Since the age of eleven, Shannon Muir knew she wanted to be a writer. During her teenage years, she also developed an interest in comics and animation and, in 1996, moved to Los Angeles to pursue a professional career. Her first job was as a production assistant on Sony Animation’s Jumanji: The Animated Series, and shortly thereafter, she earned a promotion to production coordinator on Extreme Ghostbusters. She would later go on to work as a production coordinator on the acclaimed Nickelodeon series Invader Zim.
Muir’s first big break as an animation scriptwriter came in 2003, when she and her creative partner and now husband, Kevin Paul Shaw Broden, were offered the opportunity to write original scripts for the Japanese series Midnight Horror School. Her first book, Gardner’s Guide to Writing and Producing Animation, was published in July of 2007 and a follow-up, Gardner’s Guide to Pitching and Selling Animation, was released in 2008.
These days, Muir has established herself as an up-and-coming voice in the new pulp genre. Her most recent short story is the digital “Single Shot” Ghost of the Airwaves, a suspenseful tale of murder, mystery and intrigue. Stylistically, Muir aims to explore issues of the human condition and female identity, primarily with strong female protagonists, and in the new pulp genre, she utilizes this approach to bring a unique perspective to the time period.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
My father served in the United States Navy, and until he retired when I was the age of 12 we moved; not terribly often, but my childhood was spent in exotic places like Japan and Hawaii. It gave me a profound respect of other cultures that I carry to this day. When he retired and returned to the area of the country where he grew up, dotted by small farming communities, it was a bit of a culture shock, but I learned to love that as well. I really believe all the early travel made it easier for me when I decided to move to Los Angeles in 1996 to pursue a career in animation.
Growing up, who were your biggest creative influences?
From a literary perspective, Tolkien would be the primary one. My father read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my sister and I as bedtime stories; in particular, I identified with Bilbo Baggins as the reluctant hero. Also, I really had a fondness for mystery stories, and absolutely had to make sure to read every Nancy Drew I could get my hands on. I tried some Sherlock Holmes for a while in junior high, but after a while the mysteries faded and science fiction and fantasy took center stage. I think that had a lot to do with my growing interest in animated television, which depends a lot on those two genres.
During my teenage years, I would make contact with the Head Writer for Voltron (Marc Handler) and the person who developed the Jem toy line for animation and also served as a Story Editor of the series (Christy Marx). Both are still friends with me to this day.
How did Flying Glory and the Hounds of Glory come about?
Flying Glory and the Hounds of Glory has been a webcomic since 2001, but its origins predate that by quite a bit. In the mid 1990s, I belonged to a bulletin board service called GEnie (originally owned by General Electric and later sold to the Yovelle Renaissance Corporation until it ended in 1999). Back then, the major services were AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, and GEnie. GEnie, though the least graphically advanced of the services, made up for it in spades in content. Of particular note was the SFRT, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Roundtable, where authors in these genres had their own bulletin board topics where other members could communicate with the author. Basically, think Facebook pages in all text format without the social media sharing, and that’s a rough idea. Anyway, both Kevin and I became members of GEnie through different avenues, though we lived two states away. Christy Marx, as I’ve previously mentioned, had been friends with me for years and encouraged me to come to GEnie; she’d also met Kevin before at a couple of local conventions in California. So, when the two of us started interacting on GEnie, we really hit it off. Problem was, I was going by my nickname of “Shan” and my actual GEnie assigned username was “S.MUIR2”, so poor Kevin had no idea at first I was a woman. It wasn’t until we were both in a comic scriptwriting workshop online in the SFRT that this became clear, when he saw my all-female-society-bordering-on-male-bashing premise. I’d just weathered a broken engagement, and writing was my release. Interestingly enough, his project at the time for that workshop was the World War II adventures of one Elsie Carmichael, better known to readers today as the older Flying Glory. Elsie’s origin and stories are very pulp inspired and seem to translate to today’s new pulp and genre sensibilities.
While Kevin did get a nibble from a mid-level comic publisher about actually picking up the comic pitch, ultimately it fell through. I suggested to him that maybe to make his older stories accessible, they needed to be accessible to a modern audience. He asked how I would do that. I’d just finished getting my Bachelor’s degrees in Radio-TV and English-Creative Writing, where I’d done a lot of radio work and poetry writing. This would also be the time period when music stars such as Madonna began branching out in multi-facted ways, by more commonly taking movie acting roles. So I suggested perhaps developing a teenage band might work, with Elsie as the grandparent and mentor figure. While Kevin created most of Debra’s character (though we named her together), some of the Hounds of Glory were created solely by me, such as later addition to the group Nate Tsushihashi. After not managing to get nibbles on this new take after networking some at Comic-Con 1997 – as well as meeting someone who was marketing a title close sounding in name but with a very different topic – we got discouraged. However, since Elsie and Debra and her friends conspired to get us together, they also would not let us go. Finally, in 2001, we agreed to start releasing the story we developed in hopes that someday we could catch someone’s eye and maybe later release in it book form or license it in some other way. We’d definitely still love to see that happen at some point, yet we also understand the market is saturated with similar themed product. Though that magic moment hasn’t happened yet, we’re too passionate about it to stop. After all, it brought us together, and after nearly fifteen years years must be doing something right as Kevin and I are now a married couple. From an encounter that blossomed out of a pained broken heart, and has not had easy moments along the way, now here were are continuing to brave the journey together.
How did you end up writing for Midnight Horror School, and what are your fondest memories of that experience?
It initially came about because I was unemployed and needed to apply for any opportunity I could. At the time, the Hollywood Creative Directory website (now defunct) had a listing for a Japanese company seeking Western writers. To be very honest, I would normally not have considered going after an opportunity by this method. But being unemployed and in need of work, and impressed at how well and honest the ad was written (they made it clear upfront it was non-union, so at least they understood the business), both my now-husband and I contacted them. We received the series bible and separately pitched one paragraph story ideas, or premises, to the company. Then we were told that they needed to put production on hold, and figured that would be the end of it.
Months later, we heard from the company again, ready to hit the ground running and needing scripts quickly. They turned down most of Kevin’s premises, though since one of his had elements they liked, and in some ways was similar to a pitch by the company’s United States representative, Kevin was teamed with her to write one episode. As for me, I pitched five premises and they wanted all five! The issue became that I just started graduate school and knew I could not finish all five scripts by deadline. I looked over what I had and found two I felt Kevin could also get into and lobbied the company to let Kevin and I co-write those scripts to make the deadlines. The company was very reluctant to do so, but eventually I won them over by saying I would be having a strong hand in the outlines and first drafts, but that I really needed Kevin to make sure everything came together. The other good result of doing this was that it allowed us both to become members of the Animation Writers Caucus of the Writers Guild of America, West, which we’ve been members of for a decade. Initial membership in this group doesn’t necessarily need to be union-covered work, though obviously that’s preferred going forward. There’s actually another union that comes out of when the artists, or the “story men,” also wrote the story with the board called IATSE Local 839. Trying to explain why both organization exist is outside of the scope of this interview, but as someone who has wanted to be in and around animation all my life, I feel good I have a place where my international credits can be valued among my domestic peers, and I hope someday to work for directly in animation with some of them again.
Besides the memory that Midnight Horror School and inclusion in the Animation Writers Caucus really made me feel that I “made it” as a professional alongside the people I grew up admiring, I completely enjoyed getting to tell the stories of inanimate school objects that come alive every night as they learn to become the magic and wonders of the human world. Of course, no one in the cast could succeed or they’d graduate, which meant that each episode for me had to be about the small victories along the journey, and never about the destination of graduation. Additionally, having lived in Japan as a small child, to have the first animated series I wrote for actually be for that country meant a lot to me personally.
What do you find most fascinating or appealing about the new pulp genre?
As I mentioned before, I loved mysteries as a kid. I’ve also maintained an interest in superheroes, science fiction, and fantasy. Pulp maintains a lot of the larger than life elements as found in these type of stories – some of the modern loved characters in these genres actually originate in the pulp era, in fact – but the people at the center of these stories tend to be closer to the everyman who finds his or her self in extraordinary situations, and usually possessing an above average curiosity about the world. Given my animation television background focused on shows in these genres, trying my hand out in the new pulp market seemed the next logical move to fully embrace all of my interests.
What inspired the story of Ghost of the Airwaves?
I went to Eastern Washington University (in Cheney, Washington, where I also went to junior high and high school) for a double major in Radio-TV and English-Creative Writing. For the Summerstock program, where we produced four half hour scripts a summer, I wrote one called From the Fatal Heart. A modern day request-and-dedication DJ (these shows were very hot at the time) believes his wife committed suicide but comes to learn the awful truth on Valentine’s Day. While I still love that story, I felt the main lead could have been stronger. So I decided to try and reimagine it with a female lead and set in the golden age of radio. In the end, it took on a life of its own, and became a completely different story about an actress being more proactive to find her husband’s killer. I really enjoyed the challenge of making this happen.
When you’re in search of inspiration, where do you turn?
I turn to what’s going on around me in the world, on both the large scale and in the community. I’ll see a person I don’t know, or a situation from afar, and then start to wonder “what if” something went a certain way. No matter what, I always struggle to constantly learn new things and research topics I don’t have prior knowledge about. Mainly I don’t stop asking why.
What’s the best video game you’ve played recently?
Truthfully, these days I’ve only had time to stick with one, and that is Lord of the Rings Online. I’ve been in the game for about six years now, and love being able to immerse myself in my favorite literary world. I’m quite confident there are probably better games out there amongst the contenders, but this is the one I’m happy with and that I also am a subscriber of for the lifetime of the game (this form of membership has since been discontinued). Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft were my first two MMOs, which I only got into in order to inform myself to help be part of the team for the now-closed kids virtual world Petpet Park. I’d never played anything resembling an MMO before and wanted to understand it as a story tool. At the time, I strongly felt television animation might be on its way out with children transitioning to crafting their own tales in computer animated worlds; thankfully for the industry, I was wrong, though personally that decision has left my current career path a tad disjointed. Writing, in a variety of forms, has remained a constant.
Lord of the Rings Online also ended up helping me look at storytelling in a whole new way when I took the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” offered on the Coursera service and taught by Jay Clayton of Vanderbilt University. Though the course discussed Romance Literature and how it could be remediated (or adapted, to oversimplify it) into other media, specifically it focuses on using Lord of the Rings as its primary emphasis since that has been adapted into a variety of other media, and at students’ option actually encourages interaction in the game. Even though I’d been a player for five years when I took the course, the other students taught me a lot about Tolkien, writing for various media, online gaming on a general level, and the nature of how people interact in the cyber world.
Do you still pay much attention to the world of animation? If so, what are a few of the best cartoons on television these days?
Definitely I do! I have many friends who are still actively writing or doing production work in animation, so I need to stay abreast of what they are doing. As to what is the best, it depends on your tastes, I think. Also, saying “television” can be a bit more vague than ever before. I would also argue that my time at Nickelodeon Virtual Worlds when they had the Neopets and even more so the Petpet Park properties was a use of animation as a storytelling medium in a different way. Ultimately you have to remember animation is a medium, with multiple ways it can be utilized. For example, I have a Masters Degree in Communications from California State University Fullerton, and my thesis compared live-action and animated product advertising and public service announcements to see if animated spokespeople would be any more effective than real live ones; actually, I found the results to vary quite a bit.
In terms of what I watch personally, two series that my husband and I follow regularly are Monster High and Ever After High, but those are webisodes with some movies on Netflix. In the scope of your question, would Netflix count as television, or not? It’s a big issue that the industry has started wrestling with in recent years. For those two shows in particular, though admittedly both are rooted in toy lines, the range of characters and stories they’ve managed to pull off while still servicing the toy line is amazing. For the superhero and action-adventure side of things, I prefer things long the line of Star Wars Rebels or most any animated series built around the DC superhero universe (while I’ve liked some Marvel based animated series over the years, like X-Men: Evolution, they just don’t resonate with me as often). Comedy-adventure, and straight comedy, are both difficult types of animation series for me to get into, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t great. That’s one of the amazing things about animation to me; you can build such a wide diversity of worlds that the medium can appeal to anyone if presented in a way a group of people enjoy.
What would you like to do that you simply haven’t found the time for yet?
Travel and see more of the world. Despite the kind of childhood I had, I haven’t been out of the United States since 1980 and the continental United States since 1984. When you think about the fact that I’ve lived most of the last twenty years not all that far from either the Canadian or Mexican borders, that’s kind if astounding even to me. I’ve had a taste of most of the continental United States from a cross-country trip my family took when I was still a college undergraduate, but even then there’s still things I missed. I visited Washington D.C. on my own during college, and a few years back fulfilled a major dream when I went to New York City in 2013 to represent my book blog Infinite House of Books at Book Expo America. Still, I have yet to see Boston, or Philadelphia, or any of the rest of the Northeast, as well as Alaska. Also, I’ve never been to Europe, which I really hope to rectify someday soon to meet my husband’s family in Northern Ireland. Money and time always seem to get in the way though; it’s a harsh reality of the nature of the beast in the entertainment business.
What are you working on next?
The Dame Did It features my next short story release with Pro Se Productions. Similar to Ghost of the Airwaves, it’s a story completely of my own creation, and also inspired by my college radio experiences. The school where I did my undergraduate work – Eastern Washington University located in my adopted hometown of Cheney, Washington – runs KEWU, a 10,000 watt jazz station that reaches from the Spokane area to the Canadian border. I’d been working at the station initially in an Assistant Music Director capacity that the department created for me to fulfill an aspect of the school’s Honors program where you got a paid position your freshman year in the department of your choice; naturally I chose Radio-Television. Though I’d not listened to jazz heavily prior to that, I learned a lot about jazz and music in general from Music Director Greg Rentfro, enough so that when the position ended, I started to work at the station for either credit or volunteer time. It’s important to know that I am a really shy public speaker, but somehow being in the booth alone and visualizing myself speaking to just one person, I felt comfortable doing what I did. After a while, given my seniority at the station, the opportunity came for me to be able to pitch new programming ideas for the station; looking for a way to learn more about a certain aspect of the jazz community, I pitched to host a show called “Women of Jazz” that focused on female artists both classical and contemporary. Over twenty years later, the show can still be heard Sundays on KEWU-FM, though the time slot shifted over the years. I am extremely proud the show outlived me and became a gift to the Spokane and the jazz community.
How this specifically leads into the story in The Dame Did It, called “Tragic Like a Torch Song,” is that I started from the idea of wanting to tell a story in the traditional pulp period with music being my access point or integral to the plot. As the title indicates, I chose torch singing as what would fit both the time period and the tone. It also created a challenge because I wrote lyrics much in the same way that I do for Flying Glory and the Hounds of Glory – that provide a recurring theme in the tale; in prose, though, they have to read more like a standard poem so I relied a lot on syllables and rhythm to get the lyrical and tone effect. Underneath the music, it’s a story about family, but I won’t say more at risk of spoiling it. That angle came about I think because my father’s mother passed away earlier the year I wrote the story, and being the last of my grandparents, left me with a keen awareness about family bonds in general. Fortunately, I think my family has a lot less drama than lead character Hazel Atwood’s; read it and find out for yourself!