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[INTERVIEW] Jeremy Szal on Editing/Producing Starship Sofa, George R.R. Martin, Creative Writing and Becoming a Novelist

Jeremy Szal has been an editor and producer for StarShip Sofa since September 2014. He has worked on over 70 episodes and about 100 stories, with one million downloads.

He provides us with a vivid view of what goes into a podcast and what goes on at SSS. He goes into depth about a very positive experience with George R.R. Martin. He describes tough choices he has to make about stories, authors, and narrators. He lists the positive and negative about majoring in film and creative writing.

Jeremy’s hard at work cranking out novels. And then there’s that manual labor day job with the awesome perk of being able to listen to sci fi podcasts all day.


CARL SLAUGHTER: How did you get on with such a major player at such a young age?

JEREMY SZAL: Purely by coincidence. The previous editor, Adam, had quite suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Rumour has it he’s still trying to chisel his way out of some deep underground bunker (which reminds me: I’ve forgotten to feed him!). Lacking an editor, Tony C. Smith put out a call for someone to help join the staff. A friend of mine shared the post and I jumped on it. After some research and a brief interview I got the position.

It was a little intimidating, since I was in my second year of university at the time, and I’d never read slush before, let alone worked on an award winning podcast with some of the biggest names in the field in its halls. But I took a leap of faith, grabbed the job and never looked back.

CS: You list yourself as both editor and producer. What’s the job description for each?

JS: As the editor, I make all decisions on the fiction. The type of stories we play, the authors we have on the show, the length of the stories, everything. This means I (along with my assistant, Ralph Ambrose) read the unsolicited stories sent through slush.
I’m also in charge of soliciting stories from authors and sorting out audio rights. I also collect the story files, the author’s bio, the narrator’s bio, the place of publication, the links to all the necessary websites, and put them in the show notes. There’s a lot of organizing, a lot of file sorting and formatting involved, I’ll tell you that much.

My main job is editing, but as a producer I also have the job of assigning the stories to narrators. They do all the actual audio producing, but it’s my task to decide which narrators are appropriate for which stories, their styles, their voice types, preferences, gender, how long they’re going to take, the sort of background that they have, everything. You could just easily toss any given story to any narrator, but you won’t get the same quality if you carefully consider each narrator on a case-by-case basis. So I make sure to make the best pair that I possibly can with each given story.

CS: The SSS archive lists 70 episodes with your byline. How many stories does that add up to?

JS: It’s difficult to say! At least half (if not more) of those episodes contain more than one story, so that’s easily 100 stories that I’ve worked on. And those are just the ones that have been released.

CS: How is the editor/producer’s role crucial to maintaining the standard of quality of the site?

JS: As the editor I have to be ruthless in picking out stories. I’m a writer as well and I’ve faced the sting of rejection many times. So it’s a necessary evil to pen those rejection letters to authors. The worst ones are when you know the story absolutely has merit and could easily have been accepted, but it just wasn’t good enough. Or I’ve taken too many stories of a similar nature. Or the story isn’t the right fit for audio, or a hundred other reasons. It needs to be done – if you start taking mediocre stories people will start to notice. I treat every story we take as a potential introduction to our podcasts. If this was the first story of ours that a listener tuned into, would they be compelled to keep listening? While a big name author will absolutely get you better views, an average story from them will only do you a disservice in the long run.

To put it in perspective, last time we were open for submissions we got over two hundred stories sent to us in a space of less than four weeks. We were only able to take a handful of those stories. It’s tough on the authors, but it maintains the quality of fiction and forces authors to crank their work up a notch or three if they want to get in, which in turns delivers superior content to listeners and sharpens the author’s skill level.

On the producing side, audio stays around forever, so you better make sure you get it right. The hardest part, I think, is going back to the narrator and telling them what they’ve given you isn’t good enough and they need to re-record with better conditions and/or equipment. It’s not fun to do, but when you get recordings thrown back at you that sound like they came from the bottom of a tin bucket and you can hear next door neighbours screaming in the background, you don’t have much of a choice. The same goes when narrators don’t turn their work in for months past the deadline – you can’t be afraid to cut away the rough edges if people just aren’t pulling their weight.

CS: What notable stories have you worked on and what significant happened before, during, and after production?

JS: By far the most significant was George R. R. Martin’s “The Men of Greywater Station”. Originally published in the 70s, the story has been out of print for almost forty years and had never appeared online before. When I reached out to Mr. Martin, I wasn’t expecting him to even answer the email, let alone give us the green light to produce an audio adaptation of his story. This man is essentially a celebrity in both fandom and mainstream media. But not only did he respond, he gave us the audio rights to play his story. Keep in mind this was all happening while Season 5 of Game of Thrones was playing on HBO – and come under heavy fire for controversy. I’m still shocked he responded at all.

Then we discovered that “The Men Greywater Station” was not actually available to grab online. I went back to Mr. Martin and he offered to post a carbon copy of the story by snail mail to me.

We got a copy of the story and sent it to our narrator, Nick Camm, and released it on June 4, 2015. Again, Season 5 of the TV show was playing at the time. We knew the episode would be big, but we had no idea just how big. We got covered, retweeted and praised by everyone from Neil Gaiman to Big Five publishers to boing boing. Everyone was talking about it. We were all over the moon at the District of Wonders. Within hours the downloads were in their high thousands. All the official fan outlets (Westoros.org, A Song of Ice and Fire forums, etc) posted about it, too. It’s not everyday that an out-of-print story written in the 70s reappears in audio, especially when it’s by GRRM.

Of course, the biggest surprise came when George R. R. Martin himself blogged about it, adding that he thought we “did a nice job”. And then it got topped when a YouTuber performed an analysis of the audio adaptation, proposing that the world of Greywater Station and Westoros exist in the same universe. He linked his tens of thousands of subscribers to the podcast, almost all of whom had never heard of us before. Almost a year later the downloads are still climbing and I occasionally still get fan mail about the episode. Of course, I’ve also gotten a few people telling me that we’d wasted even more of GRRM’s time, time that could have gone into the next book, so that’s interesting.

Other major stories would include William Gibson’s “Thirteen Years of a Cardboard City” for the 400th episode of StarShipSofa special. I also worked on the adaptation of Bruce Sterling’s “Black Swan”, which was reprinted in the Best SF of the Year (15). It was narrated by film actor Paul Cram, who’s had speaking roles opposite Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight) and Woody Harrelson (True Detective, The Hunger Games). Mr. Sterling wrote in to mention how much he enjoyed what we did with it.

And then, of course, is Christopher Priest, whose novel The Prestige was turned into an Academy-award nominated film by Christopher Nolan. I reached out to him about acquiring a story, but since that one was not suitable we exchanged a few emails back and forth about what would be the most suitable story. In the end, we settled on “A Dying Fall”, which launched just recently.

CS: What notable authors have you worked with and what was your experience with them?

JS: As I said, I had the chance to work with George R. R. Martin with his story and it was an absolute honour to even speak with the man, let alone have my name next to his. The man was polite, helpful and (oddly) very informal and willing to go out of his way to get “Greywater Station” in our hands. He never talked down to me for a moment.

William Gibson was also very relaxed and informal, signing off as “Bill” and giving us permission to use his story instantly.

You hear a lot about Christopher Priest’s alleged condescending attitude, but it was the complete opposite case for me. The man apologised for being a few weeks late to respond to an email query and was very easy going and helpful during the entire process, even trawling through his computer to find the story we’d requested.

In the case of Robin Hobb, I’d reached out to her and asked about playing her story “Old Paint”. She was very thrilled about the idea, and even offered us the chance to play another one of her stories “Neighbours”, published in GRRM’s anthology Dangerous Women. I attended a signing of hers after we’d played the stories where not only did she thank me in person for what we did, but directed others at the signing to the podcasts. That was a moment of Huge Awesomeness for me.

Something similar happened to when I wrote into Peter F. Hamilton. I’ve been reading his novels for half my life, so getting the opportunity to work with him was mind boggling. When he came down to Sydney for a book signing, I mentioned that we’d knew each other from StarShipSofa. His jaw dropped and the only thing he could say was “You’re Jeremy? In Australia? I didn’t think StarShipSofa was so international!” And then we stayed behind and debated about the scientific accuracy and merit of the film Gravity.

CS: What’s your day job?

JS: At the current time, I’m a labourer. My dad runs his own business and whenever he needs a wall knocked down, the bricks cleared away and a hole dug, I’m the one to do it. It’s hard work, but it means I usually get to listen to podcasts while I’m working. I can sometimes get through 5-6 episodes that either the District of Wonders or Escape Artists put out, and it is awesome.

Of course, it’s not my long term job, which leads to the next question…

CS: How is your time at SSS going to contribute to your career goals?

JS: My plan is to be a writer and editor, and so being able to tackle the slush and see the sort of work being put out, the tropes used and the common mistakes enhances your awareness of your own work. It’s difficult to see what we’re doing wrong until we see someone else doing it, then we’re all much wiser.

My ultimate goal it to be a novelist, but if I can be an editor as well I’ll do that too. But right now writing those chunky novels is the end game at the moment, and working on StarShipSofa and seeing the diverse types of science-fiction being written and published today absolutely contributes towards that.

It also helps to get my name out there, scattering like seeds in the winds (I’m not good enough of a writer to make a better metaphor). Episodes I’ve worked on have had nearly one million downloads, so it’s a little scary and exciting to think that my name’s out there – it certainly does get spread around. I’ll never forget the moment when I went to a book fair last year and a Big Five editor recognized me from my editorial work.

CS: Your bio indicates you’re written several novels. How many, what length, what genres, and how did you finish so many in such a short time?

JS: I’ve always been writing, but I wrote my first science-fiction novel just after high school at the age of 17. It was terrible and will never see the light of day. I wrote another one, a young-adult science fiction novel clocking in at around 80,000 words. It managed to get a lot of interest from agents, but so far nothing concrete has settled.

I also just recently finished the first draft of a Slavic/Eurasian inspired YA fantasy novel that rounded up at 90,000 words. But right now I’m starting work on an adult space opera/murder mystery, so that should eat my time up for the next few months.

It wasn’t easy to always get those words down, especially as I was at university at the time, but I stole time out from other things. I used to be very active on several gaming forums where I worked as a reviewer and moderator, but that had to go. So did a lot of my gaming time. I still play video games, but a good chunk of that time went to writing.

It also didn’t help that for a long time my focus was on short stories, essays and reviews. I don’t regret doing it for an instant, I’ve had work published in Nature, Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, Grimdark Magazine, and most recently Lightspeed’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, but it did take away some of my noveling time. I’m never not going to write short fiction, but novels are my focus right now.

CS: What did you study in film and creative writing courses that helped/hindered you?

JS: Out of the two, film studies was absolutely the superior class in terms of writing. They taught you the fundamentals of good writing: to keep the plot always moving, to always keep throwing challenges at your characters, to write sharp dialogue that didn’t throw the viewers out, to create killer endings. They were utterly ruthless in crafting the best story and viewing experience possible, and the year I was studying the focus was on science-fiction short films with Black Mirror being used as a prime example of what to do right. It couldn’t have been more practical. I made some connections and served as a producer for a short film (not SF, though) that’s currently being screened at film festivals around the world.

Creative Writing, on the other hand, was often just something that dragged me down. There were one or two fantastic classes, but for the most part they taught you the sort of rubbish you’re never going to use in the real world: poetry that’s formatted on the page to resemble the anatomy of a human skeleton. Typography that emulates consciousness in the city. How to use the moon as a metaphor for sexual frustration. Collage fiction that used more public domain quotes than original written words. All the usual practical stuff seen in commercial publishing. House of Leaves ain’t got nothing on these guys. And honestly, when someone cuts themselves and spills blood all over a page of text (“accidently”) and the teacher shouts praises, you know you’re in the wrong place. I’m just glad it was a scanned copy.

Granted not all classes were like that, and some of my work written in creative writing workshops actually lead to semi-pro sales. One of the best classes I ever took was on self-censorship and respectability, using The Satanic Verses as an example. But in most cases Creative Writing hurt more than it helped. I’m just glad that I was already selling short fiction to venues such as Nature and knew better. Newspaper collages and edgy quotes does not a compelling story make.

CS: What’s in the future for SSS?

JS: Ah. Many, many things that we cannot tell you about (don’t you hate it when they say that?) We’ve recently recruited a whole army of new narrators across the District of Wonders, so you’ll be hearing a lot of new voices on the shows. We’ve got some fantastic stories coming up, from new authors and mammoth blockbuster names. There’s also a special project on the horizon that’s on the low key at the moment, but it’ll be unlike anything we’ve done before. We’ll be opening up again to submissions soon, so me and Ralph will be neck-deep in slush.

We’re also hoping to get another virtual con started up. We’ve had SofaCon1 and 2 before and we’re aiming for another one. The guest and panel list is still a work in progress, but we’re working on it.

CS: What’s on the horizon for Jeremy Szal?

JS: I’ve got an essay in People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, and I absolutely cannot wait for the entire anthology to be released and hold a copy in my hand. I’ve also got a few stories forthcoming, as well as some short fiction still being held for consideration at markets. I’m also going to be involved in a few films projects, although nothing’s set in stone.

At the moment, the priority will be novels. I’m going to finish up my adult space opera, set it aside and start editing my YA fantasy. I’m still on the prowl for an agent for my YA science-fiction as well as my unfinished novels, so I’m always working towards that.

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