Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Interview: Nick Mamatas

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Nick Mamatas is the author of the Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground, which was nominated for both the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards, the Civil War ghost story Northern Gothic, also a Stoker nominee, the suburban nighmare novel Under My Roof, and over thirty short stories and hundreds of articles (some of which were collected in 3000 Miles Per Hour in Every Direction at Once).

His latest book is You Might Sleep...

First off, when did you know you wanted to become a writer/editor?

I still don't know that I want to be a writer/editor. I suppose my ambition is to be a former writer, sort of like Harper Lee. I want a book that will be a perennial backlist seller.

I decided to become a writer and an editor after spending a couple of years working in film (as a best boy and then a gaffer) and video production (video engineer, camera op, floor manager). Like anything else freelance, it was feast or famine, but "deferred pay" was especially common in independent film, as was working for trust fund snots and crooks. I also didn't like getting up at 3AM to make pre-sunrise calls to the sets. Writing seemed like a good way to work from home, so I figured I'd give it a whirl. Editing was just an extension of that.

With regards to your writing, you have a lot of nonfiction out there. What made you decide to pursue fiction writing? Which is more "natural" or easier for you?

Well, sure. Non-fiction pays better and there is far more demand for it. If one wishes to reach an audience with ideas or facts, reportage and essays are where it's at. I've been paid more for many of my articles than some writers are paid for entire novels. My main interest in fiction is the short story, which is entirely different, of course; it hardly pays at all and nobody reads short stories. I do find fiction more exhausting, and did have to train myself a bit more for it, but that's likely only because I started off with non-fiction and then decided to try fiction. I write fiction and non-fiction in the same way: mental composition of the first paragraph, some time in an induced hypnagogic state, then physical typing. The fiction is still more tiring though, so I cannot do it as often.

What is it about short fiction that appeals to you? And is it limited to horror, fantasy, etc.?

As a reader it is the joy of the completed action. One gets the whole reading experience in a single go, like eating a meal or watching a film or engaging in a wrestling match. I like the economy of a short story. They are as long as they need be. Compare this to novels, especially in genre fiction, where length is largely dictated by production costs, shipping, and the depth of spinner racks in airport bookstores. Most novels are 20,000 words of novel and 60-80,000 words worth of characters raising their eyebrows, having sex with one another, opening and closing doors, traveling, or contemplating the actually important 20,000 words.

The special appeal of short fiction is certainly not limited to horror or fantasy, though I would say that horror only exists in the short form. There is no such thing as a horror novel, just novels of other sorts (SF, domestic melodrama) containing episodes of horror or horrific themes. I read everything and dabble in writing other genres; I've done a couple realist pieces, non-fantastical comical stories, and several pornographic stories for example.

As a writer, short stories are especially suited to the hypnagogic method I mentioned. (This is part of why my own novels are quite short.)

Since you brought up your novels, how different is your approach/preparation with novels as opposed to your short stories?

It's the same, except I just write exactly one chapter, as if it were a short story, each sitting. Because it's tiring, I often take time off right after the end of the first act, and go back to doing other things. Generally stuff that pays off more quickly.

I know there's some anthologies in your queue right now but what aside from those, any novels/short stories you're currently working on?

Well, I wrote a novel called SENSATION in the spring, for school. (At this point, I don't generally finish books unless there is a contract, so this novel is unusual.) A chapter of it will be appearing as a short story fairly soon, I suspect. I'm also working on a novel about a Hunter S. Thompson-like journalist encountering Lovecraftian horrors during the New Hampshire primary with Brian Keene. It's called THE DAMNED HIGHWAY.

I have a mess of short stories running around, as usual. I sold one called "That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable", a Carver/Lovecraft mash-up, to LOVECRAFT UNBOUND (Ellen Datlow, ed.) and wrote one last Sunday about how much I miss living near Cambridge, Mass. Other than that, I'm fairly superstitious about talking about what I am "working on", since I rarely spend any time working on anything. When I have the time to do so, it just gets done.

Let's move on to more of your fiction editing. You used to be the editor for Clarkesworld Magazine. In your opinion, what made you a good fit for that publication?

I have exceptionally good taste and have been online since 1989, so I know how to attract an audience quickly. I also had experience with other magazines and with publishing generally on a number of levels. Too many online magazines have as their model little more than this: "Put up a bunch of stories I like, and then have nobody read anything but the submissions guidelines page." Our idea was to get stories that pulled readers in, stories that would make people email their friends or blog about the magazine. Seems to have worked very well.

I also had, at the time, a fair amount of spare time, so we didn't have to use form rejection letters. This added value to the magazine in several ways, including getting us submissions from folks we wouldn't have received otherwise, and creating a fun spectacle of the occasional tyro writer flipping out at me that indirectly increased readership.

What was your stance/goals as an editor? I remember listening to a recording of SF in SF where you mentioned you were more like this Wrestlemania personality who could make anyone a champion.

Heh, I was speaking more generally than all that, but the point stands. I'm not a selector, I'm an editor. It's not that I chose poor stories and made them good via editing, it is that I acquired stories with greatness in them, and then helped the authors remove the parts that weren't great, or that interfered with greatness. A number of the stories I published were acquired only after a draft or three, some others just needed a few paragraphs sliced off, or even a single name changed. A lot of the junk inside stories seemed to come from writer's groups and the foolish demand to "explain" things. Really, if a writer writes a story and another writer points to some element and says, "I didn't get this; could you explain it more," generally the better move is just to excise the confusing or ambiguous element entirely rather than plop in some babble to make it comprehensible to the five people who are reading the story only so that their own stories can be read in turn.

The SF in SF remark was part of a conversation about what editors do, and the notion that editors these days simply shift through submissions and buy what strikes them without really working on the story. Of course, editors these days are generally presiding over sinking ships too. I think there is a connection between the two. I was pleased to see when working with Ellen Datlow on our anthology HAUNTED LEGENDS that she edits for content like I do (except, of course, she is better at it). To depend simply on what happens to come in over the transom and then just hope it adds up to a magazine or anthology is a recipe for mediocrity as far as I can tell.

In line with what you said, what advice do you have for aspiring writers who submit to the slush pile? And to the editors who edit them?

Write a story that is something other than an instance of the genre in which you are writing. That's what the slush piles are full of: top-of-mind exercises in "ghost story" or "space opera" or "high fantasy." Nobody cares. There are already plenty of stories just like that; anyone who wants to read them only need go to a library to read fifty years, or, hell, two thousand years, of the same material. You have to write something that makes you stand out.

I suspect that right now someone is asking, "Well, how do I stand out?" That's a question without a general answer, because the key term in it isn't "stand out." It's "I." Standing out is a matter of radical subjectivity.

As far the currently seated editors, I have no advice. For those who would like to be editors, I do have some advice, but it isn't about the slushpile. Basically, get experience in publishing outside of the field. If one tries to derive some general theory of how publishing works by only looking at SF or even fiction publishing (whether periodicals, online, books), one will surely come to a number of silly conclusions. Every week, for example, I hear someone fume about how difficult it is to get an audience to pay for content. You really have to be a goddamned nitwit to think that consumers directly paying for content is the only useful or extant model for periodical publication at this point in history. Free newspapers and magazines litter the corners of every large and medium-sized city in the United States, and in most other countries I've been to as well. This has been so for decades.

Another thing for the would-be editor to contemplate: readers are more important than writers, and they are certainly more important than the writers you aren't even working with. I've seen a lot of energy wasted on things like making sure that every single writer's bulletin board or website is updated with each editorial ah-choo and field trip, while the actual magazine is delayed or shoddy. The end goal of a magazine has to be the pleasure of the reader, not the esteem of the ol' gang of writers.

How did you get your start as an editor?

I wrote a fellow named Sander Hicks a letter because on his website he had an essay about being expelled from a political group, the International Socialist Organization. I too had left the same organization for broadly similar reasons and wanted to share an anecdote. He owned a small publisher, Soft Skull Press, that primarily published the poetry of indie rock stars, but he wanted to branch out into politics. He had a book he was having trouble editing, and a political book I worked on with a friend, KWANGJU DIARY, had just been released. A few days later, he hired me to edit the book, SAVING PRIVATE POWER, by Mickey Z. (Incidentally, Hicks no longer owns Soft Skull Press. It's been sold twice since then, and is now an imprint of Counterpoint.)

From there, I bopped around, doing freelance editing and copywriting (cover flaps, tip sheets, press releases) for publishers of all sorts. The dot.com boom started and content was king, so I dove into Silicon Alley and did all sorts of projects for both old and new media venues—Silicon Alley Reporter, Disinfo.com and Disinformation Books, ArtByte, Feed.com, the Village Voice back when it had the "Machine Age" section, etc etc ad boring-ium.

I got involved in editing fantasy in 2003, after Sean Wallace asked if I had any projects for his fledgling Prime Books. He approached me after seeing some of my posts in the Horror Writers Association board, in which I dissected the vanity model of Publish America, which had bamboozled several members into believing that PA was just like any other independent press.

With regards to editing fiction, what it's like collaborating with other editors, such as with Ellen Datlow in the upcoming Haunted Legends, or with Jay Lake in the recently released Spicy Slipstream Stories?

It's fine. It's like any other project, isn't it? Everything's a collaboration, though normally the pace and type of collaboration in a workplace is dictated by bosses for their own ends. In the case of anthologies though, the "boss"—a publisher—is a distant thing, like a far-off general administrating a forgotten war. So we come up with our own division of labor and chat a lot and occasionally say, "Ooh, I thought you were gonna do that!"

Working with Ellen Datlow is fun because she knows everybody in the world. No need to beg for stories then, eh?

What's the division of labor like then? Like in order for a story to get included, do both of you have to like the story?

Well, in each case we had a "magic button." That is, generally we'd have to agree, but if someone liked a story well enough they could press the magic button and get it in over even the most vociferous objections of the other editor. This is important because often the best stories generate both great love and great hate. Attempting to satisfy everyone in a small group can lead to a blunting of strong opinions, and ultimately an anthology that meets some minimum level of quality without actually being exciting or even especially interesting.

That said, I don't think anyone ever pressed the magic button, but knowing that it existed was enough, I think.

What is your current position and duties at VIZ?

I am the editor of Tradebooks, which means I am responsible for editing non-manga titles. My main areas are the new imprint of Japanese science fiction, fantasy and horror, which we are calling Haikasoru, and books associated with Studio Ghibli films. Plus, other projects as they come. Can't say too much about Haikasoru yet, but by the time this interview sees print, VIZ will have announced several titles and such. I just saw the completed catalog this morning [the morning of December 1, 2008], in fact.

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

Publishing? Lots of ways, I suppose. Too many to list: amazon.com counts, so does Bookscan, which provides numbers just inaccurate enough to allow anyone in publishing to justify any decision he or she might like to make. Online content is vital, of course, and newspapers are having to adapt very quickly to the changing ad environment created by Craigslist and other such classifieds sites.

Or did you mean the peculiar subset of publishing that is SF? Sure, changes there too. Podcasts and blogging and online magazines and whatnot. Perhaps what is more interesting is what hasn't changed--short fiction is still a minority interest, most books exist simply because their authors were good at meeting deadlines and can write at some minimal level of competency, and readers simultaneously bray about every minor imperfection and infelicity while continuing to buy every product the publishing industry extrudes thus demonstrating that their complaints mean nothing.

Anything you want to plug?

I have a collection from Wildside called YOU MIGHT SLEEP... It contains several new stories, including a novella called "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son." The introduction has a bit more about the futility of publishing short story collections at this point in publishing history as well.

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