FEAR & LOATHING IN PORTLAND: AN UNEXPURGATED INTERVIEW WITH LUCIUS SHEPARD

by Edward  Morris

 

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I stand in the dark light, on the dark street, and look up at the window of an OMNI stalwart

whose work lit the sky for me like a million wishing-stars when I was a boy. I thought then:
“This guy gets it. He has seen the landscape of my dreams.”

As I have seen his, too, and more. The inner and outer landscapes Lucius Shepard

has traveled contain worlds within worlds within worlds of story, imparted through

a certain half-smile that means I Shall Tell You All.Ray Bradbury’s Colonel Freeleigh in DANDELION WINE was described as a human time machine. Lucius Shepard is a human spaceship that can travel in five dimensions at the change of a subject.

I approach the doorstep of the fabulous old sandstone building and think about every building like this that I’ve
vacuumed,the things I’ve seen in some basements, the miles of Shanghai tunnel that only slumlords
now know…and their former henchmen.
The hidden city, the one called Rose’s City after its most legendary madam, the Portland of opium
dens and hobo jungles and poets smoking hash in clean dark windows. The Portland I can see from
the fire escape on Lucius’ floor….
Not the first time I have ventured into the strange sunsets of the Lovecraft Housing Blocks
just past the Crystal Ballroom. All those mossy old Art-Deco masterpieces with names like the
Sara Anne, for blocks and blocks of green-space streets so quiet you can hear the ones who
were here before us creeping through their own Shanghai Tunnels, far below the parks in Hoyt Street,
a whole civilization blooming from our scraps…

I get in this mood, when I go see Lucius. It’s been almost three years. For part of that, he was
out of the country, for part of it he was ill, and for part of it I’m not even going to work
my side of the street here.

Lucius’ Portland is a lot more fun. I hear his voice in every trainhopper ghost the Yards
ever coughs up in the fog of strawberry spring. He is as Portland as webbed feet. And tonight, as
always, the twenty-one-year old me working part-time at the comic book shop, sits up and whistles
with a copy of the latest issue of VERMILLION open on the register desk. That kid doesn’t know why.
I do.
Lucius buzzes me in, and I walk up three flights of stairs, listening to the song of the antique
building in the night, like a ship settling. Outside, the stars turn black, but though his skin
is pale and he looks peaked, his eyes are bright and the laugh in his voice bespeaks better health.
When I see this, my own eyes grow brighter, and the pen comes out. I’ve been waiting three years
for this. Lucius knows it, too. ROLL SOUND: ROLLING SPEED IN 3,2,1…
INT: What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever written, and why?

LS:  I had a complete breakdown. It was difficult to construct, with all those long sentences. The whole book had this sensitivity early on, and it was difficult to get the balance right, to have it anywhere near finished.
Well, eight or nine chapters in, I woke up one day with my serotonin level completely blown. I
was this big, gray *thing in the mirror. Eventually, I got back on track. But it was a nightmare,
and I had to get it out.
INT: What are you working on now?

LS: Due to staggering medical bills I have to get caught up on, I am whoring in Hollywood again.
The script I’m working on right now is sort of like ‘Die Hard On The Moon’, if you will. It’s
tough. The family has about as much conflict as the family on ‘Lassie.’
I’d written very little before I got well. Writing for Hollywood is different. It suppresses
your creativity–like when they put Barton Fink on a wrestling picture in that movie and said ‘Do
that Barton Fink thing…except when I do my Barton Fink thing, it’s always too much and I have
to pull back, to make this or that family member less screwed-up, or whatever. It’s very
difficult… but I don’t really consider Hollywood scripts *writing.

INT: I’ve asked similar questions of S.M. Stirling and several other authors placed in the
unique position of having the present catch up to their postulated future while they are still
alive. When it comes to your breakout 1987 novel LIFE DURING WARTIME, how does the present
situation in that region (Mexico, Mesoamerica and South America) Stack up against your
vision of it? 
LS: We got caught up in other wars: The Balkans, the Middle East, and all the rest, but we’re already heading for a war
down there. It’s been in the cards for 25 years …Colombia, way back, and all the elements are still
in place there, even if everyone’s holding hands and singing Kumbaya because the cocaine trade’s
more circumspect than it was under Pablo Escobar. It’s still there. It feels like Detroit in the
Sixties when they cleaned up downtown by flushing all the crime out to the suburbs.
The elements are there now in Venezuela, too, because of the oil…There are a lot of serious
contributing factors. Violence has escalated in that whole region because, in part, of the
American deportation of the guys that became Mara 15.
Honduras has one of the highest national homicide rates in the world, and Mexico is off the charts.
The cartels…Mara-15 is fast becoming a contender, and the Zetas in rural Mexico as well.

Now, with the gangs, it’s a whole new deal. I started going to Honduras in 1976 but didn’t start
seeing these kinds of changes until the late Nineties.George Bush was deporting people to
Honduras and elsewhere There were these two brothers in Honduras, gang lords, whose MO was to kidnap an ordinary public bus full of workers and
women and kids, have their group call the policia and tell them they did it.

Then they’d kill everyone on the bus. while the cops were thus occupied, more of the group would
hijack a dump truck and use it to rob a bank. Thus, one crime with sixty casualties. They out-
violenced us. That’s why no one’s really been in a hurry to go to war down there. Makes it less
appealing (laughs)

They still hate Americans, and for good reason. You can’t really get a sense of that until you
examine the last two centuries of their history. American corporate interests have violated the whole
area and made it OUR Balkans. There’s not a lot of love lost.

The whole panoply of events hasn’t worked all the way out yet, but if we get a Republican president
the next turn or two, we could get into a high-tech war in Venezuela that would, of necesssity, have
a lot of infantry /jungle/ war of attrition features like Vietnam. Drones are a little hard to
pinpoint in jungle with any accuracy.

In short, the particulars may be different, but the elements are all still there. Waiting. LIFE
DURING WARTIME could still happen.
INT: When it comes to graphic novels in general…We’ve discussed this at length before, but for
the benefit of the folks just tuning in, did writing VERMILLION kill your taste for wanting to
write a graphic novel again?

LS: (laughs) Depends on how much money I need. That wasn’t a happy experience. The people running
Vertigo had good instincts, but not when it came to the direction of the Helix imprint, and that
series. For one thing, VERMILLION was *not supposed to be an all-ages comic. That was very stifling.
I was just finding my way. It would have been interesting to truly finish out the arc of that story,
rather than write this quick ending because I had to. The experience didn’t kill my taste for that
form, but there are only certain reasons why I’d seek it out now. Like getting the chance to adapt
another writer’s work into graphic novel form, something like that. Make Me An Offer…
INT: I have a loaded question revolving around your DRAGON GRIAULE cycle.
<http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/05/griaule-abides-a-review-of-the-dragon-griaule-by-lucius-shepard&gt;
What do you think of the viability of ‘Science Fantasy’ as a sub-genre in the canon, and would you
say that any of the aforementioned cycle falls into that sub-genre?

LS: It’s a totally viable sub-genre. Among other Burroughs stories, the UNDER THE MOONS OF MARS cycle
is completely Science Fantasy, beam-weapons and all.
<http://books.google.com/books/about/Under_the_Moons_of_Mars.html?id=SGdjRC_L8dMC&gt;

Jack Vance was another writer who did Science Fantasy very well.He stands out for me in that genre
more than anybody. <http://www.jackvance.com/&gt;

INT: Jack Vance is still alive, last I heard. He’s in his nineties. He and William F. Nolan are two
of the oldestliving members of that crowd.

LS: Good. He was always one of my three or four favorite Science Fiction authors, and so very much
of what he did was Science Fantasy in its purest and often most epic sense.

A lot of times, you could see him really step outside himself, and transcend his own usual forms.
You have to remember he was writing on board ship, half the time, back and forth between various
ports of call. Writing has always been an honorable profession for merchant seamen because there’s
so much down-time. Vance was great Science Fantasy, Cordwainer Smith…
<http://www.cordwainer-smith.com/&gt;
INT: What about Robert E. Howard? Some of what he did—

LS: Not “Conan.” (chuckles) Never could get into Conan. I almost had a chance to write one of those.
Jason Williams from Night Shade Books <http://www.nightshadebooks.com&gt; was putting together a kind
of thinking-man’s Sword & Sorcery anthology, but But I couldn’t make the stretch to that world. I
said that mine would have been something like CONAN THE INTELLECTUAL…

INT: ‘Conan The Librarian.’ Couldn’t resist.

LS: Sure. I don’t know if the DRAGON GRIAULE cycle falls anywhere near there or not. To me, it was
just a big, ambitious story, a metaverse. THE SKULL of course took it into the contemporary age,
which was what I think you were asking, but even then… Once, I wrote a story in which only one
thing was done differently. As though it were the real world, but with a great big dragon, or in
another instance, some one thing amplified.I don’t know if that’s still traditional Fantasy, or
Science Fantasy by default. It can be tough to call.

THE SKULL was fun. It was written in a lot of different styles. One section, for example, was
written in one long sentence. Another section was laid out like a play. The newest is
straight-ahead and linear, as much so as I think any of my stuff ever gets, but everyone seems to
think they’re all kind of odd. But they seem like normal shit to me. (shrugs) The next books are a
collection called Five Autobiographies and a Fiction, and a novel called Beautiful Blood.
*

Lucius and I talked a lot longer, of many things. Vast, sweeping, left-field wonderment things,
French Metal and half a million recommended movies back and forth. The soul of the land seeping
into his bones in Tibet, the Trans-Tibetan Railroad I once boarded in my dreams, and hearing the
Dalai Lama exclaim over the airport gift of an Atlanta Braves baseball cap: “Oh, B for Buddha!”
Things that light up the soul on the way home, especially when it’s cold and the neon is very far
away.

Our conversations usually extend longer than an interview would support, off the page and up the
peaks and down the valleys of mountain ranges that extend beyond Madness, into what Kit Marlowe
called the literature of the age. That landscape can be found in quiet apartments on nights like
this, with no entourage, no DJ, not even backing vocals. Merely the dance of laptop keys whose
action gets worked so hard that they stutter out Morse Code to the world. Sometimes, that sound
is the only tune we need to Rock and Roll.

 

 

 

One thought on “FEAR & LOATHING IN PORTLAND: AN UNEXPURGATED INTERVIEW WITH LUCIUS SHEPARD

  1. Pingback: William F. Nolan » Blog Archive » Fear & Loathing In Portland: An Unexpurgated Interview With Lucius She…

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