We talk to Robert Shearman about his short story collection Remember Why You Fear Me, and about horror and short stories in general.
In the introduction of your book Remember Why You Fear Me, Stephen Jones writes that you don’t tend to describe yourself as a horror writer. Why is this? And how would you describe yourself if pressed?
I think I’ve come to the horror genre rather late, really! 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 theatre 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.
Other collections of your work have been published by Big Finish and Comma Press. How did you come to publish this latest book with Chizine Publications? Is it different working with a more directly horror-orientated publisher?
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 output! 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 from 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.
You’re most well-known for having written an episode of Doctor Who. Are your writing for TV and your short fiction two completely different things, or is there a lot of overlap?
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 that they don’t change the TV channel 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.
What, in your opinion, makes a good short story?
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.
You’re the winner of the World Fantasy Award for best collection. Could you tell us a bit about that?
That was for my first book, Tiny Deaths, which was released in 2007. It was a life-changing thing, really. It’s quite a humble little book and I had no great expectations of it – it’s a collection of odd little tales that (very cheerfully!) revolve around the idea of mortality and how we deal with it. (The most startling of them are collected in Remember Why You Fear Me.) I suddenly found myself on the ballot for a major award within a genre I didn’t know very much about – I went to the ceremony in Calgary with curiosity but no hopes whatsoever of winning, and as someone who didn’t even see himself as a book writer at all, and I flew home with this weird ugly statuette and a new appetite to get out there and write more books, lots of them! I’ve been enormously lucky; my second and third collections won awards too, from the British Fantasy Award, to the Shirley Jackson Award, to the Edge Hill Readers Prize – and I’ve been to Singapore where a story of mine was chosen by the National Library as their international short of the year! Remember Why You Fear Me feels a little like the culmination of all that very generous attention – half of it is the best of my dark fiction from those first three books, and half entirely new works. In the very nicest way, it feels nostalgic to me, bringing those award winning tales to a North American readership, whilst looking out to the future too.
Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
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 justsosospecial.com – and there’s other information there about me and my work, and how to find me on Twitter (@ShearmanRobert).
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.