❉ We chat with the man who brought the Daleks back about his writing.
“Everything Shearman’s done, from his Radio 4 dramas and Big Finish audios to his short stories, has been infused with his own distinctive blend of witty entertainment and existential darkness.”
Lofty Statement Klaxon: Robert Shearman is one of this country’s finest short story writers. Yes, it’s possible you might be most familiar with his Doctor Who work, namely the 2005 TV episode Dalek and a raft of particularly fine Big Finish audios. In the wake of Dalek, though, Shearman fell in with another medium entirely and has proved to be something of a master of it…
“There’s a sense of short stories being pretty like little flowers, but they’re not,” Shearman says. “Short stories are fierce and dangerous things. I see them as being quite robust, quite challenging. There’s this temptation to see them as being rather polite and I don’t think they are. I think that they’re emotional muggers. They would lead you into a dark alley and take all your money if they could.”
Now, several highly acclaimed, award-winning collections later, Shearman’s written the vast, labyrinthine new collection We All Hear Stories in the Dark that signals his farewell (of sorts) to the short story. It’s by no means your average story anthology. It contains 101 purpose-written tales, with bespoke illustrations by Reggie Oliver for each one, taking up nearly 1800 pages over three volumes. What’s more, the reader’s path through the collection isn’t linear. At the end of each one, you’re asked what kind of story you’d like to read next and offered a handful of options.
“I’ve worked out that the way of explaining it to people is that it’s a modern-day Arabian Nights told as a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’,” Shearman says. “That’s basically it. I mean, that isn’t entirely what it is. In my own pretentious way, I think it’s a sort of meditation upon the way that stories relate to each other, what we take from fiction and what we understand by narrative. When I tried to pitch it years ago, I’d go for lunch with publishers and they’d say, ‘so, what are you currently working on?’. I’d tell them and they’d literally go white. There was one woman who just said, ‘But why would you do that?’.”
The end result, though, is a truly remarkable piece of work, a looking-glass array of striking stories, hidden stories and stories-within-stories. Reading it is akin to getting lost in the corridors of Shearman’s wide-ranging imagination. Admirers of his other work should find much to admire here and will recognise it as the work of the same unique mind.
“I hope so,” Shearman says. “I mean, it is! People who know my other stuff will know that I’ve got a fairly strange sense of humour and that I like dealing with dark things, hopefully in an amiable, conversational style. I think my stuff is quite good fun, but I’m aware that it plays around with areas of what is good taste and what isn’t. Some people have read this book and said that they find it very touching. Some have said that it’s quite a very funny book. Some people have said they’ve been very offended by it, that it’s a really abrasive and quite disgusting book. All of those opinions are valid, because it’s based upon the choices that they made.”
Everything Shearman’s done, from his Radio 4 dramas and Big Finish audios to his short stories, has been infused with his own distinctive blend of witty entertainment and existential darkness. Sure enough, and true to its title, We All Hear Stories in the Dark includes some entries that stray into murky, troubling territory.
“I do like provoking,” he says. “If you’re doing a book like this, when people have read thirty or forty stories, been lead around the houses and told that some stories will risk causing offence and some of them won’t, you can’t afford for someone to say, ‘well, I didn’t find anything remotely offensive’. If you’re promising things that might make people feel uneasy, you’ve got to give them that. It’s like one of those haunted house things when they say, ‘ooh, this isn’t for the faint-hearted’, and you walk around it thinking ‘no, this is very definitely for the faint-hearted’. If you’re going to do a roller-coaster ride of any sort and you’re promising it to be the most blood-curdling ever, you’ve got to risk curdling some blood.”
Along the way, We All Hear Stories in the Dark takes in tales about Laurel and Hardy fandom, balloon animals, thumb-suckers, lost Shakespeare plays and household pets that can recite The Iliad. But there’s also a framing narrative about a widower who is told he can resurrect his late wife if only he reads a set of stories in precisely the right order. That’s why the reader gets to choose what kind of story they’d like next, or even to go back after reading a story and choose differently. As such, there’s only one ‘correct’ route through the book, and no two readers are likely to read it the same way. Shearman says, “I’m told the permutations that we’ve got now are larger than the number of grains of sand on Earth multiplied by the number of drops of water on Earth. That’s just a fraction of them.”
This could play havoc with notions of structure and theme, but Shearman has plotted, written and arranged the stories painstakingly and he’s adamant that they amount to more than the sum of their parts. “My first worry was that this would end up being a massive short story collection as opposed to feeling like a proper whole, but I think we’ve done that now. The book is largely about grief, because I was in the wake of my mother’s death and then my dad died while I was writing it. It is, I think, without embarrassment, not only about that but about the ways in which we cope with that. It’s about depression as well, which is never a very sexy thing to talk about for a book collection, but it is about that.”
Surely, though, it would be possible for someone to read the book without ever encountering what the author considers to be the best stories?
“It’s funny, but I don’t really think so,” he says. “I began to have stories I didn’t like very much, so I got just rid of them. Over the years it was like painting the Forth Bridge. As soon as I thought the book was finished, I’d say ‘I’m not sure I like these three stories’. I wouldn’t rewrite them, I’d just take them out and write something else. I genuinely think now that I would defend all the stories.”
In the name of full disclosure (and, frankly, showing off), your correspondent commissioned Shearman’s first short story, Mortal Coil, for the 2007 Comma Press anthology Phobic. Thirteen years later, is Shearman really ready to leave the form behind? How easy would it be to turn off the short story tap in his head?
“It is a problem,” he says. “There was a time when I was writing nothing but Doctor Who stuff. I remember saying in 2005-ish, ‘I’m going to stop doing Doctor Who, I’ve come to the end of this’. Yet for another year or so I was still coming up with really good Doctor Who ideas that didn’t really translate to other forms. I was in a real quandary. I wasn’t really sure which way to jump, because my imagination wasn’t keeping up with my ambition to do something else. It only changed when I began to do short stories. Now I go out walking – and I’m working on a novel. I’m devising some new TV projects, I’m hoping to get back into the theatre – and all of those are really different ways of telling a story, but I’ve tuned my brain to try to work out funny, quirky little short stories ideas. I keep on getting them and I have to write them down because I don’t want to lose them. But I was always thinking that this book had to be – not a final statement, but that I’ve got to stop letting the short story be the focus of how I write. I’ll probably always write more if people ask me. I’ve got a few commissions at the moment and I’m excited by them. I suppose one day I might group them together, but it won’t be like this. I don’t want to do another project which makes me feel like my brain’s running out of my ears.”
Whatever possessed him to take on such a mind-bending task, then? “I think I wrote it because was a challenge to me, but it was also a challenge to a form that I’d really, really fallen in love with. If somebody had written this book already. I would have read the hell out of it so many times. It would be nice if a better writer than me had done it, but unfortunately they haven’t and it has to be me.”
Needless to say, Shearman doth protest too much. He’s a very special writer and the mighty, sprawling achievement of We All Hear Stories in the Dark is all the proof you need.
❉ On Friday 1 May at precisely 7pm (UK time), the very first Big Finish listening party will get underway, with a free livestream of Doctor Who: The Chimes of Midnight. Follow @BigFinish on Twitter, or click on the #PlumPudding hashtag to see what people are saying and add your own comments.
❉ ‘We All Hear Stories in the Dark’ by Robert Shearman is published by PS Publishing: Click here!
❉ ‘Dalek’, a book in the Doctor Who: Target Collection series) is scheduled for 23 July 2020, RRP £7.99. Pre-order: https://amzn.to/2VIJBEi
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.