[EXCLUSIVE GUEST INTERVIEW] Jeff VanderMeer Interviews ‘Tähtivaeltaja’ Editor Toni Jerrman about Finnish SF/Fantasy, His Iconic Magazine, and Alastair Reynolds
[Photo by Minna Jerrman]
Among the great pleasures of returning to Finland this April after five years away was having a chance to talk about with the editor-in-chief of my favorite non-English-language magazine Tähtivaeltaja (“Star Wanderer”). Noted SF editor and journalist Cheryl Morgan agrees, saying, “In all my travels around the world I have never seen anything that looks as impressive and professional as Tähtivaeltaja. Toni does an amazing job.”
Jerrman is a creative whirlwind of kinetic energy and knowledge who seemingly hadn’t changed since the last time we saw him in 2006-indeed, it was like picking up a great conversation with an old friend. Through his magazine and other efforts, he has been a tireless advocate for science fiction, fantasy, and horror for more than 25 years, as well as being a respected journalist. He’s had hundreds of reviews published in professional magazines and newspapers, while also serving as the convention chair for the behemoth known as Finncon, and setting up awards for the best SF and Fantasy books published in Finland.
He’s done all of this while maintaining an iconoclastic, punk-rock mentality, using pop culture and explorations of media other than fiction as a way to further promote fantastical storytelling. In 2010, Jerrman’s efforts received wide-spread recognition when he was presented with the Rakkaudesta kirjaan (For Love of the Book) prize at the Helsinki Book Fair. The award comes with a 5,000-euro prize and is given “in recognition of long-standing and distinguished efforts to promote reading and to enhance the position of literature.”
In particular, the awards jury noted that “Because of his determination and enthusiasm, [science fiction, fantasy, and horror], which have not always enjoyed uncritical admiration and have traditionally only been accepted by marginal groups, are now well-known among the reading public.”
Jeff VanderMeer: What was your background before starting Tähtivaeltaja?
Toni Jerrman: I was probably born at some point. Then I was sent to Earth by the mushroom people from the astral beaches of Kefahuchi Tract. You know, those great old ones that sail the oceans of space with their crystal ships and have tentacles just like the freshwater squid.
After that I read a lot and fell in love with comics and science fiction. I even self-published some of my comics when I was 16 or 17 (and it still took me a few years to realise that I can’t draw). At about the same time I was already active in the Finnish Comics Society. Later I edited their news/auction-zine, wrote and draw some stuff for Spin (the oldest Finnish SF-fanzine) and read and sent letters of comments to foreign SF-fanzines. Got to Helsinki University to study literature and aesthetics (never graduated though). And then I had the insane misconception that I was ready to conquer the known universe with Tähtivaeltaja. No mercy!
JV: When you were first working on Tähtivaeltaja, did you ever think it would not only last this long but also thrive?
TJ: No way. I seem to remember a short TV interview that was probably in 1985 or 1986 where the reporter asked me what would I do if Tähtivaeltaja was still going strong in ten years time and maybe even making some money, and all I could do was give a skeptical laugh like she’d told a dirty joke. All the cool guys die when they’re 27!
JV: To what do you attribute the longevity of the magazine?
TJ: Great writers, artists, critics, and translators who have been ready and willing to work for Tähtivaeltaja without any pay just for the love of the genre. Maybe also our punk rock attitude, enthusiasm and the booze filled convention reports… Always trying to find new and interesting authors and trends to cover. Combining stuff about science fiction, fantasy, horror and cult things under one roof be they books, movies, or comics. And of course intelligent readers who are willing to know more and to read long and thoughtful texts. With some crazy fun on the side. Or: Growing up at the same pace as the Finnish SF-fandom? A time and space anomaly? A mad chief editor, who doesn’t know when to quit?
JV: From feedback in the Finnish SF/Fantasy community, in what ways do you think Tähtivaeltaja has been influential?
TJ: Another difficult one! Some guesses: Getting people interested in new and upcoming authors. Broadening the definition of SF. Getting publishers to translate better books. Being one part of the great spirit that makes Finnish SF fandom so open-minded–with Finncons, mafia-meetings [of the Helsinki SF Society], and all the other zines.
JV: Several people in the community that I talked to while we were in Finland commented on how open you were as an editor to new things. Which is to say, you might have your own particular tastes, but you cover types of fiction you’re not as fond of. How does this relate to how you see the role of editor of a magazine generally?
TJ: Well, one person can’t know or like everything, so an editor needs collaborators whose opinions and expertise he values and can trust. The editor is just the guy who keeps the ball running, takes care of deadlines, edits the texts etc.–and worships the ground where the team that’s making all this possible walks. The editor needs to put his own life on hold for the better of the magazine, the crew, and the readers. And to have a bigger vision of the magazine’s style and an understanding that every [issue] should be well-balanced and hopefully surprising. To have a pink wall with a door of perception where he can bang his head on.
Bats in the bell tower probably also help.
JV: You cover much more than just fiction. How do you view the relationship between fiction and other media? Would Tähtivaeltaja be the same magazine without the other coverage?
TJ: No way. It’s essential to Tähtivaeltaja that we write and follow what happens in science fiction/fantasy/horror-literature, but it’s as important that we cover also comics and films and sometimes music and odd cult things. That’s what makes Tähtivaeltaja Tähtivaeltaja. That’s our strength. It also widens our potential readership and broadens their horizons. I myself wouldn’t want to read a magazine that focuses solely on a small part of the literary field or of the popular culture–better to smash the borders and look for interesting and important stuff from many different forms of storytelling.
JV: Can you tell us some of your proudest moments with regard to editing the magazine?
TJ: I’m still very pleased that it was Tähtivaeltaja that introduced Philip K. Dick to Finnish SF audiences in 1987. Afterwards he’s become the most translated SF author in Finland. I also quite like the Moomins article Johanna Sinisalo did for us in 1985. From the beginning of 1990s I’d say all the manga–and anime-articles we did–over ten years before the great manga/anime-boom. And that our first Neil Gaiman interview was done already in 1991–with many more to follow.
What else? Kutzpah-columns by Kimmo Lehtonen that focused on new English language SF at the point when no one else in Finland seemed to follow what’s happening in SF abroad. Getting Hannu Blommila, the most famous Finnish rockradio-voice of the 20th century, to write to Tähtivaeltaja from 1996 onwards. The famous fantasy-article by Jukka Halme in the year 2000 where he orders everybody to keep a close eye on this up-and-coming short story writer called Jeff VanderMeer, who will surely be doing great things in the future.
And last but absolutely not least: Alastair Reynolds’s novelette “Pandora’s Box” in Tähtivaeltaja 2/2009. The story was especially written for Tähtivaeltaja and has never been published in English–all the English-language copies of it were even destroyed after the story was translated to Finnish. And the whole thing was Reynolds’s idea! A totally fantastic friend!
JV: How would you describe the Finnish SF/Fantasy scene right now? It seems like there are many strong, idiosyncratic writers, but that may just be my perception as an outsider who only observed it for a week…
TJ: Very much alive and flourishing. New writers seem to pop up from everywhere. And quite a few of them are really good and original. One happy improvement is that also the big publishing houses are nowadays getting interested in Finnish speculative fiction. More and more books coming out every year. And some of them even win awards like Tiina Raevaara’s fabulous short story collection “En tunne sinua vierelläni” that just won the prestigious Runeberg-award.
It’s also interesting to notice that most of the best Finnish speculative writers are women: Johanna Sinisalo, Leena Krohn, Tiina Raevaara, Anne Leinonen, Viivi Hyvönen etc. Of course there are also good male authors like Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, M. G. Soikkeli and J. Pekka Mäkelä to name just a few. Looking good!
JV: What’s up next for Tähtivaeltaja? How do you keep the magazine fresh while remaining true to what makes it unique?
TJ: I put all my trust in friends, beer, Motörhead and the ghosts of Philip K. Dick and Jim Morrison. Worked well so far.
World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer grew up in the Fiji Islands and has had books published in over 20 countries. His books, including the bestselling City of Saints & Madmen, have made the year’s best lists of The Wall Street Journal, LA Weekly, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many more. He reviews books for, among others, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as being a regular columnist for the Omnivoracious book blog. Current projects include the short story collection The Third Bear, the UK publication of his noir fantasy novel Finch (Atlantic), The Steampunk Bible (Abrams; with S.J. Chambers) and the forthcoming anthologies, co-edited with his wife Ann, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Fictions (Atlantic) and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins). He maintains a blog at jeffvandermeer.com and serves as assistant director to the teen SF/F writing camp Shared Worlds.
Filed under: Interviews
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