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Coffee on the Deck: Ramblings on the Writing Life

An Interview with Gordon Van Gelder

by Lynne Jamneck

Gordon Van Gelder published his first short story while in high school and says his writing career went downhill from there. He worked as an editor for St. Martin's Press for more than twelve years, during which time he helped publish such writers as George P. Pelecanos, Kate Wilhelm, Christopher Priest, and William Browning Spencer. In 1996 he became the eighth person to edit The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction over its fifty-plus year history. In 2000 he left St. Martin's Press in order to become the magazine's publisher. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife, Barbara.

How did you become the Editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine? Were you still working at St. Martin's Press at the time?

Yes, I was. In fact, I'd been the editor at St. Martin's for a Best from F&SF anthology, which is how I'd gotten to know Ed Ferman. And when Kris Rusch decided to resign, Ed called me up and said, "I'm looking to hire a new editor. You're probably not interested, but I thought I'd ask anyway." I said I might be interested, we talked more, and about six weeks later he gave me the job. I continued working at St. Martin's for more than three years after taking the F&SF job, up until I took over as publisher of the magazine.

Nobody ever seems sure about the stability and long-term potential of short fiction magazines these days. What are the pros and cons of starting either a print or electronic speculative fiction magazine?

Nobody has ever been sure about the stability of short fiction magazines. I can dig out quotes from thirty and forty years ago predicting the imminent demise of the short fiction market, and in fact, back in the 1940s, the launch of F&SF was delayed a couple of years because of uncertainty about the market after WWII.

Since I haven't actually started a magazine (I took over an existing one), I can only comment on what I've observed. And the main thing I've seen is that the hardest part of starting a magazine is keeping it running. It's relatively easy-- and easier now than ever before-- to put out an issue or two of a magazine. But once that initial burst of passion and enthusiasm has faded and the deadlines start looming, then it's harder to keep the magazine on schedule.

Is short fiction still the best way for an aspiring writer to break into the field? How do you see the influence of online publishing affecting the future of the short story?

That's two separate questions.

Question #1: the answer is yes-- for some writers-- and no for others. Novels have more influence now than ever before in the history of the field, and they generate far more money than short stories do. I think that Cory Doctorow and Ted Chiang are the only two writers to win the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer without already having published a novel. Ted is a great example of a writer who has broken in by way of short stories only. On the other hand, I can easily rattle off the names of writers who have broken in by way of novels: to my knowledge, Mary Doria Russell has never published a short story, I don't think Richard K. Morgan has either, and on and on.

Question #2: I don't see online publishing affecting the future of the short story much, one way or the other. Did the advent of the audiotape affect song lyrics? I think this is a case where the medium isn't particularly the message.

SFWA had recently changed their definition of professional magazines to those that pay five cents a word or more. This means that a number of magazines that previously were considered pro-zines no longer fit the description. Do you think this is good for the genre of speculative fiction? How would you define a professional magazine?

I think Richard Feynman said that every organization exists for two reasons: one is to give each other awards, and the other is to decide who can belong. I'm not particularly concerned about these definitions; I'm more concerned about the quality of the work. We're not going to boost circulation by arguing over definitions of "professional," we're going to boost circulation by giving readers better material.

How important are the small press magazines in terms of bringing fresh voices to the front?

Very. Robert Heinlein used to claim that he sold his first story right off the bat and never looked back, but information has come out recently to show that's not the case. Every writer needs to learn the craft and there has to be a place for that learning to occur. Dan Keyes says he learned in the pulps in the 1950s. Nowadays the pulp market is gone, but the small press remains strong. I think Bill Gibson's first story appeared in a small-press magazine called Unearth.

What are some of the most thought-provoking themes in contemporary SF and Fantasy fiction? Have these changed much in the last twenty years?

I'm in the process of assembling an anthology of stories from F&SF about Mars and I noticed a big change in sf between 1964 and 1975. It occurred to me that the only change in SF/fantasy in the past twenty-five years that's as big has been the electronic revolution and the advent of cyberspace. Otherwise, I think most of the stories published nowadays could have been published in 1975 without much difference in substance. (The differences in tone, of course, would vary widely as we learn from the past. But that's another matter.)

The most thought-provoking themes? I'm hard-pressed to name any right now. You know, it's like asking a comedian, "Say something funny." I know the themes when I see them.

Stanley Schmidt once defined a good Editor as someone who can help the writer do better what he\she is trying to do on their own. How far would you agree with that assessment?

I think it's a good definition-- I'd agree with it well past the 90% mark. The only place where I'd disagree is in saying that it's the only definition of a good editor (which I don't think is what Stan intended). There are a lot of different skills involved in editing. Some editors are great at working with a book, great at line-editing and at story structure. On the other hand, I know some book editors who never actually lay a pencil on a manuscript, but they're brilliant acquisitions editors-- they have great eyes for recognizing talent. Maxwell Perkins was one of the greatest editors of the last century, but he was gullible when it came to books about the paranormal. I guess that's a way of saying that someone can be a good editor for one book or one writer, but not for another.

Which Editors have you learned the most from, and how has this influenced your own editing technique?

I was lucky in that I got to see a lot of editors at work at St. Martin's, so I learned a lot from people like Jared Kieling, Michael Denneny, Stuart Moore, Bob Wyatt, and Tom McCormack. But the two editors I learned the most from are Jim Frenkel and David Hartwell. Jim gave me my first job in publishing and he was great at showing me different aspects of the business. I learned a lot just by typing up his editorial letters. David is great at mentoring editors and taught me a lot of lessons, but it's hard to say how both of them influence my own editing approach without getting to specific examples.

I should say too that as much as I learned editing from various editors, I learned more from working with writers like Kate Wilhelm and George Pelecanos. It's one thing for an editor to say, "This section doesn't work yet" and another thing for a writer to go and fix it.

What are the most important things any writer should know before submitting work to any professional fiction magazine like F&SF?

Y'know, all the trite advice they give you in various writer's magazines is trite because it's all true. You really do need to read the magazine before you submit to it. You really do need to polish your manuscript before submitting it, rather than taking a first draft straight from the printer to the envelope. You can find the same advice in writer's magazines for the past fifty years and yet I still get submissions from people who have obvious never read an issue of F&SF.

I guess the two main things any writer should know are (1) know your market and (2) send out your best work. It used to be very common in the field for a magazine to buy a story, typeset it, and sometimes publish it before the writer even heard back from the magazine. That doesn't happen much any more, but you really do want to have your story in the form you'd like it in when published before you send it out.

Did the coming and going of the new millennium have any significant influence on themes explored in particularly SF? Are there any particular settings or subject matter that you don't see enough of-- that you see too much of?

The new millennium didn't have any significant influence that I saw. As for themes and settings, there are plenty I can name that I see too much of: #1 is stories about the dead returned. I've seen droves of them over the past 2_ years. #2 is stories about memory. They almost all treat brain memory like computer memory, as though it can be uploaded and downloaded, and they've grown stale for me. #3 is contemporary settings. Ninety percent of what we receive is set in the here and now, typically about ten feet from where the writer lives. Give me something historical or something set in the future and convince me that it's real. (Stories set in the far future seem to be very scarce nowadays, although I suspect Gardner Dozois sees more of 'em at Asimov's than I do.)

People -- critics -- are seemingly always convinced that the sf genre is taking a dive. How do you respond to this?

I think of Tom Waits's line about ambition: I don't care who I have to step on my way down.

Has cyberpunk moved on? Or has the genre simply mutated into something new? What is The Machine's place in contemporary SF?

Of course cyberpunk has changed in the last twenty years. Is it gone? No, of course not-- it's a huge influence still. But it certainly doesn't have the same ability to jolt us with a sense of newness that it had in the 1980s. Virtual Reality is one of those things that has petered out, for instance; I think I've bought one cyberspace story since I read M. John Harrison's "Suicide Coast" about four years ago. It's just not as interesting as real reality to me.

The place of The Machine in contemporary sf? I'm not sure. After reading Paolo Bacigalupi's People of Sand and Slag in our February issue, I'm tempted to say that we've ingested it. But a truer answer is that sf has always been about technology on some level and will continue to be.

What do you look for in a story? What makes you sit up and take notice?

I can give you generalities-- strong, clean prose, an engaging story concept, a sure hand with character-- but the truth is that you can't really quantify it. I remember reading M. Rickert's first story, The Girl Who Ate Butterflies, in my office and saying, "Whoa. This one deserves another look." But if the story crossed my desk now, I'd say, "Whoa, this one sounds just like M. Rickert's first story."

What are your pet peeves, editorially?

Depends on the day of the week. On Monday and Tuesday, it's people who waste my time. On Wednesdays it's split infinitives and on Thursday's it's writers who use the word "this" as a noun too much.

I'm not sure I can give you a serious answer to the question. I guess one serious pet peeve I have is that I hate feeling like a writer is insulting my intelligence. Usually that means a writer is talking down to the audience.

Who are some of your favorite authors, and why?

Some of my favorite books are Lloyd Alexander's Prydain novels, David Goodis's The Burglar and Night Squad, Jack Womack's Terraplane, Damon Knight's The Futurians, Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination . . . I'm trying to remember some of the books on the shelf I'll try to save if I ever have a fire. As to why they're favorites, well, I notice all those books create worlds that feel real and accessible to me, without weighing down the book with ponderous chapters of world-building. They're all very story-driven books.

Have you noticed writers from different countries explore specific themes in their fiction?

Yes, but if you're asking me to name many, I'll have to disappoint you. I've been trying to read more international sf/fantasy, but I can't say that I've read enough to make generalizations. I agree with the general rap on British sf that too much of it is downbeat and depressing, and when I was in Australia I tried unsuccessfully to get a sense of what makes Australian sf different.

I've gotten the sense that artists in a lot of other countries have tried to make their work more American, hoping to break into the US market. Coming from the US, I'm more interested in seeing the differences in the fiction.

Are more SF writers incorporating elements of fantasy into their work? Do you feel there is a general distancing from hard SF a la Clarke and Asimov from modern writers?

Actually, with all due respect and then some to Arthur C. Clarke, I think he's somewhat to blame for the problem. If he hadn't said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," would so many writers have decided they don't need to work out their extrapolations? Gardner Dozois and I have both noticed that sf and fantasy are blurring together more and the main difference between them now is one of tone. I'm not fond of this trend myself, but like I said before, writers need to make the work feel new and that means the stories have to change. One writer I know told me he thinks hard sf has had its day and is now behind us. I'm not convinced yet, but maybe he'll prove to be right.

What would you like your epitaph to read?

I'd prefer to leave that to someone else to decide. My siblings and I spent two years coming up with an epitaph for my father; someone else can go through that process for me.

Copyright © 2007 Lynne Jamneck

Lynne Jamneck is a writer/photographer from South Africa. Her work has been accepted to and published in a number of diverse markets, including Best Lesbian Erotica 2003, H.P Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror, Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly, On Our Backs Anthology Vol. 2 and upcoming anthologies Raging Horrormones (Oxcart Press) and Darkways Of The Wizard (Cyber-Pulp Books & Specficworld.com). Her first Samantha Skellar mystery will be published in February 2005 by Bella Books. As a nonfiction writer, she has contributed to Curve Magazine, DIVA, Strangehorizons.com, Womyn Magazine, and others. She is the Editor and creator of Simulacrum: The Magazine of Speculative Transformation (http://www.specficworld.com/simulacrum.html) Lynne currently lives in New Zealand with her partner Heidi.

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