Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Interview: Steve Berman and Craig Gidney (Lethe Press)

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Steve Berman and Craig Gidney are the publisher and managing editor of Lethe Press.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What’s the mission and vision of the company?

CLG: In Greek mythology, Lethe is the river of forgetting. Lethe Press’ mission was initially to resurrect ‘lost’ or forgotten texts—particularly works of speculative fiction, books on mythology as well gay fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The company’s output has extended, and we publish a wide range of material. It quite eclectic—from erotica to literary fiction to curious books about the history of barbers!

SB: As far as “vision”… well, I’d like to make Lethe one of the top names when a reader thinks about the field of queer speculative fiction. That’s one of the reasons I started the annual series Wilde Stories and have released books like Haunted Hearths & Sapphic Shades.

How do you decide which books to publish?

CLG: There isn’t just one answer to this question. Some books—like the erotica and some of the more commercial work—are market driven. Some books, such as the poetry book and a planned book of plays—are labors of love. And some books are just fun to work on!

SB: Part of being a small press is finding your way in the field. We’ve made many friends who happen to be writers and editors, and they often recommend work to us. Craig and I often have phone meetings to talk about what’s missing in the marketplace—whether that be more gay books by minorities, re-releasing a certain author’s work, etc...

At first glance, some readers might believe that the only books you publish are those that deal with gay interests or those by gay authors. What are the exemptions to this rule?

CLG: We have and will continue to put out books that lie outside the gay niche market—dependent, of course, on the quality of the work we receive. We recently released two orphaned speculative fiction anthologies—Spicy Slipstream Stories and Japanese Dreams—that aren’t explicitly queer, for example.

SB: We’ve released a number of folklore titles. I’m also pleased with what we’ve done so far with single author collections, such as Will Ludwigsen’s Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby! and Other Cosmic Insolence.

In terms of speculative fiction, what forthcoming books can we expect?

SB: We have a busy autumn this year. The Haunted Heart, a collection of gay ghost stories by Jameson Currier just released. The next edition of Wilde Stories should hit shelves shortly—reprinting tales by Hal Duncan, Shaun Levin, and others. Time Well Bent, an alternative history anthology of LGBT stories edited by Connie Wilkins, releases in October.

CLG: The 2009-10 schedule is really exciting. We are publishing two short story collections by two up-and-coming authors—Livia Llewellyn’s creepy and erotic dark fantasy tales in The Engine of Desire (with an introduction by Laird Barron) and Beth Bernobich’s fantastical A Handful of Pearls. Collections are hard to sell to big presses; they are a natural fit for smaller presses. We are also starting a series, called Paragons of Queer Speculative Fiction, which will reprint classic gay spec fiction. First up is Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man.

How about titles that you’re excited about in 2010?

CLG: 2010 will see the first book in our new imprint. Tincture, which focuses on fiction by and about queer people of color. The first book is a collection of edgy, literary short stories by a talented Latino writer, Charlie Vasquez. And we're publishing Tanith Lee's gay and lesbian fiction, channeled from (and written as) French Jewish lesbian Esther Garber and her gay half brother, Egyptian Judas Garbah.

SB: I’ll go on record saying I’m excited about all the books we release.

What were some of the challenges you faced starting out? What's your biggest challenge now?

SB: Cash flow is the bane of all small presses (and probably the challenge of all entrepreneurial endeavors). When I started Lethe back in 2001, I never imagined releasing more than 2-3 books a year and now we’re averaging over twenty.

Can I ask if Lethe Press is turning in a profit or at least breaking even?

We’re making a small profit. Fortunately, e-book sales and licensing hardcover rights to the InsightOut Book Club have helped the coffers.

Do you consider Lethe Press a success?

If I can keep releasing books that matter, yes.

How did the imprints White Crane Books and Bear Bones Books come about?

The White Crane Institute releases a magazine on gay wisdom and culture. When I began reprinting works in that field, it seemed only natural to partner with them. With Bear Bones Books, I noticed that many gay readers identify with the “bear” culture—masculine, solid proportions, homosocial—but books aimed at such readers were few and far between (gay publishing focuses on the cult of youth and beauty a bit too much). I teamed with acclaimed author and editor Ron Suresha to make sure that books for bears became a reality.

Being not just a publisher but an editor and author of both gay fiction and speculative fiction, is there an overlap between the two genres?

Of course. Queer fiction focuses a great deal on being the “Other” or “Outsider.” So does speculative fiction. Imaginary worlds hold a great deal of appeal to individuals who feel oppressed and yearn to be accepted and not marginalized.

How do you manage to find the time to juggle writing, editing, and the company?

I don’t. I have a day job, too, that helps pay the bills (and tries to patch some of the cash flow problems with the press). Honestly, I am way behind in my own writing. In that sense Lethe has been detrimental to my career. One of the reasons I asked Craig to help with Lethe is so I can go back to my first love, writing.

Since you’re involved in a lot of projects, I want to ask how do you “switch” hats? Like are you juggling all three roles (writer, editor, publisher) simultaneously or is there like a month where you’re focusing on the writer aspect and then a month later you focus on the editor aspect?

I mostly juggle. It’s not the most efficient method, I’ll admit, but it’s nigh-impossible to devote time solely to one endeavor. I was recently away on a writing-related vacation and I still had to deal with many editorial and press-related matters despite swearing off them for two weeks. Without Craig’s assistance, I’d be lost. I’m hoping that, as the company grows, I’ll be able to transfer more tasks to Craig.

In terms of speculative fiction, you’ve edited various gay-themed speculative fiction anthologies such as So Fey and Wild Stories. How did you end up being the go-to guy for such books?

I sought to combine my love for a good story—whether fantastical or horrific—with queer culture. If people consider me “the go-to guy” for such books, I’m flattered. I really want to both create and promote the best such work in that mesh of genres.

What do you look for in a story as an editor?

Characters that matter, storylines that move me. Seems simple, right? But too often the author focuses on developing the plotline rather than the characters involved. I want to read fiction that affects me. I remember a number of stories in So Fey left me in tears (one of which, Joshua Lewis’s “Ever So Much More Than Twenty,” won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for short fiction).

For actors/actresses, there’s a fear of being typecast into a certain role. Do you ever have such fears or are people asking you to work on gay-themed projects always a welcome experience?

I once asked Chip Delany if I should worry about being “typecast.” He told me that, whether I like it or not, people will consider me that “Jewish writer who writes gay stuff.” So be it.

Who are some of the authors that you admire or some of your favorite books?

I love Samuel Delany, Toni Morrison, Steve Erickson (the American author), Patricia McKillip and Octavia Butler. Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu books and the obscure novels of fantasist Philip Ridley (In The Eyes Of Mr. Fury) were seminal books in my development as a writer. And I’m chuffed that I am working with Ms. Lee, as her Tales From The Flat Earth were among the first gay-friendly books I’d read.

I think I read more young adult fiction these days, so my answer would be writers like Holly Black, Libba Bray, and Kris Reisz. In the field of gay writers, I think the essays of Jeff Mann are top-notch, and Rick Bowes tells the most amazing short stories. I consider Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner a perfect novel.

With all these new technologies popping up such as the Internet, how has it affected you, either as a writer, an editor, or a publisher?

Inter-what? Okay, to be honest, Craig is the fellow who has been the reliable voice of Lethe lately; he Twitters and blogs. I’m a bit backwards on the social networking sites. Other technologies… hmm, well, E-books, though, have been a growing source of revenue.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Now that I’m an editor, I can tell writers this: realize that editors aren’t your enemy. They really want your work to be the best it can be, and for it to sell. Publishing—as opposed to writing—is a business transaction, and must be treated as such.

I think the most important tool in a writer’s kit must be a trusted critique partner or two. You have to have someone that can give you an honest appraisal of a story, and this person should not only have a vested interest in your career but also knowledge of the field (otherwise our Moms would be great critiques). A critique partner is as invaluable as a good agent—in many ways, they are like pseudo-agents, helping a writer develop.

Advice for aspiring editors?

Learn the difference between copy-editing, proofreading and ‘developmental’ editing. They all require different skill sets!

For anthologists: ask yourself why there is a need for the anthology, what are your intended readers expecting (and how you can exceed these expectations), and who do I need in the book to make all this happen, because an anthology without any “names” is often quickly forgotten.

Advice for would-be publishers?


Anything else you want to plug?

Our production person, Toby Johnson, is really top-notch. Lethe is really blessed with finding a talented person who works tirelessly on our behalf.

I cannot thank our authors enough. Jameson Currier, Catherine Lundoff, Lynne Jamneck, Lee Thomas, to name a few—have treated Lethe like a valued friend, and I am grateful for the chance to share their words.

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