Interview: Gordon Van Gelder

By Richard Brignall

Gordon Van Gelder

After graduating from Princeton in 1988, Gordon Van Gelder became an assistant editor at St. Martin's Press, eventually working his way to the position of senior editor. In 1997, he took over from Kristine Kathryn Rusch as editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), while still working as an editor at St. Martin's. In 2000, Van Gelder bought the magazine from Ed Ferman, left his job at St. Martin's and became completely devoted to the magazine marketplace as editor and publisher of F&SF.

Richard Brignall: You sold a story to a Terry Carr anthology while still in high school. You had this initial success with your writing. . . .

Gordon Van Gelder: And it has been downhill ever since.

RB: What made you change focus from your own writing to editing?

GVG: It wasn't a one-step jump from writing to editing. I was writing in high school and figured I would grow up to become a writer. I went to college basically because of my writing -- I was in the creative writing program. While I was there, we put out a science fiction magazine and I edited that. The big jump came in my sophomore year when we had these writing workshops and we invited Joan Vinge to speak on campus.

She brought her worthless, no-good husband with her, Jim Frenkel. Jim was running Blue Jay Books, at the time, and he said he had an opening for an internship that summer. I wound up getting that internship and spending that summer basically seeing every aspect of book publishing. Blue Jay was a little independent book publisher that went under about two months after I left. So, I got to see everything from being in the mailroom, to negotiating $20,000 deals, to watching a company go under.

I honestly got my starting job at St. Martin's Press out of an advertisement in the New York Times. I went in for an interview and my main attribute for them, at that time, was that I could type very fast. I got that job a month after I graduated college. I started out as an editorial assistant and stayed there for 12 years -- becoming an editor was more of a progression.

RB: Looks like you were in the trenches and learned from the bottom up.

GVG: That is fairly true, because there aren't many people who start into book publishing as an editor. There are a few but it is rare, usually they start out as an assistant. It is essentially an apprenticeship system, where you work underneath another editor -- you see what he or she does and learn that way. I was lucky because Jim Frenkel taught me a lot. The editor I worked for at St. Martin's Press, Stuart Moore, taught me a lot. I also worked on the New York Review of Science Fiction with David Hartwell, and that was also a great learning experience. I got to see what three editors did, very closely, plus [I saw] other editors at St. Martin's who didn't do science fiction. So, as an apprenticeship, I had a lot of other people's experiences to draw from. Also, it wasn't that I worked my way up; instead they piled a lot of stuff on me and figured if I could survive that, I could keep my job.

I rarely saw editors do the line-by-line editing, more of it was their personal approach to publishing and packaging a book, and selecting which books to publish and which ones not to. One editor I worked for told me he almost never line edits, he won't line edit to make a difference between a B and a B-plus book -- he just doesn't have the time any more. He will edit to make the difference between an A and an A-plus book.

RB: Is there one editor that you looked up to?

GVG: I would have to say Jim Frenkel, Stuart Moore, and David Hartwell -- definitely the three most influential editors during my apprenticeship years.

RB: Do you have any of your own peculiar traits as an editor, like Damon Knight's red line of death?

GVG: After which he would stop reading at Clarion. I sort of do that when I read for F&SF. I will actually make notes on the back of the manuscript like, "I was bored by page four."

RB: What made you leave book editing to become a magazine editor and then publisher? I know it wasn't done in one giant step.

GVG: It was a change that was done slowly and who knows what the future holds. I actually suspect in the long run I may be a better book editor than a magazine editor, mostly because I have more experience there (in my twenties), but time will ultimately tell.

RB: Was it that the book publishing field was changing and switching over -- was that a breath of fresh air?

GVG: It was a combination of a few factors. Some of it was my growing frustration at St. Martin's Press because some of the books I would like to read or edit were not very commercial books -- they were offbeat books. These were books that take a lot of work to find the right market for them and publishers don't want that. They want a book that they don't have to put a lot of work into to get a lot back from it. I was finding it more frustrating that I couldn't do a lot of the writers and books that I wanted to do. I wasn't getting the support from the publisher, and the books I did do weren't getting the support I thought they should have deserved.

On the other hand, the magazine seemed to be run so much more reasonably by Ed Ferman. When he was looking to sell the magazine, basically the only way I could continue to edit it was by buying it, so that was the main motive for making the full jump from books to magazines. I don't rule out the possibility that I will be editing more books in the future.

RB: It looks like you were looking for freedom and you found it with this magazine.

GVG: It is also freedom in marketing influence. I do value freedom very highly; I hate the idea of trying to fit a book into a standard mold.

RB: Isn't that why a lot of magazines popped up -- to print stories that don't fit that standard mold?

GVG: One of my big revelations as a book editor: six or seven years into my career, I realized that I am the opposite of what book publishers want, because when I pick up a book I don't want to know how it is going to turn out. I don't want to know everything about it -- I want to have surprises waiting for me in the story. Most books are packaged like products and as mass products the consumer wants to know exactly what they are getting when they buy one. They want to know if they are buying a Stephen King book and not something that will change their mind in a different way.

The freedom for me came in by being able to publish things and say that "here's a good story" without having to say that this will fit in this niche and appeal to women 15-75 who have 3.5 cats, or some marketing factor like that.

RB: When you signed the dotted line to buy F&SF, did you realize the huge step you were taking?

GVG: I think it was a week before we closed the deal and I had one of those absolute moments of panic, thinking I can't go through with this and I should pull out, then I realized I would not be human if I didn't have that moment. I certainly wouldn't know what I was getting myself into. I knew it was going to be rough, I wasn't prepared in all the ways it was going to be rough. I did roughly know what I was getting into and in retrospect I wish I had a way of doing a six-month internship with the Fermans to see how they ran things beforehand. That would have made the transition much smoother, but there was no way to do that.

When I took over as editor, before I owned it, I felt more stress, but I got over that pretty fast; you just don't have time to dwell on that stuff.

Right after I bought F&SF I was looking at some bleak moments and asked myself, what is the worst that could happen? The magazine will die, I will have killed off this 53-year-old magazine, I will be in serious debt, needing to work at McDonalds for the next 30 years to pay it off.

I thought, that wasn't so bad, there are people who have to live like that all the time anyway, who don't get a shot to run a magazine -- it could be much worse. Once I put it in that perspective I didn't worry much more about it.

RB: When you were a book editor at St. Martin's, you were in the background of the industry, and now as editor/publisher of F&SF you are a visible member of the fantasy/science fiction community -- a visible participant in its history and evolution.

GVG: I realize that, but I also realize that there is nothing I can do to change it. I am always learning more about the history of the magazine, about Tony Boucher. But I also know, unfortunately -- I like to use old sports analogies -- editing the magazine is like managing the New York Yankees. Joe Torre's style is completely different than Casey Stengel's -- in the end it is the players that count, the manager can shape them, and do a certain amount for them, but I can't make Terry Bisson write like Lucius Shepard.

RB: So you can only mold the magazine by the submissions you receive?

GVG: I feel that way. I think John Campbell believed the opposite, that he could create the trends.

RB: I guess he would do whole magazines on one idea -- an idea that he told the writers to write on.

GVG: I have tried a couple of things like that, but they ended as complete disasters and I don't feel like I have the ability to set trends. I think I have always been better at spotting the trends, than setting them. Ed Ferman didn't go out and make a lot of stories happen, he would wait for them to come in, and pick the best of them -- Boucher did the same. I think Kris Rusch went out more, nagging writers for stories. I am more in the Ferman/Boucher mold than the Campbell mold. Every time I've suggested a story idea to a writer it has not worked out. Campbell would do that with 20 writers and if he got 20 stories he liked, he would run them all. I just don't have the knack for that.

RB: Say you own the magazine for the next 50 years. What do you want your legacy to be?

GVG: An editor's impact is all over every issue of a magazine, but it is not over books. In book editing, if you can see the editor's hand in a book, the editor hasn't done his or her job right. I think a book editor should be invisible.

There is no way to do that in a magazine, it just doesn't work the same way. I hope I have, and will continue to encourage a lot of new writers -- every editor wants to do that.

RB: Probably also keeping the magazine's tradition of more literary fantasy and science fiction?

GVG: I like to think so. If I weren't [keeping the tradition], people would have told me by now. I do hear from people who say the magazine is much worse than it was 40 years ago, or 10 years ago, or 5 years ago. Then, I also hear from people who say the total opposite. All I can do is keep putting out stories that I really like. The brilliance of this magazine is that it is so flexible; it is basically open to anything, as long as there is a speculative element of some sort in it.

I think a lot of magazines have died when they were set up only on one agenda or another that wasn't so broad. There are stories that you can look at and say, it is definitely an F&SF type story. I like to think I run some stories that don't fit that mold, and I like to think I will do some in the future.

My ultimate legacy -- I would like to not drastically alter the magazine from what has made it so wonderful for at least 50 years. There is a reason why it has stuck around for so long -- it has to do with the quality and style of storytelling. I hope it will still be viable in 50 years.

RB: When you are wearing your publisher's hat, what are some of the strengths and weaknesses in the short fiction magazine market?

GVG: We just conducted a reader's survey and we just received the results. I could find very few trends that I could really point at and say, "this is where things are heading or this is where they are not." I had breakfast with Charles Brown this morning and I asked him the age of our average reader -- he said 45. Our survey said 40 -- he was surprised. I don't know if that (lower age) is because our survey was online so more kids could respond to it than previous surveys, or it could simply mean that the average age is getting younger. I don't like to think that this myth of science fiction readers dying out is true. I don't believe it is happening. I believe it is just a myth. I do think that my father's science fiction is not the same as my science fiction, and will not be the same as any kid's science fiction -- that is inevitable.

I don't see young readers losing the interest in stories that expand their horizons, move them into new frontiers, and take risks.

I was born in 1966 and my parents were involved in education and theory of education. When I was growing up, everybody said that these kids with televisions in their houses would never read. They were saying that in the early 1970s and it is clearly not true. There is a grain of truth to it -- I do think that television killed off the heyday of fiction magazines, but I don't think it has killed off the interest of reading at all. I think the written word conveys different things than the filmed story. There are things you cannot do any other way except on the page. I don't see that changing any time soon.

Take 1996, when everybody thought kids will not read anything except Goosebumps books, then Harry Potter came along and all of a sudden we have an international phenomenon based entirely on reading, and nobody is going around saying, "Oh maybe we were wrong, kids do read." Now people are back saying that kids don't read anything but Harry Potter. Why did they start reading Harry Potter? Because it is a damn good story -- people forget that it all starts with the reading; everybody comes up with these different demographics and theories.

"Flowers for Algernon" was not written to appease a specific demographic. Daniel Keyes wrote it because he had something to say, he worked at it for a long time to get it to come out right, and the story stuck around because it did say something. All the marketing experts who look at trends and shifts in trends forget what is at the core of what we are all about here. You just can't quantify the art.

I could generalize and say that too much of the talent gets drawn into Hollywood because of the money. I think there are a lot of writers who don't produce the books that we hoped they would produce because they got sucked into the vortex of Hollywood and come out 15 years later burned out, rich and not creating anything we get to see.

RB: I thought that was one of the burning questions -- how to increase the younger readership. So, you don't see this as a problem, and you think that kids and youths are reading the magazines.

GVG: I choose not to see it as a problem. I have gotten plenty of letters from younger readers -- plenty of parents who subscribe for their kids -- and I know there is plenty of interest by young readers. I have two nephews who are getting too old now for my experiments but for a few years, they were the right age for me to try things out with them. I would ask them about various stories and they were reading voraciously. Some of the stuff they loved, I thought was crap, and ten years later they are wondering how they could read that crap when they were 13. We all do that -- it is part of the process.

I hear more people picking up a copy of The Year's Best Science Fiction and they say, "Where do these stories come from?" They look at the index page and say, "What's this thing called Asimov's Science Fiction?" I know a lot of people subscribe to the different magazines after reading the Year's Best anthology. This is completely backward to the way it used to be.

We just bought a story from a woman in Toronto, who said that for years she always sneered at the science fiction and fantasy genre, then she picked up a copy of one of her kids' issues of F&SF and couldn't believe how good the stories were, and wanted to write one. I think she is in her 50s and has gotten hooked on it -- she sent me one story and I bought it.

RB: I really believed in the myth of an aging readership.

GVG: There are plenty of aging readers, but are they being replaced by new readers one by one -- I don't know.

RB: Do you think it will be a challenge to keep the readership up to its current level with the increased media influence around us?

GVG: Yes it is, and it always will be a challenge, but, on the other hand, we ran some ads for a computer games magazine recently -- they came to us, because they said they conducted a survey with their readers and there was an overwhelming reaction among them that they loved science fiction. So the computer games people say, "Our readers like reading science fiction stories," and came to that market to advertise.

There is always going to be a back and forth.

RB: It looks like through different communities there could be an increase of science fiction and fantasy readers.

GVG: I sure hope so. I see that a lot. Mark Laidlaw was writing science fiction and horror and I was editing him at St. Martin's. He wound up writing a novelization of a game called Gadget. From there he got into the gaming business and fell in love with it. For the first time in his career he was on the edge of the frontier.

This is when he created the game Half Life, which became one of the biggest games in history. One of the reasons this game works is because it had whole narrative structures to it, which he picked up writing short fiction and novels. He crossed the other way, from fiction writing into gaming; he has found it very creative. He is still coming back to write short stories though, since there are things he can do there that he can't with the games.

RB: Seems like that can be a great creative outlet for some writers.

GVG: There is that interplay. I remember having this small epiphany in 1991, when I realized that video games, at that stage, were so scorned that they were the equivalent of science fiction in 1928: people saying that that is just little boy's stuff and you can't take it seriously. All art goes this way, where what starts out as the base, popular form rises to become high art, then the popular masses lose interest in it. People forget that opera was a popular form of entertainment; now it's considered high society, snooty stuff.

RB: Trends in fiction: is that something you can control or is it controlled by submissions?

GVG: It is, to some extent, under my control. For instance, I noticed a year ago, specifically after Sept. 11, how many stories I was getting that were all about death. They featured characters that were dead, like ghosts or zombies -- it seemed every other story was about death. That is when I said I had to stop buying so many of these stories and for six months I bought fewer stories with death in them -- I cut way back. That was a definite trend that I spotted and felt I had to stop.

RB: In your six years at the magazine have you spotted any other trends?

GVG: Very rarely do I notice trends. Part of it is that through book editing I got to see a lot of these trends. Young adult fiction has been hot for a while, especially commercially, because of Harry Potter. Any young adult fantasy that had someone performing a magic act in it was repackaged to sell to children with some tag line like, "If you loved Harry Potter you might find this book adequate." I am used to spotting trends like that, but in short fiction itself, I do find it hard to spot trends coming from the slush pile.

Occasionally, I will spot three or four stories on exactly the same theme, and usually it means somebody is doing a theme anthology and I am getting the rejects from that anthology. This is fine if I like the stories, but if I see three or four on the same subject I will think something is up. Otherwise I try to be very sensitive to trends and the themes, but it is also tough when you are in the middle of everything.

RB: What is your relationship with the slush pile?

GVG: From 1996 to 2000 I read every story that came in. I tried only once using slush pile readers but I got too frustrated with them -- I said that I would do it myself. I definitely read it all for three years, and I am very fond of it, and if I had time I would still read it regularly -- I just don't have the time any more. Most of it is garbage, that is just Sturgeon's law.

The way I would approach it, I would know I could buy eight stories a month -- I get about 600 a month. Statistically, I cannot buy more than 1 or 2 percent, so it is a 99 percent chance I cannot buy a story as I open it up. So with that in mind, I go into the slush pile looking for stories I might not necessarily be able to buy, but they would be writers I could encourage. I am always hoping to find something in there.

I also figured out in the book industry that there is no nice way to say "no" to a story. I think the most obnoxious one is the supposed Chinese rejection letter: "This is so wonderful that if we published it, we could never publish anything to rival it." That is so fatuous, I find it more irritating than saying, "Go away. Leave me alone."

My style evolved over the years when I decided that all I could do is be nice, and be fast, and help where you can. So I tend to get back to writers fairly fast -- most stories, honestly, I turn around within the day of receiving them. Now that I am also doing the publishing duties, I just can't keep up the same way.

There are stories that come out of the slush pile that give an electric charge -- you hit it right away knowing there is something there -- it is almost visceral. It has only happened a few times but when it does, you know you are onto something. Some of the other stories I have brought out of the slush pile have been ones where you think there is something interesting here and put it to the side, and then take another look -- if it stands up after a second reading I would either buy it, or run it by Ed Ferman.

One of the great things is that you never can tell -- in my time I have bought about a dozen first stories, maybe more. Sometimes I figured I will never hear from this writer again, just one terrific story, and that writer will go on to sell me six or seven more stories. Then there are other writers that really got it and I think they are amazing -- I will get four more stories from these writers that are worse than the one before. These writers would just give up or start sending elsewhere.

You can never tell, and that is half the pleasure of it.

Most book publishers don't ever read their slush piles anymore. At St. Martin's Press, where I started out, we would have slush parties every 4-6 weeks, where all the assistants would get together, order pizza and clear out as much as we could from the slush pile. In book publishing, it is easier to reject something, because from a business sense, you are looking at a book being submitted to you costing a minimum of $15,000 to publish in paperback -- that is a conservative estimate. So you are weighing that book, asking if it is going to be worth a $15,000 investment. With the magazine, it is going to come out every month, I am not putting the same financial risk into everything, so it is easier to take a shot in the magazine on a story that would never sell if it were a book.

RB: Only now, you are investing your own money into every magazine.

Thank you for the interview, Gordon.

 

Copyright © 2003 Richard Brignall

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Richard Brignall is a 26-year-old journalist from Kenora, Ontario, Canada. Attending the 1994 WorldCon in Winnipeg opened his eyes to the genre and fueled his drive to become a writer. He has two genre sales -- an interview with Spider and Jeanne Robinson that appeared in Science Fiction Chronicle, and an interview with Charles de Lint that will appear in the June 2003 issue of Locus magazine.