Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Interview: Matthew Cheney

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Matthew Cheney's work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the series editor for Best American Fantasy. He teaches high school in New Jersey.

Hi Matt! Thanks for the interview. How did you first get involved with speculative fiction?

As for many people, it goes back to childhood. I was a precocious reader -- more precocious in my desire to read than in my capacity to understand what I read, which is probably a good thing, given that I was reading Stephen King in fourth grade. I started reading SF when my mother's boss loaned me some of his issues of Asimov's in the mid-'80s, and I read whatever I could find at the local college library -- the Hugo Winners anthologies were hugely influential. I kept reading SF all through high school, then stopped for a while during college and after, returning about six years ago when the "New Wave Fabulists" issue of Conjunctions came in the mail and I realized that there was interesting stuff still happening in the field, and particularly interesting stuff happening in the borderworld between the SF and literary communities.

You've developed quite a following over at Mumpsimus. What made you decide to start up that blog and how has it helped your career?

I started the blog because I wanted a place to write about my explorations upon returning to reading SF, and I wanted to experiment with ideas about fiction in general, genres, audiences, etc. A blog seemed like a nonthreatening way to do that. When I started, there really weren't that many blogs devoted to books -- most were political or personal blogs -- and so I gained a bit of a readership simply by being one of the few people doing it. It ended up being a tremendous help to me in terms of writing because it put me in contact with writers, editors, fans, etc. with whom I would never have had the chance to correspond before. It also served as a kind of portfolio of my nonfiction work, so led to other things -- for instance, Strange Horizons decided to hire some columnists about 6 months after I started the blog, and the editors asked me to try being a columnist because they'd seen what I was up to with the blog and thought that sort of thing would fit in with what Strange Horizons was trying to do. I'm not sure it's helped that much in terms of my fiction writing, because if anything it led to people seeing me as a nonfiction writer and a critic, but being part of the conversation certainly helped me find the kinds of markets and editors that would be most receptive to the sort of fiction I write.

What made you decide to pursue fiction writing?

I started as a fiction writer, actually, and spent much of my time throughout adolescence writing stories and even a novel (now, thankfully, lost). Toward my last years of high school, I began thinking of myself more as a playwright, and I studied playwrighting for three years as an undergraduate, but fiction-writing is really my oldest love. It's also the hardest form of writing for me, the most consistently challenging -- in some ways the least natural. That, too, is an attraction: the attraction of the difficult.

What was it originally about theater that appealed to you and made you want to become a playwright?

I hear voices! For many years, I did a lot of acting and directing, though not so much recently. I love creating things for a particular moment and working with people to shape what the thing will be. Certainly, dialogue is what I find comes most naturally to me as a writer, but the challenge for me with playwrighting is creating a structure within the confines of what can be accomplished on a stage for an audience. Theatre can be a tremendously language-focused art, and I love the way words and silence and action all mingle on stage. It's always collaborative, and the writer has no control over many elements, which can be exasperating to writers who are control freaks, but though I've been accused of being many things, being a control freak is not one of them. The ideal of theatre -- seldom achieved, but always reached for -- is to write something and then see it produced in a way that makes it much more than you ever envisioned. I don't know of a greater thrill than that.

Do you think there's lots of overlap between writing fiction and writing plays?

For me, yes, but that's purely at a personal level, and I'm not sure it's to the benefit of either my fiction or my plays. I tend to use them to revitalize each other for myself -- I returned to writing fiction after I burned out as a playwright, and I've written plays again when I've struggled with fiction. I've reached some sort of end with nonfiction recently, I think, and need a break from that, and so I'm working on a play for the first time in about five years. A friend once told me I write fiction like a playwright, which he said he meant as a compliment, but I think even if it's not a compliment it's probably true -- I am very much attracted to creating voices in fiction and creating unreliable narrators, because I think all interesting narrators are unreliable, and a play is in some ways nothing more than a bunch of unreliable narrators getting together for a couple hours.

What is it about the short story that appeals to you?

That it's short! Fiction is such a challenge for me to write that keeping it within a small frame helps a lot. Playwrighting appeals to me more than screenwriting primarily because it's much more limited, and short fiction is more limited than a novel, so I am comfortable within its frame. (That said, my primary fiction writing at the moment is toward a novel.) I tried poetry for a while, in search of new limitations for myself, but it brought out all my worst tendencies as a writer, so I tend not to spend much time on it.

Are you planning to write (or have you written) a novel in the future?

I've written bad novels, one of which was not quite bad enough and so got me some interest from agents six or seven years ago. Luckily, though, the agent who was most interested lost her job and wasn't able to take me on, and in the wake of that I reread the novel and realized that I would have been deeply embarrassed if it had ever been published, because it was both ridiculous and mediocre. I don't mind being one of those things, but both at the same time is too much for me to bear. I've salvaged the title of it, though ("The Midnight of the World") and am using it for a new novel that I've been planning for two years now and have just begun to make real progress on. It might be just as ridiculous and mediocre as the previous one, but I enjoy the challenge and the work right now, and that's what matters. It's 2/3 "realistic" fiction and 1/3 SF, which seems to be the right proportion for my personality at the moment.

How did you get your start writing book reviews?

Mostly from a desire to record for myself my thoughts about what I'd read. I started, actually, with a fanzine review of L.E. Modesitt's "The Magic of Recluse" back when that novel first came out, then in college I wrote theatre reviews for the NYU school paper as a way to go see shows for free, and then didn't write any more reviews until I started The Mumpsimus. I have a love-hate relationship to the world of reviewing -- I love being able to work out my ideas about books that cause me to have ideas, but I also feel horribly arrogant doing it and am tremendously self-conscious when anyone takes notice of anything I've written. I tend to always want to agree with the people who disagree with my reviews and to think that the people who agree with them are crazy.

What's your philosophy or criteria when writing book reviews?

Mostly, I try hard to write something that will be interesting even for someone who completely disagrees with my fundamental judgment of the book under review. I expect I fail at this more often than I succeed, but it's what I try for. As a reader, I don't like reviews that just summarize the plot and then render a judgment, because I don't find that very helpful -- if I don't have a sense of the reviewer's taste, then I don't know how to calibrate my own taste to their judgment, and I find plot summary really boring. (A weakness of my own reviews is probably a lack of plot summary. Plot in general doesn't much interest me, and plot summary feels to me like all the worst parts of a plot with none of the benefits [e.g. suspense, which can be fun, but is rare in summaries].) Again, because I'm so attracted to voice and subjectivity, what I love as a reader is getting a sense of a reviewer as a person relating a subjective experience: the experience of reading a particular text.

I've tended to shy away from negative reviews more recently, mostly because I rarely finish books I don't like (unless required to because the assigning editor won't let me wheedle my way out of the review), but also because most of the time I feel like they're easier to write than more nuanced reviews, and they don't end up saying as much. But a brilliantly written negative review -- even of a book I love -- can be a wonder to behold. (My theatre background tends to make me value the performative aspect of writing.) I remember a review by Adam Roberts of Jeff VanderMeer's nonfiction collection "Why Should I Cut Your Throat" that just blew me away, even though I've read Jeff's book a couple times with much pleasure. I think both writers are geniuses, and regardless of what they make of each other's work, watching one experience the writing of the other is, by my definition at least, a great performance.

Currently, who are the publishers in the field that excite you?

Oh, that's a dangerous question -- what if I forget somebody?! My tastes are so odd and so mercurial that there's no publisher out there releasing books that I inevitably like, but there are some that are doing things in interesting ways that I particularly respect. I've long admired Prime's willingness to take risks on writers and books that would never otherwise find a home. I think Small Beer Press is the gold standard of indie publishing -- a carefully-selected list of books, each produced with great care, and the press as a whole has a real sense of identity. Tachyon deserves the love of the entire world for their commitment to short fiction. Night Shade continues to publish an eclectic list of books that appeal to a huge range of readers -- they are, in many ways, the embodiment of the ecumenical spirit that I so admire in the SF community. Underland Press is a new publisher that looks to be gearing up to become a powerhouse, and I expect we'll be seeing a lot of really interesting books from them. Outside the SF world, I'm a big fan of Soft Skull Press, McSweeney's, Tin House Books, Dalkey Archive, Coffee House Press -- all publishers of books that are wonderous, strange, and often beautiful. Oh, and I should mention Open Letter Books, where the great Chad Post is an editor, and which is devoted to work in translation, a noble cause indeed. And speaking of translation, the venerable New Directions earned my eternal love (though they had it before) for bringing the work of Roberto BolaƱo to the U.S.

You've conducted several interviews with various authors. What for you makes a good interview? Any tips for someone like me?

In the theatre, we often say that 90% of the work of directing is in the casting, and that's true for interviewing, too. The people I've interviewed are all people I wanted to know something from. Sometimes they were famous, but just as often they weren't that well known. But something about their writing had made me wonder about their process or their view of the world or their experiences. Sometimes it's just been that the person seemed so completely different from me that I wanted to know what made them tick. Then the questions write themselves. I'm a big fan of follow-up questions, too, because the playwright in me likes things to read like a conversation more than a questionnaire.

What I was naive to when I began is that not every good writer is able to give a good interview. With some, I worked hard to keep my questions short and as provocative as possible, and still got back lots of one-sentence answers. I'm perfectly happy to edit an interview (and then get the writer's approval so they don't think I'm misrepresenting them), but some people get so self-conscious that they don't really give you much material to work with.

So far, I think you're doing just fine!

How did you become series editor for Best American Fantasy?

As with so much of my life, it was purely a matter of luck and not knowing what I was getting myself into. Jeff VanderMeer and I had been talking for a couple years about what we liked and didn't like about various anthologies of all sorts and in lots of different genres, and we'd both said at one time or another that despite the plethora of genre anthologies we thought both that an entire world of fiction was getting left out (because editors have to focus) and that rotating guest editors -- a common model outside genre fiction -- would be a good thing for a genre anthology series. Then one day Jeff asked me if I wanted to be series editor for BAF, since Prime had agreed to give it a try, and he cleverly (for he is a clever, clever man!) told me that there wasn't really time to think about it because we were already behind, and he dazzled me with flattery, and I didn't even bother to think about what I was getting myself into and how crazy and improbable it all was, and here I am!

What exactly is it that a "series editor" does?

This has been a continuing question for us! We all agree that the series editor reads a lot, and usually reads a bunch of stuff before the guest editor, though in the case of the third book this is not quite true because Kevin Brockmeier, who is editing volume 3, has some deadlines early in 2009 and so has been reading a lot more 2008 material than I've been able to get to yet, given various commitments I have at the moment, though I've been reading a lot of online material and pointing him toward it while he's been telling me about all the great stuff I really need to get reading in the two big boxes of magazines and books sitting on my living room floor. Aside from reading, I serve as a sounding board and sometimes as a devil's advocate and sometimes as the meanest and nastiest and most biased and least sympathetic reviewer we might ever encounter, because my primary job, as I see it, is to ensure the continued qualitiy of the series, so I want to make sure that our guest editors are confident about their choices. Because of the nature of the project, we'll always get really varied reviews, we'll always have readers who have vastly different responses to the stories in the book, but what matters to me is that the book pleases the guest editor(s). I want them to be able to sit down with a copy of the book ten years from now and still love it, because if they do then it's likely that the book will find an audience (of whatever size) that is hungry for it. I've seen that sort of passionate response to the first book -- people who have told me, "This is the book I've been waiting for for a long, long time," and I expect the next volumes will have the same effect, though perhaps with different readers. In fact, I'd be happiest if people respond to the series in the way I respond to, for instance, the various non-genre anthologies with guest editors: passionately love some volumes, am completely mystified by the choices in others, and am always excited to see what next year's edition will bring.

In addition to all that abstract stuff, I have other basic duties, like being the point person with publishers, being the first person to contact authors and ask for permission to reprint their story, collecting biographical notes for contributors, assembling the list of publications received, etc.

What for you makes a good story?

I wish it were something simple and reliable -- I wish, for instance, that I loved every story with the word "arugula" in it. That would make writing and reading much easier. But, alas, it's all more ineffable than that. Generally, it boils down to surprise and individuality. I don't continue reading stories if they don't contain some element of surprise -- if they don't make me wonder where the writer will take the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page. I'm not a fast reader, so if I feel like I can write the rest of the story in my head, I stop reading. Similarly, I want stories that are not like all the other stories I encounter -- I want stories that create a sense of individual voice and craft. Thousands and thousands of stories are published every year, and most of them have far too much in common with each other.

How different/similar is your "writer hat", your "reviewer hat", and your "editor hat"?

The editor hat is more of a bandanna, and a loosely-tied bandanna at that, because I'm only a partial editor, and the hat blows off in the wind. I don't make final decisions as an editor, so I think of myself more as a sifter -- I look for things our guest editor(s) might respond well to. I throw stuff at the wall of the guest editor's brain with the hope that something sticks. (How many more metaphors can I mix here....?)

The writer and reviewer hats are actually one and the same: much like a traditional jester's hat, they are one structure with a few different peaks. The prejudices and proclivities that cause me to respond to books in particular ways are the same prejudices and proclivities that cause me to write fiction and plays -- it's all about solving a problem of language, and matching some language to a desired effect or to an image or impulse. Reviewing is much easier, though, because the material is, to some extent, already there, and all I have to do is shape it.

How do you manage to find the time to juggle your day job and everything else?

I'm not sure I do. I'm always behind on something -- email sometimes goes unanswered for a while, deadlines loom, tests and papers accumulate as I procrastinate grading them. And now I have a television for the first time in my adult life; I never wanted one, but inherited a great one, and all my fears about myself as a TV owner have come true: I am completely capable of watching three hours of Bravo without even realizing it.

Actually, I'm trying now to focus more on particular projects that feel most rewarding, and I'm trying to say no to things and pare down my life a bit. I've published enough now that I no longer feel a great impulse to get published all the time, or even very often, and the joy for me in writing is in the problem-solving part, the creation, not whatever happens after.

As a teacher, what's a lesson you hope to impart to all of your students?

I hope I don't make them hate reading. I make them read a lot -- probably more than they would like -- because I want them to see the variety of what is possible with written language. If anything, I can be a model of a person who is passionately interested in words and sentences, which these days is a kind of freak. I'm not sure if I want them to be passionately interested in words and sentences, since such a passion is not necessarily more ennobling or useful than a passion for collecting different types of string, but I want them to at least see that such a passion is possible. That way if they don't find string exciting, they have at least one other option for finding meaning in life.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I wonder what they aspire toward. If they aspire to make patterns with words, then I think they might discover some real happiness as a writer, but if they aspire for the things so many people seem to aspire for -- fame, wealth, admiration -- then they are most likely headed toward a lot of misery and disillusionment, and they'll probably become bitter and unpleasant and find that they have sacrificed their friends and family for a false hope and an empty promise. Perspective is important. The world doesn't need your writing. Instead of letting that fact depress you, let it be a liberation.

Advice for aspiring book reviewers?

Don't devote more than 1/4 of your review to plot summary. Better yet, keep the plot summary to one sentence. Tell us how and why the book matters to you. That's what we're really reading reviews for.

Anything else you want to plug?


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