Interview With Ann VanderMeer on The Time Traveller’s Almanac

To celebrate the launch of The Time Traveller’s Almanac: The Ultimate Treasury of Time Travel Fiction – Brought to You from the Future in the UK Ann VanderMeer, its editor along with her husband Jeff,  took time out from her scarily hectic schedule to answer some questions on the theme of big anthologies, classifying time travel stories, and what’s next for them amongst with other things.  
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Gav:  So The Weird didn’t put you off finding a set of stories for another encompassing collection?  

ABV: Maybe we’re into pain?? But seriously, as difficult as it was to do The Weird, we don’t regret it. It is an important addition to the genre and addresses the question of what truly defines weird fiction.  By examining what weird fiction is – well beyond the limits of Lovecraftian fiction – we were able to bring brilliant, almost forgotten writers and stories from all over the world to a new and wider audience. And doing a book of this magnitude taught us a lot. We applied what we learned to other anthologies that came after.[check out our earlier interview on The Weird - gav ]

Gav: Was there a calculated process that led to time travel being the theme? Or was it more we love time travel let’s see what we can do?

ABV: We decided on this theme for two reasons.  One: We thought that this would be a departure from the seriousness of The Weird and we really needed that break. You can’t imagine the dreams I had while working on The Weird.  Time travel would be fun, an adventure.  And two: We had investigated the anthologies that went before and although there are many good time travel anthologies out there in the world (and we read as many as we could), we felt that we could offer something different. The earlier ones seemed a bit too conservative, not as willing to take risks.  And heck, with close to 1000 pages to fill, it was the type of challenge we love.

TTAGav: On first thought time travel seems like a narrow subject so did it surprise you that you filled 1000 pages? 

ABV: Actually this book could have been longer had we had more time (where’s my time machine?).  You’d be surprised at the vast number of time travel stories out there and how different they are from each other.  Yes, there are quite a few that are all too familiar.  And the challenge with a project of this size is to make sure you are not repeating yourself; that each story brings something different to the reader.  Every time I came across a story that dealt with this subject differently I jumped up and shouted YES!  How cool is that?  (No, really, I did – just ask Jeff).  When I sat down later and examined all the types of stories we had I looked over the methods of time travel and the reasons for time travel in each story, I actually made a list and was quite surprised.  Jeff and I sat down in our favorite pub (Fermentation Lounge) and looked over the list together giggling like little girls. It was very exciting to see such diversity in this book as we put it together. We included not just science fiction, but also fantasy, horror, psychological thrillers, philosophical themes, surreal and experimental fiction as well as political intrigue.

And another thing.  Sometimes writers don’t even realize they have a great time travel story.  When asked, there were those that told me they didn’t have any, and yet somehow I was able to find them and the writer would say, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one.” But then sometimes the writer will point you in the right direction.  For example, I approached Michael Moorcock about reprinting “Behold The Man.”  This is considered a classic of time travel and was in our original proposal.  And Mike said he didn’t really consider it a time travel story and I should consider “Pale Rose” instead. This one had escaped our original research but when I tracked it down and read it all I could say was Holy Moley!  What a great story and so different from all the others.  A bit controversial and erotic, too, so of course we had to include it.

Gav: How long does a project like this take from start to print? It must be exhausting but satisfying at the same time?

ABV: We spent a lot of time on the front end researching the project in order to put together a good, solid proposal. So a great deal of the ground work was done before we started the book. We had a list of stories and writers that we were planning to target.  I am a firm believer in spending time on the front end with the planning and organization.  Then when we start the project, everything is much easier.  We can still veer from the original proposal but it is enormously helpful to use it for guidance.  In addition to using what our research uncovered, we also reached out to our colleagues in the field; writers, editors, booksellers friends, etc. for recommendations and suggestions.  I kept a spreadsheet of everything that was mentioned to us over the last few years (yes…this project has been in my head for a long time) to make sure it was considered and then documented the final decisions.

I was lucky, too, in that I have good friends.  My old friend Dan owns a bookstore in Hogansville, GA. I told him about this anthology when it was just an idea.  So he kept his eye out and came across this amazing book from the early 70s by Langdon Jones called The Eye of the Lens.   Maybe not technically time travel stories, but oh my gosh – the way these stories played with time!  I was intrigued and another friend, Michael Moorcock, was able to put me in touch with the writer.  If not for Dan and Mike, this anthology would not have the story “The Great Clock.” John Joseph Adams pointed me in the direction of “Hwang’s  Billion Beautiful Daughters” by Alice Sola Kim.  How did I not know this story existed?  Heart-breaking and surprising, so glad this tale is part of the anthology.

Also, because there is no way we could be familiar with everything ourselves, it is our philosophy to have an open reading period whenever possible.  This allowed us to see what else might be out there that we missed.  We were open to submissions for a few months and with the help of Tessa Kum and Dominik Parisien, we were able to discover some wonderful stories from writers that we otherwise would not have known about.

The actual heads-down, read-like-crazy, total focus on this book took about 4 months to do.  Was it crazy to do it in such a short time?  Maybe. But we had our ducks in a row ahead of time so when it was time to get started, we were ready.

Gav: Rather than a chronology you’ve split in it into themes Experiments, Reactionaries and Revolutionaries, Mazes and Traps, and Communiqués – how did the themes arise? Were there others you could have used?   

ABV: To be honest, we had different section titles in our original proposal.  And surprise! When we were putting this book together, those sections no longer made sense.  Yes, yes, as I was reading and making selections I was supposed to be making sure we had enough stories to fill each section on the proposal.  But sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you plan it.  Sometime it works out even better.  Once the list was finalized we took a much closer look at the stories themselves to see what common ideas pulled them together.  We didn’t want to do this chronically or alphabetical order by author name.  But we did want to make sure that the stories played well with each other. That is important to me.

Many readers don’t realize how much thought and creativity goes into the design of the TOC.  I find this to be my biggest challenge with each anthology I do, but also one of the most rewarding parts, next to reading the stories of course!  In addition to separating the fiction into their respective sections, we also had to decide on the order within each section.  It was almost like putting together four different books.  We also thought long and hard about how to present the original non-fiction we had acquired.  So we decided to set them apart and include them as palate cleansers between each of the sections. I am very pleased with how it turned out. Given more time, though, I would have liked to play a bit more with the idea of an almanac with fun facts, timelines and other small visual additions peppered throughout the book.  But Jeff told me absolutely NO WEATHER – ha-ha! He was teasing me because he knows I am a weather freak.

Gav: Did you have any ‘rules’ for selecting stories and did you have to leave any stories out because of that? 

ABV: The stories had to stand the test of time.  Yes, we wanted to make sure we had classics represented, but those stories still had to be relevant today, to speak to the modern reader. We wanted to show the wide range of stories out there, the diversity and the width, length and breadth. So it was important to search as far and wide as time would allow. We also wanted to make sure to represent as many parts of the world and ways of telling a story that we could.

There are also a couple of stories we wanted to include but for various reasons were not able to secure permissions in the time allotted.  This is an age-old challenge that all editors must deal with.  It’s a disappointment when you can’t include a story that you believe should be there, but you just have to accept it and move on.

Gav: As pointed out your introduction time travel crops up a lot in popular culture especially films like Terminator and Back to the Future that show time travel as the past effecting the future. What stories in TTTA would you say instantly breaks that mold? 

ABV: Oh gosh!  We have several stories here that do that.  And the surprising thing is how many of them were written years ago and yet still manage to shake you up.  One example is David I. Masson’s Traveller’s Rest.  This story was first publishing in the 1960s and tells the story of a soldier who is relieved of duty and sent home.  As he travels South from his military post time moves differently.  In addition to addressing the issue of how the passage of time affects us all, it is a commentary on war as well.  When I was reading many of these stories I kept thinking, wow, if this story affects me this way now imagine what it would have been like to read it 50 or even 100 years ago.

Reading for different projects is a benefit. Sometimes when reading for one project I will come across a great story that fits perfectly for another book.  This is how I came across Rosaleen Love’s “Alexia and Graham Bell,” a story that gives you a different view of the invention of the telephone.  And Dean Francis Alfar’s “Terminós” is about as unusual a time travel story as you can find. This one tells the tale of a shopkeeper buying and selling time and one of his more memorable customers.

Gav: What makes a good time travel story? And what makes a bad one? 

ABV: A good time travel story will have the same qualities of any good story such as good writing, compelling plot, and interesting characters.  As for time travel – the story itself must engage the element of time travel, or playing with time in some manner.  This can’t just be a small fragment of the story, but a central part without which the story would fail.  A bad story is poorly-written, all-too-familiar and does not engage the reader.  A bad story may also be a rehash of some movie or TV show. I am often saddened to see how many stories are inspired by television rather than by life.

Gav:  I was really pleased to see a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy story by Douglas Adams – how did you end up including that?

ABV: I am a huge fan of Douglas Adams and I felt that this unusual prequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would be a perfect addition. Witty and funny and more than a little over the top, you know? I’ve always had a bit of a crush on Zaphod Beeblebrox, too.  And now that secret is out of the box!

Gav:  And finally, what are you both working on at the moment? Is there another massive collection in the works? 

518sOp4zhWLABV:  Now you know that The Time Traveller’s Almanac was originally supposed to be a chapbook, right?  Just kidding.  Right now both Jeff and I are crazy busy.  Jeff’s new non-fiction book, Wonderbook – The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction was recently released and has been doing quite well.  He is now finishing up his third novel in the Southern Reach series for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance are scheduled to be published next year [UK release from Fourth Estate starting 27 Feb 2014 – Gav.].  I am currently at work finishing up a new original anthology from some of the best fantasists writing today, including China Mieville, Karin Tidbeck, Michal Ajvaz, Dexter Palmer, Catherynne Valente and many other talented writers (formal announcement to come soon).   Jeff and I will also be finishing up an as-yet-unnamed anthology of Feminist Speculative Fiction for release in 2015.  AND we have started researching two other larger-than-a-chapbook anthologies (shhh…nothing to talk about yet but soon.  I’m excited!).

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Ann is such a tease! I really can’t wait to see what they’ve got coming next. If you’re in the UK The Time Traveller’s Almanac is out now and if you’re in the US it’s coming out in March 2014 in physical form but the ebook looks like it’s available now.

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