An interview with Robert Shearman

Robert Shearman

Robert Shearman has worked as a writer for television, radio and the stage. He is probably best known as a writer for Doctor Who, reintroducing the Daleks for its BAFTA winning first series, in an episode nominated for a Hugo Award. His first collection of short stories, Tiny Deaths, was published in 2007. It won the World Fantasy Award for best collection, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. December 2009 saw the publication of love songs for the shy and cynical, a collection of short stories putting a bizarre twist on the love story. Rob kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in January 2010.

I will happily admit that I found love songs for the shy and cynical to be a brilliant collection of bittersweet love stories. Has the book’s reception been similarly positive elsewhere?

Oh, thank you! That’s very kind. Gauging reactions to things you’ve written is always very hard. On the one hand, it’s actually hard to picture anyone sitting down and *reading* your words – because the very idea anyone is going to want to do that is enough to make you so self-conscious you don’t want to start in the first place! And on the other, by the time the stories reach an audience they usually feel so old that you can’t but help be a little disengaged from them. I’m actually very proud of Love Songs, but I’m necessarily more involved with the stories I’ve got in my head *right now*, so I look on the book with the sort of indulgent affection an uncle might have for a nephew who doesn’t annoy him very much.

As a result, it’s a bit hard to steel yourself for the critics, because you don’t quite know how you feel about the book either any more! So far it’s going down very well, I think – the reviews have been very enthusiastic so far (being a small press, they are always pretty sporadic for the first few months), and we’ve already won a couple of awards. Which is rather delightful. The inner uncle in me is smiling down at the nephew most fondly at the moment.

Have you found that publishing companies have difficulty marketing of a collection of short stories, as compared to a novel?

Short stories do have something of an awkward reputation. They’re either seen as an opportunity for writers to indulge in something like prose poetry – to be more concerned with style and form than with story – or as simply things that are very brief because the writer in question hasn’t got the bottle to come up with something longer! But I *love* short stories, precisely because their comparative brevity allows you to be somehow more epic than longer stories allow – in a novel, sooner or later, the pace has to settle down into something that seems to perform in ‘real time’, at a speed which mirrors the readers’ lives, but in short stories you can surprise the reader by doing genuinely colossal things, life-overturning stuff – and then suddenly narrow in on to the smallest and most intimate moment imaginable.

They’re more of a challenge, perhaps, simply because the rules by which short stories are told are so much more vague. And I dare say that does make them a harder sell. But I think there’s nothing quite as beautiful as a really good short story. I’m still working hard at producing one I can, hand on heart, say makes the form work. But I’m having fun getting closer!

Roadkill, the tale of a woman embarking on an ill-fated affair, was the standout story for me but I cannot claim to understand the significance of the winged rabbits. Was I missing something obvious?

Oh, no, I don’t think so. It’s as I’ve just said, really – the short story form allows an ambiguity that you don’t get elsewhere. I just wanted to write out this sad and fumbling relationship between two people who’d had the most awkward attempt at an affair possible. And out of this thudding ordinary ugliness, comes suddenly something crashing into their world that is a little surreal, a little magical. And can only remind the woman quite forcefully of the very reason she’s looking for an affair in the first place, and the very reason it’d never work out. The rabbit made it ordinary – the wings just gave the little hope of something more beautiful wanting to fly away. But really, I want the reader to take that peculiar little metaphor and make of it what they will. Or can!

In one of your short stories, 14.2, it was possible to have your future wife tested and so find out how much she really loves you (in this case it was 14.2%, hence the title). Do you think people would go for this option if it were a possibility? Would you?

Oh, that’s a nasty little story. Precisely because the test only works on women, and that it’s so painful. Would men do it if they could? Absolutely. Would I? God, I hope not. But I probably would. We’re all so obsessed with love – what people think about us, whether they like us or not, whether we could be of any importance to them. Tell someone that a person they’d hitherto never even given a second glance loves me, and watch as their interest is aroused. We so desperately want to be loved, even if others already do so, even if we were happy as we are. If I had X-ray vision, and could see inside women’s heads, and see whether they fancied me or not – oh, I’d be doing nothing *but* having a good peek.

There are two stories regarding father/son relationships. The first one features a dad who is a fanatical cricket fan and a son who desperately tries to please him. The second is where you and your father attend an awards ceremony together. Are these based on your own real life experiences?

Most of the stories have an element of autobiography to them, even the most fantastical of them! The danger is that when you write the more ‘realistic’ stories, people might assume they’re based on truth more than the others. It’s true that my father loves cricket, and I know he’d have loved to have shared that passion with me – but the relationship between the two is something I’ve warped well away from my own childhood. And I did indeed go to an award ceremony for Tiny Deaths, upon which one story was based – but I hope to God I behaved better than my narrator did! (In real life, I also lost. But the wine was nice.)

Do you feel that love songs for the shy and cynical is an improvement upon Tiny Deaths? Did you notice any strengths or weaknesses in your first collection that you either utilised or remedied in the second?

Actually, it was at that very award ceremony for Tiny Deaths that a judge told me that her one real criticism of the book was that the narrative voices all felt very similar. The stories ranged in theme a lot, but not necessarily in tone. I’m not sure I agree, but it spurred me on to try to make Love Songs a bit more *surprising*, I suppose. But I’m very fond of both books. I do prefer Love Songs. But then I ought to, really – it’s more recent! It’d be awful to be sitting here lamenting the thought that the longer I bash away at these short stories, the worse I get...!

Was the writing of love songs for the shy and cynical a cathartic experience?

I don’t know. It was hugely enjoyable. I do love writing short stories. When you’re involved in television, for example, the process of getting a script to screen can take *ages*. (Sometimes it feels, quite literally.) So after years of writing nothing but Bigger Projects for stage and screen, I found the short story form enormously liberating. Just for knowing that when I start a project, the odds are I’ll have a completed workable draft of it within a couple of days or so. For example, I’m just about to start a new short story – I’ve been ferreting it away to the back of my brain all over Christmas – and I can’t *wait*, I know that by mid-January at the latest it’ll be sitting here, pristine and shiny, on this here computer. The catharsis of writing short stories is in the joy of doing them usually, rather than in anything the stories themselves might be doing individually. Some stories are more personal than others. But I don’t usually let people know which.

We believe you soon will be, or already are, working on your first novel. Will this be a completely different writing process for you and can you give us any clues about what it will be about?

It’s about Walt Disney, and the way that American culture has dominated the world over the last century. But with lots of jokes, and a lot of very odd storylines, and a few poignant love stories too. It’s quite frightening, working on it, because it does feel something like a mountain – but the way it’s structured is as a series of different interconnected narratives in different contrasting tones. So it still feels to my brain a little like short story writing, but with a greater concern for the book’s whole. Love Songs was at one point edging close to being novel-ish, so that all the stories within built into one connected theme. In the end, I backtracked on that, and thought it was a bit pretentious, and made the individual stories less likely to be moving. But I’m giving it a proper go here!

There is a great story about a youngster writing a song that is good enough to enter the list of the top one thousand love songs of all time. If you had to name three songs that you personally believe should be in the top ten of that list, what would they be?

Ha! Well, I do remember one little ditty by Verdi being knocked into second place. That’d be the opening few minutes of Otello, probably, which is as dramatic and passionate a song as anything ever composed. Whether it’s technically a *love* song is another matter! I do love opera, so I’d also go for the football fan’s favourite, and pick ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot too. But I adore modern music, and have recently fallen head over heels in love with Regina Spektor. Her song ‘On the Radio’ is one of the most extraordinary depictions of love, and why we keep trying at it, that I’ve ever heard. ...Hey, after prolonged exposure recently on my iPod, I’ve come to believe that Baccara’s 70s hit ‘Yes, Sir, I Can Boogie’ is one of the most beautiful ballads ever composed. It honestly makes me cry. So let’s face it – I may not be the best judge!

Robert Shearman is now at work on a third collection of short stories and his first novel. For more information visit http://robshearman.livejournal.com/

Robert Shearman: Actually, although it’s not up and running properly yet, www.robertshearman.net is probably the more useful link. Or suggest the ‘Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical’ group on Facebook!

Many thanks, I enjoyed that!

love songs for the shy and cynical book review (9.5/10 – Book of the Month, December 2009)
Robert Shearman biography

Robert Shearman books reviewed