Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 20 Dec 11 06:45
Inkwell welcomes novelist Lewis Shiner, who has been characterized by Black Clock as a "pop artist-cum-magical realist, or a sympathetic but sharp-eyed chronicler of American subcultures, or even a futurist" (http://blackclock.org/blog/interviews/2010/a-long-talk-with-lewis-shiner/). His novels include BLACK & WHITE (2008), SAY GOODBYE (1999), the award-winning GLIMPSES (1993), SLAM (1990), DESERTED CITIES OF THE HEART (1988), and FRONTERA (1984), all available in definitive edition trade paperbacks from Subterranean Press. His career retrospective COLLECTED STORIES was published in 2009, followed by the new suspense novel DARK TANGOS in 2011. All of his work is available for free download at www.fictionliberationfront.net. Leading the conversation with Lew is Angus MacDonald, a writer who lives in Northern California. His work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, and other publications. Angus hosts the WELL's science fiction conference. His day jobs have included retail sales (liquor, books, and electronics), technical writing, and currently field interviewing for the Census Bureau's ongoing random-sample surveys. Take it away, Angus!
Angus MacDonald (angus) Tue 20 Dec 11 19:29
Thank you, Jon. Lewis Shiner's new novel, DARK TANGOS, is an excellent, genre-busting story set in contemporary Buenos Aires. As mentioned above, it can be called suspense, but also contains large and engaging doses of politics, crime, romance, and even horror. My first question, though, reflects that I've never read another novel in which social dancing plays such a big part. How did you come to include that?
Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Wed 21 Dec 11 17:35
I guess the short answer is, "write what you know." A longer answer gets into the nuts and bolts of my creative process. SLAM was the last novel that I wrote with a really clear idea of the beginning, middle, and end. Since then I've tried to wing it more, and leave more room for serendipity. The result has been what I think of as a kind of collage process. I know what the initial impetus for DARK TANGOS was--my girlfriend and I walked into a photo exhibit in Buenos Aires to get out of the rain, and some of the photos talked about how functionaries of the 1976 regime in Argentina, including torturers, stole the children of the disappeared and raised them as their own. It was the first I'd heard of it and I knew immediately that I needed to write about it. When it came time to start thinking about the story, I looked around at what was at hand--I was taking classes in tango, both in Buenos Aires and here in the US. I was working for an international high-tech company that had a Buenos Aires office and that was moving jobs offshore. I'd been hospitalized for debilitating headaches. One of my dance teachers was an outspoken leftist. As I started researching, I pulled a scene here, a character there. Elena is based on a woman I saw dancing at the Porteño y Bailarin milonga in Buenos Aires one night. Mateo bears an uncanny physical resemblance to my good friend, the SF writer John Kessel (who, like many people in Buenos Aires, is of Italian extraction). When I start to paste the individual pictures on the canvas, painting over stuff here, adding stuff there, it starts to tell a story. Or, to put it another way, I don't have a lot of faith in my imagination. I'd rather steal stuff than make it up.
Angus MacDonald (angus) Wed 21 Dec 11 18:00
> rather steal stuff than make it up Excellent.
Angus MacDonald (angus) Wed 21 Dec 11 18:00
More seriously, are some of the adoptees you mention aware of their origins, and is that having an effect on Argentine politics or culture?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 22 Dec 11 15:49
Hi Lewis I enjoyed the novel and was fascinated by what I pretty much assume is an inside view into tango culture. Could you discuss how that is part of the wider Argentinian culture? I would equate tango with flamenco, blues, fado, morna, rembetika and other expressive musical subcultures. With the second surge of a world-wide tango phenomenon (the first being in the 1920's) how has this affected Argentina. Is there a tourist sector that specializes in tango tourists? Finally, I liked the way you moved your character through the emotional range of the music during the milonga scenes. You obviously know about that. Could you expand a little more on that?
for dixie southern iraq (stet) Thu 22 Dec 11 16:07
Have not read your book -- but does Carlos Gardel play a part?? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJjiFp2Vv4M&feature=related
Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Thu 22 Dec 11 17:58
@dlwilson All the time I've spent in Argentina has been in Buenos Aires, so I can't speak firsthand as to the impact of tango in the rest of the country. Tito Restucha, who was born there and taught tango here in North Carolina for years, is now living in one of the larger interior cities and still teaching, so it's not exclusively a BsAs phenomenon, but certainly BsAs is the epicenter. Tango is very much an immigrant dance and music, combining bits and pieces from Italy, Spain, Africa, and other cultures, so it's tied strongly to the Port of Buenos Aires and the sailors and slaves who brought those cultures into the mix. There is a huge tourist subculture devoted to tango--everything from specialty record and shoe stores (in one case, both at the same time) to dancers working the tourist areas for tips, to tango orchestras playing on the streets around the flea markets of Plaza Dorrego. I think a lot of the tourists who come there have the same delusion as a British couple we overheard at a table next to us one night, where the husband said, "And really, dear, tomorrow we must learn to tango." As to the emotional range of the music, I would say that is the thing that is most Argentinian about it. Argentines are notoriously depressed, and unlike swing or salsa, which get your toes tapping and your pulse racing even before you start moving energetically around the dance floor and getting naturally high, tango is slow, deliberate, thoughtful. It's a dance you can dance without getting your spirits lifted, if you don't want them to. I'm not entirely sure what you were asking for here, so if I haven't answered it, please ask again. @stet Gardel certainly gets mentioned, and I'm a fan of his music, but he's very much a part of tango history rather than tango present. Among the dance crowd, probably the most revered tango artist is Osvaldo Pugliese, as much for his defiant leftist politics as for his richly complex tangos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPeQDULj0Kk @angus There is a national campaign now trying to identify adoptees, and many of them have been reunited with members of their extended birth families. You've probably heard of the Mothers of the Plaza, who have continually protested the disappearances since the 1970s; they have an affiliated group, the Grandmothers of the Plaza, who are concerned with the kidnapped children. You can read more about them here: http://www.abuelas.org.ar/english/history.htm
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 22 Dec 11 18:18
About the emotional range of the music I should have been a bit more specific. Your character character goes to the milongas and he has an internal dialogue that goes something like this: I'm going to sit out this one by Troilo and wait for them to play Pugliese because he is catching my mood better. You weave it through those scenes and you obviously know the individual pieces and the composers. It is almost cinematic in effect like the films by directors who really know the music that they use on the soundtrack. So I guess my question is this: in those milongas is there a choreographing of moods through the musical selection?
Angus MacDonald (angus) Thu 22 Dec 11 19:41
One thing I learned from the novel was that Peronism had a left wing; from reading as a teenager that Peron was exiled in Franco's Spain for a while, I'd assumed he was pretty much right-wing. Has the party moderated into something distinct from what Peron intended? Where does it stand on the legacy of the dirty war?
Angus MacDonald (angus) Thu 22 Dec 11 22:55
[By the way, those not on the Well can ask questions or add comments by writing to <email@example.com>.]
Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Fri 23 Dec 11 13:51
@dlwilson--Okay, I get it now. I'm sure any good DJ will try to read the moods of the crowd and cater to them, but one of the main principles of DJing a milonga is variety. First off, there are three major types of tango--tango proper, milonga (a much faster and somewhat simplified version of tango, with a strong habanera rhythm), and vals (3/4 time, much more circular variation). The songs are organized into tandas (groups) of three or four songs by the same orchestra or in the same style, so the night will usually break down into about 20% milonga, 15% vals, and 65% tango. Then they'll usually mix it up between early, more staccato orchestras like D'Arienzo, middle period orchestras like Di Sarli, and complex orchestras like Pugliese or Piazzolla, plus maybe one or two tandas of modern tango electronica. The idea being to cater to all the different tastes. A smart DJ who sees that the floor is deserted for the vals and packed for the milongas will probably make some adjustments accordingly. Likewise, if people seem to be getting into the more somber tangos, or vocals more than instrumentals, I'm sure the DJ would slant things that way. @angus--Perón transcended a lot of the conventional distinctions between right and left, at least in his prime, late 1940s and early 1950s. On the one hand he came up through the military and admired Mussolini. On the other, he was a populist who did a great deal to help the descamisados, the "shirtless ones," the people in extreme poverty, who revered him. He was no friend to global corporations or the IMF and World Bank, and fought to protect Argentine crops and industry. During his exile, his party was banned from elections, so it splintered into many factions, right, left, and in between. Sadly, when Perón himself returned, he had drifted to the extreme right, and one of his henchmen, the loathsome José López Rega, was already torturing and murdering suspected dissidents long before the 1976 coup that put the junta of "el proceso" in power. That tarnished the name of peronism pretty badly, but there are still many in Argentina who remember Perón as a hero. And you will see graffiti from time to time that says "peronismo = fascismo". I was particularly interested by my leftist dance instructor's viewpoint. He had little use for Juan Perón, but was a big fan of Evita, whom he felt really walked the walk in terms of compassion and helping the poor. When you check the postcard racks, one barometer of popular culture, the faces you see most often are those of Evita, Gardel, and Che.
Angus MacDonald (angus) Fri 23 Dec 11 18:16
Angus MacDonald (angus) Fri 23 Dec 11 18:18
Speaking of Lopez Rega, one thing you've mentioned elsewhere is your research into the effects of violence and torture, on both societies and individuals. What did you find out that surprised you?
Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Sat 24 Dec 11 07:55
I guess the biggest surprise was how permanent the damage caused by torture can be. That had always felt emotionally right to me, but it was surprising to see the medical evidence supporting that viewpoint. There's a section in the book where an internist says, "I have a colleague who studies people who've been in serious auto accidents. He's found that nearly half of them show significant levels of PTSD. Years later their nervous systems are still flinching from the impact." This came out of a conversation I had with a kinesiologist. I injured my left index finger in a Skil saw accident in 1967. In the 80s a massage therapist found a place in my back that had been sore for most of my adult life and told me it was connected to that earlier injury. I've since had a chiropractor and another massage therapist confirm this. The point is that we are much more fragile creatures than we give ourselves credit for. Which makes the idea that we would torture each other--or excuse torture--all the more unforgivable. I grew up reading 60s espionage fiction, where the hero is routinely tortured in almost every novel, but his indomitable will power allows him to overpower his torturers, dispatch them with a certain glee, and then go make love to a beautiful woman or two, with no lasting effects. I was determined that DARK TANGOS was not going to be that sort of book, and that I would not downplay or back away from or soften the focus on the moments of violence.
Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Wed 28 Dec 11 13:53
Where is everybody? Was it something I said?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 28 Dec 11 16:52
Us chickens are still here Lewis. Here is one for you. I remember seeing Fabian Bielinsky's film "Nine Queens." It is an elaborate confidence game movie set in Buenos Aires. If I remember correctly it premiered just about the time Argentina's economy went into the toilet. But the overall impact of the movie was that not only was the con going on in the story, but it seemed to resonate and radiate all over the place. The effect on the audience, esp. the Argentines was that everyone seen in the streets in the movie seemed to be on the hustle. That shit just doesn't go away and get forgotten. Same thing can be said about the dirty war period. Did you see any of this when you were there? And if so, how much of it made it into your novel?
Angus MacDonald (angus) Thu 29 Dec 11 13:06
More on torture: the last few years in the US have seen, astonishingly, some actual debate on whether torture works for extracting accurate or useful information. Did the research you saw have any answers to that?
Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Thu 29 Dec 11 17:13
@dlwilson I haven't seen "Nine Queens," but it's certainly true that "The Crisis" (as they call it in Argentina) of 1999-2002 was as serious in many ways as el Proceso. Hyperinflation wiped out the savings that retired people had been putting away for their entire lives and put many of them on the street. Nearly everyone took huge pay cuts, and the least well off parts of society never recovered. I mention the Crisis a couple of times in DARK TANGOS, but don't go into it much. I might have said more had I really understood that the Crisis was just one more aftereffect of El Proceso and the huge debts the junta ran up during their time at the trough. Unfortunately, that really didn't come home for me until I was writing my blog posts to publicize the book's release. We saw some of the Crisis-related protests, and I described one of them in the novel--people in their 60s and over banging pans, setting fires, urinating on banks, etc. But it wasn't until our last trip, in 2007, that we really got a whiff of what it must have been like. They had just allowed the peso to float for the first time since the Crisis--for our previous trips the exchange rate had been fixed at three pesos per dollar. As soon as the peso was allowed to float, it dropped to about 3.25 per dollar, and no one knew how low it was going to go. The mood in the streets was palpable. People had their collars up and were staring down at the sidewalks. All the joi de vivre was gone. Businesses closed, including our favorite restaurant. Getting money from an ATM became an adventure--on any given day any number of ATMs were out of cash, or had lowered the maximum withdrawal amount, or were locked up and inaccessible. Fortunately the peso stabilized there, and apparently things gradually got back to normal, but I'll never forget the emotional chill in the streets and the haunted looks in the eyes of the older people we saw, who all seemed to be thinking, "Oh god, not again. Please, not again." @angus There's two kinds of torture, really. There's amateur torture, like we did at Abu Grahib, which is just brutalizing people and hoping they'll tell you stuff to make it stop. Then there's the pro torture, like I talk about in DARK TANGOS, where the object is to reduce the subject to a childlike state, and put the torturer in the place of the parent. The result is the victim is desperate to please the torturer. But the end results are the same. There is no motive for the victim to tell the truth, only to tell the torturer what he wants to hear. Many people tell the truth under torture just because they hope that will work, but if it doesn't, they will say anything--anything--to make it stop. So yes, maybe you do get useful information sometimes. But you can't rely on it. The larger issue here is, who the hell cares if the information is useful or not? The ends do not justify the means. If stomping infants to death with hob nailed boots would get us accurate intelligence information, does that mean it's okay to do it? How many infants is a particular piece of intelligence worth? The answer has to be zero, because any non-zero answer puts you on a very steep road to surrendering your humanity.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 30 Dec 11 07:39
That was very well-stated.
Ed Ward (captward) Fri 30 Dec 11 09:57
He's a dang good writer, you know. And it's his birthday today unless he lied to Facebook. Lew, sorry to be so late in showing up here. My big problem with Dark Tangos is I'm really allergic to dancing, and while I loved the story, the world in which it occurred just wasn't my thing. I know why people get entranced in tango; a famous choreographer friend was visiting this summer (she presented a piece at Montpellier Danse) and we went to this outdoor festival they have each summer and stumbled upon a space set aside for tango dancers. She drank the whole thing in, and, after about 20 minutes, said "Okay, I have to go back to my room now. This is so intense." And off she went. I have problems articulating about dance (something that's gotten me in trouble with her in the past) but I think that you've done it very well in this book. And, for those of you following along at home, Lew's other books are also very much worth reading, and I *can* comment more intelligently on them. Why don't you post the URL again, between brackets, and it'll light up and maybe you'll sell some more!
Angus MacDonald (angus) Fri 30 Dec 11 20:19
I'll jump in on that: The excellent new uniform editions of his novels are at <http://www.lewisshiner.com/definitive.html>. His short fiction is excellent as well, and much of it is also at <http://www.fictionliberationfront.net/>.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 31 Dec 11 05:34
Lew, when you and I first met, when you were living in Austin, you were writing science fiction - and at one point you were part of the cyberpunk literary cartel with Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker et al. One recollection I have is of the North American Science Fiction Convention in 1985, where you, John, and Bruce walked off a cyberpunk panel thinking it had been hijacked. Rucker has an account of that panel here: http://io9.com/bruce-sterling/ He says that, after the panel, you said "So I guess cyberpunk is dead now?" One thing I especially recall is how conflicted you seemed to be on leaving the panel, in fact you went back. I'd love to hear your account of that panel, and maybe talk a bit about what cyberpunk was and how you saw yourself as part of that literary subgenre.
Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Sun 1 Jan 12 07:26
@Ed--Great to hear from you, my friend, and thanks for the hefty praise. @Jon--Everybody remembers that cyberpunk panel differently. My version goes something like this: Somebody on the con committee made a horrible mistake in picking a guy named Ric Meyers to moderate. Ric's only claim to SF fame (though I think he'd done some work in Hollywood) was a piece of pulp hackwork called DOOMSTAR (I happened to have tried to read it because I was a judge for the Phil Dick Award that year). I think the committee's idea was that they would get a moderator who had nothing to do with cyberpunk to bring some perspective. Unfortunately, they didn't explain that to Myers, who, desperate for sales or even credibility, spent the early part of the panel trying to come up with a definition of cyberpunk that would include him, though I don't think he'd read anything by any of us. The reason we walked out was because Myers was such a jerk, not because of some grand ideological statement. I guess my favorite definition of cyberpunk is Ed Bryant's "novels of Gibsonian sensibility." It puts the emphasis on Gibson, which is where it rightly belongs, at least for me. I was writing horror and detective fiction when Sterling gave me a copy of "Burning Chrome" in manuscript and I was upended by it. Gibson had all the right influences--Ballard, Bester, and Burroughs--and his own compulsive energy and literary flair. He singlehandedly made me want to write SF again. And of course once I got to know him, he proved to be a wonderful guy--generous, funny, brilliant, and always interesting. If I hadn't been in Austin and friends with Bruce, I would probably have never been in the club. But Bruce really loved the idea of a movement--we were all somewhat in awe of the way the New Wave had coalesced around Moorcock's NEW WORLDS in England in the 60s, though again, you could just as easily say that those were "novels of Ballardian sensibility." He recruited me to write for CHEAP TRUTH, his polemical broadsheet, and I was flattered to have my opinions taken seriously. In the end, I didn't have the loyalty to SF as a genre that Bill and Bruce and the others did. I was happy to be called a cyberpunk because it was the first real attention I'd gotten for my work, but there were a whole lot of other things I wanted to write. Much as I loved Ballard, I also loved Robert Stone and Harry Crews and Anne Tyler and Len Deighton and Lisa Tuttle. So I moved on, and the street, to paraphrase Bill, found its own use for the word cyberpunk, which I think still rankles a lot of people. The word came up in talking to a coworker last week, who told me how much he loves Neal Stephenson's books. And he's probably the author most associated with the word these days. My attitude is, easy come, easy go.
Angus MacDonald (angus) Sun 1 Jan 12 14:37
Your website, as alluded to earlier, has all your novels and maybe all of your short fiction available for free download. Does that affect your hardcopy sales?
Angus MacDonald (angus) Sun 1 Jan 12 15:03
Also, Happy New Year.
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