Interview with Jonathan Oliver
Here in the UK we have some of the very best Editors and today I feel incredibly privileged to interview one of my favourites and one I truly look up to – as someone who recently published their own anthology and first short story – Jonathan Oliver.
For those unfamiliar with Jonathan, he is Editor-in-chief of both Solaris and Abaddon Books. As well as having edited novels by some of genre fiction’s most successful authors he has published an array of wonderfully varied anthologies that include Dangerous Games (released this month, Dec 2014), End of the Road (2013), House of Fear, (2011) Magic (2012) and The End of the Line (2010); for these titles he has received 6 nominations for a British or World Fantasy Award and has taken home two of them.
In addition to his editing, Jonathan has written and had published two books in the Twilight of Kerberos series and composed many short stories (note: he’d probably write more, but, after working with words all day in the editing room, there is ‘the desire to play Xbox’).
In today’s interview we shall be focusing on his latest anthology, Dangerous Games, which was released this month and where, in a world of chances, one decision can bring down the house, one roll of the dice could bring untold wealth, or the end of everything. It’s an anthology of all new short stories where the players gather and feature in stories that are often dark, and always compelling….
1. Undoubtedly you are one of the UK’s most well-known editors – due to your collection of awards and authors acknowledging you in their work and on panels – however, I’m sure there’s quite a difference between ‘Jonathan Oliver The Novel Editor’ and ‘Jonathan Oliver The Anthology Editor’ – could you talk us through the two roles and how they differ?
JO: That’s very kind of you to say so. I suppose there’s a different way of working on the different forms but the sensibilities that you bring are broadly the same. In each case you’re looking to help the author make the best story they can. Though with short fiction that’s usually a lot less involved than the work on a novel would be. The longer forms means just means that there is more to keep an eye on, to make sure you end up with a satisfyingly cohesive product…. And I just called a book a ‘product’. Shoot me now! With anthologies, the challenge is taking all these little bits and pieces, that should be different from one another and present a diverse range of voices, but should all come together in one book like a strange symphony, if that’s not playing too fast and loose with a simile. Yes, the reader is going to have his or her favourites within the collection, but they should also think of the work as a collection, rather than ‘that book that had a couple of stories in it that I like.’ So, the challenges in terms of short fiction are similar to the challenges of a novel, but what you’re creating at the end of that process is quite different.
2. I really like the title, Dangerous Games. I know you’ve been asked this a ton in other interviews, but to get the question I kind of ‘have’ to ask out the way early: can you tell us a bit about how why you thought it would make such a good theme for an SFF anthology?
JO: Well, firstly, I’m a gamer myself. I’ve been a member of the same tabletop RPG group for well over a decade, and my gaming buddies are some of my oldest and closest friends. I also do occasionally play video games, especially as they’re now way more narratively and dramatically satisfying than they were in my youth. Also, games are just so ubiquitous. Everybody these days is a gamer, whether they think of themselves as such or not. There are games on your phone and TV now. The majority of commuters I share transport with on my way to work are playing on their phones, rather than reading. Damn them. So, game and gaming effects all our lives and it just felt a natural area to explore via the medium of weird fiction.
3. I’ve spoken about this before on the Fantasy-Faction forums actually, but something I’ve noticed about Fantasy and Science-Fiction is the number of writers who play video games. Do you think that video games help create authors in any way?
JO: That’s a good question. I’m not sure they create authors in the sense you and I would think of it, a novelist or short story writer say. They perhaps create the desire for people to get more involved in planning the narrative of a game. And, as I said, games are much more narratively complex now. Because the nature of gameplay has become much more involved, there has been more demand for story in games of late. One of my favourite stories in any medium recently was Portal 2. I just found the end of that jaw-droppingly clever. And prose writers are becoming way more involved in the industry now. Scott Andrews worked on one of the Sniper Elite games, for example. Rebecca Levene is involved in the fitness/app game Zombies Run. Story has begun to permeate games and vice-versa.
4. Speaking of themes… Almost all anthologies have one these days. Just how important do you think it is to have a theme, such as ‘Dangerous Games’, for an anthology?
JO: I think it makes it easier for the reader in a way. With a broad horror anthology you’re just guaranteeing a collection of stories. Naturally they may all be great, but no expectation is given or met in such a volume. (This is not me knocking them, I have hundreds of collections on my shelves). With a themed anthology you have a hook to draw the reader in. An interesting enough theme will hopefully grab the attention of the reader and make it more likely that they’ll stay for the ride.
5. You have some incredible names contributing: Chuck Wendig, Libby McGugan, Ivo Stourton, Paul Kearney, and so, so many more besides. Is it a tough task pulling authors away from writing novels to write short stories (which generally take a huge amount of time and skill, but aren’t as lucrative)? How do you go about choosing which ones to approach?
JO: Yeah, it can be. There are authors who just won’t write short stories, because, though short stories are well, short, they’re no less challenging to write than a novel. So the financial compensation therein can be a stumbling block for some. Which is a shame, as there are writers out there who I’m convinced would produce blinding short stories. As to how I go about choosing my line-up: I’m looking for consistency, yes, but I also want stories that surprise and delight me. I’m keen to give new voices a chance and I’m keen to make my collections as diverse as possible, showing how broad genre is. There are authors I’ll work with repeatedly, because I adore their work and feel they have a lot to say in the short form. But I also don’t want to just keep the same names each time. Each collection should also bring something new to the table. Naturally, one does look for authors who will help the book to succeed commercially, because I want to keep doing them, natch. But it’s also important to keep pushing the envelope and flying the flag for great short fiction. I love the medium, I even write in it myself occasionally, and I think it keeps genre fresh.
6. Once you have chosen your authors and they’ve signed up to the idea – how much interaction do you have with them before they start writing? Do you want to talk with them and make sure you are on the same wave-length or do you let them run with it?
JO: I do want them to write to the theme, but I don’t want to lead them. After all, I’m signing up authors I’m confident will produce great work. Generally I advise that they write to the theme but think how they can subvert the theme or do something different with it. It’s the approach I take when writing for themed anthologies myself. Take the brief, hit it with a hammer, and see how you can make the pieces fit back in an interesting way.
7. Have you ever had a story come in that really, truly didn’t fit and have to turn it down or insist gets an extensive re-write?
JO: It’s only happened twice. Once someone sent something in that was so far off brief I didn’t buy it. They, unfortunately, didn’t have anything else for me. Another time, an author wrote completely off brief again, but when I invited them to resubmit, they did, with a very strong story.
8. Similarly, are you ever surprised by the work that an author sends in? I.e. you choose an author expecting one thing based on their novels and end up with something totally different in their short story submission?
JO: Absolutely. Being surprised and delighted by the fiction I commission is one of things that keeps me going. I mean, you have an expectation that they’ll be good, naturally, but getting something that is incredible is always a real pleasure. Sophia McDougall is a case in point. Her first story for me, ‘Mailer Daemon’, was just so clever and so rich and so moving, that one appeared in Magic. Her story for End of the Road, revisiting a character from ‘Mailer Daemon’, called ‘Through Wylmere Woods’, was, despite some of the subject matter, such a joyous and hopeful story that it had much punching the air in delight. Robert Shearman is another writer who always gives me something different, but something startlingly brilliant. ‘The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World’ in House of Fear, is an extraordinary story about love and faith. And his story ‘Ice in the Bedroom’ in Jonathan Strahan’s Fearsome Magics is simply stunning, deeply moving and brutally honest. But it’s wrong to say that I have favourites. The authors always exceed my expectations.
9. Back towards this specific anthology, do you have a favourite story or one that you think truly sums up Dangerous Games that you can tell us a bit about?
JO: Oooh, tricky, as that’s back to picking your favourites. I think the anthology is best summed up in how diverse it is. It shows how much rich material can be got from that one theme. No story is alike. It’s terrific to bring some folk who don’t often tinker in the short form into the collection. So we have Hilary Monahan’s very first, as in the very first she’s written, short story with ‘The Bone Man’s Bride’, and my faith in Hilary as a writer has totally paid off with something that’s deeply creepy and pure Americana. The same is true for Ivo Stourton’s ‘Two Sit Down and One Stands Up’ which beautifully portrays Ivo’s economy of prose and pacing of plot, a talent he displays in his excellent novels. And there’s Nik Vincent’s ‘The Stranger Cards’ which is a great supernatural police procedural. Every single story works, though, and each voice added deepens, I hope, the enjoyment of the reader.
10. If I mention ‘Joe Abercrombie’, it will likely bring to mind those prose of his that drip with sarcasm and brutal matter of fact or his complex, fascinating characters. Do you think editors – such as yourself – can have a style?
JO: It’s not something I consciously aim for. I’m sure my interests and passions come through in my choice of themes, but really the aim is to showcase the best short fiction I can. I think it’s up to others to decide whether I have a style or not.
11. Speaking of Joe Abercrombie (one of my favourite authors), as a genre fan yourself, how have you found working with some of the bigger names in the Fantasy and Science-Fiction? Do you manage to keep it professional or have you had fanboy moments?
JO: Generally, I’m very good at keeping the enthusiasm but also keeping the professionalism. It was a delight to meet Audrey Niffenegger in person, and she’s kind of a huge deal, but it was pretty much just two like-minded people having a nice meal and a great chat. The only person I’ve ‘fan boyed’ at since working in the industry is Peter Straub. I met him at World Horror once and my mouth stopped working. It was all ‘and and, you’re Peter Straub, and I love your books, and your work means a great deal to me, and now I’m going to stand over there, bye.’ I’ve since seen Peter at many conventions, so have managed to make myself less of an idiot. The very first convention I went to, when I was 17, I ran up to Ramsey Campbell and said, ‘You’re Ramsey Campbell aren’t you? You’re the reason I’m here!’ Thankfully Ramsey didn’t call the police and we’ve remained friends. It’s a real delight and privilege though to work with the people I do. I’m all too aware of how immensely lucky I am.
12. There is a belief that Fantasy short stories don’t work (some would even tell you they don’t exist!). I guess that is because Fantasy, as a genre, has an image so tightly linked with Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings that people find it hard to accept an author could introduce a new world, fantastical concepts and characters in such a short space. For you, what is it that keeps you bringing anthologies to market and promoting the short story as a genre?
JO: Fantasy short stories can be a bit of a hard sell yes. Because fantasy is a genre where the books are often sold by the pound. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, I’m a huge fan of Steven Erikson’s books and they weigh in at a 1000 pages or more. So, the challenge with the fantasy short story anthology is to keep the core of what makes those stories great, but do so in a short form. You can be epic, without being epic. What keeps us at it, though? We love short stories, there are a lot of good short story writers out there, and there is a market for short fiction.
13. What’s your opinion on ebooks both in terms of the publishing industry and for short stories?
JO: I think that the advent of digital publishing and the proliferation of ebooks has created a lot of fantastic opportunities. Works that have been languishing out-of-print for decades are now getting a new lease of life. Authors are able to experiment more with self-publishing and potentially reach a huge audience. And the publishing industry has been wise not to react to the digital revolution in the same manner as the music industry. At heart, I’ll always be a paper fiend, but e-books are a good thing, on the whole, and present more opportunities than they do problems. For short stories, the opportunity to consume fiction in smaller chunks is there, which is nice, as that’s all some folk have time for.
14. You’ve had a pretty extensive career, can we ask you what your three highlights – things that stand out most to you or that you are most proud of – are so far?
JO: I’m proud of establishing Abaddon Books and am greatly looking forward to our 10th Anniversary next year. I’m so proud of what David Moore has done with the imprint too, the books continue to be terrific. I’m proud that I got asked to take on Solaris. It was a great list when we inherited and we’ve managed to put our own spin on it and keep it fresh and entertaining. And I’m naturally very proud of my anthologies. I’m steeped in short stories, a huge fan of the form, and it was always my intention when we took over Solaris to make it a real flagship for the short form.
14. I know you’ve been asked your favourite short story writers, your favourite short stories and things like that in recent interviews – so I will suggest readers check google for those choices. However, I’m going to ask instead: If you could have any author write a short story for Dangerous Games or any of your previous anthologies, who would you choose, why would you choose them and what anthology would they write for?
JO: That’s another terrific question. Okay, Shirley Jackson, who would naturally be a perfect fit for House of Fear. Jackson manages to create stories that are deeply creepy and often genuinely frightening, but never anything less than entirely human. I think Ursula Le Guin would be a perfect fit for Dangerous Games, her fiction is philosophical without being dry, and she’s always such a great source of incisive and challenging ideas, and, it sounds obvious, but Stephen King, probably for End of the Road. I grew up reading his novels and he was one of the writers who really ignited my passion for genre.
15. Finally, I guess this will be one of your last projects of the year. Is there anything you are working on short story or novel-length we should be looking out for in 2015?
JO: I’m in the process of bringing together my next anthology, which will feature five very exciting things. More on that later. Writing-wise I have a story in Jonathan Green’s Sharkpunk anthology next year called ‘Peter and The Invisible Shark’ which I’m very proud of. Novel-wise, well there is the continuing roster of great works with Solaris, Abaddon and Ravenstone.
Fantasy-Faction would like to say thank you again to Jonathan Oliver for taking the time to answer our many, many questions. This certainly feels like one of our most insightful and interesting interviews to date! I encourage you all to check out Jonathan’s latest anthology, Dangerous Games (which you can find here), and give him a follow on Twitter too (here!).