I'm delighted to have for you today an interview with Ann VanderMeer, the editor of Weird Tales magazine and the co-editor of several steampunk and fantasy anthologies and of the humorous booklet, The kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals. And somehow Ann manages to accomplish all of this in her free time, when not working at her full-time job. Yes, this woman is amazing and I'm honored to have her here today.
Hi Ann. Thanks so much for taking the time to from your incredibly busy schedule to do this interview with me.
Can you please just start off by telling me a bit about your magazine, Weird Tales?
If I may, I will provide the background on this iconic magazine from our website:
Weird Tales has enjoyed a devoted following for many decades as the very first magazine of Gothic fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. Founded in 1923, the pioneering publication introduced the world to such counter-culture icons as Cthulhu the alien monster god and Conan the Barbarian. Weird Tales is well known for launching the careers of great authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Robert E. Howard — hell, Tennessee Williams made his first sale here! — not to mention legendary fantasy artists like Virgil Finlay and Margaret Brundage. The magazine’s influence extends through countless areas of pop culture: fiction, certainly, but also rock music, goth style, comic books, gaming… even Stephen King has called Weird Tales a major inspiration.
How long have you been an editor at Weird Tales and what does the job entail?
I started as the Fiction Editor in 2007 – only the second female in this position in over 80 years. The first was Dorothy McIlwraith in 1940. I was promoted to Editor-in-Chief earlier this year and now have an all-female editorial team, with Paula Guran as Non-Fiction editor and Mary Robinette Kowal as Art Director.
As Editor-in-Chief, I oversee most all of the aspects of publication as well as the website. I still read and select all the fiction, but my responsibilities now include coordinating with Paula and Mary on the art and non-fiction for each issue (as well as online). In addition, I work on PR as well as other activities to spread the good word of Weird Tales!
You emphasize the fact that you are the second female editor at Weird Tales, as well as your all-female editorial team. Is this situation unique to just Weird Tale or does it apply to other speculative fiction publications as well?
This is not just unique to Weird Tales, but also a new improvement for so many magazines in the field. You are seeing a lot more women in positions of authority all across the board. When I started The Silver Web in the late 80’s I was one of only a handful of women publishing and editing a horror/science fiction/fantasy magazine (and books). Most other publications were headed by men (including Weird Tales, with three male editors). This progress follows what we see in other industries.
For example, I started out my software career back in the 1980’s. When I would attend software conferences, I would be one of 3 women out of 150 attendees. That’s not true today – now it’s about 50/50. Do I still have to suffer fools? Of course, but it’s a lot better that it was. I also played bass in an all-female band (we called ourselves The Guise, pretty silly, huh?). That was rare back them but so very common now. I also played with a lot of other male-centered bands, being the only female and therefore a novelty. But Rock-n-Roll is an entirely different animal (especially punk rock, which is what I played most).
And yes, there are still idiots out there that will judge you based on your gender/religion/skin color, etc. but for the most part I think that we are all being judged based on our work. Yes, maybe we, as women, have to work harder. I think we are not forgiven for mistakes as easily as our male counterparts are, and we are more scrutinized, but overall we’re made so many strides.
How do you select the stories to include in each issue?
A: I read A LOT! I look for stories that have characters I want to know more about as well as a compelling storyline. I will re-read a story before I make a final decision on it. Once a story has been bought, I decide how it will fit with other stories I have in inventory, making sure to have a good balance, etc. It’s important to have the right mix of fiction that compliments the other parts of the magazine.
What is your favorite part of the job?
Reading! I love reading. It really is my favorite thing to do in the world. And I love interacting with the writers. I love to talk to them and get to know them and see what makes them tick.
I read in one of your interviews that in addition to your work at the magazine and your books, you also hold a full-time job? Is this still true? If so, how do you possibly manage to make the time to do all this?
Yes, still working a very demanding full-time job. I work for a computer company as a Software Manager. I oversee the development of new software; the installation, training and support of the new systems. We work primarily in the Boat/Mobile Home/Motorcycle manufacturing field as well as the health care industry with Practice Management Systems and Electronic Medical Records. How do I do it? I have a great, understanding boss and I work ALL THE TIME. Even my vacations are working vacations. Jeff and I usually don’t travel unless it’s for a project/event, etc. We try to take a couple of extra days after a convention, but that doesn’t always work. Technology is great, but it is also a burden – we’re always plugged in and accessible.
Over the years that you have worked at Weird Tales have you noticed a change in the type of stories that writers are producing?
I am now getting more stories from writers all around the world. I used to see this periodically but now it has become a lot more common. And I think this is a great thing.
Are there certain themes or elements of the stories that you receive from international writers that differ from what you receive from American writers?
Writers from other countries often have a different point of view. They don’t see the world through the same popular culture that can sometimes strangle us here in the US. The cultural references they could make would be foreign to me, as it’s not part of my daily life, and this intrigues me. I find it so very interesting to see the world through another pair of eyes and get lost in that experience. But overall, people are people. And relationships are relationships. The best stories are about people and their relationships with others in the world around them.
In addition to editing Weird Tales you have also edited several anthologies, along with your husband, Jeff VanderMeer. How do you go about putting together an anthology, from choosing the theme to finding authors to include?
Each project is different so we’ll approach them differently. Sometimes a publisher will come to us and ask us to edit a particular anthology (as with Tachyon and The New Weird). Other times we’ll develop our own idea, seek out contributors that we believe fit the project and then our agent sells it (such as the upcoming Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities from HarperCollins).
I can safely state that each project we have worked on is unique in its own way. And most of our books include lots of beautiful artwork. How a book looks is very important to us.
Let me give you an example with a recent project. Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded has just been released. This book is primarily a reprint anthology, however, we managed to acquire some original fiction as well as a first-time English translation of a Danish story. We had an idea in our heads of some of the contributors we wanted to include and so began seeking out their fiction to select just the right stories. We also decided to include art, comics and non-fiction, so we sought out those contributors, too.
And then we did something I think is unusual in the reprint anthology process – we opened up to unsolicited submissions (within our guidelines, of course). There was no way we could know about every single amazing story out there so by doing this we were introduced to some very fine work we would not have seen otherwise. In addition to writers submitting their own work, we encouraged others to make suggestions. A lot of the stories we included came from this.
An original story was submitted to Weird Tales that I thought would be perfect for this project, so we included it (Ramsey Shehadeh’s “The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe”). Jeffrey Ford was inspired to write an original for us, and so he did. This further inspired my husband to collaborate with several other writers and artists to create “A Secret History of Steampunk,” another original to this book.
We worked closely with designer and artist John Coulthart to make this book beautiful and showcase all the contributions we had acquired. Jeff and I decided how to organize it, using the artwork of contributors as a driving force behind our ideas. Lots of hours (days, weeks) of work later…..and now it’s out and I am very proud.
You and Jeff also recently put out The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, a fun and entertaining booklet listing various Imaginary animals along with a pronouncement of their kosher status. What kind of research did you do in finding the imaginary animals to include in this book? I know that most of them I had never heard of before.
I spent countless hours searching for different kinds of imaginary animals. I wanted this book to be more than just the usual suspects (you know, unicorn, mermaid, dragon). Because the primary theme is a Jewish one, I did most of my research in Jewish texts (Torah, Talmud, legends, etc). However, it was also vital to me to seek out creatures and beings from as many different backgrounds and cultures as possible. Also, and you might find this funny, I realized that almost every animal we had was not kosher. So it became my obsession to find kosher ones – haha! Very rare indeed.
Yes, I had noticed the fact that the kosher animals were very much outnumbered by the non-kosher ones, but admittedly, not too many of the creatures looked that appetizing anyways. Except for the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (half plant, half lamb) that one I could go for.
Have you done any other Jewish themed writing projects?
The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is the only Jewish book we have now. Who knows what the future will bring? I did, however, contribute an introduction to the upcoming People of the Book anthology, edited by Rachel Swirsky and Sean Wallace.
What are some of your favorite stories or books that you recently read?
The most recent novel I read was Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination. It won’t be published until next year but I was lucky enough to get a review copy. I loved his earlier A Brief History of the Dead, so couldn’t wait to read this one and I wasn’t disappointed.
The most recent short stories that blew me away are the ones we’re publishing in The Thackery T. Lamsbhead Cabinet of Curiosities. Just this past week I had the joy of reading new stories from China Mieville and Charles Yu. How cool is that? You have to keep in mind that I feel guilty if I am not reading for a project and therefore most of my reading time is spent there.
Which authors have you discovered through Weird Tales that you would recommend that readers look out for?
It’s tough to list as I don’t want to leave anyone out. Off the top of my head I would say: Ramsey Shehadeh, Rachel Swirsky, Karin Tidbeck, Karen Heuler, Eric Lis, Micaela Morrissette, Jeff Johnson, Alistair Rennie, Samantha Henderson…the list goes on and on.
Jewish history is full of exciting, and often tragic, stories that could rival any fantasy novel. Which story from Jewish history is your personal favorite and why?
Hmmm… good question. There are so many that I love and for different reasons. Today I am thinking of the story of Jacob’s ladder (probably because it was last week’s parsha). I have a special fondness for stories with angels, but that’s just me.
What I love most about the stories in the Torah is that all the people we read about are imperfect. I love that Moses screws up and has to suffer the consequences. This speaks to me because it shows that they’re just like us. Similar problems, similar fears. To me the words in the Torah are the stories of the human condition. We can all relate to their issues; like the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau and the lack of confidence that Leah had in herself as she tried to get Jacob to pay attention to her.
And to tie the interview into Chanukah, can you tell me how and your family enjoy celebrating the holiday?
Usually the family gets together at our house and we make latkes, light candles and everyone gets a new pair of socks! No, really! Socks, for some reason, have become a tradition in my family. We also attend various Chanukah parties in our community and our synagogue has an annual latke bar – where we get to sample various flavors of latkes. Nom nom! Not a holiday for dieting, that’s for sure.
Thanks again Ann for taking the time to answer all of my questions and I really enjoyed getting to know you better and learning some of what is involved in being an editor.
Ann has graciously offered to give one reader of SFF Chat a copy of The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, a fun book for anyone interested in mythological and fantastical creatures, no matter if they keep kosher or not (plus, there are some great recipes...)
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