’s wanted. And it’s strange to put myself back in time to deal with the Rob of 1992 — and it’s inspiring too. I am finishing off a very peculiar short story project of 100 stories within a “choose your own adventure” format — that’s been enormously enjoyable, and I’m hoping the results will be out within the year. I’m developing a television series at the moment — and though writing for TV is always a gamble, I’ve written pilots before — there seems to be some interest. We’ll see. You never know. And — most terrifying of all — I’m finally giving in to the demands of my agent and publishers, and will start proper work on my first novel very soon. So many words! It feels like such a commitment. But it’s time.

And this year I’m very proud to be a World Fantasy Award judge. So around the writing — reading, reading. So much reading!

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Kevin McNeil

Kevin McNeil is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction and is forthcoming in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.