Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Shawna McCarthy
by Darrell Schweitzer
Shawna McCarthy is a former assistant editor and later full editor of Isaac Asimov's Science
Fiction Magazine. She also edited books for Bantam-Spectra, and edited the magazine Realms of
Fantasy from its beginning in 1994 to its recent demise. She has been nominated for the Hugo
for Best Professional Editor three times and won it once. She is active as a literary agent.
This interview is from a guest presentation at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, January
27, 2012. It makes more sense if you realize that the interviewer and Shawna both worked for
George Scithers when he was editor of Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine in the late 1970s and early
'80s, although Shawna was at the New York office and I was in Philadelphia and we didn't
know each other at the time.
SCHWEITZER: Let's start by talking about the beginnings of your career. I first knew of you
when you began to work at the New York office of Asimov's SF. Did George Scithers hire you?
McCARTHY: Yes, George hired me. I had heard through the grapevine that there was an
opening for an editorial assistant at Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, and I thought that since I spent
most of my time reading science fiction paperbacks under my desk at my other job, that this
would probably be a pretty idea position for me. So I sent my resume off to George. I was so
excited seeing a little Asimov's envelope in the mail, and he invited me in for an interview. He
wanted to test how fast I could read, first of all. He gave me a short story to read and said,
"Okay, read this. I am going to time you," which is a sure-fire way to get a fast reader to read
slowly. I managed to get through in apparently good enough time for him, and then he asked me
if I would buy it, and I said I thought it was well-done, if a little predictable, which is what he
wanted to hear, I guess, because he hired me. I don't know what I was doing the first year or so.
I think I was handling the traffic, the manuscripts that came in from Philadelphia and I would
manage their progression through the proofreader and the copyeditor and the printer and the
blues - that was an old-fashioned thing that you used to have. When something was printed
letterpress, you'd get a copy that came out on blue paper. That was your last chance to make any
corrections, but it cost a fortune so you'd better not have to make any corrections. I think that
was what I did for the first year or so. I don't remember exactly when it was that George left.
SCHWEITZER: His last issue was March of 1982. He would have left, probably, at the end of
McCARTHY: I started in 1978 or 1979. I mostly did the traffic. I think I did some slush
reading. I don't know how much we got from you guys. Do you remember?
SCHWEITZER: I think we referred a few things to you, but I have the impression that you
were not selecting stories.
McCARTHY: I think I was doing editing, though. George would have me read them and if they
needed work George would have me write to the author and they would do whatever it was. But
it was so long ago and I was so very young that I don't remember anymore.
SCHWEITZER: Do you remember when Barry Longyear wrote a story called "SHAWNA
McCARTHY: Oh, yeah. That was because I had this idea and I was talking to him about it over
drinks, sadly enough, and he thought it funny enough, so he wrote a story around it. What was it
called? The Super Hegelian . . . I don't remember.
SCHWEITZER: It spelled "Shawna."
McCARTHY: It spelled Shawna. S.H.A.W.N.A. That was fun. I still have that issue.
SCHWEITZER: This presumably changed your life.
McCARTHY: [Laughs] I became internationally famous, almost overnight. But it certainly did.
I remember walking home shortly after I had been hired. I was so happy. I just loved my job. I
got to work with the most brilliant people in the world, the funniest, the smartest. I got to launch
people's careers and I got to travel. It was just the best job ever. To this day I regret ever having
left it. They lured me over to Bantam after I won the Hugo, saying they were starting this Spectra
Science Fiction imprint and they really needed me. Back then, and still today I suppose people
think that books are where it's at. Even more today, books, such as they are, are still where it's at
more than magazines - having just lost one of my own. But, you know, I was tempted over to the
Dark Side. I remember being so bored working on books, because there are no deadlines to
speak of. It's not like anyone was waiting at the printer for the copy to come in and no one was
watching their mailbox waiting for the magazine to arrive. So I felt if we don't make it for
September, we'll put it in October. It was not a big deal. It was just an entirely different kind of
SCHWEITZER: You must have been the person coping with deadlines for Asimov's.
McCARTHY: Yes. I was definitely watching the clock.
SCHWEITZER: This became a notable contrast when George became editor of Amazing a few
years later. He would keep all of the stories, already typeset and illustrated, in the drawer, so he
could put an issue together in an evening, whereas at TSR [the publisher] there was for all their
other magazines this hellish thing called "Deadline Week." We had Deadline Evening. It took
about two hours.
McCARTHY: I always had inventory set up in advance. Then I'd have index cards saying how
many pages, and was it a left opening or a right opening or a double-spread. I could put an issue
together on paper in half an hour, but then pulling all the stuff took a little bit longer. So before
they had computers and floppy disks and CDs and stuff, we actually had typeset manuscripts that
had to be pulled. Those were the days, a long time ago.
SCHWEITZER: What was the best thing you ever found in the slush pile?
McCARTHY: I am going to say either Ian MacDonald or Robert Charles Wilson. One or the
other. For Ian MacDonald, I remember I broke all my rules reading his first short story. It was
called "The Catherine Wheel." It was single-spaced on English paper - that eight and a half by
fourteen paper that they have - and the type was just teeny-tiny. But I read the first line almost
by accident, because I had a solid rule that I was never going to read a single-spaced manuscript,
and the first line was, like "Wow," and before I knew it I had read the entire thing, and it was
like, "Holy crap, this is really good!" I bought it. I told him that hereafter, "You may never,
never send me a single-spaced manuscript again. I don't care if you live in Ireland." And Robert
Charles Wilson's first short story was really good, and when I moved over to Bantam I
commissioned his first novel. Now I represent him, so it has all been a nice happy family.
SCHWEITZER: What's the worst thing you ever found in the slush pile?
McCARTHY: God . . . [Laughs.] I used to have a file of It Came From the Slush Pile lines.
Let's see if I can remember one of my favorites: "Ooo, those Devonian women . . . hootchie-koo!" [Laughs.]
SCHWEITZER: Did George start the practice of Funny Files, or do all editors do that?
McCARTHY: I think all editors do that. I had my own separate file which stood me in good
stead on many a convention panel when I had absolutely nothing else to talk about.
SCHWEITZER: Can I tell you my favorite bad line. I think we got this at Amazing. It was a
scene in which somebody had just taken an injection and remarked, "Gee, you'd think that here
in the year 2463 we'd have a better way to do this," close quote, "he continued his running
[McCarthy laughs. Much laughter from audience.]
SCHWEITZER: Did you as an editor feel that you were a teacher of a sort, that part of your job
was to train and recruit writers?
McCARTHY: Yes and no. At the start when I was at Asimov's because I had the luxury of
having assistants and it was a full-time job and I got paid a full-time salary with benefits; so I
had a lot more time to nurture and work with and explain to people. But once I was editing
Realms I was on my own. They weren't paying me a full-time salary. I had to earn a living on
the side. So I became less able. Still there might be something that would strike me and which
would need just a little bit of a tweak, but mostly not so much in my later years. I guess I kind of
lost patience with it too. I love to teach. I taught a writing workshop at the New School for five
or six years. Most of my students have gone on to become published writers, and I am very, very
proud of that. I really enjoyed doing that workshop. It was one of my favorite things ever,
because you could actually see people grow in front of you. So much of writing is being able to
read your own work objectively, and the best way to learn how to do that is read someone else's
work and realize, "Oh, I can probably do this to myself if I had the nerve." It was just amazing
watching them grow. So, when I am in a teaching mode, yes, I love doing that, but as an editor I
don't have as much time to do it as I'd like to anymore.
SCHWEITZER: How much time does it take to tell someone that the language is clumsy and
the ending doesn't make any sense? Something short like that?
McCARTHY: That doesn't really register with most people, because if they thought the
language was clumsy and the ending didn't make any sense, they wouldn't send it out in the first
place. They think it's perfect and you're crazy and you don't know what the hell you are talking
about and wouldn't know a good story if you tripped over it. People don't listen unless you can
really be specific and circle something on the manuscript and say, "What does this mean?" "Why
is he speaking Spanish here? He's German." Things like that. People don't see their work in an
objective way. They just get pissed off and say, "What do you mean this writing is clumsy?
What the hell do you know?"
George also had a saying for that, which was "Do not argue with the man who buys ink by the
SCHWEITZER: Did you find things different when you edited books? Presumably you didn't
have to read the slush pile. How does that work?
McCARTHY: There really wasn't much of a slush pile by the time I got into books. Things
were mostly agented. Agents then as they do now would target a specific editor with what they
thought he or she would like. So generally people would send me stuff that they thought would
appeal to me. As with short stories, you don't have to go too far into it to know if it's going to
work for you or not. You can't tell a reader when they pick up a book in the library, "Just hang
in there. It gets better." [Laughs.] It's true of many books that they do get better and they do sell
well despite the fact. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes, I don't know, a hundred pages
before it gets better, but people kept going with that one. It does get much better, though. I will
say that for it.
I don't think there's that much difference between books and short stories when it comes to
editing. When I would get in a manuscript it would either be something that would appeal to me
or wouldn't. There are just things I don't like. I don't like sword-and-sorcery particularly. I don't
like epic fantasy with made-up names with apostrophes in the middle. So when I would get
something like that I could automatically say, no, not for me, and if there was someone else in
the house that I thought might like it I would pass it on to them if I thought there was something
to it. But if it was a book that caught my attention - I do this now with my clients - if there is
something about it that appeals to me, I will go through an extensive rewriting process.
SCHWEITZER: For a book editor, how much of a conflict is there between what you like and
what you think your company can publish profitably?
McCARTHY: Well, there is always that conflict, but I think that most people have given up on
being able to do beautiful, twee, little arty books. Those have all gone to the small presses now
and the indie houses. There are some gorgeous small press books out there, but a commercial
publishing house wouldn't be able to do them, not successfully. So the best you can do is a
marriage of the two houses, which is something that you like and you think is well-written and
commercial. There is no reason why that can't exist under the same title. Absolutely none.
SCHWEITZER: Do you feel that within the last twenty years there has been a significant
narrowing of what is considered commercial in science fiction?
McCARTHY: In science fiction, there's nothing that's commercial in science fiction anymore.
SCHWEITZER: I mean, you and I can remember when it was possible to publish R.A. Lafferty
in mass-market paperback. This would be beyond wildest dreams now.
McCARTHY: That's never going to happen again. Those were the days. The golden age of
science fiction was twenty years ago, really. The only kind of science fiction that I see selling at
all these days are epic space operas with interesting, intricate plots. George R.R. Martin in space,
that kind of thing. Your basic anthropological science fiction, first-contact science fiction, social
science fiction, I think those are all going the way of . . . sad things.
SCHWEITZER: Is this because the culture is no longer interested in science fiction or because
book distribution has turned into a monopoly which cannot serve the public effectively? We had
John Hemry as a guest at PSFS last month telling us how he had to change his byline to Jack
Campbell to fool the Barnes and Noble book-acquisition software.
McCARTHY: My clients do that all the time. I have so many writers writing under so many
pseudonyms, you have no idea. If you've got a bad track record; talk about the long tail - that
goes with you. It is your permanent record. Remember how your teachers were always
threatening you that that's going to go on your permanent record? Now you really do have a
permanent record, and the only way to get around it is to change your name. It's worked very
successfully for a number of people. There's no shame in it. It's just the way things work.
What was the original question?
SCHWEITZER: What is so much less commercial now than it was twenty years ago?
McCARTHY: I wish I knew. I know there has been a big shift in the reading public. At dinner
tonight I was talking with Lee [Weinstein, Shawna's host at this PSFS meeting] and he said,
"What kind of science fiction does your daughter like to read?" and I said, "None. She doesn't
like to read science fiction at all." She only reads fantasy occasionally. She is just not into
speculative fiction on any level, other than very rare instances. I can't name a couple. She has
not read Twilight, I will say that for her. [Laughter from audience.]
But I think that there has definitely been a shift in the reading public, and I think that science
fiction caught up with our world too much. Back in the '50s and '60s it was always progress,
progress, progress. There were always electric lights and spaceships and fast cars. I think that
progress has let us down in a lot of ways and given us things that we weren't expecting and none
of the things that we were. Where's my flying car? I want my flying car, but it's not here. How
about an elevated walkway over a shining city? But I don't have that either. Society has
outpaced science fiction in a lot of ways. Especially planetary-exploration science fiction was
one of the things that I really liked, first-contact stuff. As it became clearer and clearer that we
really are a teeny-tiny speck in the middle of the middle of nowhere, the idea of getting into a
rocket ship and going to meet some aliens became increasingly unreal. I don't think readers go
for it as much. The galactic empire idea. Nobody is going to come and invade us any time soon, I
SCHWEITZER: Isn't it ironic that people are giving up on space at precisely the moment when
we are discovering that the galaxy really is filled with billions of planets?
McCARTHY: [Laughs.] That is ironic, but if Newt Gingrich becomes president we'll be living
on a Moon base. [Much laughter from audience.] He'll get is some jobs on the Moon. [Laughs.]
Great place, but no atmosphere.
SCHWEITZER: At three dollars an hour working at Wal-Mart on the Moon.
[Someone in the audience remarks that NASA has just closed its program for taking applications
SCHWEITZER: You mean there will be no more astronauts? Maybe J.G. Ballard had it right
all along. Do you think he had it right about the Space Age?
McCARTHY: I don't remember what his take was.
SCHWEITZER: Retired, elderly astronauts, rusting gantries, people who saw the Space Age
begin living to see it end, and no one much caring or believing it ever happened
McCARTHY: Absolutely, I think he had it right all along. I think he was absolutely right on the
money with that. It's very sad. Back in the day it was so exciting to think that maybe we could
go to other planets and there would be interesting people there to meet. Now if we did, the
Fundamentalists would probably send some missionaries out to convert them, and if they didn't
they'd bomb them into submission and that would be that. I am particularly pessimistic about the
future of science in our society in general.
SCHWEITZER: There may be a more positive trend which came to my attention because I've
just come off being a Philip K. Dick Award judge. That is, that most of the really interesting new
science fiction is not being published as science fiction. I can't tell you who won this year, but
the nominees are public knowledge, so I can tell you who I voted for.
SCHWEITZER: My first choice was a book called The Postmortal by Drew Magary. This is
like an updated Pohl and Kornbluth novel. It's about what happens when someone discovers a
cure for aging, which is first available illegally, then legally, and it changes society in various
uncontrollable ways. It's got lots of neat little details. The first thing that happens when people
realize they are going to live forever is that there is a big run on divorces. [Laughter from
McCarthy and audience.] "Till death do us part" becomes quite frightening. Anyway, this book
was published by Penguin in trade paperback as a literary novel. The story starts about 2015 but
goes well into the future. A story about immortality in the future is now mainstream enough that
you don't have to put it in the science fiction category.
McCARTHY: I think you're right about that. You do see a lot of stuff which is clearly science
fiction being published as mainstream literature. [Michael Chabon's] The Yiddish Policemen's
Union is a lovely, wonderful book. It's alternate history, but it was clearly published as a
mainstream book. I think that there is a lot of this going on.
SCHWEITZER: How do you as a literary agent feel about this? Do you sometimes take a
science fiction novel by one of your clients and try to get it published as mainstream?
McCARTHY: I've tried, but it is not that easy, because if you have a track record in science
fiction you are not going to be able to get published as mainstream unless you do it with a
pseudonym. Most of my clients are too - "inbred" is the wrong word, but they have been brought
up in the science fiction culture, in science fiction society, and there is a certain commonality of
phrases and thought. It doesn't read quite the same way as an actual literary writer coming out of
the Iowa MFA program writing a novel with science fiction themes. It's a different tone of the
writing. That's just my impression.
SCHWEITZER: Does this suggest that generic science fiction has become inbred and
unpalatable to the general public?
McCARTHY: I think to a certain extent it probably does. That's my opinion, that it's a little
insular community, and people don't particularly want to get into it anymore. They're happy to
read stuff that is outside. They see something with a garish cover and they don't want to read it
on the subway. That has always been my feeling: is this a book I will read on the subway?
SCHWEITZER: If the equivalent of The Space Merchants were published today, would it be
published as science fiction?
McCARTHY: Quite possibly not. I think that any trip down the aisle at Barnes and Noble to the
science fiction section will find mostly comics, Star Trek, Star Wars, a lot of Batman stuff.
SCHWEITZER: If you can even find a Barnes and Noble.
McCARTHY: That's true.
SCHWEITZER: I was just in one the other day, in Jenkintown, one of the three in the
Philadelphia metropolitan area. I made a survey. It was interesting to note which writers have
survived and which ones haven't. I noticed that Bradbury is doing very well. He had a whole
shelf. Lovecraft is firmly established as a literary classic to an amazing degree. He's got Penguin
Classics editions and Library of America and those leather-bound, gilt-edged editions just like
Charles Dickens or Poe. I got the feeling that Heinlein was fading, because the only books by
Heinlein were paperbacks of his worst books.
McCARTHY: I think that if anyone was very politically incorrect for this day and age it would
have to be Heinlein. I think he would find a very hard time finding a foothold in today's society.
SCHWEITZER: I don't know. Don't you think he'd be really popular at Republican
McCARTHY: [Laughs.] I think he would probably be more popular with Ron Paul supporters,
myself. It's true that Isaac [Asimov] as survived.
SCHWEITZER: Isaac has survived, but James Blish is gone. Fritz Leiber is gone. Edgar
Pangborn might never have existed. Most of the familiar names we grew up with weren't there,
and the science fiction section was about the size of the romance section, and it was about a tenth
of the size of the mainstream section. So Fiction and Literature was larger than all of the genres
put together. Although of course if you wanted to look for anybody from Jonathan Carroll to -
McCARTHY: Jonathan Lethem.
SCHWEITZER: Jonathan Lethem, they're going to be in the Fiction and Literature section. Is it
possible then that what is happening is that the science fiction "genre" is getting sidelined within
the science fiction field itself?
McCARTHY: I think that's possibly true. The "literary" science fiction that we might have seen
published in a science fiction imprint back in the day is now getting published as mainstream,
and the genre fiction, the space-opera stuff that I talked about earlier, is the only thing that is
getting published in science fiction, per se. There is a lot of fantasy that is being published under
science fiction imprints too. In fact, probably more fantasy than science fiction.
SCHWEITZER: So what advice would you give to a budding science fiction writer today,
someone of genuine ambition and talent, who doesn't just want to write generic space-opera or
military SF series?
McCARTHY: Try to get into one of the major workshops, Bread Loaf or Iowa, or any of those
that you can get into. Try to learn the language that they want you to learn, rather than the pulpy
language that tends to have been the case in most science fiction up until about the 1980s.
SCHWEITZER: You'd presumably have to avoid telling them that you were an infiltrator from
the science fiction world.
McCARTHY: Oh, no. You'd have to present your bona fides and just say that you have
imaginative ideas. But you couldn't apply to Bread Loaf and say that you want to write a science
fiction novel. You certainly could get in if you were a good writer and had a good sample to
show them. I don't think they'd turn up their nose at a science-fictional idea anymore.
SCHWEITZER: This implies that mainstream publishing has a kind of seminary system and
you have to be a graduate of the right places to get published. Is this true?
McCARTHY: Definitely. I can publish tons of paranormal romances and fantasies and YAs and
middle-grade books, but if I wanted to sell a mainstream writer with a science idea to, say,
Knopf, they'd have to have the right credits. Even if they didn't go to Bread Loaf or Iowa or
something like that, they would have to have published in The Kenyon Review, places like that.
One thing that interests me . . . one of the best science fiction novels of the past ten years as far
as I am concerned is The Time-Traveler's Wife. That was never written as science fiction. It was
never published as science fiction. But it's a science fiction book. I just think it's a beautiful,
brilliant, gorgeously-written book. She just went in there with it. She's a poet, I think. Maybe
SCHWEITZER: What would you as an agent do if the equivalent of The Left Hand of Darkness
just came in the mail one day, from a writer with no credentials who has not been to Bread Loaf
or Clarion? What then?
McCARTHY: I'd call on my expertise and my acquaintanceship with the various editors at the
various imprints and say, "I know it is not often that you take on an unknown but I think that this
book is something you really want to look at." I did that recently with a YA book that I am
trying to sell. If it's good enough. My voice is trusted by these editors, so that is how that would
work. I am not going to send them crap and waste their time.
SCHWEITZER: The secret of being a successful agent is being very, very exacting about what
you are willing to send out.
McCARTHY: Oh, absolutely. I see a lot of stuff that is perfectly saleable, but it is not what I
want to be associated with when it goes on somebody's desk. I want them to say, "Oh, Shawna
always sends me high quality books that I am going to want to read, not just 'Eh? This is fine.'"
SCHWEITZER: We won't any names, but I am sure that as either a book or magazine editor
you came to recognize certain agents and dread their submissions.
McCARTHY: Oh, yes. Absolutely.
SCHWEITZER: There is a certain agent we won't name whose submissions were frequently by
names that haven't been published since 1947 and the paper is turning brown.
SCHWEITZER: You saw some of that, didn't you?
McCARTHY: Actually, I did. I am absolutely positive I did. There were certain agents whose
submissions I saw when I worked at Spectra whose stuff I didn't want to read because I was
afraid I was going to like it, and then I would have to deal with that particular person.
SCHWEITZER: Was this because the agent was a pain in the ass or you were afraid of getting
McCARTHY: A pain in the ass, basically. There were certain agents that I knew there was no
point in even reading their submissions because they were always just crap. There are also
people who set themselves up as agents in, say, Tennessee. A lot of times it would be the writer
themselves pretending to be an agent. [Laughs] They'd say, "I am a literary agent in Tennessee
and I found this marvelous manuscript that I think you ought to see," and at that point there were
no literary agents in Tennessee. There were none outside of New York City. Maybe a couple in
Los Angeles, but that was pretty much it. I think there was one in Chicago.
SCHWEITZER: There was also Beth Meacham, who had her New York period, then took her
McCARTHY: This was before Beth Meacham left town. It was all New York then. There was
nothing outside of New York. It was like that New Yorker cover where he's the Hudson, and
everything else is just a thin line. Yeah. It was all New York.
SCHWEITZER: Well now that we've just depressed everybody -
McCARTHY: I'm sorry. One of the things that people ask a lot when they find out what I do is,
"Do you think that publishing is dying?" I absolutely don't. I think that publishing is becoming
incredibly healthy. E-books are confusing everybody and the various digital platforms are
confusing everybody. The fact that it is increasingly difficult to prevent piracy is confusing
everybody. One of the things that I find really interesting is that the people who were saying
back in the day, "Information wants to be free! Down with copyrights!" are now trying to
copyright their stuff and saying, "Wait! They stole my idea! They plagiarized!" I am a great
believer in copyrights and information not wanting to be free. Information wants to be paid for or
none of us would have a job.
SCHWEITZER: Writers like to be paid. It is a universal truth.
McCARTHY: Yeah. I actually had two of my best years since I've been in the business in the
last couple of years. So, knock on [she raps on table top] Formica . . .
SCHWEITZER: You mean as an agent?
McCARTHY: Yes. E-books have made an incredible difference. I have a client who writes
women's fiction, sort of like Maeve Binchy or Rosamund Pilcher, with some fantasy elements,
and she is a big bestseller in Europe. I represent her in the United States for an English agency. I
could barely give her away here. I did four books and they just went nowhere. I finally found
her a New York publisher who made a deal with Amazon to put her latest title up on their Pick
of the Week page for 99 cents. She instantly made the New York Times Bestseller List. The
power of e-books is not to be sneezed at. As long as we can figure out a way to keep our rights
where they belong and keep getting paid, I think publishing has a very bright future. I think that
maybe what we need is to stop thinking about science fiction in the way that we do, because we
can't continue to go on living in the '70s and '80s or even '90s. It's a new millennium and things
have changed. I think we have to figure out a way to work within what we've got rather than say,
"No I don't want it to change. I want it to stay exactly the way it was."
SCHWEITZER: Let's take questions from the audience.
Question from audience: Back in the 1960s, the people involved in the New Wave said they
wanted to bring science fiction into literature. Do you think that, fifty years later, they have
succeeded, or that they should have forgotten about the whole thing?
McCARTHY: I think they succeeded admirably. I think that everything they did in the New
Wave spoke to and has influenced everything that has been done since. You wouldn't have a
William Gibson or Neal Stephenson without the New Wave writers. They transformed the field
in a lot of ways. It was a major influence in the industry. It affected a lot of people's reading and
writing habits. So, yeah, I think they succeeded admirably.
Question from audience: If someone were to send you a book, what would be the best thing to
be in the first chapter to make it stand out from the rest?
McCARTHY: First of all, people don't send me books. They send me queries. The first thing
you have to do is craft a good query letter. That means don't start out telling me how you've
been writing since you were three and your kids love your stories. It means get to the heart of it,
"I have a manuscript of 97,000 words about ______" and then make it as interesting as you
possibly can. Make sure it is not something I see every day. I see a zillion vampires and
werewolves and angels and demons and homosexual angels and homosexual vampires. They're
circling themselves. It's like the Worm Ouroboros eating its own tail. You've got to come up
with something different. I am so tired of this.
SCHWEITZER: The other cliché I got very tired of as a PKD judge might be summed up as
Steampunk Zombie Noir.
McCARTHY: [Laughs] I remember the first time someone proposed to me a zombie book. I had
never seen it. I've read zombie books, of course. They used zombies instead of vampires as the
romantic heroes. I thought, "Eeew! No! It's never going to work!" [Laughter from audience.]
They are shambling along dropping limbs or eyes. No I can't feel sympathetic or romantic or
SCHWEITZER: Zombie erotica?
McCARTHY: I got one that actually interested me, and I asked to see the first three chapters. It
was about there's been a zombie epidemic and the army or scientists or someone managed to
find a cure, and the zombies were all dead except for one last zombie girl who was being kept
captive like the last smallpox germ at the CDC. Everyone is debating what should be done with
her. Should she be preserved? Is she alive? Maybe we need to research her? This went on for a
while and was an interesting idea, and then the author just forgot what he was talking about and
had the zombie plague come back. It was an interesting idea, but other than that you have to find
a new way to deal with these same old tropes. That's what I've been saying since the day I
started working in this industry. In 1981 when I got up on a panel at a Worldcon, people would
ask, "What are you looking for?" I am looking for something new and different and unusual.
SCHWEITZER: Isn't the problem now that the commercial SF genre - with all these military
space operas, or whatever - is almost entirely made up of old tropes? Maybe these literary
novels are where the people with fresh ideas are going.
McCARTHY: I think that is probably true. They mostly are old tropes. It depends, because as
you and I both know, Darrell, anything can be made new in the hands of a good writer. It can be
an idea as old as time. It can be Adam and Eve on a planet. If you've got a good writer, they can
make it work. But he has to be a damn good writer to make Adam and Eve on a planet work.
SCHWEITZER: George [Scithers] got one that he was afraid to buy, because he thought it
would open the floodgates. It was one of those short-shorts that Asimov's used to run, only this
one didn't end in a pun. There were these two time travelers who were moving ahead in time,
beyond the nuclear holocaust, talking about how they would repopulate the Earth, because they
had plant seeds and animal embryos and everything with them. "Won't that be great, Adam?" the
woman says at the end. He replies, "Yes, Mother."
McCARTHY: [Laughs] That's so much a George story.
SCHWEITZER: He didn't give into the temptation because he thought it would cause a flood
of Adam and Eve stories.
Question from audience: You say that science fiction is on the descent. Maybe you are making
a strict distinction between science fiction and fantasy, but it seems to me that science fiction has
become the norm.
McCARTHY: I am making a very sharp distinction between science fiction and fantasy.
Fantasy is selling like hotcakes. Fantasy is everywhere. Science fiction is what is dying.
Questioner from audience: Well The Hunger Games is one of the bestselling books of recent
years and that's science fiction. Something like 99% of all Young Adult books are science
fiction or fantasy.
McCARTHY: Yeah . . .
Questioner from audience: It seems like 99% of all Hollywood blockbusters are science fiction.
McCARTHY: From comic books, mostly.
Questioner continues: There's so much of it to be had on television. You can get a hundred
thousand people at a comic-book convention. [Such numbers actually are realized at the San
Diego Comics Con. -DS]
McCARTHY: I was a big fan of Terra Nova, that show which was on for a little while. I don't
know if it's ever coming back. [No. -DS] I really enjoyed it. I shouldn't have because it was as
obvious as it could be, but it was the kind of thing I would have loved when I was twelve. It was
a cute boy and adventures and dinosaurs, and I still enjoyed it at my age. But I don't think you
could sell a book like that. I really don't. I couldn't read The Hunger Games. I had it on audio-book. I enjoyed listening to it, but reading it, it was too YA for me, too much words of one
syllable. Having it read to me was fine. But it didn't feel like science fiction. There were no
atomic weapons. There were no spaceships.
The same questioner from audience: It was sociological science fiction.
McCARTHY: Sociological science fiction you could probably still make work. Connie Willis
does it. I am talking about more hard SF, which is difficult to sell. But Connie may be one of the
exceptions that proves the rule too. There are a few of them out there, but I would have a very
hard time selling a straight science fiction novel today, at least outside the YA genre.
SCHWEITZER: I keep thinking of some of the eccentric writers of the past. How would a
latter-day Howard Waldrop get started today? Could he?
McCARTHY: Anybody who survived on mainly short stories obviously couldn't survive today.
Ed Bryant, for instance. Howard did more short fiction than novels. I think that with the death of
most magazines ongoing, and with those that are surviving paying 1940s word-rates, it would be
very, very difficult to make a living as a short story writer these days.
But that's not to say you can't make it work for you. Look at the success some people have had
with e-books, self-publishing e-books. There's an industry newsletter that goes out every day
called Publishers Marketplace and they did a survey of all the self-published books vs. how
many had made it big, i.e. sold over a million copies, and there were something like three
hundred thousand self-published books, and eleven had made it big. But a million copies is a lot
of books and you don't have to aim that high. If you see them at 99 cents apiece and you market
yourself the right way, okay. It's all social media, networking and stuff like that.
SCHWEITZER: Isn't the problem that ultimately you have to have the goods?
SCHWEITZER: Apparently not?
McCARTHY: That one woman just made a four million dollar deal with - I want to say Harper
Collins, but I can't be sure - and she had self-published. Amanda Hocking.
SCHWEITZER: I am thinking of someone who can't write, has met no standards, and just
McCARTHY: That's pretty much it. It's not that. It's just kind of bad. The stories move along,
but there is just absolutely nothing to recommend them other than that they were 99 cents.
There's no craft in them. There's no writing in them. It's typing.
SCHWEITZER: And no editing.
McCARTHY: And no editing. Absolutely not. But she marketed the hell out of them.
SCHWEITZER: That sounds even more pessimistic. It reminds me of something John Clute
said, drawing an analogy to a movie called Kill Bill. There's this martial arts move in it, which,
when it is done on someone, they take precisely five steps and then drop dead. [McCarthy
laughs.] John was saying that this has been done to science fiction, but we don't know what step
Question from audience: Just remember that once upon a time, science was actually doing
something. Remember that? I'm an elementary school teacher. My kids actually believed the
mock documentary that we didn't land on the Moon.
McCARTHY: [Laughs] God . . .
SCHWEITZER: That brings up Ballard again and his Memories of the Space Age.
McCARTHY: Mythbusters did a wonderful thing on debunking that.
SCHWEITZER: Recently a photo was taken from orbit around the Moon and you can see one
of the lunar rovers on the surface. Many people were heralding this as "Proof that we've actually
been to the Moon!" as if this were needed.
SCHWEITZER: As an agent to you take first novels to major houses or to the smaller ones?
McCARTHY: Actually first novels are a breeze to sell if they're good. They have no track
record. If it's an appealing idea and well-written, I can sell a first novel like that. It's the second
novel that is the hard one. If the first novel doesn't do that well, they will generally give you a
chance for a second, but after that it's on to the small presses.
SCHWEITZER: Or change your byline. When I did agenting I realized there were a lot of
writers whose careers couldn't be jump-started, so my advice to them would be to change their
byline and lie about their age. Don't overdo it. Don't claim to be a whole generation younger,
but a writer who is seventy might do well to claim to be fifty-five and say he's taken early
retirement, so he has many years of writing in front of him.
McCARTHY: How does anybody know how old they are? I don't know half my clients. I
haven't met them. I don't know what they look like. They could be purple.
SCHWEITZER: They could be purple, but publishers want a writer with a future in front of
McCARTHY: I guess. I haven't really found that to be the case. They like to know there is
another book in the pipeline if the first one does well. But if the first one doesn't do well, they
couldn't care less if there is another book in the pipeline. I've gotten as far as seven books in a
series, and then the publishers say "Sales are slowly going down with each one, so you are going
to have to stop this." Then the writer will come up with a different name and a new series and
sell it back to the same publisher.
SCHWEITZER: What about writers who just write individual novels, not series? Do they still
McCARTHY: Oh, yeah. Charles Wilson.
From audience: Charles Stross.
SCHWEITZER: A few. Someone else?
SCHWEITZER: We've just depressed them completely.
McCARTHY: Am I that depressing, really? I hope so. [Laughs.]
SCHWEITZER: Maybe the best advice for most would-be writers is don't quit your day job.
McCARTHY: That has always been my advice.
SCHWEITZER: Separate the need to make a living from the need to write well.
SCHWEITZER: If you run out the numbers, you can see how someone could have a
distinguished science fiction career, win all the awards, publish a book or two a year, publish
stories in all the best magazines, and make eight or nine thousand dollars a year.
McCARTHY: Absolutely. But you never really know. When I first started agenting, I took on
an author whose book I just loved. I sold it to St. Martin's, and it did all right. It wasn't
gangbusters or anything. But he fired me because it wasn't a bestseller. I said, "Bestseller? That
doesn't happen all that often. You did very well. It earned out." He said, "I published a book. I
thought I was getting a bestseller." He hadn't thought that out before.
Question from audience: I haven't paid much attention to science fiction in a while, but I am
still amazed at all the vampires and werewolves . . .
McCARTHY: Me too. Whenever I ask editors what they are looking for, they say "Urban
contemporary fantasy." That hasn't slowed down at all. Not a whit. They keep waiting for it to.
They keep waiting for it to crash like it did in the '80s, but so far it is like an ever-expanding
sponge, the public appetite for vampires and werewolves. Go figure.
SCHWEITZER: You're never going to get sexy zombies, though.
McCARTHY: No, you're never going to get sexy zombies. Maybe if you, like, polyurethaned
them . . .
SCHWEITZER: Zombie sex is going to be like all those old leper jokes . . .
[At this point things mercifully come to a close.]
SCHWEITZER: Thank you, Shawna.