Interview: Patrick Nielsen Hayden
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu ISBN/ITEM#: 0703PNHINT
Date: 26 February 2007
Links: SFRevu Profile / Blog - Making Light /
(Note: Patrick was kind enough to go over the interview and update a few things for us.)SFRevu: What are you working on?
Patrick Nielsen Hayden: That's a good question. What the hell am I working on?
SFRevu: [Picks up a copy of Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist.] Is this one you're editing?
Patrick: I'm not actually doing Iain Banks yet. Though I've been interested in him for a long time. This is on submission to us; it's coming out in Britain next month. You know the history of Iain Banks in Britain and the US? Basically he's an enormous best seller over there. Both his mainstream stuff and his science diction. In fact his mainstream probably does a little bit better than his SF.
SFRevu: Which one is it where he doesn't use a middle initial?
Patrick: He uses the middle initial for his SF, whereas I always thought it would have been easier on everyone if he'd used the M for the mainstream stuff. He can't get arrested over here...it's just ridiculous. He's been published in hardcover by St. Martin's in the 80s and Bantam did him in mass market paperback...they did Use of Weapons and Excession, I think. They even did one of his mainstream thrillers, Complicity, in Bantam-Spectra, with absolutely no science fictional content whatsoever, lots of fast cars and cocaine. Then there was brief period where HarperCollins was doing some of his stuff in trade paperback. They did The Bridge. More recently he's been published by Simon and Schuster in hardback, almost invisibly, like one copy for chain stores.
SFRevu: Which is odd since we've reviewed a disproportionate number of his SF works.
Patrick: Yeah, he just hadn't gotten an American audience yet. [PNH 2007: Since then, The Algebraist wound up getting picked up by Night Shade Books, who did very nicely with it in both hardcover and trade. Night Shade isn't a "small press," it's a couple of guys who intend to build a real full-scale publishing company and appear to be doing a good job of it.]
So who do I actually do? The books on these walls [gestures around office] are all books that I either acquired or have edited. You can pull some names out of there--Poul Anderson, Glen Cook, Charles de Lint, Cory Doctorow, Terry Goodkind, Jonathan Lethem, Jo Walton. Actually, these shelves include my and Teresa's work. [Teresa Nielsen Hayden is Patrick's wife, and an impressive editor in her own right. Also one of the smartest and nicest people I know. - ed] Teresa's authors include Steven Brust, Robert Charles Wilson, and Jane Lindskold...I'm usually [David] Hartwell's editor in house. We have a rule, when Tor editors sell anthologies to Tor, it's generally done on an outside-the-house freelance basis. My relationship to Tor with the Starlight books is one of outside anthologist. Claire Eddy actually serves as their in-house editor. We find this is a sensible way of working things. So, I'm Hartwell's editor for most of his anthologies, though he does mostly...
SFRevu: So where and when did you start editing?
Patrick: I came into book publishing from science fiction fandom. I had been basically working junk jobs and being a fanzine-publishing, convention-organizing fan from my late teens to my early twenties and eventually decided that what I really wanted to do with my life was in fact to be a science fiction editor, and the way to do this was to move to New York and get any kind of book publishing job that I could.
Which is what I did. I moved here, got a job at Doubleday as a junior assistant at the Literary Guild, working on the same floor as Moshe Feder, who I knew through fandom, and Ellen Asher. Moshe was Ellen's assistant at the time. It was extremely uninteresting in some senses. That was in '84, about 20 years ago.
SFRevu: Just about when Neuromancer came out.
Patrick: Yes...I went from that to working in a reference book house, called Chelsea House, editing reprints of anthologies of literary criticism...and just hung around the field and got whatever work in science diction I could, cover copy, copy editing, building up credibility and contacts. As I hoped, after four or five years of this I started getting some real ins with a real science fiction house...which was Tor. I first worked for Tor doing a lot of out-of-house freelancing, and then I was an in-house part-timer, and then in December 1989, I became full time and have been here ever since. I've been here a ridiculous amount of time really...nearly sixteen years.
SFRevu: In today's SF publishing world, what does an editor actually do?
Patrick: Well, different houses do it up differently, but I think it's true in almost all houses that editors are kind of jack-of-all trades advocates and entrepreneurs. Most of us do a certain amount of acquiring and developmental work, and this and that. Here at Tor most editors write their own cover copy.
Jane Yolen and I are doing a new Year's Best SF and Fantasy for Teens.
SFRevu: What's the ratio of Science Fiction to Fantasy?
Patrick: There's a lot more fantasy out there than SF. Jane and I have gone through a whole year of Analog and all the other magazines and tons and tons of Mike Resnick and Martin Harry Greenberg edited paperback original anthologies from DAW. The book will (we hope) wind up approximately even.
SFRevu: What do you look for in stories?
Patrick: I like to be engaged right away. I have a professionally cultivated low attention span. I'm very impatient with slow starts. In stuff that aspires to be good commercial fantasy, something I notice in an large number of submissions is what at one workshop we jokingly called "portentous Fantasy prologue," frequently involving the Destined One's birth scene deep beneath the castle, and so forth and so on. Basically, in these slow starts the reader is supposed to upload an enormous amount of information but is not given any reason to think of it as important or satisfying. There's the feeling that "You're Going To Have To Study, Because There's Going To Be A Test".
SFRevu: One of the things I love about SF is the way stories challenge you to figure out what's going on as you read, and that they trust the reader to be able to put it together after a suitable period of feeling weird.
Patrick: The whole problem of getting the reader up to speed is one of the basic problems of the SF, fantasy, or historical novel. There are good and bad techniques for this. Jo Walton came up with a name for these techniques, "incluing." It can range from the good old, "As you know, Bob "..."As you know (AYKB), Bob, since the invention of the internal combustion engine in the 1890s and its subsequent commercialization by Henry Ford, society has been transformed!" We don't generally have these conversations in real life, but sometimes it's the right way to go. Then again, sometimes the right approach is simply to, as directly as possible, tell the reader. Bruce Sterling's science fiction novel Distraction, which is about an American election about fifty years in the future--I love that book, but at least at the beginning, every other chapter is just Bruce Sterling hectoring the reader. "By 2055, such and such had happened and such and such had happened." Not bothering to stand around and have a lengthy AYKB conversation about it. Bruce gets away with it because he makes his expository lumps as entertaining as the actual fiction stuff.
SFRevu: The current world champion of that would be Neal Stephenson.
Patrick:Absolutely, and he can go on too. And on, and on, and on. You have to be charming to get away with it.
SFRevu: Why don't you have him?
Patrick: Hey, he's a terrific writer, but we can't publish everybody who's good. I published Susanna Clarke's first story, and now she's being published by Bloomsbury in an edition of nine bazillion copies worldwide. You don't necessarily get the commercial payoff from all your little discoveries. [PNH 2007: As you know, Bob, ultimately we wound up co-publishing the mass-market edition of Jonathan Strange under the Tor imprint, but PNH 2004 didn't know about that.]
SFRevu: So who was your first author?
Patrick: Well, the first thing I did for Tor was that I inherited the somewhat short-lived Tor Doubles program. Set up by Tom Doherty and Debbie Notkin. I was essentially Debbie's replacement. She was a bookseller and she'd been brought in to work for a year as Beth Meacham's executive assistant editor/person. Beth and Tom believed strongly that there is value in having a bookseller on the team but Debbie didn't want to commit to living in New York forever so she basically said "I'll come in for a year, year and a half" and I was basically brought in to fill that space, though I didn't have a bookselling background.
Tom has always been a big fan of novellas, and we, of course, all know (Bob) that some of the best work done in SF is done in novellas. It was a well-meaning attempt to revive the great Ace double format by reprinting many of the great novellas of the history of the field. Like so many things in publishing, it worked great at first.
Practically anything will work great at first. I could come out tomorrow with a new line of Tor Triangular books...which would connect with the shape of our building (Tor is located in the triangular "Flatiron" building in NYC)...we're cooking with gas! The first one would ship strongly. It would come back in droves, and the line would go into a death spiral. That's kind of the short version of what happened with Tor Doubles. Great idea, everybody loved it. Nobody bought it. The end.
We got about thirty-six of them out. It was an interesting piece of hardcore training for a young editor, because it was a monthly line, it was mass market, though we did do some original publishing later in the line. We commissioned some stories. An excellent original story by Steve Popkes, some stuff by Mike Resnick where one of his stories was original and the other a reprint...I don't really remember at this point.
(The web knows: Tor Doubles).
This was also before we had a proper art department, so I had to commission all the covers. It was basically all one young editor doing all the actual bookmaking work. It was good training.
The first actual full length novel that I bought completed this issue, that I bought for Tor was Rebecca Ore's The Illegal Rebirth of Billy The Kid (http://www.amazon.com/Illegal-Rebirth-Billy-Kid/dp/0812506723), a good, if somewhat odd novel by a very good if very odd writer. She'd been brought to us by Ben Bova in his "Ben Bova's Discoveries" series.
Like any other editor I've inherited authors from others who have gone on to do other things.
SFRevu: Who have you been most jazzed about?
Patrick: Lots of people. I've been a big booster of Ken MacLeod over the last few years. I had to be hit over the head a couple of times to pay attention to him. Tim Holman is his British editor, though I think his first editor was John Jarrold, who bought the Star Fraction. Ever since we finally started publishing him over here we've been struggling to catch up with the Brits. It took us two or three years to get all of the stuff that had already appeared out in the US.
Ken has been very good about working with both editors simultaneously, and incorporating our not-very-extensive requests into his work.
SFRevu: I'm a big fan as well.
Patrick: I don't know if you're read Newton's Wake, his first standalone, but its worth getting. [Actually, we'd already reviewed it off the UK edition: Newton's Wake by Ken Macleod –ed.]
I'm interested in a lot of what you might call your contemporary urban Fantasy types. Charles de Lint. I'm Emma Bull's editor, who's doing a novel basically set around the shootout at the O.K. Corral. [Territory - http://www.tor-forge.com/territory].
SFRevu: You said an editor is often an advocate for a book with the publisher. What is the relationship between you and the author?
Patrick: Well, that depends a lot. Some people deliver books that are damn close to done. Some people deliver books that you need to make a lot of marks on and send them back with pages and pages of queries. Some books just basically need a conversation. I'm particularly fond of that kind. You basically just talk through a few small things in the book. Some people deliver books that badly need fixing but they have long since become uneditable...I wouldn't name any of those people.
SFRevu: So, how does a broken book get to your desk in the first place?
Patrick: Well, I think I can safely say as a general principle that sometimes authors, once they reach a certain level of established success and realize that they really can just phone it in, will in fact do so [AYKB, Heinlein is dead now, but the tradition lives on – ed].
But by and large, most authors I work with are open to ways in which their books could be improved. And I don't go into it with a sense of righteous ferocity. It's a collaborative process...and also...it's their book.
I try very hard to be the kind of editor that can work with books outside my own range of personal taste. Every reasonably good piece of genre fiction has a potential audience and part of the job is to get that book to that audience.
SFRevu: So, what are your tastes?
Patrick: I'm more of a science fiction than a fantasy guy. The fantasy that I do, by and large, tends to have a kind of gritty "hand-level-detail" realism to it. I'm not really into highly decorative, high flown fantasy. I love Tolkien, but Tolkien has a kind of realism to him that a lot of his imitators don't. My favorite fantasy writers tend to be, um, Steven Brust, Glen Cook, also the "urban fantasy" crowd. I love fantasy set in historical or quasi-historical milieus not taken from Dungeons and Dragons--books like Jonathan Strange, or Christopher Priest's The Prestige, or Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint. I don't want to go on and name a bunch of people and leave others out.
SFRevu: And in science fiction?
Patrick: Again, I guess I'm sort of a closet realist. I like near-future science fiction, of which there's not really a lot being written at the moment. I like science fiction where I feel I can inhabit that world, where I feel like the speculative elements tell me something about the world I live in, about my own life. Cory Doctorow. Charles Stross. I tend to zone out at incredibly far future worlds so alien that it's almost impossible to identify with it. Though, peculiarly enough, I like Banks, and Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep is one of my favorite novels of the last twenty years, and that's extremely far-future. Exceeded possibly only by A Deepness In The Sky, also by Vinge. Both of which are absolutely fantastic; I've read them multiple times with enormous pleasure in the years since they came out.
SFRevu: Did you edit either?
Patrick: No, they're Jim Frenkel's...although I helped name A Fire Upon The Deep. Vernor wanted to call it "Among The Tines." I don't think I came up with the whole thing, but we had a brainstorming session and I said we needed to cop Heinlein's technique of using either Shakespeare or the Old Testament, and I'm pretty sure that "fire" and "the deep" were among the elements I threw into the pot.
I think Vernor's working on a novelization of the cookie monster. [PNH 2007: I have no idea what I was talking about. I blame society.] He also has ideas for a direct sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep. Tom Doherty wants him to write the sequel to A Deepness In The Sky.
[Note: Though A Deepness In The Sky was published after AFUTD, it is set thirty thousand years earlier. – ed]
SFRevu: Speaking of group sessions, Tor is one of the few publishers that read slush.
Patrick: Yes, we do. We're incredibly behind on it. Actually, it's a bit of a project for this fall. (He points to an overflowing stack of manuscripts.) This isn't slush, its actually from real or semi-real agents or people I know something about. That's a separate project.
We've been brought to realize just how incredible behind we are reading slush. Sometimes we'll go through a summer of really energetic interns and we'll get through it, then we'll fall behind on it almost immediately. I don't want to make unrealistic promises, but we are working on instituting some reasonable systems for getting the stuff out. [PNH 2007: We're actually better at dealing with the over-the-transom stuff now. We still tend to get way behind on the agented stuff.]
SFRevu: How could you possibly do it?
Patrick: A monthly "slush kill." A collective project where lots of people get together in the conference room. Truly unadulterated slush is actually pretty scary once you get into it. In fact, a remarkable amount of it is written by people who are clearly mentally defective.
You can actually whittle down the pile really fast by going after that test. Then you have a much smaller pile of stuff actually written in English by a person with more or less normal mind. Which is a whole lot less scary.
SFRevu: So the majority of people who think they could be authors are deranged?
Patrick: Well, yes, but once you discount those people, the actual prospect for the non-crazy people is much better.
SFRevu: What generation of editors are we in?
Patrick: There's been a remarkable stability in science fiction book editors in the last ten or fifteen years. There's a whole bunch of us who've been around absolutely forever. David Hartwell, Ginger Buchanan, Betsy Mitchell, several other people at Del Rey...I don't feel that I'm part of a wave of young insurgents. [PNH 2007: Three years later, it actually does seem to me that there's a real "new generation" of SF book editors--Jim Minz, Sharyn November, quite a few others.]
SFRevu: But I don't see you as part of that generation.
Patrick: I'm younger, Hartwell's been doing this since the seventies, but I've been doing this since the eighties...I've been around for half his career. Which boggles my mind. I'm now the age that he was when I first started hanging around the SF world and going to his parties.
SFRevu: Science fiction today has more in common with classic SF than the new wave stuff did.
Patrick: Maybe. I think the big difference between science fiction now and the fiction of the forties and fifties is that these days we have a whole generation of readers younger than me, people in their twenties, thirties, and maybe their teens, who are simply casual SF readers. Who read maybe one, two, three, four, SF novels a year. Who don't particularly perceive there being this enormous wall or distinction between SF and the rest of the popular media they consume. I think it's analogous to a process that mysteries went through. As late as the early 1960s, the revelation that John F. Kennedy liked to read murder mysteries for relaxation was kind of daring. These days, none of that persists. Dick Francis is just a bestselling writer. There's a mystery section in the stores, but there's tons of mystery stuff that's published in the bestseller genre. It's just part of fiction. I think we are seeing a process like that happening in science fiction and fantasy.
I don't think its bad for the field at all. I think the field is sufficiently chatty and inbred that we will continue to reap the benefits of being kind of self identified as a bunch of geeks that argue with each other in our books.
SFRevu: What the heck is slipstream?
Patrick: That's a good question. Ask someone who understands it. Basically it's people who have the SF social orientation but are writing mainstream fiction. Science fiction is a set of narrative tropes, storytelling techniques, and a set of reading protocols, ways of making sense out of text, and it's also a social world, which kind of pioneered ways for people to form subcultures over large distances, to communicate and interact and argue and form factions and exclude each other...
SFRevu: Are we talking about books or fandom or both?
Patrick: What I'm saying is that the peculiar social history of science fiction is an important part of science fiction itself. It's arguable that the way the internet is working out is to a great extent the social techniques of science fiction fandom now conquering the world.
I've been reading Jay Lake and Deborah Layne's anthology series Polyphony, and half the stories in there are basically mainstream. But they're nonetheless informed by science-fictional sensibilities. Just because they don't have tomorrow's technology or overt magic or whatever...though half the stories do.
SFRevu: So what's the science fictional sense of them?
Patrick: I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it. I think it's a kind of un-self-consciously geeky, which I mean in the best way, spirit of inquiry and experimentation. And also, one of the nice things about science fiction and fantasy is that although they're competitive, they're also tremendously collegial and collaborative. There's a kind of knives-drawn hostility between writers of mainstream fiction and between editors and publishers that I just don't get from SF people.
SFRevu: How do you separate SF from fantasy?
Patrick:There's no definitive line, though you can certainly say that Poul Anderson's Tau Zero is definitely science fiction, and that E.R. Eddison's A Fish Dinner in Memison is definitely fantasy. But what's Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos?
Chip Delany gave a great talk at Readercon, which got published in the New York Review of Science Fiction, in which he called on everybody to stop trying to define SF, and, rather, to describe it instead. It's a really good intellectual point, which is that definitional arguments always focus on "edge cases" to the exclusion of the central matter at hand. If you're preoccupied with trying to define SF you'll spend all your time arguing about all the things that are maybe SF and maybe not. Which is not what we're actually interested in talking about. At least not all the time. Our central interest is the stuff that we know damn well is science fiction.
I feel that way about a lot of the SF and fantasy fights. I don't have any respect for the claim that SF has a lock on intellectual rigor. I disagree with China Mieville about tons of things, but he's absolutely dead right about that. Enormous amounts of what we call "hard SF" aren't remotely hard. They don't have any science or technology; they just have people attitudinizing about science and technology.
SFRevu: OK, but what I want to know is why there's so much fantasy being published and not nearly as much SF?
Patrick: There are certainly some hot kids coming up doing hard SF and near future stuff. Cory Doctorow is a master of near future SF. Of course in his non-writing life he's living in it as well.
SFRevu: Cory, as well as Bruce Sterling, are writing so close to the now that by the time the publishing cycle comes around its in danger of being overcome by events.
Patrick: (handing me a copy of a book) I don't think this one will be overcome by events.
SFRevu: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves town. (See our review: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow)
Patrick: Read the plot description.
SFRevu: Did you write it?
SFRevu: (reads silently) Now that I know that I'm hearing it with your voice.
"... This naturally brings him in contact with the house full of students and layabouts next door, including a young woman, who, in a moment of stress, reveals to him that she has wings. Wings, moreover, that grow back after each attempt to cut them off...."
So now I'm immediately going, Fantasy? Nanotech? Gene manipulation?
Patrick: Yeah. (Laughs) It's your basic Magic Realist, Contemporary Urban Fantasy, Family Secrets, Internet Science Fiction novel. This is a novel that pays absolutely no attention to what sort of genre it's supposed to be.
Peter Watts is doing more apocalyptically depressing near future SF...he's a Hartwell author (See SFRevu Interview: Peter Watts by Ernest Lilley) and Robert Charles Wilson has set all his recent SF in some version of the 21st century.
His next novel Spin, coming out in April 2005, is going to be his breakout book. Mark my words. This is an ambitious, first of a trilogy, which is the book in which Robert Charles Wilson does all that stuff he does so well, but in the service of a much bigger story. Bigger plot. Tons of potential for human action in a big, interesting universe.
(20/20 Hindsight: Spin won last year's Best Novel Hugo award at LACon IV -ed)
Although there's fantasy and far-future SF that I like, my preference tends to be more toward quotidian worlds in which miraculous things happen. But I can easily come up with exceptions.
SFRevu: As a reader, what was your moment of realization that this was the cool stuff?
Patrick: I was a five-six year old reader of the stuff you find in elementary school library. Eleanor Cameron's "Mushroom Planet" books, the Hugh Lofting Dr. Doolittles...I'd read all the Heinlein juveniles by the time I was eight or so.
The great transformational literary experience for me was reading Tolkien at age 10 and having the top of my head come off. I'm still a huge Tolkien fan. I have lots of friends that can't get into Tolkien. All they can see are the obvious flaws.
Reading Tolkien and becoming a fairly obsessive ten-eleven year Tolkien fan caused my first contact with fandom. My godmother and her husband, strangely enough--a fairly hip couple--as a Christmas present in 1970, gave me a membership to the Tolkien Society of America, which meant that I got a bunch of their fanzines and a subscription to Locus. This was back when it was mimeographed.
So I was aware of the world of fandom. I was fascinated by David Gerrold's non-fiction book The Trouble With Tribbles because it was full of stuff about the social SF world, Worldcons and exotic stuff like that. Strange creatures like Harlan Ellison and Issac Asimov. Even though Star Trek was something I just bounced off a bit. It always seemed a little bit cheesy and overwrought. I can actually appreciate Star Trek now better than when I was a kid.
So from twelve to sixteen I was vaguely aware that fandom was out there. I was a teen-ager in Scottsdale, Arizona, and if there had been local conventions I probably would have gotten in earlier. The local scene had to actually start generating some events to draw me in, and that's what happened. In 1975, I had just turned sixteen and the local clubs were getting themselves organized enough that notices were turning up in the local alternative paper, the New Times, which has gone on to be a multi-city conglomerate, and which I had written a couple of book reviews for. I got paid $10 to review Barry Malzberg's Herovit's World (1973). That was my first sale!
SFRevu: Getting paid $10 to review SF today is a good trick.
Patrick:Indeed, indeed. And I got a free book too. So suddenly there were not just one but two science fiction clubs putting notices of meetings in the events calendar. I went to one of them and wound up very quickly getting recruited to edit the club fanzine, and help put on the first convention ever thrown in Phoenix, Leprecon 1. From there on in I was a hardcore lifer.
SFRevu: I didn't start until much later in my life, though I've been a hard-core reader all along.
Patrick: You've just got to connect with the right people. These days, conventions being what they are, I wonder about the experience of somebody who wanders into a large regional SF convention all by themselves without a trusty native guide.
What you're going to see is the crazy people, the people in strange costumes and so forth. The fact that there's actually a likable if eccentric group of relatively sane people at the heart of it is not going to make itself quite as evident.
Teresa has made the point several times with convention organizers, that people tend to get into fandom alone. If they show up with two friends they don't get into fandom. They just wander around the convention and stare at the people with Spock ears and go home.
SFRevu: The one non-SF thing I want to know is; I know you play guitar and are in a band (Whisperado – http://www.whisperado.com ). Who's in it, and how is it doing?
Patrick: Good. We've got a gig tomorrow. It's three guys. Jon Sobel is our bassist, songwriter and organizer. He's married to a woman named Halley DeVestern who has an amazing singing voice. So much so that she toured with Big Brother and the Holding Company a few years ago. Anyway, Jon and Halley are the core of the Halley DeVestern band. She guests with us when she's around.
SFRevu: What kind of guitar do you play?
Patrick: I play two guitars. I've got a Taylor acoustic, and I'm much more of a lifelong acoustic guitar player than electric. I'm really learning electric on the job. The electric guitar I bought was a year-2000 Fender-made reproduction of a classic 1952 Telecaster. Faithful to a fault. It's a commemorative edition that I bought used. The varnish on the body is nitro-cellulose, not acetylene, it's all 1952 ingredients. The pickups are wrapped in waxed string. The biggest downside to this is the authentic 1952 sucky tuning mechanism. I'm going to replace the authentic tuning mechanism as soon as I've got the scratch to do so.
Otherwise it's a gorgeous guitar, and it has that great authentic American twangy sound that all Telecasters have. In spades. The first time I played that guitar it had opinions about what kind of music it should be playing.
SFRevu: Thanks for your time.
Vinge's "The Cookie Monster" that PNH2004 refers to as being novelized (and PNH2007 can't remember) would be the short story in Analog of that name, available online. I, for one, would dearly love to read that novelization.