Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Interview: Matthew Kressel

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Matthew Kressel is the publisher of Sybil's Garage and Paper Cities, An Anthology of Urban Fantasy. His work has appeared in publications such as Interzone, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Naked City: New Tales of Urban Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, Apex Magazine, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Farrago's Wainscot, A Field Guide to Surreal Botany, and other markets.

Hi Matt! Eeek, you're a man of many talents. Maybe we could start with your press. What made you decide to start Senses Five Press?

Thanks, Charles! I think it was a convergence of a lot of things, but it all came together with my desire to create a 'zine in the style of Lady Churchill's and Electric Velocipede and others. The "Press" then was really just me stapling and collating a bunch of sheets from a laser printer at this small print shop in Hoboken, New Jersey, which no longer exists. This quiet guy used to come in and print out these amazing pieces of SFnal art, and one day I approached him and asked him if he was into SF. I thought he was just some local artist. Turns out he was Gordon van Gelder of F&SF, and he was printing out future covers of his magazine. What a cool coincidence, right? I take a job at this little print shop and in walks the editor of one of the largest SF magazines in the world, a magazine that I read as a kid and was a big inspiration for me getting into SF. That encounter itself probably didn't inspire the creation of Senses Five Press, but it sure was a nice piece of synchronicity, a sign that I was on the right track.

Why the name Senses Five Press?

It's from William Blake: "How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?"

What's the biggest challenge in running the press so far?

Mostly, time. Running a press is a bit like having a pet. You can't just leave it alone for weeks. You can't just go away and hope it will be alive when you come back. In the real world that translates to advertising, promotion, hauling boxes of books to conventions, reading stories, doing all the hard work required to produce a magazine, and balancing that with all the other things going on in my life. It's been a challenge, sure. But I do it for fun, so mostly the challenge is really just an excuse for me to complain. It's really not a chore if you love it, and I do.

Aside from Sybil's Garage, what would make you consider publishing a book or a magazine in Senses Five Press? What made you decide to publish Paper Cities back in 2008?

At the time I decided to publish Paper Cities, I was looking to expand Senses Five Press into a multi-titled small press house like Small Beer Press or Night Shade Books. Ekaterina Sedia heard that I was looking to publish anthologies and so pitched the amazing lineup to me. More than two years later, I can tell you it's been a hell of a fun ride, but incredibly time consuming and expensive. I've received about a dozen offers for new anthologies since Paper Cities won the World Fantasy Award, some of them with pretty damn tempting table of contents, but right now I'm planning on focusing on Sybil's Garage and my own fiction writing. That's not to say that Senses Five Press is done with anthologies, only that it's not on the near horizon for me in terms of goals.

Moving on to Sybil's Garage, what made you decide to start the magazine?

As I said, I was inspired by Electric Velocipede and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and other 'zines, and also because I got excited about creating something from scratch. I was a bit of a pyromaniac as a kid, and I think part of my fascination with fire was my understanding that one small spark can become a huge conflagration. Not that I want to burn anything anymore, but I think it was the same feeling, that this little act of creation could potentially become something big. It was and is still really exciting to watch the magazine's popularity grow.

I certainly liked your latest issue but in your opinion, what characteristics of the 'zine distinguishes it from the other speculative fiction magazines out there?

From what I see in the other SF magazines I read and subscribe to, with the exception of perhaps Interzone and Weird Tales, Sybil's Garage focuses more on the aesthetics of the magazine. I think that as we move to electronic forms of media delivery, like e-books, people will choose paper over other forms when paper offers something that e-ink cannot, namely a visceral experience. I try to incorporate that into the design by including music suggestions under each story or poem, by interlacing the stories with suggestive but not spoiling imagery, and by peppering the magazine with cryptic, but interesting marginalia. And the cover. Always, I strive to have interesting covers. I try to make each issue a work of art in itself. I believe this accounts for part of the magazine's success.

But from a content standpoint, I think that Sybil's is willing to take risks with stories that some of the larger publications often cannot, due to the expectations on their readership. Since we do not require a speculative element in our stories, sometimes we get wonderful little pieces like "How I Got Fired From the Best Damn Job in the Whole Wide World" by Samantha Henderson which has no fantasy in it whatsoever, but has that genre sensibility. We're also not tied down to any one sub-genre. We're just as likely to publish science fiction, horror, fantasy, or slipstream or none of the above. It's that sense of surprise, I believe, that keeps people interested in what we're doing.

What made you decide to include those cryptic marginalia, or music suggestions under each story/poem? (And wouldn't it be cool if one day each magazine came packaged with a soundtrack?)

For the latest issue, I created an iTunes playlist (http://www.sensesfive.com/2009/05/30/sybils-garage-no-6-playlist/), which is about 95% accurate to what appears in the magazine. I know iTunes isn't available or convenient for parts of the world, but it's a start.

For the musical suggestions, it's simply because I love music. Music has always been very inspirational for me, and I thought it would be a fun way to see what others were listening to and inspired by. Kind of like peeking into someone's record collection. Crap, I just dated myself. I should say "mp3 collection."

For the marginalia, I'm not sure I can answer that simply. I think part of the reason I pepper it throughout the pages has to do with my obsession with detail, a desire to fill in every nook and cranny. I also think it has to do with the joy I've felt in finding similar cryptic messages or imagery in song lyrics, album art, comics, books, films, and other media. And then, as I dig in further, discovering what they mean. I'm purposely trying to invoke that in Sybil's, that unexpected frisson when you suddenly discover three quarters of the way through the magazine that there's a story written in the margins, for example. It's no secret that my favorite film is Blade Runner, and I've always admired Ridley Scott's obsessive attention to detail, the intense layering of objects, so I guess in a way I'm emulating that too.

But yeah, a Sybil's Garage soundtrack would be brilliant. I'm actually working on something related to that, interestingly enough.

As an editor, what do you look for in a story?

I look first for stories that are well written, stories that affect me emotionally. Stories with magnificent ideas, stories that stick with me long after I'm done reading them. I look for stories that have unusual settings and non-traditional protagonists. As our guidelines say, we are interested in seeing stories by and/or about varied ethnicities, social classes, nationalities, and cultures. I like strange stories. Weird things. I have a tendency to pick stories about loss, heartache, and nostalgia. Also, I tend to pick stories that fit with my editorial vision for the magazine, which is about breaking this supposed wall between "literary" and "genre" fiction. I have a friend who had an excellent story rejected by a genre market because it had no speculative element. (The editor said so in the rejection letter.) I respect that particular market very much, but I never, ever want to do that to someone.

Moving on to your other activities, how did you get involved with the KGB Fantastic Fiction series? What does hosting the event entail?

I was a regular attendee of the series for a few years, and I had become friendly with Gavin Grant, the then co-host, because of my effort with Sybil's Garage. Gavin was (and is) always willing to offer his publishing wisdom or table space at a con or to introduce me to someone-to-know(tm). Once or twice he had trouble getting to KGB and so asked me to fill in for him. It had been tough for him to travel so far every month (he lives three hours away), and so he eventually decided to pass the torch. I almost didn't take the job. I enjoyed sitting quietly in the back with my friends, without responsibilities, drinking my Baltikas, listening to good fiction. But my writers group kicked me in the arse. And let me tell you, I'm so happy they did. It's amazing to work with Ellen Datlow. She's incredibly professional, knows so many talented people, and she's a really wonderful person too. The series wouldn't exist without her. It's also fabulous to get to meet so many talented writers each month and be part of that energy.

There's a lot that goes into hosting the event. There's scheduling, email lists, website updates, photos, booksellers, stipends for the readers, restaurant reservations, making sure the guests are comfortable & hydrated, tipping the bar, paying for the guests' dinner, etc., etc. But it's enormously fun, so I don't mind the work.

How big of an impact do you think the KGB readings are to the community?

Before I was co-hosting the series, attending KGB was a way for me to get to know the New York SF scene, and it's still very much the place to be for that. With the exception of our sister series, the NYRSF readings, there really is no regular place where so many agents, publishers, editors, writers and fans of SF get together for drinks and conversation. I'm very careful not to believe that New York and the U.S. are at the center of the universe, but a heck of a lot of publishing happens right here in New York, and I think the series benefits immensely from being surrounded by that. So, yeah, we definitely have a positive impact on the New York community and I believe outside that as well by featuring and promoting authors from all over the world. But I'm biased, of course.

How did you get involved with the Altered Fluid writing group?

I took a workshop-type class at the New School called "Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy." It was supposed to be taught by Terry Bisson, but he had just taken a leave of absence, and so Alice Turner took over for him. At the end of the class, Alice knew a few of us were looking to join a writers group and so she hooked me up with some folks who had formed in the wake of an earlier class, which Terry had taught. That group eventually came to be called Altered Fluid. Interestingly, Alice and Terry had founded the KGB Fantastic Fiction reading series, so I guess I owe both of them a whole lot.

What made you decide to use the Clarion Writers Workshop style of critiquing?

We started using that method when Kris Dikeman returned from a workshop (I don't recall the name) of which Kelly Link was one of the instructors. It wasn't Clarion, but there they had taught her the Clarion style of critique and she brought it back with her. A gift of law for the heathens. Prior to that we had these free-form critiques, which were immensely fun if you're impatient and like to interrupt like me, and intensely frustrating at times when you're trying to get a point across and everyone suddenly interrupts you or corrects you or points out how wrong you are. The Clarion method has worked really well for us, and since now about half of our members have attended the workshop, it's pretty much become a standard, though we do break it from time to time when we have a small meeting.
Moving on to your writing, what got you interested in speculative fiction?

A whole bunch of things. My father was a big reader of science fiction, and introduced me to a lot of the classics. I was also interested in science at a very young age, and so my dad fed that interest by bringing me a lot of science books. I was also, and I think this is true of a lot of writers, a constant daydreamer. I created whole fantasy worlds in my head, with rules and characters and objects. I have a very active imagination. I believed in the tooth fairy and ghosts and monsters for far too long. I grew up watching shows like The Tomorrow People and Mr. Wizard and Dr. Who. I read choose-your-own-adventure novels, Dungeons and Dragons' campaigns, and played tons of video games like Zork and Bard's Tale. It all went into the potluck of my brain. But it was mostly my father, I think, who put those first few books in front of me that got me hooked.

Does living in New York have any influence on your writing?

Absolutely. This city definitely has an energy and if I'm gone too long I start to miss it. New York has tons of really horrible things and tons of really wonderful things co-existing side by side. Milan Kundera said that New York can be so bleak that it's beautiful. I was living in midtown a few years back and on this cold, misty night a young British woman was crossing the empty street, and the rain was lit by the streetlights, and the air was brisk and terrible, and she said, in this slow, drawn-out English way, "Urban decay." And, yeah, that line moved me, and I eventually wrote a story about it. And then there's the High Line, where they took this abandoned elevated train line and repurposed it as a garden. It's beautiful, full of color and texture and variety. The outdoor garden runs right through several ultra-modern, architecturally interesting buildings too, many of which I hadn't known existed until recently. I've lived here for most of my life and I'm still discovering new things. They give you ideas.

In line with that, have you thought of writing a novel about New York?

Heh. I'm currently working on a novel which takes place, at least partly, in New York City, but it's not about New York. You see that a lot from writers who live here. Their stories often take place in the city. Sometimes I write about the actual city, but mostly I just use ideas I get from experiences here and translate them into other places and settings.

How about the short story, what is it about the format that appeals to you?

The short story is a manageable form. I can write a short story in a week or two, send it off to my writers group the following week, and send it out to a publisher a week or two after that. On the other hand, a novel I wrote (currently trunked) took me two years to write, and another year to rewrite, and after five or six drafts it still needs work. Reading a short story too is something you can do in a limited amount of time, like a subway ride, or over your lunch break.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

So many different people will tell you so many different things about how to write. Recently I was browsing through the "writing how-to" books at the bookstore, and one of them said something like, "What the hell are you doing reading this book? The only way to improve your writing is by writing!" I closed the book right there. It hit me then that no one can tell you what works for you, no one can say that this method or that method is "the way." Stephen King says it succinctly in On Writing: "Write a lot and read a lot." Which is what I try to do. But ultimately, I would say, find out what inspires you to write and stick with that. Find that spark and feed it. I got sidetracked several times (and still do) by trying to write what I thought others would like instead of what I loved. Of course, that may not be the best advice if you want to write best-sellers, but it keeps me heading back to the page every morning.

The second most important thing is feedback, having a group of peers whom you can call upon to critique your work. Don't work alone! Ideally, that group should be other writers with similar goals, people who are also working on their craft and who understand the pitfalls involved.

And lastly, don't despair if the writing life is not all glorious and magical and full of sparkles. Mostly it's hard work with occasional glimmers of joy. As Rilke says, we write because we'd curl up and die if we didn't.

Advice for aspiring publishers?

Yes: Run away!

Heh, no just kidding. Well, sort of. Publishing is hard work, and so many startup presses fail because they don't understand the commitment involved. To run a press, and to run it well requires professionalism, attention to detail, money, self-sacrifice, and so many other things. I mean, seriously, eighteen months to respond to a short story? Eighteen months? If you can't respond to people in a reasonable amount of time, why are you doing this? Microsoft Word layouts don't cut it people! If you are not a graphic artist, hire one to layout your magazine! Nothing ruins a good book for me as quick as bad formatting. I could go on. What I'm saying here is that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Don't bother if you plan to half-ass it.

Also, there's the inevitable talk about the (supposed) death of print, declining readership numbers, failing global economies, etc., etc., which are certainly not trivial topics and need to be soberly considered. I'd say that if you know all the risks, if you've heard the overused adage about publishing* and scoff at the miniscule challenge, then by all means go for it! The world could definitely use more markets. ;)

* "How does one make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large one."

Anything else you want to plug?

Yes, please check out the bios of Altered Fluid (http://www.alteredfluid.com/member-bios/), and go visit their web sites and check out their fiction. I'm so very lucky to be a part of this group of amazingly talented people, to be challenged and delighted by them every single day. They are my friends and they are brilliant and many of them are more than partly responsible for Sybil's Garage too, in various capacities.

And, well, thank you Charles, for this interview, and for your superlatively awesome blog which has, in a very short time, become one of the more important blogs in the genresphere, in my humble opinion. So thanks & happy speculating!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Great interview! What a thrill to meet Gordon van Gelder, too.
Matt, you have so much going on, it's almost scary. And don't feel dated - I still have a few records hanging around somwhere...

anna tambour said...

Excellent q's and a's.
Loved what you said about small presses, Matt.