Interview: Jonathan Strahan (Fearsome Journeys)

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I’m huge fan of SF&F short stories. They capture something different that normally can’t be felt on the scale of a novel. They also give the opportunity to try authors you wouldn’t normally read. The only G.R.R. Martin story I’ve read was from an anthology co-edited by Jonathan (and very good it was too).

Not only is he a prolific editor he also co-hosts one of my favourite podcasts – the Hugo nominated The Coode Street Podcast so I was more than please when he agreed to answer a few questions on his latest anthology Fearsome Journeys, which is published in the UK and US by Solaris Books:

Gav: I always see heroes as fearless but the anthology is called Fearsome Journeys. Don’t you see heroes as fearless?

JS: Fearless? No. I don’t see heroes as fearless at all. Heroes, for me, are usually ordinary people who look at the fears they have and overcome them because they have to. I think a character that is genuinely fearless would be disconnected from reality and horribly damaged: Hannibal Lector or a berserker perhaps.

That said, the book is called Fearsome Journeys because the tasks heroes, great and small, face are exactly that: fearsome. What turns those fearsome journeys into great stories is that characters are willing to take the risk and go on them anyway.

Gav: I guess if you mention fantasy to most people they will think of Tolkien’s LOTR-esque Orcs, Golbins, Castles and Wizards. What’s the kind of fantasy that makes up Fearsome Journeys? And how do the stories fit with that idea?

JS: Fearsome Journeys is an epic fantasy/military fantasy anthology. When it was still back on the drawing board my editor, the terrific Jonathan Oliver, and I talked about it being a “mainstream fantasy” anthology. What we meant had nothing to do with the literary mainstream, and everything to do with the very core of what a lot of fantasy fiction has been over the past decades. Stirring stories of adventure with characters going on great journeys to overcome terrible odds and such. There is a castle or two, and even a dragon, in the book. Not too much Lord of the Rings-esque, as much as I like Tolkien’s work. More influenced by Leiber and Cook and so on.

Without going through the book story by story, I think you’ll see when you read it that every story has a strong fantasy element, most are set in a secondary world, most involve going on a journey or adventure of some kind, and there’s usually a grand battle.

Gav: How do you ensure an original story so it will fit an anthology like Fearsome Journeys? And is there any you’ve asked for and it’s turned out to be something that just doesn’t fit?

JS: With most of the original anthologies I’ve worked on I’ve chosen writers that I’d like to work with and then invited them to be involved. Usually when I invite someone to be part of a book it’s because I love their work and I’m confident that they can write the kind of story that I need. I then try to explain very carefully what the book is supposed to be about, what I want it to be, and sometimes (though not often) how I hope their stories will fit into it. Then, as much as possible, I try to get out of the way of the writer and let him or her do the thing they do. Occasionally, though not often, when a story has come in I might ask for an element or two to be added just to make sure it’s relevant, but usually writers really do get it. And I have had stories come in that didn’t fit. Fortunately I’ve usually been able to find good homes for those stories in other projects of mine.

Gav: Given the unlimited space of electronic books do you see yourself freer in the future to do an anthology of longer pieces like novellas or are we still in the limits of print because we still love having print editions?

JS: I think the unlimited space of electronic books is a real distraction. While you can produce longer books, it ignores the fact that good editing is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. Almost all of the great books I’ve read have been really clearly thought out and tightly edited volumes that focus on delivering the core of what the book is supposed to be about, rather than comprehensively hoovering up everything possible. Sometimes the subject of the book is so sweeping that you need that space, like when Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer edited The Weird or when Peter Straub did his Library of America books, but books like those really are exceptions.

I think you also have to have mercy on the reader. Long books can be great, but with limited time and lots of distraction, I wonder if most readers really have time to read enormous electronic files.

Gav: If you were to take a look at my bookshelves you’d see a large block of your anthologies including Under My Hat, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, which you’ve collected the best of the year’s SFF every since 2006. What changes have you seen in collecting those together? Are there more online magazines stories included? Do authors still write short fiction?

First, thank you! I’m really flattered that you’ve been reading the books and I appreciate the support. I think there have been changes since I started editing anthologies back in 1996. The distinction between a story published online or in print really has become totally meaningless. As many of the best fantasy magazines are published online these days as are published in print. The real challenge is that authors do still write short fiction and they write a lot of it. It’s hard to keep track of it all, almost impossible to look at it all, and increasingly short stories show up in odd places. Rather than selling stories, writers are using them for promotional purposes, dropping them into the back of novels, adding them to collections and so on. It’s dizzying trying to keep up.

Gav: Given the amount that comes out in a year how do you keep up? Do you have people you rely on to tell you this or that is a good story and you should read it?

JS: I’m not sure I do keep up. I try. I read a lot and read about short fiction a lot, trying to keep on top of reviews and commentary. That helps. I also am the Reviews Editor for Locus, which means I have three other reviewers (Gardner Dozois, Richard Horton and Lois Tilton) all talking about great new short fiction. Finally, I’m part of Not if You Were the Last Short Story on Earth, a group of six or so people all of whom read a lot of short stuff. Between all of that, I get a pretty good idea of what’s out there.

Gav: Back to Fearsome Journeys are the stories and the writers breaking new ground in fantasy or can see the influence of the pioneers of fantasy on the work you’re reading now?

I don’t think the purpose of Fearsome Journeys was to break new ground, though there are plenty of writers out there trying to do that. It’s a middle of genre book. I do think you can see the influence of George R.R Martin, Fritz Leiber, Glen Cook, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and others all over these stories. Some are dark, though only Glen Cook’s is really grimdark, but most are action-packed, and some are funny.

Gav: I wonder if it’s a myth that short fiction isn’t popular? Is there anything that can be done to spotlight short fiction more? Or is it getting along just fine thank you very much?

JS: I think short fiction is valued and respected, but I think it’s not necessarily greatly commercially valued. Most short fiction that I see is published by really vital and energetic independent and smaller publishers like Small Beer, Subterranean, Tachyon, Twelfth Planet and so on, or in magazines like Asimov’s, F&SF, Subterranean, Tin House, or Interzone. You’ll occasionally see it in bigger circulation markets, but mostly not. Even though I think talking about the short fiction you love helps, and I’d encourage everyone to do so (that’s really what my ‘Best of the Year’ books are), I’m not sure how you get a bigger market for it. Persistence, perhaps. I know some people thought short fiction was going the way of poetry, destined for an ever smaller market, but I have noticed there’s most short work being published and that writers are slowly getting paid more (though not enough) for it, so that’s encouraging.

Gav: Late next year we’re getting a follow-up to Fearsome Journeys are you going to have a new rota of authors? And what can we expect from you next? I guess that next year’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year is up in the air? Any more SF anthologies in the works?

JS: I am! It’s hard for me to talk about who will be the book, mostly because none of the stories are written and writers often aren’t able to get stories done for all sorts of good reasons, but three writers who are in Fearsome Journeys have agreed to write for the next book. I should say, though, that it’s not Fearsome Journeys 2. It’s The New Solaris Book of Fantasy 2. The idea for the series is to do an unthemed fantasy book each year. The first one happened to fall around the idea of journeys, to greater or lesser extents, but the next one will be different. I’m quite excited about it. I’m also working on a special guest-edited issue of Subterranean Magazine, which I’m loving working on. I already have this massive Crusader-punk novella from Bruce Sterling for it and am waiting on other stories now, though I can’t say from whom. Then there’s Reach for Infinity, a science fiction anthology following on from Engineering Infinity and Edge of Infinity. This one will feature stories set during the period when we leave Earth and head into space (if we actually do). That one’s huge fun. And I am reading for the next ‘Best of the Year’ book, so I’m pretty busy as you can imagine!

Thanks Jonathan, I think lots of people are going to enjoying Fearsome Journeys.

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