Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Interview: Lou Anders

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

A 2009/2008/2007 Hugo Award nominee, 2009/2007 Chesley Award nominee and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books' science fiction imprint Pyr, as well as the anthologies Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008), Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008), Fast Forward 1 (Pyr, February 2007), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006), Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film (MonkeyBrain, December 2004), Live Without a Net (Roc, 2003), and Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of Bookface.com, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish, Greek, German, Italian and French, and have appeared online at SFSite.com, RevolutionSF.com and InfinityPlus.co.uk.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get introduced to science fiction? What was it about the genre that appealed to you?

There was a succession of “first” introductions. My earliest introduction was the Sid & Marty Krofft Saturday morning television series, Land of the Lost, about a family who fall into what I now know is the Super Sargasso Sea and end up in a realm of lost things, from dinosaurs to missing links to missing civilizations. It was so gonzo out there, with crystal computers that could alter the weather or open up holes in the sky, and, again, as I now know, it was being penned by actual SF writers like Niven, Bova, Sturgeon and Spinrad. So while they might have looked at it as a quick gig to pay the rent writing some silly kids’ show, I probably wouldn’t be in this field if not for them. It hooked my imagination and never let go, in a way no other Saturday morning programming ever did. After that, there were battered volumes of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies discovered in my grandmother’s basement that I read and read and read. And then, when I was a pre-teen, my father shoved A Princess of Mars into my hands and ordered me to read it against my protests.

What do you think is the biggest advantage of science fiction that the other genres can't quite emulate?

The ability to slip in and out of literal verses metaphoric truth.

Currently, you're known for your editing work but you've also written some fiction. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

When I saw, then very swiftly read, The World According to Garp by John Irving (and starring Robin Williams in what is still my favorite role of his). The movie made me fall in love with a writer’s life, and the book, with writing itself.

How do you divide your writing time with your current duties at Pyr? Will we ever see more fiction from you in the future?

Divide? Well, I’ve produced four pieces of publishable short fiction in nine years. But, funny you should mention this… I’ve got a steampunk western that will be appearing in Shimmer magazine at some point in the future, and I just recently completely a fantasy novelette that was written on commission for one of George Mann’s anthologies, only to become homeless when the anthology was put on hold. I worked on it every night for a month, and when George told me the Solaris news (that they are being put up for sale by Games Workshop), my first thought was, “You jerk, you could have told me that last month and saved me all the effort.” But my next—and by next I mean a nano-second later—thought was, “You saint, thank god for keeping your mouth shut or I never would have written it!” And even though it’s homeless, the piece has gotten enough positive reaction from the few trusted readers I’ve shown it too that I’m looking to go back into that world in the relatively near future at longer length.

Around two decades ago, did you ever foresee yourself editing various publications?

No. Around two decades ago I saw myself as an actor with film aspirations, possibly an actor-director (and I did work in Hollywood for at time in the 90s).

There's a couple of your previous work experiences I want to talk about: How did you break into Titan Publishing? Bookface?

Nothing I did came about via any kind of traditional route. With Titan, I had moved to Los Angeles to try and get into film, and had been working as a PA (Production Assistant) on various commercials and rap music videos. That had started to dry up, and my father was giving me the “you are almost too old to go to law school” talk with some regularity. I went out for a three hour jog, terrified that I would have to leave California, and any and all dreams, behind. I realized that I could write, and I thought desperately about getting into journalism. I flipped a mental coin between music journalism or science fiction journalism, and because I knew (via email) a number of writers for Virgin Books’ then Doctor Who New Adventures line, I decided on SF journalism. I went and bought a bunch of scifi magazines (I didn’t read any) and wrote proposals to them all for an interview with some Doctor Who books writers. Only one of them responded – the Larry Flint owned Sci Fi Universe (long gone), who basically said, “We have no interest in Doctor Who articles, but you can go to this small convention in Irvine, CA we’ve been invited to and also have no interest in either in our place if you like.” There I met Jean-Marc Lofficier, then fan-liaison for the BBC/Fox co-produced 1996 Doctor Who telemovie, who a week or so later recommended me to Titan, who were looking for someone in LA to help them start Star Trek Monthly, the first licensed magazine of heft, which would look to be about 80 pages and feature dozens of interviews and hundreds of photos per issue. There wasn’t anything like it previously, and consequently no system at Paramount for dealing with same, and they needed someone on the ground to help hammer it out. Five years and five hundred articles later, when Deep Space Nine was winding down and Voyager was unwatchable, an old friend launching an internet startup in the online publishing space came knocking. I rode the bubble up and down, but crashed with enough literary contacts to segue into freelance editing, then full-time editing.

What were the important lessons you learned in each of those ventures?

I learned that I am at my best when I throw myself in over my head. I learned to trust my gut above someone else’s qualifications. I learned not to wait for opportunity to knock. I learned not to get too comfortable.

How does one become a talented editor, much less an award-winning one?

Well, I haven’t won any awards yet, so I can only talk about becoming an award-nominated one, and as I said above, that was through the backdoor. But I think a talent for editing is first and foremost a talent for appreciating story. Sometimes I think I am nothing so much as the world’s greatest appreciator. My superpower is the ability to get really enthusiastic about what other people do and then to infect you with that enthusiasm. Better stand back if you don’t want to drop a lot of money at the bookstore.

What are the qualities that you look for in a story?

This is broad. But I could narrow it down to two things.

One, there is a certain spark that either is or isn’t there. If it’s there, it’s there from the first sentence and it runs to the end. If it isn’t there at the start, it won’t show up late in the game. People think that editors see tons of atrocious fiction in their submission pile, but the truth is, we see tons of perfectly competent fiction. We’re not looking for diamonds in the rough. We’re looking for diamonds amid the quartz and crystal. There is so much competition out there, both to get published, and then when you do, to get noticed alongside everything else on the shelf. Why take something that fires on only one or two cylinders when next to it is something that fires on all cylinders?

Second, I think I in particular am looking for a narrow band of overlap between commercial and literary fiction, or between stories with enough of a plot and action component to appeal to a broad audience, but a certain elevated writing style that transcends the average.

Could you elaborate on how your wife is responsible for your current employment at Pyr? What made you hesitant to sign up at first?

I was involved in an undertaking that was rapidly going nowhere and dragging me down with it, but to which I felt an unnecessary loyalty, when a former Bookface colleague sent me the job notice from Prometheus books. I didn’t pay it any attention, thinking I had better fish to fry, but my wife retrieved it from my discarded email and said, “Are you crazy? You’re perfect for this.” She made me apply, on the grounds that I could always turn it down but at least I’d know how I was valued. But by the time I flew up to NY to meet the company, I was starting to get excited by the potential. Things sort of snowballed rapidly from there.

What exactly are your various roles and duties as Editorial Director? Don't you need help or clones?

Oh Lord. Let’s see. I read all the manuscripts (Don’t use readers. Can’t and don’t want to teach how I read.) I select the ones that appeal, negotiate with the agents, write up the contracts. Select the cover illustrators. Art direct the cover illustrators. Oversee our art department when it comes to putting type treatments on said covers (our in-house design team of Jackie, Grace and Nicole are wonderful). Oversee the internal layouts. Advise publicity and sales/marketing. Suggest advertising strategies and approve ads. Write the catalog copy. Write the jacket copy (with input from an in-house editor named Peggy Deemer, who is wonderful, and also often from the authors themselves). Plan the seasons (again in collaboration). Talk with some of the buyers and reps (my boss, and my marketing/sales department do most of that talking, but I talk unofficially). Blog, write the newsletter, manage our Twitter and Facebook accounts. Increasingly, (and I’m not complaining), speak at conventions and conferences, give interviews, and opine about the state of science fiction in various forums and various media. But there’s a hundred little things a day that you never see or think of, like checking to make sure the copyright page in a novel remembers to attribute the map properly, or chasing after why a book’s binding suddenly displays incorrectly on Amazon, or basically just pushing a few hundred emails a day back and forth between the people who need something done and the people who do it. Increasingly, my job description is being a conduit for email.

In your opinion, how does Pyr differentiate itself from the other presses out there?

I have been told by more than one reader that we are known for providing a slightly more-engrossing reading experience, a slightly higher level of quality, than the average. We don’t limit ourselves to any one subgenre or style, but we’ve been told by readers, distributors, and bookstore buyers that we’ve nonetheless managed to establish a brand identity where the brand is known for producing consistently high quality reading experiences in consistently good looking packages. As SF Signal recently said, “It's clear to me that Pyr is first and foremost focused on quality— not just in their book selection but also in their production." Or to quote Bookgasm, “Pyr is quickly becoming the standard by which all other sci-fi imprints are judged."

That being said, I want to stress that I don’t see Pyr as being in competition with other imprints. We are all of us in competition with a world that presents increasing distractions enticing or compelling people not to read at all, and every good book published, whoever by, enhances the genre. William Gibson is, for me, the one author that will make me drop everything I’m doing to read his latest novel. I don’t begrudge anyone that. But Gibson only writes one novel every three years or so. That’s about the time it takes Ian McDonald to write one of his masterpieces as well. And Neal Stephenson can take even longer between books. So thank god that they are all of them out there, so admirers of the cutting-edge of smart, literature hard science fiction have enough coming out to keep them engaged and interested and stop them wandering off between Gibson books. In the same way, I know that people who read our David Louis Edelman books are also reading Charles Stross, people who read our Joe Abercrombie titles are also reading Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, people who are reading Tom Lloyd are also reading Steven Erikson, and people who read our Justina Robson titles are also reading either Patricia Briggs or Charles Stross, (depending on which side of the sci-fantasy combination in Justina’s work speaks to them the strongest). What I’m saying is that every good book published serves and maintains the readership, and every good book published also has the potential to be someone’s introduction to science fiction and fantasy and thus grow that readership. I will always laud good books, whoever publishes them, and applaud the service they do to us all. It’s the bad books that aren’t doing anyone any favors.

How has Pyr adapted to the changes in the publishing industry?

More trade paperbacks, fewer hardcovers. We’re getting serious about ebooks.

But I want to give a shout out here to our Director of Publicity, Jill Maxick, who I think was somewhat ahead of the curve on reaching out to online communities and bloggers. These days, that’s a no brainer, but five years ago when we were just starting out, Jill launched us out of the gate with a heavy outreach to bloggers, and treated online review venues with every bit as much respect as traditional print venues. Again, these days, that’s not a big deal, but the climate was different in 2004, and she deserves massive credit for being one of the first to get it. And that was essential when it came to Pyr making the splash it did.

What are Pyr's future projects (or current, depending on when this interview finally gets published)?

Well, right at this moment I’m very excited by Matthew Sturges’ Midwinter, a fantasy adventure set entirely in the realm of faery that has drawn comparisons to both Joe Abercrombie and Neil Gaiman. And hot on its heels is Blood of Ambrose by James Enge, which is just about the best damn swords & sorcery I’ve ever read. And then we have Mark Chadbourn’s amazing Age of Misrule trilogy, about the return of the ancient Tuatha Dé Danann and all their attendant beasties to modern Britain. Mark’s deconstruction of the true meaning of ancient myth is so authoritative and insightful that I’ve asked him to be my new spiritual adviser. We’re also continuing Tom Lloyd’s tremendous Twilight Reign quintet, and Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series. And we’ll see a new fantasy from Joel Shepherd, another John Justin Mallory story from Mike Resnick, the US debut of Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War, a space opera from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and much more.

Do you have other projects outside of Pyr?

Yes. Currently I’m editing an anthology of superhero fiction for Pocket, co-editing a swords & sorcery anthology with Jonathan Strahan for Eos, blogging and reviewing graphic novels for Tor.com, occasionally penning bits of journalism for magazines like The Believer or Death Ray, and laying the groundwork for a potential novel that I’m about to start writing.

What's your current assessment of the science fiction field?

Lately, I like to point out that Sean Williams’ Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (a novelization of a computer game) and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (a work of hard, literate, and demanding SF) both hit number one on the New York Times best seller list within a few weeks of each other. Those books represent between them a pretty broad range of science fiction literature, and for them both to achieve this level of success speaks very well of the current state of the field. Despite the recession, or perhaps because of it, we’ve seen tremendous performance in genre fiction in general, and I think the silver lining of the current economic crisis may be that publishing and bookselling finally gives SF&F the respect that it’s long been due.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

The best advice I can give is to keep reading the people who do it the best and study what they do. Michael Swanwick, whose short fiction is second to none, says that the reason his stories are so good is because he wrote several thousand bad ones first that no one will ever see. My friend and author, Chris Roberson, wrote on short story a day for an entire month in a deliberate effort to learn the craft. (Read his brilliant and mind-boggling End of the Century, btw, if you want to see how he turned out.) And it isn't just about reading for plots or ideas—you should have those on your own and if you don't, no one can help you. It's about writing enough that you encounter the problems for yourself and see them from the inside, and then turning to other people's fiction to study how they worked through various solutions to those same problems when presented with them. And get into a writing group of peers who write too. Classes and groups are only as useful as you make them, and you tend to outgrow them, but they are helpful at the start, if only for overcoming the solitude and building discipline.

Advice for aspiring editors?

If you don’t love it, no one else will. If you can’t see yourself reading it twice, don’t bother finishing it once.

Advice for aspiring publishers?

Make trends, don’t follow them.

Anything else you want to plug?

Yes, we have a Sample Chapters blog page (http://www.pyrsf.com/SampleChapters.html) where we run both sizeable excerpts from our novels and short fiction (some of it original). Right now there are six short stories up, as well as chapter excerpts from forty-three books, with new material going up every month. I’m not sure how many people realize it’s there or what a wealth of material it has already available online for free.

That, and everybody should be reading Kay Kenyon. No really.


Kristan said...

I think those three Advice For questions/answers at the end are brilliant! Thanks!

Peter said...

I really liked this book too. My book True Love Is Not Common; www.eloquentbooks.com/TrueLoveIsNotCommon, has similar main characters. I grew up reading this author since high school. Hope that one day my book will reach many people as this author. While writing this book, I did a lot of research on this topic, and events on love with people around us.