Shane W. Smith, The man behind the hair on top of the man.

May 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Craving the attention of the Internet, I decided that the only way I could gain attention, would be to mooch off the success of others.  Since none of the real celebrities I emailed responded, I decided to go with the fourth best thing, and sat down with Shane W. Smith, via email, to pick his brain a little, and ask some hard-hitting questions.  Shane is the author of the graphic novel series  The Lesser Evil, and its work in progress sequel, Death’s Feast, and sister series, The Game. He was also a contributor to The Beginnings Anthology with his stories Parlour Tricks and Pestilence.  He also writes The Tube, a constantly updating story, and is working on Not Just Annie’s Story, a rhyming picture book.  Amongst more, that you can find on his website.

Well, let’s start this in a nice simple manner, describe yourself, and your work, in the most accurate way possible, without using any consonant more than three times(Evil Laugh).

Writing makes me feel like I have overcome the constraints of life.

That was far too smart an answer.  The Lesser Evil has been out for quite a while now, and has, from what I’ve seen, garnered favourable reviews, has any piece of praise had a strong effect on you, have you been surprised by people’s responses?

I’m always surprised when people enjoy something I’ve written. In so many ways, I still feel like the seven-year-old scrawling Super Mario fan fiction: definitely not ready to contend in a professional marketplace, let alone to feel entitled to ask people for their hard-earned money. I’m not sure I’ve even entirely processed the fact that I’ve been published, let alone any of the positive response.

Praise runs off your back like water, but criticism stains right through. I think that might be a proverb or something; either way, I believe it.

I’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on the responses, but tend to focus my attention on the negatives. After all, it’s the shortcomings of my work that inspire me to do better next time. I am pleased, however, that most of the issues with The Lesser Evil so far have to do with the artwork and not the writing: as a graphic novelist, I shouldn’t be saying this, but I feel I am a writer first, artist eighth.

Speaking of seven-year-old you, who was your first crush(celebrity or real)?

I was wondering when you’d get to the hard-hitting questions.

Before I met my wife, my love life (if that’s the right term for it) was a never-ending series of crushing disappointments and unrequited brooding, and I’d rather not think about it.

Okay, fine, it was Princess Leia!

In the same vein as question 2, do you consider yourself a successful writer?  Do you think you would ever consider yourself a success?  And most wankily, do you think having a published work has changed you?

In terms of having a writing career, success tends to be measured in sales, which is a concept that doesn’t appeal to me (not least because with this metric, there’s no way I could be considered successful [yet]). In terms of the act of writing itself, there are only three measures for success that I can think of:
1) Enjoyment;
2) Perseverance;
3) Measurable improvement in quality over time.
Using these scales, I suppose I could say that I consider myself to be writing successfully. But at the same time, I can feel a tremendous amount of untapped potential inside me, lying just out of reach. Until I am able to devote enough time and energy to exercising that potential and writing in a way that truly satisfies me, I would qualify my current level of success as limited. (Interestingly, the most obvious path to this goal is to further my writing career by increasing sales, which would take the pressure off me as breadwinner for my family!)

It’s hard to say whether being published has changed me. While The Lesser Evil was my first commercially published book, I’ve had a handful of short stories and an academic comic published prior to this, so any associated change would probably have been occurring over a number of years – and at a time in my life where everything else was changing as well! Like I said earlier, I’m not even convinced that I’ve processed the fact that my work is commercially available. It’s possible that this whole thing has changed me somewhat, but not in any overt or obvious way. Do you think I’ve changed?

I’d say that you haven’t, or at least not in a way that was obvious to me.  Though there may have been a shift towards more frustration towards your job.  Speaking of which,  you currently have a full-time job, various writing commitments, an apparent dedication to hoarding bargains, not to mention a growing family.  How on Earth do you find the time to do anything?

Short answer: I think my determination makes time go slower when I need it to. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Long answer: Sadly, I haven’t discovered how to take advantage of eddies in the space/time continuum. I’ve got a lot on my plate, and there just wasn’t room to fit it all into a 16 hour day. But I want it all – I refused to give anything up: not my family time, not my standard of living (and so, no work reduction), and not my writing time.

There was only one option left. I’ve cut back on sleep; when the growing family have all gone to bed, I stay up an extra couple of hours and try to get some work done. I’m down to about 5 hours a night, and it seems to be relatively sustainable. Weekends, I stay up even later.

Also, I take advantages of lulls at work. Back when my daughter napped during the day, I’d take advantage of those short intervals. Whenever the in-laws visit, I get stacks of extra work time, thanks to the babysitting and chores assistance.

And I’ve made some procedural compromises: I specifically developed the art style used in The Lesser Evil to be efficient and relatively quick to produce (I can produce a typical completed page of artwork in less than an hour). There are cost, quality and design trade-offs for this that I would probably have hesitated over had I more time to enjoy my creative vocation. But ultimately, I’m happy with the result, I’m happy with the rate of production, and I’m learning to work better with this style to overcome some of the artistic shortcomings(Shane talks about his methods of art here).

Slightly different question from usual, but, who are your favourite writers from the side of “world building,” and do you think the creation of a consistent world can elevate a text above where the “pure” literary skills of a writer would place it?

Not a great answer, sorry, but it’s the best I got.

This is a tough one for me, because I tend to put world-building toward the end of the list of priorities. That said, I have commented before on GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire as being the source of one of the most immersive fictional universes I’ve ever read about – as, especially in the first couple of books, the doom and disaster really does seem to take its toll on the world at large as much as it does on the individual characters, leaving the reader with the pervasive and uncomfortable certainty that there’s no way things could possibly ever recover.

In Song of Ice and Fire, the world becomes a character in the story, capable of making you feel the despair; rather than relying on the narrator telling you that things are bad all over, you can pretty much see it for yourself. This series is the only example of this that springs immediately to mind: it’s a truly rare thing to have such an alive and engaging world, and it does elevate the books somewhat in my estimation.

So, you’re saying that it needs to be a truly exceptional piece of world building, for it to have a noticeable positive effect?  Fair Enough.

On world-building, I saw Children of Men (again) the other night, and it reminded me just how powerful a tool setting can be. The world-building in that film is immaculate (I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment there), and the movie uses all the tricks in the book (character, story and cinematography) to draw attention to the world, which is arguably the main draw of the film.

So I’d like to clarify my previous answer to: world-building is not something I’ve typically paid lots of attention to in my writing, but that’s simply because my focus tends to be elsewhere (character, for example). Texts that focus primarily on the setting can (of course) be immensely powerful and just as engaging as any other.

 As opposed to simply asking who your favourite author is, if you could go to a writing workshop or similar with any author, who would it be?

Tricky. Presumably the writer would need to be living, or the class would be a bit disappointing. And they’d need to have an engaging style, both on the page and in a public setting. And they’d need to have a writing style I respect and/or aspire to. At least this isn’t a ‘stranded on a desert island’ question, where personality compatibility becomes a factor too!So… I’d have to say Brian K Vaughan (comics), Max Barry (novels), or Shawn Ryan (TV scripts).(Interestingly, but outside of relevance, all three are bald white men. Maybe I should shave my head…)

Alright, let’s say you could pick any writer, and have them appear at any point in their life, would that change your answer?

No, I think you can lock in the earlier answer, but with those parameters, I would have loved a chance to talk to or observe the lives of:* Alan Alda while he was basically showrunning MASH.
* Ben Browder when he sat down to write his first Farscape script.
* Arthur Conan Doyle when coming under fire for killing off Holmes.
* Shakespeare at any point in his career.

I seem to be having a few problems with thinking up questions, so, are there any questions you wish people would ask you?

I wish more people would ask me to sign lucrative writing contracts!Happy also to answer any questions about themes in The Lesser Evil, or what I think about the extent to which fiction is oblique autobiography.

Alright, I’m going to take a break from the hard-hitting, relevant questions for a second here.  You just got back from the Oz Comic-Con in Adelaide, and you summarised your experiences here, but I thought I’d ask you a few questions.

You seem to have indicated quite a positive experience at the con, you sold all the books you’d brought, which is no mean feat.  But, could you quantify a number sold, or put forth an idea of what it would have taken for you to consider the trip a “failure”?

In the interest of also keeping this positive, as it’s bad form to ask too many negative questions, excluding the “learned how to con” and whatever, do you think you gained anything out of the trip?

Normally, assessing success and failure is a tricky proposition, especially when there are different things being measured: professional success, personal triumph, and financial profit. I think that over the weekend, I managed to achieve two out of three (which ain’t bad, if you believe what you hear on the radio). Profit comes later… hopefully! Though I hear that even breaking even on Artist Alley is a rarity, so I think I might have pretty much knocked it out of the park on the first swing.Getting more specific, in this case, it is a fairly simple measure, actually. I had just one criterion that would have meant failure: an excess baggage charge on the way home.

Getting up and selling myself in any capacity is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Anyone who knows me knows that I am generally an unassuming, shy and quiet chap who would much rather sit in the corner and not be noticed than to be the centre of attention. Running a booth by myself with the sole focus of attracting the attention of passersby with disposable income was an unbelievably intimidating prospect, and I even managed to give myself a full-on authentic panic attack while en route to Adelaide.I was so sure: there was NO WAY I could do this. I was wasting my time, and this would cripple my confidence forever and destroy any motivation I had to continue my writing career. That little voice between the ears knows just where the sore spots are, and he went right for them this time.But I’d prepared and prepared and prepared. I had all the books, all the brochures, banners, business cards. I was all set on the stock front, and that kind of gave me a little bit of confidence. I’d read, and re-read, and re-read the incredible Artist Alley Survival Guide, and even though I had no idea what to expect, this gave me a few very useful pointers on how to behave, how to attract the attention of people and how to engage with them in a genuine (or at least friendly) manner.So I followed its advice: I stood, rather than sitting down. I talked to everyone as they went past, asking how their weekend was going (a question most people seemed to appreciate), and I encouraged them to take a look at my book by holding it out to them. By working to someone else’s script, I was kind of able to go on auto-pilot for a while, until I began to realise that this was working, and that I was actually capable of doing this.The biggest success of the weekend for me was personal. Yes, I got my book out there x110; and yes, I met some people in the industry and made contacts; and yes, I managed to recoup most of my investments on the way… but the greatest triumph for me was just being there. Doing it. Operating so far outside my comfort zone and safety net, and even thriving while doing so. That was a real thrill.

Man, that answer was just “I learned how to con.”  How dull.  😛

To kind of go back to a question you mentioned, a piece of writing is never written in a vacuum, when writing something, the author will take their own experiences, and use them to shape events, dialogue, or the world itself.  The writers experiences, and the culture they come from, all have a major effect on the finished product.  This is particularly obvious in Speculative Fiction, particularly those that deal with the “future” whether as a dystopian piece, or simply a future story.  If you were to compare, for instance, The Hunger Games with Battle Royale, both books which have a similar underlying precedent, you can see a large number of differences, that mostly hinge on the society they are borne out of.

While I’m certain we can agree that this influence is a good thing, do you think it can adversely effect someone’s enjoyment of something, if they don’t understand the cultural background?  For a more personal example, The Lesser Evil is very guy-centric, thanks to its origins from when you were a lot younger, you were essentially just writing what you knew.  Would you change things now, if you could(without going into discussions over artistic integrity)?  And do you think we can learn a lot about an author based on their works?

I think that good writing will not be affected by this problem. If intimate knowledge of the author’s background is necessary for the reader to understand the story, the writing itself has failed. While I don’t intend to get into a huge and involved analysis of the subconscious mind and the idea of text ownership, I think a truly excellent book needs to be deeply personal, and yet open enough for a reader to infuse with their own meaning.There are a lot of texts (particularly of the modernist era) that require quite a lot of external esoteric knowledge to absorb. They are very alienating for laymen to read… which of course was the whole point. For a commercial work to be marketable, however, it generally needs to be accessible. I don’t necessarily mean lowest-common-denominator (though there’s plenty of that around); I mean simply that it is in an author’s best interest to regulate the extent to which any obscure cultural background will affect the readability of the text (to clarify this, I don’t necessarily mean that all works should be culturally homogenous; I simply mean that to reach a broader audience, some writers will need to engage in world-building a little more than others. This can be done any number of ways.).In my opinion, if the writer’s experience is ever more than the very basic raw ingredient of the story, something has gone very wrong. It’s true that The Lesser Evil can be read as a reflection of my life and experience as a teenager, but (at least I hope this is the case) it can stand on its own as a decent story with engaging characters that appear to live and breathe if separated entirely from their author. In short, I think that the elements of a story that are best influenced by real life are the passions, themes and metaphor. If a character is derived directly from an author’s personality, or an event derived from their experience, they still must be complete and well-rounded in the text.I think it is possible to learn something about an author from their work (or at least possible in a theoretical sense), but it would be sheer folly to try to infer any biographical information using a fictional book as the sole source of reference.In terms of The Lesser Evil, I’m unsure how to answer that question. I think if I were writing it today, it would be a wildly different piece. I have made my peace with it being complete (after more than a decade working on it), so don’t really think too much about changing it. What I aim to do – and I think this is a common artistic priority – is to build upon it, and improve with the next book.

Excellent.

If you could have a super power for 11 days, 6 hours, and 38 seconds, and only that long, what power would you want?  What would you do with your very temporary infinite cosmic power?

I’ll take what Superman’s got, thanks. I think if you count it as one superpower, it would best be called indefatiguable hyper-hyperactivity.I think if I planned it right, I could use those 11 days to set myself up as lord and ruler of the known universe… and still have 6 hours and 38 seconds left to quash rebellion.

Alright, The Lesser Evil is what we would call a “Graphic Novel” but I find that to be a rather odd term, and I wanted to know your thoughts on it.  Typically, a Novel is designed to be read in multiple goes, they usually have a lot in the way of conflicts, and so on and so forth.  Compared to a Novella, or Novelette(or even just a short story), they are quite complex, and rather importantly, long.  So, with this in mind, do you think the “novel” part of the name is accurate?  Can you think of a better term to describe The Lesser Evil, or essentially every Graphic Novel?

My wife calls them “big people picture books”.Scott McCloud calls any text in sequential image format a “comic”.I chose “graphic novel” primarily because that’s what my publisher calls them, and also it sounds a little more upmarket than “comic”. It also gives a better indication of length than “comic”, because the term can encompass a three-panel Dilbert or a thousand-page epic. I agree though that there are limitations of the term – most notably is the departure from the typical novel structure/form/ethos.My personal choice for the form’s moniker would be “graphic literature” but God knows that there are some graphic novels out there that don’t deserve to have such a lofty title applied to them! Still, I would like to see The Lesser Evil classified as “graphic literature”.

You might also be interested in Academaesthetics(2007), which spends quite a long time debating the unusual nature of defining what a ‘comic’ is, and how – in a sense – the word can mean just about anything, and that a comic is more a cultural artefact than a well-defined form of literature.Some mentions of ‘graphic novel’ too, I think, and some further reading in the references.

As a writer, you probably have a lot of ideas, some good enough that you write them down, some probably terrible, which you immediately discard, and yet others which linger in your mind.  Have you ever thought up a story, or a character, that you wish someone else would write?I wish Brian K Vaughan would rewrite all my stuff.Beyond that, I enjoy the writing process too much to think about farming it out… regardless of what would be best for the story.

Welp, it looks like I’ve run out of creative juices, so, as a final, very lame question, do you have any advice for all the potatoes out there, that dream of a better life?

Hi potatoes. If you want something better for your life, it’s pretty much a given that no one else will make it happen for you. You’ll need to do for yourself. Remember, there’s only 10 000 hours of practice between you and whatever you want to become an expert in. And even partway along that line (as I currently am), there are plenty of rewards and fun to be had. Start today! (But don’t make graphic novels – I don’t need the competition!)

Well, Thanks Shane, for being a Guinea Pig, and putting up with my questions.

Thanks for the interview, man! It was tonnes of fun!


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