Genre Chick Interview: Ann & Jeff Vandermeer

Two for the price of one! This month, Genre Chick Alethea Kontis sits down with dynamic publishing duo Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. Ann is the fiction editor for Weird Tales magazine; her husband Jeff is an award-winning author. Together they often join forces and co-edit some out-of-this-world anthologies. 


Alethea Kontis: What are the biggest challenges of working on these projects as a husband-and-wife team? Who gets the final say? Do you arm wrestle for it?

JEFF: That’s a tough one. I love working with Ann, and I feel we have different strengths and weaknesses, which makes us a great team. I don’t think either of us has final say. If one of us feels very strongly about something, the other will usually defer–or if they feel equally strongly, the deferring may be done by the other party!

ANN: We have a great deal of respect for each other’s talents.  That’s what makes it work so well.  In all the years that we’ve been working together I can count the number of our blow-ups on one hand and still have fingers left over.

Alethea: How do you choose stories for your anthologies?

JEFF: I believe strongly that an anthology should have a core mission statement, and that you should strive to maintain that focus throughout, and then find creative ways to organize the material. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. But a lot of antho editors are more like caretakers–they shepherd the material through the process, but they don’t think about it in a proactive sense. And I believe our alternative approach is in large part why anthos like The New Weird and Steampunk have been so successful.  The challenge there, of course, was to create anthos for general readers that could also be used by academia, and the idea of structure was even more important.

ANN: Each anthology requires something different.  Before we make any decisions (including whether or not to even do a specific anthology) we have a lot of discussion up front.   We bounce ideas off each other to see what makes sense.  And we get a lot of our ideas while out hiking together (seems to clear our heads) so we make sure to always carry paper and pen.

Alethea: How is working with the small press market different from publishing with the Big Six (Jeff), or magazines (Ann)?

JEFF: I don’t personally see much difference, since most of our indie publishers have very good distribution to and communication with the chains, although I would say that Tachyon Publications has been a joy to work with. But, then, Bantam was great on the fake disease guide, too. We try to cut down on the variables associated with publication in either context by having our own procedures in place and being very aggressive in our PR. The thing is, when you edit an anthology it’s like you’re the captain of a ship full of people in the form of stories. You want to get them all safely to their destination. You want the boat to be sea-worthy for their sake. Every publisher, large or small, is going to have quirks, too, so you just try to figure out (1) how does this publisher best communicate (email, IM, phone, etc.) (2) how do their processes differ from the norm and (3) who are the stakeholders at the publisher helping you achieve your goals. The other fact is, some projects are more commercial than others–and some become more commercial. The fake disease guide was rejected by all of the big publishers, was taken on by Night Shade in hardcover, was a huge success, and then was picked up by Bantam.

ANN: There are pros and cons for each. Sometimes you will get more individualized attention with an independent press and usually the larger publishers have more resources at their disposal, but that isn’t always the case.   We’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of passionate people in both large and small publishing companies.  It’s really the passion for the project that makes the difference.

Alethea: It’s been said that anthologies perform better in the small press market. Have you found this to be true?

JEFF: I don’t think that’s necessarily true, although the numbers on the Steampunk antho in particular are really strong. The antho would have done as well from a large publisher, but the fact is Tachyon had the foresight to come up with the project and ask us to edit it. In general, publishing anthologies is a risk. So many variables come into play. But it’s more of a risk for the publisher and editor at the publishing house than for us, and we try to keep that in mind–keep the publisher’s risk in mind. Because, in general, if an anthology tanks it doesn’t affect my ability to sell a novel, but it might affect a publisher’s ability to buy more anthologies. One thing that is true–an indie press will sometimes need to sell fewer copies to consider a book a success.

ANN: It all depends on the anthology.  In general an independent press may be more willing to take a chance.

Alethea: Describe the New Weird subgenre in 25 words or less.

JEFF: Well, this is more than 25 words, but it’s the definition in the anthology. Although New Weird got great reviews generally, I was irked by some reviewers who claimed the antho did not define New Weird. Well, it did, right in the introduction, with plenty of proof and context:

“New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects– in combination with the stimulus of influence from New Wave writers or their proxies (including also such forebears as Mervyn Peake and the French/English Decadents). New Weird fictions are acutely aware of the modern world, even if in disguise, but not always overtly political.  As part of this awareness of the modern world, New Weird relies for its visionary power on a “surrender to the weird” that isn’t, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica. The “surrender” (or “belief”) of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text.”

ANN: I couldn’t have said it better!

Alethea: The SF world seems to be having a Steampunk Renaissance. Why do you think that is? What’s so cool about steampunk?

JEFF: It’s really the ultimate effect of a steampunk subculture that has been simmering beneath the surface for a long time. Really classic steampunk is about a few things: the rise of the inventor or scientist as hero, the use of retro-technology (think, alternate history: technologies, like airships, that once seemed poised to be dominant), and then the introduction of irony to the idea of scientist as hero, in showing how unquestioning use of technology leads to disaster. But, at base, for more people, in pop culture, it’s almost more a “look” than a definition. A kind of style in a book or movie, often involving airships. Much of the steampunk I read is dealing with tough issues when it comes to technology and its uses. It is true, though, that steampunk does also allow for “comedies of manners” with pseudo-Victorian trappings, which are just meant as fun adventure romps. So perhaps the diversity.

ANN: Technology today typically removes us from the direct connection to our efforts, our work.  The Steampunk culture is all about the DIY experience: making something with your own hands, so to speak.  I think many people find that attractive and that is why its become so popular.

Alethea: What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever visited?

JEFF: The first night in Prague was special–we just walked around with our mouths open, amazed, and I kept thinking, “My whole life I’ve been writing about this place and didn’t know it.” Or deep down the Danube, in Romania, traveling by canoe with outboard motor. Hiking in British Columbia. We’ve been blessed that our editing and writing have taken us so many cool places.

ANN: He’s stolen all of my thunder! But seriously, the first night we spent in Cairns, Australia, where you go out and the stars in the sky are so different and the breeze is different and suddenly through the branches huge fruit bats fly by…I’ll never forget that.  In addition, my first snorkeling trip in the Great Barrier Reef.  Once I got the hang of the snorkel, I was hooked.  I’ve also had some amazing experiences in Israel.  And we have a tendency to find something wonderful in any place we’ve visited.

Alethea: Do either of you know how to sail?

JEFF: I know how to capsize a canoe. When I was at the Clarion Writers Workshop in the 1990s, some of us decided to go out canoeing in the middle of a thunderstorm. It was fine on the way out, but coming back, with the current, we all went overboard and were only saved by one of our number who was an alternate on the Canadian swim team. So, in a word, no. But I have read all of the Patrick O’Brian novels…

ANN: No, but I can water ski!  And I am pretty good in a canoe.

Alethea: With regards to the upcoming Nightshade Books anthology Fast Ships, Black Sails: Do you or do you not Talk Like a Pirate on September 19th?

JEFF: Every day is talk like a pirate day.

ANN: And our cats even have their very own eye patches, but they’d much rather have a parrot!

Alethea: What projects are you both working on next?

JEFF: I’m in the middle of my novel Finch, a noir mystery set in my fantastical setting of Ambergris. Right now, I’m figuring out the blocking on a ten-thousand-word chase scene set amid three hundred bobbing, lashed-together boats. And my Predator tie-in novel comes out from Dark Horse in a month or so.

ANN: I just turned in the International Issue of Weird Tales.  It has stories from writers all over the world including Slovakia, Serbia, Spain, The Philippines, Israel and Belgium.   I am finalizing the PR campaigns for the Fast Ships, Black Sails (Nightshade, Nov 2008) and Best American Fantasy Vol II (prime, Nov 2008).  I also just turned in the Best of Michael Moorcock short story collection (Tachyon, May 2009).  Also upcoming next year, The Leonardo Variations (a charity anthology for Clarion) and Last Drink Bird Head (a charity anthology for literacy).  And let’s not forget Evil Monkey’s Guide to Kosher Imaginary Animals (Tachyon, Nov 2009) just in time for the holidays next year.

Alethea: If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?

JEFF: I’m so sick of superheroes, I’d probably sign up to be one of the superhero fighters in that comic The Boys. I did like the Batman movie, though.

ANN: I’ve always loved Batman because he’s the only one who is a real person.   All the others have some kind of super power.  He only had his natural born abilities (plus a lot of really cool toys and gadgets, I might add).