Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Interview: Rose Fox and Josh Jasper

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Roses Fox and Josh Jasper maintains the
Publishers Weekly speculative fiction blog Genreville.

Rose Fox:

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you get acquainted with speculative fiction? How did your parents help shape your reading habits?

Harlan Ellison introduced my parents, both of whom are writers whose work includes a fair amount of speculative fiction, so it's pretty safe to say that fictons were bombarding me while I was still in the womb.

Shortly after I was born, my parents divorced, and my mother and I pretty much lived alone for four years until she met and married my stepfather. Somewhere in there, she ditched SF, left the fannish scene (insofar as she'd ever been in it, which wasn't very far), and switched over to reading mysteries. I grew up reading all kinds of mysteries for kids--Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Cam Jansen, Billy Jo Jive, Detective Poufy, and my all-time favorite, Encyclopedia Brown--and I'd go around telling people I wanted to be a detective. Then we took a trip to Ireland when I was maybe seven or eight years old, and I went wandering around to the gazebo behind a house we were visiting and found a copy of Doctor Who and the Space War.

I CONSUMED it, and it consumed me. I still have it. I'd never watched an episode of Doctor Who--hadn't until a couple of years ago, actually--but I loved that book with a passion. I read it over and over. I still loved mysteries, but soon I was stealing a lot of books off the one three-shelf bookcase that still housed all my mother's crumbling old Heinlein juvies and Andre Norton and Asimov and the like, and over the next few years all those books migrated into my bedroom. I read them over and over too, and hunted down other books by those authors, and whenever I went to Forbidden Planet (back when it was huge and awesome) or the Science Fiction Bookshop, I always opted for skinny, yellowing paperbacks over anything actually in print, because everything I loved was a skinny, yellowing paperback.

So all the SF I was first exposed to was SF written before I was born. I missed out on pretty much every novel in the field published between the late 70s and the early 90s. And I had no idea! I mean, it didn't even occur to me that reading-wise I was traveling back in time ten or twenty years. I remember being utterly shocked to learn that Robert Heinlein was dead, because he looked so young in all the author photos in the editions I had. In that sense, my mother shaped my reading habits by not being an SF reader, or rather, by being a former SF reader.

As for my father, I remember reading his books when they came out, and once I was in my teens and had firmly established myself as an SF reader on my own, I started picking through the piles of books that people sent him in hopes of getting reviewed. I know that occasionally friends of his would be visiting and autograph books for me (yes, I still have them). Unfortunately, I think the experimental and New Wave books I got that way hit me before I was ready for them, so I bounced off of them and went straight back to my familiar 70s hard SF and juvies.

What made you decide to pursue journalism? Was it difficult finding a venue to write about the genre?

I'm going to put these questions all together because the answer is sort of the same for all of them. My aunt (also a novelist) was a PW reviewer, and she got my mother into reviewing there, and I thought that being paid to read books sounded awesome, so my mother arranged for me to meet Peter Cannon, who was the SF/F/H reviews editor at the time. He was kind enough to give me a trial assignment (I am still paying this favor forward and probably will be for the rest of my life), and he liked my work enough to send me more books. I wasn't thinking of it as "pursuing journalism" at that point; it was just a fun hobby that made me a little money. The hardest part about going into journalism and editing full-time was finding ways to write about things other than the genre, since my goal was to actually make a living.

Mostly what drove me to pursue journalism was being really unhappy as a receptionist. (It's rather a long story how I ended up being a receptionist.) I worked for a decent company but I really didn't feel like I belonged there. A high school friend who was leaving his job as an editorial assistant on a medical journal got them to hire me as his replacement for three months, which was just long enough for it to look really good on my résumé. After that, I took a really long shot and went freelance full-time, throwing myself into a combination of medical journalism (helped greatly by a family friend who farmed out some work to me and introduced me to editors), book reviewing, and blogging. No one was more shocked than I was when I broke even well before the three-month deadline I'd set myself. I freelanced for most of a year before PW hired me on as an editor.

I should note here that I don't think of myself as a journalist. I'm an editor first and foremost. Kids always find some way to rebel against their parents, and mine was to be an editor instead of a writer. Everyone just assumed I was going to grow up to write books. It wasn't just my parents; my mother's father was a printer, my uncle was an art historian and author of many books, and even my father's father, an engineer, wrote an autobiography. I have ink in my veins. Well, I wrote some short stories when I was in my teens and they were all awful. I wrote some awful poems and songs too. Meanwhile, I was my mother's first-pass editor, and I soon realized that I was really good at it (woe betide the misplaced comma that came before my nine-year-old eyes, for I excised it as imperiously as only a nine-year-old can). When I joined my high school magazines, I did so as an editor. In college I was the first sophomore to become copy chief of the student paper. I don't mind writing, and I'm a pretty decent journalist these days, but editing is my true love.

My fiction is still awful. I'm comfortable with that.

How do you juggle your time covering speculative fiction and your duties as a medical writer?

I'm part-time at PW and always have been. I sort of snuck in when another part-time editor left; there was a hiring freeze on, but part-time hires didn't quite count as hiring, and it was easy for them to slot me in as a replacement. So I'm in the office just twenty hours a week, from 2 to 6 p.m. Freelancing happens between 10 and 2 a.m., and I sleep from about 4 to about noon. This schedule makes me ridiculously happy; I've always been a night owl. If I need to make phone calls during business hours, I just get up a little early.

At the moment I'm moving away from medical writing and into various kinds of editing. Medical journalism is a really tough market right now; after the bank crash last fall, all the big companies that publish news magazines for doctors pretty much stopped using freelancers, and when I did get assignments it took months and months to get paid, so I started looking for other things. I still do some writing and interviewing for a continuing medical education company from time to time, but my big secondary gig is with a Columbia healthcare information technology lab, getting their papers into shape for submission to peer-reviewed journals. I'm starting to do more freelance copyediting, which I love with an absolute passion. I just finished copyediting a Popular Mechanics book on how to design and build sheds, and it was so much fun! I'll edit anything, really. The best project so far was a different book for PM, where I compiled and edited articles from 1903 through 1969 that predict the future. It's coming out in fall 2010 with an intro by Greg Benford and I am tremendously excited about it.

Does your medical background have a bearing in the way you read books? (i.e. it might be a pet peeve when a hard sf novel gets the medical science wrong)

I don't have a medical background in the sense of a degree or college study. (I'm a three-time college dropout, and when I was in school I studied math, linguistics, computer science, and architecture.) I've just spent a lot of time around doctors and the medical establishment because I've written so much about them. I suppose I'd roll my eyes at awful medical science in a book, but I'd also be really excited to see anything medical handled in more detail than "She slapped the medpatch on her arm and waited for it to heal the broken bone" or "Nanobots will save us all". It's so rare to see good SFnal predictions of issues in medical ethics or advancements in medical technology. I just (as in, a few hours ago) finished reading Scott Westerfeld's The Risen Empire, which was very timely given the whole argument going on right now about euthanasia, and at times I got really impatient with it because the whole book is built around the ethics of death and life and medical resurrection and the way class divides affect medical treatment and all this really important interesting stuff, and yet I kept feeling like the future tech was getting in the way of really talking about those things. In the end--and this is kind of a big spoiler for the book, so skip to the next paragraph if you care about that--all the ethical and cultural issues get completely swamped by a technical issue, a failure of medical technology, and it's supposed to be this huge reveal and instead it just felt like a cop-out. And then the book ends! I wanted to know how the big reveal affected the culture and the way medical treatment was dispensed and it just... ended. Bah. I had similar issues with Robert J. Sawyer's WWW: Wake, which brings up two major issues in modern medicine--an epidemic in China and the use of medical technology to compensate for disability--and then gets completely distracted by fetishizing tech and loses its grip on the more human issues at hand. So yes, I guess I get very impatient with people who don't think about this stuff in depth.

There's so much going on in medical technology development at the moment that it feels really SFnal, so there's no excuse for neglecting it. Forget nanos, the handwavium of medical SF. Look at what people are doing right now with robots and cameras and microscopic instruments. You can have a hernia repaired with mesh that slowly dissolves into your body after you form new tissue around it. If you have a stroke or heart attack and go to a good hospital, they'll put you on ice--or rather, on a pad that circulates ice-cold water under and around you--because the cooling helps prevent nervous system damage, though no one really knows why. Imaging technology is so advanced that we don't actually know what to do with the degree of detail we get. We can turn genes on and off almost casually. This stuff is amazing. At the same time, we know almost nothing about mental illness despite decades of intensive study, it's still common practice to burn out cancerous tissue with hot pointy metal things (look up "tumor ablation" and then consider that it is the year 2009 and we are still basically at the level of setting people on fire for their health), and completely treatable, curable diseases still run rampant in impoverished areas around the world because medicine is as cultural as it is technical. Any SF author looking for inspiration should pick up a copy of the Journal of the American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine and prepare for their mind to be blown both by what we can do and what we can't.

For you, what constitutes a good book review?
How about a good interview?

It should make me go "Huh, I never thought of that" or "Huh, I never knew that".

Personally, what do you look for in a book, speculative or otherwise?

I categorize books by the type of mood they encourage in me, so what book I look for depends on what mood I'm in and what mood I want to be in. I recently started to read Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss and had to stop because it's a really gripping, powerful book that is completely not the right thing for me to be reading in the summer, when I tend to be depressed and paranoid already. I'll try again in the fall or winter, when I have enough emotional resilience stored up that I can afford to spend some on reading stories about loss and fear and despair. Mind you, I really like books like that, when I have the strength for them.

Other than mood, I look for good proficiency with language, consistency and believability of setting and character, a lack of errors of fact or punctuation, all that technical stuff. I'm entirely willing to read in any genre as long as the writer knows what they're doing.

How did Genreville get established? What are your upcoming plans for Genreville?

Genreville got started in a pretty mundane way: our editor-in-chief wanted more blogs on PW's site, I had been blogging for years on LiveJournal, I offered to write an SF blog. I wasn't geting paid separately for it, so I was trying to write it while I was at work in addition to editing two sections and so on, and as more editors got laid off and my workload increased, I just didn't have the time for it. Our new editorial director mentioned that he was willing to pay for bloggers if they'd bring traffic to the site and I said "Oh well in THAT case" and made what was apparently a very persuasive pitch for PW to pay me and Josh as freelancers, which means we can work on it from home. That changes things entirely. Now the only question is how much work we're willing to do for the amount we're getting paid, and apparently we're willing to do quite a lot. We're going to be writing at least three posts a week and hopefully closer to five, putting up videos, doing tons of interviews, starting serious conversations about controversial issues, posting book reviews, all that jazz.

How is the Internet changing the publishing industry? For you, does it bring more benefits or disadvantages?

For the first half of that, see my recent long SF Mind Meld contribution, where I discuss it in detail. The short version is that the internet is a vast storage space for information about books and publishing and fandom, and as people who didn't grow up in this world start making use of that stored knowledge and using it to get traction for their new ideas in the traditional publishing world, I think we're going to see some tremendous innovation that both works within the current paradigm and really shakes it up.

For the second, I don't know: I've never worked in non-internet-enabled publishing! It's like asking whether I think all the oxygen in the atmosphere is good or bad for me. I'm so thoroughly adapted to it that it's a moot point.

How would you describe the current field of science fiction, fantasy, and horror?

I wouldn't even know where to begin. It's vast and nebulous, and expanding at a terrific rate.

Right now, there's a growing awareness of speculative fiction written by people of color, people outside of the US and Europe, and GLBT. What's your take on this changing paradigm in the field?

Look at that first sentence: when you say "there's a growing awareness" you mean "there's a growing awareness among straight white Westerners". They're still the default, the implied actors and the implied audience. If we talk about "recognition" and "awareness", what we mean is that it's still all about where members of the privileged classes deign to direct their attention, and the underlying paradigm really isn't changing at all. I think the paradigm of assumed privilege does need to change, and the sooner the better, but we're still at the very beginning of making that change and we have a long way to go.

Mind you, some straight white guys get it:

Do not believe -- and I am dead serious when I say this -- do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.
--Philip K. Dick

I don't think we're going to achieve a privilegeless world in my lifetime. There will be some people with more privilege and some with less. My goal is to see the gap narrowed, and see the privileged class expand and expand and expand. Ideally that will involve privileged people giving up some of their privilege; realistically it will involve less privileged people coming and taking it, demanding to be treated with respect. I support both halves of that, and do what I can to mitigate and make honorable use of the privilege I have as a white English-speaking middle-class white-collar Westerner while never giving up the fight as a queer genderqueer disabled mentally-ill Jewish agnostic.

Is there a particular cause in the genre that you want to champion or see major change take place?

Serial commas. I'm for them. PW doesn't use them and every time I take one out of a review I die a little inside.

[Ed Note: In between when I answered those questions and when the interview went up, PW has started using serial commas!]

More seriously, see above; I'm pushing very hard, personally and professionally, for "we" and "us" to become more genuinely inclusive terms in fandom and in publishing. At PW, I just got in a novel from Blind Eye Books, a wonderful small queer genre press; I'm sending it out for review like I would any other genre title. On the romance end (I also edit the mass market reviews section), I've directly requested submissions from African-American-focused imprints like Harlequin's Kimani Books and Kensington's Brava and Dafina, and my reviewers treat them like they would any other romance novels. I'd love to see more queer mass market romance originals, too. I'm also delighted that my reviewers are starting to call out racism, sexism, and other biases in their reviews and discuss them in depth in their post-review notes to me.

If there's a writer whose personal opinions clash with yours (i.e. John C Wright and Orson Scott Card loathing homosexuality), does this affect your reading preferences?

Not really, no. I think I'd be a pretty poor critic if it did. I still read Roald Dahl's work even though he was a virulent anti-Semite, and Harlan Ellison's work even though he's said a lot of awful things about a lot of people (including my father), and so on. I could name all my favorite authors and I bet each of them would disagree with me in some really major way. They still write great books and stories. When authors I disagree with write things I dislike, then it's even more important for me to be sure I engage with the work and not with the author; criticism can discuss authors, certainly, but I think it is never a book critic's job to criticize an author's personal views.

I bet some of the critics whose work I most like would disagree with me on that!

What advice do you have for aspiring journalists? How about aspiring writers?

To aspiring journalists: Get used to people thinking you aren't a writer. When people ask you "Are you a writer?" what they want to know is whether you write fiction. That's the only kind of writing that matters to most of the world. Don't be shy about saying "Yes, I'm a journalist".

If you're going to freelance, calculate every assignment in terms of how much you get paid per hour of your time, and keep pushing your hourly rate upwards. Never, ever work for less than minimum wage, unless you can honestly say you're volunteering your time for charity. (I say this as someone who only pays a mere $25 per book review, but I also think our reviewers should go on strike and demand higher pay.) Network like crazy; nepotism and helpful friends are the only way to get anywhere in this industry. In general, try very hard to view the journalistic world as a community, and to understand that helping other members of the community--by passing on leads, making deals, farming out extra work, demanding fair pay so that your fellow journalists will get fair pay too, insisting that journalists are writers, and so on--is the only way the community and the business will survive. Stay alert and be flexible. Above all, turn in good, honest work on time.

To aspiring authors (ahem): See above re: networking, community, alertness, flexibility, and turning in good, honest work on time; those all apply to you too. Pick your battles when your work is being edited. Once your writing is out in the world, let it speak for itself. Never read reviews of your work, and if you do, never argue with them except in the privacy of your own head.

Josh Jasper:

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get into speculative fiction?

I was first read the hobbit when I was 8, and when I could read the whole thing to myself, I knew it cover to cover.

What's the appeal of genre for you?

I like the community more than anything, but the literature is fun too.

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite books?

I'm partial to Spider Robinson, Cat Valente, Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett, and Chris Moriarty, off the top of my head.

How did you get involved with Genreville?

Through Rose Fox, who was writing it on her own for a while.

How did you become director of marketing for Fantasy Magazine?

I emailed Cat Rambo when I heard she was looking.

What exactly is it that a director of marketing does?

I help with strategy for ad revenue, and I'm wokring on long term projects to get more readers, and keep the readers who're current around.

How did you get involved in marketing in the first place?

My last job was at at an internet marketing/advertising firm.

What are the qualities that make a good marketer?

Understanding who your target audience is, how to capture their attention, and how to keep it.

What's the reading culture like in Singapore? How did it shape your current opinions and tastes in books?

When I was there, it was pretty dismal, but I hear from Janet Chui and Jason Lundberg that it's getting better these days. I did get into Julian May in Singapore, which was interesting.

Where is home for you? (Singapore? New York? Neither? Both?)

Both, I think. More NY than Singapore these days. I'm out of touch with what it's like to live there anymore.

In your opinion, how is the Internet changing the speculative fiction scene?

It makes authors acesible in ways they never were before. These days having an internet persona can really help get you noticed. Of course, once you're noticed you still have to be good. And of course, the fanfic communities have grown a lot online. Even if no one is getting paid for it, and it's probably illegal, it's still speculative fiction, and it's got an incredibly dedicated community.

What change would you like to see take place in the genre?

I'd like to see it taken more seriously. The NY times treats it like a Cordon Bleu chef treats day old McDonalds.

In researching possible questions for this interview, Google fails me. Is it difficult to make a name for yourself in the publishing industry considering you have a football player doppelganger?

Get back to me in a few years. I'm only getting started!

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Understand that it'll probably take a while to get good. Be open to criticism, and don't assume that people who're successful got there through some sort of "secret handshake".

Anything else you want to plug?

Harry Connolly's Child Of Fire. It's the best new fantasy set in current day earth I've read. "Urban" fantasy is a hot commodity these days, and if Connolly improves at the same pace (or faster) than Jim Butcher, he's going to be quite popular.

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