Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Multi-talented writer Deborah J. Ross is known for world-building SF (Jaydium and Northlight) and fantasy (most recently The Seven-Petaled Shield from DAW). She has successfully continued Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, adding both novels and anthologies to the history. Able to produce fiction or nonfiction at multiple lengths, she also has an additional talent–she edits anthologies. Deborah has handled fantasy collections for the Bradley estate, for Sky Warrior Book Publishing, and for Book View Cafe. Currently available at BVC is Beyond Grimm, co-edited with Phyllis Irene Radford. Just published: the science fiction extravaganza Mad Science Café. November 2013 is the fifth anniversary of Book View Café, and in honor of the event, we’ll be releasing the speculative fiction collection Across the Spectrum (edited by Deborah J. Ross and Pati Nagle).
1) When did you become interested in editing other writers’ work as opposed to concentrating on writing?
A.) I first started thinking about editing during the years when I’d visit Marion Zimmer Bradley on a regular basis. I helped read slush for her magazine (MZB’s Fantasy Magazine) and we’d talk. I got a “behind the scenes” look at what she looked for and why, and how she handled rejection letters. She taught me that the work of an editor isn’t mysterious, in part because her own tastes were so definite. A story could be perfectly good but not suit the anthology or magazine she was reading for, or might do both but not “catch fire” for her. I learned about “no fault” rejections (and I’ve received them myself, for example if the editor had just bought a story on the same theme by a Big Name Author) and that sometimes if an editor thought the story had merit but didn’t fulfill its promise, she could comment on its shortcomings or issue an invitation to re-submit after revision. I thought, “I can do this!” I’d had so many experiences from the Author side of the desk, I approached editing with a set of wild hopes and convictions.
2) What was your first anthology as an editor?
A.) When Vera Nazarian of Norilana Books asked if I’d ever considered editing, I jumped at the chance. I embarked upon Lace and Blade (2008) with the bravado of one who knows not what she’s getting herself into. Because we wanted to launch the anthology on Valentine’s Day and time was short, I was able to do it as invitation-only. I selected authors whose work was similar in tone to what I wanted and who I knew would turn in amazing, thoroughly professional stories. (And they did!) That experience totally spoiled me! Working with these authors taught me so much. I made mistakes, of course, and sometimes the authors pushed back at me nicely, and then we’d talk (sometimes by international phone call) and come up with a solution that pleased us both, or I’d realize I had overstepped and then we’d go on from there.
The first Book View Café I worked on was Beyond Grimm, and I co-edited it with Phyllis Irene Radford. I did most of the hands-on editing and she was my mentor in the quality and publication procedures that BVC had developed over the years. Because there were two of us, we were able to edit one another’s stories. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me as a solo editor to include one of my own stories, which is why there’s nothing from me in Mad Science Café. As an editor, I need the objectivity I don’t always have about my own work.
3) What are the special challenges of editing in a shared world as opposed to a theme anthology?
A.) I think the crucial thing is a solid idea about how rigid (or conversely how flexible) the structure is. The more rigid, the deeper into the slush pile you’re going to have to dig (assuming it’s open submission) or the more you’re going to risk throttling the creative vision of your writers. So you need to be clear about what’s essential. For example, if I were editing a Star Wars anthology and a writer submitted a story that was essentially a bodice-ripper, no matter how excellently done, I’d have to turn it down. That’s too great a violation of the parameters. Just as with an individually-authored work, you’re making a contract with your reader. Put your imagination in my/our hands and this is the kind of experience you’ll have. (Not that there won’t be surprises; good writing abounds in unexpected twists and conventions-turned-upside-down.) On the other hand, many shared worlds offer latitude for “alternate versions,” especially when told from the point of view of a not-entirely-reliable narrator. For myself, I would rather see a story that bends the rules a little but does so in the service of the clarity and passion of the author’s vision, than a lifeless one that conforms strictly, one that follows the letter but not the spirit of the guidelines. I suspect Marion influenced me in this because she herself never let previously-established details get in the way of a really good story.
4) What do you think of theories on how to place stories in an anthology? Have you tried any of them?
I’m not sure how other editors do it, but there seem to be certain universalities. You want to start with a story that’s not only of excellent quality, but accessible and of short or moderate length. It’s an invitation as well as a promise to the reader about what to expect later on. Likewise, the last story needs to seal the reading experience. It can be a funny short-short or it can be a substantial piece, so long as it leaves the reader with the right tone. In between, there can be “pillars,” meaty stories that can be darker and more intense but have the substance to support the weight. Within those parameters, I often find rhythms that arise from the selection of the stories themselves.
One of the most interesting aspects of editing anthologies comes under the category of “great minds think alike.” In every anthology I’ve put together, there have been more than one story with a given theme. For example, in Mad Science Café, several stories use the Frankenstein trope, but each author has brought his or her unique vision and interpretation to the idea. In the forthcoming 5-year anniversary anthology, Across The Spectrum, stories not only echoed each other in theme but suggested powerful progressions, almost conversations. It’s a stunning anthology, as you would expect when you ask writers of the caliber of BVC to select their favorite stories.
5) How did you decide what you wanted for Mad Science Café?
A.) I tried to approach the process with an open mind. The writers at Book View Café are all seasoned professionals with individual creative styles. Suggest a theme and no two will come up with the same interpretation. Even within as narrow a topic as “mad scientists,” I found a rich variety in approach, in setting, in character–some hilarious, others grim; some closer to the tone of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, others wildly different. Much to my delight, I received a healthy mix of original stories and reprints, some of which have been unavailable for some time. As I read through the submissions, I realized that “mad scientist” is a jumping-off point and that I could open the scope from the original image of the wild-eyed genius in a white lab coat with great results.
6) If someone offered you a chance to do an anthology on any topic, what would you choose?
A.) Oh, horse stories, definitely! But really, what’s important is not the specific theme itself but whether it inspires superb stories. That’s where the real satisfaction lies for me.