Interview: John Shirley
Posted by Corporal Hicks on January 24, 2007 (Updated: 23-Aug-2010)
I suppose John Shirley could be called a veteran of the new Alien / Predator DH Press line. Mr Shirley wrote Forever Midnight, the premiere novel for the Predator line and will soon be coming back with Steel Egg, a new Aliens novel. I recently sat down to do another interview with him.
AvPGalaxy – Hey John! It’s been a while since I interviewed you. Been keeping busy?
John Shirley – I’ve been working on two scripts alternately, one for Captain Blood, an adaptation of the Rafael Sabatini novel, and the other is an adaptation of my novel Crawlers, which I’m doing with Katt Shea, who directed Poison Ivy and Carrie 2, among other things. Also have been organizing my new story collection from Prime Books, LIVING SHADOWS.
AvPGalaxy – Forever Midnight was released almost a year ago to some mixed reviews. Some fans have really enjoyed it while other’s had negative responses. How do you feel about the reviews?
John Shirley – Reviews from professional reviewers were good but one or two fans (this is all I saw) were annoyed that I did my own “version” of the Predators, and hadn’t incorporated everything in every Predator comic or book. I simply went back to the movies and started from there. I was allowed to innovate, to create new backstory, to describe their culture and their home planet, all things that were forbidden to do before. Who could resist having a free reign to do that? I also introduced some humor, some mild satire, without losing touch with the grisly, dark, frightening aspect of the Predator story-these innovations shook some people up and they objected. But you know, a fresh perspective and new ideas always shake people up, like a new style roller coaster, and some people get dizzy easily and complain.
AvPGalaxy – Looking back, is there anything you might want to change about the novel?
John Shirley – Always, for anything I write. I can always find something to improve. The classic of modern literature, THE MAGUS, by John Fowles, was acknowledged as a masterpiece. Late in life he completely revised it for the re-issue. (Not that I’m a writer on his level). I rewrote or reedited my novels Eclipse, City Come A-Walkin’, In Darkness Waiting, Cellars, and A Splendid Chaos for their new editions. So, yeah, probably. But what? Maybe I would explain the young boy better, so he seemed more believable in his precosity (boys in the future are likely to be quite sophisticated); maybe I’d save that Atavist girl’s life, I sort of regretted killing her off…I might deepen characterization and possibly would alter a few aspects of the Predators to make them more consistent with the ongoing Predator lore. But I did follow the “bible” I was given by Dark Horse.
AvPGalaxy – One of the more…controversial aspects of Forever Midnight was the reimagination of the Yautja race. The Yautja had become a staple of the Predator society for those who had come through the years with only the novels to offer detailed insight into the Predator culture. Where you aware of how popular the Yautja were when DH Press tasked you with creating a new version of the Predators?
John Shirley – The Predator was popular-but the term ” Yautja”? I’d never heard it. And who calls the Predator aliens Yautja? The Predators themselves? It’s never explained. I don’t remember it from the movies. I took it that the name came from South American Indians talking of them-that it was not their own name. I wasn’t aware of Wikipedia at the time I wrote the book or I’d have looked it up there and I see they mention that as the name of the race…and they mention the name of their planet. But they don’t seem to know how this is confirmed. I mean, humans don’t question Predators that I know of, in the movies, so how did the name get to be known by people? I could also say that there are more than one races of Predators-as they are spread out across the galaxy, presumably that would be the case-and Yautja could be just one of those races, if that is indeed the name they know themselves by. It wasn’t in the “bible” I was given that I recall. I wasn’t aware of other Predator novels. I assumed all the basic information would be in the “bible”, the slim sheaf of pages given me by the publisher to provide basic info on the Predator. What I took from the publisher’s bible is that no one knew much about the Predators, their nature or home planet, which made it possible to make things up. To me, the basic place to start is the movies, not every comic ever written about the story-as the comics and books may be in contradiction to one another (same with the Alien stories),. I would also like to mention that my book was checked out by the movie studio and they had no objection to it-they did not say I was using the wrong terms etc. So to me they are the final authority.
AvPGalaxy – The Hish and the Yautja were very different. The Yautja followed the samurai style culture the comics created while the Hish were based more off the movie Predators. What sort of research did you put into creating the Hish?
John Shirley – Why these aliens would have a Samurai style culture I don’t know. My job was to write a tie-in TO THE MOVIES. Not a tie in to somebody’s comic book version. I simply watched the movies and imagined the race as it might be in a way I thought was entertaining and a bit amusing and exciting. The movies and the “bible” were my research. Again I was told that little was known about them so I assumed that was true. That left little to research.
AvPGalaxy – Where did the idea for the story of Forever Midnight come from?
John Shirley – I wanted to push the Predator story in the future a ways, with all those possibilities, and let our heroes encounter them on another planet. A “safari planet” occurred to me, since the Predators are all about safaris, in a way-after all, people now have fenced off hunting preserves where they bring animals that hunters can corner and shoot. That’s where Dick Cheney got into trouble, drunkenly shooting his pal, not that long ago. (A detestable idea, those kinds of preserves, cornering animals so you can shoot them.) So that was the root of the idea for the planet…and human beings being kidnapped, at intervals, to the planet, to serve as game in those preserves. I suppose alien abduction stories (which I regard as just as fictional as my book) are part of the inspiration too.
AvPGalaxy – The idea of a planet that is in constant sunlight intrigued me. Where did you get the idea from?
John Shirley – Astronomers and science writers have long imagined planets which have perpetual sunlight on them and how they’d be different. I think Isaac Asimov had a famous story about a planet that has no night (I don’t remember the title but I did read it as a boy), so perhaps that story may have been the germ. I also wanted to imagine a multilayered jungle-they are multilayered on our own planet, actually, with canopies and so forth, but I wanted to imagine a much bigger, hugely deep jungle, gigantic trees fed by this endless sun, a jungle that is a world in itself, and all the possibilities that go with that, including the delightful profusion of life.
AvPGalaxy – It’s been speculated by fans that the Predators did steal most of their technology but it had never been assumed that the Predators had slaves. How did this idea evolve?
John Shirley – I think it was speculated on in the Dark Horse bible, that their technology might be largely appropriated, and that seemed interesting to me. I made up a backstory about how they never would have gotten off their own planet, probably, except a harmless race landed on the planet and they captured them and forced them to turn over their technology, and then enslaved them. I think if I ever do a sequel I’ll mention that the Yautja are another branch of the Predator race who are “purists” who don’t use techno slaves and who are distinct in other ways.
AvPGalaxy – How much of the story changed from your original proposal to the finished novel?
John Shirley – This is always going to happen. I always think of new ideas or decide something isn’t going to work in the final version. The general thrust will be the same but many specifics change. I don’t recall what exactly changed but I added many more things such as the young Predators using human beings as elements controlled in a kind of mind control videogame (this to me was an opportunity for social satire). If I think of a good new plot twist I will add it in. And writing spurs ideas. You think of one thing and that suggests another thing so that you have a wide selection of ideas to choose from and will inevitably diverge from the proposal. A proposal is not like a chapter-by-chapter outline, it’s just a springboard.
AvPGalaxy – You’ve just finished working on a new Aliens novel, Steel Egg? Can you tell us a little about Steel Egg?
John Shirley – I did a bit more research for this than for Predator-besides their ‘bible’, I watched all the alien movies and read through the wikipedia entry and took notes, and watched special features and looked at a book about the alien. Even so, this is the John Shirley version of the movie creation, not John Shirley following Alien comics or other novels. The novel assumes that The Company knew about the xenomorphic aliens before the first alien movie events took place (that’s hinted at in the movies) and it tries to imagine how they knew. In my story the Chinese and socialist satellite countries have emerged as competitors to the United Nations (from which they’ve withdrawn) in space exploration; this division in Earth society has created a kind of second Cold War, with the Company being the real power behind the throne of the United Nations countries. They both discover, at about the same time, a gigantic alien ship in orbit around the Saturnian moon Iapetus. The American-based UN ship gets to it first and finds it a derelict and gradually they realize that an infestation of xenomorphs destroyed it. The aliens are awakened by the incursion in the alien ship and begin to infest the Earth ship, with the hellish outcome we expect. That has something in common with the first Alien film, but after that it’s all different. The Chinese/Asian/Socialists and the UN ship struggle for control of the valuable artifact even as the xenomorphs reduce both sides. This giant alien ship is nearly a world in itself and one of its originators, from a friendly race of aliens, is still alive on a base on the Iapetan moon and he takes sides in the struggle…
AvPGalaxy – Since it hasn’t be announced by DH Press yet, is Steel Egg the working title?
John Shirley – No Alien: Steel Egg is definitely the title.
AvPGalaxy – How did the story for Steel Egg come into being?
John Shirley – Dark Horse asked me to make it up-and I imagined it! But like I said the real jumping off point was the notion that the Company had known about the aliens in advance of the events in the first movie. So it was thought I could create a PREQUEL to the first movie and that’s what this is.
AvPGalaxy – It’s quite an intriguing story and I’ll admit, the idea behind this “Egg Ship” has got my attention. Is the Egg meant to be a Space Jockey ship?
John Shirley – I’m not sure what a Space Jockey ship is. It’s a giant alien spacecraft modeled on the idea that traveling from one star system to the next requires lots of time and you need a whole survival system, a self sustaining system, not just supplies, to keep the ship going. Also it assumes those aliens were observing our planet for a long time so the ship is a kind of long term observation post too.
AvPGalaxy – Did you tie Steel Egg into any of the other Aliens novels? A comment here, some tidbit of information there?
John Shirley – I haven’t read the other Alien novels. I like to be original as much as possible, not derivative. I have spent thirty years writing novels that were just John Shirley novels, to me it’s a new experience to write ‘tie in’ novels. So my instinct is to be “John Shirley” about any creation, to bring my own fresh point of view to it, that’s what’s most rewarding to me and to most readers. Otherwise people have to have read all that stuff themselves to know what I’m talking about and it becomes a boring recap of other people’s material.
AvPGalaxy – What aspects of the Aliens mythos, if any, will you be developing?
John Shirley – I develop ideas about how they go through their stages. I suggest that they MUST get the additional mass they have, later, from somewhere. The laws of conservation require that. So they must eat. But I didn’t want to get into their point of view, as I did with the Predators, as they are supposed to be kept vicious and alien-feeling and nightmarish, like a tick or a shark, and if you get into their point of view you lose that.
AvPGalaxy – Did Fox have a lot of input with your novels? Especially since both play on some important things – Predator society and Alien growth.
John Shirley – The studio read the proposals but had no comment. Their input is in guidelines found in the ‘bible’ for each series.
AvPGalaxy – Judging from your author’s note, you’ve now read a lot of the other Aliens novels? What influence did reading those novels have on your writing of Steel Egg?
John Shirley – No, I don’t think my author’s note said I’d read a lot of other Aliens novels. I looked one or two things over, comics and novels, and decided there was contradictory information there (I got that impression from Dark Horse too) and therefore decided I should proceed from the movies as much as possible.
AvPGalaxy – Having now written both an Alien and Predator novel, which franchise do you prefer to write for?
John Shirley – I prefer Predator, because they have an implied culture, they’re more interesting than just frightening killing machines. They offer more possibilities for adventure.
AvPGalaxy – Are there any other projects we should be on the lookout for? Another Alien / Predator novel or something else?
John Shirley – I have written two John Constantine: Hellblazer novels, as well as the novelization for the Hellblazer movie, and I wrote Batman: Dead White. And there are my own books…like DEMONS and CRAWLERS from Del Rey books. And my new story collection LIVING SHADOWS. Crawlers and my novel In Darkness Waiting are in development as movies, we’ll see how far that goes…
AvPGalaxy – Thanks again for the interview! It’s been a pleasure talking to you again. Any last words before you sign off?
John Shirley – Just that I hope fans will read each book as an adventure in itself, with its own rewards and pleasures, since that’s how they were written…