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Interview with Lewis Shiner


Vous trouverez ici la version française de l'entretien.

Lewis Shiner, several columnists from « un polar collectif » have read your novel, Black & White, published in France by Sonatine, and have been quite enthusiastic about it. Thank you to agree to answer a few questions.


Un polar collectif. You began to write science fiction novels and now it sounds as though you were starting a new career as a thrillers writer with Black & White. For what specific reasons did you turn to thrillers whereas you are a recognized author of science fiction ?

Lewis Siner. The issue of genre comes up a lot in my writing, because publishers want you to only work in one genre, and my interests are much wider than that.
In truth, I've only published one science fiction novel, FRONTERA, my first. Two other novels have fantasy elements (DESERTED CITIES OF THE HEART, published in France as "En des cités désertes," and GLIMPSES, published in France as "Fugues"), though the main concerns of the books are essentially mainstream. My novel SLAM is a kind of comic suspense novel, and SAY GOODBYE is a purely mainstream novel about rock and roll. Yet somehow I have the reputation as a science fiction novelist--probably because I was associated with the cyberpunk movement early in my career.
I think most novelists write the sort of novels they like to read. I was reading a lot of SF when I wrote FRONTERA, but burned out quickly. After that I read a lot of literary fiction and some contemporary fantasy by writers like Jonathan Carrol and Lisa Tuttle. These days I find myself going back and forth between big social novels like John Dos Passos's USA or Tolstoy's ANA KARENINA and police procedurals ("polars" en francais) like the great novels by Barry Maitland.
For me, each novel is a new beginning. So it was not so much a case of my saying. "Now I am going to become a thriller writer," but of my saying, "I have this story I want to tell, which happens to be a thriller."

Un polar collectif. The translation of the title of your novel in French is Les péchés de nos pères (i.e The sins of our fathers) while the English title is Black & White, pointing out the social context. What do you think about it ? Do you agree with the French title, pointing out the guilt attached to the previous generations ?

Lewis Siner. It was Sonatine's idea to change the title, but I liked the French title immediately and I think it's quite appropriate. The reason I went with BLACK & WHITE in English is that the title resonates with many things in the book--not only the issues of race, but also of reducing things to only two choices--we say in English, "seeing things in only black and white," as all good or all bad. Plus Michael, the artist in the novel, starts out working only in black and white because he's drawing comic books. Of course "The Sins of the Fathers" has many resonances too, as the relationships between fathers and sons are very important in many of my books.

 Un polar collectif. As a very young man, as you later described yourself, you could have passed as a mini-clone of your father : an arrogant, misogynous, anti communist fellow. Very far from the features you give to your heroes such as the father, Robert Cooper, or his son, Michael ; but, perhaps, so close to Ruth’s father. Would you mind telling us how you have outgrown and got rid of your own previous self image ? Is this book a way of having done with your own sins ?

Lewis Siner. Good question. I think a lot of children accept the views of their parents without question, and it's only when they gain experience in the world that they come to have their own opinions. My parents were not very compassionate, and when you grow up around that kind of coldness, it takes a long time to recover.
I began to change in high school--as the whole world was changing. I graduated high school in 1968, the year of the May protests in France and the assassinations and riots in the US, and that changed my thinking a lot. I would say that a lot of my fiction has been concerned with trying to atone for the sins of my parents.
The biggest struggle in BLACK & WHITE was for me to find compassion for Ruth, who was based in part on my mother. A friend who read an early draft of the book called her a "monster." I hope I finally managed to make her seem more damaged than evil.

Un polar collectif. Your novel blends very various and nicely felt experiences such as racism, construction work, design, dance and music. Could you explain how those ideas or activities are part and parcel of your own history and how they are involved in your novels and especially in this last one ?

Lewis Siner. I talk about my work sometimes as more of a collage process than a process of creating from scratch. For example, I've worked in comics as both a writer and a letterer--I've also done layout sketches for most of the comics I've worked on. So I knew a lot about how comics are made, and was able to describe what that work is like. In 1970 and 1971 I was an architectural draftsman, and worked for a partnership like the one in the novel, where there was an architect and a structural engineer. I ended up supervising the crew that built an apartment complex that I had done the drawings for. And I did threaten an idiot crane operator with a wrench, though I didn't have the power to fire him, unfortunately. Leon and Tommy Coleman are the names of real men I worked with on that construction site.
So I combined these bits of my past, along with swing dancing, which I do regularly, with book research--especially the photos of Hayti that I was able to find. I might make up a story to explain a situation I would see in an old photo. I always prefer to have something real as a starting point than have to invent the whole thing.

Un polar collectif. Black & White abounds in little stories blending in a successfully written main story. Nevertheless, two events are very surprising : the split between Michael and his partner in comics, Roger. The reader is not really convinced by this split because it is more likely a way, for Michael, of changing over from his life to another one. Above all, when Michael’s mother appears in the last pages, we can’t help thinking of a Hollywood ending. Do you agree with this ?

Lewis Siner. I think it's impossible for a writer to know how well he or she has pulled off any aspect of a book. Things that seem logical to us may not work for a lot of readers. I know that both the subplots that you mention were always part of the plan for the book in my mind.
Roger is kind of composite figure, based on several comic book writers, but his narcissism and lack of compassion are based on one very famous writer in particular. So I had intended from the first to expose Roger for the self-obsessed person that he is. I tried to plant the seeds of that from the first.
As far as Mercy goes, I never saw her as a person who would kill herself. I don't think her reappearance is exactly a Hollywood ending--Michael is left still struggling to make his peace with her, and Robert died without knowing she was still alive. But I did feel Michael was entitled to some small reward.
I'm not a big believer in tragic endings for novels. The very act of writing is an act of faith. To put so much energy and imagination into telling a story that ends in desolation seems hypocritical to me. At the same time, you have to find a happy ending--or at least a hopeful ending--that rings true. Maybe I don't always succeed in that, but I will continue to try.

 Un polar collectif. Your book focuses upon relationships between Black and White communities and also upon the fight against segregation which took place throughout the sixties. What particular motivation or event in your life urged you to write about it ?

Lewis Siner. I moved to the Raleigh-Durham area in 1996, and one of the first friends I made here was a woman who worked at the software company with me. She was the one who told me about Hayti, and from the first I thought it was a powerful story that needed to be a novel. When I found that there weren't any books at all about Hayti, I somewhat reluctantly took on the job myself.
I was in Texas during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, and so most of my experience with that was on TV. Dallas was, and is, very segregated, and so I simply did not see many black people until I moved to North Carolina. After a couple of years in Raleigh, I moved to nearby Durham. Durham still has racial problems, but it's the most integrated city I've ever lived in, and that was a very eye-opening experience. It showed me that I still had a lot of lingering prejudices at the same time that it made me wonder why other cities couldn't be more like Durham. So that was another factor that made me want to write about racial issues.
As I worked on the novel, and met some of the people who were part of the black freedom struggle of the 1960s in North Carolina, especially Howard Fuller, a lot these issues, which were kind of abstract for me, became much more real and personal.

 Un polar collectif. In your novel, the gap between Black and White communities is pregnant. Is the disappearance or lessening of this gap at stakes in U.S. politics nowadays ?

Lewis Siner. Racism never seems to go away in the US, it just changes its disguise. After the Civil War, when slavery became illegal, the whites in power found legal ways to keep blacks in servitude--like sharecropping, where blacks had to do backbreaking work just pay for the supplies they needed to keep working. This was the Jim Crow era, with lynchings and "separate but equal" facilities that were never anything like equal. After the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the battle shifted again. All the whites moved to the suburbs, leaving the inner cities to blacks, so the inner city schools became virtually all black and the suburban schools virtually all white.
The election of Obama should have been a milestone, but it has spawned a new wave of racism in this country, including a wave of new voting laws designed to "legally" exclude black voters, in an attempt to keep Obama from getting re-elected.
Instead of slavery, we now have for-pay prisons filled with black men who work all day to enrich the owners of the prisons. Because blacks are kept from getting decent education or decent jobs, the US has created a black criminal underclass to fill those prisons. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Un polar collectif. Everybody knows that Barak Obama was the candidate for most of young people. Therefore, can we hope that discrimination and racism problems will definitely disappear with that new generation ?

Lewis Siner. The majority of children born in the US today are non-white. We can only hope this will change the attitudes of society. But there have to be economic changes as well. We need to fix our schools, and provide free universal health care, and stop squandering our nation's wealth on military interventions in countries where we have no business.

 Un polar collectif. We are told by a biography published on the Web that you became fond of Science Fiction while reading Jules Verne. S.F. excepted, which authors were influential upon you? And why ?

Lewis Siner. I'm not sure there were that many SF writers who really influenced me, other than J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. John Steinbeck was a huge influence on me when I was in high school--I loved his compassion and big themes. Joseph Conrad was another big hero of mine, and also Graham Greene. Both of them wrote "adventure" novels that dealt with major moral issues. Later on, I was influenced a lot by Robert Stone, who was, at least early in his career, very much in the same tradition.
These days my favorite writers include Karen Joy Fowler, Lionel Shriver, and the strange and wonderful thriller writer Jess Walter. At the same time, I'm also influenced by Dickens and Tolstoy and Flaubert and other classic writers. 

Un polar collectif.  After reading your book, the story stays so much in mind that we long for a cinematographic adaptation. What’s your mind about it ? Has anything of the kind been already planned ? Did you yet imagine which actors could best embody your characters ?

Lewis Siner. Hollywood and I don't see eye to eye. I find their movies much too cold-blooded and violent--and noisy!--and they think my heroes are sissies. So we have gone our separate ways. They're not interested in my books, and I don't watch their films.
I think BLACK & WHITE would be very difficult to condense into a two-hour movie, in any case. It might make a better mini-series, with plenty of time to develop the various layers of the plot. I would love to see something like that happen, but so far no one has approached me.

 Un polar collectif. What are your literary projects ? Do you intend to go on with thrillers ?

Lewis Siner. My latest novel, DARK TANGOS (2011), is also a thriller. It's set in Buenos Aires and involves the trials of henchmen from the Dirty War that are going on right now. I think readers who like BLACK & WHITE would like this book a lot--it's also very political and very character-driven. I'm hoping that if BLACK & WHITE does well in France that Sonatine will want to publish DARK TANGOS too.
As for the future, I'm working on a really big novel that I expect will take me 10 years to finish. It's not a thriller, but it is a big social novel in what I hope is the Tolstoy tradition, dealing with the loss of 60s idealism and the rise of the culture of greed that currently rules the world.


We have published on un polar collectif two chronicles  about Black & White, by Lewis Shiner :
- Celle de Bruno

- Celle de Jacques

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