Jack Dann and Jonathan Strahan will be teaching at Clarion West 2019 in Week Five, also known as Editors’ Week. Here’s a glimpse into their writing lives as they trade questions and words of wisdom.
How the hell did you — do you — do it? Do you winnow through the huge yearly output of genre writers? Do you read everything or do you have a system that facilitates prioritization? Are you a fast reader? But whether you’re a slow or a fast reader, does the sheer number of stories become a burden to read? Does editing such a fine, comprehensive anthology to an annual deadline take some of the pleasure out of reading? Frankly, I don’t think I could do it. I once had the chance and, knowing my impatience and limitations, gave a polite “no.”
Three questions, Jack! Three. There’s a million in there. I’m a medium slow reader so doing all of the reading I need to do for Locus and my various anthology projects means that I have to be organised and methodical. I keep a batch of spreadsheets which I use to track what’s coming out and what’s out, and I annotate those to record what I’ve read, what I’ve not read, and what I need to find.
I also always keep in mind that I’m reading for the best of the year. I don’t try to finish all or even most of what I read. I can usually tell if something is working in the first page or two and if it’s likely to be a contender in half its length. If I get halfway through it, I mark it as a possible and then depending on how I feel, I either finish it and write it up, or set it aside. That gets me get through a lot. I then come back in the final part of the year and start re-reading. Anything that makes it into the Best of the Year has been read three times by me, on average. That first full or partial read, an audit read of likely inclusions, and then a final read through to be sure the stories are the ones I want and that they fit together.
Doing this for the past decade and a half has impacted what I read and how I feel about it. I read very few novels, which I feel terrible about. There’s a whole part of the field I’ve just lost track of as a result and one day I’m going to set that to right. I try to read a handful of novels in the first part of the year, but it’s not easy. What keeps it pleasurable and more than just endurable is finding new writers, unexpected viewpoints and bringing them together. That never fails to keep it fresh and alive for me.
You have one of the best overview perspectives in the business. Do you see positive trends in the genre or are we in an idle period? Is there a zeitgeist happening, a movement that could electrify the genre such as the New Wave or Cyberpunk did in their times? Is this a difficult time for what we used to refer to mid-list writers, given that we seem to have moved toward an author-pays publishing paradigm, if indeed that is the case? Or have electronic and self-publication outlets opened the field to opportunity?
This is a better time for writers and readers, arguably, than it is for publishers and editors. The readership for the English language short science fiction, fantasy, and horror seems to have been fairly static for some years, while the number of outlets for fiction has grown and grown. It’s easy to find a lot of high quality short fiction and it’s pretty easy to find more than you can possibly hope to read without having to pay for it. That’s great for the reader in the short term, but it means a significant portion of the short fiction market, especially the online fiction market, works on the assumption that the people working to bring fiction to readers don’t need to get paid. I think that’s ultimately unsustainable. We either need to expand the readership or see a reduction in markets. There are some readership outreach activities going on, but I think markets closing is probably inevitable.
On the page, I don’t really see any new movements arising in science fiction, fantasy, or horror at the moment. We’re all deeply weary of seeing a new -Punk being bandied about and there seems little appetite for it. The main thing happening is a broadening of perspectives in fiction. There’s an enormous interest in seeing fiction from people of color, the LGBTQI+ community, and from people who write in languages other than English. This is hugely important and very exciting. I suspect we’ll see this continue for sometime, and then slowly those points of view will be absorbed into the whole as a permanent part of the field. At that time, we’ll see something else emerge. In terms of what we’re writing about, though? It’s all climate change. All the time. It feels like any SF story that isn’t at least based in it, even if it doesn’t address climate change directly, is missing the point. We’re living through the Anthropocene and it’s the driving heart of SF right now.
Lastly, you are one of the best anthologists in the business; and as an editor, anthologist, genre influencer, and critic, you write a lot of nonfiction. So let me ask: do you ever get that restless urge to write… fiction?
I’m tempted to just say no. I don’t write that much nonfiction — mostly just introductions to my own books and some pieces for Locus — but I’ve never had the urge to write my own fiction. It might be because I have no patience for working through the million words of dross you need to write before you get to anything good, or it might be a yawning self-doubt that anything I wrote would be execrable. The only time writing fiction feels appealing is when, as someone who is always freelancing, I get a little tired and feel it might be nice to be a member of the band rather than just with the band. But that feeling fades. I’m pretty content just helping bringing great work into the world.
You were the “hermit of Binghamton.” How did you get start writing and editing?
Ah, I’ll never live down the hermit of Binghamton label. I think it was George Martin who started it. Binghamton in upstate New York is my home town, and for all that I’m a loud extrovert, I tend to be very private… left to my own devices, I’ll just sit home and read and write. I missed a lot of good times because of that. It’s only taken me about a hundred and twenty-five years to push against my hermetic nature. Now if there’s a party… well, it’s a burden, but I just force myself to see pals, drink good liquor, and dance around like an idiot <grin>.
So to writing and editing. I wanted to be a writer since high school, and I can remember being the complete pretentious asshat who thought he was going to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of course, when I was sixteen, I was also sure that being a writer involved taking limousines to see publishers and having a chateau in the South of France. That didn’t quite work out, and by seventeen I figured I’d go to law school and then join the CIA and become the next James Bond. (And I would write the Great American novel[s] in my spare time.) But then I went to university, graduated by the skin of my teeth, discovered sex, drugs and rock and roll (well, it was the late sixties), and decided that I’d make a lousy James Bond. (Interim Postscript: I did, however, attend law school for a while, but I dropped out and decided to become a “full-time writer” when Damon Knight bought one of my stories for his prestigious Orbit anthology series. It was probably a ridiculous decision — both his buying the story and me dropping out — but one I’ve never regretted.)
In 1968 I met Pamela Sargent and George Zebrowski at university, and we formed a sort of writing cell. I remember those green days when we were all living together, writing, reading each others’ work, and talking endlessly about science fiction and literature and… life. George and I started writing stories together, which began to sell. As I recall those days, they seem like excerpts from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: everything was new, everything was possible. A few years later I met a skinny, gangly, hippy-looking fellow at a Nebula Awards banquet. He hated me at first sight and later described me as looking like a street hood with a duck’s ass haircut. (I don’t remember looking like that… well, maybe just a little…) That skinny individual was Gardner Dozois, who introduced me to a bunch of other young Turks: Joe and Jay Haldeman, George Alec Effinger, George R. R. Martin, Michael Swanwick, Greg Frost, who, with the exception of George, formed the Guilford Writers Workshop, which met at Jay’s Victorian Addams-family mansion in the Guilford section of Baltimore. We later moved the workshop to —
More about that later.
Suffice it to say that Gardner and I ended up becoming dear friends —family, and for many years I (mis)used him as my personal editor. I feel somewhat guilty about that… I think. In the early seventies Gardner and I both sold anthologies to Harper & Row: his A Day in the Life and my Jewish Science Fiction anthology Wandering Stars. And as Gardner and I were both editing anthologies and workshopping each others’ stories, we also began to collaborate on stories — and with Michael Swanwick and Susan Casper — we later formed what we called The Fiction Factory. (See my collaborative collection by the same name.) During the 80s we had a tremendous run of selling our fiction to the high-paying slicks. And as we wrote and workshopped, so did we begin to edit together: over thirty-five volumes. After all, editing collaboratively didn’t feel that different than writing collaboratively. And both writing and editing collaboratively never felt like work… well, not real work, anyway.
That’s the very abbreviated version of how it all started. As time went on, I found my own stories becoming longer and longer until to my surprise I found I’d become a novelist.
I know you were an active part of the Milford workshop group. What was that all about and how did you get involved with writers’ workshops?
Although I only attended one Milford Workshop, Milford formed a large part of my early career, what I think of as my Green Years. That was because the two workshops that I was involved in — the Guilford and Philford Workshops — were modeled on Milford. Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm were central to science fiction in those days, and Gardner and I used to visit them at their labyrinth of a mansion in Milford, Pennsylvania. The Milford Workshops were held there, and it was a meeting place for writers involved in that heady zeitgeist called the New Wave. These writers were sometimes referred to (in nasty fashion) as the Milford Mafia.
It was in the early seventies that Gardner took me to the newly formed Guilford Workshops, which thereafter usually consisted of Jack (Jay) and his brother Joe Haldeman, George Alec Effinger, Gardner, Ted White, Robert Thurston, William Nabors, Michael Swanwick, and myself. (Roger Zelazny was the workshop’s godfather and attended our parties.) Thus began the Guilford Gafia. We later revived the workshop in Philadelphia. We only met twice, but the Philford Writers’ Workshop was a helova group, which included writers such as David Hartwell, Samuel R. Delany, John Ford, James Patrick Kelly, Timothy Sullivan, Tony Sarowitz, Greg Frost, and Tom Purdom.
What a time to be a writer, to be part of it all… to be workshopping, talking shop, partying, living the life!
I went to the Milford Workshop when it was held in Michigan at Gull Lake. I was broke, but had a car. Joe Haldeman and Gardner had some money, so we did a road trip fueled by good whisky, shoptalk, friendship, and youth. Damon gave me a break on the room charge. And there I sat beside Jack Williamson. There was Fritz Leiber and Harlan, and I knew, even as I sat in that room, that I’d remember these moments, these times until I couldn’t remember anymore. Gardner fencing with Fritz Leiber. Harlan yelling at me. Eating beans heated on a radiator with Gardner and Joe and Jack Williamson. We were writers and to my mind there could be nothing better! And a hundred cynical years later… I still feel the same way.
You’ve been a writer, an editor, a workshop organizer and attendee. If you were pushed to say, what’s the one thing that you think a student should take away from an experience like Clarion West?
Well, you’re going to be stuffed into the most compressed time period you’ll ever experience. You’re going to make your bones, write a story a week, live with other writers, work with other writers, criticize other writers, be criticized by other writers, and you’ll keep being surprised at what you can do (all this, it might be said, will be perceived through a haze of exhaustion). You’ll meet tutors who speak directly to you, who absolutely understand what you’re doing; you’ll also meet tutors who seem to go about the craft with a completely different mindset from your own. Take what feels right for you and stay in the mix. You’re building your karass. You’re meeting writers and editors, mentors who you’ll know through the green and gray days and years ahead. You’ll become part of a special community… a family. You’re one of the lucky ones. So now… keep in touch and write your asses off for the next fifty years!