An Interview With Gordon Van Gelder

Gordon Van Gelder began working as an editor at St. Martin's Press in 1988 right out of college, where he continues to edit such authors as Brad Denton, Geoff Ryman, Kate Wilhelm and William Browning Spencer. He attended Clarion West in 1987, and edited The New York Review of Science Fiction from 1988-95. In January 1997 he replaced Kristine Kathryn Rusch as editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Your background is that of a book editor. How did you get involved with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction?

Technically, I guess the answer to that is that I worked on the last two "Best of" anthologies from F&SF -- the 40th anniversary volume, and then the 45th. But I think you're basically asking how I came to be the editor of the magazine, and the answer is simply that when Kris resigned, Ed Ferman spoke with a few editors about taking over, and ultimately I was the one who wound up with the job.

You're still at St. Martin's. Why take on the extra responsibility?

Oh, you know, I was spending too much time loafing around every day, looking for something to do. But seriously, there were two main reasons. One is that I'd never edited a magazine professionally and I was interested in giving it a try. And two is that the chance to edit F&SF was just too good to pass up.

How has editing a magazine differed from editing books?

A lot of ways. It's a faster schedule, for one thing. Editing a magazine is like running wind-sprints, while editing books is more like middle-distance running (and in a few cases, it's like a marathon). It's also a bigger playing field -- in book publishing, I may only work with twelve or fourteen writers a year, while with the magazine, I may be publishing that many people in an issue .

So how long did it take before you produced your first "Van Gelder" signature issue?

I don't know that I have. The October/November 1997 issue was the first one that felt to me like it has more of my influence than Kris', but I'm not sure that I'd call it a signature issue.

What do you get out of editing? What are the rewards?

Well, let's see. First, it's a job with a steady paycheck, and it beats working for a living. But really, there's nothing I like more than taking a story or novel and seeing it all the way through to print. A good story will connect with a reader, and editing is mostly about facilitating the connection between the writer and the reader. When I take something that connects with me, shape it, and then publish it so it connects with readers ... well, I love the buzz that comes from knowing I've gotten through to someone that way.

Explain that facilitation.

Well, it's the entire publishing process. In some cases, it's simply a matter of putting a story into print. In other cases (especially with books), it's everything that goes into editing and marketing the book -- designing the package, writing the copy, and of course, editing the text. It's hard to explain unless you've ever seen a novel go from manuscript to bound book, but you know it's happened when someone writes a great review or comes up to you at a convention and says, "You know, I loved this or that."

What do you consider your biggest or most significant contribution to the field?

Egad, I'm not sure I want to touch that one. I can think of lots of facetious answers, but I think that if I've made any significant contributions to the field, that's up to other people to assess.

Do you see any major trends within science fiction publishing in general?

These are odd times. There are so many different trends in the field now -- all with their own histories -- that it's hard to see how they're all weaving together. Space adventure seems to be making a comeback, as is hard SF, but I'm seeing a lot of SF that grows out of other SF and not out of life. By this I mean that a lot of books and stories seem to be written in response to other works of science fiction, and I'm not seeing much SF that has the feel of someone trying to make sense out of life itself.

In terms of publishing, I think the SF field is SNAFU -- situation normal, all fucked up. I just wrote an editorial for the December issue responding to all the people claiming that SF is dead. I think they're wrong. I think SF is alive and well, but the publishing industry exists in a state of permanent flux and it's hard to tell which way the water's swirling and eddying right now.

It seems that every five or 10 years there are so-called experts popping up to claim this death. Why is that? What causes such doomsaying?

Partly human nature, partly the nature of the business. The human nature part is that there are simply some people who are always predicting doom. The nature of the business is such that it swings back and forth a lot, and when it's swinging back, people tend to lose faith that it'll swing forward again.

One paperback editor told me recently that she thinks right now that no book with good reviews will sell well in paperback, and conversely, no book that sells well in paperback gets good reviews. Four years ago she thought things were different. Four years ago the field was in more flux than it is now. Next time it's in flux (in four years, perhaps?), she'll find things more interesting again.

Well, what do you see going on in fantasy?

I have a tough time generalizing about fantasy -- I just can't keep up with all of it, and to be honest, I don't connect with a lot of it.

What about slipstream? It appears there are more non-traditional, hard-to-classify fantasy writers today than ever before. How does this group fit in?

There aren't that many more non-traditional fantasy writers at work now than there have ever been, but they're a bit easier to spot nowadays. More people are looking out for it, I think. Before the wave of "magic realism" came crashing in during the 1980s, many -- I daresay most -- novels by "mainstream" writers that had fantastical elements went ignored within our field. "Magic realism" (I use that term in quotes, because I still don't know that I'd dare define it) suddenly made it chic for writers to throw elements of magic into their novels and broadened the literary horizon. The results were a lot of pretentious drek, and a lot of very good books.

I'm not sure yet where it all fits in, because so many of the old definitions have changed. It used to be that a writer worked in the High Literary mountains of "mainstream" or they worked in the Low Genre fields of "fantasy" and largely avoided each other. For much of the past ten years, it seemed like those camps intermingled more -- Marge Piercy appropriated elements of Neuromancer for her novel He, She and It, for instance. But I see less intermingling now than I did a few years ago, and I consider that a shame. I like to see things get mixed up. It's more interesting that way.

Is there any difference between books and magazines in those trends? Do they parallel, diverge, follow three steps behind or what?

I think we have to acknowledge that books are setting most trends nowadays, simply because there's so much more money tied up in them. I'd bet that the Star Trek and Star Wars books alone generate more money than do all the digest magazines combined. And it's a truth of the industry (or any industry) that it'll always follow the money.

But I also think that Gardner Dozois is right whenever he says the magazines are the hotbeds for new trends. The magazines are the places where people bring out the new stuff, give it its first run, test the roads. And I hope to see that continue.

What's your perception of the genre overall -- where are things headed, will magazines survive, will Star Wars and Star Trek swallow everything up?

Things are headed into the future. Yes, the magazines will survive. No, Star Trek and Star Wars won't swallow everything up. A little slower now, I can't tell where things are headed. I'm happy to see that electronic publishing doesn't appear to be supplanting print publishing. I still like print. I do think the magazines will survive, but they're like everything else in this field -- they have to keep changing in order to do so.

I've been watching Star Trek and Star Wars grow for a while now, and I'm convinced that they are no more likely to swallow up everything than were the Tom Swift books forty years ago.

Let's broaden our horizons a bit. Do these general trends translate internationally, in general?

I don't know -- I try to keep up with international publishing, but it's hard to track a lot of it. I watch the British scene most closely and it's hard to generalize. British publishing in general has had an awful time of things in the 1990s, so naturally SF has suffered there, too. On the other hand, the Brits have longer and better histories in certain areas, especially horror, and I'm continually surprised to find American writers whose novels are only coming out in the U.K. I think it's like a lot of these things -- you can predict almost anyting, depending on which pieces of evidence you choose to look at.

Do you receive many international submissions at St. Martin's? How about F&SF?

I get a healthy number of submissions from around the globe -- Australia, England and a smattering of other places. Canada tends to get overlooked a lot, but the SF scene there is very strong.

[Jayme Lynn Blaschke]