John Shirley on horror, the melding of genres, and storytelling (it’s in the genes)

Resident Evil: RetributionJohn Shirley isn’t new to the writing biz: He’s a master of cyberpunk, science fiction, and horror. But those genres aren’t exclusive from one another — they share common traits, and writers often stir elements from them together, like paints from different pots. It’s not much different from the blending of science fiction and fantasy, for example.

But what do those genres — and novel, short story, and screenplay writing, in this case — have to do with video games? Well, a lot. Video game narratives are a form of fiction, but they draw from any genre you can name, including the ones Shirley does best. He’s no stranger to the medium, either. He’s adapted into print the first-person shooter series Borderlands in The Fallen and Unconquered and BioShock in Rapture, and now he’s turned to Resident Evil. Only this time, it’s a book based on a film based on a game franchise: Resident Evil: Retribution(from Titan Books).

John ShirleyFortunately, Shirley has all the right experience and know-how to make it work — from penning screenplays (such as the first one for The Crow) to writing his own novels (like City Come A-Walkin’ and Dracula In Love), short stories (like the Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award-winning collection Black Butterflies), movie novelizations (Constantine and Doom, etc.), and more. So how does he juggle it all?

Misprinted Pages: This isn’t your first foray into sci-fi and horror — you’re something of an expert by now. How is the writing process and creative investment of penning a novelization based on an existing property (like Resident Evil) different from inventing your own original story?

John Shirley: Well, of course, in my own “just John Shirley” fiction — like A Song Called Youth, or Demons, or Everything Is Broken — I have to make up the plot entirely on my own. There might occasionally be some plot point suggestions from an editor, but it’s rare. And I don’t have to take the suggestion. With a novelization, I have to incorporate the entire script into the novel, and that means someone else’s plot. I can add additional plot points — like “B story,” as they say in television writing — [or] subplots, but nothing can contradict the script, the backstory of the script, or the “world” of the franchise. So it’s a sort of dance one does.

Do those two things mix at any point?

Sure, they mix. A novelization isn’t paint-by-numbers; the writer has to be very creative and ready to flesh out the story, to make it come alive in prose — especially with an action-oriented script like Resident Evil‘s. The trick is to come up with additional material that’s not “padding” but is, instead, good entertainment. Perhaps with some ideas and insights [that fit] seamlessly with the script.

How do you use your knowledge of these genres — along with your past writing experiences — to write a book like this one? What kind of research did you do?

I have absorbed a good deal of imagery and mythology around zombies, dangerous technology, and evil corporations from genre novels and movies and television — and, except for zombies, from my observation of the real world. But Resident Evil’s living dead are not the same as those in The Walking Dead or Night of the Living Dead. They’re distinctive. They arise from the Umbrella Corporation’s experiments, and they have proboscis-like extra jaws and tentacles that extrude from their mouths. Some zombies have their own special style! There are also mutated mixes of people and other creatures and the living dead in Resident Evil. So we have to be Resident Evil-specific with our living dead.

That takes me to the research. I watched all the Resident Evil movies [in sequence] in preparation for writing the novelization. I read up on Resident Evil on Wikipedia and Wikis and in articles, and I ordered a book on the video game. So I did spend some time on research. The staff at the book publisher and someone working for the movie studio went over my novelization; then they vetted it for any issues, any blurring of the franchise. Having done my research, I got no complaints or notes of any significance from them on the book.

Resident Evil is a mix of genres in itself: It’s a nice blend of horror, science fiction, action, and even espionage. So in developing the novel, I was able to draw on my familiarity with all those genres … and I’ve always mixed genres. My novel Bleak History is a mix of science fiction and supernatural tale, with some cyberpunk elements. That blending feels natural to me, I guess because I love all those genres.

Resident Evil: Retribution movie 1

How much creative license were you allowed to take with the screenplay when writing the novel?

I take no license with the screenplay, really, except that I may add details to a scene. I also include the inner life of the characters: what they’re thinking and feeling, which you can’t get as much from a screenplay. I add to the screenplay — that is, I add new scenes between existing scenes so we can let the tale blossom into a full novel, but nothing contradicts the screenplay. It’s all in harmony with it. And again, any additions are checked before the book is approved.

Were you familiar with the Resident Evil games and movie series before signing on to write the book?

I was generally familiar but wasn’t really steeped in it. I hadn’t really played the game. I also wrote BioShock: Rapture, and in that case, I had played both the first two video games I based the novel on. And I wrote Borderlands: The Fallen and Borderlands: Unconquered after having played the [first] Borderlands video game. But in the case of Resident Evil, the game/film world was mostly new to me. Exploring it was part of the fun. It’s a pleasure to watch Milla Jovovich as Alice, the heroine of the films. She’s beautiful and lithe, and she charges the character with a fierce energy. So research of that kind is certainly easier than having to read science for a science-fiction novel!

What kind of challenges are involved with this sort of undertaking? Were you ever worried you’d get the characters or events wrong — things like that?

I don’t exactly worry about getting it wrong. It’s just basic to the job to get it right! It’s what I’m being paid for, partly. So I make sure I have a good grasp on the world I’m entering. I mean, if I don’t know what I’m doing, I could get killed by a zombie. Oh, that’s right — they’re not real. You see how involved I get in it?

So I do my homework, but there are challenges. In some novelizations, I have to work pretty hard to make interior logic work for a novel. I wrote a novelization of the movie Constantine, and I had to figure out how to make it all make sense in a novelistic plot. I got fan mail from people for that who thanked me for explaining the movie to them. In the case of Resident Evil, it was all pretty straightforward and logical. But there was all that backstory from prior films, and I was cognizant that the reader might not have seen — or wouldn’t have memorized — the previous films. So on my own initiative, I wrote a prologue that entertainingly summarizes high points from the previous films so readers can refresh their memory and see how Alice got to this point. It just felt necessary to me. I’m really interested in having readers always caught up, really involved, and if they’re confused, that doesn’t happen. They don’t have to know everything, but you don’t want to confuse them.

Resident Evil: Retribution movie 2
I also had to work up some history in my mind for some of the characters — as some aren’t given any in the script — so that when I describe them, they seem real. And if I get into Ada Wong’s point of view, for example, I have to make sure it doesn’t contradict anything we learned about her in previous films. One issue is, how much does the novel have to reflect the video games? In this case, although it all started with a video game, we can’t use the video-game data as our guide in every instance because the film will inevitably diverge from the games. And my novelization is based on the film, not on the games. So while the film series has the feel and spirit of the games, it’s kind of its own alternate reality. And I mostly had to draw only on the films.

I also had to draw on my imagination for detailing, additional “connective tissue” scenes, and characters in the subplot. I did create additional — but never contradictory — plots about a runaway clone, a stolen nuclear sub, and people surviving on an island in Resident Evil‘s post-apocalyptic world. There are more dangers than zombies and Umbrella troopers and monsters in that world — there are thugs who wander around, preying on other survivors. That all required imagination. But the main thrust of the novel, most of it, is driven by the script. Almost all the dialogue in the script is found in the novelization, as well as some I invented to make everything fit together in a full novel.

Did you go to see the movie after finishing the Resident Evil novelization? If so, what was that experience like — from reading the screenplay, to adapting it, and then seeing the original work onscreen?

I haven’t seen it yet, but I will. I look forward to enjoying the action, the imaginative monsters and settings, the cool twists in the tale, and Milla Jovovich. I have seen other films that I novelized, like Doom and Constantine, and in my mind, my own material sort of has its own life in the background of the movie as I’m watching it. Usually, the script is going to feel stronger when it’s being acted out as the actual film, of course. … It definitely comes to life. The director’s approach to realizing the script is a whole side of it that you can only get from watching the film. It’s another dimension in itself.

Of course, I’ve also written scripts like The Crow, and that helps me write a novelization. I have a pretty good idea what the scriptwriter has in mind, and I can usually see the movie in my head pretty well.

BioShock: RaptureThe characters are a big part of any story — and in Resident Evil’s case, so are the monsters. Was there any point where you inserted your own personality or creative touch into the characters or creatures, or did you mostly keep to the creators’ vision of them?

For me, one doesn’t exclude the other. That is, I constantly add my own style of description and imagination. That’s inevitable. And I use storytelling devices I’ve developed, but the trick is to do it while always respecting the script. I develop scenes a bit … adding scenes that are sort of implied as “offstage” but not played out in the script or film … but again, I never contradict the script.

How does this book compare to the ones you’ve written before? What was familiar or new about the experience? I know you wrote the book BioShock: Rapture, which is also an adaptation of a video game in prequel form. …

BioShock: Rapture wasn’t an adaptation of a script, so that’s a difference right there. … Well, actually, I did have access to the game’s cutscenes and scripts, and I used those a bit, but it wasn’t an adaptation of a film script. The BioShock novel also gives the history of Rapture, from its conception to its decay, so that was a special challenge.

This was a similar process to adapting the other scripts for novelization, but it involved more research than most: I had to absorb all those films. There’s a lot of Resident Evil background history.

In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short StoriesLast year, you released a short story collection called In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley. Pretty catchy title. What inspired the name, and what kind of stories did you write for the book — besides really short ones?

Well, of course, short story collections are actually reprints of stories the author has published elsewhere in anthologies and magazines, so I didn’t have to [rewrite] them — except for one I wrote just to add a little something new to the book. I just had to organize them into a collection, figure out the sequence, and get that approved by the publisher, Underland Press. And I re-edited the stories. They’re not really short; they’re short story length! They’re extreme in the sense of being, well, extreme stories, not extremely short! The idea of putting my most extreme — or the most extreme stories that I hadn’t reprinted lately — stories in one book suggested the name in extremis, which is a medical term for being at risk of death, essentially. The stories are a mix of noir and horror and are mostly pretty violent … some extremely violent … all quite grotesque. I do not recommend the book for people under the age of 18. Many of the stories involve my observations of the demi-monde — the underworld, the world of drug addicts and criminals and the deranged. They go to extremes to challenge the reader, to take readers to the outer edges of darkness. … They’ll have to find their own way back.

Everything Is BrokenEarlier this year, a book you contributed to came out, called Zippered Flesh: Tales of Body Enhancements Gone Bad!. And close to the start of 2012, your novel Everything Is Broken released. You have a pretty busy writing life — and an impressive career. Does it ever slow down for you? And what keeps you going, writing the things you write? What do you love about it?

Responsibilities keep a writer writing, if nothing else. But I also have a bone-deep desire to express myself, to encode my observations of the world in stories. It’s in my nature. I also write songs — for example, for the Blue Oyster Cult — but even there, I tend to tell stories. I think storytelling might be in a person’s genes. Ancient societies used it for group bonding and to encourage good morale and pass along history and mythology. People listening to or reading stories use it to imagine themselves overcoming difficulties, like the people in fairy tales or myths. And I think storytelling is in my genes.

Do you have an absolute favorite of all the things you’ve written? I know, not an easy question!

A Song Called YouthIn a way, an author’s latest book is his favorite, usually. My novel Everything is Broken is my latest. It’s doing well, and I feel good about it. It’s a near-future novel, a kind of political allegory — action-filled and horrific, but all drawn from real life, or what I think real life might be like if we’re not careful. My story collection Living Shadows got a great review in The New York Times, so I’m proud of that.

[Editor’s note: The NYT review he mentions calls the book “a greatest-hits album spanning a few decades of astonishingly consistent and rigorously horrifying work. In his foreword, Shirley insists that he doesn’t write genre fiction, and although he’s genuinely tough to categorize, all his storiesboth the nonsupernatural ones that make up the first half of Living Shadows and the more fantastic tales in the second halfgive off the chill of top-grade horror.” Just thought that was appropriate!]

If people can stand to be out on the edge, my story collections Black Butterflies and In Extremis are a good representative of a lot of things I do well. My “alternative apocalypse” novel The Other End is one of my more important books. But really, the cyberpunk trilogy A Song Called Youth is probably my best writing in one book. I say in one book because the three novels are now in a single omnibus volume from Prime Books. I was one of the original cyberpunk writers with William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and Pat Cadigan, and I re-edited and updated the omnibus. It’s now quite strong — relevant, prescient … coming true. Full of invention and a kind of literary rock-n-roll energy that just goes on and on. So yeah, A Song Called Youth from Prime Books is my favorite.

3 thoughts on “John Shirley on horror, the melding of genres, and storytelling (it’s in the genes)

    1. Thanks, Valerie! I’m glad you liked the interview. Shirley was able to provide some really interesting insight, and he has such an eclectic resume. I’m glad I got to chat with him!

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