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Be My Victim: Nicholas Kaufmann – A Chat About Awards

Well it’s award season, kids. This past weekend, the Horror Writers’ Association (HWA) handed out its Bram Stoker Award honors. Just around the corner, the ITW Award from the International Thriller Writers and the Shirley Jackson Awards will name their honorees. Earlier this year, The Black Quill Award honorees were named, and these are only a few of the annual awards in which a horror author might find his or her work nominated. It’s a festival of gimmes and have-ones. So break out the champagne and the Prada tux, or kick back with a Sam Adams and a bag of Funyuns, because awards season is in full swing.

Remember, it’s an honor just to have been nominated.


Lee Thomas: Awards are great and kind of silly. They’re great because they can draw attention to brilliant works that readers might otherwise overlook, and considering how little fanfare is generally bestowed on books (particularly genre books), it’s nice to celebrate them and their authors. For the writer it’s a shot of approbation, and can be a source of tremendous pride, which is always good for a bout of the tinglies.

chasing-dragon_small.jpgOf course, there is a downside. Awards build arenas of competition in which vastly different works are meant to compete for the same trinket. The subjectivity in these things is astounding, and can result in serious what-the-fuck? oversights (and inclusions!). Generally speaking, awards seem to say more about the organizations handing them out than they say about the works on the ballots. Plus, some writers invest far too much of their ego in awards, making them believe they’ve ascended to word godhood (if they win) or making them feel less than suck should the honors go elsewhere.

My guest this time around is the multi-award nominated Nicholas Kaufmann, and we’re going to look at these award things.

So, Nicholas, what do you think?

Nicholas Kaufmann: I think you hit the nail on the head by calling awards both great and silly. I’ve never won an award (unless you count grade school spelling bees and fundraising raffles), though I was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award back in 2008 for my novelette General Slocum’s Gold, but from what I’ve seen they really can have a positive effect on your career. I’ve seen authors spin an award win, or even just a nomination, into book deals. I’ve seen authors lauded by their academic colleagues for it. I know the nomination for Slocum led directly to a couple of publishers contacting me to ask if I had anything they could look at. I wound up working with one of them, ChiZine Publications, on Chasing the Dragon. And now Chasing the Dragon is up for a couple of awards too–the Thriller Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. It’s a huge honor, but I have to admit I also find it somewhat confusing. Or maybe flabbergasting is a better word. Mainly because as the author I was there for the bad times when the story just wasn’t working, or the characters were acting like idiots, or everything was just off somehow, and that stays in my head even when I know it’s a much better piece now. So when that piece gets honored with an award nomination, all I can think about is the bloody awful shape it was in during its inception. Which means part of me is waiting for the phone to ring and someone from the awards committee to tell me there’s been a terrible mistake. I especially feel that way about the Thriller Award. I’m up against Michael Connelly in the same category, and he’s just been announced as one of only seven authors in the world to sell one million Kindle eBooks. Not only do I not stand a chance, but how did I wind up in the same awards category with this powerhouse? This is all neurosis, of course, but what are writers if not charmingly neurotic?stokerphoto.jpg

Anyway, that’s the great part of awards: the honor, the validation from your peers that says maybe you’re not as sucky a writer as you think, the possibility of increased sales, and increased interest in your career from both readers and publishers.

LT: I’ll agree wholeheartedly regarding the validation from one’s peers; there’s nothing like having your colleagues (even if there are only four of them) get together and say about your work, “Yep, that’s a good one.” The other points… eh, maybe a little. I’ve won a couple of awards (Bram Stoker Award, Lambda Literary Award) and there is certainly a major “yay,” wave that follows the win. But while a nomination or win can draw more attention to your work, I think people overestimate the extent to which an award is going to benefit their career. I saw a decent sales spike for The Dust of Wonderland following its Lambda win, but the Stoker win didn’t have an immediate and noticeable impact on sales of my novel Stained. That noted, a number of short-story commissions and novel requests followed the wins. So that’s cool and groovy, but let’s put that into perspective.

The interest in my work, following the award wins, came from small presses. This is very cool as I love working with small presses, but these are publishers to whom I had access before being nominated or winning anything – the same way you had access to ChiZine before General Slocum’s Gold. The editors with the big New York houses don’t seem to care all that much – if at all – about genre awards. Ask the average reader about them and prepare for a clouded, idiot smile and a “What’s that?”

NK: You’re right about it being mainly small press interest, but I think that’s the nature of the game, at least when it comes to the Stokers. I may be speaking out of turn here, but I’ve been following the Stokers for nearly two decades now, and I’ve seen it morph over time into an almost entirely insular award, with a majority of the preliminary ballot, and often much of the final ballot of nominees too, coming from small presses very few people outside of the hardcore genre readership–or, indeed, the HWA membership–have heard of. The same could be said for many of the nominated authors as well, myself included! It’s almost become a small press-oriented award in some ways, and since like begets like, the interest that follows a Stoker win or nomination tends to be from the small press. I know an author who was published quite successfully by a major house and won a couple of Stokers, and what flooded her Inbox immediately after each win wasn’t emails from other major publishers or movie studios, but from small presses that wanted to work with her. I got lucky, myself. I had interest from an acquiring editor at a big publisher who loved Slocum and wanted to see something else from me. It didn’t come to anything at the time, though it might one day, but it was definitely a door that wouldn’t have opened otherwise.

That said, there’s nothing like the high one gets from peer validation. That’s why, even for all the flaws I see in the award, the Stoker nomination still felt like a huge honor. I loved being nominated. As I recall, we were up against each other in the same category that year–and we both lost to Gary Braunbeck.

LT: Indeed we were and indeed we did!

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Several folks have commented about the cloud covering the little Stoker house statue, and I think the charges of organizational favoritism are warranted, but it seems that the HWA is finally addressing some of the negative sentiment. This year they’re instigating a partial juried system, which ideally would break the insular nature of the award and give it more credibility outside of the organization. I guess we’ll see how that pans out about this time next year.

This past year I was happy to be recruited as a judge for the Shirley Jackson Awards, which are juried awards. They’re a different beast, and for the most part, I think the juried system is superior – the final ballots show more diversity and quality. My opinion, anyway.

NK: I’m very excited to see what happens with the newly revamped Stokers. I think this could be something really cool, and I sincerely hope it widens the award’s horizons. There’s a lot of great horror fiction out there being overlooked because it’s not coming from the usual suspects, and I hope the jury will be able to rectify that.

LT: And that’s the thing. Awards shouldn’t just serve the authors who win them, but they should also serve as a recommended reading list to the public. I know this is implied – “We think these are the best stories, so you should read them, too.” – but wow, the bar could use raising. I’ve seen some awards ballots, and I’ll come flat out and say they were Stoker ballots, and I’d think, These are the titles that represented the finest works in last year’s horror fiction?

No. They really weren’t. Not even a little.

Of course, there were some standout titles, certainly deserving of nomination and/or an award, but they were nestled in and amongst some rather dreadful stories. So I suppose it’s important to note that while a ballot can have excellent works on it, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an excellent ballot.

That’s part of why these things feel silly to me.

NK: Definitely, and we’ve all witnessed the behavior that makes awards so silly. A lot of people are reluctant to talk about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening: the jockeying, the grubbing, everyone scratching each other’s backs. The atmosphere around most writing awards is thick with desperation. Routinely, every year, I see people post to Facebook or their blogs or message boards all the work they’ve published that year that is eligible for the Nebula awards. Not necessarily worthy, just eligible, as if to say, “Here, voters, go seek out all of my work and nominate away!” No one seems to realize just how desperate they look when they do that. Here’s another example: A few years back, when I was still a member of the HWA, an author went out of his way to email the entire voting membership, myself included, on the eve of Stoker voting to remind us which categories his books were nominated in. In politics, primary season is often referred to as “silly season” because of the ludicrous things people say and do to catch the voters’ attention. Awards season is no different. In some ways, it’s even more offensive. It devalues the award to the point where a win becomes meaningless because now the award has a reputation as something you win by strategy, rather than earn by quality. What’s even worse, though, is that it works. Every damn time. Spam the voting membership early and often, send everyone free copies of your book, and your chance of winning quadruples. Another way it devalues the award is that it leads to winning books that are, quite literally, unreadable. The average reader may pick it up because there’s a sticker on the cover saying it won an award, try to read it, toss it against the wall, and never trust that award again. All because the strategy of spamming voters actually works.

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I refuse to do it that way. I’d much rather win on merit, because the book or story actually deserved it, and I can’t for the life of me understand anyone who wouldn’t want to win that way. That’s why I’m a much bigger fan of juried awards like the Shirley Jackson Award or the Thriller Award than I am of membership awards. There’s less nonsense going on because authors can’t influence the outcome as easily, or at all.

LT: You’re right, I think. It helped that the Shirley Jackson submissions came primarily from publishers. I didn’t hear from authors at all – no questions about the process or how it was all shaking out. There seemed to be a tremendous amount of respect for the award, and that was really nice to see. We did our reading – a lot of reading – and made our ballot. If the other judges were pestered or wooed I certainly never heard about it.

Any final thoughts on the topic?

NK: Only that for all the issues we may have with awards, including all the author strategizing that goes on and our questions about whether they have any lasting impact on our careers, there’s nothing quite like the immense feelings of joy and honor that come with an award nomination. Really, it’s more than just a hearty clap on the shoulder from your peers saying, “Good job, sport.” It can also help a writer struggling with whether to continue being a part of this ridiculous business–and that’s most of us, every day–realize that though you may feel lost at sea sometimes, your colleagues have set a light on the shore to help guide you through. And that’s something special.

LT: No doubt. As I’ve noted several times in regard to awards, I’m thrilled when one person likes my work, so when enough people get together to nominate it for an award, I am certainly ecstatic, but that doesn’t mean my career has changed or my work is suddenly something different than it was before the ballots came out. I know these things are silly. (But yeah, they’re also kind of great.)

Nicholas Kaufmann is the critically acclaimed author of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated General Slocum’s Gold (Burning Effigy Press), Hunt at World’s End (as Gabriel Hunt, Leisure Books), Chasing the Dragon (ChiZine Publications) and the collection Walk in Shadows (Prime Books). His fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 3, City Slab, The Best American Erotica 2007, Playboy and others. In addition to writing the monthly “Dead Air” column for The Internet Review of Science Fiction, his non-fiction has appeared in On Writing Horror (Writers Digest Books), Dark Scribe Magazine, Annabelle Magazine, Fantastic Metropolis, Hellnotes and others.

Lee Thomas is the Bram Stoker Award and the Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The Dust of Wonderland and In the Closet, Under the Bed. His novel The German is available now from Lethe Press.

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