Sunday, February 6, 2011

Interview With Chris Lynch of Tangled Bank Press

Chris Lynch runs Tangled Bank Press. He is also a writer and graduate of Clarion South. He dropped by to answer a few questions prior to the launch of the print version of the anthology, The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution, which is also available as an e-book.

Welcome, Chris.

Tell us a little about yourself. When did you first realise you were a writer?

I've still got one of my picture books from primary school (about a war between cats and mice). But I didn't decide to be a writer until Clarion South, and that was probably more significant.

What was the first book you remember falling in love with?

The Wishing Tree by Ruth Chew. I've still got a tattered copy somewhere (tape is all that's holding it together), but haven't read it for over 20 years, since I have a sneaking suspicion it won't hold up well. I think it was probably well-structured narratively.

You are both a writer and a publisher. Which is dearest to your heart?

Definitely writing. Publishing is a means to getting out writing on subjects that I want to read about.

What has been your most exciting writing success?

Getting published in Dreaming Again (edited by Jack Dann), along with many of the best Australian speculative fiction writers. I co-wrote the story This is My Blood with Ben Francisco at Clarion South.

My first collection of poetry in Brisbane New Voices 2, is out later this month and is also something I'm very excited about.

As a Clarion South graduate how did you find the experience? What were the main things you learned there?

Clarion South was fantastic. I made life-long friends, wrote and wrote and pulled apart story after story, and learnt loads about the craft of writing. Writing is a solitary activity, and it was immensely validating to be surrounded by people interested in talking about plot structure and characterisation and words day in and day out for six weeks. As for the main thing I learned, it was pretty simple: Writers write. Persistence is crucial. Athletes train every day, and writers need to as well. Clarion was a boot camp--it gave me the fitness and the tools to go back out into the world and attack my writing with more confidence.

(Applications for Clarion South 2012 are now open, by the way.)

You started Tangled Bank Press in 2009. What inspired you to start it? What are your long term goals for the press?

The inspiration was mostly the idea for the anthology. But I was also studying Writing, Editing, and Publishing at university and interested in exploring what I was learning about publishing.
Long-term, I'd like to continue to put out occasional books with interesting themes, and explore different kinds of publishing models.

You are launching the print version The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution on Darwin Day, 12 February, 2011. What made you decide on Darwinian evolution as the theme for the anthology?

I have a degree in ecology and have always been interested in evolution. 2009 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species, and the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. Culturally the publication of Origin of Species in 1859 was a significant milestone in human history--an explanation of how life, including humans, has changed over millions of years. Also, far more knowledgeable people than myself, including Gardner Dozois and Brian Stableford (who contributed a story to The Tangled Bank), have argued that the theory of evolution gave us the sense of deep time that allowed science fiction to develop and flourish. I thought there would definitely be speculative fiction anthology of some kind, but as the year wore on I couldn't find one. So I decided to do one myself. As it turned out, there were a couple of other projects, but I think The Tangled Bank adds something to the mix.

What was your favourite part of developing the anthology?

Putting together the Table of Contents. It was like a complex three-dimensional puzzle. I ended up structuring the book around Sean Williams's haiku series, which itself was structured around the chapters of Origin of Species and cleverly used Darwin's own words to mirror the evolution of the haiku form. (If that doesn't make sense, I've just posted an interview with Sean on the TBP website that explains all.) I'm really pleased with how the Table of Contents turned out: I think the stories, poetry, essay, and artwork are in a real conversation with each other. My aim with the anthology was to get a feel for what 'evolution' means to us in the early 21st century, and I hope I've gone at least part way to achieving that.

What was your least favourite part?

Typesetting. It's laborious, intricate, and unforgiving. But I have a new-found respect for typographers.

Would you do it all again?

Yes. I've learned a lot from The Tangled Bank, and it would be a shame not to put that experience to good use.

What publicity event are you looking forward to most?

Giving away three print copies of the book. All you need to do is tell us your favourite evolutionary adaptation (real or imagined) in 50 words or less. The details are on the website.

There are also chances to win copies of the e-book by following @thetangledbank on Twitter.

What is your next project?

I've got several of my own writing projects that need attending to, including a travel book about walking the length of Japan, a poetry manuscript, and a couple of novels. I'd like to get those done before tackling another anthology.

You made a decision to publish your first anthology as an e-book following it up later with a print version. Any particular reason?

Various reasons. The initial decision to publish as an e-book was partly due to cost (from the beginning I wanted to include colour artwork), partly a means to learning about an aspect of the publishing industry that in 2009 seemed like it would only grown in importance. E-books still don't have the cachet of print books, though, and most people still want to hold a print copy in their hands. I'd made a point of designing the book specifically for the screen, so a print version essentially meant a second book. Technical issues and other problems meant that the print version was delayed much longer than I'd anticipated. Fortunately, developments like the transition to XML are making it much easier for projects to be diced into multiple formats, which will ultimately make books cheaper and more convenient for readers. Last year was a breakthrough year for the e-book. Kindle book sales have just eclipsed print sales at Amazon; it's an exciting time in the publishing industry, not least because the scales are tipping back towards the author.

A couple of questions about your experience as a publisher.

We all know that the number of stories a publisher gets is often overwhelming. What makes you choose a story?

All the usual reasons: interesting characters, strong prose, original ideas. Beyond that, a sense of balance in an anthology. I've rejected good stories that just didn't sit well in the anthology, or would have served a similar function to other stories I'd already accepted. Those are the hardest decisions. With this anthology, I was particularly looking for stories that really engaged with the idea of evolution, either scientifically or thematically, rather than just using the concept of, say, mutants, to tell a ripping yarn that didn't really relate to evolution.

What is the most common mistake in the stories you receive? Which one makes you want to scream?

As much as I'd like to make some deeply insightful comment about narrative, it almost always comes down to writers not reading the guidelines. As a writer, I'd heard editors say this before, but it really is surprising how many writers expect you to read stories that are unrelated to the theme or not formatted correctly or in some way ignore the guidelines. While editors have the unpleasant task of rejecting stories (and thus have a reputation for being stern and capricious), editing, like writing, is usually a labour of love, and anything that stops the editor from just reading your story at 11pm after a long day at work is bad for everyone.

Guidelines, particularly formatting guidelines, can seem capricious, but you can guarantee that they're there to save the editor time. There are a myriad of boring reasons to do with where an editor reads, what they read on, and the software they use to edit and publish which explain why the guidelines are the way they are. If the writer can't be bothered to spend 20 minutes getting the formatting right on a story, why should the editor? Especially when there are dozens more stories in the pile.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a very strong correlation between following the guidelines and quality of writing. Editors and slush readers know this from experience. So not following guidelines already slants the impression of the reader. My very first impression of nearly all the accepted stories on opening them up was, "Oh, this looks professional." Provided the opening paragraphs weren't dire, I printed the story off so I could give it my full attention. If the story wasn't formatted correctly, I scanned through it to see if it was worth printing off and reading properly. Nine times out of 10, it wasn't.

See, I'm a crotchety editor already.

Final question: Any future plans?

The next Tangled Bank Press project will be a pocket book of poetry and artwork. I haven't quite decided on the theme or submission dates yet, but it will be a much smaller project. While great poetry will obviously be paramount, I'm looking forward to focusing more on the art and marketing aspects than I was able to with The Tangled Bank, which by its sheer size and complexity meant I was more focused on editing and layout.

The huge growth in e-books means that the physical characteristics of books are becoming one of the key selling points of print books, so books that revel in their physicality and ability to be personalised are going to become much more common. So while I still prefer to read books in print, I'm not one to bemoan the rise of e-books. New technology like tablets means that e-books are going to become much more readable (and take-to-bedable), and market forces are going to bring us print books to die for. I'm interested in publishing books that take advantage of both of those trends.

I've got several exciting ideas for future anthologies of fiction, poetry, and artwork, but I'd like to get some of my own work published before I edit another anthology. Providing all goes to plan, TBP will probably announce the next call for submissions sometime in the second half of next year, with a release date in 2013.

TBP won't be publishing novels for the forseeable future--but that's not very far, so who knows.

As Chris says above, Tangled Bank Press is running a competition giving away three print copies of The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution on their website. You can also read a free sample story from the anthology, Darwin's Daughter, by 2009 Aurealis winner, Christopher Green, there. The print edition launches on 12 Feb 2011.

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