Terrance Aldon Shaw (TAS to his friends) has written more than 70 erotic short stories, and is currently at work on a novel The Seven Seductions. His work explores the thoughts, feelings and emotions that accompany the erotic experience.
Having worked as a musician for much of his adult life, eking out a modest living as a singer and a classical composer, TAS stresses that music has been the primary influence on his writing: not just his love for classical works and grand opera but classical-influenced jazz and 70s rock, folk, bluegrass and country, hip hop and rap.
TAS asserts, “There’s nothing that equals the power of music to express emotion, to evoke atmosphere, and establish mood. This is why a film without a score often seems to fall short of its potential, lacking the full measure of visceral impact—just compare the scene in Jaws where the shark attacks the boat, first without John Williams’ music in the background, then with it. Whether conjuring a sense of existential anxiety and dramatic tension, desolation or euphoria, claustrophobic horror or the sublime vastness of space, nothing comes close to music.”
Comparing musical composition with that of writing, TAS underlines, “You have to be able to discern structure. Melody, harmony, and rhythm have to be coordinated to form a coherent statement. When I sit down to write, I consider the musical quality of the words, the prose-melodies that are created by the artful combination of words and phrases gradually built up into the literary equivalent of a symphony (that word, by the way, means ‘sounding together’). The way writing sounds when read aloud is important; if it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t reach out and tickle the reader’s ear—if it doesn’t make music—it’s not ready to publish.”
As to how we make music with words, TAS advises varying the length of our phrases, never letting rhythms become too predictable, and avoiding repeated syntactical patterns. He emphasizes, “Understand that each word (or each note) carries its own innate energy, like a charged particle. If you arrange words carelessly, putting similar words too close together you drain them of their emotive power. Finally—and this is quite important, I think—don’t always play your music in the same key. Vary the mood and pace—especially in multi-chaptered works. Occasionally, dark clouds need to roll in and, sometimes, the sun needs to break through the dark clouds, if only long enough to keep the reader interested.”
He adds, “Great music has a sense of flow, an inevitable logic, leaving the impression that every constituent element is perfectly coordinated with every other. In the great operas of Wagner, particularly Die Walküre and Siegfried from Der Ring des Niebelungen, the music never seems to pause. I want that quality of sensuousness—that inevitable sense of flow—to permeate my prose and animate my storytelling .You can’t be a great composer if you only grasp what’s on the surface. You have to appreciate the way disparate elements come together. You have to see it all from the inside.”
TAS is profoundly near-sighted, which perhaps explains his desire to evoke sensory detail. As he comments, “When you’re a storyteller, everything you see and hear and touch has its own story.”
Nevertheless, he has a love of photography, sculpture and painting, and these have influenced some of his stories directly. In Night Vision, based on his own experience, the near-sighted narrator takes off his glasses and sees a jazz ensemble ‘reduced to its essential shapeless elements of light and colour’. As TAS explains, this gave him sudden appreciation of the nature of abstract art. He names ‘the intriguingly distorted figures set in the bleak urban landscape of Di Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses’ as an influence and Jackson Pollack’s Mural, which he believes ‘evokes its own strange multi-verse of fractal layers, like grains of sand under a powerful microscope’. As he notes wryly, “If you can’t find a story prompt there, you’re not looking.”
TAS points out that theatrical and cinematic works ‘all begin with the written word’. He comments, “I’m attracted to the same qualities in film that I find irresistible in books; an evocative sense of atmosphere, and sharp narrative focus (look at Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men based on the P.D. James sci-fi novel, or Kathryn Bigelow’s dystopian masterpiece, Strange Days with its seamless tracking shots and breathtaking leaps into the realm of virtual reality). I also appreciate intelligent storytelling that does not patronize the viewer with obvious ‘set-up’ dialogue or linger on superfluous detail: I am reminded of those long stretches of silence in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, so richly detailed—a perfect example of showing as opposed to telling. And then there’s that wonderful Pixar animated film Wall-E, where the poignance of the story is heightened by the lonesome stillness of an abandoned earth.”
He adds, “I also adore movies that engage my playful side (Charlie Chaplain’s City Lights and Modern Times, The Marx Brothers A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, Kevin Smith’s Dogma, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and absolutely anything by Mel Brooks. And . . . and . . . and! I LOVE Joss Whedon’s stuff for its intelligent ‘meta’ storytelling, its wisecracking archetypes, and its cheeky—very intentional—employment of bathos. These are all things I aspire to in my writing. Effective scene-setting through the evocation of atmosphere, an unblinking eye for crucial detail, and an uncompromising demand for clarity of narrative.”
He also muses, “I’m moved by great dancing in the movies and I admire those who can dance well—their gracefulness is just so often a mystery to me, I can’t help but be dazzled even as I’m sad that I can’t join in with them. In my writing, I often refer to dance, employing it as a metaphor, sometimes citing the techniques, or the physical characteristics associated with dancers.”
TAS asserts that he ‘categorically rejects magical thinking and superstition’, yet admits that tales of fantasy and magic have deeply influenced his own storytelling. Beyond early influences of fairy tales and myths, Shakespeare and the Hebrew Bible, he is drawn to ‘sweeping, mythic, quasi-poetic narratives’: Stephen King’s Gunslinger, and William M. Miller’s Canticle for Liebowitz (which he calls ‘probably one of the greatest sci-fi novels ever written, and certainly a great work of humanist fiction’).
TAS tells us, “Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber blew my mind apart and put it back together in the same revelatory instant—such beautiful, daring language! Reading Anais Nin is like soaring across the astral plains and never wanting to come down again. Imagica, by Clive Barker, is a creepy, atmospheric tour de force, while Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is powerfully thought-provoking, exploring the conflict between faith and science, politics, and sex. What all these books have in common is that they’re intelligently conceived, elegantly written, evocative, colorful, always—always!—feeding the reader’s intellect while stimulating the imagination. That’s the kind of book I love to read—and certainly the kind of book I want to write.”
Other books that have stayed with him are The Engineer of Human Souls by Czech author Josef Skvorevski, which he calls ‘a tragi-comic masterpiece of sex, politics and academia as seen through the bemused eye of a cynical college-English professor and political refugee’. TAS notes that Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, ‘with its deeply sympathetic yet relentlessly unblinking descriptions of suffering’ has influenced not only his writing, but his life.
Unsurprisingly, given his musical ear, TAS also has a love of poetry. He explains, “I came to deeply appreciate poetry through my interest in classical music, and the masterful settings of the great poets by modern composers, like Benjamin Britten and Ned Rorem. When I heard a setting of a poem that affected me, I went out and bought everything I could find by that poet, looking for things that I, too, could set to my own music: everything from medieval lyric fragments, Chaucer and Shakesperare’s sonnets, to Blake, Keats, Shelly, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Tennyson, to Walt Whitmann, Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, Wilfred Owen, Vachel Lindsay, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, and Pablo Neruda in translation.”
He continues, “Poetry has taught me the importance of being concise and a sense of rhythm. I loved poetry long before I became serious about writing prose.”
In his writing, TAS gives us all that is ‘distilled within that secret place where love and madness meet’. He tells of what might have been; tales not only of mortality and desire, but of nostalgia, regret, isolation, loneliness and longing, lost inspiration and the search for one’s place in the cosmic scheme of things. These aspects he surveys through the lens of the erotic, inviting us to scrutinize ourselves as sexual beings: naked, vulnerable, passionate, longing. Only in so doing can we know ourselves.
As Mr. Shaw declares, writers ‘live in hope that what they write will have meaning, though it is almost always left to readers to find it’.
Works by the author
Another of his short story collections is Take Me Like the World Ends at Midnight. As TAS tells us, “They say forbidden fruit is always the sweetest. These eight short stories are about the thrill of the unexpected; a handsome stranger’s touch in a dark theater, a night of passion with the most unlikely of mystery men; the sheer adrenaline rush of sudden contact; the silent promise of ecstasy.”
About the author
Terrance Aldon Shaw (TAS to his friends) lives in a 167-year-old farmhouse in the heart of southeast Iowa’s Amish country. His neighbours do not know what he does for a living. (Sometimes, he’s not quite certain himself.)
Find Mr. Shaw’s reviews, musings on the craft of writing and short stories on his site: Erotica for the Big Brain
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