Scott: Thank you so much taking the time to chat with us here at The Fringe magazine. I’ve recently finished reading your latest collection of zombie tales, Zombie Apocalypse! and thoroughly enjoyed it. How has it been received it the market to date?
Stephen: Well, it all depends who you talk to! I always knew that the book would be a hard sell – nobody’s ever really tried to do a book like that before. Plus I didn’t want to make it too serious – I wanted readers to have fun with the book. As it turned out, those who liked it really liked it, while those who didn’t care for it – for the most part – simply didn’t understand what we were trying to achieve. It saddens me to read comments by people who came to it as a standard anthology – and consequently did not “get” it – instead of the “mosaic novel” concept that we conceived.
That said, it’s been a huge hit. The book has gone through multiple printings in both Britain and the United States, and we’ve sold an option on the film rights to a Hollywood producer, so I guess enough people like it . . .
It was a tough project to put together, and I’m still not sure that we were totally successful, but then no book ever ends up exactly as you hoped or imagined. In the end, I think we tried to do something different with the genre, and we will build upon that with the sequel, which I’m working on now.
Scott: How hard was it getting together a group of writers to contribute to this unique story? For the most part, it was hard to tell it was written by different authors.
Stephen: Well, obviously, I began by approaching authors who I knew I could trust to work with me. I came up with the initial concept and outline, and then I sent that out to writers who I thought would “fit” specific concepts or sequences. I then had to work quite closely with most of them, because the book is told through different types of communication media and we had to work out what each author’s “voice” would be and how the story could be put across to the reader.
Once that was sorted, and the authors turned in their sections, I then had to “knit” it all together, smooth out the timelines, fill in the gaps, make sure that cross-over characters and situations flowed properly, and basically turn it into one continuous story. This was the most fun for me, and I was able to move sections around and change the “flow” of the book in ways that sometimes even surprised me.
However, I hope that the individual sections do read differently. I wanted these to have different “styles” – different “voices” – so as to give the book verisimilitude. That was the idea behind using a group of different authors in the first place. The challenge with the sequel is achieving that again without repeating ourselves.
Scott: You are well respected in the publishing industry as an editor. What made you decide to become an editor rather than an author?
Stephen: I’m a good organizer, I think I have an aptitude for putting things together. My background as a TV director involved many of the same skills needed to be a book editor. I can write – I’ve done non-fiction books, journalism, scripts, introductions, all those kinds of things – and I’m also a solid, creative “ideas” guy. But I am also fully aware that there are many, many authors out there who can write fiction a lot better than I can. So, long ago, I decided to play to my own perceived strengths and become an editor. And, to be honest, I can think of no better job in the world!
Scott: Over the years you’ve produced some brilliant collections with just about every popular speculative fiction author around. Do you find you get approached by well known authors requesting their stories to be included in your collections?
Stephen: Sometimes. But more often I have to come up with a concept, sell that to a publisher, and then approach those authors who I think are best-suited to whichever particular project I’m working on. Every anthology is different – not just on a thematic level, but also how it should be pitched at the reader, who it should be aimed at. That’s what makes the job still interesting.
The problem is that there are just so many good writers out there, you can’t ask them all to submit a story, or you would end up spending a year working on just one book only reading manuscripts. So I try to “circulate” projects amongst all the writers I know, trying to give everybody a chance. Sometimes you have a dream-project, like the recent A Book of Horrors, where you know you need the best in the business – if you can get them. That proved to be a real challenge, but most of the authors I approached rose to that challenge, and I think we have a phenomenal anthology as a result.
I also try to use the anthologies to “bring up” some of the most promising newer writers. It’s very difficult to open a book up to everybody – for the reasons I mentioned earlier – so I try to keep an eye out for the emerging talent and, when I think they’ve reached a certain level of competence, I might invite them into one of my books. A good example of this recently was the Australian writer Angela Slatter, whose collection from Tartarus Books last year, Sourdough and Other Stories, blew me away. After reading it, I contacted her and I’ve had the pleasure of working with her on a couple of projects so far. The best feeling in the world for any anthologist is “discovering” or nurturing new talent.
The only book that I do that is totally open to submissions is the annual “Year’s Best”, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, which is now in its 23rd year! Again, it’s a huge amount of work, but the reward is producing a volume that stands as a marker of how the genre looks in any given year. It’s also a great responsibility, which I take very seriously by considering everything I’m sent.
Scott: Of all of the books you’ve edited, do you have a favorite and what about it makes it stand out for you?
Stephen: Actually, out of the 100-plus books I’ve done, my favorite is not one I edited, but one I wrote. Back in 1999 I put together The Essential Monster Movie Guide – a huge reference book of all the monster movies and TV series up until that time. It took me three years to research and write and I’m extremely proud of the result. Of course, since then, the Internet has replaced these kinds of books as a reference source. Nowadays, you can find anything you want at a single keystroke, but back then it was still difficult to track down information on specific titles. In many ways, I see my book as a last gasp for this kind of volume, and I’m proud of the information that I added to our knowledge of these films and TV shows.
Scott: As a writer it is interesting to hear what other writers read in their spare time. It is often surprising to hear the genres and variety of books other authors read. Can you tell us what are you reading at the moment and what you five favorite books are?
Stephen: Ha-ha! I long ago stopped reading for pleasure (except, sometimes, when I am on vacation). The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror makes sure that I have more than enough reading material for an entire year, let alone all the other projects I’m working on at any given time. These days I rarely get to read outside the genre – other than newspapers. At the moment I am working on three different anthologies and several magazines.
Scott: Have you ever knocked back a submission and later regretted it?
Stephen: Not that I am aware of. I have had stories that I have tried to buy but, for one reason or another, the author refuses to sell them to me. This happened recently on this year’s volume of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and to this day I have no idea why that writer refused to sell me his story for the book. I’m disappointed, because I thought it was a great story, and obviously I’m not going to go out of my way to try to work with that individual again.
Scott: If you were stranded on a desert island, what five authors would you like to have as companions and why?
Stephen: Does it have to be authors? I see enough of them as it is . . .
Let’s see . . . off the top of my head: Michael Marshall Smith, because we’re drinking buddies anyway and he buys his rounds; Peter Atkins and Peter Crowther, because they are two of the most up-beat guys I know and they’ll keep everybody positive; Stephen King, because he would probably have enough money to get us off the island, and Sarah Pinborough, in case Steve can’t save us and I have to start thinking about procreation . . .!
Obviously, I’m kidding . . . where would Stephen King get cash on a desert island to save us . . .?!
Scott: Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to your next book.
Thank you, Scott. But “next book”? There are at least another four coming out this year . . .!