It has been a lucky draw this time around for May’s guest interview with Ann VanderMeer. She is the founder of her publishing company Buzzcity Press and The Silver Web, a *printed magazine. She and her husband manage Weirdfictionreview.com, an online hub for the weird and also spends her time sifting through original fiction for Tor.com. In the midst of all that, Ann won the Hugo Award as a fiction editor of Weird Tales for best Semiprozine. Books and periodicals she has published have won the British Fantasy Award and the International Rhysling Award as well. Needless to say, her work and keen eye has been exceptional and she has agreed to share some of her wisdom and thoughts on editing and publishing works.
Thank you to the members who contributed with questions. She gave us some good nuggets so kick back and, without further adieu, enjoy the interview with Ann!
How did you start off your editing career, and what coaxed you into going down this path? Did you always want to be an editor?
ABV: I started off as a reader. My dad had the entire series of L. Frank Baum Oz books and that’s what got me hooked on stories, especially stories of a particular kind
am_hammy asks: Do you ever find yourself editing things ‘off the job’?
ABV: Unfortunately yes…I find myself discovering all kinds of grammar and spelling issues everywhere. And I am now spoiled – I cannot read something poorly written. I belong to a bookclub here at home. New book every month. And I hate to say it; if the book chosen is not well-written I just…can’t…read…it.
TKent asks: What is your favorite work you’ve edited? Why?
ABV: Gosh – that’s a difficult question to answer. For a reprint anthology I’d have to say THE WEIRD. This was a very ambitious project and I am very proud with how it turned out. I am especially happy with how many underrated and unknown writers we were able to uncover and bring back into print. Although that book was published several years ago, we still get compliments about it and I know it’s still taught in many college courses. As for original fiction, I would say Weird Tales, the iconic magazine I edited for five years.
Do I sense theme here? Perhaps. My goal with Weird Tales was to bring it into the 21st Century and reach a wider audience. I worked hard to accomplish just that. I included a lot of up-and coming writers alongside very well-known names. I also published a lot of international writers.
popsprocket asks: Where do you draw the line between a work that is worth editing up to standard, and a work that would simply be more work than it was worth?
ABV: The core of the story has to be worth it. If the writer doesn’t have the story basics down, it’s not worth it (i.e. believable characters, a compelling story, a reason to turn the page and an unusual tale). If I see familiar storylines and cardboard characters, I will pass. However, if I see some spark in there, something unique that the writer has presented to me that I’ve never seen before, I will encourage them to try me again.
Tkent asks: How do you come up with an idea for a new anthology project? Can you give us an example?
ABV: My husband and I come up with the best ideas when we’re hiking. You never know what will spark an idea. Once we were taking a hike and talking about how we could do a follow-up to THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD POCKET GUIDE TO ECCENTRIC AND DISCREDITED DISEASES (aka The Fake Disease Guide). One thing we knew for sure, we did not want to do another anthology of fake diseases. At that time, our daughter was living in a house with lots of other college students. The kitchen had about 87 cabinets. OK, well maybe not that many, but it seemed like a lot. And as we were walking and talking we came up with the idea of doing a cabinet of curiosities. Each writer would create a story around some artifact that Dr. Lambshead had ‘found’ and placed in his collection. We kicked around the idea of getting different artists to join us on this project and create the artifacts that the writers would then write about. And voila! THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD CABINET OF CURIOSITIES was born.
Do you have a process you follow when you edit an anthology? What about a story?
ABV: I don’t like to repeat myself, so each project I do is different from all the others. I design each book around a core set of ideas, theme, writers and/or artwork. And then I branch out from there, seeking stories from all over. I have a working spreadsheet for each project where I keep track of my work, my progress. It allows me to see how the book is developing and where I may need to cut or add. It is important that the stories all ‘play nice’ with each other. Because I consider each anthology to be a conversation between all the different tales, I take all of this into consideration when selecting the fiction.
As for my process when editing an original story, I always read a story at least twice before making a decision on it. And I usually wait a week or so between readings to see if the story still has the same affect on me. Once I’ve made the decision to buy it, I will go through it several times; each run-through has a different purpose. Once for language (make sure there isn’t anything clunky, word repetition, etc), again for logic, and again for clarity. I may do other passes depending on the story and the project.
TKent asks: In your work editing and acquiring short fiction, what are the top three elements that will ensure a story gets your attention in a good way?
ABV: The first page needs to draw me in by presenting an interesting character right away and I have to know in some form where/when I am. I have to be grounded. No cliché’s or stereotypes. I must want to know what will happen next. So there has to be a bit of a mystery to capture my attention, something unknown. It doesn’t matter if I end up knowing what it is in the end or not, but I need to have that question, that uncertainty.
J Anfinson asks: Other than failing to follow the submission guidelines, what’s the number one way to ensure a story goes from the slush pile to the depths of file 13?
If the story starts in a dream, or dreamlike state where the character doesn’t know who they are or where they are, that’s an instant turn off. Also, nasty little characters that do nasty little things for no other reason than shock value. Another turn off. Poorly written stories where I can’t figure out what the heck is going on. Or if I do know what’s going on, but I just don’t care.
popsprocket asks: Can you estimate what sort of ratio you see of submissions to accepted manuscripts/stories?
ABV: Oh gosh! I don’t want to discourage anyone but I probably accept less than 1% of what I see. When I was the editor at Weird Tales I received an average of 50 stories every single day (weekends and holidays, too). That’s over 300 stories week! Keeping in mind that I could only publish about 6-8 stories an issue and put out 4 issues a year (when we were on schedule), that’s 24-32 stories a year.
TKent asks: How does it feel when you are reading a story and first realize it is going to be extraordinary?
ABV: I feel GREAT! I get very excited and try to slow down my reading so that I can savor each and every word. But if it doesn’t satisfy at the end I feel very disappointed.
popsprocket asks: How important is it for a story to be ‘on trend’?
ABV: For me? Not at all.
What led you to focus your career on science fiction and fantasy (and sub-genres)?
ABV: I have always been drawn to the dark side! But seriously, I love the idea of jumping out into the unknown where I have no idea what will happen next. Science fiction and fantasy fiction do this for me.
Who are some of your favorite authors and why?
ABV: Jeff VanderMeer – I am not just saying that because he is my husband. I love his books and stories. I am also a huge fan of Meg Gardiner, Michael Connolly and Laura Lippman (I love their detective novels, I do). Robert Jackson Bennett and Elizabeth Gilbert (I bet you never thought you’d see both those names in the same sentence but there you go!). And many more…
Are there any new authors you are excited about right now?
I am excited about Karin Tidbeck, a Swedish writer I met in 2010. She writes like a crazy genius who doesn’t follow the rules and gets away with it because she is so damn unique!
Also, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, a Dutch writer. His first English language novel HEX (he has five in The Netherlands) is coming out from Tor next year. I can’t wait to read it.
What are you reading right now that isn’t work-related?
ABV: I just finished reading H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald and am now reading WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Also on my nightstand are STILL LIFE by Melissa Milgrom and NAIROBI HEAT by Mukoma Wa Ngugi. So as you can see the trend in my reading tastes when not working are non-fiction and detective fiction, ha!
What kickstarted your interest in creating your own publishing company?
ABV: I was young and didn’t know any better, ha! But seriously, I wanted to start my own speculative magazine. And because I thought I could, I did. I started publishing The Sterling Web with a partner, Amy Mann in the late 80’s under the company name Arachnid Publishing. After she left in 1991, I changed the name of the magazine to The Silver Web and started Buzzcity Press. In addition to the magazine, I also published Jeff’s first book, DRADIN IN LOVE, which would later become part of CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN and Michael Cisco’s first novel, THE DIVINITY STUDENT. Both were very successful.
am_hammy asks: What was your biggest challenge with Buzzcity Press?
ABV: Time and money! I never had enough to do what I wanted.
What inspired you to create WeirdFictionReview.com?
ABV: This website was originally created to help promote our anthology THE WEIRD. While working on this book we found so many underrated and unknown writers and we wanted a place to talk about and celebrate their work. We also found so much that couldn’t fit into the book for a variety of reasons. From there, as with all things VanderMeer, the project expanded and the website because its own online magazine – a repository for all things weird in fiction, art, film and music. We are now publishing some original fiction alongside all the other cool things Weird Fiction Review has to offer.
What are your future goals for yourself and your various projects?
ABV: I want to keep publishing great fiction and bringing together writers that may not have known about each other. I have a particular project in mind that has been our dream for a long time. More on that later!
Given the editing and publishing experience you have now, what advice would you give to yourself when you first started your career?
ABV: Believe in your first instincts. They are usually right. And believe in yourself.
Are you currently working on editing or publishing any new books? What excites you the most about the project(s)?
ABV: Jeff and I are currently finishing up THE BIG BOOK OF SCIENCE FICTION for Vintage. It will be a huge anthology of over 500,000 words covering more than 100 years of the best science fiction from all over the world. We have some stories translated into English for the first time as well as other stories in new translations that were originally translated in the 1960’s or earlier. It will be published in August 2016.
How can we learn more about you and your work?
ABV: Look for the original fiction I have acquired over at Tor.com and check out Weird Fiction Review online. Also, you can find me on twitter at @annvandermeer.