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Cheryl Morgan interview

Cheryl Morgan is a writer, reviwer and blogger who runs the popular SFF-news/reviews site Emerald City

Q: Though this point of view comes from a country where there’s very
little work in speculative fiction or comics going on, it seems to me
that while earlier there was much concern about speculative fiction
not being given enough respect in literary circles, or not being
considered serious enough, now the speculative fiction/comics fields
are so evolved that they’ve become separate worlds altogether, with
enough popularity and critical acclaim to set their own standards,
administer their own awards, and be content within themselves, while
obviously both drawing from and contributing to mainstream literary
fiction. Is this correct? If not, do people in the spec-fic world feel
any need for ‘literary’ validation?

A: It very much depends on the person. Some actively prefer being in a
ghetto. Others hanker after wider recognition. Certainly it is very
galling to see books like _Oryx & Crake_ (Margaret Atwood), _Cloud
Atlas_ (David Mitchell) and _Never Let Me Go_ (Kazuo Ishiguro) being
praised by mainstream critics and short-listed for literary awards
whereas books that are equally well written, but have “science
fiction” on the cover are dismissed as “crap”.

On the other hand, there is some bleed-through taking place. For
example, Pan Macmillan have been marketing books like Jeff
VanderMeer’s _Shriek_ and Hal Duncan’s _Vellum_ as mainstream in the
UK. SF&F readers hear about them on the Internet so will buy them
anyway, and mainstream readers will buy them because they don’t
appear on the “science fiction” shelves in the bookstores.

I should also note that how SF&F is perceived can vary widely between
different Western countries. The US has many universities that offer
courses in SF, the UK very few. My friend Kevin Standlee, who is
American, proudly puts the fact that he co-chaired a Worldcon (a
business with a $1 million turnover) on his resume. I would never
dare mention Emerald City in a job application in the UK because I’d
be immediately dismissed as an idiot. A number of UK fans have
expressed concern about online convention reports – they are worried
that if their employers find out they attend SF conventions they will
lose their jobs.

Q: In your opinion, what are the most significant events in the world of
speculative fiction publishing over the last decade, and what would
they imply for the future?

A: I don’t think any specific events have had any great impact, but
there are two trends that I think are very important. The first is
the advent of the Internet, in particular of forums and blogs. SF&F
has always been a community-based field. For a long time this has
been through conventions, but now people are able to communicate on a
daily basis regardless of where they are in the world. The community
has expended considerably as a result.

The other major trend is the rise of small press publishers. The
major publishers, all of which are now multinational conglomerates,
are tending to focus more and more on best-sellers. That doesn’t mean
no SF&F. They’ll happily publish Neil Gaiman and George Martin and
anyone else who can sell in vast quantities. But they are less keen
on midlist writers and experimental works. Some of the best SF&F
being published today is coming out of small presses.

Q: One fallout of the spec-fic world becoming so vast, vibrant and
self-sustaining is this; the rest of the world is more left out than
ever. Writers working in SF and fantasy from India, say, find it even
harder to get their work read, because the SFF publishing market is
hugely different from the mainstream literary one, with a wholly
separate set of publishers and agents – which means that if there’s
any glamour left to the whole ‘Indian writing’ phenomenon, with India
being the theme for major lit fairs like the Frankfurt Book Fair and
the London Book Fair, it doesn’t apply in these markets. Besides, most
SFF writers currently breaking through abroad go through the short
stories in magazines/meeting people at conferences routine before they
managed to get signed up. Exactly how important are conferences in the
world of spec-fic? Given that Indians don’t have access to conferences
abroad, do you think that these inequalities are just things that
Indian SFF writers looking to get published internationally will just
have to take in their stride, or is there anything that they can do to
help their work get seen?

A: One obvious tactic is to claim that you are writing “Magic Realism”.
The mainstream critics in the West are really quite stupid and
arrogant. They’ll accept a fairly large degree of fantastical writing
from anyone whose cultural background is non-Western. It is only
Western writers who are supposed to have “grown up” and stopped doing
that weird stuff.

Of course that doesn’t help if you write SF, so here are some suggestions.

1. Get yourself a good Internet connection. Once you have that you
are part of the community.
2. Submit stories to Strange Horizons. If you get in there then you
will have fiction published in a well-respected venue that everyone
in the online world can see.
3. Submit to other fiction magazines. If your work is good they won’t
care where you live.
4. Start your own blog or LiveJournal, and post comments to
well-known blogs to get your name known.

Having done all that you will find people saying “I wish you could
come to conventions so I could meet you”, but actually you don’t need
to because you are in touch with them on a daily basis anyway.

5. Play up the “cute foreigner” angle. Post photographs of your local
area in your blog. Talk about local tourist traps, or having monkeys
steal fruit from your garden, or whatever. Sure it can be demeaning,
but it will get you traffic.
6. Once you are starting to get well known, post a sample chapter or
two from one of your novels on your site. I know one or two people
who have sold books by doing this.

Get the idea? Basically the Internet is a great leveller of the
playing field. It still helps a lot if you live in London or New York
and can meet editors socially, but conventions are a lot less
important than they used to be.

Oh, and get more flights into India from the US. There is an academic
SF conference every year in India. Charles Brown and I are quite keen
to go, but it is very hard to get there from California.

Q: In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the New Weird, about
speculative fiction writers blurring genre borders. Given that India
doesn’t have a history of SFF publishing, or a growth curve through
magazines and anthologies as seen in more developed spec-fic markets,
do you think that the way ahead for South Asian SFF lies in blending
speculative fiction with literary traditions that are more associated
with South Asian writing? Is there any particular tradition of South
Asian writing that you’d like to see married to speculative fiction?

A: Editors are always looking for something new, so if you can blend
South Asian culture and traditions into your writing it will help get
it noticed. Ashok Banker has had some success with that. I’m afraid I
don’t know enough about South Asian writing to answer the last
question, but I do think that we will see more and more SF books set
in “Third World” countries from now on. There’s a general view that
the American Economic Empire is on the wane, and that “the future”
will happen in India, China, South America and Africa. Ian McDonald’s
_River of Gods_ has been a huge success – you guys should build on that.

Q: While acknowledging that spec-fic isn’t monolithic and there are a
hundred different directions it’s growing in at any time, what do you
feel are the most exciting fields of work in contemporary science
fiction and fantasy? What area would you like to see more work in? And
what do you think new writers should avoid?

A: I don’t like advising people to write in particular niches because it
can lead to you writing to a formula. You should decide what you are
good at writing first, and then look at where you should be marketing
yourself. As you say, there are many directions that SF&F writing is
taking. Most people should be able to find something that suits them.
The only bandwagon I’d suggest you jump on is the one created by
_River of Gods_.

Having said that, please, no more 10-volume fantasy trilogies. The
world doesn’t need any more of those.

Q: Do you feel that practically speaking, writers from countries not
normally associated with spec-fic markets need to emphasize on their
own countries’ myths/folklore in order to provide some kind of
diversity and succeed in the international marketplace?

A: Not necessarily. I think it helps, because it makes you stand out,
but if your writing is good enough then you will sell.

Remember that Zoran Zivkovic has been very successful despite writing
in Serbian and never leaving Belgrade. He just got a good translator
and submitted stories to places like Interzone, and Jeff VanderMeer’s
_Leviathan_ anthologies. Now he’s won a World Fantasy Award and the
small presses all love him. There’s nothing particularly Serbian
about Zoran’s writing, he is just talented and has worked hard.

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

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