FEARnet is proud to reprint this rare interview – originally printed in the 2013 World Horror Convention Souvenir Program Book (which was limited to only a few hundred copies) – with kind permission from Paul Goat Allen.
In just five short years, John Joseph Adams has risen from relative obscurity to become one of the most renowned (and sought after) editors in all of genre fiction.
His name has become synonymous with excellence.
As a book critic who has spent the last 20 years reviewing science fiction, fantasy, and horror, very few releases truly excite me anymore – but when an anthology with Adams’s name on it lands on my doorstep, I’m instantly thrilled. He has put together some of the strongest anthologies I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot!): the best zombie anthologies (The Living Dead and The Living Dead 2), the best vampire anthology (By Blood We Live), and the best apocalyptic fiction anthology (Wastelands), to name just a few.
In this interview, Adams talks about his tumultuous childhood, his relationship with Gordon Van Gelder, and what scares the hell out of him.
PAUL GOAT ALLEN: Back in the fall of 2009, I called you “the reigning king of the anthology world,” but your work in the three years since then – both in terms of quality, quantity, and sheer diversity – is simply mind-boggling. As an editor, you’ve headed Lightspeed Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and most recently Nightmare Magazine, and as an anthologist you’ve been behind more than a dozen anthologies: Brave New Worlds, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Epic: Legends of Fantasy, Other Worlds Than These, Armored, The Way of the Wizard, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond, and the soon-to-be released Wastelands II: More Stories of the Apocalypse.
The obvious question is – how do you do it? How does one person do in a handful of years what would take someone else decades to accomplish? Either you’re not human, or you’re one of the most self-motivated and organized people on the face of the planet…
JOHN JOSEPH ADAMS: Mainly, I just think I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate that life has worked out in such a way that when the opportunity to edit anthologies came along, the stars aligned to make it possible for me to dive headfirst into the endeavor. The tremendous commercial and critical success of Wastelands and The Living Dead – both published in my first year working as an anthologist – really made it possible almost right off the bat for me to devote the majority of my working hours to working on anthologies. Again, there was a lot of luck involved there; both Wastelands and The Living Dead happened to come out right when post-apocalyptic fiction and zombies were becoming hot commodities in publishing, and no one had done books like them previously (or, rather, in the case of Wastelands, no one had done one in the last 30 years). Of course, that’s not all luck – studying market trends certainly helped there as well. But basically, when this opportunity presented itself to me, I knew I had to seize it and devote myself to it if I was going to make a go of it.
You worked for almost a decade in the editorial department of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, starting when you were in your mid-20s. I can imagine that those years were formative for you. Were there any experiences – good or bad – that you feel shaped who you are today?
Oh, there are far too many experiences to single out or name! Working at F&SF for all those years was like being paid to take a master’s class in editing short fiction. I really feel like I owe my entire career to F&SF’s editor and publisher, Gordon Van Gelder; he really taught me almost everything I know about editing and publishing. So, formative? Certainly, though that’s probably a colossal understatement.
More than anything, if I had to try to single out something in particular, I’d have to say that the various conversations I had with Gordon over the years are what really helped shape the editor that I am today. Obviously the work itself did a lot to teach me about editing as well, but it feels to me like the in-depth discussions we got into on a regular basis are what really made my editorial mind expand at what seemed like an exponential rate.
When you were a kid, what did you dream of being when you grew up?
Man, I don’t even know! I was really directionless as a kid. Thinking back, all I can remember is reading books and playing video games, and just wanting to do that as much as possible, and resenting all the time I had to spend going to school and doing chores.
For a while, I dreamed of being a professional basketball player, as ridiculous as that sounds. As a teenager, I loved basketball. I can remember staying up ’til the wee hours of the morning during the NBA playoffs to watch the end of every West Coast game, even on school nights, and growing up on the East Coast that meant some pretty bleary-eyed mornings. It was extra ridiculous because I was an overweight kid, though one summer I lost all the excess poundage and got skinny – I guess it was really then that I went from just loving basketball to thinking, hey maybe I could become a pro player. Had I stayed in my cushy academic-focused magnet school, maybe I could have gotten on the team – I had some skills, unrefined as they were, and I was fairly tall – but after that summer when I lost the weight, the next school year, I transferred to a different school – a regular public high school – and there it seemed like I just wouldn’t have a chance to get on the team. And in any case, part way through my first semester of junior year, I’d had enough of school and decided to drop out.
After getting my GED, I worked at Wendy’s for about a year and a half before moving onto Waldenbooks (a definite step up!). They needed someone to run their seasonal calendar kiosk, and my former brother-in-law worked at the Waldenbooks itself, so he recommended me to his manager. Then, after the calendar season was over, they were happy enough with my performance that they brought me on as regular bookstore employee. It wasn’t until I got that job that I really had any idea what I wanted to do with my life, and it wasn’t until that job that I realized the sheer amazing breadth of fiction that was out there that I had not experienced. I mentioned earlier how I read a lot of medical thrillers – during my three years working at Waldenbooks, I read tons of stuff in a variety of genres, mainly because I’d end up shelving things I wouldn’t have had an occasion to pick up otherwise, and I’d read the cover copy and become intrigued. So that really did a lot to broaden my horizons, and I became a huge book nerd, to the point where I was trying to read a book a day, partly because I felt like there was so much I needed to catch up on, that I’d been missing all those years.
During that time, as my mind was expanding due to my voracious reading all over the map, I also grew interested in writing and started to seriously pursue that. I’d go home from the bookstore and work on my (terrible) novel every day – and to my credit, I did finish writing it – and that became my dream: to be a writer. That led me back to school – first at community college, and then transferring to a university to complete my Bachelor’s degree – and it was in my writing workshops that I discovered the joy of editing, and wondered if that was something I could do. At the time, I still thought that becoming a writer was my ultimate goal, and that I would just edit on the side to pay the bills as I continued to pursue that dream, but then a funny thing happened: editing became the dream. Once I got the job at F&SF, it didn’t take me long to figure out that editing was something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life, and it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I wanted to sit in the big editorial chair someday – to be the one making the calls as to what goes into the magazine. I would have happily stayed on at F&SF and bided my time, but Gordon was only ten years older than me, and he was both the editor and the publisher of the magazine, so it was extremely unlikely that he would have ever stepped down as editor (and he certainly wouldn’t have ever been fired!), so I knew that if I was going to continue to pursue my dream of being an editor, I’d have to do it elsewhere – which led me to editing anthologies, and then, later, leaving F&SF to edit my own magazine.
You’ve been involved with some downright scary anthologies: namely The Living Dead, The Living Dead 2, and By Blood We Live. What do you consider your scariest anthology? And is there a particular story that stands out as the one that was the most frightening or disturbing?
Though those three anthologies you named are generally the only books I’ve done that are always considered horror, it’s actually my only-sometimes-considered-horror anthology, Wastelands, that I personally find to be the most scary. For me, I always feel a certain remove from supernatural horror because of the impossibility of it all, so as a result, I find something like post-apocalyptic fiction much more scary – because, hey, the world really could end in nuclear war or an asteroid strike or via bio-warfare. I remember finding copies of Wastelands in Borders – remember them? – and they always had it shelved in horror. At first I found that quite strange, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made; I always think of Wastelands – and post-apocalyptic fiction in general – as science fiction first, but I think it’s really just as valid to call it horror.
Perhaps appropriately enough, being he’s the world-renowned master of horror, I think maybe the scariest story in Wastelands – at least to me – is “The End of the Whole Mess” by Stephen King. Because in that story, not only is it the end of the world, but it’s also got a “Flowers for Algernon” kind of thing happening where the narrator loses his intelligence – and that’s scary stuff.
As for most disturbing… there’s certainly a couple in The Living Dead vying for that title. For that, I’d have to give it to “Blossom” by David J. Schow or “Meathouse Man” by George R. R. Martin, though the disturbingness of the latter is sort of offset by the fact that it’s ultimately this kind of sad love story, and the idea is just so damn brilliant.
Along those lines, what kind of real life stuff scares you the most?
Other than death itself, the threat of dementia and the like robbing me of who and what I am is probably the thing that scares me most in life. When I first started working at F&SF, I had moved up to New Jersey from Florida and went to live with my grandparents, who both had gotten to the point where they couldn’t really take care of themselves anymore. My grandmother had a litany of ailments – she was mostly blind, mostly deaf, fairly crippled by arthritis and other various symptoms of old age. My grandfather, though, despite smoking a couple packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day since the age of thirteen, was pretty much healthy as a horse… except for that fact that he had Alzheimer’s. He’d kind of shamble through the day, mostly unaware of what was going on, but every now and then you’d see this glimmer of awareness in his eyes, or in something he said. But mostly he just sat and smoked cigarettes and drank coffee – all day, nonstop, probably because he couldn’t remember how recently he’d had either. Being a person who thinks a lot about zombies, I couldn’t help but think of how Romero’s zombies always seemed to just remember that one thing in life they had been most passionate about and so in Dawn of the Dead, for instance, they flock to the mall, because that’s what our consumer culture had embedded as important in their minds. And so, as unkind as it might seem, I couldn’t help but see this parallel with my grandfather who had become very much like a zombie himself, reanimated by nicotine and caffeine.
So… yeah. That. That’s mostly what scares me. I guess that’s kind of a longwinded way of saying that I’m afraid of getting old and dying, but I thought maybe if I explained my firsthand experience with it, it would seem a less whiney and more valid dread. Though now that I’m married and have a family, I have the additional fear of losing them or having them lose me. The latter is, at least, a good thing in a way since it helps motivate me to take better care of myself.
Your name, at least for me, is synonymous with excellence. If I pick up an anthology with your name on it, I know that I’m getting the crème de la crème of stories. Would you consider yourself obsessed with perfection?
I don’t know if “obsessed” or “perfection” are the right words. I certainly strive for excellence. Perfection seems like an ideal you can’t really achieve no matter how much you try. I wouldn’t call any of my anthologies perfect, for instance, no matter how many kind words you or other reviewers lavish upon them. I’m sure there’s some way I could have made any one of them better. In assembling Wastelands 2, for instance, I did end up finding a few older stories that I didn’t know about when I assembled Vol. 1, and so I could and would have included those in the original had I known about them. For other books, there were stories I wanted to get the rights to that I couldn’t. In most of my books I’m sure there are stories in them that are probably a bit too tenuously related to the theme. Though obviously, of course, the severity of these flaws are up to each individual reader, and as an anthologist you can’t hope to please everyone—all you can do is edit your books to the best of your ability and hope that your choices resonate with more readers than not. Thus far I seem to have done pretty well in that regard, but, still, perfection is a long way from here…
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulgoatallen.