Fear and Loathing in Portland: An Unexpurgated Interview with Lucius Shepard
Lucius Shepard died on March 18th. With deep respect and gratitude, we are reprinting this recent interview with him conducted by friend and mentee, Edward Morris that appeared in Issue #11 of The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction published last December.
We asked Morris for a few words by way of introduction and he had this to say:
“Last night, a swath of irrecoverable jungle burned forever, and a Species Of One disappeared for all time. Last night, every light in the city of Vermillion went out at once, and a human door across Time and Space slammed shut.
But the footprints of the jaguar paint the Hokusai rooftops of Montavilla, and the honey badgers come nosing down across Burnside to lie in my yard and moan like dogs who know someone has died.
This dragon, this centaur, this immortal Fabulist taught me to live in the jungle, to love the jungle, to sleep upside-down in trees and eat rats and paint my face with the blood like the VC. To hone our craft to a killing blade.I am amazed to report that we inspired each other, taught each other…and occasionally interviewed each other. Here is the last such drum duet on skulls:”
Fear and Loathing in Portland:
An Unexpurgated Interview with Lucius Shepard
by Edward Morris
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: VIATOR. 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 necessity, 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. 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.
Jack Vance was another writer who did Science Fantasy very well. He stands out for me in that genre more than anybody.
INT: Jack Vance is still alive, last I heard. (He died not long later. —ed.) He’s in his nineties. He, Robert Silverberg and William F. Nolan are the oldest living members of that crowd, if memory serves.
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…
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 was putting together a kind of thinking-man’s Sword & Sorcery anthology, 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.