Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

Interview: Amal El-Mohtar

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Amal El-Mohtar writes poetry and fiction, and is co-editor of
Goblin Fruit.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you get acquainted with fiction and poetry in general?

Totally my pleasure. Thanks for having me!

I’m told that there are pictures – possibly videos – of me at roughly two years of age, opening birthday or Christmas presents (December-born folk, revolt against the union of those things!) shunning toy-shaped presents in favour of dragging a newly gifted book to a corner and turning its pages. My childhood’s full of “she just wouldn’t stop reading!” anecdotes: both parents tell me how, when they read me bedtime stories (did anyone else have those Magic Castle books? “Come to the magic castle when you are growing tall, rows upon rows of word-windows line every single wall”?), I memorised the stories before I learned how to read, and would absolutely not allow my parents the luxury of paraphrase or summary when they tried to skip ahead, insisting that they speak every word with me.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that my more autonomous acquaintance with both fiction and poetry started with Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which remains my most beloved book to this day. Although with poetry, I remember an earlier predecessor: in one of those large children’s anthologies, I read a poem about a fairy who wore a snail’s silver slime-trail as a sash and was the envy of her sisters. I loved it, and wished I’d written it.

What made you decide to try your hand at both?

I’m not sure where I got this idea – possibly I was reading something about Tolkien, or something Tolkien said, in which the idea was put forth that in order to write well one must first write poetry and then write stories. I took it to heart, though, and wrote a poem to the moon when I was seven years old, figuring that I’d better start right away if I were going to be as good a writer as Tolkien, you know? Add to that the fact that my parents were wonderfully encouraging, and told me that, since my father’s father wrote poetry, it was in my blood to do so, and that being a Poet was a Big Deal.

At this point in time, do you see yourself more of a poet, a fictionist, an editor, or some other descriptor?


“Fictionist” is one I haven’t heard! Poet – I’m actually rather shy of the title, though I write poetry, because of the aforementioned Importance of Being a Poet that’s been ingrained in me. I tend to just go by “writer,” honestly, as a descriptor of how I see myself. Editing is a function I perform rather than something I see as defining an important part of me; it’s an important thing that I do, rather than an important thing that I am, much as I enjoy it. There are words I want to earn: “author,” “novelist,” “storyteller,” “bard” – in the truth-speaking, path-travelling, music-making sense – but those milestones are still horizon-specks.

When it comes to your fiction, why speculative fiction? Will we be seeing more of your fiction anytime soon?

Why speculative fiction? Possibly Tolkien’s to blame, once again, for providing me with an initial This is What a Writer Is template – but since then, I think it’s partly a reflection of how I see the world, and partly a paean to the importance of imagination. It’s funny – those things ought perhaps to stand in opposition, because on the one hand, it feels more natural to me to write speculatively than otherwise, but on the other, I think pushing the imagination a little further outward and inward is wonderful. Myth, fairy tales, folklore, magic – I grew up steeped in these things, and they’re very much a part of my cosmology, so the speculative element comes naturally. To me, the very act of crafting a narrative is inherently magical. To take ostensibly random happenings and impose meaning on them, to order the universe with our gazes – isn’t that magic? Why stop, then, at creating only the recognisable order in fiction?

As to my stories, a few came out recently: “Connla Mac Lia and the Kingship of Eriu” is currently up at Cabinet des Fées, “The Fishbowl” came out in Shimmer magazine’s Clockwork Jungle Book issue, and “And Their Lips Rang with the Sun” came out in Strange Horizons on October 5. It’s a rather mixed bag: Early Irish fairy story, Steampunkish animal fable (complete with didacticism!), fantastical variation on a peculiarity of the Arabic alphabet...

Let's talk about poetry. For you, is there a strong distinction between speculative poetry vs poetry in general? How about fantastical poetry vs science fiction poetry?

To me, there’s no strong distinction between good speculative poetry and good mainstream poetry in terms of the effect they have on a reader. Poetry is even more magical to me by its nature than prose. Lash a narrative to a ship’s rhythm, spell it out in salt, and I’ll tell you how much more I’ll taste the sea. There’s speculation in metaphor, in the shaping of language to evoke. I’d even say there’s no strong distinction between bad speculative poetry and bad mainstream poetry; there may be a difference in flavour, but both will make me wrinkle my nose.

Likewise, I don’t think there’s a strong distinction between good fantastical poetry and good science fiction poetry: good poetry ought, in my view, to transcend the elements that make it recognisably genre. To stick to the food metaphor, I may prefer this flavour combination to that one, but both, if skilfully done, ought to taste good. When I was little, I despised zucchini, but my mother would always sneak it past me by baking it into zucchini bread, which I joyfully munched without realising what I was having. Now I adore zucchini, so it’s moot.

Why do you write speculative poetry, or what element about it personally appeals to you?

Just as with fiction, I think speculation comes naturally to the medium, but in terms of why I write it, I think it’s just the language I speak best. I want to write poetry thick with mythic resonance, with talking animals and roses and ancient cities and the ocean. But it isn’t all fantasy – my Damascus poems, or older ones like “West on the 148” are elaborations or literal communications of experience. Ultimately I want lived experience to be magical, and want magic to always saturate lived experience.

Do you need to be inspired before being able to write good poetry?

It depends on what you mean by “inspired,” I think. Lightning-flash or emotion recollected in tranquility or passionate conversation with a wry-lipped muse? Either way, I don’t have a solid answer. Several poems that began as one magnificent line, Descended from On High, have had it obliterated by the third draft; I’ve written some of my favourite poems on prompts from friends; I’ve collaborated with people in such a way that we figured out the poem as we went along, and that was great. I think the ubiquitous mad burst of poemic fervour is less important to me than being carried along by the poem once it gets going, have it fall into place as I work out what I’m trying to do – but could you call that inspiration? Maybe.

Which are you more comfortable with--long form poetry or the short form? What are the advantages of each?

I’m generally more comfortable with shorter poems rather than longer – similarly, I’ve yet to write a saleable story with 5000 words or more. Those who’ve heard me speak may be surprised by any tendency towards brevity in me, but so it goes.

You've also collaborated on some poems. What's the experience like?

Pretty triumphant, really.

No, seriously. It’s a bit like sparring for show. Here we are, we writers, with our respective styles and words, our respective stances and guards, and we are to engage them, foible to forte, blade to hilt, in order to create a moving show for the reader. But there’s no choreography to it; we’re discovering our dance step by step, and where one retreats the other must lunge, and where one thrusts the other must parry, and we’re living it as we write it, inhabiting roles and playing them out in language.

Thinking of specific instances – I’ve written about writing “Damascus Divides the Lovers by Zero, or, the City is Never Finished” with Catherynne Valente here, which doesn’t match what I described above, but so far it’s been the exception to my experience. Collaborating with Jessica Wick on poems like “Apple-Jack Tangles the Maidy Lac with a Red, Red Ribbon,” which appeared in Mythic Delirium 20, or “Beggin’ Death,” in Jabberwocky 4, was almost effortless; writing “The Maiden to the Fox Did Say” with Nicole Kornher-Stace was trickier, likely because we don’t have the nine-odd years’ worth of online communication that Jess and I do, so we did pause at a certain point to hash out what we thought was happening and where it was going, but we turned out to not have wildly dissimilar ideas about it, and I quite love the end result.

Some poems are meant to be read out loud. Do you have any performance anxiety?

Not really. I frequently get nervous in the stomach-butterfly way, but that’s usually part of a positive experience for me. I got used to performing in front of an audience from a young age, so I’m fairly comfortable with it; I’ve sung and played the harp in public, and I gave tours for the Haunted Walk of Ottawa every summer for eight years.

Who would be the ideal person to read out loud your poems? What do you look for when it comes to listening/watching a poem being read?

I can’t imagine an ideal person to read my poems; part of the joy of hearing poems read is hearing how differently people read them. Jessica Wick reads things far differently than Mike Allen who reads things far differently than C.S.E. Cooney – the list goes on. I might seek out a certain voice to read out a certain poem, but “ideal” doesn’t really enter into it; each reading’s a new flavour to discover.

As to what I look for in a reading – engagement. I enjoy a reading best when it’s being read with colour and the body and the body’s posture, whether or not I can see the reader. If there are characters, I want to hear the characters. I want the reading to be more than my experience of the poem in quiet.

What made you and Jessica Paige Wick start Goblin Fruit?

Primarily, a dearth of the kind of poetry we liked to read. We had an ideal magazine in mind, a forum for us to flog our taste in fiction, poetry, music, visual art, and non-fiction at people, showcase work we considered brilliant. Our decision to limit it to poetry was more pragmatic than anything else. In the first place, we knew that we wouldn’t have vast amounts of time in which to read great volumes of slush, and poems are usually shorter than stories; in the second, we were adamant about paying going-rate for content, and $5 for a poem was cheaper than 3 cents a word for fiction. Now that we’ve been doing it for three years, though, we also feel it’s important to have poetry remain the focus because there are so few poetry-only journals out there doing what we do.

What do you look for in a poem?


Effect, mainly. I want the poem to make me do something. I want it to make me laugh, or gasp, or stare, or cry a little, or exclaim over and make me summon someone to read it to straight away.

Of course, as I read that over I realised that completely awful poems have made me do the same things, so I should perhaps specify that those reactions have to be positive. My own favourites tend to be poems that read well aloud, that hover at the perfect middle point between lyrical and imagistic, that take me to unfamiliar places, or make me see the familiar in different ways.

What are the challenges in running the magazine?

The most challenging thing by far is coordinating the busy schedules of three people over different and frequently changing time zones. Jess lives in Southern California; Oliver Hunter lives in Melbourne; over the last three years I’ve been in various combinations of Quebec countryside, downtown Ottawa, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, and most recently, the United Kingdom. We all have different flavours of school and jobs to attend to before we can turn our attention to Goblin Fruit, and we only ever seem to get busier as the ‘zine grows.

In your opinion, how has multiculturalism affected the publishing industry, Goblin Fruit, and your own writing?

That first question’s a little on the huge side, and a little beyond me – but if I were to reach for a broad answer, it would have to be “positively.” But I wonder if the question nestled within that isn’t actually “how has the internet affected multiculturalism in publishing,” because there I’d say the impact has been huge. I was astonished and delighted to see that public outcry against the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar caused the publisher to re-jacket the book. I think that as a result of the community-mobilising power of the internet, we’re moving, slowly but surely, towards more diversity, as well as awareness of the need for more diversity.

As to how it’s affected Goblin Fruit – we didn’t explicitly set out with diversity as our mandate, but you’d have to be trying very hard not to strive for multiculturalism in order to keep it out of a ‘zine dedicated to folklore, mythology, and fairy tales. I’ve certainly been introduced to stories and characters I was previously unfamiliar with as a result of individual poems: Sonya Taaffe’s “Mermaids at Tashlik,” Francesca Forrest’s “Urashima Taro Sings,” and Shweta Narayan’s “Apsara” all prompted me to do a little digging and see if research couldn’t enrich my reading of the poems. It did.

How has the Internet shaped who you are now?


Oh, by slow and inexorable degrees! My eyes, wrists, and spine certainly have something to say to the internet about its shaping of who I am now, and none of them are particularly nice.

But in seriousness, the effect is incalculable. I was an earnest, loud-mouthed, socially awkward teen who wore her love for big books and Star Trek: The Next Generation on her sleeve. High school was a waking nightmare that the internet helped me get through. Had it not been for the possibility of reaching like-minded people over miles and miles, for the knowledge that they existed when I was made to understand every day how awkward and ugly and wrong and undeserving of love I was, I wouldn’t be who I am. Or maybe I would be, who knows. A loving, supportive family’s a powerful thing, and I always had – and still do have – that.

How have your travels influenced your writing?


Extensively. I find myself better able to write scent and taste after having visited different places. There’s an input/output balance, and I find everything I take in sense-wise is fair game for writing. I may not write where I am specifically – I wrote “And Their Lips Rang with the Sun,” which is in a Middle-Eastern setting, mainly while sitting in a cafe in Penryn, Cornwall, with a climate just about opposite to that of the story. But there are poems I don’t think I could have written without the experience of having travelled to different places.

What does it feel like, guest co-editing an upcoming issue of Mythic Delirium?


Very exciting, and more than a little nerve-wracking. I keep kicking myself for being so cocky about claiming I can spot a Mike Allen pick from miles away – now I’ve got to walk the way of my talk! But honestly, Jess and I have been reading and enjoying Mythic Delirium long enough – after all, we consider it a formative influence on Goblin Fruit – that I’m really looking forward to the experiment of editor-swapping. By the time this interview appears we ought to have determined our line-up, so you can ask me how it went then!

How do you describe the current field of speculative poetry? What kind of change do you want to occur in your lifetime?


These are interesting questions for me, and by interesting, I mean hard. My awareness of the field is strongly slanted towards the more fantastically flavoured, and so much of my time goes into Goblin Fruit that it’s difficult to speak of speculative poetry more generally without seeing it through the lens of my own ‘zine. I want to see it outgrow its current insularity, certainly. I want to see the SFPA change its name. I want there to be well-attended poetry events at all the major conventions. I want to see people clamour with excitement over a new poem or poetry collection by their favourite author. I definitely want to see it critically reviewed more often and by more people, in the thorough, evaluative fashion of J.C. Runolfson and Deborah J. Brannon; too often, if a publication includes fiction and poetry, the poetry is invisible to reviewers. I want that to change. I want to see people discussing poems passionately, engaging with each other over what they’ve read, challenging authors and editors to constantly do better.

For the geeky question, how have your roleplaying games contributed (or not contributed) to you being a writer?


They’ve contributed greatly, in a few ways. First, roleplaying forced me to go through significant changes in the ways I thought about character: I went from playing Mary Sues to crafting characters around core concepts, then making characters to fit certain settings, then making characters to complement other people’s characters, and so on. Also, say what you will about the quality of writing in online roleplaying, being exposed to that many different styles within the space of a couple of hours is a great learning experience.

More significantly, though, I met Jessica Wick through online roleplaying, and she’s been a huge influence on my writing. We’ve been each other’s writing-workshop-of-one for almost as long as we’ve known each other, and the fact that we also roleplayed almost exclusively with each other for a few years means that our styles frequently mesh almost indistinguishably. She introduced me to Charles de Lint’s writing, which led to a chain-reaction of events the result of which was my working in a wonderful independent bookstore called Perfect Books, devouring the Fantasy and SF sections at a frequently alarming rate. I still play today, though a great deal less, and with far fewer people than I used to.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes. While I certainly can’t think of myself as anything but an aspiring writer – and shouldn’t even accomplished writers continue to aspire? Reach > grasp, etc.? – I have pretty specific advice from the editorial side of things: read widely, and learn to take criticism.

Criticism comes in many shapes and colours, all of which will require different ways of “taking,” but what I’m talking about is mainly feedback from other writers and/or editors – more specifically, feedback you’ve requested. So you’ve written a draft, and you love it, but you figure it should have a second pair of eyes look at it before you send it anywhere, and you give it to your friend to read. Your friend points out a few things they didn’t like, things that they’d change. Whether or not you agree with those points, a constructive reaction is probably not going to consist of bursting into tears, cussing them out, giving up writing, or any slightly less dramatic version of any of those things. Instead, think it over. Decide whether or not you should accept it, but trust that it was given in good faith. See it from the perspective of the person who gave you the criticism. Remember that it’s your prerogative to disagree, but that someone went through the effort of reading what you offered in order to help you.

Advice for aspiring poets?

My father told me a story about Becoming a Poet when I was about eleven years old, on a walk in the fall. It might be well-known, or clichéd, but it rings as true for me now as it did then, so I’d like to share it.

A budding poet goes to a master poet, and says “teach me to be a master poet.” So the master poet tells the budding poet to go and memorise one thousand lines of excellent poetry, and then return for further instruction.

The budding poet goes out into the world, reads and reads and reads. It takes him a few years of constant study, poring over books and scrolls to find the very best, memorising until sweat beads on his brow, until he murmurs poems in his sleep. Finally, when he’s memorised one thousand lines of what he is certain is the best poetry in the world, he returns to the master poet, saying, “master, I have done as you asked; I have memorised one thousand lines of poetry.”

“Good. Now,” says the master, “forget them.”

I think the story’s a poem in itself, really – T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” made parable.

Besides that -- read lots and lots and lots of poetry. Pay attention to what you like and don’t like in the poetry you’re reading. Share it with people willing to read it, and listen to what they have to say. For the love of all that’s wonderful, don’t take impersonal rejections from editors personally.

Advice for aspiring editors?

Make a Venn diagram of what you want to do versus what you are able to do, and let your publication inhabit the zone where they blend. Start out with small, achievable goals and build up out of that. Use the internet! Use social networking! Strive for diversity of opinions, views, experience – your publication can only be the stronger and more interesting as a result, as well as appeal to a wider audience.

Anything else you want to plug?

I’m on Livejournal at http://tithenai.livejournal.com, and pretty much want to plug the entirety of my Friends List, because I’ve been so privileged in the last several years to come to know so many warm, kind, and talented people. Many of them I know as a result of Goblin Fruit, so I can’t get enough of plugging that. We also have a Livejournal community and a Facebook page! Go read! Read the archives! Hunt those talented folk up and down to nibble at their art!

Speaking of which, Oliver Hunter’s part of an amazing artistic venture called Spill Collective, which you should definitely check out. You should also know about Rima Staines and Orla Wren, whom Jess and I were privileged to meet in September.

Emily Wagner’s got a nifty podcast called We Have Thumbs, which, besides having an episode dedicated to Jess and me, is going to feature heaps of people whose work I adore, so you should keep an eye on it.

Other than that, Erzebet YellowBoy has an amazing line-up of projects coming out of her Papaveria Press very soon – one of which will be a collection of poems and stories of mine called The Honey Month, written in February of this year in response to a set of 35 different kinds of honey given to me by Danielle Sucher. You can read them online as a kind of first draft, but I’m deeply excited about what the collection will become under Erzebet’s bone-shaping hands.

December 28, 2009 Links and Plugs

Back to work!

Interviews
Advice/Articles
And here's a new release from Tor.

Ill Met in the Arena by Dave Duncan

Book/Magazine Review: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

In the past year or so, various speculative fiction authors have forayed into the mystery genre: The City in These Pages by John Grant, The Little Sleep by Paul G. Tremblay, The City & The City by China Mieville, and Finch by Jeff VanderMeer. One of the problems in reviewing such books is that it's difficult to talk about them without giving away spoilers. To insinuate that there's more to them than a conventional mystery IS already a giveaway of some sort, although to be fair, the success of such books goes beyond the revelation of a specific plot point. Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection is one such novel and despite the proliferation of the noir-weird (nwoird?), or whatever you like to call it, Berry manages to retain a unique voice and style.

The first thing that pops out is Jedediah's language and tone. The Manual of Detection leans more towards the abstract, focusing less on the telling details of its fictional city and emphasizing more on the trials and emotions of its protagonist. It establishes a quick and catchy beat that's easy to get into. In fact, the novel snapped me out of my annual reading fugue. Berry is an example of how mysteries don't have to be overwhelming to be effective.

The second element that pops out is the conceit that the Manual of Detection is an actual artifact in the story. A supposed guide for employed detectives, excerpts from the fictional Manual of Detection precedes each chapter. While some authors might simply use this is a gimmick, Berry manages to integrate this into his narrative, from the number of chapters in the novel, to hinting at key events in the story. A supplement to this is the mythos that the author successfully conjures and convinces the reader that there is a backstory to everything that takes place.

Third is Berry's faithfulness to the genre he's writing for. The private detective novel has certain tropes and this book follows those conventions, although it is not without the author's own subversions. Also, right from the start, Berry hints at something bizarre, a quality that tickles your fancy and evokes qualities of magic-realism without immediately being pegged as a fabulation.

If you get right down to it, however, The Manual of Detection reminds me that reading mysteries is fun. Berry is playful and whimsical in certain parts of the narrative, and his enjoyment of writing the book is conveyed to the reader. The preposterous situations that our main character finds himself is endearing to me, and what makes this book work is how Berry strikes a balance between that aspect and the deadly seriousness of it all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

December 22, 2009 Links and Plugs

I was planning to take a leave of absence over the holidays but work is that bad right now, so...

The links, book reviews, and interviews will be continuing over the holidays but the features/essays are on tentative hold until I get back my bearings.

In the meantime, happy holidays!

Interviews
Advice/Articles
News
I've plugged it several times over in this blog but it does make a great Christmas gift for writers:

Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer

Interview: Lee Harris

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Lee Harris is the publisher of Hub Magazine and assistant editor at Angry Robot Books. He is also the editor of Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did you first get acquainted with speculative fiction?

As a child growing up in the 70s I was fascinated by Doctor Who – I loved the excess of it – something that was sorely missing from most other television I remember watching at the time. I didn’t see the appeal of Star Trek until I was quite a bit older. It’s difficult to recall my first SF literature – I used to consume mysteries by the shelf-full, and it was those that fuelled my need for something more. Eventually, I think, I found the mysteries too mundane, and craved something more, something... other.

What is it about the genre that appeals to you?

Genre literature appeals because there are no boundaries. Oh, the writer has to work within a set of pre-defined rules, of course, but the rules of their universe are determined by the author, not by our current level of scientific knowledge. As long as the author has created a believable world, all bets are off, and the reader can be transported further than any “real life” literature can usually take them.

Have you ever thought of pursuing writing as a career?

Oh, yes. In fact I have several professional theatre credits (adaptations) to my name, and like most non-professional writers I know, I am constantly halfway through one or more novels. I think I would make a better screenwriter (or audio drama writer) than novelist, though – I’m much more confident with writing dialogue than I am with prose, and I respect the hell out of any writer who can sit down and complete a coherent 100,000 word novel!

What made you decide to start Hub Magazine?

I love short fiction, and I saw what I thought was a gap in the market. I wasn’t aware at the time of the short fiction magazines in the UK, as they are difficult to find if you don’t already know about them, which is a large part of the reason for their decline in popularity over the past decade or so. I just wanted to share my passion for the short form with everyone else.

When it was still a print magazine, what was one of the biggest challenges you ran into? How about currently as an online magazine?

The biggest challenge was attracting advertising. It sold well for a new magazine, but none of us were advertisement salespeople, and it showed. We were extremely lucky that Orbit came onboard as our first paid advertiser, and while their ad spend didn’t go anywhere near paying for the magazine’s production, the fact that they were willing to spend their marketing funds with us gave us hope that others would, too.

What's the most important lesson you learned from working at Hub Magazine?

No experiences are ever wasted if you remember them, and use them in future endeavours. Also, passion will show – put enough of yourself into a project, and other people will notice.

What actions did you take in order to make the magazine a sustainable endeavor? (i.e. how did you get sponsors?)

This was our biggest failing. I trawled through the net looking for contacts that might be willing to advertise with the magazine, and looked through the pages of other genre magazines, and emailed a bunch of people. Somehow my email came to the attention of the right person at Little, Brown (even though I had sent it to the wrong people) and Orbit contacted me. If it wasn’t for Orbit I doubt Hub would be here now.

What are your future plans for the publication?

Hub is now a weekly magazine (one piece of short fiction, and several reviews/features every issue) and over the past 100-odd issues we’ve published some great horror, scifi and fantasy. We’re currently considering branching out into crime as well, or maybe having crime as a spin-off title, but those conversations are still under way. In the meantime, more great short fiction, and the occasional limited edition paperback...

How did you become assistant editor for Angry Robot Books?

I first met Marco (Angry Robot’s Publishing Director) at a British Fantasy Society event I’d organised. I invited him and one of his colleagues up to York to talk about the work they were doing at Solaris. We got talking, and I discovered that Marc was one of Hub’s original subscribers. When Marc was asked to set up Angry Robot he looked around for a suitable Assistant Editor, and I was one of the names on his list. The amount of travel initially put me off (it’s a 5½ hour round trip to my office), but we agreed on a suitable compromise, which works really well. I have Hub to thank for opening the door at Angry Robot.

What exactly is it that an assistant editor does? What's a day in the life of Lee Harris like?

The title “Assistant Editor” means something different whichever imprint you talk to. A typical day for me at Angry Robot involves co-ordinating our team of freelance proofreaders and copy editors, consolidating the changes and corrections made by our authors and copyeditors into a completed manuscript, talking to book bloggers and other website owners, working with genre magazines to obtain coverage and reviews, working with our authors to maximise their promotional activities, reading submissions from the slush pile and deciding (with Marco) which ones to take forward and which ones aren’t suitable, contacting authors we’d like to work with and running the website and Twitter feed. Every now and then I get the chance to breathe. For an imprint with a mainstream publisher it’s an unusual environment as we don’t have to liaise with the Marketing and Sales departments before we take on a novel – as we’re such a small team we can usually make decisions pretty quickly, without having to manage by committee.

In your opinion, what makes Angry Robot Books unique from the other presses out there?

We’re focussing on the “Post-YA” market – those readers who have already outgrown Young Adult books, and who perhaps don’t know what else they should be reading. Our target readers have grown up with X-Boxes and Playstations and we’re publishing the books they should be reading next – books with the vibrancy and energy of the video games they play, combined with high quality writing.

How is the Internet changing the publishing industry? How about social media?

Wow – this is a question for a whole series of articles! From a short story perspective the internet has killed the market. There are still a few pro-paying magazines, of course, and quite a few semi-pro titles, but it’s no longer an area where writers can make a living – or even a decent chunk of their income. Short stories are often now regarded as marketing tools – tasters for the longer works written by their authors.

In terms of marketing generally, the internet has made it both easier and harder to promote individual titles (and boy, am I getting splinters from sitting on this fence). Easier, because it now costs very little to reach the people who actually read your books; harder because the low costs of marketing puts everyone on a more level playing field – there are more books then ever competing for eyeballs, and the internet allows every single one of them an equal opportunity to be seen.

Social media has become an important aspect of the whole marketing mix, but too many companies forget the first word in that term – social. It’s not enough to treat Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the rest as pure marketing tools – people are smarter than that. It’s important to interact with the people who read your words; to allow your personality to shine through, and not just the corporate line. Interact – don’t just pretend to interact. This is difficult for marketing departments, as they often don’t have enough invested in the works to allow their passion to shine through. Editorial teams are better suited to these types of activity as they’re closer to the material, but of course they have other jobs to do, so it’s often a difficult balance to maintain.

How did you end up blogging about eBooks at SFX?

I blog about anything that takes my fancy at SFX, though eBooks are my pet topic. I’ve been reading books on various electronic devices for about 8 years, and I’m passionate about the medium. The whole SFX thing came about as they advertised for a team of regular bloggers at the beginning of the year, and I applied. I guess they thought I had something interesting to say.

How would you describe the current science fiction and fantasy industry?

Jeez! You don’t ask easy questions, do you?

I think we’re in a good place right now. Despite the fact that we’ve lost a few imprints over the last year, and despite the global recession, I think we’re pretty healthy. SF and Fantasy film and television are mainstream, now. The geeks truly have inherited the earth. There is some bleed over into literature, of course, but genre books haven’t yet truly become mainstream. It’ll happen at some point, but until then I think we’re ticking over quite nicely, thank you.

What change in the field would you like to see?

Assistant editors to be paid quarterly six-figure bonuses, tax free. I’d also love to see the anthology return – not just the annual Best Of books, or collections from A-list authors, but collections of stories from writers at all levels. I can’t see this happening, though. We woulda got away with it, too, if it weren’t for that pesky internet!

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Write. Don’t be put off by the difficulties in getting an agent, or a publisher. Write. Worry about the sale of your book when you actually have a book to sell! Write. Read a great deal, too – and not just in your favourite genre; all genres have something to offer. Oh, and did I say ‘write’? Sitting down at your keyboard or notepad on a regular basis is the only way you’re going to be able to do it. Don’t give yourself the excuse that you don’t have the time – you’re lying. If you can only put down 220 words a day (that’s fewer words than the answers to this and the next question – see how easy it is?) then this time next year you will have completed an 80,000 word novel. WRITE!

Advice for aspiring publishers?

Be passionate, and allow your passion to shine through. Also, network. Get to know people in the industry – authors, publishers, everyone. The networking side of things is important, but it’s equally important to not come across as a professional networker. Go to conventions, and enjoy yourself. Meet people there. Enjoy them. Be part of what you want to be part of.

Also, it’s probably a good idea to apply for positions. Intern. Start your own eZine. Research. Get to know what it is you’re letting yourself in for, because it’s a fantastic profession, but it ain’t nine to five.

Anything else you want to plug?


Oh, you know, just the entire Angry Robot list, but that would take some time, so I’ll just plug a couple of Twitter feeds for now. I’m on Twitter.com/LeeAHarris and Angry Robot can be found at Twitter.com/AngryRobotBooks – we’ll be running some cool competitions again, soon. Oh, and the Angry Robot website and blog over at www.angryrobotbooks.com.

Monday, December 21, 2009

December 21, 2009 Links and Plugs

I gave in to temptation and engaged in a flame war over at a friend's blog during the weekend. I mention this because a) it's an example of how not to behave (from lack of proper punctuation/capitalization/spelling to invoking 9/11) and b) Andrew Wheeler's comment is made of win.

Interviews
Advice/Articles
News
Currently reading:

Book/Magazine Review: The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes edited by John Joseph Adams

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Given John Joseph Adams' track record of producing horror and science fiction anthologies, I was expecting The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to be this fantasy romp featuring the famous detective. Going through the fiction however, it's a welcome surprise to discover that's not quite the case. Rather, this anthology is indeed a collection of "improbable" stories, whether that simply means an unconventional but "realistic" crime or one that features elements of the supernatural. The fact that it could be either, in my opinion, heightens the effectivity of the pieces. For while faithful Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans might expect Holmes to tackle mysteries that could be solved by logic alone, the heart of the mystery genre, for me, is its ability to both foreshadow yet still surprise. In breaking this particular formula--that everything Holmes tackles can be explained through mundane means--we enter territory that's genuinely revelatory. Not that Adams is the first editor to do so, since this is mostly a reprint anthology, but he manages to collect a diverse ensemble, and making sure the reader is consistently impressed. The weakness--and strength--of a Holmes/Cthulhu mashup anthology for example is that all the stories are Holmes/Cthulhu fusions. Here, while there's a sampling of those kind of stories, it also has room to deviate, such a Holmes story that tackles a hard science fiction concept, or one devoid of the titular character yet still contributes to the mythos.

One point of complaint I usually have with Adams' anthologies is that the introduction of each story can sometimes spoil the surprise. That's not the case here, although Adams does contextualize the story, such as providing facts like Dr. Joseph Bell as the inspiration for Doyle's character. It's also clever of the editor/publisher to include "A Sherlockiana Primer" by Christopher Roden which is brief but mentions all you need to know about the cosmology of Sherlock Holmes. Another element that I'd like to comment on is style. Replicating Doyle's voice, I think, is important in this kind of anthology, as it serves as a form of continuity. To the casual reader, if it's done well, it's mostly unnoticed, but if done horribly, can be a jarring experience. However, we also don't want the stories to be faithful mimicries. Instead, a balance must be struck between preserving the author's style and that of Doyle. In that sense, the contributors do an excellent job as overall, the book does feel connected despite the stories originating from different sources and each one feels unique.

As far as the story selection goes, it's honestly uncommon to come across an anthology where one enjoys all the stories. That's the case here as each story is a welcome read, although the caveat is that there's few stories that really stand out either. I wouldn't be nominating any of these stories for awards--not even Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald"--but they are entertaining and well-written, just not the type that impresses the experimental side of me. Where they excel in is expanding the lore of Holmes: "The Doctor's Case" by Stephen King for example sees the triumph of the sidekick while "The Adventure of Field Theorems" by Vonda N. McIntyre shows how authors are not their characters. "Mrs Hudson's Case" by Laruie R. King is a legacy story for me while "Commonplaces" by Naomi Novik is a piece that focuses more on the human drama, as well as presenting a plausible twist on the relationships of the characters. "Dynamics of a Hanging" by Tony Pi is a great example of how to write a Sherlock Holmes story without Sherlock Holmes, while "You See But You Do Not Observe" by Robert J. Sawyer lives up to the editor's boast that it "presents a solution to the Fermi paradox that we can virtually guarantee you've never considered before."

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is an anthology that aptly defies expectations as well as providing an entertaining romp.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December 16, 2009 Links and Plugs

Not well enough yet for an essay/feature but here's the daily tidbits:

Interviews
Advice/Articles
News
Plug plug plug:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Health Update

Thanks for all the well-wishes and advice everyone. A bit better, but still a bit woozy. Will hopefully resume scheduled programming tomorrow.

Interview: Danel Olson

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Danel Olson is the editor of the Exotic Gothic anthology series.

Hi Danel! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What is your definition of Gothic?

As Light may be both a particle and wave, the Gothic seems both a literary phenomenon from around 1764-1818 (from The Castle of Otranto to Frankenstein), as well as a recurrent impulse that surfaces at any time in both literature and genre writing. The Gothic—as either a past, sensationally popular movement or as an ever adaptive verbal virus—is all about extremes, disease, sex, violence, imprisonments, following darkest wishes, and our love of the perverse. The Gothic intrudes on our houses, and inhabits our ghosts, memories, lovers present and gone, missing or dead parents, villains and waifs imagined, bodies, and our very identities. I discovered recently while preparing for a World Fantasy panel that four popular Gothic novels each ended repeatedly with the word Despair. So, losing both one’s breath and one’s hope is the classic symptom of a Gothic curse.

Are there any other genres/themes/topics you'd like to work on in the future aside from Gothic fiction?

So many great genres, so little time, Charles! I would like to do a collection or two of newly written Survivor Horror tales, with an emphasis on true adventure and high adrenalin, set in the most forbidding corners of our planet. With the success of TV programs like Lost, I know it would prove popular.

I would also like to compile a new anthology with contributors from around the world that celebrates the sinister designs of Japan. It would be a tribute volume called 36 Monsters, named for a volume from and with thanks to a Japanese artist of the floating world whose monsters haunt me, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). The Exotic Gothic series has had great fortune with stories set in Japan—some of Lucy Taylor’s extraordinary new work and Steve Duffy’s shocking tales, along with the journalist Edward Crandall’s remarkable stories. Though not born in Japan, all of these writers are highly sensitive to Japanese folklore. More than ever, North America has a fascination with the land of the rising sun, especially younger Americans who came under the spell of Japanese computer games and Manga, so again I think this a concept that would sell with YA and adult readers. This book would show one of Yoshitoshi’s otherworldly depictions of a monster (often a ghost of our own victims) in the page before each new story of horror/terror set in modern or medieval Japan.

Have you ever considered trying your hand at writing Gothic fiction?

I love to visit old European and Middle Eastern libraries, especially those that hold religious documents. (In college, I double majored in literature and in world religions, and the power of a story to become fully-held faith still holds me in awe.) There is a novel I am writing. I guess you’d call it Dan-Brown-for-grown-ups.

The book, which won’t be long, concerns a hugely successful prophet who also was a magician. You would have heard of him. His miracles were successful, but actually they were well-executed tricks. With his formulas or special steps, anyone could do them. His grimoire, or a later copy of it, resides in the Vatican. Too dangerous to show, too useful to destroy. Have I given away too much?

Let's talk about your Exotic Gothic series. How did the anthology come about? Did you have to pitch it to Ash-Tree Press?

Penguin decided to discontinue four fine anthologies of supernatural and horror fiction that I assigned for my college course on Gothic fiction. Getting permissions from all the heirs/presses/authors to use their stories from the Penguin anthologies would create a book that would cost students $99. As I needed a subject for my sabbatical, I proposed compiling a book of the best weird, supranormal, bizarre, and terrifying stories myself. Ignorance and confidence were by my side all the way, and I went ahead. I actually asked 74 small presses, and 5 large ones. Anthologies are hard sells, sadly, and I was very proud that one of the presses I respected the most, The Ash-Tree Press, had interest. There were also some presses that were eager, but I had my doubts about them. One did handsome work, was very encouraging, but one thing was a tad off. This British press had a select clientele that preferred stories with a bit of spanking; that is, every story would have to have someone’s bum get chapped. I respectfully declined. Was I wrong, Charles? I don’t think so: can you imagine having to slip this detail into all the letters and story comments to the writers: “Something’s missing here … add a bit of hanky-panky-spanky in the next draft, would you?”

What were some of the challenges editing such an anthology?

I hate having to say no to a writer. I dislike when there are disagreements with the press team over whether a story should go in—artistic differences. To those writers who have poured themselves and untold hours into that story or novella, we have to give respect and a little faith. Also, sometimes a story is so experimental, we’re simply not ready. But I believe we should take jumps. We should get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Otherwise, we are just giving readers what they have always had.

What, in your opinion, are the qualities that make a good editor?

To trust the writer’s ability to channel characters, structure conflict, & deliver suspense, but to also tell them honestly what doesn’t work. Often the introductions and conclusions can use a second opinion. But be specific. Key to avoid are useless generalities. If something could be better, take the author to that exact line or word. Suggest some alternatives through Word’s track changes application. I am always impressed that great writers can be so open to helpful criticism. This is stunning considering a couple creators in the EG books have been nominated before for Nobel Prizes in Literature.

There's a lot of international authors in each book. How did you go about finding these authors and soliciting fiction from them?

A few authors are seemingly impossible to find, off somewhere sharing a cave & candles with Osama bin-Laden. But most are not. They have websites or a Facebook presence. They can be found.

I read a lot of “little” magazines to discover the emerging voices in the first place. The All Hallows journal from the Ash-Tree Press has certainly been a gold mine of good writing. I also enjoy e-sites of fiction (some of which also have a paper form). One of the best was launched by Francis Ford Coppola-- Zoetrope: All-Story @ http://www.all-story.com/issues.cgi. I visit there all the time, and assign it to students.

To love literature and genre-writing, and that magic space where they overlap, is to enjoy world fiction. Latin America had a boom from the 1960s on: we became conscious of the strange power of their stories, and of where the rationalism of the West encountered the spirituality of their Pre-Columbian beliefs. Now our awareness is being raised by writers in Asia (see Dean Francis Alfar and Tunku Halim) and Australia (especially the work of Deborah Biancotti, Stephen Dedman, Kaaron Warren, Robert Hood, Isobelle Carmody, and Terry Dowling).

How did you and Ash-Tree Press promote the book?

There have been promotions at the festivals/conventions in the field. At the WFC in Calgary were sported splashy t-shirts with the covers of EG1 on the front, and EG2 on the back. Also there have been book launches at my college for the volumes, and at another Texas college. Many more people learned of EG2 when it was named a Shirley Jackson Awards finalist.

What's in store for the future of Exotic Gothic?

Exotic Gothic 3: Strange Visitations is the farewell tour. (I think.)

This last shadowy book in the trilogy from this celebrated specialty press may now be ordered at http://www.ash-tree.bc.ca/atp143exoticgothic3.htm. Some copies may also be found at Ash-Tree Press's booth this year at the 20th annual World Horror Convention in Brighton, England.

But there is another Gothic development. Forthcoming in early 2011 from Scarecrow Press is one of the largest studies ever of its kind: 21st Century Gothic: New Essays on Great Gothic Novels Since 2000. Featuring all-original articles from notable artists, critics, academics, publishers, editors, and psychologists on over fifty contemporary and irresistible dark novels and novellas, the two-volumes I've compiled and edited will form a helpful and illuminating reference guide of 300,000 words for the Gothically curious and perplexed. (Actually, this study happens to include an engrossing entry by yourself, Charles, on Jeffrey Ford's mysterious The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque.) The insights within the essays astonish, and knowing how little of substance or length has yet appeared about any of these new fictions, the value of the criticism seems immense.

Please consider pre-ordering 21st Century Gothic for your local library, college, or university through Scarecrow Press (calling 1-800-462-6420 or clicking www.scarecrowpress.com) .

How have your travels informed (or not informed) your views on literature? How about being an English professor?

To travel is to encounter what baffles and what awes: what better preparation for appreciating and compiling literature of dark psychology & the strange?

In your opinion, how is Gothic fiction evolving or where is it headed?

I imagine the protective, abstinent & shiny Vampire and the funny & parodic Zombie Gothic strains are bubbles about to burst, thank Heaven or Hell. Much money’s been made from them in the last five years, but it’s time for horrible threat and rich storytelling again. How much more of brooding Edward Cullen and inarticulate Bella Swan can we take?

Now as Stephen King and so many other practitioners have noted, scary fiction is very sensitive to cultural and contemporary history (just as the original Gothic bad-boys were inspired by the most powerful and corrupt people of the 18th century, or the aristocracy and the clergy in France, strangling the middle class, becoming a law unto themselves, and paying for it during the revolution with their lives). I predict we will have Gothic fiction that in setting, theme, or conflict meditates more upon terrorism, collisions of culture and faith (the explosive rage within religious fundamentalism at elites and Western values), war, artificial intelligence and those robots who programmers say take us to “the Uncanny Valley”, violence against women and sexual slavery, climate disaster, and the mad calf-scramble for our remaining resources. All of these realities and problems that people now care about can’t help but mirror themselves in our fiction, escapist though it is called. Those in the grim stories and fantastic novels of tomorrow who have some power over these threats and crises, along with facts to hide, will be the new Gothic dark heroes. In the fiction to come we may see that secrets and dangers are hidden in new places: A business tower can be a kind of modern castle, the Pentagon a fortress, a gleaming white university lab a workshop of filthy creation, and our plazas and malls the sites of battle.

In practical terms what does this mean? Well, it means the creation of Gothic fiends and enemies you can’t kill with bullets & bombs alone, and that you can’t reason with either. These are the Taliban fighters of our darkest imaginations: ideological foes who are also zombies, werewolves, vampires, shapechangers.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Consider the small presses if you want the boutique treatment for your work and to get to those readers who are devoted to the grace and depth of your words, though this would also probably mean less money.

If you want money from this, consider how to pitch your novel as the beginning of a series. But then ask yourself if you want to do that to your art.

Be open to criticism, but don’t change the underlying vision.

Make an absolute deadline of, say, one more year, to get the !*@*n thing done—and keep it.

Advice for aspiring editors?

There’s a beautiful sense that you are getting stories out from writers that may otherwise have lain dormant for years, out to those readers who will change from reading them. Your journey to these writers’ doors, and the discovery of their prose, so naked and unseen by the world in the form it arrives to you, is the reward. Compiling these three books is the peak of my career with words.

Now, frankly there really is no money in this for the average editor.

Considering all the hours spent and expertise given, there is probably surprisingly too little cash in it for even the most famous editors, from reading what Ellen Datlow has said at her site, and she’s the most celebrated, dependably select, and awarded editor in our field—an astonishing mind. But I did it for love, to try in a humble way to pay my dues, to pay back all of those who helped make books I shuddered at when I was a little younger.

Thanks very much, Charles, for a moment to talk about what I love.