Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Editors: Ian Whates

NewCon Press has produced a number of anthologies to critical acclaim in the past couple of years. I tracked down editor Ian Whates to the Mauna Kea observatory where we gazed at the stars and talked about writing, editing and publishing.

GDJ: Your first NewCon press title was a fund raiser for the NewCon convention. Did you intend to continue the imprint, or did it take on a life of its own?

IW: Very much the latter. NewCon Press was born in order to produce just one book, the fund-raiser Time Pieces, and the intention was to stop there. This was the first time I’d ever attempted to edit, lay out, get printed and then publish anything, so it was an incredibly steep learning curve, greatly helped by two of the authors featured in the book – Mark Robson who had started out self-publishing and so knew the ropes on that front, and Ian Watson on the editorial side. I was immensely proud of the book and the attention it garnered – selling out in little more than a year while Fangorn’s wonderful cover won the BSFA Award for best artwork – the first of three successive wins in that category for NewCon Press covers, which is incredible. At the end of that process, I seemed to forget all the traumas and disasters experienced along the way and thought: “Hey, that was fun! I could do this again…” And so NewCon Press became an ongoing concern.

GDJ: You’ve published mostly anthologies of commissioned pieces so far. Is that what you intend to continue with, or are there other plans?

IW: I’m a great lover of short stories on several fronts. As a new writer, they’re a great way to hone your skills and perfect your trade before attempting longer works. As a more experienced writer they remain a means of letting off steam and producing bursts of concentrated imagination in contrast to the sustained sometimes marathon-like effort of novel writing. From a reader’s perspective, they’re wonderful to dip in and out of and can be enjoyed for their own sake, while, in the case of anthologies, they are a perfect means of discovering new authors without having to invest the time needed to read a novel.

I’ve been very fortunate with the anthologies to date, persuading authors I greatly admire to produce original work for me while also showcasing some lesser known but gifted writers and so introducing the reader to fresh talent which they might otherwise have overlooked. Each collection has featured a ‘stellar’ line-up which would attract me to read it, plus some newer voices, all worthy of attention.

A few years ago, when I started NewCon Press, there was a lot of talk about the short story dying, about declining markets and shrinking opportunity, so producing original anthologies was a very deliberate move. I’m not sure that holds as true today as it seemed to then, but I still have a further three anthologies planned for the next few years. After that, we’ll see. In the meantime, I have branched out this year, publishing my own short story collection, The Gift of Joy, the weird and wonderful The Beloved of My Beloved – a collaboration between Ian Watson and Italian Surrealist Roberto Quaglia, and a limited edition novella, Starship Fall, from Eric Brown. That last is a wonderful ‘planetary romance’ and is intended as the first in a new series of original novellas from different authors. So yes, the anthologies will continue, but they won’t be the only things NewCon Press produce in the future.

GDJ: How important are small / independent press imprints to the genre markets?

IW: I think the small/independents are important. They’re a great potential breeding ground for new talent and I know from past conversations that many of the majors keep an eye on the small presses for that very reason. Though let’s not get carried away here; not everyone featured by the independents is destined to sign up with a major international publisher.

I also think the independents are vital in that they can provide an outlet for established authors who, for whatever reason, find themselves suddenly overlooked by the big boys. I know Pete Crowther’s PS Publishing hardly deserves to be considered ‘small’ these days, but to see one of their books winning the Clarke Award this year was a tremendous thrill; not only because Ian R. MacLeod is one of the very best writers around, but also because the book’s success highlights yet again how important the small presses can be when it comes to producing quality genre fiction.

GDJ: How do you balance being an editor and a writer, especially when publishing your own stories?

IW: Hah! Now there’s a question. The simple truth is that the writing has to take precedence, because it pays! I’ve recently completed my second novel, which is set for release early in 2010, so that should be interesting. I’ve also been commissioned to write a sequel, so it’s head down, beavering away at present.

I’ve yet to make any money from NewCon Press, in fact quite the opposite, though some of the titles have now paid for themselves and are inching into profit, so hopefully that will change in the future. For now, though, the editing, along with all the other activities I’ve involved myself with on a voluntary basis – as director of SFWA, director of the BSFA, editor of the BSFA’s Matrix magazine, convention organiser etc – have to fit in around the writing. They still get done, but perhaps not as quickly as they used to.

GDJ: Your first stories were published around 20 years ago and then there was a bit of a lengthy hiatus. What brought you back to writing?

IW: Two things: a love of genre fiction and the love of writing. That’s the short answer. To expand on that slightly: I think, at the back of my mind, I always intended to return to writing ‘one day’. Certainly in later years that was the case. During my hiatus from writing, I read avidly – something I regret not having the time to do as much now – and never lost my love of science fiction. One day, I sat up and thought, “Well, if you’re ever going to do this, it might as well be now!” I’d come to hate the field I was working in – my own business of 19 years – which paid the bills while destroying the soul, so I made the decision to throw it all in and concentrate on writing.

Brave and/or stupid, no doubt; but I’ve yet to regret that decision. Not something I’d recommend to the faint-hearted, though.

GDJ: Although your stories cover a wide range of topics, they have a definite style, though I couldn’t define what that style is easily. How would you describe your work?

IW: Not sure I could define it in a neat sentence either, to be honest. When it comes to reading, I’d describe myself as a science fiction fan who also enjoys fantasy rather than the other way around, and the same holds true of my writing. Yet some 40% of my stories aren’t SF, but veer from unabashed fantasy to urban fantasy, stopping off at dark fantasy and horror along the way. As for my first two novels, one is space opera with, I hope, a few original twists, the other urban fantasy with strong steampunk and SF overtones… I enjoy stories that surprise me, and many of those I write contain a twist or two, though by no means all…

I think the one thing I can say is that I invariably write about people first and foremost. I try to make my characters accessible and put them at the very centre of the narrative. My writing tends to focus on how the protagonists are affected by what’s going on around them and how they respond to things, so that even cataclysmic events are broken down to a personal level and, hopefully, made all the more immediate and gripping as a result.

GDJ: What advice have you found helpful as a writer?

IW: So much good advice from so many knowledgeable people; and the sad truth is that I probably paid far less attention to any of it than I should have done, going ahead and learning the hard way by making my own mistakes. Only in hindsight did I consider the words of wisdom offered and think: “You know, they were right after all.”

I think the three most important things I’d say to any would-be writer (I know, that’s not what you’ve asked, but I probably got all these from someone else, so in a sense it is) would be:

1. Read lots. And when you read, don’t simply enjoy the story but pay attention to what the author does to make this such a good read. Learn what works for you and try and see why.
2. Join a writers group. Feedback from your peers is invaluable. So too is the exercise of critiquing others’ writing since this often enables you to recognise in their work faults you yourself are prone to. The BSFA run a series of excellent online writing groups, the Orbiters, so the excuse of ‘I can’t find one local to me’ doesn’t wash anymore.
3. Be thick skinned. Remember that a rejection is nothing personal and may not even be a criticism of the work as such. Your story may have been the sixth best out of a hundred when the editor only needed five. I enjoyed a fair bit of success when I returned to writing in 2005, selling more than two dozen stories in two years, but I can’t tell you how many rejections I received in that time. Particularly very early on, when I was getting ten or eleven for every sale. Be persistent. If your work is any good, it will pay in the long run.

GDJ: Thanks for your time.

IW: My pleasure.

1 comment:

GLP said...

Excellent interview, thank you both.