John Joseph Adams might be Lightspeed’s editor and publisher, but for many of our readers—and heck, even the staff—he’s a bit of an enigma. How can he run two magazines, his own novel imprint, oversee the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series, and create more amazing short fiction anthologies? Does he ever sleep? Does his love of death metal and goats give him time-bending editorial superpowers? Is he an editorially-optimized artificial construct from the future, sent back in time to help us discover the best science fiction and fantasy? Mystified, we asked our staff interviewer to find out a bit more about JJA.
Happy 100th issue of Lightspeed, John! What’s it feel like to reach such a big milestone?
It’s kind of surreal! I’m really proud of what the team and I have been able to accomplish with the magazine over the years, and looking back on the catalog of stories we’ve published, I sometimes kind of shake my head with wonderment—especially over some of the stories we published right in our first couple of issues, when the magazine was just brand new. It’s a real honor to have kept the support and trust of our readers and subscribers—and writers!—over the course of so many issues, and I certainly hope we can keep the magazine going indefinitely; my enthusiasm for what we’re doing has never waned—if anything, it’s grown over time. Here’s to the next hundred issues!
Hear! Hear! Has your vision for the magazine changed in any significant way since launching it?
I’m not sure that it has changed, actually! I mean, there’s the issue of us merging Fantasy into Lightspeed in January 2012, after I became publisher of both magazines (I was always editor of Lightspeed, but after about a year and a half I acquired it—and Fantasy—from Prime Books); so in a way, the vision of the magazine changed at that time, since Lightspeed was originally just science fiction. But other than that—and various tinkerings we’ve done along the way, like adding the novella reprints to our ebook editions—I feel like Lightspeed is very much still the magazine it started out as, at least in terms of its overall vision.
I feel like my vision has always been to publish the broadest range of kinds of science fiction (and then also fantasy) in the magazine, and that certainly hasn’t changed at all. Of course, I like to think that I’ve continued to evolve as an editor along the way, and that I’m a better editor now than I was when I started. If the “vision” of a magazine includes elements like diversity and such, I can say that we’ve made a more concerted effort over the years in that direction to be more inclusive and welcoming of voices across all spectrums of life, though of course, we did start out with that in mind, and our diversity statement has been part of our writers’ guidelines from day one. Which is not to say that we couldn’t have done better—obviously we could have, and we will continue to strive to.
I think the Destroy special issues were some stellar examples of how inclusive and welcoming Lightspeed is. They were some of my favorites, too! Any plans to do sequels for those like you’ve done for some of your anthologies?
I had really hoped that sequels wouldn’t be necessary—that the societal concerns that prompted the special issues wouldn’t still be so prevalent that sequels would be warranted. Alas, it does seem like all three do indeed warrant it, as such thinking does still seem exceedingly prevalent both with readers and with people as a whole, and, in fact, perhaps has gotten even worse thanks to certain political upheavals as of late. Obviously, we never thought that our special issues would magically fix everything, but several years hence, you’d think society would have made more progress by now. (But maybe that was just wishful thinking.) As I’m writing this, even the Worldcon programming committee just made a series of big blunders that was essentially the result of the exact kind of thinking the Destroy issues were rebelling against. (They did apologize, and as of this writing, they seem to have corrected course, thanks to the assistance of the stalwart Mary Robinette Kowal swooping in to save the day.) But still, the fact that even the convention our field kind of orbits around could make such a mistake does make it seem like the work of the Destroy issues is far from done.
So we don’t have any current plans, but I haven’t ruled it out as something that would never happen. One thing that’s challenging about them is that they’re a tremendous amount of work, and even though with those issues I’m just publisher, not also editor, they’re actually significantly more work for me than a regular issue—just on the editorial/publishing side (weirdly enough), to say nothing of all of the time and effort it takes to run a Kickstarter and then handle all the fulfillment. And with me being busier than ever now, it’s very difficult to contemplate. But this special issue might give me some insight into how feasible it might be to do a special issue without the accompanying Kickstarter, because honestly, running a Kickstarter is one of the most draining things I’ve ever done in publishing. But we’ll see! We also handed the reins over to Uncanny to do a Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction! Issue, so meanwhile there’s that Destroy issue to look forward to, which I have great confidence will be as high quality as the ones we published. (Which I’m told will be coming out around the same time as this issue!)
Looking back to 2010 when Lightspeed was first launched, what meaning does the very first issue have for you now?
That first issue was really something! With just four stories in that first issue, we ended up with (1) a Hugo finalist (Carrie Vaughn’s “Amaryllis”); (2) a Nebula finalist (Vylar Kaftan’s “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno”); and (3) a WSFA Small Press Award finalist (“The Cassandra Project” by Jack McDevitt)—and Carrie’s and Jack’s stories both were reprinted in best-of-the-year anthologies. But aside from those accolades, it was, of course, very gratifying to see how much readers responded to the magazine right out of the gates.
Here’s a few interesting things from that first issue, too, that have made it have additional significance for me:
- Vylar’s story—which was the first story I ever bought for Lightspeed (and was in some ways the story the magazine was founded on)—was so emotionally resonant to me and my then-girlfriend Christie Yant that when we got married, we actually hired Vylar to script our ceremony for us; so instead of a special song, she and I have that special story.
- Carrie’s story would be just one of many stories I would end up buying from Carrie over the years—when I tallied up fiction sales to Lightspeed, I found that she was the second-most prolific contributor after only Adam-Troy Castro—but also: While “Amaryllis” was in the first issue of Lightspeed, and our first Hugo Award nominee, Carrie’s novel Bannerless was also the first original novel I acquired for my John Joseph Adams Books imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and it’s even set in the same world as her story! And then it also became the first novel I edited to be nominated for—and then win!—an award (the Philip K. Dick Award).
- The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast actually launched around the same time as Lightspeed (pre-dating the magazine by just a couple of months), but I co-founded it with David Barr Kirtley (who also has a story in issue #1), and we went on to co-host a hundred episodes of it together, after which I stepped down as regular co-host and shifted into a producer role, with more occasional show appearances, and having produced more than 300 episodes and counting.
So looking back on that issue, it really was kind of chock-full of significant stories and relationships I’d have over that span of time.
Wow! It’s so awesome that Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless won the Philip K. Dick Award! You guys must be thrilled!
Indeed we are! I’ve had good luck with Carrie and firsts and this milieu and awards. Bannerless was the first original novel I acquired for John Joseph Adams Books, and of course as mentioned above, “Amaryllis” was in the first issue of Lightspeed (and was the first story published featuring this milieu), and that was nominated for a Hugo Award. So I feel like if she and I are somehow able to accomplish some other “first” together, we’ll be in a good position for an award nomination or something!
But seriously, I’m super thrilled for Carrie, and I hope the PKD Award win will help the book reach a wider audience so we can keep the series going for a long, long time—I love spending time in that world, so I’d like to keep editing it. Oh and hey, the sequel to Bannerless, The Wild Dead, just came out in July, and a lot of the reviews are saying it’s even better than Bannerless. Just sayin’!
As someone who’s a veteran short story editor and anthologist, what are some major differences in editing novels? And what exactly do you look for in a novel for your John Joseph Adams Books imprint?
The biggest difference I’ve found between editing novels and short stories—besides the obvious issue of extreme length differential—is that novel structure can be extremely complicated and tricky to figure out. That can be true of short stories as well, of course, though since short fiction is more of a buyer’s market, while novels are a seller’s market, if a short story had complicated and broken structural issues, I probably just wouldn’t buy it. (Though I can think of at least one case where I did buy it and helped the writer restructure it; since the author wrote about it publicly in detail at the Inkpunks blog [bit.ly/2vhflSD] it’s fine to say that the story I’m referring to is “Requiem in the Key of Prose” by Jake Kerr [bit.ly/2OvQBP5].) But with novels, while you might reject one on submission because of complex structural issues, sometimes novels are bought on proposal (with sample chapters), so you might have no choice to work on major structural issues; or sometimes you buy one book, with an unnamed (and completely unwritten) second book when you do a two-book deal, so it’s much more of an unknown.
Otherwise, due to the length issue, I find it much harder to keep everything in my head all at once, since it’ll take me at least several days or more likely a couple of weeks to do a complete edit on a novel—whereas any short story I will edit over the course of a couple of hours, all in one day—so I tend to take a lot more notes in a separate document that I might need to stop and consider more after I get to the end of the manuscript. And because of all these kinds of complicated things, novel edits sometimes just kind of feel like they warrant a call with the author to discuss, rather than trying to go back and forth via email endlessly, whereas with a short story, I think I’ve literally never done that.
And when it comes to the anthologies you work on, how do you decide on the theme? You’ve put together collections about dystopias, zombies, the apocalypse, robot uprisings, mad scientists, vampires, Sherlock Holmes . . . the list goes on! Do you watch for trends in readership? Are you guided by instinct or your own interests?
There’s some of both! I definitely try to detect trends, but it’s hard to explain it exactly. I’m not sure it’s trends in readership I detect per se, but rather trends in fiction in general. For instance, my first anthology was Wastelands. It came out in 2008, but I started seeing this resurgence of interest in post-apocalyptic fiction in the slush pile at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (where I worked as an assistant at the time) almost immediately after 9/11—so all the way back to the latter end of 2001. It took publishing a while to catch on, since my anthology didn’t come out for seven years after that (and I’d tried to sell a post-apocalyptic anthology—an all-original one—years earlier and had not been able to get anywhere with it).
But overall, it’s more like trying to hunt the zeitgeist. You pay attention to all of the things happening in the culture and try to see the things that seem to be coalescing to gain the most mindshare. Social media’s good for that kind of thing, because you can see what kinds of things people get really enthusiastic about.
My own interests are certainly a factor, too, naturally. If something to do with, say, baking, suddenly became the hot thing in society, and it made total sense to do a fantasy cakes anthology, well, that would be cool, but I wouldn’t be the guy to put that one together. I mean, I like cake, but I’m not passionate about it or how they’re made. Which is not to say you shouldn’t send me a story about magic cakes and the baker wizards that bake them—by all means, do! (Hmm, am I going to regret saying that?) But it’s just not a project I would pursue, because it doesn’t align with my interests sufficiently enough. So when I do hit on things that I am passionate about—and I have some zeitgeisty sense that it had a good chance of resonating enough to be commercial enough to attract interest from publishers—those are the anthology projects I end up pursuing.
One of your interests and favorite sub-genres is post-apocalyptic fiction. Tell us about why that is.
As everyone reading this likely knows, I also edit Nightmare Magazine, which publishes horror and dark fantasy. But my dirty little secret is that horror never really scares me. I don’t find demons or monsters scary. They’re impossible; I don’t have to worry about them doing anything to me. But the apocalypse seems eminently possible—and perhaps now more than it has in a long time, unfortunately—and I find that scary. But also kind of fascinating—because wouldn’t it be interesting to find yourself in a world where the slate of civilization has been wiped clean and yet we still have the benefit of the remnants of what came before and all we’ve learned till now to start over? Sure, there’s going to be lots of tough times scrounging for cans of pork and beans and fighting off marauders or whatever, but I’m fascinated by imagining what such a world would look like.
But, as I’ve talked about in some of my apocalypse anthology introductions, one of the appeals of apocalypse fiction is that it’s science fiction, but basically the most accessible science fiction (most of the time) to non-genre readers because of how easy it is to imagine the end of the world; whereas a reader transporting themself to a vast interstellar civilization takes more willing suspension of disbelief, imagining an apocalypse is pretty easy given one could happen with literally the press of a button somewhere. Plus, apocalypse fiction is often very adventure oriented, and kind of combines elements from several different genres, so, for me, it ends up firing a lot of my interest nodes, and because of that, potentially pulls in a lot of different kinds of readers. For instance, it shares a lot in common with westerns, because it’s kind of a “new frontier” type of fiction in many ways (speaking generally of course—not all apocalypse fiction is, but much of it is).
Anyway, all of that comes together to make it a favorite of mine. But if you really want to drill down deep, it’s entirely the fault of the ’80s video game Wasteland (which I, um, sort of stole my title from), which I was completely obsessed with as an early teen, and then, later, the early Fallout games. (Both created by Brian Fargo, so if you really want to boil it down, it’s all Brian Fargo’s fault.)
When you’re working on the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy collections, how do you choose your guest editors? So far, they’ve been Joe Hill, Karen Joy Fowler, Charles Yu, and this year it’s N.K. Jemisin.
A lot of factors go into it, but first and foremost, of course, is the Best American team and I have to feel like the guest editor will make interesting selections—so basically being a lover of short stories is a must. Though the guest editor always needs to be a very notable writer, so I suppose that’s actually the first consideration: So you sort of look at who the most notable writers are at the moment—people who are at the top of their game (creatively, commercially, and culturally) right now—and come up with a list and see who seems like a good fit.
But as you can see from our list so far, we’re also trying to feature different kinds of writers as well. Nora Jemisin this year is our first sort of “core genre” guest editor, though of course the other three all obviously write genre fiction (and Joe and Karen both had their starts in genre magazines—and though Charlie was more genre-adjacent in terms of how his work is mostly published, he had a story way back in Lightspeed #6); part of that is to have a different kind of feel to each volume, or at least to see what kind of alchemy happens when you mix in those different editorial reagents, but also so that we can continue to maybe help the series find new audiences each time, draw different readers to try picking it up for the first time.
We haven’t selected the guest editor for the 2019 volume yet (covering the best of 2018); that tends to happen fairly late in the process, since the guest editor does not read alongside me all year—they just read the top eighty stories I select and then choose the twenty “best” stories from that array. (And since they’re supposed to read the stories anonymously, it’s actually better if they don’t try to keep up with the stuff published in the eligibility year.) It is getting around that time for us to nail that person down, though, so I should probably get on that!
What’s it been like to collaborate with them?
It’s been really interesting, and all of them have been fantastic to work with so far. Everyone’s been super diligent and enthusiastic about the process, and I have really loved seeing the introductions they end up writing after the process concludes. The most interesting part for me, of course, is seeing which stories they end up choosing—for everyone reading the book, too, naturally, but for me especially since I’ve read all of the stories in the top eighty.
Of the four guest editors so far, I feel like I had the best sense of which stories Charlie would like, and indeed did correctly guess several of his selections. The others were more of a black box to me—I really didn’t have much sense which stories they’d go for. Joe, for instance, I wouldn’t have guessed initially (though, in retrospect, I should have, because he does talk a lot about mainstream literary magazines on social media) how much he’d go for New Yorker genre stories, but then maybe the biggest surprise for me was that Karen selected a hard SF story from Analog, which I was kind of delighted by.
Do you feel that your short fiction projects and Lightspeed have to compete for eyes and mindspace now that we have a near glut of high-quality genre TV being produced these days? There’s so much to choose from—Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Expanse to name a few.
To some degree, sure. In years past, short fiction and novels was where a fan would need to go to get the vast majority of their SF/Fantasy fix, because there’d only be a handful of movies that came out every year, and you’d only get one that is anywhere near as smart and complex as an SF story or novel maybe once every couple years. And on TV, there’d only be a handful of genre shows, and a lot of them would get cancelled after a year or two. But now, you can totally get all of your SF/F fix by just watching TV, and a lot of it is extremely complex and smart, including the ones you named, of which three out of four of are based on books—and are very faithful adaptations.
That said, you’re never going to get me to see this proliferation of fantastic TV as a negative, even if maybe it’s possibly siphoning away some small percentage of our audience. I love television, and have taken it extremely seriously as a fan for a long, long time—so long that I was one of those people who had multiple VCRs connected to the TV and had scheduled recordings setup to record my favorite shows. (Until that blessed day came when DVRs became a thing.) But TV is just so great right now, with most of the best shows really taking advantage of that long-form serial format, where you tell one large story over the course of a season or the like.
Overall, I feel like the biggest competitor for short fiction’s audience is not TV or film (or novels), but social media. Before social media, if you were stuck in a line somewhere, or you had to kill some time before an appointment or the like, a fan of short fiction might have spent that time reading a bunch of short stories on their phone or ebook reader; but now it feels like most people would just kill that time looking at (or posting on) Twitter or Facebook. I mean, hell, even I do that fairly often, and I have to read thousands of stories every year.
How in the hell do you read thousands of stories each year, as well as for your anthology projects and book imprint? You must have to Clockwork Orange your way through everything!
If I had to finish reading everything I started reading, I’d definitely have to Clockwork Orange my way through everything, but thankfully, once I realize something isn’t right for me, I can stop reading it. (Unless it’s one of those Book 2s I mentioned earlier that was bought sight unseen as part of a multi-book deal and it happens to be terrible . . . fortunately, I haven’t had that experience yet!)
But, you know, it’s not easy! It helps, of course, that I really have a strong sense of what I like and don’t like, so I’m able to make decisions quickly. Unfortunately, sometimes I make those decisions too quickly and I later regret them—for instance, a couple of times I rejected a story when it was submitted to Lightspeed and then when I saw it in another magazine when I was reading for BASFF, I thought it was one of the best of the year and put it in my top eighty. (And then when I realized I had rejected it, I felt pretty foolish. I mean, not because I can’t admit I was wrong, but just because I look at the story now and can’t imagine how I could have passed on such a gem.)
Unfortunately, in order to accommodate all of my reading, one of the things that’s had to be curtailed is how often I keep the magazines open to unsolicited submissions. These days, we only do one or two open reading periods a year. I’d like us to stay open more often, but it’s so much work when we are that it’s really tough to manage it, because even with slush readers it takes so much of my attention. But it’s important to me to be able to discover new writers, so that’ll never go away completely. I’m still trying to figure out how to balance everything I’m doing, to be honest; I’m hoping that at some point soon I’ll be able to bring on a part-time in-house assistant that can help take some of the administrative stuff off of my plate so I can spend more time on editorial matters.
Going back to what we were saying about TV shows, you’d Tweeted about getting the show The Expanse picked up by another network when it looked like it was going to be canceled for good. What do you like about this show?
It’s basically the smartest, most sophisticated space-oriented science fiction show ever. Don’t get me wrong—I love Star Trek (particularly Next Generation and Deep Space Nine)—but as noted above, I much prefer that kind of long-form serial storytelling as opposed to the standalone episode format that Star Trek had. And of course, The Expanse is nearer future, and deals with technology more realistically in a way that makes the future it depicts seem much more plausible. Plus, it’s gritty, which I love, and I think the cast is really great, and the special effects are some of the best I’ve seen. To say nothing of the space battles, which are just mind-bogglingly arresting to watch. And it’s a faithful adaptation of the source material to boot.
Taki to Amazon Studios for coming in to save the show from extinction! (“Taki” means “thanks” in the Belter creole, which I admit to Googling, and then spent, like, ten minutes trying to figure out how to say “extinction” or some version of “destroy,” but gave up.)
So when you’re not watching TV shows, editing, or anthologizing, do you get time to reread your favorite short stories and novels? You’ve mentioned in previous interviews how much you love Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts” and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. Do you get something new out of each reread? Sometimes when I return to a favorite book or short story, I pick up on details I missed the first times, or my interpretation changes because I’ve gotten older or spent time away from the story.
Maybe I don’t mention it enough, but as far as short (science) fiction goes, my favorite story is “Flowers for Algernon”; I’m aware of the book version, of course, but for my money, everything that needed to be said was said in the novelette version—it’s basically perfect.
Which I note since “Guts” is not at all a Lightspeed sort of story (a Nightmare story, sure!). But yes, I do love “Guts,” and it is short enough that I have re-read it a couple of times just on a whim—usually when someone starts talking about it like we are now, and it gets stuck in my head, and I just can’t exorcise it from my brainmeats until I go read it again. If you haven’t, and you enjoy (non-supernatural) horror, it’s on Chuck’s website (bit.ly/1hiUK3S) so you can go read it at your leisure. Though fair warning: I’m about as stalwart a reader as can be when it comes to horror, and this story makes me squirm.
But anyway! I don’t know that I get anything new out of it on each re-read, but it’s not exactly a subtle story (and it’s quite short), so maybe it’s not the best example. One of my favorite stories I’ve ever published is Jake Kerr’s “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” (bit.ly/2vkOyoi) (Lightspeed, March 2013), and that’s one that I’ve re-read multiple times (including during the editing process) that I feel like I discovered new layers to a couple of times. It’s interesting, too, because how much of it is actually on the page versus what is the sort of meta-narrative you construct in your head as you read it is up for debate; that kind of weird ambiguity of it, where the story leaves so much of the world surrounding the story unsaid is what I love about it so much—it’s about 5,000 words, but feels like a whole novel.
The Stars My Destination, of course, has long been my favorite novel—it blew my head apart as an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old discovering it when I was first taking some tentative steps into reading science fiction. I’ve hardly reread any novels in my life, with there being so many out there to read that I haven’t read yet, but Stars is one I have indeed read multiple times; I believe I’ve read it four times. Including once, aloud, to my then-girlfriend-now-wife, when we were dating long-distance; we read each other our favorite novels just by recording us reading and sending an mp3 of it to the other (she read me James Morrow’s Only Begotten Daughter). Though, again, I’m not sure if I picked up new things per se, though it’s possible and I just can’t think of it off the top of my head.
One of my more recent favorites, which is absolutely one of the best books I’ve ever read, is Ka by John Crowley, and that is a book I would fully expect to find new depths in each time I read it. It’s really a truly stunning work, and one that if there’s any justice in literature, we’ll be talking about for years and years to come. As I write this, it recently won the Mythopoeic Award and was named as a finalist for the World Fantasy Award; if it doesn’t win the latter, I’ll be very surprised—it’s one of those books that has World Fantasy written all over it.
I wish I had more time to reread favorites; I doubt that will ever change, though, unless I retire from editing!
What’s something that today’s John Joseph Adams would like to tell 2010 John Joseph Adams about working on Lightspeed? It doesn’t have to be advice, but something that’s surprised you about editing and publishing online magazines.
Well, the first thing that would surprise 2010 John Joseph Adams would be that he’d end up as a publisher at all! That was never in the plan for me; I never had any particular interest in doing that in my career—I just wanted to edit! If I hadn’t taken that leap, though, both Lightspeed and Nightmare would have been discontinued years ago, so I’m glad I did.
Another thing 2010 JJA would likely be surprised by is the aforementioned critical success we had right out of the gates, with all those accolades just in that first issue, but then also that over the years we’d accumulate such a huge number of Nebula nominees (eighteen, including at least one every year since we started publishing except for this year, in which we were shut out for the first time), though if we’re being completely honest here, I’d say he’d also be surprised that we wouldn’t have won one by now with that many finalists!
Though I think the biggest surprise for JJA 2010 would be that he would end up marrying one of his assistant editors—and on the same day and at the same venue as George R. R. Martin to boot! (Editor’s Note: Everyone survived both weddings.)
Any upcoming anthologies, novels from your imprint, and other projects that you can tell us about?
This month, John Joseph Adams Books is releasing The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette, and then in October we have In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey, and in November Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer. Naturally, we’ve got a great slate of stuff lined up in 2019 as well—including books by Micah Dean Hicks, Jack Skillingstead, Ashok K. Banker, Bryan Camp, Peter Cawdron, and Greg Bear—and in 2020, we’ll have Divergent author Veronica Roth’s debut adult novel (which we announced in July).
My next anthology to come out is going to be Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018, with guest editor N. K. Jemisin, in October.
In 2019, an anthology I co-edited with Victor LaValle will be published by Random House’s One World imprint in February, called A People’s Future of the United States, which we’re pitching as “an anthology of twenty-five original speculative fiction stories that challenge oppressive narratives and imagine a future in which the country is shaped by justice and freedom.” And also, of course, HMH will release BASFF 2019.
Otherwise for anthologies, I’ve got a couple of other things in the pipeline that I can’t quite talk about yet, but I will have at least the three mentioned above out in 2019, and in 2020 it’s looking like there will be five (four original anthologies, plus BASFF). So though I took a dip in anthology production in 2018, looks like I’ll be bouncing back in the near future! And of course, there’ll be twelve more issues of both Lightspeed and Nightmare—and then I guess before you know it, we’ll be celebrating Nightmare’s hundredth issue, too.
Spread the word!