Scuttlebutt has it that you're the most prolific on-site writer in Clarion history. I hear you
wrote 18 stories while attending the workshop. Is this true?
I suspect I'm the benefit of some positive but off-the-mark mythology! I doubt I wrote 18
stories in 6 weeks. I'm sure I wrote a fair number -- we all did -- but 18? I doubt it. The
Clarion fact I'm frankly most proud of is that I'm the first Clarionite to sell professionally -- that
being effected by selling a story I wrote during Fritz Leiber's week to Harlan Ellison the following
week. That was in July 1968, the story finally appearing in 1972 in The Last Dangerous Visions.
I know that you've done some film work, so let's talk about that for a bit.
Movies are one of my passions, probably because of heavy exposure when I was a kid. Back in the 50s,
when I lived on the ranch, my uncle the rodeo star also loved film. Two or three times a week, we'd drive
26 miles to town to see what was usually a double feature at the Ramona Theatre, the only movie house in
80 miles. It's with great fondness that I remember seeing first-runs of everything from John Wayne
in Sands of Iwo Jima (what a startlement to see a pop hero bite the big one at the end!) to SF flicks
like Them! and The Thing.
Here's the film-nerd question you knew was coming: What are your three favourite films, and why?
Narrowing the whole mess down to my three favourites is damn close to impossible. But I can draw
the focus in to four features -- put 'em all together and you can psychoanalyze me cheaply.
2001 -- I saw it in Cinerama and was just plain knocked out. To me it
represented all that SF could be at its best: wonder, spectacle, and sheer imagination.
Repulsion -- I saw Roman Polanski's greatest horror movie when I was in
college. Catherine Deneuve was exquisite -- and exquisitely disturbing.
The movie creeped me out the way Blair Witch Project is creeping out audiences this summer.
Rock and Roll High School -- talk about guilty pleasures! Jeez, Mary
Woronov, P.J. Soles, exploding white rats, the evils of rock, and the Ramones all
together. For god knows what reason, I've watched this one endlessly, and still get a kick out of it.
4) Vanishing Point -- the first version with Barry Newman, forget the TV
remake! Okay, so it's an occasionally clunky existential chase thriller with one incredible musical
score. It also seemed to encapsulate my whole western upbringing. One of life's high points was
visiting and working in Austin, Nevada, where the movie's climax was filmed.
How about your favourite directors?
Lots, ranging from Kubrick and John Ford to Walter Hill and Sergio Leone. I've always had great
hopes for Kathryn Bigelow after I saw Near Dark. Unfortunately she's never clicked quite so well
since, though I liked Strange Days quite a lot. I try to pay attention to the newer directors,
John Dahl, the Coen Brothers, the Wachowskis, Kevin Smith.
Not to forget Tim Burton and John Waters!
On a related note, what sort of screenplay(s) are you working on?
I've written some material for the screen, though little's made it through production. High point of that
was probably adapting my Omni story "Prairie Sun" for Disney Cable. Right now I'm noodling around with a
Christmas feature script (sorta Clive Barker meets the Coen brothers) and adapting a friend's
relationship-based novel as a feature.
I know you're into comics, too. Were you a big fan as a kid?
I never paid much attention to comics back when I was really young.
I can remember finding some Tarzan and Captain Marvel comics, but I never
really kindled an enthusiasm for Marvel and DC when they came along. Maybe it was because by then I'd had
the bejeezus scared out of me by a few EC books. My first great enthusiasm in comics turned out to be
Walt Disney's Comics and Stories(!).
It's funny (no pun intended) that you mention the Walt Disney comics -- I remain a big Carl Barks fan. How
about "crossover" stuff like Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes?
I pretty much stopped reading Walt Disney's Comics and Stories when it scaled down from being
52 pages for one thin dime. I enjoyed both Cerebus and Bloom County, but
when I met Dave Simm and Berkley Breathed in person I became an even more enthusiastic
fan. [Reed Waller's] Omaha the Cat Dancer -- I certainly checked out for the dirty
parts. I never claimed to be all that mature a comics fan. Bloom County and
Calvin & Hobbes -- of course! You can still find friends of mine who think Bill the Cat was my role model.
In the 80s, my friend Leanne Harper was working for Mile High Comics and got me started reading and
collecting indie titles. Though I'd pretty much missed out on the underground scene a few years earlier,
I ended up getting a big kick out of Dave Simm's Cerebus and Tim Truman and Zot! and
a whole passel more. When DC geared up Vertigo and presented me with Hellblazer and
Neil Gaiman and Sandman and all the rest, I responded.
I had a very brief comics career. Archie Goodwin, bless his soul, bought an adaptation of one of my
stories, illustrated by a friend of mine, for Epic Illustrated. A bit later on, Chris Claremont recruited
me to write a few pages for the X-Men's Heroes for Hope issue. So I can say I once wrote
for X-Men! If the truth be known, the four pages I did were divided up as three transitional
scenes for other people's more substantial contributions.
You mention the DC Vertigo series. I wonder what you thought of Watchmen, which preceded
it? Probably the best-written comic I've ever read.
Aside from keeping me fascinated, Watchmen taught me abiding respect for Alan Moore and
set me to anticipating anything he was going to publish.
These days time keeps me from checking out most of the comics field.
But the stuff I've liked -- and still enjoy -- is the material that functions the same way good prose
and good film do. Quirky, garish, or sensational, it all still has to work the way all good drama
does. If I care about the people, I'll care about the rest of the package. There's nothing more
frustrating and disappointing than a gorgeously drawn comic that houses the brain and sensitivity of a
very slow three-year-old.
You're highly regarded as a critic. What was the toughest review you ever had to write?
Most of the time I don't think of myself as a critic -- except for some occasional moments when I take
myself too seriously and imagine I've got something to say about how a new book functions that nobody
else has figured out. But that's seldom. The rest of the time I'm just another bozo on the reviewing
bus. I get a kick out of it though -- it's like always having something to say when I'm at a party and
someone says, "So, you read anything good lately?"
The tough part is working in a highly incestuous field. Most of us know everyone else labouring in the
same vineyard. In other words I review friends' books, work by colleagues and acquaintances, even,
occasionally, fiction by people I've slept with. Objectivity is desired but difficult. Then there's the
matter of my working in the field I'm reviewing. Protocol demands I announce my participation in a
project but, of course, I can't offer up a glowing notice of my own material.
Right now I'm starting to read 999 for review. And much as I'd like to say something about my own
contribution, I can't. I've gotta leave it up to others to hammer me!
What a good way to segue into a discussion of horror. Being something of a fan of serial killers
myself, I note you have a forthcoming book titled Ed Gein's America.
"Forthcoming" is right! One of these days I'll get around to actually writing Ed Gein's America. That's
become a phantom title that some people swear they've seen listed on Amazon.com! It was supposed to be my
own version of Travels With Charlie. I was going to drive around the country picking up really
weird local history and news stories. It may still happen. In the meantime I pay attention to serial
killers and other crazoids. Right now, the unfolding hideously dysfunctional family saga of Cary Stayner,
the presumed Yosemite killer, is riveting. Did Cary kill his tragic celebrity brother Steven? Did Cary
off his uncle as well? It's like a terrible but irresistibly brain-grabbing serial.
Have you read Hannibal, the Silence of the Lambs sequel? What did you think of it? (Personally,
I'll cast my vote for Red Dragon as Harris's best, with Silence a very close second, but that's just me.)
I admire Hannibal Lecter a lot, but have still held off reading the new Harris novel. I expect it to
be a real treat. I originally stumbled over Red Dragon many years ago and loved
it. Silence of the Lambs was quite cool, but just didn't have the same sense of
tremendous discovery that its predecessor did.
Lecter may be the most interesting fictional character to come out of the 90s.
I've got no problem with attractively evil characters such as the charming Dr Lecter. In his own
twisted way he's an archetypal rebel who works against socially sanctioned authority and gets what he
wants done, done right. In other words, nobody screws with him, at least not for long, and we readers love that.
What do you suppose that says about where we are going? Is Lecter a manifestation of some sort of
twisted wish-fulfillment on the part of a world headed toward T.J. Bass's nebbish-packed Hive? Are dark
characters like Lecter a healthy means of allowing our repressed ids to blow off a little steam?
Reading (and writing) horror is cathartic, no doubt about that, though I stop short of ascribing miraculous
therapeutic healing powers to horror. As with a lot of other art, pop or high, the creators and audiences
I trust are people who can distinguish between fantasy and reality on at least a rudimentary level. I'm not
wholly sure kids are getting any real orientation these days in terms of what's real and what's not, and
what's the big deal with notions such as empathy, causality, and repercussions.
One wonders if high school killings such as the one in Littleton are bubbles of repressed violence bursting
on the surface of society. How much stuff is left below the surface, waiting to pop up? Does horror help
bleed off pressure? In other words, is Stephen King (for example) so popular just because he's a good writer?
I don't think the guys at Columbine did what they did because of The Matrix or Marilyn Manson. I
think the really big deal was that they'd been treated like crap by fellow students for 'way too long. High
school is a perennially vicious pressure cooker in which hierarchies and pecking orders are ruthlessly
generated. What the kids in power are going to have to learn is that these days, nerds and dweebs have
access to firearms and Internet-supplied directions for constructing infernal devices. In other words,
a pipeline to resources their hapless predecessors fantasized about, but rarely could put together.
Sadly, I've got to admit I can now accept the possibility that some kids get Bad Ideas, and sometimes
even act on them, from powerful popular art. But I'm still a big fan of the First Amendment. I think
our culture just has to accept the reality that one price of freedom is accepting the risk that a small
minority will pervert their democratic gift. Must I accept the statistically small possibility that a
youngster who's played far too many video games and seen all too many wretchedly amoral movies may drop
a cinder block on my car from a highway overpass? Yep. Living in modern America is like accepting the
risks of extreme sport. No one can guarantee that a flash flood won't roar out of nowhere and wipe out
a couple dozen canyoneers. And no one can -- or should try to -- make sure my culture is 100 percent safe.
Modern horror, when it's good and effective, squarely addresses the issues of living in the world. Most
often dealing with sex and death, horror hits the mark of trying to interpret our usually dark-tinged lives
more squarely than most of the competition. No wonder it raises hackles on the backs of so many people's
necks! Vanilla horror is worse than useless. Rocky Road is more the flavour of choice.
Finally, a few words, if you will, about publishing on the net. Many people think we're witnessing the
rise of electronic books. The winds of change are blowing through the hallowed halls of "traditional"
publishing. Is electronic access to books a good thing, or is it simply too early to say?
True, I'm not the net-o-phile that many in SF and fantasy are, but neither am I ignoring this great,
lumbering Frankenstein's monster that possesses enormous power to wield for good or evil. My feeling
is that electronic publishing is right now ideal for providing all manner of non-fiction and reference
material. The e-book publishers are queuing up to haul in the big bucks for fiction, but I think it'll
take a bit longer to generate popular acceptance. But I do believe the interview I saw with a new
e-book magnate in which he quite confidently said that it may take a generation or two of readers, but
then his company and his competitors would own those consumers. I think paper fiction will remain safe
for a good long while with specialty publishers. But the popular sensibility will gradually accustom
itself to small high-definition screens.
The real downside? The precision of seeking out very specific materials goes against my whole belief
in serendipity... that some of my best writing -- and best reading discoveries -- have come from chance
associations while browsing through book stores, libraries, and random shelves of books.
Copyright © 1998 by A.L. Sirois
A.L. Sirois walks the walk, too. He's a longtime member of SFWA and
currently serves the organization as webmaster for the SFWA BULLETIN.
His personal site is at http://www.w3pg.com/jazzpolice.