Books: Interview with Robert Shearman

Posted 16 November, 2012 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

Hi everyone! You may remember that some time ago I had reviewed a short story collection that was recently published entitled Remember Why You Fear Me (review) by Robert Shearman (many of you may know him for the episode he wrote for Doctor Who, “Dalek” (109)). It’s quite an interesting collection of short stories; as I had mentioned in my review it’s quite a range of stories–not necessarily steeped in horror in every story but intriguing, chilling and introspective in the themes that they explore.

Well, aside from reviewing the book last month, I also had the opportunity to interview the author as part of the blog tour organised by ChiZine Publications. ‘Twas very exciting (not to mention this blog’s very first author interview ever!) and I hope you enjoy the following interview. A big thank you again to ChiZine Publications for arranging it and to Robert Shearman for taking the time to answer my questions =)

  1. Remember Why You Fear Me is quite an eclectic collection of short stories! Which story did you enjoy writing the most? Do you have a particular favourite from this compilation?
    It’s a funny thing, really. As you write each and every story, they feel like the most important one you’ve ever done. You get this wonderful idea in your head, and you think – this one, at last, is going to be absolute genius, so long as I don’t screw it up! And then the actual process of putting it down on paper is one of irritation and compromise, and the dismaying sense that that wonderful idea is being screwed up, and you’re doing your level best at damage limitation! Then, months later, you can look back at the story, and assess it for what it is coolly – and sometimes it’s rotten, but often it’s actually rather good, and you can feel a certain sense of pride. But by that point you’ve moved on to other ideas and other stories, and the emotional attachment you feel to the old stuff is a bit detached. So, it’s honestly hard to judge a favourite story, or which one I enjoyed writing the most (especially seeing the ones I most enjoyed writing are the ones I suspect I didn’t work at hard enough, so seem a bit lacking in retrospect!). The oldest story in the book is ‘Mortal Coil’, which was a rather fun idea about the whole world receiving letters from God informing them exactly when and how everyone’s going to die. I had no expectations at that point I would ever write another short story; I had been asked to give something to an anthology, and back then I was exclusively a dramatist, so it was like having a little holiday, creating something entirely new for an entirely new medium. That may be my favourite, because I felt so wonderfully irresponsible doing it!
  2. A lot of the stories featured in this book leans more towards the psychological suspense genre than horror. I read in Stephen Jones’ introduction of the book that you don’t consider yourself a horror writer but is there something about psychological suspense or the dark fantastic that you find interesting to write about? Or is it merely that your stories just incline towards those genres?
    Well, I always saw myself as a comedy writer! All my theatre plays were comedies. But looking back now I can see that as comedies go they’re pretty dark! I suspect the macabre is just my sense of humour. When I moved into prose some years later, I brought that same sense of humour 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 sitting in a darkened auditorium 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.
  3. How do you come up with some of the ideas for your stories?
    I honestly wish I knew! I think it all comes down simply to not turning your brain off. As we walk about in our daily lives all sorts of silly and bizarre ideas pop into your head – it’s the imagination’s way of keeping itself interested! And as little kids we’re told off for it, told to be more grown-up. Writers are just disobedient kids who refuse to put the silly ideas away. We train ourselves to retain what more sensible people reject. And knowing what might make the basis for a good story becomes a matter of training, I suppose – I scribble down all sorts of nonsenses every day, and when I look back at them only a small fraction of them will connect to other nonsenses already lurking, and only a small fraction of those will seem to have any meaning or point, or to be want to have any depth or purpose. I get desperate sometimes! A thousand story ideas in my head, but none of them actually any good. We just hold out for the one that’s worth the effort of wrapping words about it and dressing it up in paragraph form and sending it out before readers.
  4. Do the themes of love, relationships (between parents and children, between lovers), growing up, etc. come up as you write these stories or do you think of these themes beforehand as you’re brainstorming? Is there a particular theme that you’re especially fond of writing about?
    I think I find mediocrity rather fun to write about! Most of my characters are really terribly ordinary, even if the most extraordinary things are happening to them – if I have a wife who finds herself giving birth to furniture, or a married couple plagued by noisy neighbours who turn out to be waxwork dummies – then the absurdity comes out of very humdrum and rather disappointed lives. I think it provides the contrast that makes my silly fantasies human – I have no interest in coming up with wild flights of fancy if the emotions that they’re rooted in aren’t recognisable and true. (And besides, it makes them so much funnier – because, there again, I’m really trying to make people laugh!) The gaps between people are so much more poignant – it’s why there’s a sort of sweet sadness to my families and my lovers, because they never really seem to connect properly. I think sometimes the horrors that bite them are good things, because they show them there’s so much more possibility to the world than the humdrum.
  5. There are moments in some of these stories were things get really daunting or really bleak. Was there ever a moment while you’re writing these stories where you find yourself thinking ‘Oh wow, that’s really dark’?
    Ha! Oh yes, that happens sometimes. It can be a bit dangerous! Because the most fun is pushing the idea as far as you can to the point of logical absurdity – and I’m writing it, chuckling along, seeing the joke escalate because I see it as a joke – and then I realise that the reader wasn’t in on the gag necessarily, and the place I’ve taken them to has made them recoil. I think that’s where the stories break. You don’t want people recoiling too much! – you want them to move on to the next story, because they’re having fun. I think it’s more interesting to push the stories into areas of emotional bleakness than horror bleakness – I see honestly little value in guts and gore, because that ultimately desensitises us, and how can you react to the subtle stuff if you’ve had your feelings blunted by the overt? But if you can open the occasional trapdoor beneath the reader’s feet, where they suddenly find themselves forced to reassess a relationship they’ve taken for granted or misunderstood, if they can see that there’s a darker depth behind a character that throws the story into a different light – then that’s the sort of darkness I enjoy. I hadn’t realised until halfway through the first draft of Custard Cream, for example, what the real monster was – and it was quite fun playing with that peculiarly icky story (giant spiders!) so I could distract the reader from what the story was really about until it was too late for them to pull back. The same, I suppose, with Granny’s Grinning, which announces itself quite gleefully as a zombie story – but it’s something much more disturbing and confrontational than that.
  6. You’ve written for television, radio, and stage: are there things you’ve learned from writing for those forms that have helped you with the short story writing process?
    I think inevitably they are very different – certainly the expectations of both are 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 so 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.
  7. Who are some of your favourite authors? Do they inspire your writing in some way?
    Oh, there are just so many! Seriously. It’s my greatest weakness. I’m a complete bibliophile. I have about 17,000 books in my house in London. It really scares my wife because she thinks the floor might give way (and it’s one of the reasons I’ve been surprised by just how much I love the ebook – it may just save my life!). I read all genres, everything I can get my hands on, and I think it’s all an influence – I just hope I’m not directly copying it accidentally! I grew up loving the Asterix comic books by Goscinny and Uderzo, and I reread them quite a lot – I fell in love with Thomas Hardy novels as a teenager (Tess of the d’Urbervillesis my favourite – the amount of tragedy that befalls that poor girl is at once very poignant and blackly funny, and I know that’s been a big influence). Modern novelists like Julian Barnes and Paul Auster delight me because they’re just so playful with the form, and bring such a sense of fun to everything they write; for genre fiction, I was too much of a snob to read Stephen King for years and years, but he’s extraordinary, he’s a master at writing likeable conversational prose that makes you want to keep turning the page even if you’re terrified at what you might find when you do. And there are some amazing short story writers from around the world – Guy de Maupassant, Saki, George Saunders, Etgar Keret. My favourite new author is Helen Marshall, whose first collection is being released from Chizine a month after mine. (I introduced the book, and I’m almost as proud of that as of my own – she’s just startling. I was, and am, very jealous.)
  8. Can we expect a full-length novel from you sometime in the future 🙂 or do you prefer writing short stories?
    I really do love short stories! Can I give a quick plug? I have a crazy project going on at the moment! – My next book is a collection of one hundred different short stories, to be read as a rather surreal Choose Your Own Adventure, and one hundred different people have paid to give their names as the heroes within. I put the results up online so that everyone can see how I’m getting on… and whether I’ve been defeated yet! That’s at – and there’s other information there about me and my work, and how to find me on Twitter (@ShearmanRobert). But, yes – after that, I’m on to the novels! About time too, my wife would say. I have the first one all mapped out, and there are a few publishers who are more than politely excited by it – so let’s just hope I don’t screw the idea up! I shan’t spoil what it’s about, just in case in the process of writing it my brain does a big flip and sets it off into an unexpected direction, but let’s just say it’ll be very odd. And may feature deer.
  9. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
    There are always a million and one reasons to give up. There are things to watch on the television. There are funny cat videos on Youtube. There’s that parent you really ought to phone up some time before they forget who you are. And writing is hard and lonely and irritating, and the first few times you do it, you fall over. The secret to being a writer is to finish what you start (always finish what you start – even if it’s rubbish, the psychological satisfaction of a completed manuscript drives you on to the next one), to read lots of things you want to read, to read lots of things you don’t want to read but might push you out of your comfort zone – and don’t do any of the million and one giving up reasons that come along.

Thank you again for the great interview, Rob!

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.

Remember Why You Fear Me | Twitter: @ShearmanRobert | Robert Shearman’s website | One Hundred Stories

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