INTERVIEW: John Joseph Adams, Editor of DEAD MAN’S HAND: An Anthology of the Weird West

John Joseph Adams is the series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is also the bestselling editor of many other anthologies, such as 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 (co-edited with Daniel H. Wilson), and Dead Man’s Hand. He has been nominated for eight Hugo Awards and five World Fantasy Awards, and he has been called “the reigning king of the anthology world” by Barnes & Noble. 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. Find him on Twitter as @JohnJosephAdams.

His new anthology, DEAD MAN’S HAND: AN ANTHOLOGY OF THE WEIRD WEST, just came out, and he kindly stopped by to chat about it!


Kristin Centorcelli: Congrats on your new collection, DEAD MAN’S HAND! Will you tell us a little about it and what you think sets it apart from other anthologies?

John Joseph Adams: It’s an anthology of “weird western” stories. Not to be confused with “space westerns” like Firefly, weird westerns generally take place right here on Earth, only the world we all know and love is just a little bit different: Like clockwork cowboys roam the frontier. Or 49ers head to California to mine for mana instead of gold. Or airships patrol the skies. In other words: weird westerns are stories of the Old West infused with elements of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, and often with a little counterfactual twist thrown into the mix for good measure.

The phrase “dead man’s hand” refers to the poker hand held by the gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok when, in 1876, he was shot and killed by the coward Jack McCall. There’s little doubt that Hickok was playing cards at the time of his death, but what Wild Bill was actually holding seems to be open to some debate. Legend has it that Hickok’s hand was comprised of black aces and eights (with the fifth card a mystery), but in some accounts it’s jacks and tens, or other variations. I suppose the only way we could ever know for sure would be to ask the man himself by reanimating his corpse or traveling back in time… both of which are the kinds of things that can happen in the “weird western” tale.

KC: There are so many awesome names in this anthology! How the heck do you choose what stories to include?

JJA: The process for Dead Man’s Hand was more or less the same as for any other theme anthology: Basically I try to think about what authors that I know and like could do something interesting with the theme in question.

In some cases, I look for folks who I know have written on the subject before. For instance, I recruited Joe R. Lansdale because he’s a legend in this subgenre, having written not only the Jonah Hex comic for an influential run, but also the genre-defining novel Dead in the West. I asked Mike Resnick to write something because he has a current weird western series ongoing from Pyr Books. I invited Alan Dean Foster because of his series character Mad Amos Malone, which he’s been writing about off and on for many years now. I brought Fred Van Lente on board because he wrote the original comic the movie Cowboys & Aliens was based on. There were several other cases along these lines as well, where there were authors I was a fan of who I knew had written weird westerns, so I reached out to try to get them to participate.

Other times, there was just something about the author’s work that I made it seem like a safe bet they’d be able to turn in something interesting on this topic. Sometimes it’s just a shot in the dark, and you just don’t know until you ask. A few folks I asked just flat out said “I don’t like westerns” (which is fair enough!). But plenty said yes. There were a few I really hoped to get that I couldn’t, but I can’t really complain about the table of contents–as you say, it’s quite a star-studded affair.

By the time the book was done, I realized that not a single person had written about Wild Bill Hickok, which in retrospect really surprises me. But given the anthology is named after the legendary gunslinger, I figured it would behoove me to try to add a story on that topic. Luckily I didn’t have to look far to find someone: When I was grousing about the lack of Hickok stories over dinner, my wife, Christie Yant, said she’d take a shot at it, and so we ended up with the eponymous story that closes the book, “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Otherwise, it’s the usual editorial method: Did I like the story? Does it fit the theme? etc. For Dead Man’s Hand, I actually had a couple of stories I loved that I couldn’t include because I didn’t feel like they sufficiently fit into the western genre. Two of them, I was able to publish in Lightspeed: the connected stories by husband-and-wife team Sarah Langan and J.T. Petty, “Family Teeth (Part 5): American Jackal” and “Family Teeth (Part 6): St. Polycarp’s Home For Happy Wanderers.” (The other, the author decided to sell the story elsewhere, alas–otherwise I would have run that one in Lightspeed too.)

KC: How long, from conception to execution, does it usually take to put together an anthology like this?

JJA: Jeez, I don’t even know. They can kind of take forever sometimes if you’re talking about all the way from conception to publication. Usually if I come up with an idea, it takes me a month or two to recruit all of the authors I want to have in the anthology and to put the proposal together, and then it might take another month or two for my agent to sell the anthology to a publisher. Once that happens, I like to give the authors at least six months to write their stories, though I always try for a longer lead time if possible. (Nine months or a year is preferable. And you might need to go even longer depending on how popular the author is; a lot of authors have commitments lined up for a long time and so they need that extra time to fit things into their schedule.)

Dead Man’s Hand actually came out about a year later than was originally planned. We had initially hoped to have it out around the same time as the Cowboys & Aliens movie, to take advantage of the potential “overflow interest” in the genre due to the movie. And we could have stuck to the original plan, but one of the prominent contributors in the book was late delivering his story, but he said he was in fact working on it and wanted to be included in the book. So the publisher decided rather than lose the story by said author, we’d delay the book. In the end the gamble paid off, as we did end up getting that story, and since Cowboys & Aliens kind of bombed, it’s probably just as well the book didn’t come out at the same time.

KC: Weird West stories have found their own little niche in genre fiction, but what do you enjoy about those types of stories or books?

JJA: Well, I just really enjoy westerns, whether they’re weird or not, and so given my proclivity for science fiction and fantasy, it seems natural that I would also enjoy weird westerns. One of the things I like about westerns is that they give you the opportunity to have these larger than life characters but set against a familiar historical backdrop, rather than a fantastical landscape. And then when you drop the “weird” elements in, things get even more fun and exciting.

KC: Speaking of which, have you read any good books lately?

JJA: In November of last year, I agreed to serve as the series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, a new entry in the prestigious Best American series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The first volume will be out in 2015, collecting the best of 2014, with bestselling author Joe Hill as guest editor. Given that I now have to not only read all the short stories submitted to me at my magazines and for my anthologies, but I also have to read every other story published in the genre all year, I don’t really have time to read anything else besides short fiction anymore!

But you did say “books” not “novels,” so I’ll say that one recent book I’m really impressed with is the anthology Long Hidden, edited by Rose Fox & Daniel Jose Older, which had a very successful Kickstarter and was just recently released. I’m most of the way through it, and I’ve found it to have a very good hit-to-miss ratio for me, so I’ve got a couple of stories from it earmarked as contenders for BASFF. Otherwise, I most of my reading thus far has been in the various genre periodicals, though I’ve also read a few good stories from the new GRRM/Dozois anthology, Rogues.

If you mean weird western books specifically–I haven’t read anything recently, but at least one of the contributors to Dead Man’s Hand (Laura Anne Gilman) has a brand new series forthcoming, that she sold to Simon & Schuster’s new imprint, Saga, so I’m looking forward to that. (Though I doubt I’ll have time to read it!) Otherwise, I’d highly recommend the comic series The Sixth Gun, and probably my favorite weird western novel is Territory by Emma Bull.

KC: You’ve had quite a long career in editing. What’s one of the most important things you’ve learned since you started?

JJA: Everything always takes longer and will be more complicated than you think it will.

KC: What’s next for you this year and beyond?

This year, I’ve already had several projects released: The End is Nigh, volume one of The Apocalypse Triptych, which I edited and self-published in collaboration with Hugh Howey; Robot Uprisings (with Daniel H. Wilson), and (just now) Dead Man’s Hand. In June, my magazine Lightspeed will release our Women Destroy Science Fiction! special double-sized anniversary issue (guest edited by Christie Yant). In July, I’ll publish Help Fund My Robot Army and Other Improbable Crowdfunding Projects. In September comes The End is Now, volume two of The Apocalypse Triptych. And then finally, in October, special “Women Destroy” issues of Nightmare and Fantasy will also publish, guest edited by Ellen Datlow and Cat Rambo, respectively.

Volume three of the Triptych, The End Has Come, will come out in March 2015, but early 2015 will also see the publication of Operation Arcana, an all-original military fantasy anthology from Baen, and Wastelands 2, a reprint anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction and sequel to my first anthology, Wastelands (which will also be re-issued in mass market paperback around the same time). In the fall, I’ll have Press Start to Play, a video game-themed anthology, from Vintage (again co-edited with Daniel H. Wilson), and in October, the first volume of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy will publish.

I’ve also got my first original project of 2016 lined up, but I can’t talk about what it is yet, but of course I’ll also have volume 2 of BASFF out in October 2016 (guest editor TBD!). As you can see, I’ve been keeping busy!

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