Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Feature: Interview with John Joseph Adams

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

John Joseph Adams
is the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. In addition, he is the editor of anthologies like Wasteland: Stories of the Apocalypse and Seeds of Change. He has also contributed to various publications including Kirkus Review, Publishers Weekly, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and SCI FI Wire.

Thanks for agreeing to the interview. First off, between the Pirate Issue of Shimmer Magazine, Wasteland: Stories of the Apocalypse, and the upcoming Seeds of Change from Prime Books, do you envision yourself being a famous anthology editor along the lines of Ellen Datlow or Gardner Dozois in the future? Was this something you planned?

Well, it's a bit too early to say I'll one day be as famous as Ellen or Gardner, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. I don't mean that to sound self-aggrandizing, it's just that I'm in a good position to maybe achieve that level of name-recognition. I've also already got another anthology in the pipeline--The Living Dead, which is a reprint anthology of zombie stories--so that should help too.

I don't know that you could say becoming a "famous" editor is something I planned, but becoming an editor with some name-recognition (and perhaps more importantly, good sales figures) was something obviously I want to achieve, if only so that I can continue editing anthologies.

On the other hand, if you're asking, did I plan this out when I was in college, and cunningly landed myself a position at F&SF in order to build a reputation, learn the necessary skills, and develop a list of contacts in order to become an anthologist--well, the answer to that is no. Getting the job at F&SF was itself the goal; all that's come after it has just been gravy.

How did Seeds of Change come about? Was it something you pitched to Prime Books or something they commissioned you to work on? What's the biggest difference/challenge in working in this anthology compared to Wasteland?

After the early success of Wastelands, Sean Wallace of Prime approached me about editing an original anthology for him. We bounced some ideas back and forth, and eventually he (or rather, I think it might have been Prime's Stephen Segal) came up with the basic premise for Seeds of Change; they ran it by me, and I immediately liked the idea; I had already decided to do a book for them, so since both they and I were happy with the theme, that's what we went with.

It was exciting for me, being my first opportunity to edit an original anthology. Of course, I had a taste of this while editing Shimmer's pirate issue, which was, essentially, an original anthology. But Seeds was a bit different--I was working with a larger budget, so I could go out and solicit stories from some of my favorite writers.

Editing an original anthology and a reprint anthology are very different animals. For one thing, a reprint anthology requires a lot of research into your theme, and requires a lot of reading--kind of like sifting through a gigantic slush pile, albeit a slush pile wherein the level of quality is pretty high (since it consists of previously published stories by professional writers).

An original anthology doesn't require all of that. The main challenge with an original anthology is that there's a good chance several of the writers who say they'll write something for you won't come through in time, leaving you short and forcing you to go find something to fill a slot in the book. I was fortunate in that that didn't happen to me with Seeds; oh, several writers who said yes did fail to submit something on time, but I ended up with enough good material to fill the book. I'm quite happy with the way it turned out, and looking back am kind of amazed that it came together as well as it did, considering all the things that could have gone wrong.

What was your criteria in picking stories for
Seeds of Change? For Wasteland?

For Wastelands, I just wanted to select what I felt were the best post-apocalyptic stories from the last 20-25 years or so. (Also, I purposely avoided selecting anything that had appeared in the anthology Beyond Armageddon, which is pretty much the only other post-apocalyptic SF reprint anthology.) Also, length was a bit of a consideration--so I didn't use David Brin's novella "The Postman" (not only because it's very long, but because it's so well known in its novel-length version) or Orson Scott Card's novella "West," which I prefer to "Salvage" (though obviously, I like it very much as well).

For Seeds of Change, I just picked what I thought were the best stories from the ones that were submitted--those that were the best, and fit the theme, too, of course. The idea was to write stories about paradigm shifts--technological, scientific, political, or cultural--and how individuals and societies deal with such changes. The idea was to challenge our current paradigms and speculate on how they might evolve in the future, either for better or for worse. That theme is pretty broad, so I didn't have much trouble with stories not conforming to it.

Any interesting anecdotes when it comes to your anthologies?

One story in Seeds of Change--"Endosymbiont" by Blake Charlton--had been written independently of the anthology, and I only knew about it because I knew Blake from a number of conventions we both attended. We'd become good friends as a result, and so when he wrote the story, he emailed it to me after I'd asked to see it. By that time, I'd already invited a bunch of authors to submit stories, so I waited to see who delivered and what was submitted. Once I filled all but one of the slots in the table of contents, I thought back to Blake's story, and how it fit so perfectly with not only the theme of the anthology but also the underlying message that SF can be a way of bringing about social change. The problem was that it was about twice as long as I could take (which is why I hadn't considered it earlier on). But I talked to the publisher and it turned out that the extra space in the book wasn't a problem, and so we made it fit.

Similarly in Wastelands, Jerry Oltion's original story, "Judgment Passed," existed independently of the book, and I only knew of it because Jerry had sent it to me back when I had been trying to sell an original anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction. I liked it a lot, and had planned to use it if anyone had wanted to publish that original anthology, but, alas, no one did. But when it came time to put together Wastelands, I thought to ask Jerry if he'd published it anywhere, in which case I could reprint it. He hadn't, so I was bummed at first, until I thought, "Hey, there's no rule that says you can't put an original story in an anthology of reprints." In the end, I think it adds something to the book, having the one original in there, and I think it certainly is on par with the other stories included in the anthology, so it fits in nicely.

I'm currently consulting the entrails of dead animals. They say that
Seeds of Change isn't your last anthology. What are your other projects in the works?

As I mentioned earlier, I've got The Living Dead forthcoming from Night Shade Books in September of this year. I'm also editing another original anthology for Prime called Federations, which will be an SF anthology about intergalactic societies. I've talked to both Night Shade and Prime about other projects after those two as well, but details of those will have to remain a mystery for now (for one thing, even I don't know all the details about them yet).

Do you think your job as assistant editor in
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction played a big role in getting you involved in your various projects?

Absolutely. It all comes back to F&SF. It's a great thing to have on your resume if you're looking for work in the SF/F field. When I was looking to do some freelance writing, I'm sure it went a long way in convincing Locus to give me a shot as a reviewer, and then things kind of snowballed from there, in terms of building a reputation. My experience writing for Locus helped land me a gig at Publishers Weekly, PW opened the doors at Kirkus, and so on. Of course, this didn't happen overnight; I worked at F&SF for about three years before I started publishing reviews, etc., and then another three years or so after that before I sold Wastelands.

It's theoretically possible I could have achieved some of this other stuff without the help of F&SF, but it would have been much more unlikely.

What do you look for in a story as an editor? As a general reader? (Is there a difference?)

What I look for as an editor and as a reader are usually the same thing, though it depends on the project. If I'm editing a theme anthology, obviously I need to pass on anything that doesn't fit the theme, even if, as a reader, I really like it.

As for what it is I'm looking for, I find it really hard to quantify. If you've ever perused the writers' guidelines for various publications, you will have noticed that almost none of them actually do attempt to explain what it is they're looking for, except in the most general sense.

I will say that I think that in general originality is overrated; to me, the overall execution of a story is far more important than a truly original idea. I'm happy to read different takes on the same subject, provided, of course, that the author does enough with the concept to make his/her take distinct. (Good thing, otherwise it would be tough to edit theme anthologies, wouldn't it?) Don't get me wrong--I do appreciate those never-seen-anything-like-it-before stories; I'm just saying that that's not the only important ingredient in a great story, and in fact is not always necessary.

How did you fall in love with science fiction and fantasy? Did you ever envision yourself working as an editor? Did you ever consider writing fiction as a potential career path? (And if so, what happened?)

I was a genre reader from a pretty young age--almost all of the books I remember reading as a kid were SF or fantasy, but I didn't really identify as a genre reader until I was much older, 18 or so. As a kid I read all the late Robert Asprin's Myth books, Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, the Chronicle of Narnia--that kind of thing. Thing is, my sister--who is six years older than me--started working at a bookstore as one of her first jobs, and so she just gave me lots of books (stripped mass markets, mostly!) and I never actually went to the store to browse myself, so I didn't realize that most of the stuff I liked came from the SF section.

It's funny, trying to pinpoint exactly what led me here is very difficult--there were many roads I started down, but it seems they all led to the same place. My love of Star Trek and Star Wars got me reading the novels based on those series, which got me to try some "real" SF when I ran out of those to read. Playing D&D led me to read lots of the various tie-in novels. Reading lots of medical thrillers led me to Michael Crichton, which led me to other books with strong science content like his, of which, of course, there are plenty in SF. So, it was inevitable really.

To answer the other part of your question: Yes, I did consider writing fiction as a career path--in fact, when I was in college, that's what I intended to do with my life. I didn't envision myself being an editor until I took some creative writing classes. Those classes were my first experiences workshopping stories, or really even meeting and talking to other writers. After college, I still intended to become a writer, but I had the idea to get a job as an editor while I pursued a career in writing, figuring that I would learn a lot about the writing process by doing so. I certainly did learn a lot, but I've found it very difficult to write fiction while working as an editor, so that got put on hold shortly after I started working at F&SF. I'll probably return to writing fiction some day. I realize that a lot of people probably say that. But should I manage it, I'll be ten times the writer I ever was--reading vast quantities of slush is seriously probably the best way for a writer to learn about writing.

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite books?

My favorite book is The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. Other favorites include A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. I'm also a huge fan of Stephen King's Dark Tower series and Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series. A recent favorite is Naomi Novik's Temeraire series; it's ridiculous how much I love those books.

Oh, and George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is the best epic fantasy I've ever read. I recently recommended it to my sister. When she read the back cover--which features that quote calling Martin the "American Tolkien"--she raised her eyebrows, questioning the high praise, to which I replied "Fuck Tolkien. That's the real shit right there." I've actually only read the first two books in the series so far; given the pace at which he's writing them, I'm trying to savor them. (Also, it's hard to find clear enough space on my calendar to find time to read the other two.)

As for favorite authors, aside from loving the authors of the books mentioned above, I really enjoy Robert J. Sawyer's work as well as Jack McDevitt's.

Incoming geek question! How have RPGs like
Dungeons & Dragons affected your life? How about heavy metal?

As I mentioned above, D&D was a pretty important factor in my life, at least in terms of determining my career path. Besides furthering my interest in the fantasy genre, it really stimulated my creativity. My first attempt at creativity was running my own campaign as a Dungeon Master. I enjoyed doing that, but to me it wasn't as fun as playing; I determined that it was the interactive part of it that bugged me -- I had carefully scripted out what I wanted to happen, but the players had ideas of their own, of course. So I decided to try writing fiction as a result--since that's essentially what you're doing when you run a D&D campaign, if you eliminate the decision-making abilities of the other players. The first thing I wrote was not, as you might expect, a D&D-like epic fantasy story--it was a space opera adventure novel. It's terrible. I did finish a whole novel, though, so I was proud of that. I later adapted it into a screenplay (for a class in college), and in that form it was substantially better--good enough that it was optioned by a production company--but still pretty bad.

As for metal, it's harder to say. I mean, it's certainly a huge part of my life--probably 95% of my music listening is metal, and I listen to my iPod all day at work (both at F&SF and my freelance stuff--I'm listening now as I write this, too, of course). But it hasn't led me down any career paths or anything like that. If anything, I'd say it probably served as a bit of a social albatross (which, I suppose, is somewhat appropriate given the antisocial tendencies of metal bands). By that I just mean that I never seem to make friends with people who like the same music as I do, so that's one less thing I have to discuss about when making conversation.

How did you end up working as the assistant of
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction? What are some of the challenges there? The most fun experiences?

After college, I moved up to New Jersey with the intent of getting a job in publishing. I was born in New Jersey and lived here until I was about eight or nine, but I lived in Florida for most of my life, so when I moved back, I had some family up here, which made it easier to settle in--in fact, made it possible for me to pursue my career in publishing, as my initial part-time salary wasn't enough to really afford to live on, especially not in this area, where the cost of living is so high.

I had saved up some money (well, saved up some student loan money) so that when I moved back to NJ, I could take my time finding a job so that I could find something I actually wanted to do. I first queried Gordon Van Gelder, the publisher and editor of F&SF, in February of 2001. He wrote back saying that he didn't have any openings at the time, but that I should check back later in the year. I kept looking elsewhere for a few months and didn't find anything I liked, so I wrote back in May, figuring that three months is "later in the year." As it happened, Gordon's previous assistant had just given his notice, so he invited me to come up to Hoboken for an interview. We did the interview over lunch at a diner down the street from the F&SF office and just basically talked about SF and fantasy. During the interview, I won some points by saying my favorite book is The Stars My Destination, lost some points by saying I liked Michael Crichton. Won other points by saying that The Matrix is an ambitious and interesting film with amazing special effects and action sequences but is ultimately a colossal failure. Also, I admitted to being perplexed at the popularity of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time novels; though I did so cautiously, sure that everyone working in the fantasy genre thought he was Tolkien-reborn, I did say that I only made it through book five, and only that far because of peer-pressure.

The most fun experience associated with F&SF has probably been being exposed to SF conventions. I'd never been to one before, so that was quite an eye-opener. I now love going to conventions. (This year, I'll be at Readercon and Worldcon, and maybe World Fantasy.) As for the fun I have while actually working, the best part is discovering a story in the slush that Gordon buys and publishes.

What's your ideal job or do you already have it?

My job is pretty great, though I admit my ideal job would be Gordon's job (or Stan Schmidt's or Sheila Williams's, etc.). That should be no surprise--I think that any other assistant editor who says he doesn't want the top spot is probably lying (or followed the wrong career path).

What in your opinion is the biggest change the industry is currently facing?

For magazines, it's probably the post office, which keeps raising the mailing rates, with the most recent hikes being the result of some legislation that was in effect written by Time Warner, so that the rate structure greatly benefits publications with circulations over a million (and/or in the hundreds of thousands).

In general, I guess the biggest change publishing is facing is the growing prevalence of electronic markets, electronic submissions, and web marketing--book trailers, social networking, etc.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors? For aspiring editors? For aspiring freelance writers?

Authors: I said it before, and I'll say it again--get a gig reading slush. You'll learn lots.

Editors: If you're aspiring and still in college, try to get an internship; actual publishing experience is pretty hard to come by without one. Also, be prepared for low wages and long hours, and not nearly enough time at work to do all the reading you have to do.

Freelance Writers (by which, I assume you mean writers of reviews, interviews, etc., or non-fiction, in other words): Focus on building a portfolio of articles to showcase your skills to potential markets; starting small can lead you to bigger and better things.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

I'd just say that it's important to support the independent presses--like my publishers Night Shade Books and Prime Books--however you can. Order and pre-order early and often! (And direct from the publisher, when possible.) Similarly, if you enjoy reading a magazine, don't just buy it on the newsstand--subscribe! (And definitely subscribe direct, not through a subscription agency!) Every little bit helps.

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