Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Interview: Jeremiah Tolbert

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Jeremiah Tolbert’s fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Black Gate, Interzone, Ideomancer, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies Seeds of Change, Polyphony 4, and All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories. He is also the editor of Escape Pod.

Hi Jeremy! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what's the appeal of science fiction for you?

Well, I'm a nerd and a geek, and thus I have a genetic predisposition to anything vaguely science-y. I'm told that when I was asked what I wanted to be when I was 3 years old, I calmly sat aside my plastic dinosaurs and explained that the only logical path for me was to be a mad scientist. Science was always my favorite subject, particularly biology (which is not easy to maintain when you grow up in Kansas surrounded by fundamentalist creationists). I majored in biology in college, and it wasn't until I saw the balance on my student loans that I even considered a different professional field. I still sometimes consider going back for a Masters or PhD--my focus was originally in evolution and ecology, but I'm growing ever more fascinated by the advanced in molecular biology and genetics. I think that's the mad scientist in me. I can't wait until I can have my own genetics kit at home and build my own home-brew insects and other creatures. My natural tendency to rush forward to the implications of an idea or technology leads to the appeal of science fiction.

All the sorts of speculative fiction appeal to me because they stretch a particular portion of my brain that I like to have stretched. I've always been more interested in what's possible than what's actually happened. I didn't even really understand the appeal of history and historical fiction until I was in my late 20s. Yes, science fiction is about looking at today's world through a lens of speculation, and is not about predicting the future. But it's serious explanation of technology, and what it means to be human, are big questions that I love seeing answered, even if sometimes the answers are uncomfortable.

What made you decide to become a writer?

Well, I had all this paper sitting around with no words on it. Also, a delusion that I might actually be good at it. I've been struggling with that delusion for about seven years now, but it seems that like with some delusions, the longer you hold onto them, the more likely they are to become true. I'm not quite there, but I think I might be some day. Also, it's easier than digging ditches or trapping and tagging prairie rodents.

I think a good chunk of the people who enjoy reading science fiction are interested in writing it. If we enjoy the kind of thought games that SF puts us through, we probably also enjoy creating them ourselves. Many young SF writers are initially drawn to science fiction because they think they have a cool idea for a story, by which I mean a SFnal idea or premise. I know it's what got me started anyway. It's only after you start taking the idea of publishing seriously and start collecting your rejections that you learn SF fiction is about a hell of a lot more than just cool ideas--it's also about the art of the story. In retrospect, I probably should have taken a few less science classes and a few more creative writing and english courses.

I think the reason I've kept being a writer is that it's really, really hard for me, but I still sometimes feel like I'm making progress at understanding it. I write quickly, but that's only a virtue in the sense that it allows me to fail a little more quickly to make up for my sucking. If I had found writing something exceedingly easy to do, or far too difficult, I would have given it up after my first few rejections or sales.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome before breaking into the industry?

I wasn't aware that I had broken into the industry. Shouldn't they send you a welcome basket or something?

The biggest barrier I had to overcome to improving my work was my own ridiculous notion that science fiction was only about the ideas, and good characterization and nice prose were unimportant. It might have been the case in the 1940s, although I'm not sure I would even say that.

I had to learn to see the stereotypes in my characters. I've always been less interested in the inner workings of people than, say, the ecological dynamics in a rain forest. People are messy and their lives often lack the elegance I see in nature. But that's part of what makes them so great, and once I found that I could enjoy that, I started exploring the lives of fictional people more, and my work began to sell a little.

The truth is, despite some pretty good credits, I don't have a single sale that in the eyes of SFWA qualify as a "pro sale." I've been paid pro rates many times, but for whatever reason, probably print runs, SFWA hasn't acknowledged my markets. Until I sell something that meets their definition, I think I will always question whether I have "broken in" or not. I may never, given how small the number of publications is that qualify anymore, and in that case I guess I'll have to change my definition of "breaking in." I had a better chance 5 years ago than today, just looking at the markets left standing right now.

You're a triple-threat in the sense that you're a writer, a photographer, and a programmer. How do all three satiate your creative urges, and how does each one affect the other?

Well, one minor point to correct--I am not a programmer. I can't program my way out of paper bag. I am a web designer, which is a very different thing. I deal with information architecture, with design, and with HTML and CSS (which are markup, not coding) but when it comes to the programming aspects, I use off-the-shelf parts. I have an understanding of how things work that lets me tinker and modify, but I couldn't sit down and build you an application from scratch. Nor would I want to. I'm a big fan of not reinventing the wheel.

As to how these things satiate my creative urges? Writing stretches my intellect. Photography exercises my ability to see things in a new way. And the design work pays the bills. Okay, design is also very satisfying in that it often allows me to combine all of my interests at once, like with my Dr. Roundbottom project.

My writing affects my photography, in that I sometimes get the urge to photograph the kinds of things I want to write about. That sensawunda that everyone's always talking about--I want my photography to evoke that, and I think is most successful when it does. Photography affects my writing in a lot of nebulous ways, but one of the things its helped with is my patience. I'm more willing to wait for the writing to come to me these days. Web design exists in kind of a separate world, although my photography and writing skills get brought into it from time to time.

You're the go-to guy in terms of web design for certain authors. Do you think this has had an impact on your writing career, or simply another method of potentially earning income?

Well, there's simply no way in this day and age I could make a comfortable living as a writer of SF short fiction, so I will always have to do something to earn money. When I had a full time job and was doing author sites on the side, that definitely negatively impacted my writing. Right now, due to the economy, I'm freelancing exclusively, so if anything, it's giving me a lot more time to write. It's less about the job and about the time it takes to do that job.

Being a writer has definitely helped me build my niche in the web design market. I understand the needs of writers on the web better than a more generalized web designer. Unfortunately, writers aren't the wealthiest people. In retrospect, I probably should have cultivated yacht owners as my niche. I bet there are a lot of yacht owners who want websites for their boats, right?

How did you become the editor of Escape Pod?

Steve Eley, faced with increasing day job responsibilities and a little bit of burnout, decided he needed to bring someone else in to handle story selection. He knew that I had some experience in podcasting from some other projects of mine, and he had run two or three of my stories on Escape Pod and really enjoyed them. For whatever reason, I think I was the first person he asked? I'm not sure about that, but given that you'd have to be a fool to turn it down, I think I was. I've been very excited about the potential of podcasting to bring new people to SF, so I jumped at the chance. I don't regret it.

What are the difficulties in being an editor?

Wanting to like every story that comes across your virtual desk, and failing to. I wish that I could publish every author with aspirations and dedication, and maybe with enough dedication, I will one day publish them. I don't like writing rejection letters. I don't enjoy having to take apart a story and explain why it didn't work for me, so I tend to use standard rejection letters instead.

Dealing with community feedback can be a bit of a bear. You have to keep in mind that not everyone will like every story you select, but I figure if 30% of my audience is happy with a story, I've done my job. People are just too different in their tastes to hope for much more than that. There are probably some very rare instances where that ratio climbs higher, and those are the true bullseye for Escape Pod. I don't think I've published one of those yet, but I hope to soon.

Anyway, it's only speculation as to what portion of our audience likes something. There's no true mechanism in place to know in a statistically satisfactory manner. Forum and the soon-to-be-gone blog comments are not a good measure of that, because people who like something are generally less likely to make a point of saying so than people who really dislike something. A topic I blogged about recently.

How are podcasts--especially fiction podcasts--changing the speculative fiction scene?

Escape Pod has over 20,000 listeners, and they are not what you would call traditional SF fandom. They're a new audience, and a different one. A lot of them are people who don't have time to read, but have time to listen to audio on their commute to work. They are, perhaps, a much harder-to-please audience and are sometimes listening to a story in less-than-ideal circumstances. But I feel like working at Escape Pod gives me a chance to show what's going on inside the bubble of the SF community to people outside of it.

Judging from the people who submit to me, I would say that much of the old guard has not caught onto us. I'm not sure why I don't see every name in the business in my inbox. We're a reprint market that pays pretty well and we don't require any kind of exclusivity. But we also release our productions under the Creative Commons, so I think that scares some who want to have a very tight control over their work. I can respect that, but any control they think they have is an illusion thanks to our friend the Internet. I can go online right now and find torrents with literally thousands of SF novels if I was inclined to do so (I'm not. I like paying for what I read). Escape Artists releasing our productions under the Creative Commons is an acknowledgment of the reality of the matter. If it means I'll never get to run a Neil Gaiman or any number of authors who have passed on and have literary estates, then so be it. There are plenty of young authors who get what we're doing and see the value of it.

What are some of the problems you see in the stories submitted to Escape Pod?

They're the same problems you see in any slush pile. 70% of it is by writers who are just too green and haven't mastered telling a story yet, or at least not consistently. A lot of them haven't moved past the cliche-ridden part of their writing paths. 20% of it is stuff that's good, but too similar to something else I've run recently, or not really a story that grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me, or maybe just about a topic that I think we've played out. 5% I buy. Roughly, I haven't done the math.

I don't see nearly enough reprints. I see too many original stories and as a general rule of thumb, they aren't good enough for me to publish. I'm not sure if writers are trying to send their work elsewhere first, and having it rejected, or if they are just sending it to us first because Escape Pod is what inspired them to write. In either case, I think writers are better served by selling to a print market first, and then offering us reprint rights. More money, and more exposure.

One unique problem we deal with when we're running work from the Hugo nominees is a story that was specifically written for the page, using some kind of typographic convention that can't be conveyed in audio very well. I think people who come in via submission and not solicitation recognize that their stories need to be read out loud though, so it's not a major issue.

For you, what constitutes a good podcast, both in terms of content and performance?

The story has to have a good through-line that's easy to follow in audio. It's language should sound fairly natural when read aloud. The narrator should be able to distinguish the voices of disparate characters well, and otherwise have a voice that is not intrusive on the story, but they should definitely inject feeling and a performance of their own into the work.

Also, good recording quality, something we've been struggling with lately.

What made you decide to create Dr. Roundbottom?

Dr. Roundbottom grew out of a desire to synthesize my three main interests into a single project. I was doing a lot of macro photography at the time, and I started to think about a character who was the kind of scientist I wanted to be when I was a kid--but the last time naturalists were true professionals was the Victorian period. The steampunk elements crept in because of that.

What's the appeal of Steampunk for you?

Primarily, style. The Victorians and steampunkers have a lot of style, and that looks good on camera. I also like big, clunky machines and clockwork bits. I look at my iPhone and there's nothing about the device that expresses what it's capable of. In steampunk, a device's purpose is inherent in its design. Guns look like guns, and so on.

My particular form of steampunk is a mix of fantasy and SF. I really enjoy mixing up genres. I love science in my fantasy. It's one of the reasons Perdido Street Station by China Mieville is one of my favorite books.

What were the difficulties in maintaining Dr. Roundbottom?

It makes me very little money, so I can't devote as much time to it as I would have liked. I had higher expectations for growing the audience, and they just weren't there, or at least, I didn't find them. Also, creating the shoots were often expensive--buying props and the like. I don't like doing any more photoshopping than necessary, so I try to use real world objects as much as possible.

I also probably set a far too ambitious update schedule of once a week as well, but anything less than that doesn't do a good job of drawing repeat visitors.

In my dreams, someone pays me to do Roundbottom, or I land some kind of publisher/sponsor. I think Roundbottom could very easily be turned into an annual print book as a revenue stream if I was able to afford the time to work on it.

Unfortunately, being a fulltime freelancer means I have to carefully consider how I use my time, and I spend a lot more time thinking about the monetary side of things than I would like as an artist.

Still, I have many more ideas for Roundbottom, some of them even written and ready for me to photograph when I can find the time.

In your opinion, barring the Internet, what's the most innovative technology that's making a big impact on the publishing industry?

You'd probably expect me to say podcasting here, but I don't think anyone has really figured out how that can work for the publishing industry instead of alongside it. No, right now I think the biggest shift is that eInk readers have finally turned the public on to the notion of reading on a digital device. We're going to see a huge shift in how publishing works as this technology matures, and the price point gets lower.

I don't own a Kindle, but I do read on my iPhone. I'm still waiting for the right eInk reader for me.

More on your opinions, what's perhaps a practice in the industry that you find ultimately stifling and stagnant?

Resisting the fact that the Internet has changed everything. Print publications like Asimov's and F&SF not accepting electronic submissions is a good example of this. That these magazines have websites that look like they were designed in 1996 is not helping them either.

I do think the book publishers are catching on quicker. But in fairness, their model has been less threatened by the internet than magazines have.

Why are vampires your weakness?

A weakness? When did I say that? Hmm. I think this might in reference to my unabashed love of the TV series True Blood. Any show with a supernatural element will catch my attention, just as it is with SF elements. I grew up playing role-playing games, and a very formative game for me was Vampire: The Masquerade. So I will always have a soft spot for them, especially when they resemble the vampires of the game I spent so much time playing in high school and college.

I am not much of a fan of vampires in stories, although I have a really fun SF vampire story by Garth Nix scheduled for October [Ed Note: this interview was conducted before November] this year at Escape Pod.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Develop discipline in your writing habits. As true as it is in any other field, practice will improve your work. Read so much you can barely stand looking at words, and read widely. Don't just read what you want to write, although I think you should keep up on what's going on in your field. You should read the classics. You should read the Bible, even if you're not religious like me. There are works of literature that are cultural touchstones in the West, and being familiar with them will only enrich your work.

Remember that when you become a writer, you become an information sponge. Everything that has ever happened to you and ever will is potential material. Writing will teach you to be an observer in your own life, and of the lives of others. You'll find yourself trying to get into the heads of other people more often, sometimes asking questions that make people uncomfortable, but are necessary for bettering your understanding of people.

Finally, realize that you're playing this game for peanuts. You almost certainly will not get rich writing this stuff. You make pennies a word for the most part, whether your write novels or short stories. That means you don't stand much to gain, and you don't stand much to lose. So do what you really want to do. If there's a market for it, you'll find it in time. If there's not, well, you'll do it anyway, right? True greatness is something we mostly measure ourselves. It can't be measured in terms of audience size or financial success. So, throw out your caution and write what you really want to write. Your passion is one of your greatest assets, no matter what your skill level is.

Advice for aspiring editors?

Watch what John Joseph Adams does and emulate it. He's establishing the path for young genre editors today. It may not work for everyone, but it's working very well for him. I'm just a part-time editor. He's the real deal.

Anything else you want to plug?

I have a story in the latest issue of Interzone, #224 I think it is. It's the result of my challenge to myself to try to invent an alien species and culture that's truly alien, but not so alien that we can't relate to them somehow. It's also about whale falls, a biological phenomenon that fascinates me.


Unknown said...

Great interview Charles. Jeremiah Tolbert's "The Culture Archivist" from the "Federations" anthology was one of my favorite short story from last year.

I really enjoyed hearing about Jeremiah's creative process and how his writing, photography, and web design intersect.

graywave said...

"I wasn't aware that I had broken into the industry. Shouldn't they send you a welcome basket or something?"

Yes, they should!

Nice interview.