An outstanding conversation with Shawn Mansouri continues the Cirsova author series. Shawn’s stories appear in Cirsovas #2 (The Water Walks Tonight), #4 (The Phantom Sands of Calavass) and his latest is now out in #5 (Beyond the Great Divide).
I’d categorize Shawn as a versatile writer who easily moves between horror, fantasy and SciFi. When I asked him about differences in his writing technique when tackling different genres he gave one of the most insightful answers yet.
As always, we range far and wide in the topics covered. We discuss horror, the reasons behind its popularity, Stephen King, biology as a career option and more than you want to know about bed bugs. Usually, I ask more questions about a writer’s technique instead I’ve linked to an interview below which contains excellent questions and answers along those lines.
Scott Cole: I have just finished Vein Raiders. Safe bet you received inspiration from your job as a biologist but do you mind explaining how you came up with this story?
Shawn Mansouri: I did get some inspiration from the lab, The Lawnmower Man (film) and maybe that old 80’s flick Inner Space. I did a lot of work in the field of Immunology during college and always looked at new discoveries with a bit of the dark assassin mindset. I thought ‘what if all these particles were patented and used by large corporations to change the field of medicine? What would an OR look like if surgery was no longer necessary, if the new big guns in medicine were pilots instead of physicians?’ Or course, there’s always the flip side of new discoveries. I’d always been concerned not with the ‘how’ of science, but with the ‘why.’ Should we even be doing this? You see the side effects of new ‘medicines’ in small script, or given to you by some silky smooth narrator in commercial form, and some of them can be downright laughable. I think technology is moving at an exponential growth rate and we haven’t caught up to the question of whether or not it has the potential to be used against us. If nanotechnology can be used to heal, it can also be used to assassinate the president, as we see in Vein Raiders. There’s also an audio version read by the folks at 600 second saga.
It was my first flash piece and the first piece where I veered into the science fiction realm. Of all genres, I’ve read and written science fiction the least. It’s hard to shake the tropes and put something really original out there.
SC: Did the thought process leading to Tied to the Whim of a Tender Tyrant begin in your work around lab animals?
SM: Most of my first stories come from a single environment. I was working a lot back then and the only time I had to write was on my lunch break in my car. The lot was near a busy overpass and a train yard and the only thing to look at really was the sky. Another story of mine, The Big Purple, was heavily influenced by working with mice in a lab. All the characters are in fact mice, which we don’t find out until the last quarter of the story. I even used their real names, and had a tough time watching them die over the months. We used them as food for bed bugs. They’d be confined to mesh tubes corked at both ends and couldn’t move or defend themselves and the bed bugs would just munch away for hours. Some of them died from blood loss or shock and it really fucked with my mind. So the Big Purple is the result of my experiences with those mice.
Tied to the Whim is first and foremost a story of sacrifice. Growing up, I loved Shel Silverstein’s work–especially the Giving Tree–and my work up to that point was playing it a bit safe, not containing heavier themes or parts of my own life I wanted to share. I saw the call for a dragon story by 18th Wall productions and was in the midst of telling a story about an overbearing dragon who raises a human child. She hides the child away from the world and raises him as she would a dragon. The boy suffers developmentally from it. The voice of reason in the story is an old gargoyle who’s served the dragon his entire life, because he also was taken as a child. It’s about the pain of letting go of the people we love in order to see them shine in the world they truly belong.
You can see a bit of the Giving Tree, and The Ballad of the Harp Weaver, in the final pages of this story. Sacrifice, physically and spiritually, was the inspiration for it. I just hadn’t gotten bold enough to write characters like a dragon and a gargoyle, but it did a lot to free my imagination. I’m pretty proud of that story.
SC: The experience you had with the mice would also mess with my mind. Hopefully, labs go to the expense of sedation or, at least, the alleviation of misery. Generally, is most testing absolutely necessary when it comes to animal testing or is there a strong element of less expense?
And what caused the high rates of violence with the male mice? Did the unnatural lab environment amplify the natural competition amongst them?
SM: You try to separate yourself from the fact that they have all the same basic needs you as a human have also. I named some of them and sometimes watched them for hours. I got really attached, to the point where I’d talk about them like they were people. Unfortunately, bed-bugs are very particular about their meals and will only feed on live animals; I tried creating artificial feeding systems that warm the blood to body temperature but they wouldn’t go near it. You can use artificial systems for mosquitoes (which I reared also) but the olfactory systems of bed-bugs are fickle. We still don’t know too much about them. The feeding process was overnight (about 18 hours) and so I’d get to work in the morning thinking ‘come on guys, please don’t be dead.’ I did use medications to alleviate their pain and we had a veterinarian come in to assess their health, but their lifespan is pretty short. If they were around for more than 16 months I was happy.
Sometimes they’d thrash around in the tubes and get cut by the metal mesh and we’d euthanize them humanely. I think we’re at the point, technologically speaking, where model systems can be created in lieu of using live subjects. But sadly, mice and chimps and a slew of other creatures are looked at as expendable, not by the scientific community mind you. In science, and research in particular, there is a great respect and reverence for live subjects and everyone feels the weight of what they are doing. Mice are cheap to purchase, but bed-bugs are really expensive and hard to keep alive in artificial environments. A story germ might be “National Mouse Day,” because so much of what we know about the world comes from the sacrifice of mice and other creatures. When you begin to look at them as less than human, it’s time for you to get out of the field.
The males end up killing each other, and in some cases the females too, out of a competitive drive to dominate, reproduce and pass their genes on. The ‘Purple’ in the Big Purple are the nitrile gloves we put on when it’s time to screw with their world, and in that story we are seen as both Gods and enemies.
SC: Did your efforts produce progress in bedbug research? The research process must be frustratingly slow with many dead ends.
SM: Ideas and results in science are pretty well-guarded, especially when it comes to projects that are turned into products and patented. Bed bugs are a huge problem in many communities and the solutions are half-ass at best. We can thwart them by physical barriers like talc powder around beds and traps that use extremely smooth surfaces to keep them locked away. They’ll climb anything with texture but can’t tread across something smooth like glass. They’ll climb the rough surface of a simple trap, fall in the center and never be able to escape because the inside of such traps are too smooth for them to get a hold on.
We were interested in how they find their meals and turns out they do have an affinity for certain colors and smells. We worked with an electrophysiology device that used small probes inserted into their olfactory bulbs (like our taste buds) to measure affinity or repellency based on samples we exposed them to and electrical activity. My job was to keep the bugs and mice and mosquitoes (which was our main research project in the prevention of malaria and dengue fever etc.) happy and thriving. I spent most of my time in very hot and humid conditions because the environment has to be altered in order for them to proliferate at the rate we desired.
I think it was Newton who said, ‘If I see far it’s only because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants,’ and that’s what you have to do in science. We collaborated with other experts in the field, tweaked their experiments, invented some of our own. Scientific discovery is really a collaborative effort with those who came before us and those who are discovering alongside us. That’s why scientific journals and primary literature are so important. If your test is successful it has to be reproducible to anyone in the world. If it’s not, there’s something wrong with the results or something wrong with the original data and experimental procedures. But the intricacies of how bed bugs find meals by way of olfaction are still pretty much a mystery. We know exhalation of CO2 is a major component in mosquitoes finding their meals. Humans have to exhale and mother nature needs balance. It’s an arms race, and the more we adapt the more they adapt. It’s beautiful but also daunting.
SC: Even once the means by which bed bugs locate their prey is found the next level of complexity is finding an economical solution.
SM: In my experience, while the vast majority of infestations are located in motels or apartment complexes (places where a large number of people congregate), there are big problems in homes and rural areas also. If you’ve ever seen the TV show Supernatural, these two brothers use old remedies to ward off monsters and creatures of the dark, and one thing they do is pour a line of salt across doorways and window sills to prevent anything getting in or out. While it’s a TV show and can be a bit hoaky at times, that strategy actually works against bed bugs.
The main entrance point is the bedposts, or legs, and a circle of talc powder around all four legs prevents them from gaining access to your bed. Once they’re on your bed it’s a whole other can of worms and you’re probably not going to get them off. They can latch onto clothes pretty tight and use people as vectors. If they are using CO2 as a means to locate meals (we found they have a much shorter range than mosquitoes, about 20 feet) you can also set-up a diversion, a device that emits CO2 to lure them away from beds. Lots of traps come with CO2 emitters. You can even use a bucket of dry ice because it basically blows off CO2 until it’s depleted. The economics aren’t that complicated or ‘high-end.’ I think bed bugs are looked at as a ‘poor person’s’ problem so the incentive to move forward with real solutions is pretty nonexistent. But ask anyone living out in the country or in ‘the sticks’ and they’ll probably know all about the CO2 emissions and the talc powder solutions.
SC: In this interview I see you no longer work as a biologist. Do you mind saying what you are doing now to pay the bills besides writing?
SM: I’m fortunate enough to have the support of the love of my life, Cymphonee. There was a time when we both worked full time jobs and believe me, we had a great time doing whatever we liked. We switched off over the years, me working her not working, her working me not working, and now we’re at the point where she works two jobs while I take care of things at home and write as much as I can. It’s tough, financially, sometimes, but we really want each other to go after our dreams. There will come a day when it’s time for me to get back to work so she can go after what she wants, and she’s wanted to go to medical school for a long time. She’s applying this year and I’ll do whatever I have to to ensure she gets the same support she’s given me this last year.
I’m also an eBay junkie and get extra money selling out of print books and collectibles. I’m pretty obsessed with hardback books and sometimes have a hard time letting them go. You’d be surprised how much you can get for old books and especially Manga translated into English. But nothing worth it’s weight in gold is ever easy. In most cases you have to struggle and fail before you can reach the heights you’re aiming for. Short story sales help us get through too, but unfortunately not many people read them anymore. It’s a shame. Short form is what got me writing in the first place.
SC: Do you recommend a career in biology? If so, what should I do to prepare?
SM: Science is a great career, and I still have a deep love for biology and medicine and physics. But you have to know what you want. If you love research then you’re better off getting a master’s degree or a doctorate. It’s tough to move up and run your own projects with an undergraduate degree but some people get lucky. It’s not that lucrative and it’s tough work, especially if you’re doing field research, but the rewards of contributing to the scientific base of knowledge are priceless. Most people choose biology because it contains all of the requirements for applying to medical school. You just have to crush that MCAT exam. You need to have an imagination also, which is something most people don’t see scientists as having.
The world on a microscopic scale has to be envisioned because sometimes, no matter what kind of microscope you’re using, it’s invisible. Results come slow and experiments fail 95% of the time. It’s work most people will never see or appreciate so if you need constant validation or sunshine blown up your ass on a daily basis it’s not the path for you.
To prepare…mmmmmm. Don’t be afraid to question everything about the world you know. It’s okay to get your hands dirty, to really dive into the ‘guts’ of what makes living things tick. I spent an entire semester wondering ‘what’s an animal? Is a spider an animal, is bacteria alive? What are the parameters that constitute life?’ If you’re interested in these kinds of questions then give it a try. You need to know math (at least calculus), statistics, chemistry, physics…all the hard sciences. They come into play time and time again.
SC: Besides sacrifice do you have other topics you enjoy exploring in your work? Justice played a role in your Cirsova viking story.
SM: Revenge, justice, moral ambiguity. I don’t really think in terms of theme when I’m writing a story. Theme, at least for me, doesn’t come up until I’m finished. It’s a skeleton waiting to be fleshed out, and it runs through stories subconsciously I think. I read Sky’s interview and he said something about getting mental images, glimpses of a story that he just runs with. It works that way for me too. I don’t think as writers we know where it comes from, if we did we wouldn’t hate the question ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Topic and theme, in my opinion, come later when you see the actions and choices of your characters. Childhood, and how our personalities and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us are solidified, is something I like to explore also.
If you grow up believing you’re missing something vital to becoming an adult, it’s going to show up in your work whether you want it to or not, unless you’re being dishonest with yourself. There’s plenty of room for stories that are just plain old action-packed fun, devoid of personal attachment or thematic value, and that’s fine. What keeps me writing is wanting to say something about my own life and beliefs through my characters and the worlds they inhabit. It doesn’t have to be profound, but if you can make it profound…why not? Why not try and make your readers think about theme and topic and soul long after they’ve finished reading.
SC: How did you come across Cirsova?
SM: I use Duotrope and The Submissions Grinder to log and keep track of all my story submissions. I picked up a bunch of old Robert E. Howard books at the time and was really enjoying the way he spun that yarn. So I started a viking story about a group of guys sailing out to Hel’s realm to atone for the sins of their village. The Howard stuff inspired me to let go and have fun with the narrative, and when I was searching for a market I found Cirsova. I bought the e-book and really liked the stories, particularly from Sky, Misha, Brian and Donald. They were unhinged, I like to call it, free to fire off in any direction, uncontrived and uninhibited by what the vast majority of publications call ‘what we like and what we don’t like.’ Also, Jabari’s artwork is amazing! That cover depicting Gift of the Ob-Men was real quality. I hate to say it but most stuff sells or gets read because of cover art. In my case, it was the cover of Cirsova that got me to submit.
From a writer’s perspective, Alex is a blast to work with. He pays well, on time, and really takes care of his authors. The layout and feel–I still prefer the hard copies–of the magazine are plucked straight from the annals of time. He’s got hardcovers too!
SC: I’m surprised how many of the Cirsvoa crew have a strong background in horror. I was never much into the horror genre, maybe some Stephen King, but now I’m waiting on a magazine recommended during my talk with Adrian Cole and into my third book of Misha’s Lost Doors series.
Would a Venn diagram of fantasy, SFF, and horror authors show a large grouping in the overlap or that author’s with a strong horror background tend to write in a style compatible with Alex’s idea of a good story?
SM: I think, and don’t quote me on this, Alex knows exactly the kind of stories he wants. He has a long history with genre and knows the work that influenced his tastes and what he wants in the pages of Cirsova. We, as contributors, do our best to match the vision he has. As far as horror goes, it’s the most natural thing for me to write. Don’t get me started on Stephen King because I still believe he’s one of the greatest, most influential writers of our time. I don’t think in terms of genre much, it’s all the same room with different furniture as Poppa George says. Elements of horror can be found in everything from science fiction to fantasy to even non-fiction works. It’s an umbrella over literature and genre. Everyone is afraid of something, it’s in our genes. Whether you like blood and guts or subtle horror like stuff from Nightmare magazine, it’s all valid in the human experience.
Anytime I’m writing, the horror bug bites me and I just can’t help but go dark. If we could write stories about perfectly well-adjusted people who are upstanding citizens and who never have a care in the world other than what movie to choose next from a premium cable package, I’m sure we could. But it would bore the pants off people. No one wants to read about ‘normal,’ they don’t even know what normal is. People like bad shit to happen, they want to experience it without the actual consequences of having their worst nightmares and fears come true. Horror is their way to accomplish that. I think it’s rarely understood or appreciated, but it’s in everything.
SC: Alex may chime in the comments.
Good observation about elements of horror being found in multiple genres. Do you give credence to the point David P. Goldman makes in this article? He begins by discussing how Americans rejected the horror tales of the old country as they tended to be optimistic and lived a blessed life on the new continent. As Americans became reacquainted with horror (Vietnam and terrorism given as examples) the trend moved towards bad scenarios without consequences in greater and more disturbing amounts?
SM: Aside from the context of the origins of good and evil in this article, I agree that the degree to which Americans are seeking a more horrific experience is notching to the right, in the red zone on the rpm gauge, I guess you could say. I wasn’t around during the Vietnam era so I can’t speak from experience, but I think with the advent of TV and ‘in your face’ imagery from the era, our collective ideas about what we feared shifted from the aforementioned ‘comical parodies.’ TV and film is a completely different medium for storytelling and I think, as visual creatures, we like to see rather than imagine. But after the TV is shut down and the film is over and we go back to our daily lives, it’s our imagination that lingers. Not to say images can’t linger (Regan’s head spinning in the Exorcist followed me down many a dark hallway in my youth) but we’re oversaturated with them to the point of indifference; ‘desensitized’ as the above article puts it.
If it’s not in your backyard, most people don’t care about it. I think today with the film and TV technology we have you can make things more realistic, more shocking and blood-riddled and there will always be someone out there willing to shape that realism into the medium of film or TV. Reading horror (I don’t always consider horror as something to box-up in a neat package) has always relied on our perception being altered, using our five senses to really scare ourselves. For example, take a book like Pet Sematary. If you don’t have children and have never entertained the idea of losing a child to something as mundane as a truck passing by on a busy highway, that story isn’t going to have the same impact on you as it would if you were a parent. Not to say you can’t empathize to the point of actually putting yourself in those shoes, but it’s different…it lingers.
Monsters and armies of darkness and ‘Sauron’ are a way of externalizing evil and making our fears tangible to the point where we can ‘hit back.’ But I think the scariest shit comes from us, from human beings capable of both creating and destroying whatever we put our minds to. That’s why I love morally gray characters. I don’t think there is a single person among us not capable of the most horrific thing we can image.
Now I’m not the biggest fan of slasher-type horror but I’d never knock it or tell a big fan of it that they’re wasting their time. It has its merits, I think, and I once saw a documentary about how fans of the really gory stuff are actually more prepared to face death than the rest of us. If you like it and it floats your boat, then…by all means, enjoy. The fact is most of us don’t actually see the kind of things that happen in the horror genre and so it becomes, to a degree, less impactful. But when footage of our soldiers coming back from Vietnam in caskets hit American TV sets, I think it took something we might have been desensitized to and made it real. Pushing the envelope has become the way to reach the biggest audience and so I think the films and TV shows will just keep getting more and more explicit.
SC: I did enjoy reading Stephen King though I disembarked from the King express when victims of paternal sexual abuse became the norm for many of his characters. Night Shift was great and the more or less non-horror Four Seasons was another good one. What are some of your King favorites?
SM: Yeah, I’ve heard that from a lot of former King fans. I think one of his biggest fears was becoming a monster himself. You can see it clearly in The Shining, and later on when Danny Torrence almost becomes his own father in Dr. Sleep. For some victims of sexual abuse it’s something you live with for a really long time, something much more horrifying than the creature from the black lagoon, something real. What I like about his work is how it changes over time, how it can go from cheap thrill and gross-out to poignant and thought provoking. The Shining (not the film), The Stand, Carrie, IT, definitely Different Seasons, Skeleton Crew (who can forget Survivor Type), Misery and most of all probably his short story collections. The End of the Whole Mess, Dedication, A Good Marriage. He blends his own experiences and fears into fiction seamlessly (when his POV isn’t a writer). He writes about what makes him uncomfortable and I think that’s why he’s still around. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is awesome, almost like a dark fairy tale in modern times. He doesn’t stick to one thing (The Dark Tower stuff is off the wall) and you can clearly see his subject matter evolve over time. Truth be told, I think more than the scary things he writes about, it’s the voice in his work that shines through.
Finding your voice as a writer is a tough thing to do but when you find it, it’s magic.
SC: When writing stories of different genres, e.g. between SF and horror, do you find your writing process is different or it remains the same no matter the subject?
SM: It’s different and it’s the same. The greatest tool we have as writers is reading, and if you don’t read your process–the tools in your box–begins to wane and become dull. I like to read a piece at least twice: once for the journey and experience, once for the internal editor with a critical eye. If I’m reading horror non-stop then my process–the tropes, the atmosphere, the onslaught of sensory detail–is going to move fast, unconsciously almost. But my other work will suffer. You want to read as wide and diverse as you can, even non-fiction and memoirs and poetry. Here’s what I know about my own work. If I’m writing horror the voice always comes first, the situation of it all. If I’m writing science fiction the idea and technology come first, maybe the enormity of a vast world encompassing the human experience. If I’m writing fantasy I see the world first and the feeling behind different characters. I think I work that way because subconsciously there are certain base tropes and norms solidified in my mind. Our job is to know the tropes, know the work that came before us, absorb it, then filter it from our minds and shatter it with our own voices and experiences. I’ve never heard of a prolific writer who didn’t read like it was going out of style. After you’ve absorbed you have to sometimes isolate yourself. Neil Gaiman, I’ve heard, gets a seed for a story and then isolates himself, turns off all external stimuli like social media, literature, phones, TV etc. Your own unique voice has to grow in solitude sometimes. I don’t think we allow ourselves to become bored anymore, to let our minds wander without being stimulated to an ‘11’ on the amplifier.
The process for every story is different, but there is a common thread about how you edit and plot and add layers. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end to every story, and if you deviate from that layout it fries people sometimes. Storytelling is in our genes whether we know it or not and most people can recognize when something is wrong. It’s the editors and avid readers who can point out what that something is. I do like to listen to certain types of music when it comes to switching genres. Piano and violin solos and heavy metal for horror, soundtrack scores for fantasy, and ambient or electronic for science fiction. Like smell, sound can sometimes wake up the subconscious and get the ball rolling when you’re stuck in a ditch. We all have bad days, but as long as you push yourself to write every day you’ll have something to work with. A bad day is 250-500 words. A good day is 3-5 thousand. Most days it’s somewhere between the two. It all depends on where you’re at mentally. As far as genre, they all get done the same way, just in different order.
SC: You mentioned it was hard to shake the usual tropes when writing SF. Why do you feel less pressure when writing horror stories?
SM: I know horror better, if that means anything. I sometimes think of fantasy, horror, and science fiction in terms of past, present, and future, not that that mold hasn’t been broken a thousand times. I have a deep respect for the past and the history of things; what it can teach us about our mistakes and our roots. Horror is very present tense for me, I’m afraid of a lot of things and get mental imagery of horrible things happening to the people I love, so I live very much in the moment, the now. The future, and what it will look like, has been painted for us over the decades to resemble something cohesive, something similar to a lot of artists. It’s those future depictions, interplanetary travel, isolation, alien races, convenient technologies, that are hard to break free from. Maybe I have a negative image of what the future looks like so I don’t put much stock in populating it with the characters in my head, or maybe I just don’t have the tools in my box sharpened enough in the SF genre. Or maybe we won’t be around long enough to find out.
But there’s also something really powerful about envisioning the future. I just need to let go of what came before me and paint my own version of it. I wrote a Starship Trooper parody a couple years ago called Imagine all the Insects (now I’ll be branded as the ‘bug guy’ forever) where a marine sides with the aliens and communicates with them using an electric guitar and old song lyrics, but I haven’t been bitten by the SF bug in a while. The article you cited about ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ SF may have more merit for me as a writer than I initially thought. If I don’t have the idea of whether or not the technology is ‘feasible’ in the back of my mind, I’m actually quite comfortable writing SF. There…problem solved.
SC: Recently, there has been discussion on the CH Blog about Hard Science Fiction, the definition, impact and utility in producing a great story as an end result. Actually, it’s been a topic for a while now, and the debate has been acrimonious at times, enough so that my man Misha penned this excellent post/suggestion.
Amongst horror fans do you find this level of debate? There may be some “know it more than you nerds” that have trivia locked down but I’m thinking horror fans don’t dive into the level of debate one finds on the fantasy and SF side.
SM: I think genre was, and still is, something used by the ‘industry’ to confine writing which is boundless. When these debates go down I tend to keep on the sidelines because they don’t change my ideas about my own work. Hard and soft are terms used by publishers and new readers who want an idea of the kind of stories their delving into. I tend to agree with a lot of what Misha said. King isn’t specifically a horror writer, Martin isn’t specifically a fantasy writer, Heinlein isn’t specifically a science fiction writer (though the training of an engineer is scientific). Those are just the boxes we put them in to market their work. I will say science fiction, in my opinion, has a more narrow focus. Like horror, fantasy is huge and all-encompassing. The hard and soft definitions of science fiction have become a way to categorize whether or not the technology in a story is feasible. Is it possible to envision the technology working in the future or not? Hard also means, to the writer, ‘am I willing to put in the research to make my work ‘realistic?’ Three decades ago we didn’t have the stark lines between hard and soft so much because the technology was beyond most people’s imagination of what could be real. With the exponential growth of technology, science fiction is becoming technology fiction, and while I don’t read a lot of science fiction most of the stuff I do read tends to be technology heavy. It all depends on what you want from a story. If I’m Heinlein, of course my idea of science fiction is going to be a bit harder than someone like Vance who loved to cross genre boundaries.
These debates will go on as long as some readers think they have the inside track on what’s real and what’s not. If a race of aliens on planet Xanthos invading earth is more feasible than a generation ship exploring the galaxy for me then I’m going to lean towards the softer side of things. It’s all relevant, and stems from a kind of nostalgic privilege. I’m a product of the 80’s and so things like remaking Conan the Barbarian or the Ghost in the Shell are going to make me feel like ‘there’s no way these untested newbies can capture what those films meant to me; they’re going to screw it up.’ I loved Karate Kid, but I also love the remake. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to a change in the collective consciousness of what belongs to us.
It’s important to know the history and roots of ‘genre’ fiction, but it’s also important to know and understand where those roots have grown. I read Corey, Jemisin, and Hurley just as much as I read Vance, Heinlein, and Howard. I must say I’m not a big Asimov fan, but he’s always relevant to the conversation. And in my opinion, it’s ALL literary. We’re all influenced by what we read in one way or another. I work as a first reader with Adrian Collins and the Grimdark Magazine team because my tastes lean that way. I prefer gray characters to black and white ones. Write whatever you want to write, hard or soft, gross or poignant, dark or uplifting. It’s the audience–the readers–who ultimately place value and relevance on the work.
SC: When reading your Cirsova stories I’m wondering if you purposely based one in an aquatic environment (The Water Walks Tonight) and the other in a drier locale (The Phantom Sands of Calavass)?
SM: I talked a bit about the origins of Water Walks Tonight. I’ve always been fascinated by Viking culture and wanted to do a bit of a mash-up between dark fantasy and horror. The aquatic environment kind of goes with the territory. The Phantom Sands of Calavass was a totally different mindset. I was pleased with the quality of the magazine that Alex was putting out and wanted to take part in another issue. I had no idea what themes he was working with compiling the issues. But I did see he wanted more Planet Stories–Raygun Romances, as he puts it. So I sat down and kind of went Buck Rodgers with some Dune thrown in. I love the desert setting, something Bradley P. Beaulieu works masterfully in, and wanted to include an uprising and a strange Dr. experimenting on the locals.
‘They’re calling the Worm,’ I kept hearing while cooking lunch or sitting on the toilet, and I saw it’s maw come leaping out of the sand to devour a mining population. I had a lot of fun with that story and learned to let go of ‘what’s possible and what isn’t.’ That’s the fun of Cirsova, you can let go of the reins of genre and just fly with whatever your mind can conjure up.
SC: What are you working on now?
SM: I move around a lot with works in progress, and I like to have my hands in a lot of different pots. Cirsova #5 includes my story “Beyond the Great Divide” and NewMyths.com just published my story “The Sound of Steel on Stone” in issue #38. I’ve got about 300 pages of a novel I’m still working on and I’m coming to the end of a horror/thriller novelette called “Sharpest Knife in the Drawer.”
I’d like to get to the point where I’m writing novels all the time but my roots are really in short form and so I always have a short story in the works. I’m rewriting a couple of old stories that I really feel good about and want to share. Cirsova is opening submissions soon so maybe I’ll get a really far out piece done for that grand day. I have a new audio piece produced by The Manor House Podcast called “What’s Done in the Dark” coming out in September, I believe. I love the quality productions they put out, kind of like Tales From the Crypt with Rock Manor being the new incarnation of the Crypt Keeper. It’s about how addictions and impulsive behavior can have consequences far beyond hurting ourselves. ‘Sins of the Father,’ sums it up.
SC: Please tell Cirsova readers what to expect in Beyond the Great Divide?
SM: This was the first time I felt like I was given a chance from an editor to contribute to a shared world. Misha was very kind in his invitation and offered feedback on works in progress. Alex picked some insanely good stories for the Eldritch Earth issue and I think fans are in for a special treat. I noticed a lot of contributors were telling stories from the human perspective and I wanted to do something different. I also began the piece from the human perspective but scrapped my first attempt because it was too close to a piece by Rob Lang. So I switched to first person from the perspective of an insectoid race called the Slagborn.
A Slagborn leader brings war to a settlement of Kumaali (a human race dwelling in a rainforest environment). The hive mind of the Slagborn (they have no names, just numbers) is in direct conflict with the individuality of human sentiments and emotions. It’s a story about how something seemingly emotionless can experience loss and hate and a range of emotions while still remaining anonymous and dispensable.
There’s a lot of action, though it’s toned down a bit at the cost of what the main character is ‘feeling.’ The Slagborn have a sense of superiority to all other races because their anatomy and physiology are better suited to thrive in an area called The Great Divide where conditions are too unbearable for humans. They believe the Earth belongs to them. It has some strange sensory perception (insect driven olfaction), dinosaurs, volcanos, and a xenophobic POV character who I hope becomes more sympathetic as the story progresses. Even insects feel loss and sorrow in my world.
SC: Shawn, thank you for your time and the great conversation.
SM: Scott, it’s been a blast, and thank you for putting in all this time and effort to make it fun. I wish you the best.
NOTE: I have set up a Google + account which can be used as a quick reference for other Conversation posts along with my Wargame Wednesday contributions.