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Jonathan Strahan: The Iron Man of Anthologists
An interview with Jeff VanderMeer
March 2007

© Jonathan Strahan
Jonathan Strahan
Jonathan Strahan
Jonathan Strahan was born in Belfast and moved to perth in 1968. He is the co-founder of Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy and is currently the reviews editor of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field. He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his family.

Jonathan Strahan
Notes From Coode Street
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:The Jack Vance Treasury
SF Site Review: Best Short Novels 2006
SF Site Review: Best Short Novels 2005
SF Site Review: The Locus Awards

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year
The New Space Opera
The Jack Vance Treasury
Best Short Novels 2006
Best Short Novels 2005
The Locus Awards

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Jonathan Strahan is one of the busiest, most successful, and well-known editors in Australian speculative fiction, or, for that matter, the world-wide speculative fiction scene. In 1990, he co-founded Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, and worked on it as co-editor and co-publisher for almost a decade. He has been the Reviews Editor of Locus Magazine since 2002 and has edited more than twenty anthologies and collections including The New Space Opera (with Gardner Dozois), Eidolon (with Jeremy Byrne), and lots of years's best annuals. One of his most interesting projects is a new SF/F best of for Night Shade Books, just released in the United States. The collection recently received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

Strahan lives in Perth, Australia. To my mind, Strahan is one of the hardest-working people in the field. He was kind enough to take time from his hectic schedule to answer a few questions via email about what it means to be an anthology editor and how he selects stories.

What do you most enjoy about editing?

Discovery: finding something new. Being the first one to read something wonderful, to know it is wonderful, and to know that you're going to get the chance to share that something wonderful with a bunch of other people is an enormous buzz. Last year, for example, I was in the middle of reading stories for my young adult SF anthology, The Starry Rift. I got an email at about 4.30 in the morning. It was a new story, "The Dust Assassin," from Ian McDonald. I printed it out and read it straight away. I was completely floored. I thought, and think, it's an amazing piece of work. I remember promising myself I would wait at least three hours before accepting it, just to be sure it was as good as I thought. I think I lasted two. Even now, when I think about it, I get excited about the story, and about how knocked out everyone else is going to be when they read it.

What gives you the biggest headaches?
Paperwork. There's a lot of administrative stuff that goes into doing anthologies: contracts, payments, royalty statements and so on and so forth. I know it's all necessary, but I hate doing that stuff. If you mean editorially, though, I guess it's coloring inside the lines. For some projects there are considerations you need to follow for the project to turn out right, either for the reader or for the publisher or whatever. For example, with The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year that I'm compiling for Night Shade, right now the book can't be more than 200,000 words long for a bunch of good reasons, and I have to find the right blend of science fiction, of fantasy, and of whatever goes in between. It's a challenge, a headache, but in a good way.

What was the reason or catalyst for you beginning to edit anthologies?
I don't remember harboring any ambition to be an anthology editor, but circumstances kind of led me here. I've always been aware of anthologies. Probably the two anthologies that influenced me the most were Michael Bishop's astounding and criminally undervalued Light Years and Dark and Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection. Light Years and Dark came out the same year as Dozois's first bug crusher for Bluejay, and between the two books I was just knocked out. I began to search for more and more books like those, ultimately becoming a huge fan of Terry Carr's (his year's bests are, probably, the best anyone's ever done). Not that long after, I really started to study anthologies and small press magazines, then I got caught up in editing a semiprozine in Australia called Eidolon. By 1994 I was reviews editor, amongst other things, and prided myself on reading everything published by Australians each year. Sometime in mid-1994 I met Jack Dann, who had just moved to Australia. We became great friends, and began talking about work. He really put the idea in my head that anthologies were something you could actually do yourself. He became my anthology guru, and has been an enormous help over the years. By early 1995, HarperCollins Australia were starting up their Voyager imprint. I was in touch with the editor of the imprint, Louise Thurtell, and it just seemed natural to suggest editing a year's best Australian science fiction and fantasy for her. Jack helped with the proposal (it was about a thousand words long as I recall). We faxed it to Sydney, and they made an offer the next morning. For a short while, I thought selling books to major publishers was very easy. Anyway, that's the long story of how I never really intended to edit anthologies, but did.

What's your focus or philosophy behind the The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the year, from Night Shade Books?
It may seem odd to say this, but I'm only really working this out now. I've thought for a long time that a single year's best volume covering SF and fantasy, and the spaces in between, would make for a fascinating book. Now that I'm building that book, at least in my mind's eye, I'm using the available materials (the stories actually published in 2006) to make something of a certain size (200,000 words). It means, in all likelihood, making twenty or so stories represent the whole field, and not just the whole field, but a spectrum of the field.

I do feel an obligation to try to represent genre at the moment. Whoever picks up my book will want it to be clearly science fiction and clearly fantasy. At its simplest, this means something like having a great rocketship story and a great dragon story, and then trying to cover the best points in between.

[Put another way,] my focus is on finding the best stories that I can, the ones that live with me the most, and then using them to build a book that will provoke and entertain. Philosophically, I'm not particularly attracted to the interstitial movement so, while it will in some ways inherently be an interstitial book, it won't be representing interstitialism.

What qualities do you look for in a good story?
This question always implies that you have some kind of conscious, or even subconscious, checklist of things you want to see in a story to make it 'good'. That's not the case. Probably the first thing I'm looking for is an immersive reading experience. I think like most readers, I want to be pulled into the story, captivated by it, and then left at the end with some kind of emotional and/or intellectual impact. I'll forgive a lot in a story if I get that experience. From there, I'm looking for provocative ideas, beautiful writing, that sort of thing. The ultimate test, though, especially for the year's bests, is whether the story is memorable. I have a shocking memory -- too many things jockeying for my attention I guess -- so if I can look down a list of titles and clearly remember a story, even nine or ten months later, then I'm already pretty much sold on it. A great example is Holly Philips "Gin," which is in the Eidolon anthology. I read that story in April of 2005. I think I remember every detail of it. It just knocked my socks off.

Is editing an original anthology harder than editing a year's best?
Editing a year's best anthology is probably more time consuming, and involves different skills, than editing an original anthology. When you edit a year's best you have a real obligation to at least make a serious attempt to look at the three thousand or more stories published. Then, as a reader, you need to work out which stories you think are the best, and then whether they are the best as an example of what you're looking at (for example, Laird Barron's "Hallucigenia" from F&SF is a great story, but it's not much chop as a science fiction story). When you have that list of stories, you then have to cull it down to what you'd like to use, what you can get rights to, and what can fit in your book. In a weird sense, you become a kind of literary mosaicist. Editing an original anthology is quicker, but probably is harder on reflection. You really need to think about whether a story works and, if it doesn't quite work, how it might be fixed. You also need to be good at line editing. I think, on balance, it's less work but more sweat. That said, I've only edited three originals. I might change my opinion on it in a couple years.

Having edited year's bests for a few years now, do you see any trends, good or bad, in reading through all of the SF and F out there during the year?
Well, I'd first stress that this is an incredible time for short fiction in the genre. Even in a bad year, there's more terrific fiction than any one person can keep possibly read. There are two trends that I do see, though. For whatever reason, stories seem to be getting longer. Ideas that suit a short-short are slipping out to short story length, short stories tend to lengthen to novelettes, and novelettes are bloating out to novellas. I'm not sure why this is the case. I've wondered if it's a side effect of online publishing, if it's a general loss of knowledge of how to structure stories, a decline in editorship, or even a change in the kind of stories writers are attempting. I'm not sure myself, but I'm concerned by it. The other trend is more a publishing trend. Markets are fracturing. I think the days of the fiction magazine are ending, and we're not ready to go online yet. I suspect anthologies will be the new magazines for a while. It'll turn around -- I think short fiction is inherently salable online -- but it may take a while. In the interim, I think the markets are just going to get more confusing.

What projects do you have coming out in 2007?
I've got two major new projects coming out in 2007, both of which I'm very excited about. In March, Night Shade will be publishing my 200,000 word The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year in a gorgeous trade paperback edition. I think it's going to be a terrific book, and will, I hope, be a step towards tighter, shorter annuals. If you think of it in terms of a year's best fantasy and a year's best science fiction put together in an omnibus, it's probably 15-20% shorter even than the books Terry Carr did. It's easy to look at this in terms of what you're not getting, but what I think you do get is a single, much more carefully selected group of stories. There's simply no room for any padding. The other project due next year is The New Space Opera. It's an anthology that I've co-edited with Gardner Dozois, that will be published by HarperCollins in the US and Australia in June in trade paperback with a stunning Stephan Martiniere cover. I first had the idea for the book about ten years ago, and I've slowly worked to make it happen. Gardner and I ended getting fantastic stories from eighteen of the best SF writers in the field, ranging from a spectacular new short novel from Dan Simmons to a bonsai space opera by Ian McDonald that fits the entirety of a Wagnerian space opera into just 5,600 words. Wonderful stuff! We even hope to do a second one! I don't really count this is as my project per se, but I'd also mention The Jack Vance Treasury, which I co-edited with Terry Dowling. It's an extraordinary selection of the best of Vance's short fiction, which Subterranean will publish in January in hardcover. It was a joy to do -- all of these books were -- and I can't wait to see what people think of it.

Anything you'd like to add?
Read. Read the new collections by Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Margo Lanagan, Peter Beagle, Al Reynolds, and Steve Baxter. Subscribe to magazines: F&SF is the gold standard, so always start there, but don't overlook Asimov's, Interzone, or the others. This is a golden age of short fiction. Enjoy it. Other than that: reading isn't exercise, so stay healthy, and don't eat cheap chocolate. It isn't worth it.

Copyright © 2007 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Bookslut.com, and many others. VanderMeer writes the graphic novel/comics summation for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press) and is a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. Monkey Brain Books published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in 2004.


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