[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar. It’ll run every Monday to Friday until I run out of interviews. Two of these interviews will be reprinted in Apex Magazine but the rest are exclusive to SF Signal.]
Jetse de Vries is a technical specialist for a propulsion company by day, and an SF editor, writer and reader at night. He was part of the Interzone editorial team from March 2004 until September 2008. His non-fiction articles, reviews, essays and interviews have appeared in Interzone, The Fix, New York Review of Science Fiction, Focus, and others.
He writes SF since 1999, and had his first story published in November 2003. His stories have appeared in about two dozen publications on both sides of the Atlantic, and include Amityville House of Pancakes, vol. 1, JPPN 2, Nemonymous 4, Northwest Passages: A Cascadian Anthology, DeathGrip: Exit Laughing, HUB Magazine #2, Clarkesworld Magazine, SF Waxes Philosophical, Postscripts 14 and Flurb, amongst others. Recent reprints include stories in the A Mosque Among the Stars anthology (which portrays Islam and/or Muslims in a positive light), The Fleas They Carried (a relief anthology for animail aid) and The Apex Book of World SF (which celebrates SF from around the globe: upcoming November 2009). Right now, Jetse has an anthology of near future, optimistic SF called Shine coming up Solaris Books in April 2010, and edits the online gig DayBreak Magazine and Twitterzine @outshine.
Q: Hi Jetse! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with speculative fiction? What’s the appeal of the genre for you?
My father was an avid SF reader so I got the speculative fiction bug from him. At the time I was also reading a lot of Dutch literature. Eventually SF won out because it has a much more adventurous appeal and has this feeling of really being open to unlimited possibilities. Having said that, though, I do like my exploratory and ground-breaking SF to be written with great verve and style, with a literary flavour, if you like.
Q: What made you decide to become a writer?
The classical (or cliché) event: when my long-time girlfriend and I broke up, and I went out of the country to work in the USA for a year, I decided to go writing in the lonely evenings rather than go bar-hopping and chasing women. Once I really started writing seriously, I found I couldn’t stop. Which was good, because it took me about four years to develop both my written English and craft sufficiently to sell my first story (November 2003), and several years more to develop a distinctive voice. As it is, I’m still developing that.
Q: How would you describe your fiction?
All over the place, while remaining SF at heart. Some stories are experimental with strong surrealist influences (“The Frog’s Pool”, “Gaudí, Cons & Spires”), some are over-the-top AH extravaganzas (the ‘Watt & Krikksen’ stories: “The Philistine Detectives”, “Cultural Clashes in Cádiz”, “Random Acts of Cosmic Whimsy”), some are more straightforward SF (“Near Absolute Zero”, “Real Virtuality”, “Leap of Faith”), some have exotic locales (“Tribal Convictions”, “City Beneath the Surface”, “Transcendence Express”), some are very hard SF that try to take a premise to its ultimate conclusion (“The Third Scholar”, “Qubit Conflicts”). However, wherever the influences come from and whatever the style or tone: the thinking behind the story, the framework–no matter how weird or exotic–is always ground in rational thinking (sometimes very crazy rationales, but rational nevertheless).
That’s what I mean with ‘SF at heart': while some stories have a mainly fantastic or horrific flavour, there is always a rational (or logical, even if sometimes a quite convoluted logic) premise behind them.
Q: Does your career as a technical specialist and your travels have any impact on your writing?
My technical background makes me look at the mechanics of a story, on several levels (not only the purely technological/scientific ones) to see if it really could work. Well, at least I try to do that, but as any other writer I’m often a bad judge of my own work (I read what I think should be there rather than what actually is there), so I need a good, solid critique to see where I went wrong. I’ve found that as an editor I can see flaws in someone else’s work much easier than in my own: it’s the distance you need to judge a work (relatively) objectively.
My travels impact my writing, as well. Sometimes in a very direct way–“The Frog’s Pool” from Nemonymous 4 (reprinted in the animal relief anthology The Fleas They Carried), “Gaudí, Cons & Spires” from TEL: Stories and “Transcendence Express” from Hub #2, Escape Pod and now The Apex Book of World SF were inspired by trips to Australia, Spain and Zambia–and sometimes more indirectly. For example, while the carnival celebrations I witnesses in Cádiz (Spain) were not the inspiration for “Cultural Clashes in Cádiz” (A Mosque among the Stars), it certainly helped to colour the story in a convincing way. Also, when writing a Philip K. Dick homage-cum-pastiche à la “The Philistine Detectives” (JPPN #2), it really helps when you’ve been in San Francisco and Berkeley.
Q: How did you become involved with Interzone? What were some of the challenges in running such a magazine?
I was writing quite a lot of reviews for The Fix (in its paper incarnation, before it went online), and was the one in the team who was mostly reviewing the SF magazines as the rest of the team, at the time, mainly preferred fantasy, slipstream and horror. So when David Pringle asked Andy Cox to take over Interzone, Andy asked me (and Dave Matthew and Pete Tennant) to join the IZ editorial team.
The biggest challenge of running any magazine these days is keeping it alive. Magazines are a very hard sell these days with so many media competing for a customer’s interest. So you have to work very hard, extremely hard at it just to keep it viable.
So apart from trying to get the most suitable stories and artwork possible (I wasn’t really involved with the non-fiction side very much), you try to promote and sell the magazine. Roy Gray’s efforts in this are monumental, and the two of us have been running a dealer’s table for TTAPress at many a con.
Distribution is the biggest problem, especially getting distribution in the US if you’re from outside the US. It costs an arm and a leg, and still distributors then increase the price of the magazine to a ridiculous rate (like $12 as we’ve seen). Basically, you need distribution to acquire enough new subscribers to compensate for subscription loss. Ideally, you’d pay for that distribution through advertising, but this only works if the scale is large enough (hence the huge amount of ads in glossies like Vanity Fair, Vogue and the like). So it’s very, very tough.
It’s quite a miracle that Andy Cox keeps Interzone going–while running Black Static, Crimewave and several special projects like Andrew Humphrey’s Alison and Paul Meloy’s Islington Crocodiles, as well–and I hope people will keep supporting it by taking out a subscription.
Q: How would you describe the speculative fiction field in Netherlands? Who are the other authors from Netherlands that we should be looking out for?
That’s a tough one: because I started to write in English from the start, I’ve always been oriented at the English language market, not the Dutch (which doesn’t have any paying short story venues, AFAIK).
FWIW, I enjoyed Felix Thijssen‘s (who is currently writing crime fiction) ‘Mark Stevens’ space opera series (which are not translated in English, AFAIK) and Wim Gijssen‘s Rissan series: ‘De Eersten van Rissan’ and ‘Koningen van Weleer’ (also not translated, to the best of my knowledge). Note that both example are from over twenty years ago, which goes to show how much I know about the current Dutch SF/F/H scene. As a short story writer Paul Evenblij (aka Paul Evanby) is one to watch: he sold a story to Interzone (which should appear sometime soon, I hope) making him the first Dutch writer to appear there. He’ll also be appearing with an English story in another venue (keep an eye on it… , and I understand he’s just published his first novel with a Dutch publisher. I think he’s very talented.
Q: Do you think there’s any particular quality about Netherlands fiction that makes it distinct from the rest of the world?
As mentioned in the previous question, I’m not very familiar with Dutch SF and fantasy, so can’t really say anything with any authority on that. I did read a lot of Dutch literature when I was young, and what strikes me in retrospect was that in those days there was no sharp distinction between the genres. Hugo Raes–a Flemish writer–wrote literature, SF, fantasy and historical pieces without distinction, with a natural ease, often mixing the forms. The above-mentioned Felix Thijssen has written SF, YA novels (under several pseudonyms), crime, literature, thrillers, radio plays, TV scripts and more. Back then, authors often did not limit themselves to a certain genre but wrote what the story required, and as such were hard to pigeonhole. This is not true anymore, today, unfortunately.
Q: What made you decide to run a feature on “World SF” at the Shine Anthology blog with your “Optimism in Literature Around the World” series?
I’ve been an avid traveller almost all of my adult life, and I enjoy exploring exotic (well, exotic to me) places. Also, while I do read and write SF mostly in English, I do wish that it would feature more non-western viewpoints. Obviously there are several examples of that (Geoff Ryman’s Air, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and Brasyl, and Ashok Banker’s and Vandana Singh’s stories immediately come to mind, and I’m sure I’m overlooking many other examples), but not quite as much as I would like to see.
As I try to lead by example with Shine, I decided that I not only wanted near-future, optimistic SF in it, but that I would greatly prefer that the stories would have settings, characters and viewpoints from all over the world (not just from a western and/or Anglophone PoV) as well. So I set up the “Optimism in Literature Around the World, and SF in particular” feature to raise awareness about non-western fiction, and to hopefully attract writers from outside the western world to submit (or inspire western writers to write about non-western places and/or characters). For the same reason, three of my four ‘Crazy Story Ideas‘ are also set outside the Anglophone world.
I am also very well aware that there have been fierce discussions in the speculative online community about–let’s say–people from culture A trying to write about people from culture B. When ‘writing the other’, an author has a much larger chance of getting things wrong, no matter how thorough the preceding research. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done: if writers would only write about ‘what they know’, then nobody would get in touch with other cultures and we all would be all the poorer for it. So while it’s fraught with great risks, it still has to be done, especially in SF. While it’s normal for SF to explore aliens in space, it is very reluctant in exploring the aliens on our own planet. That should change.
Q: Why champion optimistic science fiction? How did you become involved in the Shine anthology?
Over the years I was slowly but increasingly getting fed up with the relentless bleakness of written SF’s torrent of dystopias, apocalypses and other manners in which the future goes totally down the drain. There are exceptions, but these are miniscule oases in a vast desert of despair. Not that I don’t enjoy a compelling downbeat story, but it seems there is nothing but: the balance is gone.
So in order to address that balance and inspire writers to turn their hands to more upbeat fiction I’m trying to lead by example. I’ve been thinking about doing an anthology of optimistic SF for quite a while, but only started pursuing it seriously after I decided to leave Interzone.
I pitched the idea to several publishers and sold it to Solaris Books. After almost five years of being in an editorial team, where one–by necessity–has to make compromises, I could now edit a project that was all my work: fail or succeed, it will be, at least artistically, on my terms. But I am, and will be, promoting the hell out of it so it hopefully becomes commercially successful. I leave the artistic merits up to the readers, critics and reviewers.
Possibly this is also where my technical background comes into play: as a technician I am used to service, troubleshoot and, if possible, improve equipment. I don’t waste my time complaining about how bad it works: I try to fix it. And it’s that part of the equation that most written SF is chickening out of: it’s de rigueur to show how awfully bad things are going, and how much worse they will get, but almost nowhere do you see SF that thinks about how to *solve* those problems. That’s another thing I’m trying to do with Shine: propose solutions, or even think very hard about possible solutions.
Roughly speaking, by doing almost nothing but (over-)focusing on the bad part of the equation, written SF is being a part of the problem. It’s about high time it started to try to become part of the solution.
Q: How do you think the field is changing when it comes to awareness of fiction from other countries?
There is a rising awareness of non-Anglophone speculative fiction, but it’s happening very slowly. First and foremost there is the language barrier: it is very expensive to translate fiction, and these costs are relatively more impeding for short fiction, as that is more difficult to sell than novels (while a huge bestseller in the Spanish-speaking world like The Shadow of the Wind–and its prequel The Angel’s Game–will find a translator *after* its English rights have been sold, for most short fiction the story has to be translated *first*, and sold later, often for a pittance). So huge bestsellers will often be translated, and this has been happening for a long time.
Haikasoru (Japanese for “High Castle”) is something to keep an eye on: with Nick Mamatas as editor this VIZ imprint is translating a number of Japanese SF, fantasy and horror novels and releasing them on the American market. If they do well–and in this Omnivoracious interview Nick says that “Global publishing will certainly influence Anglo SF. Writers will go further afield with both their characters and novel structures. Certainly, we’re hoping that Haikasoru is the tip of that iceberg.”–then they might mark the beginning of an important change.
Also, at Anticipation I was approached by Attila Németh who is the editor of Hungarian SF magazine Galaktika, who was looking for contacts in the US as they were planning to release translations of European SF in the US. So there are certainly interesting developments going on. But again, I thought he was mainly talking about translating novels.
It’s much more difficult to find short fiction from non-Anglophone countries. I recall that there was an anthology of Latin American short stories a couple of years ago (it wasn’t Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real from 1997 which wasn’t marketed as SF or fantasy), called Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain (2003), and there was the SFWA European Hall of Fame anthology published last year.
I do have the impression, especially when I compare the slush I read for Interzone a few years ago and this year’s Shine slush, that there are more people around the world writing in English and seeking out English-language markets. Not sure if they write directly in English (which is a non-native language for them) like for example Aliette de Bodard and me, or if they translate it. Those whom I will call, for lack of a better word, ‘foreign submitters’ were few and far in between in the IZ slush, but were considerably thicker on the ground in the Shine slushpile. Maybe my call for more fiction from different viewpoints and locales on the Shine blog helped with that, or there really are more speculative fiction writers across the world trying their luck, or both. But I saw authors from around the world–most particularly several European countries, Brazil, The Philippines (your influence, Charles?), and Mexico. Obviously, I would have loved to see even more from more countries, but my impression is that there are more people around the world writing speculative fiction in English, and I can only hope that it will result in more of it being published.
But it’s still slow going, even if there are interesting developments going on, and I hope that efforts like, Haikasoru, The Apex Book of World SF and–although it doesn’t quite have the international line-up of Lavie’s anthology, it is most definitely focused on the world at large, and not just the Anglophone part of it–my own Shine project will make a difference.
Q: For unfamiliar readers, where can we find more of your work?
Four categories: stories in anthologies, in print magazines, online, and not available anymore.
Stories in anthologies:
- Obviously, there is “Transcendence Express” in the Apex Book of World SF. It’s the second reprint, so people must really like it (buy the Apex Book of World SF, or listen to the podcast version );
- Also, if you buy The Fleas They Carried, then you not only get my story “The Frog’s Pool”, but also great stories from other authors (like Eugie Foster, Michael Jasper, and more), and you support a good cause;
- “Cultural Clashes in Cádiz” in A Mosque Among the Stars;
- “Gaudí, Cons & Spires” in TEL: Stories;
- “Near Absolute Zero” in Triangulation: End of Time;(download available for $0.99 for a limited time only!)
- “Real Virtuality” in Northwest Passages: A Cascadian Anthology;
Stories in magazines:
- “City Beneath the Surface” in Postscripts #14;
- “Near Absolute Zero” in Midnight Street #5;
- “The Three Scholars” in Forgotten Worlds #1;
Stories not available anymore:
- “Leap of Faith” (alas, Neometropolis bit the dust last April 10)
- “The Third Scholar” in SF Waxes Philosophical (the ZC Books site seems to have gone missing in action);
- “Rainmaker on the Run” in Here & Now 5&6 (magazine defunct, and the issue was sold out pretty fast anyway);
- “The Philistine Detectives” in The Journal of Pulse-Pounding Narratives, vol. 2 (very cool project, unfortunately Alex Irvine and Thom Davidsohn pulled the plug);
- “Tribal Convictions” first in Peridot Books (now defunct), then in TQR (who have taken it out of their archives);
Seeing how many of my stories are not available anymore, I might put a few of them online, when I have the time. Also, when I seriously started to become an editor, my writing suffered (I could quit the day job, but would end up on the streets very quickly). Now I write about two stories a year, and then rather let those age a bit–like a good wine–and improve them as I reread them after I’ve really taken some distance from them, and have them harshly critiqued by people I trust (and some of which I even pay), and only then send them out.
So a few are doing the rounds, at least one needs another rewrite (for which I simply have had no time in the past months). Two have been under consideration for quite a while, but if it’s one thing I learned (from being an editor), it’s that patience is highly regarded: editors will get back to you when they have the time, after they’ve dealt with other, more important, tasks.