Monday, August 3, 2009

Edge Hill Prize Winner Chris Beckett talks about his 20-year relationship with Interzone magazine.

Chris Beckett beat the big names to scoop this year's Edge Hill Short Story Prize for his imaginative, rich and compelling short story collection, The Turing Test, (read the review here). Almost all the stories were published in UK science fiction magazine Interzone over the past 20 years, and I was intrigued by Chris' comment in the book about how the magazine editors' "constructive rejections" of his first stories spurred him on. So, in addition to our regular author interview, I asked Chris a little more about this:

LinkThe Short Review: The science fiction magazine Interzone and its editors have played a major role in your writing career. Can you tell me how this began?

Chris Beckett: I've always written science fiction stories since I was a teenager, but I didn't see myself as specifically a science fiction writer. In the late 80s I started writing more science fiction and looking around for outlets. I discovered Interzone which was then, as it is now, the main SF magazine in the UK. I think I must have submitted 3 or 4 stories to them before they accepted one, but they used to write really thoughtful, constructive rejection letters with helpful feedback ('they' being the then Interzone editor David Pringle and his associates). It was the constructive feedback that kept me going and it was very possibly that which cemented my commitment to science fiction as a writer.

My first story to be accepted (there or anywhere else) was called A Matter of Survival and it imagined a world in which men and women lived in seperate states and were effectively at war (where did that come from!) Its strongest advocate on the Interzone editorial board was Lee Montgomerie, then a deputy editor, who really liked it. I discovered later that Lee assumed it had been written by a woman (you can't tell from 'Chris'). For my part I assumed incorrectly that Lee was a man. Curious that this confusion should have occurred around a story that was all about gender.

From then on I continued to submit stories to Interzone regularly. I can't overemphasise how helpful Interzone has been to me, and continues to be to me, as a writer. A writer needs a community within which his/her stuff will be read, commented on, evaluated, compared to the work of others, reacted to. Interzone and its readers provided this. It was thanks to Interzone that I kept at my science fiction writing and began to develp my own individual way of using science fiction conventions to say the things I want to say. I honestly do not know what path my writing would have taken without it.

Interzone, now under the editorship of Andy Cox, continues to provide a platform for new writers as it did in the eighties. I don't think it makes much money. I don't think its readership is huge. But it is performing a great service. I publish stories too in the US magazine Asimov's these days, but I continue to send stories regularly to Interzone (my next to appear there is called Johnny's New Job: it is a satirical look at the way that social workers are demonised following a child death), and it still provides me with an audience that will not only comment on my stories (not always favourably of course) but, more than that, will be aware of my other stories and of the kind of writer I am. It's invaluable.

I should add that Roy Gray, one of the members of Interzone's current editorial team, is an absolutely tireless publicist and networker on behalf of Interzone and its authors. It was him that first encouraged me to attend science fiction conventions (I only went to my first about five or six years ago), through which I have built up a network of friends and contacts, including, for instance, Andrew Hook of Elastic Press who published The Turing Test and John Jarrold my agent. What I have learned (slowly - I am a slow learner) is that writing itself may be a solitary activity, but you can really only grow and unfold as a writer if you are part of a community.

TSR: You say the editors gave thoughtful, constructive rejection letters. Any writer longs for a constructive rejection letter rather than a simply impersonal "Thank you for your... it's not for us..." Could you tell us a little but about what made the rejections constructive, what they suggested etc...? And how did this cement your commitment to SF?

CB: Well the letters weren't always very long, but they always said at least one thing that I could do differently. A couple of them went into some detail and made several suggestions. To be honest I can no longer remember their suggestions now, but I do know that they gave me something to work on, so that I felt that I was progressing, and also gave me some sense that Interzone would eventually publish something of mine. If you just get a standard polite rejection you can't tell if you were even close to being published, and you can't tell whether they just thought your story was rubbish, or just not quite what they were looking for. (They weren't rubbish, those very early stories, I don't think, but they certainly weren't up to publication standard. The Interzone editors were quite right about that.)

How it cemented my commitment to SF? Well it kept me at it, and gave me a reason for keeping at it until in due course I found a way of writing SF that allowed me to write about what I want to write about. SF suits me and nowadays it just feels to me that its the way I tell stories. But I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had received equally encouraging and constructive feedback from (say) a magazine publishing mainstream fiction (I don't like the word 'mainstream' but can't think of another for the moment!). Would I have developed in a different way and found another way of writing? I really don't know.

Having said that, though, I do sometimes try and write non-SF stories but I always come back to SF, so maybe I was always meant to be an SF writer really.

TSR: Finally, the old chestnut: What does winning the Edge Hill prize mean to you? You have been writing for a long time, you are far from a beginner, with several books under your belt. Is there something that a prize like this can do for someone who isn't a novice, who is firmly committed to their writing. apart from the nice cheque?!

CB: It is a huge thing for me, Tania..

Almost no one outside the SF world will have come across my fiction, and even within the SF world I am not exactly famous. I have always believed that my stories were good stories (good stories full stop as well as good SF stories) but that was largely a matter of faith. Here was some external validation for me: three judges, none of whom is an SF fan, chose my book over a Booker prizewinner and over four other writers of literary fiction, all published by major publishers, all of whom have won prizes and accolades for their work. I just can't tell you how great it feels to have ones own sometimes shaky self-belief validated in that way. It is a huge thing.

I have been writing for a long time and I have published a good many short stories and three books (with a fourth to come out next year), but they have all been with small presses and for a small audience, sometimes very small. Now I have a wider audience, both inside and outside of the SF world and a more prominent platform on which to build for the future.

Commercial publishers are very cautious about taking on books which seem risky, and that is particularly hard for writers like me whose work is a bit out of the mainstream (not only in the sense that it is SF: even within the SF field it is a bit out of the mainstream, and not the kind of thing that publishers have been going for recently). I am hoping that perhaps writing will now generate a significant income for me which will allow me to spend more time on it that I have been able to do up to now?

We want our stuff to be read and to be recognised and to be liked. It is partly vanity of course, and I'm certainly as vain as the next person, but as I said before, it's not just that. We write because we feel a need to communicate. We want someone to hear and to understand, just as is the case when we talk about things that really matter to us.

Thanks so much to Chris for talking to us, congratulations to him for his win, and may we all be fortunate enough to find an editor whose "constructive rejections" spur us on! Roy Gray of Interzone explains that his is not an isolated case: "As I said in the Dominic Green special 'For me Interzone discovers authors in generations; so the eighties IZ brought us from Baxter to Stross via, Brown, Brooke, Egan, Ryman etc. In the nineties we went from Ballantyne to Liz Williams via Beckett, Molly Brown and Reynolds,'" he told The Short Review. "So Chris's contemporaries are Alastair Reynolds, The Guardian's £1 Million SF author, Tony Ballantyne and Liz Williams. Only Alastair is a full time professional. The others still have 'day jobs'."

Read the review of The Turing Test here, and Chris answers our standard author questionnaire here.

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