Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Interview: Marty Halpern

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Marty Halpern is a two-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award-Professional for his work with Golden Gryphon Press. (“It’s an honor just to be nominated…” Feh!) His career with GGP began in 1999, and in the next 7 years, he edited 23 ½ hardcovers, 4 limited edition chapbooks, and 4 reprint trade paperbacks. The “½” hardcover is original anthology The Silver Gryphon (marking the press’s twenty-fifth book, 2003), which he co-edited with publisher Gary Turner. Marty now freelances, working directly with authors as well as for independent publishers, including Fantastic Books, Night Shade Books and Tachyon Publications. Marty is very enthusiastic about two forthcoming titles that he edited: Mark Teppo’s Lightbreaker (Night Shade Books) and Andrew Fox’s The Good Humor Man, Or, Calorie 3501 (Tachyon Publications). In addition to his work as an editor, Marty has written a series of columns entitled “The Perfect Sentence,” published in The Valley Scribe, the newsletter of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the California Writers Club. And in 2004, he was a guest faculty at the East of Eden Writers Conference in Salinas, California.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, let’s talk about your editing work. Could you talk and elaborate (what is it exactly that you do) on the various editing roles you’ve taken: copyeditor, acquisitions editor, book editor, etc.?

That’s a huge question, Charles, so I’ll try to cover the highlights. I wear many hats, as they say, and those hats tend to change a lot as well for each of the publishers with whom I work. On some projects I will both edit and copyedit the book, working directly with the author and his/her manuscript file, clear through to the final ready-for-print page layouts. For other projects I just copyedit the manuscript or page proofs. One publisher in particular has me scan content as necessary; this scanned material is then folded into the overall project which I will then copyedit. It all depends on the publisher and the project. I’m also always on the lookout for manuscripts that are well-written and intriguing enough for me to pitch to a publisher on behalf of the author. This is how Andrew Fox’s latest novel, The Good Humor Man, Or Calorie 3501, came to be published by Tachyon Publications. I currently have four publishers to whom I can pitch a book but, of course, it has to be the right book. And then, as in the case of the Fox novel, if the publisher acquires the manuscript then I get to edit it!

The label “editor” could mean so many things. When one mentions the word editor, what first springs to mind? Are you satisfied with the term?

As an editor, I consider myself an “advocate”: an advocate of the author and the author’s manuscript and an advocate of the publisher for whom I work. The difficult part is integrating the two: I want to work with the author to ensure that his/her manuscript is the absolute best that it can be, but I also have to work within any parameters that the publisher may have set forward. Ideally the absolute best manuscript will meet the publisher’s goals and everyone will be happy. At issue, though, is not whether I’m satisfied with the term “editor” but whether or not authors, and even publishers, are satisfied with the term. I’m certain that every publisher understands the absolute necessity for editors – acquiring editors, book editors, anthology editors, and copyeditors, or some combination there of. But there are some authors who believe that they are just so “speshul” that they don’t require any editing. (This is why self-publishing still has such a bad rep.)

Backtracking a bit, how did you first get acquainted with speculative fiction?

I actually came late, so to speak, to speculative fiction. I guess you could say my reading habits as I was growing up were more within the norm for a typical boy: sports stories, war stories, etc. In fact, I tried reading The Hobbit way back when and just couldn’t get into the dwarves-and-elves thing. But, obviously, that changed. To tell you the truth, I have no memory of when that transition actually took place. Some people can remember the first SF story they read – the magazine title and date in which the story appeared, the cover art on the magazine, and even when and where it all came together. Not me. Speculative fiction was just another type of book among the many books I was reading at the time – and I read a lot, too. I recall one summer during college reading Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – all in succession. Whew! Talk about edge city!

I do wish there was the means to selectively delete specific memories. If this were an affordable option, I would immediately sign up! I would give nearly anything to be able to experience once again reading The Lord of the Rings for the very first time.

What’s the appeal of speculative fiction for you?

I have to be challenged with what I read, it’s that simple. (Note the books I mentioned in the previous question!) I read a story to make me think, to extrapolate, to come up with other ideas and scenarios; but the story also has to be excellent writing as well. I remember when I tried to read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. I knew this to be one of the so-called classics and I felt a responsibility to read it. But it took all my effort to force myself to finish it. Some readers would probably argue that there’s enough grandness in that story to make one think, to extrapolate, to come up with other ideas and scenarios – and that may very well be true, but the story was simply too dry and boring for me.

What made you decide to focus on editing speculative fiction titles?

It wasn’t so much deciding to edit speculative fiction, but rather that’s the type of fiction I was seriously reading at the time, and editing speculative fiction just happened to be the opportunity that arose.

How about what made you decide to pursue editing – and the various sub-categories at that – as a career? I know you’ve written columns for The Valley Scribe but have you entertained the idea of writing fiction?

I was working for Golden Gryphon Press more as a side project while I worked full-time in the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. Then the dot-com crash hit during the summer of 2001 and I lost my job. Less than two and a half months later, we all experienced in some form the events of September 11. In the days that followed, the economy took an even worse tumble, and in the Valley here more than a quarter of a million people were unemployed. I had a couple of short-lived contract jobs, but after 9/11 the job market simply dried up. The expertise I had at the time (SAP security) was obsolete within six months anyhow. So, with no tech work available, I simply continued working for Golden Gryphon and slowly began to acquire other editing work; I even got some part-time work maintaining a website for a genre bookseller.

My apologies in advance to Gordon Van Gelder for using him as an example here: he attended Clarion in 1987 and has often remarked that that experience taught him that he didn’t want to be a writer. I have a similar experience. In 1990, at ArmadilloCon 12 in Austin, Texas, Pat Murphy challenged me to write a ghost story. Right then and there, sitting in an easy chair in the lobby lounge of the Wyndham Southpark Hotel in Austin, an idea for just such a story popped into my head. Unfortunately, the story took me a really long time to write and the writing experience was very painful because some of the story was based on difficult life events. But, I completed it. Pat critiqued the story, I reworked it to some degree (I didn’t agree with all of her suggestions, of course), and then I had Karen Joy Fowler critique the revision. Karen’s suggestions required a complete rewrite. I worked out the changes, began my rewrite, and then thought: All this for a short story? That’s when I realized, like Gordon, that I didn’t want to be a writer. (But I still have that short story stashed away in one of my cabinets.)

In your opinion, what are the qualifications for a good copy editor? Acquisitions editor? Book editor?

Do you ever ask a question, Charles, that allows for a short, easy answer? There are different requirements for each level of editing, and I could easily write a page or more on each. But I’ve already been long-winded enough and I’ve only responded so far to a third of your questions, so I’ll just state some of the highlights here.

An acquisitions editor must be familiar with the field and, more importantly, what people are reading (which isn’t always what the NY publishers are trying to foist on readers, hence the increasing popularity of the small, independent presses). And always – always! – keep searching for that new, truly original, unique story that could start a revolution, or a movement, if you will (i.e. the next Books of Blood, or Neuromancer, or True Names). And while you’re searching, hopefully you’ll find a lot of truly excellent stories along the way.

An anthology editor has the same requirements as an acquisitions editor, but from a different perspective: they have to be aware of the book they are putting together at both the micro and macro level. The editor must acquire excellent stories that meet the requirements for the antho, while at the same time being aware of the overall book – how the theme is handled, the tone, point of view, opening and closing, etc. – to avoid repetition among the individual stories.

A copyeditor must have a solid understanding of the language (as in my case, I’ll assume the language is English): sentence structure, subject/verb agreement, verb tenses, punctuation, and the many nasty little nuances that make up the English language. A writer has the freedom to write whatever/however she/he wants, but it helps to know the rules first before you can successfully break them. When I began working for Golden Gryphon, the publisher informed me that he followed the Chicago Manual of Style, so I immediately ordered a copy from Amazon.com. Then once the book arrived, I spent weeks reading it in the evening, in bed, before turning out the light. I read some sections multiple times over the course of those weeks, marking those sections with tabs for quick reference. Imagine reading a dictionary before going to bed each night; my wife thought I was nuts. A copyeditor needs to be extremely obsessive (read: anal) when it comes to detail. And though I’m not going to discuss it here, don’t forget that a copyeditor is responsible for fact-checking as well.

A book editor must have all of the above skills but must also be able to See a book in its totality – beginning, middle, end – as a cohesive whole. Most importantly, does the author deliver at the end of the story on the promises she/he made at the beginning?

I suspect other editors might argue these points with me, or have different critical points of their own. Given more time, and more pages, these paragraphs would be much longer, but these are the points that have immediately come to mind.

How did you first get involved with Golden Gryphon Press?

I had been following editor Jim Turner’s work at Arkham House for a number of years, purchasing nearly every book that he produced. When he founded Golden Gryphon, I went along for the ride as well, so to speak. Jim and I corresponded a bit after he started Golden Gryphon. I recall recommending a collection of Connie Willis stories, but Jim wasn’t overly fond of her type of humor, which had by then become the mainstay of her short fiction.

Then in late March 1999 I read in Locus online that Jim Turner had passed away. Evidently he has been ill for some time, but not knowing him personally, I wasn’t aware of this illness, so the news came as a complete shock. I knew Jim worked solo, but I didn’t know if he had any family to continue the press. I contacted some of the authors I knew who were published by GG, and it was James Patrick Kelly who informed me that Jim had a brother, Gary Turner; Jim also provided me with a mailing address. So, I wrote to Gary (this was a couple months after Jim’s passing), expressed my concerns in seeing the press continue and asked if he had plans in doing so; I also offered my assistance in helping to keep the press publishing. Gary responded via email, we began a discussion as it were, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Currently, how did you end up as Acquisitions Editor for Wilder Publications?

No great secret here: I had read about Warren Lapine’s return to the field, and that he was in need of an acquisitions editor. So, I applied, and was accepted. It’s one of those rare instances where I was at the right place at the right time. Usually, by the time I learn about an opportunity such as this, it’s already been filled. Since then, however, Warren has hired three other acquisitions editors: Darrell Schweitzer, Ian Randal Strock, and Dave Truesdale.

Is there a general guideline you apply when looking for books to acquire across all the companies you’ve worked for? How about specifically for the publishers you’re currently working for?

I have no guidelines, per se. The key is to find a book that I like, that I feel is intriguing, original, and of a publishable quality (and that’s not an easy task, as many writers who have submitted work to me know). Then I determine the best publisher to pitch to. Andrew Fox’s The Good Humor Man goes a bit over-the-top in its sardonic wit; I knew that Tachyon Publications had published work by James Morrow and Terry Bisson, both known for their sardonic writing. Consequently, I knew that if I could get Jacob Weisman, Tachyon’s publisher, to read the book, he would thoroughly enjoy it. And he did.

How about as an anthology editor: What do you look for in a story?

Bottom line: an excellent story. Actually, I’ve mentioned most of this previously, but will repeat myself, albeit briefly. If the book is a themed anthology, then I have to be able to place this story within the context of the theme as well as among all the other stories; I need to ensure that the story significantly enhances the theme while avoiding any repetition with regard to the other stories.

What made you decide to freelance?

As I said, the loss of my full-time job, my technical skills becoming obsolete, the high unemployment rate in the Valley, all contributed to my pursuing freelance full-time simply out of necessity to pay the bills. Over the past half-dozen years, I have taken a contract job on occasion: I worked in the facilities department at Kaiser Hospital in San Jose for about six weeks; I worked in a private medical lab for about three or four months, creating all the lab’s procedures, supporting a software implantation, and entering lab data. But those contract jobs don’t last (though it sure is nice to have a steady income for a while), and I always end up wearing my freelancer’s hat once again. Also, once you’ve freelanced for any length of time, it is very difficult to go back to an 8-to-5 gig, fighting rush hour traffic here in the Valley, dealing with co-workers’ and management’s BS. Not that I don’t have my share of BS to deal with in the publishing industry, I just don’t have to fight traffic to get to it!

What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve run into?

A publisher not respecting, not listening to, my concerns regarding some aspect of a book that I acquired and edited.

How has technology aided – or not aided – the editing process? (Compare 1999 to 2009 for example.)

When I joined Golden Gryphon Press in 1999, the typesetter hadn’t yet moved to all digital. The initial page layouts I received were literally galleys: 11 x 17-inch pages, two columns. And when edits were made to the page proofs, the typesetter had to cut & paste the corrected text onto the page. Also, during the earlier editing process, marked up hardcopies had to be photocopied and then mailed to the author for his/her review.

Now, of course, everything is digital. I still personally edit on hardcopy, but once my editing is complete, I can then key in those edits and comments directly into the author’s manuscript file using Word’s “change tracking,” and then send that file to the author as an email attachment; the author can respond in kind since change tracking tracks both sides respectively. No more having to send 400 pages of marked-up hardcopy (unless the author so requests), which saves a lot of expense in photocopying and postage costs. Once all the editing is complete and I have a “final” manuscript file, I then email that file to the publisher for layout. The page proofs should be as perfect as the file that I sent; no more typesetting errors, other than the occasional formatting issue.

What are some of the books you’re currently working on?

I actually have quite a lot going on right now. With regard to my editing original novels, I have two projects from Night Shade: the fifth Detective Inspector Chen novel, The Iron Khan, by Liz Williams, and Mark Teppo’s Heartland: Book Two in the Codex of Souls. Both books will be published in 2010. I’m also doing the story scanning and copyediting for a reprint horror anthology entitled Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow for Tachyon Publications. In addition, co-editor Nick Gevers and I sold an original anthology to DAW Books for publication in 2010. The book is titled Is Anybody Out There? and is concerned with the Fermi paradox. We’ve invited quite a number of authors to contribute to the book, and stories are now being submitted. For Warren Lapine’s Fantastic Books imprint, I have one book in process (and another ten waiting in the wings): I’m awaiting the initial page proofs for novel Fuzzy Dice by Paul Di Filippo. And for Warren’s Tir Na Nog Press, I’m now copyediting Realms of Fantasy magazine, beginning with the forthcoming October issue. Lastly, as my time permits, I work directly with authors (for a very reasonable fee) to help them prepare their manuscripts for submission to an agent or editor/publisher. In fact, I have on my desk a manuscript recently submitted by a British author who is trying to break into the US market.

Is editing a sustainable career financially or do you have to turn to other jobs to make ends meet?

If I were working for NY publishers, things might be a bit less hectic, with a higher, more consistent income, but so far I work exclusively within the circle of small presses. The work is sustainable financially, but I do have to watch my expenses. I have no cable/satellite TV; my car is fifteen years old; my wife and I eat at restaurants maybe once or twice a month at most; and I don’t make regular runs to Starbucks (in fact, I don’t go to Starbucks at all!).

What advice do you have for aspiring editors?

Find another, more lucrative line of work!

Advice for aspiring writers?

I realize that writing is something that is in the blood, in the genes, and whether or not a person chooses a writing career, the need to write is consistently present. Regardless, don’t be so quick to give up the day job. Do your research first; learn from other writers. Kristine Kathryn Rusch (http://kriswrites.com) has an ongoing blog series entitled “The Freelancer’s Survival Guide”; Michael A. Burstein (http://mabfan.livejournal.com/) has written a series of blog entries entitled “The Value of Our Work.” There are dozens of articles and blog posts available on self-promotion, agents, critique groups, etc. So again, do your homework. Be sure this is the professional path you wish to take.

Anything else you want to plug?

I would like to specifically mention two books: The Good Humor Man by Andrew Fox (Tachyon Publications) and Lightbreaker by Mark Teppo (Night Shade Books). Both are excellent – and unique – reads, if I do say so myself.

I would also like to point your readers to my entry in the SF Editors Wiki (http://sfeditorwatch.com/index.php/Marty_Halpern) for a complete list of all the books I have edited; this list does not include the dozens (and dozens) of titles that I have copyedited over the past five or so years. My blog is entitled “More Red Ink” (http://martyhalpern.blogspot.com); your readers can also follow me on Twitter: @martyhalpern. And lastly, after seeing the types of books that I have acquired and edited over the years, if writers have a novel (or even a unique collection) that they are certain will intrigue me, please do contact me.

1 comment:

Marty Halpern said...

Hi, Charles,

Thanks ever so much once again for the opportunity to be interviewed on the acclaimed Bibliophile Stalker. The questions you asked required quite a bit of thought, and I hope your readers will find some points of interest.

In fact, if any reader has a follow-up question or comment, I would be delighted if they would post it on my blog More Red Ink. I obviously have greater access to my own blog and will be able to respond to posted comments in a timely fashion.

Again, thanks for your time and this interview.

Marty Halpern