Finding Out What Makes John Shirley Tick: An Interview

John Shirley has been writing since the late 70s, and has over forty novels to his name, as well as short stories, TV scripts, screenplays, poetry, and various forms of nonfiction. His work covers diverse genres, from horror, to cyberpunk, to historical fiction, and more, and has won multiple accolades, including Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards. Shirley has also fronted multiple bands, written lyrics for classic rock legends Blue Öyster Cult, and in 2018 released a collaborative album with the progressive rock musician Jerry King. His latest novel, Stormland, has been highly acclaimed for its relentlessly entertaining blend of dystopian cyberpunk and climate-change fiction.

Tell us a little about Stormland. It brings together several different genres—how would you summarize it?

In the near future, climate-change/ extreme weather conditions have created a 500 square mile area on the SE US coast where storms permanently rage. Hurricanes, lightning storms, megaflashes, and more hurricanes come one after another, day after day, year after year. This is the worst pocket of extreme weather in the world. The area has been mostly abandoned, as flooded and wrecked, but there are still a couple thousand people there–scavenging, hiding out for their own reasons, some running from the law. A former US Marshal now working as an independent detective is sent into this highly dangerous region to investigate the possibility of a serial killer hiding out there–he uncovers something worse. The novel is “cli-fi” and cyberpunk at once, using a detective format.

What came first—the idea for the detective story at the center of the plot? The setting? The characters?

The setting. It was a “what if” idea–what if an area of the USA was afflicted with a permanent storm? Or really, a series of storms with short lulls, a matter of hours, between them. Who would live in such a place and why? What would it be like? What strange cultures would take root? Who would exploit Stormland? In answering that question–including how it could happen at all–I came up with the plot, and the characters. Also I had the idea of a character who is a serial killer–who has been cured. It’s been theorized that most serial killers are that way due to brain damage, for example from fetal alcohol syndrome. Suppose that brain damage could be reversed and empathy restored to the person? What kind of character would he be, once cured but having to live with his nightmarish past? That’s one of the science and character based ideas I explore…

What was behind the choice of Charleston, SC as the setting? In general, what do you think is important when choosing a setting for a story?

I did some research and found that the US coast, north of Florida, south of Virginia, was the most likely place for such a permanent storm. Also Charleston’s an interesting town, with colonial roots but modernization. It’s on the coast, has a harbor, lots of intriguing locales.

Besides the threat of climate change, are there other real-world themes and messages you explore in Stormland? Did these arise organically, or was it a conscious choice to include them?

Stormland is a metaphor for the human condition in a world beset by extreme weather, and the resultant displacement, refugee issues, and the dangers of local exploitation by powerful and malevolent people. So ultimately it’s about people. Some of the people are super-rich exploitative persons, elitists with their own sick agendas. They help me extend the metaphor to social conditions… The novel has something to say but it’s designed to be relentlessly entertaining…

You’ve written in a number of different genres, from horror, to cyberpunk, to historical fiction. Growing up, what do you remember as being the books, or movies, or TV shows that left a mark on you?

As a boy and a teenager I was influenced by adventure novels–historical adventure, science-fiction, fantasy. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard, HG Wells, Heinlein, Tolkien, Harlan Ellison, Ian Fleming, many others. George Pal movies had a big effect–The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds. James Bond films, Spaghetti westerns — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Certainly I watched Star Trek in Jr High. The Twilight Zone, the Outer Limits. The better television Westerns, like Gunsmoke affected me, too. I liked stories with inspiring heroes but they had to be complex and believable. Later I began to read the classics and the best detective and spy novels.

Can you take us through the process of writing a book? Is there something you usually do first or does it vary?

Mostly I work from ideas. “What if…” Also I have something to say and I look for the best metaphor to say that, in an entertaining way. But sometimes I just get a yen to tell a certain kind of story and I envision the kind of thing I’d find entertaining–and I look for my own original spin on it. I have a new fantasy novel called A Sorcerer of Atlantis out–it’s classic sword-and-sorcery, but also I tried to make it feel real, to make the characters solid, to bring wild new ideas to it, and to give it some humor. I wrote it because I felt a desire to tell a story like that, to explore that world for my own enjoyment as well as the reader’s. For similar reasons I wrote Axle Bust Creek, a western that’s coming out this year, the first volume of the Cleve Trewe trilogy from Pinnacle. I wanted to write a sophisticated western that was still classic in its feel, that fans of westerns could enjoy but that fans of serious writing could get into as well…

What was the most challenging part of writing Stormland?

Research was extensive and it was always having to be updated because the climate-change and extreme weather conditions are always changing around us, getting more intense almost by the day. I wanted to make this weird notion of a “Stormland” believable and that required time-consuming reading in science. And–what would a state of permanent storms really be like to live in? How would it be possible to survive there? That’s a lot to work out. Also, in merging the different genres, creating a synthesis of science-fiction, detective, and societal intrigue I had to balance all those elements and keep them attuned to one another… Reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Locus and elsewhere suggest I succeeded.

In addition to writing novels, short stories, and screenplays, you’ve fronted numerous bands—as well as writing lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult. What’s your favorite musical project you’ve been part of?

Well, opening for the Blue Oyster Cult in a big, packed theater in Portland a couple years ago–right before the pandemic fell on us all like a ton of bricks–was really memorable. My band The Screaming Geezers really rocked the place and that felt good. When I hear the Blue Oyster Cult (you’ll know them from, at least, their hit songs “Burning For You”, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, and “Godzilla”–songs I did NOT write, sadly!) doing songs with my lyrics–that’s a thrill! Their new album The Symbol Remains, their first studio LP in 20 years, is a big hit, with five of my songs, including the two singles (“That was Me” and “Box in my Head”) and I’m quite proud of being part of it. In addition, my work with prog-rocker Jerry King, doing vocals and lyrics, is a great side project–our album “Spaceship Landing in a Cemetery” got us a fine review in Prog Magazine…

Other than Stormland, which of your books are you most proud of?

The A Song Called Youth cyberpunk trilogy, Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra and Eclipse Corona was prescient about our current social dilemmas and some dangerous changes around the world. It’s stayed in print for some years now–currently it’s out from Dover Books. My story collection Black Butterflies won the Bram Stoker Award. I think Axle Bust Creek is going to be one of my best books–I hope it’ll appeal to fans of Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”) as well as, say, Louis L’amour.

Find John Shirley’s books on Amazon