December 11, 2007
Slush God: An Interview with John Joseph Adams
I was fortunate enough to strike up a correspondence with John Joseph Adams slush editor with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). Well known for his ability to find gems in piles of slush, Adams was recently guest editor of the Pirate Issue of Shimmer Magazine (my review), and will be publishing his first anthology, Wastelands, with Night Shade Books in January 2008. In the following interview he discusses these two works as well as recommends some of his favorite short fiction authors.
GFTW: What exactly does an editor of a short story magazine do?
John Joseph Adams: An editor is responsible for choosing the contents you find in the magazine. At the most basic level, an editor could be described as a "quality filter." Or, in other words, we read lots of bad stuff so you don't have to.
At a magazine like F&SF, which has an open submissions policy (meaning that anyone in the world can submit a story and we'll look at it), the editorial staff reads all of the story submissions that are sent to the magazine (or tries to anyway--a lot of the stories we receive aren't exactly what you'd call "readable"), and from that pool of stories pick what we think are the best ones and the ones we think our readers will most enjoy.
There's also, of course, the actual editing part, where you go over the manuscripts with a red pen and make suggestions on how to improve the story to the author in the margins. Actually, I say red pen, because that's the iconic image of an editor's weapon, but at F&SF we generally just use a regular pencil.
GFTW: So, tell us a little bit about being “The Slush God” at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Just how painful of a job is it to read all those unsolicited stories?
JJA: You know, I do have to read a lot of bad stories, but I can't complain. I mean, hey, I get paid to read all day. How cool is that? I don't consider it painful at all, really; it's not like I have to finish reading every story even if it's really, really terrible. (If I did, now that would be painful.)
But despite all the bad stories I have to sort through, discovering the really good ones makes up for it. Plus, there's more to my job than just reading the slush; I get to participate in the editorial process in other ways as well. For instance, I also read everything Gordon is thinking of buying before he does so, and provide him with feedback that he uses to help him make his final decisions.
GFTW: Like many of the readers of this blog, you also review sci-fi and fantasy, but on a professional level. What do you do to avoid sounding repetitious in your assessments?
JJA: I'm probably the wrong person to ask that question, because the only thing I can think to say is: quit reviewing. That's what I did. I discovered that I don't particularly enjoy writing reviews, that writing them sometimes felt like trying to squeeze water from a stone, and yes--trying to avoid sounding repetitious was one of the frustrations. I never really figured out how to do that though, or else if I did, I wasn't conscious of it, and I couldn't pass along advice on how to do so.
Of course, one way to avoid that is to make sure you read wildly different books. If you review 10 epic fantasies in a row, I'm not sure there's any way to avoid sounding repetitious in that case.
GFTW: What qualities do you look for in a short story? Are these any different from what you might look for in a novel?
JJA: It's really hard to describe what it is one looks for in a story; if it were easy to spell out, writer's guidelines for every publication in the world would have a nice detailed description of what it is they're looking for. The trouble is, it's really kind of impossible to say. Or at least I can't think of how to describe it.
I can compare short stories to novels, though. Short stories need to be really tight and don't have much room for digressions, while novels allow the writer more room to sprawl. Also, short stories tend to be a better vehicle for experimentation, and for challenging a writer's comfort zone.
GFTW: You were recently invited to be a guest editor for the Pirate Issue of Shimmer Magazine. What was your approach to choosing stories for this issue?
JJA: One of the things I wanted to do with the Pirate Issue is have a broad range of pirate stories, which took some liberties interpreting the term "pirate." Of course, there are some stories in the issue that are your typical iconic Caribbean-style pirate, but it was important to me to have a certain diversity represented. So that was one factor.
Other than that, I was really just judging the stories on their own merits as I would judge any story. In fact, that was the only way I could judge them, really, because Shimmer employs a "blind" reading system, in which the names of the contributors are stripped off of their manuscripts before the editor sees them. So when I read each story, all I had was the title and the text. It was kind of a liberating feeling to read each story with absolutely no preconceptions, not even subconsciously, about what I might think about the story I was about to read. (And this was only enhanced by the fact that I read all the submissions electronically, so every submission looked exactly the same to me--there were no variations in manuscript formatting or other things like that to get in the way of me engaging with the story.)
The only other time I've ever read a story anonymously, as far as I know, is when I read Neil Gaiman's "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" for F&SF. The manuscript didn't have Gaiman's name on it, just the title. I kind of felt like I recognized the voice, but I couldn't put my finger on who it was. After I got to the end, I saw Neil Gaiman's name, and so I learned who wrote it. But I was glad to have read it that way, and I enjoyed reading a whole slush pile's worth for Shimmer that way.
GFTW: What is your opinion on editors publishing their own stories in the anthologies or magazines they edit? (Something I note you did not do in the Pirate Issue of Shimmer.)
JJA: I generally frown upon an editor including something in his own anthology, though there are exceptions. I guess it really depends on who the editor/writer is. If it's Robert Silverberg, and there isn't a story by him in the book, I might feel like I've got a book that's not as good as it could be. If you're a writer like him, and any anthology would be made better by having a story by you in it--and for Silverberg that's a pretty universally acknowledged truism--then, yeah, you go ahead and publish your own stuff.
Other writers, though? Doing so is fraught with peril. I've certainly seen some writer/editors who have included their own stories in an anthology and I thought the stories were terrible. That's the thing, really--if you're going to do that, you better make damn sure that your story is really great and is beyond criticism, because you're going to get criticized for putting it in there.
As for magazines, that's a slightly different story, because with a magazine, there are many people involved, whereas with an anthology there's generally only one. For instance, when Kristine Kathryn Rusch was editing F&SF, she sold a few stories to the magazine while she was editor, but that was easy to workaround: she just submitted her stories directly to the publisher, Ed Ferman (who in addition to being the publisher was the previous editor, and had been for more than 30 years). Basically, as there's some kind of check and balance system there, I think it's fine, though if you're going to do that you should be aware that it's pretty likely some people won't like the fact that you did it.
That's not why I didn't include anything of my own in the Shimmer pirate issue though, or at least it's not the only reason. The primary reason why I didn't include anything of my own is that I'm just not writing fiction at the moment. I got into editing through my interest in writing fiction, but I found that reading slush all day kind of paralyzed my writing ability. So I struggled with that for a while, and then just kind of gave up fighting with it and decided to put writing on hold for the time being. But I've learned so much about writing from working as an editor, that should I turn my hand to it in the future, I know I'll be a much better writer than I ever was before.
GFTW: You have an upcoming anthology called Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse (January 2008). What is the story behind the creation of this anthology featuring such notables as George R. R. Martin, Stephen King, Octavia Butler, Orson Scott Card, and Gene Wolfe? Why now, and why this subject?
JJA: My fascination with the sub-genre started years ago, with video games. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with this post-apocalyptic role-playing game called Wasteland (the inspiration for the title, incidentally). This was when I was 13 or 14 or so, so the computer technology wasn't the greatest. I'm pretty sure I was playing it on a Commodore 64 computer. But at the time, it seemed to be pretty good, and like most RPGs the story was why I played it. (I mean like most role-playing games, not rocket-propelled grenades, which I'm pretty sure appeared in the game.)
I'd always been a reader, but I didn't become a hardcore book nerd until I was 18 or so. And once I did, it was like an obsession. I was reading like a book a day or every other day, and though I'd read and liked a lot of SF and fantasy as a kid, I never identified as a genre reader. But anyway, once I discovered SF was where the books I really wanted to read were, I binged on that, and I read post-apocalyptic novels and short stories whenever I could find them.
Several years later, I picked up the short-lived British magazine 3SF and discovered their "Reader's Guide" column, which was basically an introduction to a sub-genre, along with a recommended reading list. At the time, I was thinking of trying my hand at non-fiction (since my fiction writing had stalled out), and I thought, "I could do that." And so the first thing I thought to try was an article on post-apocalyptic SF. 3SF accepted my pitch and bought my article, but sadly, they went out of business before my article saw print. It did, however, appear in a slightly different form some time later in the webzine The Internet Review of Science Fiction, as a "sub-genre spotlight."
The article required a lot of research, during which I discovered that there was a distinct lack of post-apocalyptic anthologies on the market. So I decided to try to sell an original post-apocalyptic anthology. I tried shopping that around for a while without success. Then, a couple years later, I saw that Bison Books reissued the one major post-apocalyptic anthology--Beyond Armageddon--and I thought I'd put together a proposal for the spiritual successor to that book, I'd reprint the best post-apocalyptic stories published since Beyond Armageddon first appeared, in 1984. By this time, I'd found an agent--Jenny Rappaport of the L. Perkins Agency--to represent my anthology proposals, and when I told her about this idea, she was confident she could sell it. And she did.
As for why now, why this subject, well, aside from my own personal fascination with the sub-genre, post-apocalyptic fiction seems to be part of the zeitgeist right now. I mean, you've got Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road not only winning the Pulitzer Prize, but appearing as an Oprah Book Club selection! If that's not a sign of the apocalypse, I don't know what is. But seriously, at F&SF, I'd been seeing a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction in both the slush and from professional writers. So many that I've joked that if we'd published all of them, we would've had to change the name of the magazine to Mutants & Marauders Monthly. That influx of post-apocalyptic stories started me thinking about how the times we're living in now are reminiscent of the times during the Cold War, when the threat of annihilation seemed like a very real possibility. And post-apocalyptic fiction first came to prominence during the Cold War, so I figured that in this current, similar political climate, that the time was right.
GFTW: What has been your proudest moment as an editor?
JJA: There have been a lot of proud moments, but I guess I'd have to say my proudest moment was when Night Shade Books offered to buy Wastelands. I've had the dream of having my name on the spine of a book for many years now. Having it appear as editor of an anthology wasn't how I originally envisioned it, but since my focus shifted from writing to editing, there's nothing I've wanted more than to have an anthology to call my own. (Well, except maybe for a magazine to call my own...)
GFTW: In the time you have spent editing The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, what have been your favorite finds?
JJA: That's like asking me to pick my favorite child! Of course, I do have my favorites, but it doesn't seem fair to the authors for me to single them out in public. I will say that I'm especially gratified by seeing the writers I've discovered either sell subsequent stories to F&SF, or sell stories to other markets.
We just bought another "slush survivor" on Friday (12/7) that I like quite a lot--so much so that of all the stories in that batch of acquisitions, I liked that one best. But I can't even tell you who it's by or what the story's about because the author won't have even received the contract yet and I wouldn't want him/her to learn about the sale somewhere else!
GFTW: Who, in your opinion, are the greatest short story writers of the speculative fiction genre, living or dead?
JJA: Off the top of my head, the first names that come to mind are Jeffrey Ford, Lucius Shepard, and M. Rickert. I think they're writing some of the best short fiction anywhere on the planet at the moment.
And though he's better known for his novels and the films based upon them, Stephen King really is a master of the short form. Incidentally, I was glad to hear that he's thinking of spending more time writing short fiction, a decision inspired by his recent tenure as editor of The Best American Short Stories 2007. (And glad that he sold one of those new pieces of short fiction to F&SF.)
Similarly, George R. R. Martin has a wealth of great short fiction in his catalog, which has mostly been collected in the mammoth, two-volume Dreamsongs. I've been listening to the audiobook of that recently, re-reading some of my old favorites and discovering others I hadn't gotten to yet. I think the Song of Ice and Fire is his true masterwork, but he's written plenty of short stories that could have vied for that title.
Although he wasn't prolific enough to be mentioned as one of the greatest writers, Daniel Keyes wrote what is without question my favorite short story, "Flowers for Algernon." Which is, incidentally, followed very closely behind by "The Deathbird" by Harlan Ellison--another writer worthy of adding to such a list. I was going to say he's really the only one I can think of who made his entire career out of short fiction, but that's not necessarily true anymore; two more recent examples of such are the great Kelly Link and Ted Chiang, two brilliant writers whose entire catalog to date has been short fiction. Of course, in the case of those two, they're both quite young, so it's a bit too early to put a label on their careers.
But I should really stop now, because this list could go on for a long, long time.
GFTW: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.