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Interview: Robert Shearman

Robert Shearman has written five short story collections, and between them they have won the World Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Edge Hill Readers Prize, and three British Fantasy Awards. His background is in the theatre, and he is resident dramatist at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and regular writer for Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough; his plays have won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, the Sophie Winter Memorial Trust Award, and the Guinness Award in association with the Royal National Theatre. He regularly writes plays and short stories for BBC Radio, and he has won two Sony Awards for his interactive radio series, “The Chain Gang.” But he’s probably best known for reintroducing the Daleks to the BAFTA winning first season of the revived Doctor Who, in an episode that was a finalist for the Hugo Award. His latest collection of stories, They Do the Same Things Different There, was published by ChiZine this summer.

You’ve done every sort of writing one can think of—from producing comedies for Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and writing “Dalek,” a seminal Doctor Who episode in the first series, to penning five collections of short stories. What has remained consistent across your career? What’s changed significantly?

Ha! Well, it sounds like an awfully obvious answer, but I suppose the most significant change is . . . age. I’m now determinedly, unavoidably, middle-aged. I don’t really think, no matter how I try to skew the mathematics, that I can really believe I’m not well and squarely stuck in the second half of my life. Especially not if I carry on eating chocolate. But I became a full time writer, more by luck than by design, when I was twenty-three. I was very fortunate—I was writing theatre plays at university, and they got lots of attention and won a few awards, and on graduation I suddenly found myself in demand, with lots of commissions and a bursary from the Arts Council of Great Britain attaching me as resident dramatist to a working theatre.

And that was wonderful, of course—I learned how to write the best way possible, by being forced to put them before a big regular audience and seeing what worked and what sent everyone to sleep. But I was so young that I was aping other styles. It was inevitable. I was basically a black comedy writer, coming up with these dark takes on love and marriage and death—having never lost anyone, having never been married then, having never properly been in love. And to an extent you can get away with that, especially in comedy. You read enough literature about the big themes and universal conditions, and you can even have an original perspective on them—and in comedy in particular, if you get the words in just the right order, you can be funny without ever necessarily being true.

I’m glad I didn’t try to write horror back then. I think horror is a harder thing to ape. The best horror stories are ones that are genuinely felt—those senses of loss, of mortality, of paranoid worthlessness!—and at twenty-three years old I was very arrogant and very happy with my lot. Why shouldn’t I have been? I had fallen on my feet and was in a dream job, pretending in my writing I had experienced things that I hadn’t.

I’m now forty-four—not old, of course not old, but you know, as I say, definitely on the other side of the hill. Loved ones have died, or rejected me. I’ve suffered cruelty and been cruel in return. I’ve lived a bit. When I write now I don’t feel that I’m having to pretend. All of the stuff I come out with—whether it’s supposed to be funny or disturbing, whether it features an angstful Dalek or not, at least is sincerely felt. I can channel that sincerity into fiction, and no matter how weird the fiction gets—and it does get a little weird—it still comes from a place I can recognise.

What’s odd is just how much has stayed the same. The plays I wrote when I was in my twenties are concerned with the themes and interests I have now. It isn’t that I’ve rejected a lot of it. I just hope I can do it now without having to pretend.

Your 2007 collection Tiny Deaths won the World Fantasy Award, and two years later your collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical won the Shirley Jackson Award and the British Fantasy Award. Did the success of your writing in genre circles come as a surprise to you, and has it changed the way you think about your writing?

Yeah, it was a shock! I mean, I suppose it shouldn’t have been. Doing Doctor Who redefined me as a genre writer. Before that, as I said, I’d spent over a decade writing scripts for theatre and radio. Looking back they were obviously genre too—I’d write comedies about time travelling lovers, or people falling in love with imaginary boyfriends who would start to become real, or do dystopias showing a family Christmas in a world where the Jews had been successfully exterminated. You know, fun stuff like that! That last play in particular, Easy Laughter, really launched my career—it won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, and was staged all over the world, and was even produced by Francis Ford Coppola. But what was funny, looking back, was the way the critics would never really pick on the debt it all owed to genre writing. When critics trace your influences, they throw out Stoppard or Pinter or Artaud, they never suggest The Twilight Zone or Doctor Who. And that’s because, still, genre writing is seen as something rather shameful.

So I was quite happily writing these rather strange little comedies, and I was resistant to moving to TV—mostly, to be honest, because theatre is small and cheap enough that a writer can feel like a god without being beholden to much else. I conquered my fear of that sort of responsibility television has in 2002—just a year before Doctor Who came back. And it meant I was in exactly the right sort of place to be offered a contract on that first series when it did. I’d loved Doctor Who ever since I was a kid, and I was going to write the story that brought back the Daleks, so taking the job was an absolute no-brainer. But I wasn’t really prepared for what that script did for me.

For a start, I was outed. There was no question any longer, I was a nerd. I don’t think theatre took very kindly to that. It was like I’d suddenly revealed I wasn’t writing quasi-absurdist plays like Samuel Beckett, I was doing stuff featuring murderous pepperpots chasing people down corridors. And worse still, doing it with a global audience that reached, I think, ninety million people. I still find that staggering. That’s greater than the entire population of the UK. The biggest theatres I had written for had had seating capacity for about a thousand people—and a thousand people can seem rather a lot when you’ve got them sitting next to each other clutching their ice creams in a darkened auditorium, but it’s a minute fraction in comparison.

But in another sense it was terribly freeing. Because I felt I no longer had to hide. I’d been writing BBC Radio comedies that were so subtly weird that even my producers thought they were normal. The theatre commissions soon ran dry, but I found I had another audience. I was invited to write a short story for a horror anthology called Phobic, and I was very wary of that—I had never really written prose before, I’d always assumed that was what “proper” writers did. But it was in a book full of writers I really admired, and I told myself I was in an incredibly lucky position to be asked to contribute to a book alongside such greats as Ramsey Campbell or Christopher Fowler. So I went away and wrote a very odd piece about everyone in the world receiving letters telling them the exact circumstances of their deaths. I’d had the idea as a play for years, but had never worked out how to put it on stage. On the page it was easy, and it was enormously fun to do. The publisher got back to me and said, wow—do you have any more of these? And I lied and said I had some more up my sleeve. And right then and there they commissioned Tiny Deaths, my first collection. Again, I couldn’t really believe how lucky I was.

I had no expectations that it would be noticed by the World Fantasy Award judges, let alone that it could win. I was told later that one of the judges had seen the collection sitting on a pile of other books in a friend’s toilet and recognised my name from Doctor Who and began to read it. Another judge heard me read from the book when I was at a convention in Australia as a Doctor Who writer. It was extraordinary luck. And what was most lucky, really, was that I found such a hunger to write these stories—I was just thrilled that the bizarre success of the first book allowed me to write some more.

If it’s changed the way I approach the writing now, it’s only that—like no longer being young—I don’t feel I have to pretend any longer. I can (and do) write purely naturalistic pieces. I can (and do) write comedies. But most of my ideas aren’t naturalistic and aren’t nice, and I no longer have to bend them into something more palatable—I can let them grow up into whatever they need to be.

In Everyone’s Just So So Special you created a massive Time Chart which weaves together a very personal narrative about loss and memory with a sometimes funny, sometimes biting commentary on English history, and as an extension of that, you came up with the monumental Hundred Stories project. Do you worry about your own place in history as a writer?

Well, it’d be a lie to say you never think about how nice it would be if your work lives on. I mean, you can’t think about it too much, because the word “posterity” is so doom-laden and pretentious, and anyone who writes specifically for that becomes so self-conscious it aches. I think we writers put stuff out into the world because we think it’s important to us, and even if we can’t believe it’ll survive for long, you always hope. It’s that hope that keeps us writing, isn’t it? The idea that the hard slog of sticking down words on to a piece of paper might just, maybe, if the wind’s blowing in the right direction, make some little difference.

But I think I’m too much of a literature geek to believe it’s anything we can have any control over. I may never have been a writer. In my teens I was fully expecting to be an academic, specialising in discussing forever the minor plays of Renaissance drama. And from the real perspective of literature, you can see that what gets remembered and what gets forgotten is almost insultingly arbitrary. Jane Austen’s nephew believed that his aunt’s novels would be seen as trivial baubles compared to the output of Sir Walter Scott, and he was hardly alone. Some writers who are massively acclaimed in their own lifetimes fall out of fashion and out of print the moment they die—others, who were barely recognised, trundle on perfectly happily for years, and may find a new audience to trumpet them centuries later. Shakespeare fell out of vogue for ages—his being this all-conquering giant happened only a few generations ago.

On a far more humble level—my stuff—I’m always amused and bemused by the stories that seem to be remembered most fondly from my collections. You can write something that you think will really define you—“this’ll knock their socks off,” you think, and it’s met with a certain kind politeness. No one minds that it exists in the world, but no one cares that much. Other stories just suddenly break out and start getting re-anthologised and getting nominations for things. And you’re delighted, but you scratch your head, and wonder why. It’s like having hundreds of tiny children, and suddenly realising that one of the runts you thought would never survive labour has been elected president.

I’m in a weird position anyway, again because of Doctor Who. Doctor Who fans never forget. A good episode, a bad episode, it doesn’t matter, you’ll be recited in chronological lists of stories in order of transmission forever. I know that because I am a Doctor Who fan. I’m even writing these answers in a hotel room at a Doctor Who convention in Orlando, and I’ve been flown over here as a guest, even though the one episode I wrote is now ten years old. There’s something nicely humbling about knowing that whatever else I do in life, it is profoundly unlikely it’ll ever be bigger than Doctor Who. And that all the fame I’m feeding off has very, very little to do with me; it’s just that I’m one germ on a much greater body. I travel the world, and even though I’m just a writer on the show, and no one should reasonably know what I look like, I’ll still get recognised sometimes by strangers in record shops in Melbourne or restaurants in Crete. It’s weird, and because it has very little to do with me at all, it’s pleasant without making me an egomaniac. It’s oddly nice to know that whatever I do now, I’ll be buried with a little Dalek statue on my gravestone. Or, perhaps, there’ll be no grave at all, I’ll just have my ashes scattered in the Garden of Former Who Writers—long gone, never quite forgotten.

The Afterword to Remember Why You Fear Me puts forward a rather interesting take on horror: that in flights of fancy a reader can find something so absurd it’s amusing, that delight can be taken in the dissonance between what readers expect and what they receive, and that really the horror in question comes from jokes gone wrong. Is that an accurate description of your writing?

I suppose it is! It wasn’t necessarily meant to be. I should explain that the afterword to that collection is a fake—it pretends to be an afterword, but it’s really another horror story, a tale about a professor writer who bears suspicious similarities to M R James, and who finds his career has been eclipsed by the increasingly odd tales of the macabre he tells his students at Christmas. But within the story, almost by accident, I found myself reflecting upon what horror stories are and how this character’s stories are supposed to work.

And it may be because my background is in comedy anyway, but I do find that there is a strong connection between comedy and horror. Because both rely upon moments of shock which are intended to provoke an audible response from the audience. And those shock moments don’t have to be greatly dissimilar. Whether something amuses or unsettles, it’s most often done by taking normality and wrenching it askew. Most of my stories start off as what ifs—and at that point in my head, they seem to have the standard structure of a joke. “Have you heard the one about . . . ?” What makes them funny or distressing is how violent is that wrench away from normality, and crucially, the reality of the response from the characters involved. If you think of most jokes, they rely upon people not freaking out when a horse walks into a bar.

It’s also to do with the punchline. I think horror stories quite often are jokes where the writer refuses to stop at the punchline, but insists on going on past the point where the story is funny, and examines the consequence of what has just happened. You get the shock moment that ought to produce the laugh—and then the horror writer refuses to let the audience off the hook; he or she is going to make you see the ramifications of the shock, no matter how gruelling or disquieting that may be. You’ll wrench the world off its axis and then have the gall not to be reassuring about it.

One of the first Stephen King stories I ever read—and I was scared by the idea of horror when I was younger, so I didn’t pick up any Stephen King until I was nearly thirty!—was a novella from Four Past Midnight. “The Library Policeman” is not, I think, wildly acclaimed, but it really haunted me. It’s a story that King clearly originally saw as a joke. It’s based upon one of his sons being scared by the warnings in a public library about what happens to naughty little kids who forget to return their books before they’re overdue. Really, there’s a story that if it just played out the punchline and left it there, could be something from Dr. Seuss. Instead, King takes it and runs with it and it becomes horror.

For my tastes, I love playing with that thin border between horror and comedy. I construct my short story collections very carefully, so that the reader can never be quite sure whether the idea I’m playing with is going to go down a dark avenue or end up somewhere lighter. It makes the process of reading a horror story so much more disquieting if you can’t really be sure it’s going to be a horror story at all.

Reading your writing was described to me once as like hugging a teddy bear only to discover it’s full of razor blades. There’s something jovial and innocuous about your style, but it cuts very deeply. What do you think makes your writing so affecting?

Yeah, I’ve read that description! I love that. That’s what I want to be buried with. Forget the Dalek headstone, I want those words on my grave!

I hope my stories are affecting. I hope they get under the skin and move people. I’d much rather move people than merely give them a few jolts. It’s comparatively easier to shock people than it is to move them. I could go out into the convention lobby right now and pull down my trousers and everyone would be shocked—but it’s unlikely anyone would be reduced to tears. (Though, actually, on reflection, they might be. That’s probably a bad example.) I don’t much like horror fiction that doesn’t have any ambition other than to shock. Like all good forms of storytelling, you use the horror to reveal something that you care about, and caring about things is usually rather intimate.

If my stories affect some readers—and I hope that’s true—then I can only think they respond to the sincerity of them. That’s my ambition, really. That everything I write, no matter how strange or not, comes from a real place within.

Although your short fiction seems to have been drawing quite a bit from horror, They Do the Same Things Different There draws together stories of weird fantasy and has a lighter tone overall. Has it felt refreshing to revisit some of your earlier stories? Do you find much in common with the writer who created them?

It’s quite galling to go back and look at your old stuff. It’s awful when you realise that stories you hoped were quite good aren’t up to scratch—that’s disappointing. It’s even more awful when you realise stories you hoped were quite good are far, far better than anything you’re writing now. You resent them a bit. Present Rob has enough problems writing as it is without Past Rob pointing at him and mocking him, thank you very much.

But at the same time, yes, there is something refreshing about it—about taking stories that worked in the context of one book, in one particular order of contents, and finding a new context for them somewhere else. I think the collision of stories side by side reveals different things about those stories—I’ve always tried to make all my collections have a sort of novelistic feel to them, that there’s a journey to be made through the book. (And my next one, which is this giant collection of one hundred stories that can be read as a choose your own adventure book, from questions prompted at the end of each story about your reaction to it, is all about those different experiences you can generate. It’s fun!) To put it another way, you don’t want to create a pop album that’s merely all your hit singles. Greatest Hits albums are a bit cheap. Retrospective albums, filled with completely new tracks inspired by some of the old songs beside them, are much more interesting.

I’ve really not been writing prose long enough to feel that the writer of Tiny Deaths in 2007 is much different to the writer of They Do the Same Things Different There in 2014. I came into this short story thing so late, really! What’s odd is when I go and see old stage plays of mine. Last year I saw advertised an amateur production of a play of mine that had premiered in 1994. I couldn’t resist. I went to see it. And that was really odd—because I really couldn’t remember what the story was—and the writer in me would sit there and hope that the writer back then would go in certain directions or aim for certain twists. I quite liked the play, actually—and I could recognise the same sort of rhythm I have in my writing now, even if the points it was making now are things I would question and address differently.

Next year in New York I have a couple of plays being revived—completely coincidentally, by two different production companies. They both date back from the 1990s, and both were rather acclaimed award winning things at the time. And the temptation is to go back and read them—but I know if I did I’d only want to tweak, and that way lies madness. At the end of the day what we do is we write stories, we do them the best we can. And then we move on to the next. And then those stories are left to bob about for a while, and if they’re any good maybe they’ll swim, and if they don’t, they’ll probably sink like stones. But we have to let them be. And I have to let that Past Rob be too, no matter how wrong or misguided I think he is, no matter the confused relationship I sometimes have with the stuff he comes out with. Past Rob has to do the best he can without me. I hope he’ll be all right.

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Helen Marshall

Photo courtesy of Emma Gorst.Helen Marshall is an award-winning Canadian author and editor. Her debut collection of short stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications, 2012), was named one of the top ten books of 2012 by January Magazine. It won the 2013 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and was shortlisted for a 2013 Aurora Award by the Canadian Society of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her second collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, was released in September, 2014. She lives in Oxford, England where she spends her time staring at old books.

(Photo courtesy of Emma Gorst.)