Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The multi-talented Harry Shannon

 I'm jealous.  No . . . . no . . . I mean it.  I'm jealous.  I just write stories.  Some good.  Some not so good.  I haven't a musical bone in my body.  Absolutely incapable in being coordinated enough to talk, much less sing. (think of a bull elephant trumpeting angrily while standing in the middle of a mud hole)

And don't ask me to act.  God help the poor bastard who ever asks me to stand in front of a camera and act.  Sheez.

Harry Shannon does it all.  And does it with grace, ease, aplomb and mucho talent.  So yeah.  I'm jealous. 

But happy to say I know the guy.  Yes, only thru Facebook that's true,  Mildred.  But we have commented to each other several times.  It seems like we vibrate on many subjects with the same frequency.  So I'll stick my neck out and say Harry and I could be considered 'friends' in a kinda long distance, over the internet, platonic way.

But krikies, Crayon!  The guy is just fracken interesting!  Songwriter, recording artist, actor, a big wig at indie movie company, and one crack'in fine writer.  He writes both horror and hardboiled.  Nice combination there.  In his Mick Callahan series, he's created an interesting character that comes knocking hard on the classic definition of hardboiled,  but with a uniqueness all his own.

Okay, okay, okay . . . the bottom line is this;  I really wanted to interview the guy.  Pick his brains some.  See how he ticks.  Maybe (and this is just between me and you, so keep it under your hat)  glean from his words some little secret on how to become a successful writer myself.

So without further fanfare, let's get to jawboning.

1. Writer, musician, actor, business executive. Say . . . is there anything you can't accomplish in a long and illustrious career? When and where did you discover you creative talents? And what compelled you to try your hand in acting?

I think some of that stuff is just genetic, though some is environmental. My parents were both dedicated readers, and my father played ukulele, trumpet and drums. He also sang, did magic tricks and acted in amateur theater. I got early exposure to those types of things, so they seemed natural to me. I've tried to provide the same sort of environment for my daughter, who at 12 is a great singer, plays guitar and ukulele, has done some writing and is in an Arts program at school. Her mother studied Theater Arts at Berkeley and acted in Shakespearian theater. We all come by it naturally. As for me, I got into writing very early. I've always wanted to write. Even when I was acting in Middle School and High School I was just as interested in writing the play as starring in it. My project as a senior in High School was a small one-act musical. I wrote the book and lyrics and directed. When I went into show business, things were tough, so I just took any work that came along, music or songwriting or acting or voice-over work in movies. Whatever paid the bills.

2. As a writer you stray, if I can use that description, over into the dark recesses of horror often. What is it about the macabre and terror-filled genre which seems so attractive to you?

I don't know, it's always been there. Some of the first authors to really, really grab me were guys like Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes) and Richard Matheson (I Am Legend). I've had an affinity for the macabre since boyhood. Halloween is my favorite holiday. In the 60's I discovered pulp fiction and those Gold Medal and Lancer men's adventure paperbacks. The two genres fused in my mind, I suppose. A lot of horror authors also love mystery and noir and cross back and forth. Ed Gorman, Dave Zeltserman, Tom Piccirilli, Dan Simmons, John Connelly, Mo Hayder, Christa Faust. I'm in good company.

3. Working, say, either on horror or your interpretation of the mystery/detective genre, which of these two do you prefer? Or do you have a preference? And while we're on this subject, how--when--and where did you come up with the character, Mick Callahan?

The Mick Callahan novels

If you pin me down to one genre, I'd probably say the hard boiled mystery is my favorite to both read and write. I take it very seriously. Horror is usually a lot of fun for me to create, rather like decorating the yard for Halloween. It generally makes ma laugh and cringe and giggle fiendishly. As for Callahan my first mystery was Memorial Day. I was searching for a series character, and the idea of a TV shrink fallen on hard times caught my fancy. Then I pictured him working on one of those weird flying saucer radio shows, of course out of complete desperation. And why not make him return to his home town as a loser just to cap it off? Mick is a bit like me obviously, since I'm also a practicing counselor, but his upbringing was far more violent than mine, and I don't have any military experience. Those things came out of a need to make him capable and resourceful in ways a normal counselor wouldn't be...though long time I ago I saw a therapist who had been a Green Beret. I used a little of him for Mick as well as a touch of a journalist I know. I guess Mick is me with a bit of those other men thrown in for good measure.

4. Music versus writing; are they similarities with the creative juices which flow in the mind of their creator? Which one is the more complex to write? When one gives you the most satisfaction? And can one inspire the other?

Wow, serious questions. Yes, for me the processes are similar. Hearing interesting music inspires me to create or arrange it, good song lyrics make me want to write a song. Good novels inspire me to start a new novel. Books are far more complex for one simple reason, they are more like operas or works of musical theater in that they require so many different skills and such a great deal of time. Some song lyrics came in an hour, including my biggest hit, a country song for Eddy Arnold called "Cowboy." Other lyrics took weeks or months to complete. A novel routinely takes four to six months just for a first draft. I find all kinds of creativity satisfying--songwriting, acting, musical production, lyrics. The most satisfying? Probably the things that require a team effort. One bad thing about novel is the loneliness intrinsic in the process. Movies and musicals and recording sessions can be an absolute blast, the kind of thing that drew me to the arts in the first place. Working with other people to put on a show. As for one inspiring the other, I never thought about it. That's probably true, though. Good art makes us all want to create new art. It inspires. Always.

5. What is your take on the current level of the movie kingdom these days? Do you see fresh, new talent coming onto the scene? Do you see an influx of new writers? New young actors? And what is your take on this seemingly growing urge for 're-makes?'

Great writing and directing and producing for sure, and some marvelous acting too. It would be fun to be a young artist these days. Cable television is doing wonderful work, shows like Game of Thrones and Battlestar Gallactica and In Treatment are as good as television has ever been. Superb acting and writing and visual arts. As for feature films, the future looks a bit more grim. Movies are either dirt cheap or very expensive, with very little in between getting produced. I don't think that side of the business is nearly as healthy. I don't care for the new trend of stuffing songs into films, either. In the old days, I had the privilege of working with geniuses like Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein, Billy Goldenberg, Lalo Schifrin, my old friend Harry Manfredini. There are good composers out there still, but the art of the genuine film score is limping right now. As for actors? A whole new generation has arrived. Just to name one, Jennifer Lawrence impresses the hell out of me. She was astonishing in both Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games. What a bright future.

6. How do you write? Do you hole yourself up in a man-cave, close all the doors and windows, and put out signs that say, "Enter at your own peril!!" Are you an organized, sequential, process writer? Or do the ideas just come and you go with the flow?

Running Cold
I'm not very organized at all, actually. I struggle to keep going and exhibit a modicum of discipline. I sketch out the acts of a novel and the key plot points, just so I know where I'm going, and maybe put together a few index cards. Then I dive in. I tried a very, very detailed outline one time and never wrote the book! I was bored and felt like I'd already done it. I cannot work without a structure though, I tend to get lost. For me the answer is somewhere in the middle, a Goldilocks level of preparation, not too hot or cold, just right. Yes, I have a man cave. Half the garage is enclosed and contains a bright room with a computer, guitars and book shelves. I even use foam ear plugs. I have to take the phone off the hook and block out the world to get anything done. I'm too easily distracted. I often write before dawn, to get something down before the family wakes up. My wife is supportive and always allows me a bit of alone time on the weekend, and I take Mondays off from my counseling practice just to read, write and imagine.

7. As a writer/actor/musician share some practical wisdom to anyone out there who is thinking about attempting to crack into these very competitive fields. Are there any 'secrets' to make the assault any easier? Or are there dues which have to be paid regardless of who you are or how talented you may be?

Read and write and write and read. We learn to write by writing. Know the rules before you break them. The best advice I ever got was from novelist Jan Burke, who told me to keep my head down, to ignore praise and criticism and success or failure, just keep trying to become a better writer. Those same rules apply to music. Technology is changing everything so rapidly, which creates a unique kind of pressure as well as new opportunities. The business part of the businesses are more convoluted and confusing than ever. People seem to feel entitled to get art for free, as if the author or recording artists wasn't entitled to a living wage for a mountain of effort. I wish that would change, but the poor economy seems to have made things worse. An entire generation has grown up thinking is perfectly okay to steal someone's work and pass it along to others. If you hope to get rich doing this, you are almost certain to be bitterly disappointed. I'd say folks should try to find a way to do it for the love that drew you to it in the first place, get your work protected and out there only when it's ready, and hang in. Keep going. For years. Decades. A lifetime. Oh, and do NOT be in a hurry to get published. Most of us have stories or even a novel we wish we hadn't published. I know I do. Take your time.

8. What's coming down the interstate for Harry Shannon? What are you writing on now? Ready to jump into a new role for a movie? Back into the music industry?

I just did a bit part as a drunken, perverted Santa Claus in a B movie tentatively entitled Escape from Clown Prison, written and directed by novelist Lee Murphy. The script is hilarious and as ridiculous as it sounds. I had an absolute blast that day. I have no idea when the film will be completed or released, but we sure had fun. Another friend asked me to do a web episode of a horror series. I'm just waiting to hear the details. As I said earlier, I love doing those things. I'm working on a fifth Mick Callahan book, a novel project with Joe Donnelly (our short story Fifty Minutes was selected by Otto Penzler for the Houghton Mifflin anthology Best Mystery Stories of 2011), a short story and the last chapter of The Hungry 2: The Wrath of God, which will be out in July. I always feel like I'm not getting anything done, but when I list them like that it's a bit jarring. Guess I am staying busy!

Thanks for inviting me to chat!

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