Interview: Gordon Van Gelder
by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu.com Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTGVGelder
Date: 04 June 2007
This month we're starting a series of short form editor interviews, and first up is F&SF's Gordon Van Gelder, who has revitalized a classic publication, moving it up into the top tier of speculative fiction pubs, while managing not to lose his sense of humor...but then, anyone who names his publishing company after a skunk (Spilogale) probably has a surplus of irreverent wit to begin with.SFRevu: Fantasy & Science Fiction? Shouldn't it be the other way around, or at least, shouldn't it have been when it got started? And while we're asking...what's the difference between the two?
Gordon Van Gelder: Ah, grasshopper, you must study history if you are to become snake like me.
F&SF started out as justF. Issue #1 wasThe Magazine of Fantasy. They added Science Fiction with issue number two. As I understand it, Boucher and McComas wanted to launch a fantasy magazine that would be a companion to Ellery Queen's Mystery Mag. I think early feedback led them to conclude that adding science fiction to the mix made the magazine more commercial.
What's the difference between the two? Well, one reason I think the magazine has survived almost sixty years is because it doesn't attempt to define the two. But if you really want a definition, I favor the one that says that science fiction encompasses what might possibly come to pass.
SFRevu: So, you've been at F&SF since the turn of the millennia but before that you were managing editor of The New York Review of Science Fiction. Does that represent a shift from interest in criticism to evangelism?
Gordon: Nope. During the whole time I worked on NYRSF, 1988-1994, I was working as an editor for St. Martin's Press also, editing writers like Kate Wilhelm, Brad Denton, and Judy Moffett. I still have plenty of interest in popular criticism, but F&SF is the better gig.
SFRevu: What's the point of fantasy or science fiction? Is this just fun for fans who suffer from Peter-Panitis, or does it have something to offer folks who actually might have to face the real world someday?
Gordon: Well, there's a leading question. Just supposing that there is a single point to either fantasy or to SF seems like a mistake to me. Both genres are forms of expression. It seems to me that as long as they both allow people to do things they can't do elsewhere---be it escape from reality or be it approach reality from a better angle--the genres will remain vital. I'll have to consider if they need any more point than that.
SFRevu: Is the current prevalence of fantasy a pendulum swing or has SF mined out its vein?
Gordon: Hey, is this one of those Stuttering John interviews for Howard Stern? I mean, are you seriously asking if SF has mined out its vein? Come on, anyone who looks around them can see that science fiction has plenty of rich ore left in it.
As to the heart of your question---which is, as I see it, what the current prevalence of fantasy says--I'm not sure. It's commercially prevalent, but artistically? I don't know.
SFRevu: What the first book that really engaged you (it's our favorite question).
Gordon: Hard to say. I think I read The Enormous Egg before I read The Shy Stegasaurus of Cricket Creek, but I think both those books are from when I was 6 or 7. There were probably other books before them. My parents both wrote books for young readers, so I grew up with a lot of reading material around me.
SFRevu: Were you an anthology reader when you were younger? What mags did you read?
Gordon: I was pretty omnivorous in my reading when I was a kid. Read a lot of Damon Knight and Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, read the Carr and Wollheim Year's Bests. Some of the stuff that got me hooked on SF were the issue of Analog with Gordon Dickson's "Way of Cross and Dragon" in it and the volume of George Martin's New Voices in SF with Varley's "Beatnik Bayou." Mags I read regularly included Asimov's, F&SF, and Dick Geis's Science Fiction Review.
SFRevu: If you had to pick out five classic short stories that meant something to you, what would they be? Yeah, I know it's impossible. But tell us anyway.
Gordon: Okay, here are four. Tomorrow my list will probably be completely different:
2) "Out There Where the Big Ships Go" by Richard Cowper. I don't remember much of the story now, but I took away a lesson from it that has always stayed with me.
3) "The Longest Voyage" by Poul Anderson. I read the whole two-in-one SF Book Club edition of The Hugo Winners one weekend when I was sick and that story and Miller's "The Darfstellar" got to me the most, as I recall now.
4) "The Drowned Giant" by J. G. Ballard. Does everyone remember their first hit of pure Ballard or is it just me?
Gordon: It's dead? Wow. I guess I'd better throw out all that stuff in my "To Read" pile.
SFRevu: Do you have a standard mix of fantasy to SF each month? Is there a percentage you strive for? Have you ever had a totally SF or totally fantasy issue?
Gordon: My overall aim is to balance the magazine with about 45% fantasy, 45% SF, and 10% horror. Most years it probably comes out closer to 50% fantasy, 35% SF, and 15% horror. I don't think I've ever published an issue that was totally SF or fantasy.
SFRevu: Can you tell us a bit about the editorial process? How does a story go from arriving in the mail (snail or e) to published in the magazine? Do you pay a flat rate for words, and do you pay established authors more than non?
Gordon: First, all stories arrive by mail. Email submissions just do not work for me. I go through the mail every morning, pull out the stories I want to read first, and then give JJA [John Joseph Adams] the rest. He reads through them, hands me back the ones he thinks I should look at, and rejects the rest. I read through my submissions in my copious time and they wind up falling into three categories: 1) the ones I know immediately I want to publish, 2) the ones I know immediately I don't want to publish, and 3) the ones where I'm on the fence. For categories #1 and #3 I get additional reads on them and then make my final decisions once a month. Our pay rate varies depending on several factors--the author's box-office draw being one of the main ones.
SFRevu: How far in advance do you folks work? For instance, what issue are you working on now...and how many issues out do you have an editorial schedule for?
Gordon: We just finished the September issue last week and the Oct/Nov issue will be finalized in the next two weeks. I generally have a rough idea of what will be in each of the next four issues, but when I say "rough," I mean it. As of right now, I know about two-thirds of the December issue, about one-third of the January issue, and a couple pieces of the February issue. And all that could change.
SFRevu: Which reminds us. What's with the issue dates for magazines? They all seem to be delivered by time tunnel from months that won't happen for, um, months.
Gordon: Been that way from the start. It's all about newsstand sales. Here in early June, we don't want an issue on the newsstands that says "May" on the cover. But if this month's issue says "July" on the cover, nobody's going to pick it up and say, "Oh, it's old---I don't want it."
SFRevu: What do you wish you could tell all those writers sending in their stories? If you could tell them three things that would help them make a positive impact what would it be?
Gordon: Y'know, if it were that easy, I'd go and tell everyone right now. But if you want three things, here are a few that are on my mind right now:
2) You've got to do the work--all the work. It's not enough to have a good idea, or a good setting, or good research, or a good opening sentence. You've got to put it all together. 3) Listen to what your muse is telling you. Telling the story you need to tell is more important than trying to figure out the market.
Oh, you want me to expand upon that? Well, yes, we easily get enough quality material each month that we could put out F&SF without soliciting any more stories. And yes, I ask writers to send me stuff and I occasionally go out and reprint something. And yes, I like Robert Reed's stuff and Albert Cowdrey's and I hope to continue publishing their good ones. And yes, I look for new writers like Heather Lindsley and S.L. Gilbow all the time.
The aim is to publish a magazine that's both interesting and good. It has been my experience that in order to reach that goal (to the extent that I've done so), I have to do everything you said.
SFRevu: It came from cyberspace! Short fiction from the web is showing up on regularly on award lists, even though some of the best sites for it have already come and gone. What's the cyber-future hold for fiction and for F&SF?
Gordon: What does the "cyber-future" hold? I don't know. I worked on the US edition of Geoff Ryman's 253 ten years ago and I still haven't seen anything come along that makes use of the computer as a storytelling medium as well. As a means for publishing stories, cyberspace has strengths and weaknesses, just like anything else.
What does it hold for F&SF? Well, I'm adamant about making sure that the print magazine is the primary magazine. I don't want the Website to become a tail wagging a dog. Having said that, I'll note that we've recently been trying a few things in the form of online promotions. It's too early to tell what they mean. But for the future, I intend to keep publishing F&SF in print form. Period.
SFRevu: Working with short stories, though novellas aren't all that short, - do you get to read many novels? What are the last 5 books you've read for enjoyment?
Gordon: I almost never get time to finish novels any more. And I'm lucky in that my "work" reading consists of stuff I'd read for pleasure anyway. But I'll see if I can come up with five books for you:
2) First Blood by David Morrell. I picked this up at a thrift store before going to a doctor's appointment 'cause I'd always heard it's much better than the movie. In this case, saying "it is" would be damning with faint praise. The book is terrific.
3) Soul Circus by George Pelecanos. I used to edit George and I try to keep up with his books, but I'm way behind.
4) We Seven By The Astronauts themselves. Another thrift store find. I love the time-travel aspect of reading this book now (it's from the early 1960s---1962, I think). Lord, remember a time when astronauts were more popular and better-known than talentless celebrities?
5) Revolution Road by Richard Yates. Another book I haven't finished, but I've always meant to read the novel and I thought I'd better do so now, before the coming movie destroys it. Terrific storytelling.
Gordon: I grew up watching Star Trek, but somewhere in the '80s I found that most SF in other media lost its appeal for me. People say that the new Battlestar Galactica is great but I haven't seen it yet (I don't even have cable). With a fourteen-month-old ruling the house now, I don't get out to see many movies, but I plan to see Children of Men and The Prestige soon.
SFRevu: Got any causes or crusades we should know about?
Gordon: Viva la revolucion!
SFRevu: What haven't you done yet that you'd like to?
Gordon: Raise my daughter. Travel to Asia and South America. Read George Pelecanos's last three novels.
SFRevu: and finally...what's with the skunk?
Gordon: My father was a mammalogist.