Interview: Gordon Van Gelder

actual van gelderFantasy & Science Fiction magazine editor Gordon Van Gelder will be a guest lecturer at Odyssey’s 2014 Writing Workshop.  Van Gelder published his first story in 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories in 1984, but the majority of his career has been spent as an editor. After a brief internship at Bluejay Books in 1986, he began working at St. Martin’s Press in July 1988. He worked there until October 2000, during which time he edited a wide variety of books, both fiction and nonfiction. Among the authors he edited are Jack Cady, Bradley Denton, K. W. Jeter, Marc Laidlaw, Brent Monahan, Judith Moffett, Rachel Pollack, William Browning Spencer, and Kate Wilhelm.

In 1997, he succeeded Kristine Kathryn Rusch as editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. In 2000, he bought the magazine from Edward L. Ferman and Audrey Ferman and became the magazine’s publisher while remaining its editor. In 2009, he changed the magazine to a bimonthly schedule.

As an anthologist, he coedited with Ferman The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction: The 50th Anniversary Anthology and edited several other anthologies reprinting stories from F&SF: One Lamp (2003), In Lands That Never Were (2004), Fourth Planet from the Sun (2005), and The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology (2009). In 2011, he edited an anthology of all-original stories, Welcome to the Greenhouse: New Science Fiction on Climate Change, and in 2013, he edited an ebook anthology entitled Lonely Souls.

He won the World Fantasy Award (Special Award–Professional) in 2000 and in 2003. In 2007 and again in 2008 he won the Hugo Award for Best Editor–Short Form. He has taught at various writing workshops. He lives in New Jersey.

You started editing while still in University. What inspired you to become an editor? Do you have any advice for would-be editors?

I don’t know that anything in particular inspired me to be an editor, but I was probably driven in that direction by my deep-seated desire to be right 100% of the time.

I’m joking, but perhaps there’s a core of truth in that joke. There’s something about editorial authority that appeals to many people. It certainly did to me.

My advice for people who want to be editors is actually anti-advice. See, my father was a museum curator and he got into the profession because of his interest in animals. He said most of the great curators he knew—like John Treadwell Nichols and Willis Gertsch, as well as Chapman Andrews—didn’t set out to be curators, but their love of particular subjects led them down paths where the work focused on the things that interested them. He said this was in contrast to the generation of curators he saw emerging in the ’80s and ’90s who set out to be curators and took college courses on such. Most of them, he said, made better administrators than curators.

In a long-winded way, I’m suggesting that the same thing might apply to would-be editors.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction receives a lot of submissions, which involves a lot of work. How do you maintain your supernaturally fast response times?

My fast times are not as fast as they once were. But with my staff, we’re able to respond to most submissions quickly. It’s just a matter of keeping up with the submissions and not letting them pile up.

What is your favorite part of editing? What makes the job worthwhile for you?

Where do I start? I love reading good stories, I love being able to make them better, and I love bringing them to other people.

A few months ago, I was talking with a writer and a story idea grew out of the conversation. I gave the author an idea for how to help build the story. This week, the manuscript came in and it’s a delight to read. I’m going to suggest a few tweaks and then we’ll set it in type and share it with the world. The whole process is very satisfying for me, much like planting seeds in the garden, watering them and weeding, then harvesting them and making a salad.

How can authors help you do your job better?

There’s a famous anecdote about a youth who met John W. Campbell at a convention and said, “I’ve written a story but I don’t think it’s good enough for Astounding Magazine, now known as Analog.” Campbell responded by blowing up and saying, “How dare you do my job for me? Send me your story and I’ll decide if it’s good enough.” More and more, I find myself thinking writers should do their job and let me do mine. Write stories, craft them as well as possible, and then submit them. I keep hearing anecdotes and reading stuff online that makes me feel writers are spending the bulk of their efforts on marketing and promotion and they’re investing less time in the real work of creating stories that matter.

Tell us about your experience at Clarion West in 1987, and why editing came out on top.

I’ll need about 300 pages to do that right. The short version is that I had a great time over the summer of ’87, started my senior year of college in September, dove right in to the process of writing a novel for my senior thesis… and by January, I knew I should be editing, not writing.

When stories come across your desk, what makes you choose one over another? What are the common problems you see in stories?

Those two questions don’t have as much in common as one might think. Just this week, I read an excellent story, one that’s liable to wind up in Best American Short Stories . . . but it wasn’t right for F&SF and I passed on it.

I don’t really choose one story over another. I choose stories that are right for F&SF. If I ever had a day in which I received sixteen stories that all seemed like winners, then yeah, I’d have to use some processes for selecting some over others, but I don’t recall ever having such a day. Mostly what happens is I read submission after submission and then I start one that makes me forget I’m reading submissions. Those are usually the stories I buy.

Some of the common problems I see in stories nowadays are that they’re trying too hard—they belabor their points and force the narrative instead of letting the story live and breathe; that they retread familiar territory without bringing anything new to it; and that they go for trendy things.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

The only advice I can think that would apply to most developing writers is to stay open to different approaches. Just about every writer I know works differently and uses different techniques. Try lots to see which ones work for you.


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