His new book is the gripping story of a Lebanese Christian pushed into crisis by a Hezbollah insurgency. It takes risks in terms of genre, using aspects of vampire literature to transform a novel that’s already dealing with war and religio-political nightmare. This is fiction that won’t be constrained by old ideas about borders, a point made by Pip Adam in an illuminating review here.
Shuker is currently in Wellington as the writer in residence at Victoria University. I took the chance to ask him three questions about this book.
LP: For me the first eruption of vampire activity in Anti Lebanon came as a shock—I swore out loud! But it’s not as if Anti Lebanon suddenly becomes a simplistic orgy of vampire violence and torment. It seems you’re more interested in using aspects of that genre to explore “pyr”, a violence of attitude that rises from old and complicated sources. What influenced your foray into that genre, and did you always intend to incorporate aspects of vampire literature, or did that grow out of the developing story?
CS: I initially had a book in mind that was partly speculative. I went as far as inventing alternative and parallel organisations to those that really existed in the civil war—new militias, political parties, personalities, even religions. I wrote a piece I still like about an Armenian militia that insisted on fighting unarmed—they simply marched against their foes over the bodies of the dead, embarrassing their enemies into ceasefire. But as a whole it lacked depth and urgency and wasn’t working, and as I explored Leon I naturally came around to returning my militias and sects back to the reality we know, and then the novel began to feel dangerous and exciting. Until it died again, after about fifty pages of work. The book and the material wanted something that mere reality couldn’t furnish.
LP: Leon’s rage seems to be partly sourced in his despair over the waste and misuse of a key Lebanon resource—water—as symbolised most powerfully in the poisoning of the Anti Lebanon aquifer. For me this despair resonated strongly with concerns about water elsewhere in the world, especially here in New Zealand. Was that part of your decision to set this story in Lebanon—the universality of those concerns about water?
CS: It’s everywhere we look, isn’t it. It grew out of the material, the way these things should. I went on research to Lebanon, Syria and Israel with water and blood in mind, but I wasn’t prepared for the state of the Beirut river, the Jordan, or the Dead Sea. The more you read in the history of the Lebanon, the more you understand it as an incredibly singular phenomenon in the area. The richness of its natural resources, compared with Syria and Israel as they are currently drawn, is an astonishment. The cedars, the rivers, the mountains, plains and sea. And it is religion that has done its damndest to ruin these things.... (please click Read More)
There’s a very beautiful story about a river north of Beirut called nahr Ibrahim. They call it the blood river, as it flows red with the blood of Adonis. It is, of course, iron rich soil rusting in the banks. But where nahr Ibrahim flows into the Mediterranean is not too far from the Casino du Liban in Jounieh where during the war they threw men from the cliffs into the sea. Cataracts of blood, or rust. It amounts to the same.
LP: It seems that you’ve never been limited by the constraints of mainstream publishing. When New Zealand publishers were wary of your first book, The Method Actors, you didn't alter the novel or drop it completely. Instead you published it through the major US publisher Shoemaker and Hoard. And after writing Three Novellas for a Novel you said “I’ve really done it this time. No one will publish it.” Rather than dropping that book and writing something more conventional, you published it online, offering parts of the novel free for a time. What influences your decision on where to publish and how?
CS: I think it’s constantly evolving and moving. What’s important is to find out what my first principles are: what motivates me in a very general sense is the desire to write and to show that writing and keep on writing—to perform in the lab and then to perform in the imagination of a reader. In effect, when in the best of possible moods about my work, I believe it’s very good and should be read. So publication is still the means to that end, though it is no longer the simple thing it once was when I was putting together my role models and ambitions and understanding of the world as a young reader and writer. Working on a novel or other similar project you assemble it in a space that is, or ought to be, determined by literature, by other books, plays, poems, written materials of any kind. Not in a market. In the so-called market, as they used to say about films, “nobody knows anything”.
But at the end, with each novel or book of poems, you have to take that cold, hard look at it and ask yourself—who is this for? That’s hard to do and potentially dangerous in the middle of a project. It’s a useful procrastination tool, and one of the reasons I advise my students and anyone who will listen to separate off that reptilian, survivor thinking (will this sell, to whom and how, etc, and how will I achieve that), in as much as is possible, from the angelic, dreaming, free-associating, imagining part of you when you’re thinking and feeling and composing. Which is the part that gets work done.
That is, not to be defeatist, but equal parts realistic and indefatigable about what you’ve done, when you’ve done it. Aim for something high and out of reach. If you don’t reach it you have at least failed in the right direction. But my sensitive portrait of my grandmother who lived and died in one small town south of Timaru (a novella!—so thrilling to publishers) is unlikely to secure a heavy-hitting ICM agent. It’s unlikely to secure a NZ publisher. But if I believe it’s of Janet Frame-esque quality and I want to publish it conventionally then I ought to have the gumption, stones, persistence and belief in myself to get it on to the desks of major agents and editors wherever I feel it’s important to be published. If I think it’s of more specialist appeal, I ought to examine my options with a sense of freedom and possibility.
So Three Novellas—to me (in the best of possible moods) an irresistible, great dark giggle of a book, completely readable and loads of fun—I sent out to a lot of people who then (I feel, in the worst of possible moods) understandably blinked and said no, if they said anything at all. (That’s another thing: it’s never been easier to actually get manuscripts on agents’ and editors’ desks.) The Lazy Boys did the rounds of what were then the usual NZ suspects, most of whom showed interest but eventually said no. Writing The Method Actors and doing the MA relieved me of the disappointment of that.
After the Novellas ran up against several brick walls I took matters into my own hands. I started on research for Anti Lebanon and I designed and put out the Novellas in as interesting and beautiful way as I was capable. And that—taking control of the means of production—was incredibly satisfying and creative. A lot of hard work but that comes with the territory. After all, what choice did I have? The world will always surprise you.
There are other, deeper psychological needs that can be served by writing and publishing, and that serve the kind of drive required to keep on writing and to get published. The desire to receive 11 times over the parental approbation that was divided among my 11 brothers and sisters. To avenge the torture I received at home/high school/university/my first job/creche. To attempt not to disappear. But in the long run of writing and publishing books these kinds of needs can only provide an edge to a broader, more pleasant drive, in my experience: to contribute, to give. To feel a flow. To be part of the conversation at the high table. To play for high stakes.
Certain bad books will be the same bad books whether they are published by FSG or the Kindle Friends Group Indiependent [sic] Ebook, Covers and ISBNs, Two Blurb Quotes and 100 Amazon Reviews for Only $5.95 Press. A long time ago I subscribed to a saying: a good book will find its own way. I happily stick to it.