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Interview: Vivian Shaw

Vivian Shaw wears way too many earrings and likes edged weapons and expensive ink. She was born in Kenya and has lived in Cardiff, Oxford, Maryland, and New Mexico. She has a BA in art history, an MFA in creative writing and publishing arts, and currently works as a professional freelance editor and proofreader. She writes about monsters, both in and out of classic horror literature; machines, extant and fantastical; disasters and their causes; and found family. She is the author of the Dr. Greta Helsing contemporary fantasy trilogy, Strange Practice, Dreadful Company, and Grave Importance. She reviews for the Washington Post Book World and her short fiction has appeared in Uncanny and PseudoPod. She lives in Santa Fe with her wife, Hugo- and Locus-award-winning author Arkady Martine. “Transference” is Shaw’s second appearance in Uncanny, an ominous story about the lingering effects of a disturbing piece of art.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “Transference” deftly combines a lot of elements—art, nightmares, monsters that haunt us. Are these themes or topics that often recur in your fiction? What other elements are you often drawn to?

Vivian Shaw: Absolutely. Until the past few years, I had never written short fiction, which meant that a lot of the clearer themes in my stories were less obvious at first, but the more I write short form the more evident those themes become. Mostly it’s a riff on the idea of you thought you knew how the world worked but it turns out there’s this impossible other set of rules that have been there all along, and how that realization affects the characters. For me, compelling and interesting stories generally need to have that kind of contrast between elements—setting and characters, characters and events, etcetera—which makes the story unpredictable and therefore more dynamic. In “Transference” the narrator never expected his ordinary yuppie life to be subsumed into this desperate effort to be free from a supernatural influence, and he’s not great at dealing.

Uncanny Magazine: Was the artwork in this story inspired by a real-world painting and/or artist? What is the most memorable painting you’ve ever seen?

Vivian Shaw: Definitely. The painting it’s inspired by doesn’t have a name (it’s literally called Untitled) but once you’ve seen it you will not forget it, like the rest of Zdzisław Beksiński’s works. Beksiński’s paintings look like fever-dreams, awful and compelling and familiar-distant all at once; he even said it himself, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.” He did; he absolutely did, and I knew I wanted to do something to convey how much this particular piece affected me. And I’d also been watching a lot of TV featuring tattoo artists and tattoo styles and application, and the whole idea just clicked.

I think the most memorable painting I’ve ever seen is a Jean-Léon Gérôme work called Duel After the Masquerade. I love Gérôme, he’s one of my favorite painters (I did a degree in art history long, long ago) and Duel is one of the most atmospheric pieces you’ll ever see: it’s a snow-covered meadow at night, surrounded by trees, the sky lit up with the dim orange glow of a city beyond the forest. The successful duelist is being led away by his second while the fallen man’s friends cluster around him in despair, all still in costume, and you can smell the acid electric sharpness of the snow, almost feel it touching your face. Beksiński is that vivid; the difference is that you don’t want Beksiński’s paintings anywhere near your skin.

Uncanny Magazine: What was your favorite thing about writing this story? What was the most challenging part?

Vivian Shaw: “Transference” is the second story I’ve written that basically gave birth to itself in one go, instead of lurking around as a vague idea in the back of my mind until I could find a way in to tell it properly. Like “The Utmost Bound” (also in Uncanny, issue 20), “Transference” was the result of two ideas that fascinated me and came together in an unexpected but powerful gestalt. Once I had the idea of someone wanting a tattoo, not because they liked the design or thought it would look cool or wanted to memorialize something or someone, but because they wanted to put it on the outside of them instead of on the inside—to transfer the image, like a stencil, moving it without removing it—I then thought about why. And then I thought about nightmares, and inexplicable, unforgettable horror, and the dreamlike painting of the burning city came to me all at once. Tattoo-as-transference; painting of dream: story.

Uncanny Magazine: The line that begins “I’ve deleted my search history so many times since this began…” is something many writers can relate to—what interesting or ominous things have you searched for as story research?

Vivian Shaw: There are so many. So many. When I was writing the first three Greta Helsing books I was researching everything from clandestine sewer exploration (with pictures!) to 1940s electrical infrastructure to abandoned Parisian subterranean gypsum mines to extremely specific Metropolitan Museum of Art display rooms and the sightlines therein; for my short fiction, there’s a lot of very detailed search strings regarding air crash investigation and aviation in general, lost cosmonauts, and the effects of Venus’s atmosphere on titanium alloy; and just at the moment I’m doing a deep dive into several aspects of Alaskan king crab fishery. I love doing research and I’m somewhat passionate about it—I’m old enough to remember when research was actively effortful, involving card catalogs and interlibrary loans and legwork instead of a couple of lines typed into Google, and the fact that we now have so much information so easily available makes it that much more irritating when people don’t bother to do the work. I don’t write about something unless I’m confident enough in my understanding of the subject to not get it hilariously wrong, and if I’m not that confident I will either put it aside until I can improve my own understanding or get someone to explain it to me. This isn’t to say I don’t make mistakes, far from it—but I try quite hard to catch them before the thing goes out into the world.

Uncanny Magazine: “Transference” does a wonderful job creating the sense of dark foreboding that is key to horror stories. What are some of your favorite horror stories or novels? Who are some of your literary influences, either in the horror genre or more generally?

Vivian Shaw: Stephen King, of course—he and Pratchett and Gaiman and to a broader extent Robin McKinley and Dorothy Dunnett are probably the most obvious influences on my work. King nails the ordinary/extraordinary contrast thing I mentioned above; he’s a master of the normal guy finding unspeakable horror lurking in an otherwise normal world, which is what I also apparently tend to gravitate toward: the stomach-dropping shock of finding out that everything you thought was absolutely true is not and never has been. There’s a passage in It where he explains this from the point of view of hyper-rational Stan Uris that has always stuck with me: the existence of the dead boys in the Standpipe is not just frightening, it is offensive. Stan thinks he can live with fear, but maybe not with offense:

 

…because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after awhile you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some of them have five raised to the fifth power of sides.

 

That’s the aspect of horror I can’t get enough of, that sensation of wrongness and the vertiginous shock that comes with not knowing which way is supposed to be up. I didn’t write short fiction at all until fairly recently, and while I don’t deliberately try to come up with ideas that rely on that as their general theme, it’s becoming more and more evident that this is what I like writing in short form. (It’s fascinating to see yourself developing as a writer, almost from the outside.) But if you’re talking about the single horror author who has legitimately scared me enough to keep the lights on, it’s absolutely M.R. James. His horrors are unexpected and unforgettable, and I hope that his fans who’ve read my novels will take my inclusion of various species of monster inspired by his work as an homage. If you haven’t yet read him, may I point you toward “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” in particular?

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Vivian Shaw: More stories! And some longer work. I have two novellas that will be coming out in the next couple of years, one of them with Lethe Press (The Helios Syndrome) and the other with Orbit (Bitter Waters) as well as the final novel in the Greta Helsing series, Strange New World (also Orbit). I’m also focusing more on expanding my freelance editing business: I offer developmental, structural, and line editing along with standard copyediting and proofreading services. It feels good to be back in the game after a couple of fallow years!

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

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Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a two-time Hugo and five-time Nebula Award finalist. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including three times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yoachim’s short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories and the print chapbook of her novelette The Archronology of Love are available from Fairwood Press. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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