Traveling man Shepard plans Austin stop
The days when a writer could make a decent living writing short stories — the way Ray Bradbury managed to do — are a thing of the past. But don't tell that to Lucius Shepard, one of the most respected writers of science fiction and fantasy for over two decades now.
Shepard — who will come to Austin next month for the science-fiction convention ArmadilloCon — has won accolades and fame for dark and intriguing stories and novellas like "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule," in which an entire town lives on the back of a long-dead dragon whose evil still emanates into the township, and his futuristic science fiction stories about soldiers at war in the jungles of Central America, such as "R&R" and "Fire-Zone Emerald."
In fact, though he lives in Seattle, the writer calls Central America his spiritual home. "I have an affinity for that particular area," Shepard said in a recent phone interview. "I spent a lot of time in El Salvador and Honduras in the '80s, when there was a great deal of American military involvement in that region due to the Contra war and the civil rebellion in Salvador." The politically charged stories that came out of that time ("Salvador," "The End of Life As We Know It") are filled with beautiful prose. More than any other in his oeuvre, they are responsible for Shepard being called the Joseph Conrad of science fiction by critics.
But Shepard's interests have not remained confined to one continent, or even one genre. In the last three months, he has published four novellas that span four modes of fiction. Louisiana Breakdown (Golden Gryphon Press) is a fantasy-cum-horror story that celebrates the unusual and magical culture of that state.
"I always considered Louisiana the weirdest of the 50 states," says Shepard with a laugh. "It's always fascinated me. I know some strange folk down there. And every five or six blocks you've got a new belief system."
The futuristic Aztechs (Subterranean Press) is science fiction that deals with artificial intelligence, drugged-out, AWOL American soldiers who work along an electrified fence along the U.S. border with Mexico. And his latest, Colonel Rutherford's Colt (Subterranean Press), is a mainstream novella about gun dealer Jimmy Guy, who feels compelled to act out the history of the weapons he sells. Shepard calls the story a "parable on how my fiction gets written. Like method acting, writing is, for me, a kind of controlled dissociative behavior. But I don't take it to the extremes that Jimmy Guy does."
Even so, some writers might think Shepard's methods of research are extreme. Unlike many writers today, Shepard adopts the same hands-on perspective that produced fellows like Hemingway or Harlan Ellison: He likes to get out in the world and experience whatever he writes about, rather than using a library or an assistant.
"Yeah, I don't have much of an imagination," Shepard jokes. "I don't know if anybody really does. It's supposedly how you process what you see, and I tend to directly process things more than some other writers." That need for real-life experience has resulted in Shepard learning first-hand about drug smuggling, guerrilla fighters in Central America and, most recently, the life of America's drifters, in order to write short stories and journalism that will be collected next year in a book called Two Trains Running (Golden Gryphon Press).
"I was sort of interested in FTRA, [Freight] Train Riders of America," says Shepard. "They were purported to be a kind of hobo mob." His research took him up and down the West Coast, riding trains, living in homeless communities and dodging unsavory folks — but for the most part, he says, the people he met were friendly and often well-educated. For Shepard, traveling and experiencing other cultures are important to the way he writes. He quotes Thomas Wolfe: "The only way to know your country is to leave it."
For now, readers would be wise to keep an eye out for future publications from the genre-hopping writer. In the next few years, they'll be hitting stores by the bushel. There's Floaters, a novella which is equal parts thriller and horror that's based on the Amadou Diallo shooting in New York; a collection of short stories set in Central America titled Trujillo from Four Walls Eight Windows expected this fall; and a collection of his Dragon Griaule stories scheduled for publication sometime in 2004.
And the writer himself? He'll be traveling back down to Central America, to research a novel he's writing that deals with the indigenous population and the lobster industry. "Many of the lobster boats are owned by the cocaine industry, which uses them for smuggling," Shepard maintains.
It is, says the writer, "Really 'Heart of Darkness,' man. Joseph Conrad land."
— Dorman T. Shindler, Austin American-Statesman, Sunday, July 6, 2003