Friday, June 19, 2009

The Editors: Stephen Theaker

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction is a quarterly, and sometimes bimonthly, magazine of speculative fiction named after its founder Stephen Theaker, a man who continues to deny any egomania. We met up at Stone Henge and watched the sun rising over the monument as we discussed publishing and speculative fiction. Or maybe we corresponded by email.

GDJ: TQF has reached the very respectable total of 29 issues. How has it grown since the beginning?

ST: The magazine was online from the start, but we kept it fairly quiet. We knew there was a long way to go before it would be respectable. We had a handful of copies of each issue made up at our local copy shop, but it was clearly a bit of a chore for them. Round about issue 16 and 17 lots of things changed: our details went up on Ralan’s Specfic Webstravaganza, Duotrope and the AA Independent Press Guide, so we began to receive external contributions; we discovered printing with Lulu was cheaper and let us have glossy colour covers and worldwide distribution; and I joined the British Fantasy Society and the Whispers of Wickedness forums, bringing us into contact with the wider world of fantasy for the first time.

Things chugged along nicely, and then last year I took over as the editor of Dark Horizons, the journal of the BFS. It’s put a bit more time pressure on TQF, but it’s brought me into contact with lots of new people; for example Douglas Thompson, a very interesting surrealist writer from Scotland, who appeared in Dark Horizons twice and then placed two additional stories in TQF to promote his upcoming book, Ultrameta.

Another big change came after I joined Goodreads and got into the habit of reviewing everything I read. Goodreads lets you export your book reviews to an Excel file, which can then be merged into appropriate style sheets in Word: hey presto, an instantly-typeset and sizeable review section! It’s become a very important part of the magazine.

Most recently, the launch of Feedbooks was huge for us, letting us distribute TQF in half a dozen ebook formats in return for half an hour of copying and pasting. It’s a little frustrating to think that there are people out there reading TQF on their Kindles when we can’t buy them in the UK yet – but it’s also rather smashing!

GDJ: You started off with the intent of publishing your own stories. What was behind that idea?

ST: My own writing has only ever been fodder for my publishing experiments – I’ve yet to submit a story anywhere else – but I do enjoy it. I work much better with an assignment in hand, one reason I enjoy National Novel Writing Month so much. So I hoped the mag would get me writing all year round. At the very least, I thought I’d be able to crank out enough to keep the mag going.

We tended to end up serialising the novels John Greenwood (my eventual co-editor) and I wrote each November, and for the rest of the year we wrote other bits and pieces to pad it out. Once we started to receive external submissions I was more than happy to hold my writing back for emergencies.

John’s Newton Braddell serial continues to run in almost every issue, which on its own justifies all the work I put into the magazine. Without TQF it wouldn’t exist, and it’s one of my favourite things ever, the next best thing to getting more Cugel stories out of Jack Vance!

I do get envious as I watch the writers submitting their stories, using submissions tracking software and noting response times on Duotrope – it seems like a great game, one I’d like to play too. And I learn a lot from reading their stories and having to decide between them: it would be interesting to try to put that into practice. But it’s generally best to focus on what you do best, and I’m much better at putting magazines together than I am at writing. A scrappy novel each November is enough to get the bug out of my system.

GDJ: How valuable do you think magazines like TQF are for new writers?

ST: For a good writer, especially one whose goal is to be a professional writer, they can be a trap – it’s easy to pour your work away, work that perhaps could have found a commercial market with a bit more patience. We warn writers on our submissions page of some of the pitfalls of publishing with us, and refer them to places like Writer Beware. (For a bad writer there’s an even worse danger – that of being published, and having your work held up to ridicule.)

But while amateur magazines may not have money to offer writers, that doesn’t mean we can’t offer other things, such as our time and respect. Respect for the integrity of their texts, for example. I'm stunned by the number of contributors to TQF and Dark Horizons who say they've never been sent proofs before, often writers with a long list of credits.

We can also offer artistic freedom, both in terms of subject matter and length – there are few venues for long stories these days, which I think has let TQF punch above its weight in that class. If we’re aiming for a niche, it’s for stories that are uncommercial – whether because of length, fashion, subject matter or narrative approach – but good.

Writers published in TQF get a taste of what it’s like to work with an editor, to deal with proofs, learn the process, and sometimes make beginner mistakes without it costing anyone money. Also, we give personal feedback on every story submitted. It may not be lengthy, especially for a story that has no particular flaws, but we don’t send form letters (except to acknowledge receipt).

One other thing every writer gets from TQF is a lot of gratitude! We’re always happy to run free adverts for contributors’ new projects, for example. We’re not doing them a favour by publishing these stories – they’re doing us a favour by letting us publish them, and it leaves us in their debt.

GDJ: How far do you think TQF can go? Do you plan to move in to the semi-pro market, or are you happy with your current position?

ST: I don’t think TQF will ever be a paying market. The entire publication – its distribution, especially – is predicated on it being an amateur, non-paying publication that we can give away to as many people as possible. If we had costs to cover, we’d have to try and make money from the publication, which would mean taking it off Feedbooks, taking it off our website, upping the cover price, and accepting a vastly reduced readership. If I began to feel that there was a market we could tap, I’d start an entirely new publication, built from the ground up around the need to make a profit.

On any project, you have to be clear about your goals – that makes all your decisions easier. Our goals are to (i) keep going (ii) catch up with McSweeney’s number of issues and (iii) get a little bit better each year. Whichever way I look at it, making TQF a paying venue would make it less likely to continue, and would certainly make it much less frequent. It means some writers will never submit to us, but that’s fair enough; professional writers and would-be professionals should look to professional venues for their work, and I’d never try to persuade them otherwise.

We’re taking a slightly different approach with our new POD book line, Theaker’s Paperback Library, since we’re selling those rather than giving them away. Once costs (which have to be agreed with the writer before being incurred) are covered, the writer gets all the money from sales.

GDJ: Like several other magazines, you’ve opted for the mixed-genre approach. Are there any advantages or disadvantages to that choice?

ST: It gives you more to choose from. More horror submissions come in than anything else, both to TQF and Dark Horizons. Maybe it’s that science fiction’s evolved to a point where it seems fairly inaccessible to a new writer without a science background, and fantasy writers are busy working on their triple-decker novels? I’m just guessing. When I get sf and fantasy submissions they are often very good.

There aren’t really any disadvantages, since I don’t have to take sales into account. One good thing about the unfortunately egotistical title of the mag is that it doesn’t limit us. If I want to devote an issue to hard-boiled crime, I could. The only reason I wouldn’t is that once you’re off your own turf it’s much harder to tell the good from the bad, the original from the derivative.

GDJ: What kind of stories do you like reading? Do you have a favourite genre or author?

ST: My preference is for science fiction and science fantasy. My favourite short story (or novella) writer at the moment is James H. Schmitz, though that may change if Joe Hill writes more in the vein of Gunpowder. I think James Blish’s Star Trek adaptations are very nearly perfect science fiction stories, though maybe that’s just because they were the first books I borrowed from the grown-up library – I judged everything else against them. I was recently dazzled by a collection by Bob Shaw, and I’m currently getting my head around the work of Rhys Hughes – I pity his translators! My favourite novelist at the moment is Robert Silverberg, partly because I have so many of his books still to read, while my favourite writer of all time is Jack Vance. I love Moorcock, Lovecraft, Farmer, Brunner, Pohl, Aldiss, Brin, Asimov, Leinster, Diana Wynne Jones, the plays of Racine and Sartre, and the comics of Moore, Morrison, Ennis, Ellis and Vaughn.

In terms of magazines, I adore McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, which was an obvious early inspiration for Theaker's Quarterly Fiction, in particular Michael Chabon's Thrilling Tales issue. I started reading PostScripts recently, and it's hugely impressive in its range, freedom and quality. Interzone is publishing superb material. Peter Tennant of Black Static makes me embarrassed to write reviews, his are so good. Andrew Hook's New Horizons for the BFS is a gem that deserves a wider readership. As an editor I look up to people like Pete Crowther, Andy Cox, Dave Eggers, Stephen Jones and Eric Flint.

Two of my favourite moments in fantasy are a scene from a Bob Morane novel, Les chasseurs de dinosaures, where the hero gets depressed and almost starts crying, and an issue of Superman where he sweeps the road by spinning on his head. What I love about that Superman moment is the follow-through on the premise, the internal consistency, that Superman does everything in a Super-way. You can see the same thing in Joe Hill’s Gunpowder: it builds to a totally logical but unexpected extrapolation of its premise. The Bob Morane moment breaks every cliche of the hero in a single paragraph, while making absolutely perfect sense. It’s funny, but also heartbreaking and frightening.

So that’s one or two of the things I look for in submissions. I like them to surprise and entertain me, preferably make me smile at least once, and not require too much work to render publishable. I like stories with a clear purpose. For me, the ideal short story takes place just after something interesting has happened, takes us through an interesting event, and leaves the reader thinking about the interesting things that are about to happen – but maybe I think that today because I read a submission like that yesterday! The deciding factor is always whether I feel the time it took to read the story was well spent.

GDJ: What plans do you have for TQF and for Theaker’s Paperback Library?

ST: We’ve just published our first book in Theaker’s Paperback Library, The Mercury Annual by Michael Thomas. We have a couple of other titles in the works, but won’t announce them till they are ready. Keeping TQF on schedule is the first priority, and we’ll work on the books when time allows. At first we'll concentrate on material that's already been edited and typeset for TQF, but it would be nice to expand the range later on, probably once I’ve been deposed from the Dark Horizons post.

TQF will live up to its name next year and go sort-of quarterly, to keep my workload within sensible limits. There will be four issues a year, but spaced out around Dark Horizons. Personally, I’d like to work on writing better reviews: it’s a fascinating discipline. The tension between your responsibilities to the writer and the reader, between describing the book and not spoiling it, between judging the book and being judged by it in return: all of that thrills me. I’m in awe of how the reviewers for Black Static and Interzone make every word count.

GDJ: Thanks for taking part.

ST: Thanks for asking!

Previous editor interviews are available via the right-hand side bar.

1 comment:

steve redwood said...

I remember reading this some time ago. Like it. Ambition without ambition - ambition to keep TQF getting better without the ambition to become more and more important, or to make money, or to become 'respectable'. Priorities - enjoyment, and respect and help for the contributor.