On Monday Raw Dog Screaming Press released Fungus of the Heart, a new collection of short fiction by Bram Stoker nominated author Jeremy C. Shipp.
I had the pleasure of checking out an advance copy and I enjoyed it very much. Shipp gives his imagination free range in the borderlands where fantasy, horror, sci-fi and bizarro overlap, but his reports from that strange country are stark and efficient. I especially enjoyed the noir-flavored story “The Sun Never Rises in the Big City.” He is also the author of the novels Cursed and Vacation.
Before I interviewed Jeremy for his Blog Tour, I knew I liked his writing. Now that I know he shares my love of Pink Floyd and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I think we might be soul brothers.
The following interview was conducted in a hot-air balloon over Battersea Power Station.
DW: For such a productive writer, I have to say, your home life sounds a little hectic. Do the yard gnomes and attic clowns ever call a time-out on fucking with you so you can all just sit down and enjoy an episode of Charles In Charge like a normal family?
JCS: Once we managed to watch an episode of Charles in Charge in peace for ten whole minutes. After that, I was kidnapped by Pennywiseau (a cross between Pennywise and Tommy Wiseau). He trapped me in a room (or The Room, as he likes to call it) and forced me to wear a tuxedo while tossing around a severed arm like a football.
DW: Your writing style is refreshingly unique. I can’t quite compare you to other writers, but I was watching The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasus last week and realized that I’ve started thinking of you as the Terry Gilliam of modern fiction. Any influence there? And generally, what books and movies have influenced you the most?
JCS: I fell in love with storytelling with no small thanks to Terry Gilliam. As I kid, I watched The Adventures of Baron Munchausen a million and one times. I also frequently watched films such as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, the Star Wars trilogy, Return to Oz. Of course, I still watch and cherish these movies. Some other creators who have influenced and inspired me over the years include HG Wells, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Takashi Miike, Park Chan-wook, Arundhati Roy, Haruki Murakami, Hayao Miyazaki.
DW: You have published a phenomenal number of short stories. What helps you to be so prolific?
JCS: I’m a very slow writer. I can spend thirty minutes on one paragraph, or even a sentence, if I’m feeling especially obsessive. So, forcing myself to write for hours every day helps me to complete stories. Also, rewarding myself with buckets full of peanut butter keeps me motivated.
DW: Did you have to write a lot of stories that didn’t succeed to generate the ones that have found a home?
JCS: Yes. A million and one times yes. I wrote a horde of practice tales before my work became publishable. I wrote my first novel when I was 13, and I’ve been writing about a book a year ever since. I was first published when I was 18.
DW: Your stories often drop the reader into a weird world that you waste no time explaining, but things come out making sense, at least on an emotional or mythic level. Do you usually have a clear idea of what a story is about and where it’s going when you start writing, or do you figure it out as you go along?
JCS: I usually have a clear vision of my characters and the worlds they live in, but I don’t like to plan out all the little details of my plots. I don’t outline. I like to throw my characters into the attic clowns’ den, and let them find their own way out. I often know how my books are going to end, but I have little clue how my characters are going to get to that point.
DW: Do you dream much, and does dream content influence your fiction?
JCS: I dream almost every night, but my muse supplies me with so many ideas, I just don’t have the time to incorporate my dreams in my stories. Every once in a while, though, a dream will affect me so deeply that I can’t help but use the content. For instance, I recently had a nightmare about a creature hidden under a blanket who kept staring at me. I couldn’t see him, but I just knew he was an evil clown. I utilized this nightmare when writing my short story “Dust Bunnies.”
DW: Many of your stories are first-person and present tense. What do you like about those two devices? Do they present special advantages and challenges?
JCS: When I first started writing, I only wrote in third-person, past tense. But once I started experimenting with my style, I fell in love with the immediacy and intimacy of first-person, present. I believe that first-person, present is an effective style for tales like mine, which focus as much on the inner worlds of the characters as the outer. I suppose the biggest challenge with this style is simply making sure that you know your characters inside and out. You need to know who they are, deep down. Why they do what they do.
DW: Do you listen to music while writing? If so, what’s on your current playlist?
JCS: I only rarely listen to music when I’m writing. When that happens, I’m usually listening to the soundtrack from Little Women or Princess Mononoke. Here are some singers/bands that inspire me creatively (though I don’t listen to them when I’m writing): Pink Floyd, A Fine Frenzy, Johnny Cash, Cat Stevens, Akeboshi, The Postal Service, Bright Eyes.
DW: Do you have a favorite story in Fungus of the Heart? If so, what makes it special to you?
JCS: One of the stories that I’m especially fond of is “Boy in the Cabinet.” This is a character who has been a part of me for many years. My family often plays a game where we each come up with little stories, and my little stories are almost always about the Boy in the Cabinet. He’s died numerous times over the years, and I decided to write the short story because I wanted to give him a chance at happiness.
DW: I love how your dialogue and interior monologues deal with relationships, psychology and even politics in a way that’s very modern, and yet your characters are inhabiting strange fantasy worlds and doing bizarre magical things. Nature spirits, occult practices and even doctrines borrowed from Eastern philosophy are all commonplace in the worlds you build. It’s kind of a reversal of the traditional approach to weird tales because in your stories the ‘strange’ elements are part of the hum drum everyday experience of a character, so the things that stand out as exceptional are the little epiphanies he’s having about his feelings and motives. Do you read much non-fiction to inform the mystical and psychological aspects of your work, and do you read ‘literary’ fiction to tune your ear to the relationship elements?
JCS: In terms of the mystical/psychological/relational aspects of my stories, I do quite a bit of research, though I learn the most from the people, animals, spirits, monsters in my life. For instance, I’ve learned a lot about ghosts from reading books, but I’ve learned the most by talking and interacting with them.
DW: If Pixar made a 3D Hollywood blockbuster based on your life, what would the Vegan Happy Meal toy be?
JCS: A clown face mood ring that laughs when you’re frightened. Or perhaps an anthropomorphic jar of peanut butter. Or maybe just a pen.
DW: And finally, if you were attacked by a monster made of a hundred attic clowns, do you think throwing candy corn into its mouths would be an effective defense, or would that just make matters worse?
JCS: If I threw at least a thousand and one candy corns into the thing’s mouth, he’d enter berserker mode and most likely bake me into a pie and throw that pie into my face, which should be physically impossible, but attic clowns pranks are funny like that. Eventually, the 100-clown monstrosity would transform into Buddy Wiseau (a cross between Tommy Wiseau and Buddy from Charles in Charge), and the world would be moderately doomed.