Stephen King articles
Jack of All Trades, Master of Some
An Interview with Stephen Jones
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#6, 1995
Stephen Jones has touched many of the bases of horror in the last two decades. Most visible are the short story anthologies he has edited or co-edited, as well as movie guides, biographies (including the excellent Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden), fiction guides (including Horror: 100 Best Books) and various contributions to a large number of magazines. But he has also made a career of film work, from his own TV productions and documentaries to work on Clive Barker's films, and is closely involved with fandom in the UK and the US. He has recently expanded further, into the world of publishing. His work is consistantly well-designed and well-executed, and he has won two World Fantasy Awards, two Bram Stokers and ten British Fantasy Awards.
Proving a willing subject, Stephen talks about the facets of his life and his genre, putting together his anthologies and what it's like on the other side of the desk.
Tabula Rasa: To start off, can I ask where you grew up and how you became interested in horror?
Stephen Jones: I've always lived in London. I was born in Pimlico, an area in the centre of London, whose only claims to fame are an old Ealing movie called Passport to Pimlico (1948), and Princess Diana. Also, H. P. Lovecraft set one of his collaborations with Hazel Heald, 'The Horror in the Museum', just across the River Thames from the hospital where I was born. In fact, the protagonist of that story is named Stephen Jones, which is kind of spooky...
TR: It wasn't written on your conception date, or anything?
SJ: No, Lovecraft was long dead by then. The story was written in 1932 and I was born in 1953. Basically, I grew up in London during the 'Swinging Sixties'. I was still at school when I developed an interest in horror and fantasy. I began reading American comic books in the mid-1960s, and from there I moved on to Famous Monsters of Filmland, Castle of Frankenstein, and the other movie monster magazines of that time.
TR: Were they widely available in Britain?
SJ: In fact, they used to come over as ballast on ships, so they were usually sold quite cheaply in local newsagents. They were fairly easy to find, but they tended to be six months out of date. I always considered the monster magazines as something of a guilty pleasure. In Britain at that time, most horror movies were restricted unless you were over sixteen years of age. The only way that I could see stills from these films and get any kind of information was from the specialist magazines. However, I could still get into cinemas to see such movies as The Face of Fu Manchu with Christopher Lee, and City Under the Sea with Vincent Price. Very little horror material was shown on television in those days. The first classic horror film I remember seeing on TV was King Kong, which was first broadcast in the mid-1960s. That film had a profound effect on me, and it remains to this day my all-time favourite movie. So, taken together, all these influences contributed to my initial interest in horror and fantasy.
Then, around 1967, I started buying books. I began by reading the usual teenage stuff -- Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars and Venus novels, Robert E. Howard's Conan, and Lin Carter's Thongor. From those, I moved on to H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and the whole Weird Tales circle. Later I began collecting Arkham House books, and by then I was hooked.
TR: So what made you decide you could contribute to the field, as opposed to just reading it?
SJ: To be honest, I just kind of drifted into it. I never dreamed it would eventually become a career. At the time, I just enjoyed reading the stories. Like many newcomers to the genre, I was not intitially aware of any kind of organised fandom. Then I discovered a couple of specialist science fiction bookstores in London. I started buying fanzines, and those led to the conventions and such organisations as The British Fantasy Society. In the early 1970s I joined the BFS, which turned out to have a nucleus of fans of horror and dark fantasy, and I soon became involved in contributing to their various publications.
From editing their newsletters and journals, and attending the annual British Fantasy Conventions, I moved on to producing my own magazine, Fantasy Tales, in collaboration with David Sutton.
TR: That was mainly short stories, wasn't it?
SJ: Very much so. In the mid-1970s there were no magazines devoted to publishing horror or fantasy fiction in the UK. Dave and I realised that there was a gap in the market, and so we decided to fill it. In America there was Stuart Schiff's excellent Whispers magazine and W. Paul Ganley's Weirdbook, both of which were semi-professional and difficult to find in Britain. So we decided to launch Fantasy Tales in 1977.
We couldn't afford to pay writers for the first issue, but we still received contributions by Kenneth Bulmer, Michael Moorcock, Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell. These and many other professional writers went on to support us over the next ten years. Altogether, we published seventeen semi-pro issues of Fantasy Tales. It won the World Fantasy Award and seven British Fantasy Awards although, to be honest, there wasn't much else out there at that time. However, we did try to make the magazine as distinctive as possible. We made sure the design was attractive and readable, we used colour covers and perfect binding on various issues, and we actually paid for the stories we published. It wasn't a great deal of money, but at least we paid something and that attracted many professional names as well as the newcomers. And I was quite content just doing that. I had a successful career as a television producer and director, making commercials and sales-aid films, so everything else -- writing book and film reviews, doing interviews, publishing magazines -- was just a hobby. It was also a great deal of fun, but I never had any real ambition to do it for a living.
Then, around 1986, two events occured which basically changed my life. I was in Los Angeles interviewing director John Carpenter, who at the time was just finishing off Big Trouble in Little China. When the interview was over, he asked me if I had ever thought of moving out to LA to work. Of course, I admitted I had. But everybody out there wants to be a director. In Britain, I already had my director's ticket, and I was involved in running my own video production company. In Hollywood I'd probably have ended up waiting tables! Then he suggested that I should consider becoming a unit publicist -- the person who writes the publicity and production notes for the movie -- which would combine my writing background with my technical knowledge.
So when I returned home, I called my friend Clive Barker, who had published the first three Books of Blood and The Damnation Game at that time. I said, ''Clive, you're about to start making a little movie, have you got a unit publicist yet?" He said no, they didn't have enough in the budget to afford one. I told him, "Well, you can now. I want to do it. You don't even have to pay me, I just want the experience." Clive, god bless him, immediately decided it was a great idea, and he set up a meeting between myself and the producer, Christopher Figg. We met over lunch, and by the end of the meal he told me I had the job if I wanted it. He could even pay me a small fee as well. Of course, Clive's 'little' movie turned out to be Hellraiser!
When I finished working on Hellraiser, I discovered that the TV company I was a partner in was going into liquidation. I no longer had a job.
Then around the same time, at a British Fantasy Convention, myself and Dave Sutton got into a conversation with a guy in the bar one evening. His name was Nick Robinson, and he had recently started up his own imprint, Robinson Publishing. While we were talking, he suddenly asked if we had ever thought about doing an anthology of stories from Fantasy Tales. Dave and I thought about it for at least two seconds before we lied through our teeth. No, we said, such a great idea had never occurred to us, and would he like to publish it? What we didn't tell Nick at the time was that we'd been trying to sell an anthology from Fantasy Tales for a few years without much success. So we put together a proposal, which he accepted, and the first professional book I had published was The Best Horror From Fantasy Tales, which made its debut in 1988 at the World Fantasy Convention in London.
So those two events together -- becoming the unit publicist on Hellraiser and co-editing my first anthology -- were the starting points of my professional career. Since then, I've worked on a number of movies and published around forty books.
TR: You are probably best known in Australia for your short story anthologies. What do you like about the short story form?
SJ: What I personally like about short stories is that they are quick to read! I've always been a fairly slow reader, and getting through a novel can often take me awhile. You can always read short stories on a train or plane journey, and you can dip into an anthology or collection almost any time. I actually construct my anthologies so that the contents have a rythmn to them. Ideally, the books should be read from the beginning to the end. However, I'm always surprised by the number of people who tell me they pick up one of my books, open it to an author they happen to like and just start reading. All that effort I put into the construction of the book is wasted on them! But if they enjoy the stories anyway, then I still feel I've succeeded.
And I do think that the short story form can sometimes be -- I won't say is -- more difficult to write than novels. With any good short story you need to have a strong idea to begin with, and then you have to get that idea across in a limited number of words to the reader. With a novel, a writer has the space to develop their themes and characters, to spread themselves out a little more. To encapsulate all that in a short story can be very, very difficult. I read literally thousands of short stories a year, and it is always exciting when you find a story where all the elements -- plotting, characterisation, style -- work successfully together. If just one of those requirements is missing from a story, then I consider it a failure.
So the short story is a very difficult form to work in, but when you come across an author who knows what they're doing -- such as Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Michael Marshall Smith or Roberta Lannes -- then it's the best feeling in the world for any editor.
TR: You've mentioned various authors. There are a lot of theme anthologies coming out at the moment, but not author-specific ones. Why do you think that is?
SJ: Basically, it's because publishers and readers prefer it that way. Anthologies are easier to sell if they have an identifiable theme. The skill of any editor is to use that theme as merely the starting point for collecting exceptional stories.
Of course, you also have to contend with that old publishing saying, "Anthologies do not sell". You're talking to someone who has probably edited around thirty anthologies in the past eight years and, to be honest, there's not a lot of money to be made from anthologies unless you're very, very lucky, or you have a Stephen King story. So, when I realised that I wouldn't be getting the big advances (particularly in Britain), I decided I would have to be somewhat prolific instead. In most cases, an editor gets a very small advance from a publisher, and that advance has to be shared between all the contributors and the editor. On top of that, I'm also one of those rare editors who also splits all the royalties with the contributors on a pro-rata basis. So basically, what you have left over at the end of the day is only a very small percentage of the initial advance. To make any real money from editing, you have to produce a steady stream of books. I doubt I would be able to survive if it wasn't for the other work, such as movies.
TR: Clive Barker became famous because of his short story work. Is there anyone new out there who is going to become famous because of their short stories?
SJ: I certainly hope so. One of the delights of editing any anthology is discovering new talent. When you've waded through twenty or thirty clichéd manuscripts, to actually find a story by someone you've never heard of before that you want to publish is one of the greatest thrills this business has to offer. If you look at the anthologies I've been doing recently, you'll notice a number of the same authors appearing regularly. Many of these writers -- Kim Newman, Nicholas Royle, Joel Lane, Michael Marshall Smith, Roberta Lannes, Nancy Holder, Norman Partridge, David J. Schow -- basically started their careers writing short stories, and some of them are now moving on to become very fine novelists.
Back in the old Fantasy Tales days, we published early stories by Thomas Ligotti, Kim Newman, Neil Gaiman and others. I wouldn't say we discovered them, but we did help to establish them in the field. Last year, Ramsey Campbell -- who first introduced me to Clive Barker before The Books of Blood were ever published -- introduced me to another new writer, Terry Lamsley, who had self-published a collection of his own work. Ramsey and I selected one of his stories for our Best New Horror collection, as did Karl Edward Wagner for his Year's Best Horror. Not only that, but Terry also went on to win the World Fantasy Award. So yes, you can still become successful by just writing short stories. However, I doubt you'll ever become very wealthy doing it!
I've been delighted to work with these, and many other very talented writers. One of the strengths I think I have as an editor is that I know both the British and American markets. Because I've been travelling back and forth to the US for so long, I've grown up with many of the authors I've worked with. Meeting such old pulp writers like Manly Wade Wellman, Robert Bloch, Hugh B. Cave and H. Warner Munn, or hanging out with Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Dennis Etchison, Charlie Grant and Karl Wagner has all helped. I've been very lucky to have become friends with these, and many other authors, and I now feel as if I'm acting as some kind of link between these established names and the next generation of writers.
TR: How difficult is it to edit an anthology?
SJ: It all depends on the nature of the project. When I was working in television I always said that anyone can be a director -- all you have to do is tell people what you want. However, not just anyone can be a good director. The same applies to being an editor. Anybody can edit an anthology -- but that doesn't necessarily make you good at it.
I have never worked on a book I did not want to do. Every project I've done, I have wanted to be involved with for one reason or another. And I've always tried to do the very best I can with each of those books. After all, it's my name on them, so I'm ultimately responsible for their quality.
TR: Who comes up with the ideas for the projects?
SJ: Again, it depends. On a few occasions, a publisher has come to me with an idea or concept, but most of the time my agent and I are out there pitching. The first and most important thing is to come up with a strong idea for an anthology. The problem I often discover is, because the American market is so huge, an idea you think is original has already been thought of by someone else.
TR: Ellen Datlow's got it coming out next week...
SJ: Actually, like me, Ellen is one of those editors who chooses her projects carefully. I've got the greatest respect for Ellen Datlow. I was actually thinking of those editors who seem to churn out anthologies like a factory line or exploit a subject that just happens to be 'hot' at the moment. Of course, these approaches are also quite valid and can often be very profitable, if not particularly memorable.
Each project I become involved with is personal. I will normally come up with an idea I like, an idea I feel comfortable working with, and pitch that anthology to various publishers. They will then decide whether or not they want to do it. If they do decide they want to go ahead, the first thing you have to think about is if it's going to consist of all-new stories, reprint stories, or a combination of the two. My personal preference is for a combination of the two. There are far too many good short stories that just disappear and are never published again. One of the delights of being an editor is the ability to bring certain stories and certain writers back into print.
Ideally, I like to put together an anthology which consists of maybe two-thirds new stories, and one-third old or obscure stories. Then it's a matter of tracking all that material down. I have a pretty extensive library of books and magazines which I've put together over the past twenty-five years, so a lot of that material is easily available. On top of that, I have friends who recommend stories to me. I will also approach writers who I think can write a story around a particular theme. I sometimes announce that I'm doing an anthology, but usually not that widely -- if people find out I'm putting together a project and they send me a query letter before submitting, then that's fine. But these days I rarely announce a project in the market reports, because I'd be inundated with hundreds of manuscripts that I simply don't have the time to deal with. Also, the chances are that the majority of them would be unreadable. Ellen Datlow recently referred to this approach as 'word-of-mouth' anthologies, a description which I particularly like.
Even so, I still have to read a huge number of stories, and usually end up with a shortlist of those I like best, that fit the concept, and that I can afford within the budget. Once those stories have been contracted for, I then sit down and play around with the order, as I said before, in an attempt to give the book some sense shape and rhythm. Finally, it's a matter of writing an introduction, the author notes, and putting the prelim material together -- all that stuff which I think it's important an editor should do. Not only does it put that particular editor's stamp on the book, but it also helps to promote the authors. And let's face it, without their contributions the book would not exist in the first place!
I tend to get a little depressed when I see anthologies that are obviously just thrown together -- where similar stories follow each other because the editor simply couldn't care less or just didn't know any better.
TR: Let's turn to your non-fiction. You've had a lot of success with biographies of authors like Clive Barker and James Herbert, and also Horror: 100 Best Books. Tell us about how you put those together.
SJ: Well, once again it was something I seemed to drift into. Over the years I've accumulated a great deal of knowledge about this field, most of which is going to waste. So when the opportunities arise, I'm always happy to share what small expertise I have. I simply enjoy the process of writing and editing non-fiction. Long before I got into books, I was reviewing for magazines. However, I've never really had any urge to write novels. I've collaborated on two short stories, both of which have been published, but I've never felt a burning desire to write fiction. Why should I? There are already so many people out there who can do it much better than I can.
However, I was interested in working on non-fiction books. The first one was Horror: 100 Best Books, which I co-edited with Kim Newman. That came about because the person who was originally going to put the book together dropped out. Kim and I discussed it, and we decided we wanted to take a different approach. We felt that nobody would be interested in reading what we thought were the hundred best horror books, but they would be interested in a hundred of the top writers and editors in the field talking about their favourite books. It was a lot of work (especially the signed edition), but it turned out very well and it was a fun book to do.
TR: It's a fun book to read, as well.
SJ: I hope so. It was meant to be an entertaining volume, which a lot of non-fiction books aren't. I've never been a fan of stuffy reference books -- every non-fiction project I do I try to make as entertaining and attractive as possible. Horror: 100 Best Books can be read on several different levels. It works very well as a research tool, but it's also a fun book to dip into and, I hope, a successful teaching tool. Our original idea was that the book would go into schools so that younger kids could use it as an introduction to reading horror fiction. When New English Library published an updated edition a few years ago, they put a cover on the book to attract a younger audience. I hope it worked. I must admit that I've never had anyone come up to me and say, "I started reading horror fiction because I read your book," but I hope somebody out there developed an interest in the genre because of it.
TR: Some of the titles in that book are difficult to track down...
SJ: I don't think most of them are. I've always thought it would be fun to put together a collection of those hundred books to see what they would look like on the shelf.
Then came the Clive Barker book, Shadows in Eden. That grew out of working with Clive on the first two Hellraiser movies and Nightbreed. We just accumulated a lot of stuff, some of which I used in a couple of illustrated books, Clive Barker's The Nightbreed Chronicles and The Hellraiser Chronicles. After the first five years of Clive's meteoric rise to fame, it seemed to me the right time to do a book about him. I knew somebody would eventually do a book about him, so why shouldn't it be me? Clive and I discussed it, and we both decided we didn't want to just do a straight biography. Instead it would tell his story from various viewpoints, using articles, interviews and reviews, plus his own artwork and designs. We thought it was very important to make the final product as attractive as possible. It took four years from start to finish. It was a way of presenting the information in a different, and I hope entertaining, way. I'd seen what had been done with some of the books about Stephen King, and I didn't want to go that route. Of course, Clive's background as an illustrator and a filmmaker helped us enormously with the visual approach.
Later, I was asked to do James Herbert: By Horror Haunted, again because the person who was originally going to do it dropped out. Because I had already done the Barker book, I said I would be interested if we could structure it in a similar way. Because I was working with a mass-market publisher, it became a much more traditional-looking book, but we still managed to include a nice selection of photographs and illustrations while playing around with the layout. It's a very handsome volume, but Jim moved publishers not long after, so they never bothered to bring it out in a paperback edition.
I'd hoped to turn them into a series focussing on major British horror writers, but a third volume about Ramsey Campbell, titled Personal Demons, remains in limbo at the moment.
TR: Those are, obviously, three of the biggest UK horror writers. Do you think there is anything important in the fact that they are all British?
SJ: No, I don't think that their nationality is particularly important, and their backgrounds are quite diverse. However, I think we have a great tradition of horror literature in Britain -- Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, Robert Aickman, all those authors are in there somewhere -- plus we are part of an ancient island community which is full of myths and legends. But I think that's as far as it goes. Of course it can all help, but writers like Ramsey Campbell or Nicholas Royle write very contemporary stories about modern ghosts, in the same way that Dennis Etchison sets his stories in Southern California, or Karl Edward Wagner used to write about North Carolina. I think you can write this kind of material wherever you live, and if you're a good enough writer you should be able to set your stories just about anywhere. I'm not sure being British has anything to do with being a good horror writer. In fact, given the current state of this country, I think it can hold you back both creatively and professionally. Except for a few notable exceptions, there is neither the investment nor the enthusiasm to build careers here. Clive Barker realised this some years ago, and he decided that if he wanted to be serious about working in movies and books then the place to go was Los Angeles. Although I don't necessarily agree with his decision, I think he made absolutely the right choice for his own career.
TR: It seems that the British are, in general, a bit more down-beat. Do you think that's a fair comment?
SJ: [Laughs] I think anybody would be down-beat if you had to put up with our weather and our government. For most people -- except a privileged few -- Britain is a depressed and depressing country. Since the Thatcher years, our natural resources and talents have been plundered for private greed. The gap between the very wealthy and the very poor has grown under successive Conservative governments. As our national resources are sold off to make more profits, and the basic benefits of working people are stripped away, the arts receive precious little support. And if you happen to work in a genre like horror, then you are likely to be reviled in the tabloid press or simply ignored by the literary establishment. You only have to look at the current state of the British film industry to see the contempt this government holds for anything creative. We've come a long way since Hammer Films won the Queen's Award to Industry.
TR: You've mentioned your work as a director. Have you ever been involved with horror on TV?
SJ: One of the things I've come to realise over the years is that, usually, when someone is planning a horror series on television, they seem to make a point of never contacting those people who know the subject better than anyone else -- namely, those people who make their living from the genre. I'm ocassionally contacted by production companies and researchers, but usually nothing ever comes from it. I would love to get a horror series off the ground myself, and I still hope to do so one day. But most of the people who put these programmes together don't know what they're doing. I would also love to combine my two careers -- being a director and my knowledge of the genre -- but the only times I've been able to achieve that is when I've done the behind-the-scenes videos on the movies.
In fact, I recently discovered that the material I shot to promote Hellraiser and Hellbound has been included on special video releases of the movies in America. Uncredited, naturally. Of course, I would dearly love to direct genre movies -- put all that knowledge about the field to some use, but I think that's unlikely to happen now.
TR: You were also the unit publicist on Nightbreed, which we've heard all sorts of disaster stories about what was happening behind the scenes. What did happen from your point of view?
SJ: Nightbreed was the third movie I worked on with Clive Barker and Christopher Figg. It was a wonderful project, which we filmed at Pinewood Studios. When I first became involved, it was going to be this epic monster movie -- a brilliantly-crafted script, an unusual cast, a running time of nearly two hours and Bob Keen's impressive monster make-ups. Everyone involved was very excited about it. Unfortunately, after the first few weeks of shooting, the budget started to escalate for all sorts of reasons. So the American producers quickly stepped in, and replaced Chris Figg with one of their own people.
To be fair, they kept the film rolling and put extra money into the budget. They let Clive continue to shoot the script, and also gave him a couple of weeks of extra filming, which happens on almost every movie. When it was all over, I can remember sitting with Clive in a preview theatre at Pinewood Studios as we watched his rough assembly of footage, which probably ran around two-and-a-half hours at that point. I thought it was one of the finest monster movies I'd ever seen. I thought it was going to blow the genre fans away. Everything that had been on the page was up there on the screen -- monsters, explosions, battles -- and I could imagine where the matte paintings and special effects were going to be added later. I thought it was going to be an epic film.
Then the Americans decided they wanted it edited and post-produced in Los Angeles. So Clive and Dickie Marden, the editor, went over there to finish it off. The first thing I heard was that Dickie, who had cut both Hellraiser I and II with Clive, had left after a couple of weeks because he wasn't happy with the way things were going. Then I was told that they were shooting new sequences in America. In the meantime, I was busy writing the press notes back in England. I never actually got to see the finished movie until a screening at Twentieth Century Fox's preview theatre in London. I remember being very excited, having seen this wonderful rough assembly almost a year earlier. I sat down, the lights dimmed, and the first thing I realised was that the film I was watching started about twenty minutes into the version I had originally seen with Clive. Where was the character development? Where was the plot? I later discovered that roughly a third of the film apparently ended up on the cutting room floor...
TR: It looks like the edited highlights of a great movie.
SJ: Yes, exactly. Clive is an accomplished storyteller. He knows what works and what doesn't. He also has a wonderful eye for detail. Bob Keen's incredible make-ups weren't created just to stand around in the shadows -- they were there to be shown in all their bizarre glory.
When it was over, I thought that a part of what we tried to put up on the screen was still there, and some of that was quite remarkable for a British film. Unfortunately, the plot just didn't hold together. I've described Nightbreed elsewhere as an honourable failure. It tried to do something different with the genre, and didn't quite succeed. It was originally going to be the first of a series of films. However, the American distributors had no idea what to do with it, and they changed the marketing campaign a week before the film opened. Of course, that was the kiss of death.
Over the years, Clive has said to me that he would like to go back and create a director's cut. However, that seems unlikely because a film usually has to be a big box-office success before any distributor will finance that. But if Clive is ever given the opportunity to put his original vision on the screen, then I think audiences would see one of the most interesting genre movies ever made. There was so much more in there -- stop-motion animation monsters and stuff -- which simply disappeared or you only got a brief glimpse of.
Personally, I believe Nightbreed was one of the reasons Clive moved to Los Angeles. In 1989, the British film industry was stuck in a rut, and if Nightbreed had been given the support it deserved and become a commercial hit, then he could have revolutionised movie-making in this country. I think Clive was very disappointed by the reaction to that movie, and I think he decided that if he couldn't beat the system living in Britain, then he would become a part of it and try to change it from within. I think that's what he's still trying to do today with movies such as Lord of Illusions.
TR: And best of luck to him. Let's move on to publishing -- you've recently started up Raven Books, I believe?
SJ: That's right. Have you seen any of those in Australia yet?
TR: Yes, I have Les Daniel's The Don Sebastian Vampire Chronicles. And Dennis Etchison has done a Raven book, hasn't he?
SJ: Yes, Shadowman, with California Gothic due to appear this summer. To be honest, I never wanted to get into publishing. I have always had a problem with publishers. They can be the nicest people in the world, and most of those I've worked with have been very kind and very generous to me. But I always seem to end up arguing with them -- about cover designs, copyrights, contributor's copies, foreign editions, and other stuff like that.
TR: Isn't that the best reason to do it yourself?
SJ: I really don't have the time. Over the years, many people have come up to me and suggested I put together my own imprint. However, I think I'm good at what I do, which is editing and writing, and that takes up most of my life anyway. To fit something else in would be very difficult at this stage. But being a full-time writer can also be a very precarious way of living. That's how I earn all my income, and I'm very lucky I can do that. But you still worry about where the next project is coming from...
TR: And who'll give you money when you retire...
SJ: Absolutely. Even now, when I've got a number of projects happening, I still worry about what I'll be doing in a couple of months time... I'm now in my early forties -- what will I be doing in my sixties? I can't always live like this. So it got to the point where I needed some form of regular income. Once again, Nick Robinson came to the rescue. He said, "Look, we've been thinking about putting together a mass-market fantasy and horror list, and we would like you to run it."
I really didn't want the job, but Nick and I had a couple of meetings and discussed it further. In the end, he basically offered me a deal I couldn't turn down -- a very attractive package that would give me the opportunity to publish material that perhaps would not normally be given a chance in the UK market, develop the careers of some established writers I admired, and -- perhaps most importantly of all -- discover new talent. So we came to an agreement, and I've got to say that I'm very proud with what we've done with Raven so far. We don't have a huge amount of money to spend, but we are already publishing authors such as Dennis Etchison, Barbara Hambly, Les Daniels, Dave Duncan, Nancy Holder and Melanie Tem, Charles L. Grant, Nina Kiriki Hoffman and Robert Weinberg, amongst others. I'm publishing books I want to publish, books that I think should be published, in very attractive editions. I'm involved with all stages of the production, from writing the blurbs to helping design the covers. That way I have some control over the final package.
However, I'm also very frustrated with Raven, because I have discovered, as all publishers do, that you can't fight the system. You are ultimately controlled, in this country and overseas, by the book chains, by the booksellers, by the book distributors. If one major book chain in Britain doesn't like the cover, or perhpas they've never heard of the author, then they might not support that title. And if that happens, then you may as well not publish it. So you end up with people who really have very little or no knowledge of the field, beyond what sold best for them last month, dictating how and what you publish. Of course, this has probably always been the case. It's just that now I'm experiencing it from another perspective. I'm learning a bit more about the business and how frustrating it can be. As a publisher, you have to find that difficult balance between making enough money to continue publishing, and publishing material which you think is interesting and exciting and innovative. Most booksellers just want another Stephen King or James Herbert or Anne McCaffrey or Terry Pratchett, whatever. That's all they're really interested in. And they also want all the books to look the same as the last one that sold well for them. As much as they pretend that they are interested in supporting new writers, new ideas, they are not really. They're only interested in making more money.
I've got to admit though, Nick Robinson has continued to support me. We've had several stand-up arguments about various books, various authors, and sometimes I've won and sometimes he's won. But then again, I tend to thrive on that kind of creative confrontation.
What I try to do with Raven is to apply to same criteria to a line of mass-market books that I do to my anthologies. I try to ensure that there is personal contact between myself and the authors, and that they get the best deal possible. Hopefully, over the coming months, you'll see some new writers appearing on the list. We are also looking to expand into hardcovers and teenage fiction.
Horror, and to a lesser extent fantasy, is going through hard times at the moment. The wheel has turned again, and the cycle is in decline for the moment. It is also much more difficult to sell books these days.
TR: Incidentally, maybe you can answer something I've wondered about for many years. We get the English editions of books here, but we also see some of the American stuff as well. Why do the British editions usually look a hell of a lot better than their American counterparts?
SJ: [Laughs] I really don't know if I agree with you. I'm a great fan of American publishing, I think they often get it absolutely right. You can sell a book just by its cover. It all comes down to individual publishers and taste, but it's also very unusual for an editor or author to have control over their covers. I've been very lucky, it was something I insisted on early in my career, which is why I think most of my books look good. At the very least, I have consultation about the typography and who does the cover art. I try to give the same thing to my Raven authors. I always send them covers proofs. After all, at the end of the day, the author and editor know more about the book than anyone else, and so their opinions should be listened to.
I think there are some very attractive book covers coming out of America; the way they use new technology -- foil embossing, die-cuts -- can often look very impressive. Of course, they can also go totally over the top as well! As far as my own books are concerned, I sometimes prefer the American editions, and sometimes the British.
TR: Fair enough. Two quick questions. How do you keep all your information under control? You seem to be a master at getting access to lots of detail.
SJ: To be honest, most of it is just stored away in my head. I don't have long databases of stories filed away on a computer. When I want to look something up, I walk over to a bookcase and take a volume off the shelf. As for the movies, I started keeping a file card index of everything I'd seen back in the mid-1960s. I have managed to keep that index up to date for thirty years, and it has become the basis of my Illustrated Movie Guide series for Titan Books.
Despite all the benefits of new technology, I still think there's something to be said for picking up a book and reading a story. I enjoy the physical aspects of a book -- I love the look of the jacket art, the texture of the binding, the smell of the paper. I hope we never totally lose all that.
One of my proudest accomplishments is that I have two bookcases filled with my own books at home. When I left school back in the early 1970s, I had three ambitions -- to see an illustration of mine on the dust-jacket of a book, to see my name on the spine of a book, and to sit in a cinema and see my name go past on the screen. I achieved all those things.
TR: Last question. How easy is it to turn off and just enjoy a novel or a book, and not worry about anything to do with work?
SJ: [Laughs] It's not. For the past twenty years, my life has revolved around the genre. That's all I do. Most of my friends come from the field. Most of my vacations are spent attending conventions. If I do happen to find some spare time, I will invariably read a book or watch a movie which will then be filed away for future reference. I live and breathe fantasy, horror and science fiction. The field has been very kind to me, and it has provided me with a good living over the past decade. To be honest, I'm very happy with that. It's something I couldn't have dreamed of doing when I was younger -- I couldn't have dreamed of being involved in making movies. I couldn't imagine that my books would win awards and appear in editions all over the world. And so, because I started out as a fan, I try to give something back to the field. I still contribute to fanzines and small press projects when I can. I still support conventions and fan groups. I do what I can to support a field of imaginative literature that has supported me over the years.
If I have any regrets, it's that I sometimes feel unappreciated for what I've done. I'm very proud of everything that I've achieved in this field. But because my career has always been so diverse, I guess if I'm remembered at all, then it will be as something of a jack of all trades. I can only hope that I will also be considered a master of some...
©2020 Go to top