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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 1981.

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 Ltd."?

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 thing.

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 dysentery."

[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 barrel." [Laughs.]

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 don't think.

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 for astronauts.]

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 conventions?

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 that helped.

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.

McCARTHY: [Laughs]

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 their trunk?

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 practice elsewhere.

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.

[A pause.]

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 anything.

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 published themselves.

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 we're in.

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 them.

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 exist?

McCARTHY: Oh, yeah. Charles Wilson.

From audience: Charles Stross.

SCHWEITZER: A few. Someone else?

[No questions.]

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.

McCARTHY: Absolutely.

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.

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