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An Interview with John Shirley (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2016/10/01


An Interview with John Shirley. He discusses: geographic, cultural, and linguistic background; influences and pivotal moments in major cross-sections of early life; origination of the interest in science and fiction; origination of the interest in science fiction; a definition with some “self-definition” of Shirley; production or collection that took the most time and resources; personal sacrifices that coincide with the lifetime of professional writing; distinguishing characteristics of the cyberpunk genre; interactions with people such as Neil Gaiman, Dame Edna, Mrs. Shirley, Brandon Lee, Rosie, and others; a picture of a boy with a violin; and a statement by Bruce Sterling with comparison of Shirley to literary luminaries, and possible responsibility to the writing community with such comparisons.

Keywords: author, fiction, John Shirley, science, science fiction, writer.

An Interview with John Shirley: Science Fiction Author and Writer (Part One)[1],[2],[3]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, & citation style listing after the interview.*

1. In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your family background reside?[4]

My parents, aunts, and uncles are largely from the Kansas City, Kansas, area and outlying areas. Some are farmers. My father was abandoned by his mother, on her second marriage, and placed in a Catholic orphanage. He had such problems with ulcers, later, they removed two-thirds of his stomach. He also seemed to have problems with depression. He died of meningitis when I was ten years old. Our family, before he died and after as well, moved around restlessly—Texas, California, Oregon—looking for a better situation. He found it in Nevada, but then he ran into meningitis.

2. How did this influence development?

I identified with no one place. All the moving about truncated my socialization. My innate, genetically provided personality seemed socially blind, in some respects, as well. I could be a leader of a group or an outcast, depending on stimuli. Except when I’m with a few very close friends, I’ve always felt best, around other people, either in the background, watching, or on a stage. Once on a stage I’m completely at home.

3. What about influences and pivotal moments in major cross-sections of early life including kindergarten, elementary school, junior high school, high school, and undergraduate studies (college/university)?

Some bullying endured; clumsy physically; alienation from sports. Classic nerd misfit stuff. Drawn to fantasy and adventure, much time spent in library searching it out. Historical adventure also drew me. In addition I was prone to extreme states of mind, picturing myself as Dracula (at a very young age) or a superhero…but I was far from heroic, shrinking, in those days, from physical confrontation. Later I learned to fight.

I think I had that particular disability—I don’t recall the term for it—that made it difficult for me to follow people talking at any length, but I absorbed written information easily. In time I noticed my shortcoming and forced myself to attend more closely so I could follow what a teacher was saying; I taught myself to be more attentive… Still, like any number of “Calvins”, as in Calvin and Hobbes, I was still drawn into the fog, or perhaps the alternate world, of my own imagination in school, caught up in elaborate fantasies…Very “Walter Mitty” but more than just that kind of thing. A common syndrome, one I never quite got over.

I found that if I told other kids “I had a dream last night and you were in it, we had an adventure” they would listen raptly, and I would make up a story. That taught me something of the art of storytelling—I eventually learned to turn this internal escapism into a moneymaking proposition as a storyteller—and I also absorbed writing from my reading, was a sponge for it. I never could remember how to parse a sentence with grammatical terms, but I could always write a good sentence. I was like a piano player who couldn’t read music, but who simply learned how to play by listening and experimenting with the keyboard. A natural “piano player”. Writing as osmosis. I can write in numerous styles I absorbed in this fashion.

4. Where did interest in science and fiction originate for you?

My older sister had a boxful of Galaxy and other magazines; I raided the box and was drawn by the colorful, symbol-charged art, the otherworldly possibilities. From there it was a short trip to find the same authors and similar ones in the library. I also watched Superman on TV—a sort of science fiction story—and read comics. As for science, I was always curious about astronomy, about the planets, about the hidden Earth beneath the outer crust, about the secret world hidden deep in the sea. So I did read nonfiction by Isaac Asimov, and other science writers for the young. It could be quite exciting; I recently got the same feeling from watching the new version of the Cosmos on television with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

5. What about interest in science fiction in particular?

The first extensive science fiction reading I did was in grade school: Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; then Heinlein’s juveniles, and other science-fictional juvenilia. I also read all the Oz books, the Mary Poppins books, Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books (e.g., The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.), adaptations of Arthurian stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books and his interplanetary novels, like A Princess of Mars and so on. So “the fantastic” was a consistent thread through all those. I watched old movies on TV: Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, War of the Worlds… anything science fictional. I was also enamoured of Errol Flynn swashbuckler films like Captain Blood. I read a good deal of H.G. Wells, too.

6. You self-define as follows:

John Shirleyis the author of numerous books and many, many short stories. His novels include Bleak History, Crawlers, Demons, In Darkness Waiting, and seminal cyberpunk works City Come A-Walkin’, and the A Song Called Youth trilogy of Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona. His collections include the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild award-winning Black Butterflies, Living Shadows: Stories: New & Pre-owned, and In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley. He also writes for screen (The Crow) and television. As a musician. Shirley has fronted his own bands and written lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and others.[5]

You authored a number of publications.[6] In fact, you have a productive capacity worthy of the title “prolific.” From some of the books listed including “Bleak History, Crawlers, Demons, In Darkness Waiting, and seminal cyberpunk works City Come A-Walkin’, and the A Song Called Youth trilogy of Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona,” what one or two mean the most to you?

That is not how I self define. I did not even write that bio material, although it is not untrue. It *includes* some “self definition”.

The Eclipse Books — AKA the A Song Called Youth trilogy—in the revised edition, are my best works of science fiction. The books are socially prescient, the characters real, there is much rich symbolism and imagination in them. They preserve my respect for rock’n’roll energy without becoming adolescent. City Come A-Walkin’ was a unique book, a kind of magic realism novel with cyberpunk elements. Demons is a strong, well written allegory. I’ve written and published suspense thrillers too, like Spider Moon, which is one of my best books but hard to find at the moment. The ones that mean the most are the ones that I regard as most meaningful—that is, meaningful, I hope, to readers. But I always want people to read the most recent edition because I always edit the books extensively. Books I wrote when fairly young need more work, naturally. The post-edit editions are far better books.

7. You have a number of collections too:

…the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild award-winning Black Butterflies, Living Shadows: Stories: New & Pre-owned, and In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley. He also writes for screen (The Crow) and television.[7]

Of these individual productions and collections, what one took the most time and resources?

Collections accrete as short stories are written. The editors and publishers invest the most time and resources once the story is written. Paula Guran edited most of them. I re-edited some of them recently. I did do some considerable organization and conceptualization in the unique story collection Really Really Really Really Weird Stories, from Nightshade. The book is divided into four parts, Really Weird Stories, Really Really Weird Stories, and so on. That is my concept and I organized the stories. I also conceptualized the organization of Black Butterflies and In Extremis, picking experientially tinted stories, or stories that delved deep into my sense of horror at the reality of the human condition. I wanted to bring the underside, the hidden aspects of human experience, the demimonde, into the light. Many of the stories emanate from my time as a drug addict and my connection with people in the “sex industry” and personal traumatic experiences. So that linked them all up. Really…Weird probably took the most time.

8. What personal sacrifices comes from a lifetime of professional writing?

I have to be my own boss; I have to develop an inner boss, a supervisory adult within, to get the stories written, the books finished. I have to struggle against depression. I had to put aside a lot of my musical/performance ambitions to make money the only way I knew how. I had other jobs—typist, and so forth—but I was always trying to make a living as a writer. I have had to sacrifice self-respect for some jobs, working in the “tie-in novel” mill, writing books based on videogames and movies and TV series on a work-for-hire basis. I tried to do them well and bring something to them, but it wasn’t designed to make me feel like the artist I wanted to be. I had to run up against my limitations. Though I worked in television and movies I was bad at the committee-interactive part of it, being part of a writing team, and writing to order in a way that’s far more demanding than tie-in novels…I had to find time to write my own self-inspired, completely original works in between, in this phase of my life. I had to accept rejection sometimes. The occasional bad review…they were rare but one of them nearly killed me…all part of the deal.

9. What seems to distinguish personal writing in the cyberpunk genre in contrast to others – as you originated some of the writing in the movement?

I think cyberpunk itself was more adult than much other contemporary science fiction was, in its day. It seemed to be largely about “the street’s uses for technology”—the hustler, the thief, the outcast, the rebel, the outsiders using technology in their own way. There was an outlaw flavor to it. We were also bringing beat lit influences (at least Rudy Rucker was), influences like JG Ballard and Philip Dick and mainstream writers like John LeCarre and John D Macdonald and Richard Stark, noir, crime fiction—all this was folded in, to try to create a synthesis that reflected the grimly unfolding dystopia about us…The personal impact of technology as a social force was an issue…I also used cyberpunk in political allegory in A Song Called Youth…We’re seeing both sides of technology now, definitely including the dark side.

My personal cyberpunk—perhaps it has more anger in it. I looked around in the world and reacted to the social hypnosis I seemed to see; I reacted to injustice more than the others, I think; I felt an inner shame at not doing something to change the inequities, to rescue people from despair, so I tended to write stories that modeled a solution—like my stories “The Prince” or “Wolves of the Plateau”—or that somehow threw a social horror, some futurological dilemma, into stark relief. In short, I was more political, though Lew Shiner had his share of political slant. But I tried to write in a way that dramatized politics instead of pontificating about an issue—I wanted to be like Dickens or Steinbeck. At the same time I was very into the cyberpunk texture, and the depiction of the demimonde…

10. In a little section, tucked away, on the personal and professional website, one can find a little webpage called Oddities.[8] It contains some bits entitled two dames, the mysterious rosie: queen of all dogs, in memorium: brandon lee, a typical shirley fan, hot chicks, mark twain, murder, tv eye, and boy with violin. These include content, and photographs, with Neil Gaiman, Dame Edna, Mrs. Shirley, Brandon Lee, Rosie, and others. In brief, how did each of these interactions occur throughout the personal narrative of 63 years represented, in part, in Oddities?

I didn’t create Oddities, nor did I create the website, though certainly I was happy to cooperate with it. Paula Guran put it together (And it is currently undergoing a long-needed revision). It grew haphazardly over the last 18 years or so. Oddities is mostly just humor, odd pieces that didn’t fit in elsewhere. Brandon Lee’s death inspired the dead infant crow photos—that’s not humorous. Rosie was a little dog we had who died, who was beloved of our family. TV Eye is from a rock performance where I threw an axe into a plugged-in television set during a performance of the Iggy Pop song “TV Eye” (I’m a big fan of Iggy Pop).

11. Even further, you described some musical background too:

John Shirley was the original lead singer of SADONATION, and co-songwriter with Dave Corboy. JS was alsolead singer and lyricist for Obsession (Celluloid Records), with Sync 66 and Jerry Antonias, and is currently lead singer of THE SCREAMING GEEZERS. He has written the lyrics for 18 songs recorded by the BLUE OYSTER CULT. He is also a novelist and screenwriter. He was co-screenwriter of THE CROW and wrote the novels DEMONS, BLEAK HISTORY, CITY COME A-WALKIN’, BLACK GLASS and A SPLENDID CHAOS. His fiction spans science-fiction (cyberpunk), noir, and horror. His story collection Black Butterflies won the Bram Stoker Award. His new story collection, in august 2011, is IN EXTREMIS: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley.[9]

Curiously, in the same section entitled Oddities, a “boy” with a violin appears too: you.[10] Where does this musical and lyrical aptitude source itself?

I was a very young man when the violin picture was done (I cannot play violin). It’s a kind of embodiment of youthful verve. I did not write the musical background paragraph you see there—again, Paula Guran put the website together and wrote the copy there. So it’s not “you described”. But, yes, I was the original lead singer of SadoNation (go to YouTube, search for John Shirley SadoNation, “Johnny Paranoid” for a good video example) and other punk rock bands. I was then in post-punk bands, “futuristic funk” I called it. I have a band called The Screaming Geezers even now. I just did a recording called “I Want Ten Strippers at My Funeral” a few weeks ago. Where does it all come from? I came of age in the 1960s, early 70s, and big arena rock, powerful personalities like The Doors and The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and Frank Zappa and The Animals and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and The Who were everywhere. (I also loved Elvis as a kid.) I saw the Woodstock movie, I saw Easy Rider; I took in alternative cinema of all kinds. I went to concerts and was transfixed by the rockstar shamanism, so to speak, that I saw there. I heard storytelling in the lyrics especially in The Who and the Stones. Was later especially taken by Lou Reed as a storyteller in lyrics. Loved the atmospherics and visceral power of Iggy and the Stooges and then I struck upon the explosive musical fury of the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Ramones and Richard Hell and Television and Suicidal Tendencies and the Avengers. All this was liberating. I found progressive bands like King Crimson…Plus, I had taken mescaline and LSD in the late 60s and some in the early 70s. (I take no drugs now.) Of course that’s going to imprint me with psychedelic rock…and it helped free me from my fears of other people. I opened up, blossomed in a way. I also took poetry classes, of course.

I became a fan of the Blue Oyster Cult in 1972 and my first-published novel, Transmaniacon, was titled and inspired by their early song “Transmaniacon MC”. There was always an energy of fantasy/sf in much of rock. It was amplified; it was, in a way, cyberpunk because the musicians were linked with electronics so intimately. Electric guitar solos seemed nearly telepathic to me; an expression, through tech, of the hidden inner person, the libido, certainly, but also the self assertion of the anger and secret internal dialogue of the inner person.

All the cyberpunk writers listened to rock. Gibson and Sterling listened to another favorite of mine, Sisters of Mercy. To me it all interfaces. Michael Moorcock, too, wrote for the Blue Oyster Cult…I’ve written 18 sets of lyrics they’ve recorded…

12. Bruce Sterling stated:

the typical bruce sterling fan is a computer-science major in some midwestern university.
‘stelarc’ is a john shirley fan. stelarc is an Australian performance artist who has an artificial third hand, sometimes bounces lasers off his eyeballs, and used to suspend his naked body in midair by piercing his flesh with meathooks. i had lunch with stelarc recently. i was surprised how much i enjoyed stelarc’s company and how much he genuinely reminded me of john.

Furthermore, some compared luminaries such as “J.G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, Anton Chekov, Philip K. Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, John Collier, Franz Kafka, William Kotzwinkle, Elmore Leonard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Tom Wolfe” with you.[12] What responsibility to the trade of writing seems to coincide with the external high positive evaluation of productions by you?

If I understand the question correctly, you’re asking: Can I live up to these comparisons? I can only try. I have always felt like an artist. I’m always trying to improve, to get a new technique going, to become tighter and more powerful as a writer. It’s up to other people to decide to what degree I succeed at that.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1]Science Fiction Author and Writer.

[2] Individual Publication Date: October 1, 2016 at; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2017 at

[3] Photograph courtesy of John Shirley.

[4] Shirley, J. (2016). Biography. Retrieved from

[5] Shirley, J. (2016). John Shirley: The Authorized Website. Retrieved from

[6] Shirley, J. (2016). Bibliography. Retrieved from

[7] Shirley, J. (2016). John Shirley: The Authorized Website. Retrieved from

[8] Shirley, J. (2016). Oddities. Retrieved from

[9]Reverbnation (n.d.). John Shirley. Retrieved from

[10] Shirley, J. (2016). boy with violin. Retrieved from

[11] Shirley, J. (2016). A typical Shirley fan. Retrieved from

[12] Shirley, J. (2016). Fiction. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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