Robert Shearman has worked as a writer for television, radio and the stage. He was appointed resident dramatist at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and has received several international awards for his theatrical work, including the Sunday Times Playwriting Award and the Guinness Award for Ingenuity, in association with the Royal National Theatre. His plays have been regularly produced by Alan Ayckbourn, and on BBC Radio by Martin Jarvis. His two series of The Chain Gang, his short story and interactive drama series for the BBC, both won the Sony Award.
However, he is probably best known as a writer for Doctor Who, reintroducing the Daleks for its BAFTA-winning first series, in an episode nominated for a Hugo Award.
His collections of short stories are Tiny Deaths, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, and Everyone’s Just So So Special. Collectively they have won the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Edge Hill Short Story Readers Prize, and the Shirley Jackson Award, celebrating “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.”
Several stories in this collection have been compiled in annual anthologies as diverse as Best New Horror and Best British Short Stories. Damned if You Don’t was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award; Roadkill, Alice Through the Plastic Sheet, and George Clooney’s Moustache all for the British Fantasy Award. Robert has also been nominated for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Award, the most highly prized award for the form in the world.
Charles Tan: Hi Robert! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, in the introduction, Stephen Jones says you don’t write horror or genre. How would you describe your writing?
Robert Shearman: Thanks for having me!
Oh, I think Steve very much thinks all I write are genre stories – I just never quite saw them that way myself, and it’s caused some very mocking conversations in the pub! (He mocks me, naturally. I daren’t mock Steve. He’s so steeped in the traditions of horror, that mocking him would be terrifying!)
I think I’ve came to horror rather late, really! I could never watch horror movies as a kid, or even a young adult – I recoil from gore, and the slightest suggestion of Satan-spawned children from The Omen from schoolfriends was enough to give me nightmares. So when I became a writer, I never expected I would gravitate towards horror at all. And I’ve been a full time writer for over twenty years now, but I began in the theatre, writing comedies for the stage. Looking back I can see that they’re pretty dark comedies, but that’s because I’ve got a creepy sense of humour! So when I moved into prose writing some years ago, I brought the same style with me, creating stories that made me chuckle within plots that were somewhat outlandish and bizarre. But it’s a funny thing – what gets laughter from an audience in the dark has a completely different effect from a reader taking your story off the page. Comedy is far more communal, and in groups we’re more inclined to be amused by situations that privately we’d find distressing or shuddersome. But when we read, we read alone – it’s a much more claustrophobic process. I still think of myself as a comedy writer, but I accept that my short stories are much more likely to result in my readers being scared than in having belly laughs – but I’d like them to picture the fact that as I’m writing the stories I’m doing so with the same broad smile on my face you’d get from someone telling you a rather sick joke.
RS: I was at a book convention a few years ago, and I was milling around the dealers room looking at the various publishers’ tables. And Chizine were clearly the most exciting press there – for a start, their books were startlingly beautiful (Erik Mohr designs all their covers, and his artwork is equal parts gorgeous and unsettling). I bought one out of curiosity, went to my hotel room to read it – and within hours I was back, buying up their entire stock! It’s rare for a publisher to have such a handle upon their own tone – I buy all of their books, because whether I like them all or not (and I like the majority of them!) I know that they will be challenging and fresh, and offer me reading experiences I can’t get anywhere else. I wrote a collection called Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical that won the Shirley Jackson Award a couple of years ago; Chizine found the same sort of sensibility in my work that they have in theirs, and asked whether I would like to write for them at some point. I have never been more enthusiastic in saying yes! I don’t really see Chizine as being horror-orientated, but more as purveyors of the bizarre. And my stuff is certainly bizarre – I love to surprise the reader from story to story, with something gently funny in one story bleeding into something more disturbing in the next. It felt like a perfect fit.
CT: What was your criteria in selecting the stories that went into Remember Why You Fear Me? How about their order?
RS: Ah, well, that was the most fun. I worked very closely with my editor Helen Marshall on that. She pointed out to me that my previous three collections were all very themed – all the stories led on naturally from one to the other, and if you read them back to back, you should feel that they’re in some ways talking to one another, that issues raised in one story are being questioned and examined from a different perspective in another. I’m very keen on the idea that the really good collections should feel novelistic – that they’re not just a random assortment of stories, but instead feel like a uniform whole.
So, right from the start, Remember Why You Fear Me was a bit of a challenge. Because we agreed we still wanted that sort of mosaic effect, but as a ‘best of’ collection, with stories taken from different books published years apart, we’d have to work especially hard to make those parallels work. I decided from the get-go that I wanted at least half of the book to be new material anyway: I’m lucky enough to have a small but enthusiastic following out there who buy my books, and I didn’t want them to feel cheated buying things they already had. And the new stories in many ways acted as the bridges between the older ones – I found that returning to my work from several volumes ago could inspire fresh ideas and new reasons to counter the conclusions I’d made back then. The order of the stories then is dictated by trying to achieve that sort of conversation between the tales – and we discovered that a lot of the book is trying to define what horror or weird fiction might be, seeing how far I can push it in certain areas. It starts out quite funny, I think – and then it gets a lot bleaker and blacker. It becomes a bit of a journey!
CT: I know you’re a fan of providing extra content for your fans; in your previous collection, you wrote flash fiction for those who bought it. In Remember Why You Fear Me, what made you decide to include the extra stories in the eBook? Why those stories?
RS: Oh, God, I wish they had been flash fiction! I mean, that was always the intention. The reality is, that as soon as I began writing the stories, I felt it was a pity to deny them the space to let the ideas get explored properly. So the lengths of the stories range from anywhere between 1000 and 20,000 words each – some of them have ended up practically as novellas! It was an act of utter insanity. I decided that the one hundred customers who would buy the special leatherbound edition of Everyone’s Just So So Special should get something that’d make them feel so so special too – individual stories in which the lead characters would take their names – and eighteen months later, I’m still writing them! (I’m about three quarters of the way through!) They will all be collected later on in a book of their own. It’s going to be a mad thing, I think, a huge ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style tome that’ll lead the reader to read the tales in different orders, based upon a series of questions offered at the end of each one – it ought to be great fun! But yes, it’s an enormous project, one that makes my wife and my agent roll their eyes in despair, I think, behind my back. And it all came out of this idea that if you buy a special version of the book, you should get something for your buck.
In the case of Remember Why You Fear Me, the extra content was decided more upon length. As we sifted through the stories, both old and new, Helen and I decided that the paper form of the book had a job of offering as many different and varied tales as possible – and that meant a single novella would have denied the inclusion of maybe two or three shorter stories. So we held these slightly more epic tales back, and offer them up to the ebook reader as a rather weighty epilogue! I think they’re some of my best yarns. I hope the reader thinks so too.
CT: What were the challenges working on this collection?
RS: It’s always hard looking back on your own work. Because of my background as a theatre writer, I’m pretty used to the idea that a script you wrote, say, fifteen years ago, might be picked up for revival once in a while, and it’s a weird feeling going to see a new production of a play written by a you that you no longer quite recognize. The difference there, though, is that the production really is new – the actors and the director are approaching the text for the very first time as though it were written yesterday, so whilst as a writer you struggle to recall why you would have come up with ideas like that (and, in some cases, honestly struggle to remember as you’re watching it what happens next!), the cast take it on face value.
With this collection, though, I became the actors and the director, going through old material and trying to make it feel as fresh and as urgent as if it were brand new. I reread my old books, and found myself reacting against a lot of the stories, simply because I’ve moved on now and the Rob Shearman who wrote them isn’t the same one who was reading them back. Helen was always on hand to make sure I didn’t reject a story for the wrong reasons – or, more pertinently, favour a story that simply echoed more precisely my current hobbyhorses and prejudices! And what mattered most of all was the story – did the story we selected for the collection stand up and say something interesting? That was the hardest part, really. Once a story is published, and it’s out in the world, I’m rather inclined to let it fend for itself – I don’t want to read it again, or think about it again, I’d rather move on to the next. I’m a very bad father! The joy of working on this project was overcoming my own squeamishness, and finding pleasure in rediscovering old work, and seeing how it could inspire the new.
CT: Why short stories? How different is it compared to your other writing projects, such as scripts?
RS: Short stories are strange things. Novels are generally all about reassuring the reader – you set up a world and a series of characters that people will feel comfortable spending four hundred or so pages with. Short stories are much more like rollercoaster rides: everything is so much more compressed, so you work hard at making sure every single word counts, and you pack in all the shocks and thrills and loop-the-loops that will make it entertaining. There’s less time to relax with a short story – it’s like a quick buzz that you give the brain. And it means that even in very naturalistic short stories, even in ones that appear quite sedate and quiet, the reader is being forced to ask himself what on earth is going on – the fact that it’s on the page at all gives even the simplest of actions weird emphasis that can make them seem dissonant and unnerving. In a novel a dinner between a husband and wife, say, can be matter of fact and ordinary – in a short story you can’t take anything on face value, everything you’re being shown is like a clue that’ll help you unlock something bigger. The best short stories are the ones that in a few thousand words show the reader something they’d take for granted, and reveal it for something wonderfully or terribly new.
Working on scripts for TV or theatre is inevitably very different – certainly the expectations are certainly very different! When you write television, for example, you’re much more keenly trying to satisfy a mass audience, and it’s a greater act of collaboration between the writer and a huge team of producers and actors. But, I don’t know – the honest reality of it all is, I approach all forms of writing in the same way. My background in theatre meant that I was (sometimes harshly!) exposed to audience reaction, and when I write I like to picture that audience in my head, and work on entertaining them enough minute by minute that they don’t change the TV channels or put aside the book. I write everything in the same way – I write in notebooks with a pen (and with appalling handwriting!) walking along the Thames in London, chatting away to myself and scribbling things down and hoping I don’t appear too much to the general public like a madman. Writing is writing – you just want to come up with a good story idea, and then you want to find a way of capturing it on paper without letting the idea down.
CT: What’s the appeal of “not horror” for you?
RS: Ha! Oh, I love horror now. I really do. I love coming up with ideas that make my own imagination squirm. But I think the danger of being seen as a horror writer is that it spoils the effect; if you’re reading a book of ghost stories, for example, there’s no great twist to be found at the end of the tale when the narrator turns out to be dead! Much of the fun of horror is in surprise, and so once we label it as horror, once we take out the shock of it all, it becomes so much more tidy and cosy. What I try and do with my stuff is let the audience go into the story without ever being sure quite what sort of tone it might be – am I trying to make them laugh this time, or am I going to scare them?
CT: Anything else you want to plug?
RS: The mad one hundred short stories idea I mentioned above is being blogged! (In part, so all the people who bought the things, and are waiting patiently, can see that I am indeed writing them, and the stories are genuinely different. And in part, to drive myself on, because there’s now an audience waiting for them each week!) I release them in series of twenty, and I’ve just reached the end of the third series – so that’s sixty stories sitting on my website, free to read and comment on. That can be found at justsosospecial.com – where there’s also information about my old books and forthcoming projects, and how to see me meander aimlessly around the Twitterverse…!
Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, and Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi).