An Interview with John Joseph Adams (May, 2011)

An Interview with Robert M. Durling

John Joseph Adams

John Joseph Adams has been called “the reigning king of the anthology world” by Barnes & Noble.com, and has published such great and bestselling anthologies as Brave New Worlds, Living Dead, Living Dead 2, By Blood We Live, and many more. He has been nominated for the 2011 Best Editor (Short Form) Hugo Award. He is the editor for Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine. He is also the co-host for the podcast, The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Alex C. Telander: What are some of your favorite books and authors of all time?

John Joseph Adams: I tend to shy away from naming favorite authors, but I’ll happily name favorite books and stories and movies and whatnot. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester is my favorite novel, and has been for a long time—really since it blew my mind when I read it and as a result helped me truly fall in love with the genre. (In my “personal bio” on my website, I talk at length about what The Stars My Destination means to me.)

Other novels I’m a big fan of include: Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, 1984 by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart… Obviously I could go on and on! A recent favorite is Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine, which just came out and is CRAZY GOOD, and I also really enjoyed Mira Grant’s zombie novel Feed, which is a finalist for this year’s Hugo Award.

In short fiction, my favorites include “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison, “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. (That I got to reprint those last three is quite an honor.)

Alex: In a succession of concise bullet points, how did you get from reading great science fiction and fantasy to editing award winning anthologies?

John:

  • Got inspired by fiction (and roleplaying games) to try my hand at writing.
  • Wrote a (terrible) novel.
  • Went to college and majored in creative writing.
  • Wrote some (terrible) short stories.
  • In my writing workshop classes, discovered a penchant for editing when critiquing manuscripts.
  • After graduation, moved to the NYC area to get a job in publishing and landed an entry-level editorial gig at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
  • Worked for several years under the editorial tutelage of Gordon Van Gelder.
  • Pitched a post-apocalyptic anthology right when the sub-genre was about to blow up.
  • Said anthology sold and then did incredibly well, thus paving the way for me to do more.

How was that? I’d say point 7 is the critical one there.

Alex: Did you know Living Dead was going to be such a bestseller?

John: I didn’t know what to expect, honestly. At that point, I’d only done Wastelands, which was a huge (and surprise) success, and a little anthology for Prime Books called Seeds of Change. While Wastelands did really well, Seeds of Change didn’t set any sales records, though it was hard to judge anything from it because it was done with a very small print run, with little publicity etc. (In the end, it did just fine for what the publisher was attempting to do with it.) But anyway—I didn’t have a lot of evidence to suggest what I could expect. I knew zombies seemed to be blowing up like post-apocalyptic fiction had, and I was confident I’d put a good book together—one that I thought was not only qualitatively excellent, but also full of the requisite big names that should ensure sales. But I really had no idea that the anthology would break out the way it did…and if I’d ever even dreamed that it would be so successful, someone in publishing would have surely appeared in my dream to tell me how ridiculous it was to think that that could happen. But it did happen—really, it seems like it was about being in the right place, at the right time, with the right product. At that point, no one had done an anthology attempting to collect the best zombie fiction of all-time, and obviously there was a hunger for such a book in the marketplace.

Alex: Will there be a Living Dead 3?

John: I would gladly do one, but the publisher, Night Shade Books, wasn’t interested in doing a third volume. The Living Dead 2, though it has been basically just as critically-acclaimed as volume one, hasn’t sold nearly as well as the first one. Still, by anthology standards it’s done quite well, so I’m kind of surprised they didn’t want to do another. But c’est la vie. There are other anthology projects to work on in the meantime, and perhaps I’ll do another zombie anthology somewhere down the line for someone else.

Alex: Where do your ideas for anthologies come from?

John: There’s a factory in Schenectady, NY. If you send them $2.50, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, in return you’ll receive five index cards with anthology ideas on them. I could give you the address, but I probably shouldn’t: trade secrets and all.

Alex: Can you talk about some of your future anthologies coming out?

John: Sure. The next anthology I have coming out is the Lightspeed: Year One anthology, which will collect all of the fiction published in the first year of Lightspeed Magazine all in one (hardcopy) volume. Since Lightspeed is an electronic magazine, it’ll be the first print publication of a bunch of the stories, so a lot of people will probably be encountering them for the first time. It’ll contain everything from when we launched (June 2010) through May 2011—our first twelve months of fiction. That should be out sometime around November.

Then I’ve got Armored, for Baen Books: From Starship Troopers and Iron Man to Halo and Mechwarrior, readers and gamers have long been fascinated by the idea of going to battle in suits of personal, powered combat armor or giant mechs. This anthology will explore the range of what can be done with the trope, from the near-future powered exoskelton technologies we might be seeing just a few years from now, to the combat armors of Starship Troopers and Halo, to the giant bipedal mechs of Mechwarrior. For more details, see this article on io9 about the anthology. It will include new stories by Alastair Reynolds, Dan Abnett, Jack Campbell, Jack McDevitt, Simon R Green, Sean Williams, Genevieve Valentine, and more. It’ll be out from Baen sometime in 2012.

And then there’s The Mad Scientist’s Guide To World Domination, from Tor: From Victor Frankenstein to Lex Luthor, from Dr. Moreau to Dr. Doom, readers have long been fascinated by megalomaniacal plans for world domination and the madmen who come up with them. Typically, we see these villains through the eyes of superheroes (or other good guys) as they attempt to put an end to their evil ways. This anthology, however, will explore the world of mad scientists and evil geniuses–from their own point of view. Evil geniuses are always so keen on telling captured heroes all their fiendish plans. Isn’t it about time someone gave them a platform such as this one to reach the masses with their messages of death and destruction? It features stories by: Carrie Vaughn, Alan Dean Foster, Daniel H. Wilson, Austin Grossman, Marjorie M. Liu, Ben Winters, David Farland, Mary Robinette Kowal, Harry Turtledove, Seanan McGuire, Naomi Novik, and more. Also out sometime in 2012.

I’ve also got another new anthology coming out in 2012 that hasn’t been announced yet, but should be made public soon.

UPDATE: On May 19th, 2011 it was announced that John Joseph Adams would be the editor of a new anthology based on the classic John Carter of Mars series. The full details can be found here.

Otherwise, I’m working on a couple of different proposals right now for 2013 and beyond, and then there’s always Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed every month.

Alex: Have you, do you, or do you plan to write your own stories and/or books at some point?

John: As I mentioned earlier, I got interested in editing through an interest in writing, but once I started working in editing, I put my writing on hold. I may return to it someday, but for now the editing is keeping me pretty busy, and readers seem to think I have an affinity for it, so for now I’ll stick with it.

Alex: What do you hope readers get from reading your anthologies?

John: That varies from book to book, I suppose. With a book like Brave New Worlds, I hope that readers feel like they’ve read the definitive anthology on the subject, and that the book has provided a clear and distinct thesis on what dystopian fiction is, and why the stories I chose are among the best examples of it. Also, obviously, I hope they’ll think about the concepts dystopian literature is known for exploring, and reflecting on those in the way that good fiction makes us do.

Alex: You also edit Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine.  Can you talk about these projects?

John: Fantasy and Lightspeed are two online magazines published by Prime Books. Lightspeed launched in June 2010, whereas Fantasy has been around since 2005 and I just took over as editor for it recently (my first issue as editor was the March 2011 issue). Both magazines publish two original stories every month (fantasy in Fantasy, and science fiction in Lightspeed, as you would probably guess), along with two reprints. Alongside each piece of fiction, we run a piece of nonfiction, usually something riffing off the ideas in the fiction, or a feature interview.

Lightspeed’s had a great initial run: it’s a finalist for the Hugo Award this year, I’m a finalist as well, and “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn (from the June 2010 issue) is also a finalist. Additionally, “Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro and “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” by Vylar Kaftan are finalists for the Nebula Award. Also, 9 out of the 16 original stories we published in 2010 were reprinted in a year’s best anthology. Fantasy’s doing well too, based on early reader response, but it’s only been a couple months since I took over at this point—and it’s too early for award nominations or year’s best appearances; I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next year.

Both magazines are published in ebook format monthly, and are available for sale in various ebook retail channels (Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, iBooks, etc.), as well as in epub format from our own stores. Additionally, both magazines serialize each issue’s content online, for free, throughout the month. So if you’d like to read the magazines for free, you can, but you just get access to the website edition and you have to wait; if you’d like to get the whole issue all at once, and in convenient ebook format, you can buy the ebook edition on the first of every month.

Alex: Do you have any advice for writers looking to get published?

John: Read a lot. And specifically read the form you’re interested in writing—if you’re working on short stories, read tons of short stories; it’s not going to help you with your short stories all that much if all you’re reading is novels. Also, write a lot. And when you write crappy stuff, don’t dwell on it; just move on to the next thing and try to do better.

Also, involve yourself in the community—go to some conventions, join the conversation on Twitter, read author blogs, etc. The internet is full of resources for writers, so now it’s easier than ever to learn the ropes from the pros and also to interact with others who are at the same level as you.

Alex: And what’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast?

John: It’s basically a talk radio show for geeks. But, you know, a podcast. It’s hosted by me and author David Barr Kirtley. We spend about half of each hour-long episode interviewing our featured guest, and then for the rest of the show Dave and I debate various geeky topics, usually something relevant to the subjects brought up in our interview. Some of our past guests include authors George R. R. Martin, Robert Kirkman, Naomi Novik, Holly Black, and Paolo Bacigalupi, filmmaker Alexander Phillipe (The People vs. George Lucas), and scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Our latest episode features an interview with science writer Mary Roach (Stiff, Packing for Mars), and then Dave and I talk about spooky stories and movies set in space. The show’s currently hosted on io9.com, and our official website is at geeksguideshow.com.

Alex: Do you have time to read for fun anymore?  What are you reading now?

John: Now and then I manage to carve out some pleasure reading time, though it’s hard, since I have so much I should be reading. Lately, I’ve managed to read a couple of pre-release zombie novels in order to blurb them—Mira Grant’s Feed, John Skipp & Cody Goodfellow’s Spore, and Daryl Gregory’s Raising Stony Mayhall. I also made time to read Mechanique, which I mentioned earlier, just because I’m such a big fan of Genevieve’s short fiction, and the milieu seemed so interesting from the description, I was dying to see what she’d done with it. (And liked it so much, I got her to write me a story set in that milieu for Fantasy Magazine.)

But those could all be seen as work, I suppose. What I’m actually reading (or re-reading, rather) right now is A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. Once the Game of Thrones tv series started, and having talked about it at length with Dave on Geek’s Guide, I just couldn’t help myself and I went in for a re-read. Plus, with A Dance with Dragons due out in July, I figured it was time for me to get a refresher course.

Alex: Do you have a special anthology that you’ve always wanted to publish?

John: Well, Wastelands, Brave New Worlds, and Armored are all anthologies that deal with themes that I’ve been a fan of for a long, long time, so those are all special to me. So had I not already done them, I would have cited those in answer to your question.

But I would actually love to do a metal-sf anthology—like sf/fantasy stories inspired by metal songs. I’ve even done research into such a project; that is, I’ve hunted around to see who in the genre likes metal. Unfortunately, no one seems to think it would be a commercial enough book to succeed, and, of course, I’d be extremely limited in who I could invite to participate. It would also be really tough to not compromise the purity of the setlist that inspires the stories, since I would have a vision of what bands and songs to include, but the authors would likely have other songs and bands in mind; while we may all like metal, there’s so many varieties that it would be unlikely I could find enough people who have a similar taste in metal as I do.

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