Interview With Legendary Editor and Writer Darrell Schweitzer

Posted: April 3, 2014 in Books, Interviews, Writers
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I don’t know if I ever mentioned this here before, but I edit the newsletter for the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. I like it, because it gives me a chance to conduct interviews with some really cool people. Here’ s one I did that for the most recent issue, reprinted with permission of … well … me, I guess, since I’m the editor. Enjoy.

When I was a kid, I was a subscriber to and avid reader of “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.” So I was thrilled when I saw a stack of back issues at a recent book event. I was even more thrilled when it turned out that the guy selling them — in addition to the many fine books he’s authored — was Darrell Schweitzer, one of the people involved in putting out the magazine back in the day.

Darrell was an editorial assistant with Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine from 1977 to 1982. He went on to serve as editorial assistant with “Amazing Stories,” and as the editor of “Weird Tales.” He won a World Fantasy Award for his work with Weird Tales.

Darrell has written three novels, more than 300 short stories, and a number of nonfiction and poetry books. He’s edited numerous anthologies.

He agreed to answer some questions for our newsletter, so here goes. (Note: I think we had a bit of a semantic mix-up. Darrell apparently interpreted “speculative fiction” as a synonym for “science fiction.” I understood it as more of a blanket term encompassing science fiction, fantasy and horror. Since Darrell was responding to e-mailed questions, I couldn’t really straighten it out in the course of conversation. No biggie.)

Q: First of all, I’m really enjoying “Echoes of the Goddess,” because the tone of the stories takes me back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was a kid watching the mail for my issue of “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.” I realize, of course, that there were a lot of different writers with distinct visions and voices. But do you think there was any kind of a prevailing quality that characterized the speculative fiction of that era?

A:   I think what makes you associate ECHOES with the 1970s and ‘80s is the Fabian art. The book very much has the LOOK of that period. The stories, which are fantasy, and not really “speculative” unless you believe the theology, harken back, I think, to a much earlier era. You can see a lot of Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and Jack Vance (THE DYING EARTH) in these.

Q: What drew you to speculative fiction in the first place?

A:   I continue to question the word “speculative” here. My first paid-for, published story, “Come To Mother” in WEIRDBOOK 4 (Don’t read it, except for laughs. It’s pretty bad.) is about a boy and his mom, who is dead, but they are happily reconciled when she comes back as a ghoul and he learns to eat corpses. I had always had a predilection toward fantastic fiction. It is probably unsafe to say that most young writers do. It is more accurate to say that young writers who want to write fantasy, as opposed to wannabe Hemingways, are more likely to succeed at an early age because fantasy can (within limits) be written without a lot of world travel or life experience and still made interesting.

Q: When you were a magazine editor, what qualities in a story would make you inclined to accept it?

A:  The main thing is the story itself. The editor should not really care (for all you go courting big names) who wrote it. The story needs to involve the emotions. Just being clever is not often enough. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry. It works every time. One of the joys of being an editor, by the way, is discovering new writers and launching them on their careers.

Q: Are there any elements of good speculative fiction that you think writers don’t pay enough attention to these days? And are there any neglected trends in speculative fiction that you think are ripe for rediscovery?

A: Mind you I have not written much genuinely “speculative” fiction, i.e. science fiction. I should think that the discovery, as an observed fact, that most stars have planets and that there are, by implication, billions of exoplanets suitable for life, should stimulate someone’s imagination. I would like to see science fiction turn back toward the future and actually BE speculative. As for fantasy, the trend of the moment tends toward big, sprawling sagas of the George RR Martin sort. I would like to see more mythic content, not just mud and gory battles, although the mud & battles are a necessary antidote to the sort of High Fantasy which gives you the impression that the author has never been outdoors. I once picked three generic fantasy novels at random to review. In two of the three, the Fellowship of the Good Guys, deep in enemy territory, stops to camp for the night and lights a roaring fire. Clearly these were written by city-dwellers who have never even been on a camping trip.

Q: What are some of the major ways that publishing has changed since you started as a writer?

A: One of the major ways things have changed is that the boundary between professional and amateur has become extremely porous. There are countless opportunities in the small presses, some of which will do you good, some of which won’t. In the horror field they speak of “the small press ghetto.” There are probably fewer opportunities in conventional New York publishing than there were 30-40 years ago. Publishers want bestsellers, in series, and quickly dump writers who cannot produce this. The days of pleasant little eccentric novels published in mass-market paperback because they sold about as well as anything else with a science fiction or fantasy cover on it are over. Also, today, there are far more short story markets, but most of them are obscure niche markets. It is more possible to achieve obscurity than ever. Back about 1965, if you published at all, you published in one of the major magazines, and everyone in the field saw what you did.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring writer of speculative fiction?

A: Persist. Do not assume the editor won’t like you. Be polite and professional. Do not chase trends, because what you see in print now reflects what the editors were buying two years ago, but follow your heart and maintain the integrity of your work. Also, do not quit your day job. Very likely you will NEVER make a living at writing. Don’t even think about it, and embrace it cautiously if it seems to be happening. You quit your day job when you are losing money by going to work rather than writing, and you have factored in medical benefits. Realistically, here are some numbers: You sell five stories in a year to, say, ASIMOV’S SF. They pay 6 cents a word. Times 5000 words equals $300 a story. You are a huge success by the standards of your writing buddies, but you just made $1500. You then sell a novel for a generous first novel advance of, let us say, $10,000. I have been a literary agent. I know that a lot of advances are lower than that. You have just made $11,500 in a year. Do not expect this to go up exponentially, or necessarily at all.

Q: Can you name a few books that you believe should be required reading for writers of speculative fiction?

A: Do you mean How To Write books or fiction? You must read a LOT. If you want to read in SF or fantasy, you must read in those fields, but not exclusively, or else you will just produce rehashes of Tolkien or Heinlein or Gibson or whomever. Much of the real creativity in writing comes from a cross fertilization of life experience, reading outside the field, and the field itself. I would say a fantasy writer needs a grounding in classic literature. The Bible, Shakespeare, Dante, medieval romance (especially Malory), Homeric and other classical myth, Beowulf, Celtic/Irish myth. The most important book in the How To department is still THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White. There are many, many books on how to write. It is questionable how much you can learn from them, but if you apply yourself you can learn something. When I used to teach writing, I found that the main things that could be taught (as opposed to what can be learned) where the difference between synopsis and narrative, and point of view. Writer’s Digest has all sorts of specialized books for writers, which may apply to your area. One I recommend is called ARMED AND DANGEROUS. It is a book about weapons, for writers. Thus if your characters kill anybody with anything from a crossbow to a Glock, this helps you get the details right. It’s most obviously for mystery writers.

In general, the more you know, the better. The more widely you read, the better. As long as you are actually producing fiction, you can tell your family members that anything you do is “research,” unless you are snoring loudly. And that overlooks the whole question of dream research …

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