inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #0 of 40: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 20 Dec 11 06:45
Inkwell welcomes novelist Lewis Shiner, who has been characterized by
Black Clock as a "pop artist-cum-magical realist, or a sympathetic but
sharp-eyed chronicler of American subcultures, or even a futurist"
His novels include BLACK & WHITE (2008), SAY GOODBYE (1999), the
award-winning GLIMPSES (1993), SLAM (1990), DESERTED CITIES OF THE
HEART (1988), and FRONTERA (1984), all available in definitive edition
trade paperbacks from Subterranean Press. His career retrospective
COLLECTED STORIES was published in 2009, followed by the new suspense
novel DARK TANGOS in 2011.  All of his work is available for free
download at

Leading the conversation with Lew is Angus MacDonald, a writer who
lives in Northern California. His work has appeared in The Magazine of
Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, and other publications.
Angus hosts the WELL's science fiction conference. His day jobs have
included retail sales (liquor, books, and electronics), technical
writing, and currently field interviewing for the Census Bureau's
ongoing random-sample surveys.

Take it away, Angus!
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #1 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Tue 20 Dec 11 19:29
        Thank you, Jon. 
        Lewis Shiner's new novel, DARK TANGOS, is an excellent, genre-busting 
story set in contemporary Buenos Aires.
        As mentioned above, it can be called suspense, but also contains large 
and engaging doses of politics, crime, romance, and even horror.
        My first question, though, reflects that I've never read another novel 
in which social dancing plays such a big part. 
        How did you come to include that?
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #2 of 40: Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Wed 21 Dec 11 17:35
I guess the short answer is, "write what you know."  A longer answer
gets into the nuts and bolts of my creative process.

SLAM was the last novel that I wrote with a really clear idea of the
beginning, middle, and end.  Since then I've tried to wing it more, and
leave more room for serendipity.  The result has been what I think of
as a kind of collage process.

I know what the initial impetus for DARK TANGOS was--my girlfriend and
I walked into a photo exhibit in Buenos Aires to get out of the rain,
and some of the photos talked about how functionaries of the 1976
regime in Argentina, including torturers, stole the children of the
disappeared and raised them as their own.  It was the first I'd heard
of it and I knew immediately that I needed to write about it.

When it came time to start thinking about the story, I looked around
at what was at hand--I was taking classes in tango, both in Buenos
Aires and here in the US.  I was working for an international high-tech
company that had a Buenos Aires office and that was moving jobs
offshore.  I'd been hospitalized for debilitating headaches.  One of my
dance teachers was an outspoken leftist.  As I started researching, I
pulled a scene here, a character there.  Elena is based on a woman I
saw dancing at the Porteño y Bailarin milonga in Buenos Aires one
night.  Mateo bears an uncanny physical resemblance to my good friend,
the SF writer John Kessel (who, like many people in Buenos Aires, is of
Italian extraction).  When I start to paste the individual pictures on
the canvas, painting over stuff here, adding stuff there, it starts to
tell a story.

Or, to put it another way, I don't have a lot of faith in my
imagination.  I'd rather steal stuff than make it up.
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #3 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Wed 21 Dec 11 18:00

> rather steal stuff than make it up

inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #4 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Wed 21 Dec 11 18:00

        More seriously, are some of the adoptees you mention aware of their 
origins, and is that having an effect on Argentine politics or culture?
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #5 of 40: David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 22 Dec 11 15:49
Hi Lewis

I enjoyed the novel and was fascinated by what I pretty much assume is
an inside view into tango culture.  Could you discuss how that is part
of the wider Argentinian culture?  I would equate tango with flamenco,
blues, fado, morna,  rembetika and other expressive musical

With the second surge of a world-wide tango phenomenon (the first
being in the 1920's) how has this affected Argentina.  Is there a
tourist sector that specializes in tango tourists? 

Finally, I liked the way you moved your character through the
emotional range of the music during the milonga scenes.  You obviously
know about that.  Could you expand a little more on that?
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #6 of 40: for dixie southern iraq (stet) Thu 22 Dec 11 16:07
Have not read your book -- but does Carlos Gardel play a part??
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #7 of 40: Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Thu 22 Dec 11 17:58
@dlwilson  All the time I've spent in Argentina has been in Buenos
Aires, so I can't speak firsthand as to the impact of tango in the rest
of the country.  Tito Restucha, who was born there and taught tango
here in North Carolina for years, is now living in one of the larger
interior cities and still teaching, so it's not exclusively a BsAs
phenomenon, but certainly BsAs is the epicenter.  Tango is very much an
immigrant dance and music, combining bits and pieces from Italy,
Spain, Africa, and other cultures, so it's tied strongly to the Port of
Buenos Aires and the sailors and slaves who brought those cultures
into the mix.

There is a huge tourist subculture devoted to tango--everything from
specialty record and shoe stores (in one case, both at the same time)
to dancers working the tourist areas for tips, to tango orchestras
playing on the streets around the flea markets of Plaza Dorrego.  I
think a lot of the tourists who come there have the same delusion as a
British couple we overheard at a table next to us one night, where the
husband said, "And really, dear, tomorrow we must learn to tango."

As to the emotional range of the music, I would say that is the thing
that is most Argentinian about it.  Argentines are notoriously
depressed, and unlike swing or salsa, which get your toes tapping and
your pulse racing even before you start moving energetically around the
dance floor and getting naturally high, tango is slow, deliberate,
thoughtful.  It's a dance you can dance without getting your spirits
lifted, if you don't want them to.  I'm not entirely sure what you were
asking for here, so if I haven't answered it, please ask again.

@stet  Gardel certainly gets mentioned, and I'm a fan of his music,
but he's very much a part of tango history rather than tango present. 
Among the dance crowd, probably the most revered tango artist is
Osvaldo Pugliese, as much for his defiant leftist politics as for his
richly complex tangos:

@angus  There is a national campaign now trying to identify adoptees,
and many of them have been reunited with members of their extended
birth families.  You've probably heard of the Mothers of the Plaza, who
have continually protested the disappearances since the 1970s; they
have an affiliated group, the Grandmothers of the Plaza, who are
concerned with the kidnapped children.  You can read more about them
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #8 of 40: David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 22 Dec 11 18:18
About the emotional range of the music I should have been a bit more
specific.  Your character character goes to the milongas and he has an
internal dialogue that goes something like this:  I'm going to sit out
this one by Troilo and wait for them to play Pugliese because he is
catching my mood better. You weave it through those scenes and you
obviously know the individual pieces and the composers.  It is almost
cinematic in effect like the films by directors who really know the
music that they use on the soundtrack.  So I guess my question is this:
 in those milongas is there a choreographing of moods through the
musical selection?
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #9 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Thu 22 Dec 11 19:41

        One thing I learned from the novel was that Peronism had a left wing; 
from reading as a teenager that Peron was exiled in Franco's Spain for a while, 
I'd assumed he was pretty much right-wing. 
        Has the party moderated into something distinct from what Peron 
intended? Where does it stand on the legacy of the dirty war?
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #10 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Thu 22 Dec 11 22:55
        [By the way, those not on the Well can ask questions or add
comments by writing to <>.]
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #11 of 40: Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Fri 23 Dec 11 13:51
@dlwilson--Okay, I get it now.  I'm sure any good DJ will try to read
the moods of the crowd and cater to them, but one of the main
principles of DJing a milonga is variety.  First off, there are three
major types of tango--tango proper, milonga (a much faster and somewhat
simplified version of tango, with a strong habanera rhythm), and vals
(3/4 time, much more circular variation).  The songs are organized into
tandas (groups) of three or four songs by the same orchestra or in the
same style, so the night will usually break down into about 20%
milonga, 15% vals, and 65% tango.  Then they'll usually mix it up
between early, more staccato orchestras like D'Arienzo, middle period
orchestras like Di Sarli, and complex orchestras like Pugliese or
Piazzolla, plus maybe one or two tandas of modern tango electronica. 
The idea being to cater to all the different tastes.  A smart DJ who
sees that the floor is deserted for the vals and packed for the
milongas will probably make some adjustments accordingly.  Likewise, if
people seem to be getting into the more somber tangos, or vocals more
than instrumentals, I'm sure the DJ would slant things that way.

@angus--Perón transcended a lot of the conventional distinctions
between right and left, at least in his prime, late 1940s and early
1950s.  On the one hand he came up through the military and admired
Mussolini.  On the other, he was a populist who did a great deal to
help the descamisados, the "shirtless ones," the people in extreme
poverty, who revered him.  He was no friend to global corporations or
the IMF and World Bank, and fought to protect Argentine crops and

During his exile, his party was banned from elections, so it
splintered into many factions, right, left, and in between.  Sadly,
when Perón himself returned, he had drifted to the extreme right, and
one of his henchmen, the loathsome José López Rega, was already
torturing and murdering suspected dissidents long before the 1976 coup
that put the junta of "el proceso" in power.

That tarnished the name of peronism pretty badly, but there are still
many in Argentina who remember Perón as a hero.  And you will see
graffiti from time to time that says "peronismo = fascismo".  I was
particularly interested by my leftist dance instructor's viewpoint.  He
had little use for Juan Perón, but was a big fan of Evita, whom he
felt really walked the walk in terms of compassion and helping the
poor.  When you check the postcard racks, one barometer of popular
culture, the faces you see most often are those of Evita, Gardel, and
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #12 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Fri 23 Dec 11 18:16

inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #13 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Fri 23 Dec 11 18:18

        Speaking of Lopez Rega, one thing you've mentioned elsewhere is your 
research into the effects of violence and torture, on both societies and 
individuals. What did you find out that surprised you?
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #14 of 40: Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Sat 24 Dec 11 07:55
I guess the biggest surprise was how permanent the damage caused by
torture can be.  That had always felt emotionally right to me, but it
was surprising to see the medical evidence supporting that viewpoint. 
There's a section in the book where an internist says, "I have a
colleague who studies people who've been in serious auto accidents.
He's found that nearly half of them show significant levels of PTSD.
Years later their nervous systems are still flinching from the impact."
 This came out of a conversation I had with a kinesiologist.

I injured my left index finger in a Skil saw accident in 1967.  In the
80s a massage therapist found a place in my back that had been sore
for most of my adult life and told me it was connected to that earlier
injury.  I've since had a chiropractor and another massage therapist
confirm this.

The point is that we are much more fragile creatures than we give
ourselves credit for.  Which makes the idea that we would torture each
other--or excuse torture--all the more unforgivable.

I grew up reading 60s espionage fiction, where the hero is routinely
tortured in almost every novel, but his indomitable will power allows
him to overpower his torturers, dispatch them with a certain glee, and
then go make love to a beautiful woman or two, with no lasting effects.
 I was determined that DARK TANGOS was not going to be that sort of
book, and that I would not downplay or back away from or soften the
focus on the moments of violence.
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #15 of 40: Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Wed 28 Dec 11 13:53
Where is everybody?  Was it something I said?
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #16 of 40: David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 28 Dec 11 16:52
Us chickens are still here Lewis.  Here is one for you.

I remember seeing Fabian Bielinsky's film "Nine Queens."  It is an
elaborate confidence game movie set in Buenos Aires.  If I remember
correctly it premiered just about the time Argentina's economy went
into the toilet.  But the overall impact of the movie was that not only
was the con going on in the story, but it seemed to resonate and
radiate  all over the place.  The effect on the audience, esp. the
Argentines was that everyone seen in the streets in the movie seemed to
be on the hustle.  That shit just doesn't go away and get forgotten.
Same thing can be said about the dirty war period.

Did you see any of this when you were there?  And if so, how much of
it made it into your novel? 
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #17 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Thu 29 Dec 11 13:06

        More on torture: the last few years in the US have seen, astonishingly, 
some actual debate on whether torture works for extracting accurate or useful 
information. Did the research you saw have any answers to that?
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #18 of 40: Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Thu 29 Dec 11 17:13
@dlwilson  I haven't seen "Nine Queens," but it's certainly true that
"The Crisis" (as they call it in Argentina) of 1999-2002 was as serious
in many ways as el Proceso.  Hyperinflation wiped out the savings that
retired people had been putting away for their entire lives and put
many of them on the street.  Nearly everyone took huge pay cuts, and
the least well off parts of society never recovered.  I mention the
Crisis a couple of times in DARK TANGOS, but don't go into it much.  I
might have said more had I really understood that the Crisis was just
one more aftereffect of El Proceso and the huge debts the junta ran up
during their time at the trough.  Unfortunately, that really didn't
come home for me until I was writing my blog posts to publicize the
book's release.

We saw some of the Crisis-related protests, and I described one of
them in the novel--people in their 60s and over banging pans, setting
fires, urinating on banks, etc.  But it wasn't until our last trip, in
2007, that we really got a whiff of what it must have been like.  They
had just allowed the peso to float for the first time since the
Crisis--for our previous trips the exchange rate had been fixed at
three pesos per dollar.  As soon as the peso was allowed to float, it
dropped to about 3.25 per dollar, and no one knew how low it was going
to go.  The mood in the streets was palpable.  People had their collars
up and were staring down at the sidewalks.  All the joi de vivre was
gone.  Businesses closed, including our favorite restaurant.  Getting
money from an ATM became an adventure--on any given day any number of
ATMs were out of cash, or had lowered the maximum withdrawal amount, or
were locked up and inaccessible.

Fortunately the peso stabilized there, and apparently things gradually
got back to normal, but I'll never forget the emotional chill in the
streets and the haunted looks in the eyes of the older people we saw,
who all seemed to be thinking, "Oh god, not again.  Please, not again."

@angus  There's two kinds of torture, really.  There's amateur
torture, like we did at Abu Grahib, which is just brutalizing people
and hoping they'll tell you stuff to make it stop.  Then there's the
pro torture, like I talk about in DARK TANGOS, where the object is to
reduce the subject to a childlike state, and put the torturer in the
place of the parent.  The result is the victim is desperate to please
the torturer.  But the end results are the same.  There is no motive
for the victim to tell the truth, only to tell the torturer what he
wants to hear.  Many people tell the truth under torture just because
they hope that will work, but if it doesn't, they will say
anything--anything--to make it stop.  So yes, maybe you do get useful
information sometimes.  But you can't rely on it.

The larger issue here is, who the hell cares if the information is
useful or not?  The ends do not justify the means.  If stomping infants
to death with hob nailed boots would get us accurate intelligence
information, does that mean it's okay to do it?  How many infants is a
particular piece of intelligence worth?  The answer has to be zero,
because any non-zero answer puts you on a very steep road to
surrendering your humanity.
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #19 of 40: Gail Williams (gail) Fri 30 Dec 11 07:39
That was very well-stated.
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #20 of 40: Ed Ward (captward) Fri 30 Dec 11 09:57
He's a dang good writer, you know. And it's his birthday today unless
he lied to Facebook. 

Lew, sorry to be so late in showing up here. My big problem with Dark
Tangos is I'm really allergic to dancing, and while I loved the story,
the world in which it occurred just wasn't my thing. I know why people
get entranced in tango; a famous choreographer friend was visiting this
summer (she presented a piece at Montpellier Danse) and we went to
this outdoor festival they have each summer and stumbled upon a space
set aside for tango dancers. She drank the whole thing in, and, after
about 20 minutes, said "Okay, I have to go back to my room now. This is
so intense." And off she went. 

I have problems articulating about dance (something that's gotten me
in trouble with her in the past) but I think that you've done it very
well in this book. 

And, for those of you following along at home, Lew's other books are
also very much worth reading, and I *can* comment more intelligently on
them. Why don't you post the URL again, between brackets, and it'll
light up and maybe you'll sell some more!
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #21 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Fri 30 Dec 11 20:19

        I'll jump in on that: The excellent new uniform editions of his novels 
are at <>.
        His short fiction is excellent as well, and much of it is also at
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #22 of 40: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 31 Dec 11 05:34
Lew, when you and I first met, when you were living in Austin, you
were writing science fiction - and at one point you were part of the
cyberpunk literary cartel with Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat
Cadigan, Tom Maddox, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker et al. One
recollection I have is of the North American Science Fiction Convention
in 1985, where you, John, and Bruce walked off a cyberpunk panel
thinking it had been hijacked. Rucker has an account of that panel
here:  He says that, after the panel,
you said "So I guess cyberpunk is dead now?" One thing I especially
recall is how conflicted you seemed to be on leaving the panel, in fact
you went back. I'd love to hear your account of that panel, and maybe
talk a bit about what cyberpunk was and how you saw yourself as part of
that literary subgenre.
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #23 of 40: Lewis Shiner (lewis-shiner) Sun 1 Jan 12 07:26
@Ed--Great to hear from you, my friend, and thanks for the hefty

@Jon--Everybody remembers that cyberpunk panel differently.  My
version goes something like this:  Somebody on the con committee made a
horrible mistake in picking a guy named Ric Meyers to moderate.  Ric's
only claim to SF fame (though I think he'd done some work in
Hollywood) was a piece of pulp hackwork called DOOMSTAR (I happened to
have tried to read it because I was a judge for the Phil Dick Award
that year).  I think the committee's idea was that they would get a
moderator who had nothing to do with cyberpunk to bring some
perspective.  Unfortunately, they didn't explain that to Myers, who,
desperate for sales or even credibility, spent the early part of the
panel trying to come up with a definition of cyberpunk that would
include him, though I don't think he'd read anything by any of us.  The
reason we walked out was because Myers was such a jerk, not because of
some grand ideological statement.

I guess my favorite definition of cyberpunk is Ed Bryant's "novels of
Gibsonian sensibility."  It puts the emphasis on Gibson, which is where
it rightly belongs, at least for me.  I was writing horror and
detective fiction when Sterling gave me a copy of "Burning Chrome" in
manuscript and I was upended by it.  Gibson had all the right
influences--Ballard, Bester, and Burroughs--and his own compulsive
energy and literary flair.  He singlehandedly made me want to write SF
again.  And of course once I got to know him, he proved to be a
wonderful guy--generous, funny, brilliant, and always interesting.

If I hadn't been in Austin and friends with Bruce, I would probably
have never been in the club.  But Bruce really loved the idea of a
movement--we were all somewhat in awe of the way the New Wave had
coalesced around Moorcock's NEW WORLDS in England in the 60s, though
again, you could just as easily say that those were "novels of
Ballardian sensibility."  He recruited me to write for CHEAP TRUTH, his
polemical broadsheet, and I was flattered to have my opinions taken

In the end, I didn't have the loyalty to SF as a genre that Bill and
Bruce and the others did.  I was happy to be called a cyberpunk because
it was the first real attention I'd gotten for my work, but there were
a whole lot of other things I wanted to write.  Much as I loved
Ballard, I also loved Robert Stone and Harry Crews and Anne Tyler and
Len Deighton and Lisa Tuttle.

So I moved on, and the street, to paraphrase Bill, found its own use
for the word cyberpunk, which I think still rankles a lot of people. 
The word came up in talking to a coworker last week, who told me how
much he loves Neal Stephenson's books.  And he's probably the author
most associated with the word these days.  My attitude is, easy come,
easy go. 
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #24 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Sun 1 Jan 12 14:37

        Your website, as alluded to earlier, has all your novels and maybe all 
of your short fiction available for free download. Does that affect your 
hardcopy sales?
inkwell.vue.429 : Lewis Shiner, Dark Tangos
permalink #25 of 40: Angus MacDonald (angus) Sun 1 Jan 12 15:03

        Also, Happy New Year.


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