Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Interview: Susan Marie Groppi

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Susan Marie Groppi is a historian, a writer, and an editor, with professional experience not only in educational and academic publishing, but also in science fiction publishing. She is the editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! First off, when did you fall in love with science fiction?

I don't know exactly, but it most likely dates to seventh or eighth grade, when I first became aware of science fiction as a distinct kind of literature. I was a compulsive reader as a kid (I still am, for that matter!) and would read just about anything I could find in the school library. At some point I started to become aware that all of the books by the authors I liked the best--Lois Duncan, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Michael Crichton--had the same little rocketship sticker on the spine, marking them as part of the science fiction and fantasy collection. It wasn't a big epiphany, but I did start seeking out he books with the rocketship sticker, just to see.

Later on, in high school, when I started reading Ted Chiang and Greg Egan, more of the pieces fell into place--this stuff wasn't just fun to read, but it could open the door to all sorts of insanely beautiful science. And then, in my senior year of high school, my English teacher gave me a copy of Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, and that opened even more speculative doors for me. It was all very exciting.

What were some of your favorite books or who were some of your favorite authors?

I should have read this question before answering the previous one! Do you mean back when I fell in love with science fiction, who were my favorite authors? Everyone I've mentioned already, of course, and if I go back to thinking which authors were my favorites in late high school or early college, I have to add Nancy Kress to the list, along with Theodore Sturgeon.

Did you always know you wanted to be a historian/writer/editor (or that you'll be some amalgam of all of those)?

Yes and no? History in particular I came to fairly late, in that I didn't start thinking about becoming a historian until a few years after I graduated college. But being a writer or an editor, that I kind of always knew I wanted to do. When I was a kid, I wrote and published a newsletter for my neighborhood, and in high school I had a zine and ran the school literary magazine.

What was it like working for Circlet Press?

A lot of fun. It's a small company, and I was given a lot of responsibility very quickly, which was very rewarding for a college student. But mostly I just liked doing the work, and I liked the work environment. A couple of times a week, I'd go hang out in Cecilia Tan's attic office, playing with the cats and reading manuscripts and drinking tea. Sometimes we had other projects to do, and I'd be put to work writing press releases or shipping mail-order packages or drafting catalog copy, and that was fun too. Sometimes I feel like working for Circlet was one of the best things about my college experience.

What's one of the most important lessons you learned working for Circlet Press?

There are a lot of concrete and practical things I learned--the importance of organizing your files, or what makes a good catalog blurb versus a bad one--but, at the risk of sounding too self-help-inspiration-speak, the most important thing I learned there was to trust my judgment. I read submissions for Circlet for a couple of years, and when I first started, I was terrified that I'd say no to a story that Cecilia would have really wanted to publish. After I'd been doing it for a few months, though, I learned that I really could tell very quickly whether it was a promising story or just a bad story. But that leads to the second most important lesson, that tastes vary. Cecilia's opinion on which stories were the best in a particular batch would often be very different from my own opinion, and that didn't mean that either one of us was wrong, just that it's a very subjective decision.

In your opinion, how does one become an editor?

Oh, wow, I don't know. A little bit of practice and a lot of willingness to learn?

Could you clarify and expound on the various editor jobs you've taken (i.e. line editing vs story editing)?

I can try! There are a lot of different types of editing. Being a fiction editor has a few different components. The highest profile one, and the one that takes the most time, is choosing stories, but in a lot of ways that's also the easiest part of the job. It's not just a question of choosing what you like best--there are other factors to consider, like story balance and budget and audience appeal--but that's all very easy to pick up. Once you've chosen stories, though, the actual editing begins.

At Strange Horizons, we do a fairly significant amount of copy editing and line editing on stories we've accepted for publication. That involves things like making sure all of the punctuation is correct and the verb tenses match, but also involves occasionally tweaking sentence structures or word choices, and checking for consistency. Some of that is done by the fiction editors, and some of it is done by our stellar team of proofreaders. What I think of as "story editing" is something we do very infrequently, which is a more involved kind of editing, working with the author to adjust pacing or scene structure. I've done some of that work in other contexts, though, like at the Online Writing Workshop or the Wiscon Writers Workshops.

There's a wide range of other work that gets called editing, though. I recently finished a year-long gig as a freelance developmental editor for a textbook company, and developmental editing includes everything from "check this section against our style guide" to "write a two-page feature on the constitutional role of the Vice President."

How did you become involved with Strange Horizons?

In the fall of 2000, I had just moved to California and started graduate school, and I was feeling a little bit adrift when a friend of mine forwarded me an announcement she'd seen on a website somewhere, that a new online magazine was looking for a fiction editor. And thus history was made. :)

What's your criteria in picking the stories for the magazine?

It's complicated. There are three of us involved in the selection process, Karen Meisner and Jed Hartman and myself. (Well, more than that, now, since we've just brought on three editorial assistants, who help us read through the submissions.) Submitted stories are read by one of the editors (or editorial assistants), and if we feel the story is worth another look, it gets passed up to the next level, where all three of the editors will read the story and then discuss it. The criteria for getting to that level are pretty straightforward--a well-written story that does something interesting in terms of either plot or character.

Past that point, it's hard to say. We have to like the story, which as I've mentioned can be very subjective, but that's just the start. In any given week, we're looking at probably ten or fifteen stories in our editorial meeting. We like all of them, but we're only going to buy one or two. If one of us feels really strongly, that helps the story. We also think a lot about story balance--if we've been buying a lot of fairy-tale retellings, then we're less likely to buy another one, no matter how much we like it. But if we've been buying a lot of fantasy and less science fiction, we'll look more favorably on the science fiction stories under consideration. It's really kind of idiosyncratic.

What do you think is your greatest asset as an editor?

That's a tough question. The thing I work hardest at, as an editor, is seeing the story that the author wanted to write, rather than the one I expected to see. This makes a big difference in editing and critiquing stories, if not so much of a big difference in selecting stories for publication. I don't know how successful I've been at it, but I do keep trying.

In your opinion how has the Internet affected the industry?

Another tough question! I think if you look at the broader trends in media industries in general, what new technologies (including the internet) have done is fragmented the media market by broadening content offerings and options. The obvious example here is television, because everyone is familiar with this fragmenting as it affects television. We have so many programs to choose from, and so much choice over when and how we watch them, that the model for the relationship between audiences and programs has to be different. So where twenty years ago everyone you knew was watching The Cosby Show on Thursdays, now some of them are watching Battlestar Galactica and some are watching Two and a Half Men and some are watching Jon and Kate Plus Eight. And not only are we watching different shows, we might watch them on laptops or iPhones instead of on the television, and even when we're watching them on the television we're watching them at times that are convenient for us, and without commercials.

The analogy to science fiction publishing isn't perfect, but there's an underlying similarity in the situations. What the Internet has done, mostly, is opened up the options for genre readers. Where we (where "we" is the community of people interested in science fiction and fantasy) maybe all used to be reading Analog or Amazing Stories, today some of us are reading Fantasy and Science Fiction while some of us are reading Ideomancer and others are watching The Guild or reading The Non-Adventures of Wonderella or just spending all year looking forward to binging on Yuletide fanfic. The internet has given our reader base more options, which means that we can go two ways. If we want our standard publishing venues to succeed, those venues have to really step up their game in terms of attracting and keeping these readers, because the readers aren't a captive audience anymore. That's one way. The other way is to embrace the fragmentation and accept that we can all be niche markets.

Of course, no one's figured out yet how to make money as that kind of niche market.

What's the charm of short stories for you?

They're beautiful! Short stories are the perfect vehicle for playing with ideas, whether they're science concepts or character sketches.

How did you get involved with Twenty Epics? Did you and David Moles pitch it to All-Star Stories or did they contact you?

I really liked the first All-Star Stories book, All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, and at some point I told David that if he was interested in doing another book, I'd love to be involved. (It helped that David and I are good friends--a project like Twenty Epics kind of has to be a labor of love.) There wasn't much pitching involved, since All-Star Stories is basically just David. We initially had a small press publisher lined up for the project, but they dropped us (and most of their other titles) from their spring lineup just before we were ready to go to print. I mean, we had page proofs back from authors, and suddenly no publisher, so we decided to publish it ourselves through a print-on-demand house. I wouldn't say I regret that decision, since I don't know that the book would ever have seen print otherwise, but we did end up having some sales and distribution problems as a result.

What's it like collaborating with David Moles? What were your criteria in choosing the stories there (i.e. both of you had to like it, etc.)?

David was great to work with, and the whole process was a lot of fun, even if I wasn't sure it was a great idea to announce the title Twenty Epics before we were sure we'd have twenty good stories to publish. For choosing the stories, our first priority was that the piece fit the theme of the book--we turned away some good stories that both of us liked, just because they weren't a good match for what we were trying to do. Past that, I remember that we spent a lot of time shuffling manuscripts into different piles and negotiating about the final lineup, but I don't think there was anything in the book that we fundamentally disagreed about.

Who came up with the idea of paying more for less words?

I don't remember who came up with it first (probably David!), but we both felt it was a great way to enforce the micro-epic nature of the project.

Does your academic life ever cross with your science fiction life?

Sure! Not a lot, but sometimes. The biggest way at the moment is that I'm co-organizing the academic programming track at WisCon this year, but it's also intersected with my teaching at points. I taught a seminar course at UC Berkeley that used science fiction as a lens for looking at the relationship between science and society in the twentieth century. We did a unit on the culture of fear surrounding nuclear weapons, one on gender and technology, one on changing perceptions of warfare, that kind of thing. I've also used science fiction in teaching my history of science courses; in a survey on pre-Newtonian science, I had them read sections from Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt, and for a course on science in modern America I assigned Ellen Klages's The Green Glass Sea. Both books resonated really well with my students and gave them a good perspective on the work of science.

Since you have a history of teaching, what's one of the most important lessons you've taught your students?

When I was teaching at Berkeley, I mostly taught history of science courses to science students, and I always felt that the most important thing I could teach them was that science isn't some magical infallible thing, it's a process with human factors and human biases just like everything else. Now that I'm teaching high school students, I feel like my most important job as a history teacher is helping them build skills in critical thinking and analysis. It's not as glamorous, but I think it's really fundamentally important.

I love your voice and the Strange Horizons Podcast. Will we be seeing the return of the podcast some time in the future?

Thank you! I love doing the podcast, and I'd love to get back into it. I even have interview guests lined up! It's just been hard to find the time. I'm hoping to give it another try over the summer.

Advice for aspiring writers?

The advice here is the same, mostly--read a lot, and a lot of different kinds of things, and every so often try to spend some time thinking about what differentiates the stuff you like from the stuff you don't like. Also build social networks! This is all lonely work, you know? Having a good community makes the difference between being happy with your own work and being frustrated with the bad days.

1 comment:

Cecilia Tan said...

What a great interview! (Susan, we still miss you here at Circlet. I've got quite a lively crew here lately following in your footsteps, though, two assistant editors and three interns are all in and out of my attic office on a weekly basis. The shift to doing more with ebooks has energized the whole company, which is fun. If you ever get a hankering to edit a small anthology of erotic sf/f, ping me!)