Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Interview: Paul Graham Raven

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Paul Graham Raven is the publisher and editor-in-chief of science fiction webzine
Futurismic and is the publisher, editor-in-chief, and sole staff writer for rock and metal music reviews webzine The Dreaded Press. He also reviews science fiction books for Vector, Foundation, Strange Horizons, Hub Magazine, and SF Site.

Hi Paul! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, you're involved in a lot of projects. Where do you find the time to do all these things?


Hah – good question, and one I ask myself quite often! I guess the upside of being a singleton in his early thirties who hasn't owned a television since the turn of the Millennium is that you have more time on your hands than your cohabiting equivalents... and it helps that my day-job is only part-time. But I find the time by sitting down and doing what needs to be done, I suppose; deadlines are great motivators, even self-imposed ones with no attached penalties. I suspect I could claw back a lot of time by 'working smarter', as the productivity types describe it, but that would require stopping everything for as long as it took to restructure my personal systems... and I have too many balls in the air to do that right now, so it's Catch 22.

What was it about science fiction that appealed to you?


It's hard to say, really, because I didn't analyse books when I was a kid - I just consumed them. I think old-fashioned sensawunda helped at first; I discovered some tatty old editions of Anne McCaffery's Pern novels when I was maybe eight years old, and quite naturally I wanted nothing more than to be a dragonflier (though I'd have settled for owning a fire lizard). A little while after that a friend of my father's – a classic software geek with a big SF&F obsession – gave me Julian May's Saga of the Exiles, and I think that was what really sold me on the genre. Action, adventure, intrigue, complex characters AND cool stuff like alien races, psychic powers and a time gate? What more could you want from your reading? Still one of my favourite sets of books to this day, and hugely underrated in my opinion. But as I've gotten older, I've found sf has an ability to look at the human condition in ways that other fictional forms just can't match. I'd hesitate to describe it as inherently superior, but it certainly flicks my switches.

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


I'm loathe to pick favourites in some respects, because Book A will do something that Book B doesn't, or Author X will come at things from a different angle or with a different voice to Author Y, and there's so much great work out there that it seems churlish to pick a single item to put on the podium, so to speak. So I guess I'm kind of a pluralist... much as with music, the book that I most want to read today may not be the one I most want to read next week, but that doesn't demean the merits of either of them.


But there are some books and authors I'll keep returning to. Saga of the Exiles never loses its appeal (though May's works after the Galactic Milieu series did very little for me); The Helliconia Trilogy by Brian Aldiss always has something new to tell me; Iain M Banks has been pretty consistent in producing work I've adored, as has William Gibson. And I'm an unrepentant card-carrying Bruce Sterling fanboy, partly because he's such a polymathic fountain of awesomeness beyond his fiction as well as within, not to mention a real character – I'd love to meet him in person. But it would be easier to simply show you my bookshelves; there are so many authors I admire, for so many different reasons, that I'd feel I was cheating some of them by placing others above them.

How did you start out writing book reviews?


The second issue of Interzone I received had a brief paragraph in the editorial mentioning that they wanted to expand their stable of reviewers. “Awesome,” I thought, “free books!” I'd just started writing fiction and poetry, and I thought it would be a great way to learn more about writing for public consumption as well as a way to get a byline in a print publication (my taste for which had been whetted by a brief dalliance with reviewing live music for the local paper). I sent off a few samples, and (much to my surprise) they took me on... and then sent me an absolute stinker of a mil-sf novel for my first assignment!

How does one become a professional book reviewer?


Well, I wouldn't know! If a professional is one who makes a living – or even part of one – from reviewing books, then I'm not one; I've been paid for a few reviews at Strange Horizons and Hub Magazine, but the payments are, quite rightly, token gestures. And as far as being a professional critic goes, there's already one John Clute, and he's very deservedly got the UK market sewn up for genre criticism – there's just not enough requirement for paid genre reviews for anyone to make a living doing it, I suspect.


But if you mean how did I come to end up reviewing so regularly and for so many venues, I guess it just happened by osmosis. I really enjoy doing it (or rather I enjoy having done it – the actual writing can be a torturous and frustrating procedure), and so I just kept accepting offers from editors who asked if I'd write for them. I figure they must see some merit in my work to keep publishing it, though I frequently compare myself to other reviewers and wonder why that is.

What's your criteria when doing reviews?


If you mean how do I assess whether a book is good or bad, then that's a tricky question – not to mention one that has been debated with varying degrees of heat at conventions and online forums in recent times. I take the view that a review is inherently a statement of opinion based on my own preferences, but I try to blend in as much objectivity as possible – this ties in with my pluralism, my belief that a novel I loathe may be the ultimate book for another reader, and vice versa. So I guess my objective when reviewing is to describe the book fairly enough that even a reader who has totally different taste to me will be able to make an assessment of whether or not they might like it. Like that mil-sf novel I got sent from Interzone... it was a struggle (especially for my first piece) but I made every effort to show that the very properties and styles that I found so irritating would make it a great read for someone who liked their fiction fast-moving and action-packed. 'Good' and 'bad' are incredibly subjective terms; I want people to be able to make their own decisions rather than taking mine as gospel.

What made you decide to set-up
Futurismic?


I didn't! I became Futurismic's Editor in Chief by osmosis, too - I started out as a blogger there in late 2004, and did a few columns too. But over time Futurismic's founder Jeremy Lyon found himself with less and less time to devote to the site thanks to changes in his family life and work commitments; at the same time we had some problems with the software that was running the site, and there was a lengthy period where we stopped publishing fiction and were little more than a futurist blog. So I became Non-fiction Editor and drafted in some new bloggers, and eventually suggested to Jeremy that he hand over control of the site to me entirely, which happened earlier this year. Since then I've been doing my best to ramp us back up to full steam – there's a lot of work yet to do, but I like to think I'm getting there slowly. I was lucky in that Jeremy had made a good name for the site already, which gave me a great platform to build on rather than starting from scratch.

What exactly are your duties in the magazine?


Pretty much everything apart from reading the slushpile, which is a duty met with admirable patience and commitment by Chris East, who co-founded the site with Jeremy. So I blog daily, I wrangle our columnists and bloggers, I maintain the back-end of the site, deal with enquiries and fiddle with the advertising. It doesn't look like much on paper, but it's amazing how much time it can chew out of my day!

What were some of the challenges you encountered starting out?


Well, I had to get us onto a new webhost, as the old one was less than useless at customer service and server maintenance, and they finally terminated our account for allegedly causing traffic spikes that simply could not have been our fault. Once the domain was moved and I had access to the statistics, I noticed an awful lot of referral hits from dubious Russian websites, so I suspect they either had crap security or were renting out hosting to people doing nefarious things. That cured a lot of our technical issues, along with a move to Wordpress as the software engine.


But the real – and ongoing – challenge is to raise Futurismic's profile in the world of genre publishing. Ultimately, I'd like it to be seen as a professional venue for fiction writers, bloggers and columnists alike, but that's a fair way off yet. But I think I've managed to get us back in the public eye – which is more than half due to Chris's excellent fiction choices, and the contributions of my volunteer bloggers and columnists, all of whom are good enough to work for free. If I do say so myself, we've published some great stories and posts this year, and there's more to come in the future.

I hope you don't mind me asking this but is the site self-sufficient (i.e. it pays for itself or it's making a profit)?


In a word, no – although it used to. When I first joined Futurismic, the Golden Era of blog-based advertising was still in effect, and Jeremy had a bunch of ads from the Pajamas Media network that met the hosting costs and fiction fees. It was a bit of a double-edged sword, though, as Pajamas is a very right-wing organisation, and it was odd seeing their ads next to our content, which I think could be fairly described as 'small-l liberal'.


But the change of software platforms meant we lost a lot of our archives, and that always gets penalised by the search engines so our daily hit rate is much smaller than it was back then. I'm not going to go into precise figures, but suffice to say that at the moment the fiction fees come predominantly out of my earnings elsewhere, and I predict that will be the case for a good while yet. But that's something I accepted when I took it on; what matters to me is making Futurismic the best site I can. I believe the old rule of thumb with print magazines was that you'd expect to wait at least five years before turning a profit based on a solid reputation, so I'm quietly confident that I can grow Futurismic into something self-sustaining without ever having to compromise on quality or my personal ethics. How long it will take is another question entirely!

How about
The Dreaded Press? How is that working out for you?


Hah! The Dreaded Press has never made me a penny. But then that's not really why I started it; I had been reviewing for some other sites, but was becoming frustrated at their lack of editorial input. It might sound very vain, but I felt that having my work published alongside pieces riddled with typos, poor punctuation and bad grammar wasn't exactly the best way of establishing a reputation as a reliable writer - I didn't want to be tarred with the same brush, if you like. I'd developed a taste for the free albums and gig tickets, though, and so I though “what the hell, I'll start my own site”. It's been running for a year now, but I really need more time to devote to thinking up some strategies for raising the site's profile and making a bit of money back from it.

In your opinion, how has the Internet changed the industry?


The publishing industry? To paraphrase Douglas Adams, you can't see the change the internet has wrought in the publishing industry for the same reason a person stood in Trafalgar Square can't see England. It's too early to say, because the change is still happening. What is certain is that it has yanked the rug out from beneath some long-standing business models, and the repercussions of that can be seen everywhere at the moment, magnified by the current economic climate. It is my firm belief that the demand for fiction will not disappear, however, and that for niche products like genre fiction the low overheads of web publishing are a great way to keep the short story scene alive. But I have no wish to see the printed word die off (although it surely will after a few more decades); I love physical books, and always have. And as has been pointed out, books will be a hard technology to fully replace because they have so much going for them – small, portable, error-free. Economics will hasten their demise far more than technology will, I suspect.

How did you end up developing websites for authors and agents?


Well, when I started my current day-job, I did so with the intent of building a freelance career as a writer in the spare hours I would gain. What should be plain immediately is my lack of business acumen – if the majority of your contacts are writers, you're going to struggle selling your writing services to them! But what with one thing and another I'd absorbed a fair chunk of web development knowledge, so I started pushing that to people as well.


But the turning point came from the beneficence of a good friend and thoroughly decent bloke, Darren Turpin. He'd been doing freelance web development for genre authors for some time, so when he got offered his new job as web publicist for Orbit Books, he asked if I'd take on his portfolio of existing clients, which I was very glad to do. As a result, I've got more work coming in by word of mouth, and I'm learning a lot by getting my hands dirty with new projects. Much like writing, the actual process of web design can be infuriatingly frustrating, but the satisfaction of launching a new site and having the client tell you how pleased they are with it is pure gold... and very addictive!

How did you end up being the publicist for PS Publishing?


See above! PS Publishing were another of Darren's clients, and so I took them on as well. Of all the aspects of my work, this is where I'm learning the fastest – but also where I need to learn faster still. PS is a super little outfit, and Pete is utterly dedicated to quality – both of the fiction he publishes, and the books that the work is published in – and my challenge is to make sure everybody knows it.

What's your routine like as a publicist?


At the moment it's about an hour a day of sending and answering emails, blogging new artwork or reviews and interviews at the newsroom, and putting together the newletters – very unglamorous, I'm afraid! But the goal is to expand my remit in the near future, to start reaching out to the genre community at large, and to properly put PS on the map. We have many plans... so I'll just say “watch this space”!

In your opinion, what skills have proven to be useful as a publicist?


Because of the nature of the work in this case, a lot of the same skills a blogger acquires come into play – not just the communications skills, but the web technology stuff. What I really need to develop further are my outreach tactics and strategies, and that's a case of studying the organisations that do it well and attempting to reverse-engineer their techniques. I suspect the core skill – as with almost any creative job – is a willingness to learn and a hunger to improve yourself. I sincerely hope I have them both in sufficiency!

How's your writing and poetry going?


At the moment, it isn't going, and that's my main frustration. I started blogging back in 2004 to develop a discipline of writing daily, and things have kind of snowballed since then to the point that I have less spare time than I ever had before! Professional writers always repeat the mantra that you have to make the time for your writing, or you'll never commit to it, and every time I see it said it makes me feel rotten. But I simply have too many balls in the air at the moment, which can't be dropped or fumbled because they are business commitments – as a relatively new business, my reputation for reliability must come first. And I've tried sleeping less, but then the quality of all of my work suffers, so that's not a viable solution either... basically, I've reached a point where something has to give. I suspect the time may have come to take the plunge and cut the cord of regular employment for the freelance freefall, but it's a scary prospect given the current economic situation. But recently I've been feeling that I could probably live with being a little poorer if I had time to write and read for pleasure, or play guitar for an hour without constantly thinking there's something else that needs doing. I kind of miss having a life, you see...

What was it like editing Illuminations?


Thrilling, stressful, educational, and challenging! Another very addictive experience – seeing a physical book come out of all that work was a very intense rush indeed, and I'd love to do more anthology work in future... though hopefully on a slightly longer schedule than Illuminations provided!

How did you end up editing the anthology and what was your criteria in picking the stories?


It kinda just happened – you're probably noticing a pattern here, aren't you? When the Fictioneers were discussing the project, we realised that someone would need to do the editing, and so I said I'd do it. Arguably I had editorial experience, but there are editors and editors; it was a very different job to, say, running Futurismic.


What we did is that everyone self-selected a batch of their own stories from the Friday Flash archives of their own sites, each of them choosing the ones they felt were the best – so a certain amount of the picking and choosing was done for me in that respect, which was probably a mercy! What fell to me was to assemble the resulting mass of stories into something that had a narrative flow of its own; rather than arranging by author or chronology, I decided to arrange thematically, so that if you read a few stories in order you'd feel there was a sense of logical flow to it, while you could also open up at random and cherry-pick if you chose. It was quite a task because there were so many pieces to the puzzle. In the end I used a bunch of index cards with the story titles on them, which I then 'tagged' with a few terms that I felt described the tone or style of the work. Then there was a day of shuffling them around and into a sort of order – very lo-fi, but it got results! You can see the process in action here.

What's the appeal of flash fiction for you?


The advantage it has over longer forms is that it reminds you - as both reader and writer - that brevity is a virtue, and that you don't need a lot of words to produce a real emotional or intellectual impact. And the speed of it, from the point of view of the writer; if you've been intimidated by the thought of writing a novel, or even a 'full' short story, it's very liberating to constrain yourself to working in a form that you can complete in a few hours. It lets you see your own work in finished form very quickly, and while that can sometimes be a little embarrassing it means you're fulfilling Heinlein's admonition to “finish what you start”... and that's a real confidence booster, not to mention a great way to learn from your mistakes.


Plus it's fun – fun to write and fun to read. I wonder if it won't become a lot more popular in years to come... it seems ideal for the short attention spans of the internet age.

Can you tell us more about your day job as a British library assistant? How did you end up becoming one?


Osmosis, yet again! I was working in an electronics factory and loathing every minute of it (due to the people more than the work), and so when I saw a job advertised in my local public library I thought “what have I got to lose?” and applied. And against all the odds (which included me turning up for interview in a borrowed dress shirt that was way too large with a Sideshow Bob mop of recently-done dreadlocks barely contained with a pink hairband, and waffling a lot about how much I liked science fiction) they took me on.


I left that job for my current one for a couple of reasons: firstly because I wanted to go part time and they were unable to renegotiate my hours, but secondly because it was incredibly frustrating working alongside other people who, just like me, were immensely passionate about books and their social value, but who were obstructed at every turn by accountants and managers who insisted on treating libraries as you would a bookshop. I don't know how it works elsewhere, but in the UK public libraries are funded and run by local government, and it is at the feet of the feckless bureaucrats and beancounters of local government that the blame for the ongoing and seemingly inevitable decline and collapse of the service must be laid. Libraries produce social capital – a form of worth that enriches people's lives at a very deep level. But you can't put social capital on a spreadsheet, so now public libraries are full of internet terminals and can't afford to buy new books. As a result, less people go to the libraries; the resulting fall of usage statistics is used as justification for cutting budgets further. A sad downward spiral that is leaving communities without a vital resource, and that is putting committed library professionals out of work in favour of hiring pen-pushers, desk-jockeys and management consultants. As you can probably tell, it makes me pretty bloody angry.


In my current job as a museum library assistant, I principally answer enquiries from all over the world regarding naval history. It's quiet, and very intellectually stimulating. I had no interest in (or knowledge of) naval history before I started there, but I never cease to be amazed how much of it I have picked up... and how fascinating it is!

You know, Paul Raven's an iconic name. If you were to be fictionalized, would Paul Raven be a science fiction hero (or anti-hero as the case may be) or a rock star?


Can I not be both, then? :) Maybe something like a character from Gwyneth Jones's Bold as Love series...


I don't know, really. Rock stars tend to come to sticky ends (wherein, ironically, lies a lot of their heroism), but science fiction heroes tend to experience some pretty crazy stuff... I think ultimately I'd rather be neither. I don't think I'm cut out for the sort of focal-point heroism that a lot of fiction tends to feature, and I've misspent enough of my life to know that most of the glamour of the rockstar lifestyle isn't as glamorous as it gets portrayed to be. Maybe I could be characterised as an ageing eccentric in a city gone feral and abandoned to coastal climate change, who lends from his collection of tattered novels to the other residents who've stayed behind, and who occasionally gets a bit drunk and maudlin before climbing on to his roof and playing electric guitar at a moon distorted by heat shimmer... or maybe that's how I'll write myself into one of my own stories!


That said, British writer and editor Ian Whates recently told me that he plans to use me as a character in a book he's writing; apparently I will be portrayed as a scruffy know-it-all who holds forth on bizarre subjects in a particular drinking establishment. I suspect this is what Hollywood refers to as 'type-casting'...

Any advice for aspiring book reviewers?


Write from the heart as well as the intellect. Be true to the book, but be true to yourself and the reader as well. Assume you will never be paid; if you can't do it for the love of books alone, you're probably best not bothering.

Aspiring publishers?


See a psychiatrist.

Aspiring publicists?


Be honest. It may hurt a little in the short run – both your pride and the business – but in the long run you'll be respected for it.

Aspiring writers?


Much the same as the book reviewer advice, really, with the addition of “sit down and write”! Also, try to avoid going so far as to start a freelance career in various related fields of business in what probably appears to be the most baroque form of displacement activity ever manifested...

Anything else you want to plug?


The artists who make it all happen. All of them, even the ones whose books or stories or music I can't stand. Without them, our lives would be much much poorer in many ways. Buy a book, go see a concert, keep them in business. Humans will always need stories and stimulation, but the people who create them will always need to eat.

*Paul adds that the crunch he spoke of finally arrived, and that as of 1st February this year he's full-time freelance!

4 comments:

Gareth L Powell said...

Great interview. Thanks.

Charles said...

Thanks!

Paul did all the heavy lifting!

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