Interview with Award Winning Editor John Joseph Adams

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John Joseph Adams is the series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. He is also the bestselling editor of many other anthologies, such as Oz Reimagined, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, Armored, Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, and The Living Dead. Recent books include The Apocalypse Triptych (consisting of The End is Nigh, The End is Now, and The End Has Come), Robot Uprisings, and Dead Man’s Hand. Called “the reigning king of the anthology world” by Barnes & Noble, John is a winner of the Hugo Award (for which he has been nominated eight times) and is a six-time World Fantasy Award finalist. John is also the editor and publisher of the digital magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare, and is a producer for WIRED’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. For more information, visit his website at johnjosephadams.com, and you can find him on Twitter @johnjosephadams.

Q & A

Iulian: Before we delve into the meat of the many things you do today, give us a glimpse of your life before all that: where were you born, how did you grow up, where there any early signs foreshadowing your future?

John Joseph: I was born and raised in New Jersey, right across the river from Staten Island, NY. (Turnpike Exit 11, for New Jerseyites.) Raised there until I was 8 or 9 years old anyway; at that point my family moved to Cutler Ridge, Florida (near Miami). A year after that we relocated to Port St. Lucie, Florida, which is where I lived for about 16 years. I graduated from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and then after college I moved back to New Jersey so I could try to get a job in publishing. (Into the same house I lived in as a kid, actually—because it belonged to my grandparents and they still lived there.) Now I live on the Central Coast of California, where I have the nicest weather by far of any of the places I lived.

I can’t think of anything as a kid that might have foreshadowed my future as an editor. I actually didn’t even really identify as a science fiction/fantasy geek until my late teens, though looking back, I do remember that SF/F did seem to comprise most of my favorites in all media as I grew up, and I really was always a geek—I just didn’t realize that there was a whole sphere of the entertainment world kind of geared toward my interests.

You edit. A lot. And awesome stuff. What drives you to the genre? Where there any authors, books, or short stories that you can think of as the initial driving force that pushed you in that direction?

The two most important authors for me that drove me to the genre are Michael Crichton and Alfred Bester.

Crichton might seem like an odd choice, but it was reading his mainstream-friendly, but chock-full-of-science books (like Jurassic Park, Sphere, and The Andromeda Strain) that sort of opened up my eyes to the fact that I could handle reading books that had that level of science in it. At that point I was already a Star Trek and Star Wars fan, and I had a read a bunch of those tie-in novels, but I had never really tried any regular SF novels… for fear that I wouldn’t understand them. I was under the mistaken impression that I’d need some kind of science background to be able to read them, (which of course was a ridiculous notion). But anyway, Crichton really opened my mind to the possibilities that science fiction had to offer. And I’ll always be thankful that my former brother-in-law said to me “If you can handle the science in Jurassic Park, you can pretty much handle any science fiction novel.”

But Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is probably the most formative book for me ending up where I did in my career. At the time I read that, I hadn’t read much “core” SF. I had read some, but when I read Stars, it just blew my mind. It pushed all of my buttons as a reader—buttons I didn’t even knew I had at the time—and after reading it, my goal as a reader was to find more stuff like that.

James Gunn’s anthology The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 3: From Heinlein to Here is probably the most formative work for me specifically pertaining to short fiction. I read it in college in a science fiction/fantasy literature class as one of our assigned texts, and to this day it still contains some of my very favorite classic SF stories. Some, like “The Cold Equations” and “The Streets of Ashkelon.” I’d surely reprint a couple of the others from there, but can’t get the agents who manage the estates in question to even reply to my inquiries. (Or in one case, they were looking for—literally—one hundred times as much as I normally pay for reprints.)

Let’s talk about magazines. Without sounding too cheesy, I’d like to say that I am a proud member of a large crowd that believes that whatever you touch turns into genre gold. And what better way to emphasize that than through your contributions to one of my favorite magazines of all times: F&SF. Could you tell us how you started there and how that first role as editor has influenced your work?

I mentioned earlier how I went to UCF (where I majored in English/Creative Writing) and then after graduating moved back to New Jersey. Once I got there, I started trying to find a job, but I set myself up with enough of a cushion that I didn’t have to just take the first thing I could find—and I wanted to find something in SF/F publishing specifically. The first thing I tried was applying to the “big three” SF/F magazines—F&SF, Asimov’s, and Analog—mainly because I thought that it might be a little easier to break in there than at a big New York publishing house. This was in January 2001. So I sent my resume to those three places. Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF was the only one to reply, but initially it was bad news: He told me that he wasn’t looking to hire anyone at the time, but I should check back later in the year.

I continued looking around and didn’t find anything, and so a couple months later, in May, I figured “Hey, it’s later in the year. Why don’t I follow up with F&SF?” And lo and behold when I emailed back, Gordon told me that his assistant had just given his notice and asked me to come up to Hoboken for an interview.

So I drove up to meet Gordon, and we went and had lunch at a diner near the F&SF office. It was really relaxed and informal, and we just basically talked about science fiction and fantasy. I admitted to liking Crichton, which probably lost me points, but I named The Stars My Destination as my favorite novel, which garnered me lots of points. Later I would learn that my unbridled criticism of The Matrix was one of the things that convinced Gordon to give me a shot at the job; I think he appreciated that I had a strong point of view on the subject—and was vociferous about it even though it ran counter to popular opinion.

As for how the job influenced me… well, it’s hard to properly convey how much of an impact it had. Gordon basically taught me everything I know about editing. Not just by watching him work, and working alongside him, but via our extensive conversations about all things SF/F and/or publishing. I’ll always really, really appreciate that he was willing to take time out of the workday to just talk from time to time, because I think it was in those conversations where I really leveled as an editor.

After F&SF, you gave life to Lightspeed Magazine. Since then it has grown into a successful, award-winning, reader favorite e-zine that keeps delivering great content month after month. Give us a few words about the challenges you faced launching Lightspeed in 2010 and how bumpy (or not bumpy) was the road to the Lightspeed of today?

The main initial challenges associated with launching Lightspeed were that (a) I’d have to leave F&SF, a magazine I’d worked for for 9 years and had grown to truly love, and (b) I’d have to take a pretty significant pay cut. Now as an assistant editor at F&SF—and a part-time one at that—I wasn’t exactly making bank, but even so my initial Lightspeed salary was a big pay cut. Luckily, around that time I was starting to make money selling anthologies, and I was also working as a book publicist for Night Shade Books and doing some regular freelance writing about SF/F (mainly for the Syfy Channel’s website). So I was able to take the plunge and leave the relative security of F&SF to take my shot at sitting in the big chair.

At the time, I figured that Gordon was only 10 years older than me, and was both editor and publisher of the magazine, so it was unlikely I’d ever be promoted to editor—and naturally that’s what I wanted, the shot to be the one making the final call about what goes into the magazine. Of course, as I write this, just recently F&SF announced that Gordon would be stepping down as editor (while remaining as publisher), to be succeeded by C.C. Finlay. So I guess I was wrong about that, but launching Lightspeed and making it into a success is one of my proudest achievements—and, hey, it got me a Hugo!—so it all turned out well in the end.

The road hasn’t been too bumpy otherwise. The one big obstacle we had was about a year and a half after launching Lightspeed, the publisher Sean Wallace, decided he wanted to get out of the magazine publishing business, so he asked me if I wanted to buy the magazine and take over as publisher. It was a tough decision—not only financially but also because suddenly I’d be a publisher in addition to being an editor. In the end I think it all worked out quite well. I’m enjoying the flexibility being both editor and publisher has afforded me—for instance, the ability to do our Destroy special issues. Editing is definitely where my heart is, though!

I am not the biggest fan of horror fiction, but I do appreciate a good story in that genre. You decided to separate Nightmare magazine, even though you collapsed Fantasy into Lightspeed. Tell us a little bit about the reasons behind the current setup.

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Well, to me, the audience for fantasy and science fiction is largely the same audience. There are some folks who only read one or the other, but those readers are a fairly small percentage. So to me it made sense to fold Fantasy into Lightspeed, as that made it easier to grow a singular brand, rather than having two separate but related ones.

Horror, though—horror I think has its own separate audience. Of course there’s a good amount of overlap between SF/F readers and horror readers, but it was my feeling that there were enough folks who wanted to read just horror/dark fiction and those who wanted to read SF/F without the horror/darkness vibe that it made sense to launch Nightmare as a separate entity.

Of course the initial plan for that was also that I would not publish that magazine myself, so that was a factor as well. My original business partners on Nightmare, Creeping Hemlock Press, couldn’t quite make it work in the end, so they turned the magazine over to me and I found myself as publisher of a second magazine I never really had any intention of publishing. But, again, in the end it worked out for the best.

Running two successful magazines and editing a lot of anthologies is equal, in my mind, with having absolutely no free time. So you must be surrounded by a strong team that helps out. How are your magazines structured? Tell us about the team and the separation of duties.

I definitely do have a great team around me! Prior to 2014, I was doing a lot more myself, but starting in Jan. 2014, I brought on Wendy N. Wagner to serve as our managing and associate editor. That slightly complicated job title means that she handles a lot of the typical duties of a managing editor (keeping everything on schedule, sending out contracts — basically administrivia) but also that of an associate editor (helping me decide which material gets published, line-editing stories, etc.). I was just getting so busy that finding time to do everything I needed to do for the magazines each month was becoming tougher and tougher to do, and I knew that with me starting my tenure as series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy in 2014, I’d have less time than ever. Now she’s essentially my right hand.

But one of the other things Wendy handles is managing the rest of the team, which is fairly extensive. Anyone curious can check out our team on the staff pages of Nightmare and Lightspeed. I couldn’t possibly publish or edit the magazines without them.

At this point, I’m still selecting all of the fiction for both magazines, though Rich Horton and John Langan are my reprint editors, tasked with helping me find suitable reprints for the magazines. Assistant Editors Erika Holt and Robyn Lupo both provide feedback on stories but also manage our author spotlights (assigning them and making sure folks turn them in on schedule etc.). Cory Skerry and Henry Lien are our art directors. Jeremiah Tolbert of Clockpunk Studios is our webmaster. Stefan Rudnicki and the team at Skyboat Media produce our podcasts, and Jim Freund is our audio engineer. And my wife, Christie Yant, is our associate publisher, which basically means she helps me make all of the important decisions about the magazine. It’s a huge collaborative effort.

Since a lot of writers are going to read this, could you tell us what constitutes a great story for you? And, on the other hand, what is a bad story? Any advice for writers aspiring to one day have their stories in the pages of Lightspeed or Nightmare?

This is always a hard question to answer. (If I had an easy answer for it, we’d have it up on our guidelines page so writers would know what they need to do to sell me a story!) But generally what I want to see in a story is something that surprises me, something that I’ve never seen before—whether that’s via character, voice/style, or plot. A unique voice is probably the hardest thing for a writer to develop, so that’s one of the most frequent ways that a story will initially grab my interest; naturally it has to have more than just that in order to be fully successful as a story, but it’s the kind of thing that may make me take notice of a writer even if the story in question didn’t quite work for me.

As for bad stories… it’s not very useful to hear, but the most common sin bad stories commit is they’re just not interesting enough. Call it “boring” if you want a one word descriptor, but that’s what it essentially boils down to. When I really get into a story, I disappear into it and the artifice of the act of reading sort of fades away; when I’m not into a story, it’s like I’m very aware that I’m reading. A good story is a masterful illusion; a bad story is a clumsy magic trick.

As for my advice for aspiring writers for breaking into Lightspeed or Nightmare: I’d say the best thing you can do is read as much of what we publish in the magazines as possible. And otherwise just read as much short fiction as possible. Reading novels is great too, of course, but if you really want to improve your short story craft it’s essential to study that particular form.

Besides being the publisher and editor of award-winning magazines, you also edit a variety of genre anthologies. How different is editing an anthology from editing an e-zine? Do you set yourself annual goals in terms of issuing anthologies, or are they more of a spur of the moment kind of thing?

I don’t have any annual goal in terms of anthology quantity per se, but in my experience it’s feasible that I can publish 4 or 5 anthologies in a year—in addition to Lightspeed and Nightmare—and there’s room enough in the marketplace to allow that, so that’s sort of what I’m shooting for at this point. For a lot of the books I do, there’s not much left of the advance after I pay the authors, and then if they earn out I won’t see the royalties for a year or more, so it’s good to have a lot of different irons in the fire.

Otherwise, though, most of my anthologies are born due to a burst of inspiration. Either because I detect something happening in the zeitgeist I think it would be cool to capture in an anthology, or I hit on something I just think would be fun to do, and if I’m lucky it’ll have commercial potential as well.

Editing anthologies and magazines are very different beasts. I feel like editing a magazine is a more pure editorial experience because I’m not really doing much soliciting—I’m just selecting what I like best from the stories that are submitted; or even if I do solicit, I’m not soliciting with any particular theme in mind, I’m just asking authors to write something for the magazine. Whereas with an anthology, most of the time it’s going to be centered on some theme, which means that you have to recruit authors to write stories on that specific thing—and so by definition that the end result of that kind of project is going to be more of a manufactured sort of thing, not organic and pure like an issue of a magazine that is not beholden to any particular theme or genre (except the wide genres of SF/fantasy). With an anthology there are also huge commercial considerations that you just don’t really have with a magazine.

Are there any editors out there that have influenced your work and style? Any personal heroes? And on that note: what do you think makes a good editor?

Well, as mentioned above, clearly Gordon Van Gelder was a huge influence on me as an editor. Otherwise, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, and David Hartwell also immediately come to mind, and also, to a some degree, Ben Bova—as he’s kind of responsible for me reading short stories in the first place. Bova was one of the first core SF authors I followed and hunted down his books; as a result I ended up with several short story collections, and it was in those pages that I read some of my first SF short stories, but also was exposed to the wider world of genre fiction that was out there—the short fiction magazines, conventions, et al.—in the header notes he had before each story. Remember, this in the mid-to-late ’90s, so the internet was around but not the treasure trove it is today, so I hardly knew anything about what was out there—thus Bova’s intros and headers were kind of a revelation.

This is a tough one: What is your favorite story from Lightspeed and what is your favorite anthology among those that you’ve published? And I’ll even dare ask this: what is your favorite piece of short fiction ever?

I’ll answer your last question first: My favorite piece of short fiction ever is “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. The novelette version, not the novel version; though I like both, I’m not sure that the novel version was necessary, as the novelette is essentially perfect. The fact that “Flowers for Algernon” was published in F&SF originally is one of the many reasons it was such an honor to work there. I think my second favorite is “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison, and others of my top favorites include “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. But it’s so hard to name just a few stories like that—I have so many stories that I truly love!

I always hesitate to play favorites among my own anthologies and magazines too, but it’s a fair question. I think that my favorite story I’ve published in Lightspeed is “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” by Jake Kerr. I just love the inventive way in which it tells the story via excerpts of Wikipedia entries and news articles and interviews, and how it forces you to construct this meta-narrative in your head as you read it. Though I might be forced to concede that this is kind of a tie with the very first story Lightspeed ever published, “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” by Vylar Kaftan. My wife and I both love it so much we got Vylar to write our wedding ceremony. (And as it happened, we were getting married in Reno.)

You didn’t ask, but just quickly I’ll say, since I’m naming favorites, I think my favorite story I’ve published in Nightmare is probably “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” by Sam J. Miller or “Construction Project” by Desirina Boskovich. And probably my favorite thing that I read or published in 2014 was “Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders, which was in my anthology I co-edited with Hugh Howey, The End is Nigh. (And in my role as series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, I tried to read every story published in SF/F—in American/Canadian publications anyway—in 2014, so that’s saying something.)

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Among my own anthologies, I’d say either Wastelands or Brave New Worlds are my closest to my heart, though I kind of feel like The Apocalypse Triptych may be the best publishing idea I’ve ever had. I can tell you that if I had a business manager, The Living Dead would be his favorite.

What are the most valuable non-monetary rewards you get from running Lightspeed and Nightmare? The award nominations, a handshake at a convention, a friendly email from a reader? What makes it all worth it in the end?

You know, in the middle of answering these interview questions, Lightspeed’s Hugo for Best Semiprozine finally arrived after months of waiting. (The Hugos were presented in August, and today is January 20.) Or to be more precise, the rest of my Hugo arrived. They shipped it in two pieces: the base in one shipment and the rocket in another. The rocket was sadly even more delayed (I only got the base about a week before the rocket). Man, that’ll teach me to not go to London when I’m nominated for an award! And on top of that I learned that two stories from Nightmare and my anthology The End is Nigh are all on the preliminary Stoker Awards ballot. It’s been kind of a weird day.

The awards are a huge honor, obviously. But ultimately the things that matter most are the human connections: Hearing from readers who are moved by the material you produce, having someone tell you that you not just moved them but produced their favorite book, or doing socially-conscious projects like the Destroy series of special issues we’re doing and seeing the positive effect those things have.

One of the other things that makes it all worth it is one of the things that really makes my life seem surreal at the same time: the amazing people I get to work with and consider colleagues. Like, I’ve had a number of phone conversations with Harlan Ellison. I’ve had lunch with Robert Silverberg (who insists I call him “Bob”) and Joe Haldeman. I’ve exchanged emails with Ursula K. Le Guin. Neil Gaiman once gave me five gold doubloons. George R.R. Martin and I got married to our spouses at the same venue on the same day, one wedding right after the other. I even talked to Stephen King on the phone once, and, hell, now I’m editing an anthology with his son.

What’s next for you? What should people be looking for in 2015 and beyond?

Last year, we crowdfunded a special issue of Lightspeed called Women Destroy Science Fiction!, which was a special issue 100% written and edited by women, challenging the fallacious contention that women don’t or can’t write “real” science fiction. It was hugely successful, and so we decided we might as well keep destroying things—and there are plenty of other underrepresented groups that could use a larger platform—so we asked queer authors to destroy it this year. As I write this, we’re in the midst of our Queers Destroy Science Fiction! Kickstarter campaign. We started out looking to raise $5000 in order to fund making the special issue into a special double issue, but we reached that goal in about 7 hours and are now at just over $23,000, with 27 days to go, and have unlocked several cool stretch goals, with more to come. Of course by the time you publish this, we’ll have raised more than that and probably unlocked a few more stretch goals!

Otherwise, I’ve got a bunch of anthologies coming out in 2015. Wastelands 2, a post-apocalypse reprint anthology, comes out Feb. 24, but first, Titan will release a mass market paperback edition of Wastelands on Jan. 27. Operation Arcana, from Baen, is an all-original military fantasy anthology that comes out March 3. April 1 is the pub date for the final volume of The Apocalypse Triptych, The End Has Come. In August, I have an anthology coming out from Simon & Schuster’s new imprint, Saga (though I can’t announce what it is yet), and Vintage is publishing my video game-themed anthology, Press Start to Play. In October, the first volume of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy (guest editor: Joe Hill) comes out.

In addition to that, I’ve got two other anthologies under contract with Saga, which will come out in 2016 and 2017, and I’ve got a couple other proposals out that will probably bear fruit before too long, though it’s too soon to announce anything. Plus, there will be at least one more volume of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy in 2016, and then hopefully the publisher will decide to continue the series long into the future.

So, you know. I’ve been keeping busy!

John, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. Good luck with all your projects. I am really looking forward to the new anthologies. Looks like it will be a busy year!

Find below a selection of anthologies edited by John Joseph Adams:

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Iulian Ionescu

About Iulian Ionescu

Iulian is the Editor-in-Chief and publisher of Fantasy Scroll Mag. He is a science fiction and fantasy writer who enjoys blogging and technology. He runs the fiction writing blog Fantasy Scroll and if you want to know more about his works, check out his author page.