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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Best of British Fantasy - Q&A with Jared Shurin

Thank you for joining us, Jared, and welcome to Fantasy Book Critic! How have you been?

Well. You know. (Gestures at world.) That.

But, other than you know (gestures again) that, pretty good! Thank you for having me. 

FBC is damn near an institution. In its long history, a few of my friends and colleagues (and even one of my books!) have featured here, but I’ve never gotten to appear myself until now. I’m not going to lie - that feels pretty cool.

Can you tell us a little bit about the anthology, The Best of British Fantasy? 

The Best of British Fantasy (or BOBF) is an annual anthology series from the endlessly-award-winning NewCon Press

BOBF is only on its second year/volume, but I have high hopes of it becoming an institution itself someday.

As the name would indicate, BOBF is a reprint anthology. I spend the year reading as much short fiction as I can (a great task) and then narrow it down to my very favourites (a less enjoyable task). 

Also as the name would indicate, BOBF is a showcase of the great fiction being written by British authors - citizens, residents, or expatriates. 

What's your focus or philosophy behind The Best of British Fantasy? 

My favourite quote about editing comes from Ellery Sedgwick, who edited the Atlantic Monthly about a century ago. When asked about the magazine’s criteria, Sedgwick said, “My selection is made according to the whim of one individual.” This is infinitely more honest and transparent than everything else I’ve ever read on the subject. 

With BOBF, I can’t even attempt at rational explanation. I spend the entire year reading short fiction, both submissions and my own reading. At the end of the year, I look through my notes, and - whether it is through lucky or destiny - my favourite stories invariably add up to a single, perfectly-formed volume.

How did you decide the order in which to present the stories? Are there certain “rules of thumb” you follow? Is there value to opening or closing the anthology with a piece from a well-known author? Any other tips you’d be willing to share?

I’ve edited over two dozen anthologies now, and pouring over the ToC is, and will always be, one of the great joys of the process.

There are a lot of schools of thoughts on ToC structure - so take this with a grain of salt - but here’s my thinking.

You have two different readers for anthologies. You have the people that will read it from start to finish. And then the ones that will cherry-pick - they bought that book for a specific author, and that’s what they’re reading first. 

For the latter, there’s not much you can do, except, maybe, try to follow up the Big Famous Name with a story that opens with a really strong hook that will keep the reader turning pages. (This is probably an argument against putting the Big Famous Name at the end, to be honest.) 

For the former though, you’re mapping out a whole reading experience for them. 

Personally? I prefer to use the first, second - and then last - stories as the ones that mostly overtly represent about the book’s ‘theme’. Then, throughout the book, I believe the most important thing is keeping the reading on the journey. You’re using each story to coax them one more step; all the way from start to finish. You mix up the long stories with the short ones; the heavy ones with the light ones. Think of it as a game: you win if you get the reader to finish the book in one sitting, or without skipping any stories. 

Were there challenges or lessons learned during the editing process of this anthology?

Editing a reprint anthology is an absolute joy, because other editors have done the hard work for you. 

The hard part, such as it is, is finding the stories in the first place. 

The challenge of finding great fiction is harder when you’re working with a specific regional criteria. For whatever reason, the big American magazines, websites, and anthologies that are the pillars of the industry don’t publish a lot of British writers (which is a whole separate conversation, I think). 

Fortunately, Britain has an amazing small press, magazine, and journal scene, which stretches well beyond obvious genre fiction. A lot of the great SF/F doesn’t realise it is SF/F. It is published as crime or romance or literature, or in Twitter threads, or on tumblr, or wherever. It comes from publishers in Bristol who have never heard of the Hugos and literary zines in Manchester that look like fashion catalogs. It is buried in the blogs of people who don’t follow submissions websites, probably don’t think of themselves as authors (but they should) and certainly don’t think of their work as ‘fantasy’ in the first place.

So the challenge is finding it. Submissions are great, and they should keep growing every year, which makes it a lot easier for me. But there’s still a lot of searching to be done on my part.

What was the author/story selection process like for this anthology?

Easy. Which sounds cruel, but, as I mentioned above - I read all year, and note down my favourites. Somehow, that’s a book’s worth at the end. 

I am somehow exactly the right level of fussy to make this work perfectly.

Do you notice any common difference in submissions from within the UK versus international submissions?

That’s a really interesting question. 

Expatriate and immigrant voices have been very well-represented in BOBF so far. Perhaps even ‘over-’represented, statistically.

I can’t think of a material difference between their stories and the other stories that I like and publish, so I suspect the answer is a practical one. As an expat/immigrant myself, I make a concerted effort to seek these stories out.

Having edited year's bests for two years in a row, do you see any trends, good or bad, in reading through all of the fantasy short stories during the year?

Sadly, because of the way publishing works, the year a story is published isn’t always the year it was written, or even conceived. That makes it hard to draw definite trends.

Short stories are weird, personal, and more experimental. I don’t think short stories obey the same market forces as the rest of the publishing industry.

More specifically, fantasy short fiction has different trends than fantasy novels. It is tough to cram an epic, be it heroic or grimdark, into a few thousand words. 

What do you try to achieve with each volume?

That’s a great question. 

I want people to appreciate the full breadth of British fantasy. It takes so many different forms, is published in so many different ways, and comes from such a phenomenal range of people. I want readers to discover new writers and types of story. 

Also, it’d be great if they had fun.

What do you wish you were seeing more of in the slush?

I’m a huge fan of epic fantasy and sword & sorcery. I appreciate the challenges - as mentioned earlier - but I’d still like to read more of it. (See, for example, Den Patrick’s story - the special bonus entry in this year’s hardcover.) 

‘British’ is a vast, complex and inclusive term, and it is really important to me - and the series - that each volume reflects as much of that vastness as it can. The onus is on me, the editor, to read and search as broadly as possible. (But the more submissions I receive, the easier that is!)

Alright, we need the details on that quirky cover. Who's the artist/designer, and can you give us a little insight into the process for coming up with it? It gives a sort of old-school fantasy vibe.

Isn’t it amazing?!

The cover is by Jonathan E. We’ve worked together a couple of times in the past, and he is unceasingly, unerringly brilliant. 

When I was commissioning the cover, the UK was stuck in a political quagmire, and absolutely no one was happy. I wanted something that reflected that gloomy, apocalyptic sentiment, but in a weird, hallucinogenic way.

Which all turned into a brief of ‘Dear Mr E, could you end the world but make it really, like, colourful?’. And, of course, he nailed it.

Last year’s cover, by Matty Long, was equally eye-catching. I like that the covers help that great purpose - showing people the full range that fantasy encompasses, and bringing back that sense of wonder. Fantasy deserves great covers.

If you had to describe The Best of British Fantasy in 3 adjectives, which would you choose?

Colourful. Contemporary. Surprising.

Is there a story in the anthology that feels most British? 

Oh, no. They’re all verrrry British. (Except for the Irish one, obviously.) 

We’re a big complicated place - all countries are - and I think each story captures a tiny facet of it well. You’ve got hipster Millennials, the inextricably English connection to the seashore, rather sad little theme parks, a grimy casino at night, majestic woods, politics and secrets and ghosts and commuters. And much more.

Is there any advice you can share for writers trying to create short stories and get published in an anthology?

I can’t write for crap. So first - good luck! I can give you no advice on writing. 

As an editor, I can tell you that I want stories that ‘begin, middle, and end’. I need a whole complete, stand-alone, self-contained story, not a fragment of something larger. A short story isn’t a ramble or a writing exercise, it is a story - just a short one.

Getting published is a matter of taste (discussed above) and opportunity. The former is, ultimately, out of the writer’s control. The latter, however, is not. Give your story the best chance at success. Read the submissions guidelines. Pay attention to what markets are open, and when. Don’t do silly things with formatting. Make sure that you, the author, have a basic webpage with your contact details on it. Don’t blow your story’s chance on technicalities.

What do you enjoy most in editing and what gives you the biggest headaches?

I will never, ever, ever get over the joy of making a book. And one of the perks of being an editor is that you get to share that joy with others. There’s something pretty special about the moment where a mass of Word files transforms into a single, coherent object, and you realised you got to play a (small) part in making that happen.

Headaches? I’m a rubbish profreeder. BOBF is blessed by the eagle eyes of Ian Whates, who can even spot the lingering typos in previously-published-and-proofread stories. 

Do you ever get an editor’s block :) How do you outsmart it?

All the time! 

When you read a lot of the same sort of thing in a row, there’s a danger that “good” becomes relative - you start thinking ‘well, d was better than c, I guess, which was maybe about the same as b and a and e and f and...’. 

It doesn’t matter how unique and individual and magical a short story is, if you plow through five hundred in a week, they turn to wallpaper. You lose your ability to find what’s really actually good, and you settle for what’s the goodest at that moment. 

I try to outsmart it by reading throughout the year, and never in big batches like that. Mixing up my reading not only keeps me excited about constantly getting to return to fantasy, but it also ensures that I remember what “good” really is.

Do you work on any other projects you would like to mention?

Schemes are what keep me going, but they’re also all very much in the scheme-y phase. I do have an occasional newsletter, which is about books and publishing and said schemes, but also very much not. 

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, Jared. When can readers be able to read The Best of British Fantasy? 

The Best of British Fantasy 2019 is on sale at the end of the month. 

Ebooks (pre-order now!) and paperbacks will be available at all the usual book-buying places, and there’s a very, very pretty limited (signed/numbered) hardcover that is only available directly from the publisher.

Thank you so much for having me!


Mai Nguyen said...

What a fantastic book! I am also finding the book. How can I get it?

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