Sunday, March 21, 2010

[Interview] Lee Harris from Angry Robot Books

What love fest can exist without some Q&A with the people responsible for the things you love. Right now I've managed to e-mail and twitter Lee Harris into accepting my interview invitation. I was positively beyond excitement at that point and shot so many questions [as you will read] that a follow-up was unnecessary [and immoral, since Lee does have a killer schedule to work with].

But who is Lee Harris? Simple. He is an Angry Robot Overlord come to enslave us with daring fiction without an analog. Hail Angry Robot Books. He is also a Twitter VIP and creator of the one and only Hub Magazine.


Hello Lee, thank you so much for accepting my invitation to chat in my humble adobe. You make a devoted fanboy very happy. Let´s start this interview with an obvious question. Your handle on Twitter is LeeAHarris. Does the A stand for Awesome? Because, so far, evidence about your persona suggests that.

That's um... very... Look, I'll just be waiting in the corner over there. I won't be any trouble. Please don't hurt me! The “A” is symbolic. It's indicative of the fact that I'm one of many that work hard to get great books out there. I'm a Harris, not the Harris. Coincidentally, my middle name is Anthony.

With that out of my system, I can now act with a remote sense of professionalism. Relax Lee on my comfy imaginary couch. Tell me, what is your relationship with speculative fiction in general? When did you fall in love with the written word?

Goodness, you do like the difficult questions, don't you! I've always loved the written word. I barely have a childhood memory that doesn't feature a book in there, somewhere. Books even featured in my playtime, as I would construct elaborate games around books I'd read. I wasn't a hit with the girls, you know.

You are a writerly type. You have several theatre plays to your name and at the same time you help brilliant fiction grace bookstore shelves. You deal with two very different mediums. Do you mind sharing what you gain from theatre and from novels on a pure, creative level?

Well, first of all, the theatre plays aren't just in my name – they were co-written with the extremely talented Scott Harrison. Secondly, I'm not involved in the theatre these days, though I miss it tremendously. Now I'll try to actually answer your question.

Theatre and literature are very different beasts. When I was writing plays I was also directing them, so I engaged on a number of levels. It's a very direct medium, very visual (of course), and more collaborative than literature (though literature is more collaborative than many readers assume, of course). With theatre I was able to shape not only the words the audience heard, but also the way they heard them, and the way they saw the characters. With literature, part of the fun is that the audience (readers) have to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and people's interpretations of characters can differ wildly. Also, the special effects are cheaper than on stage.

Angry Robot is an imprint with a focus on cross-genre. I´ve speculated for quite some time that speculative fiction is reaching a point, where genres seize to exist in their strictest sense and instead hybrids will inherit the earth. In that sense is cross-genre the next natural step in SFF as a movement in literature and how far has cross-genre managed to infiltrate mainstream culture?

After thirty-something years of devouring speculative fiction, I'm still undecided on this issue. Having the genre in its own section in bookshops certainly helps genre fans find what they're looking for more easily, but I think it probably does many of the novels a disservice, marginalising the artform. I think many potential new readers are put off by the fact that it's not part of the general literature section in the shops. Where genre material has been classified as mainstream (Jasper Fforde, Margaret Atwood) it has often performed very well. But no, I don't think that we're nearing a point where genres definitions make less sense, though sometimes I think that would be a good thing for everyone. Sometimes.

You are the engine of Hub Magazine. What prompted you to wake up one day and say to yourself ‘I will start a magazine´?

I like new projects. And when I get hold of an idea, I'm like a rottweiler with a small child – only a blow to the head is likely to make me release my grip. It was a ridiculously huge undertaking (Hub was a print zine for the first couple of issues) and horrendously expensive and time-consuming, but great fun!

Hub Magazine is a weekly eZine. From my brief brush with weekly features on my blog, I translate weekly as commitment and chaos confined in a seven day deadline. What rhythm does a weekly magazine demand to be healthy?

Well, it's difficult to keep the flames of passion alive indefinitely, so it's important to surround yourself with people who can fan those flames, which is what I have with Alasdair Stuart, Phil Lunt and Ellen Allen. Also, the rottweiler mentality. Grrrrr!

So, let´s recap. You are an assistant editor at Angry Robot, run a magazine, you blog at SFX magazine, you are a family man and a human being. How do you manage this balancing act and how come we have not seen your time managing feats on the news?

Editor, not Assistant Editor (promoted in less than a year, dontcha know). I also write, and have a multitude of other projects on the boil at any one time. Sleep is for wimps.

I get itchy feet if I'm not doing something, so it's less a case of great time management, and more a case of need. I need to be busy, so I make work for myself. Luckily, I love what I do.

Imagine I´m a young, eager lover of fiction, who wants to become an editor. I corner you at a con and ask ‘Lee, Lee, how can I become a mighty editor like you?´ Do explain the path of the editor to me. How does one make it in this field?

I came into it by a strange path. Angry Robot's publishing director, Marc Gascoigne, was aware of the work I was doing with Hub magazine, and when he started looking for someone to work with him at Angry Robot, I was one of the people he thought of. He knew how much work went into producing something like Hub and he wanted someone with that level of passion for the work.

The more traditional route is likely to bear more fruit. Go to university, major in literature, apply for jobs. Having a Hub-like project can help, of course, but I wouldn't recommend following my path.

As an editor, what quality must a novel possess to make the jump from the slush pile? And I am asking for a specific standard you abide to help you sift through submissions.

Marco and I look for different things. For me, character is paramount. I need to live the lives of the characters, which means I need to believe in them without question; believe in their motives, their actions, their reactions and their speech patterns. Story, plot and structure are also vital elements, of course, but if a novel fails the character test, I'm not interested in what happens to them, or why.

Angry Robot is an imprint with a mighty fine name. Is there an epic origin story a la super hero behind it?

It was Marco that came up with it, after a loooong process of deliberation. I believe it was one of those “eureka” moments. It's great!

In your opinion, what separates Angry Robot from the other imprints on the market?

We originally set out to play in the “post-YA” market (Marco's phrase), the X-Box generation. We want to attract readers that have maybe tried YA and liked it, but don't know where to go, next. That's not to say our books aren't suitable for genre veterans, of course, but we want to capture the excitement of playing a video game. Actually, I quite like that – a video game in book format. We're also determined to make the most of the opportunities afforded us by technology – eBooks, enhanced eBooks, audio and print-on-demand where appropriate. We're aiming to get to a stage where all major formats are released simultaneously. After all, the format is just a delivery mechanism for the important bit of a book – the words.

During my time spent surfing the Internet; I have never come across a negative comment or a slight against Angry Robot. There is just a generally positive vibe towards Angry Robot. What is the best thing you have heard or read, regarding the imprint?

Difficult to pick just one – other people seem to have as much passion for it as me and Marco. One of the best comments was from someone who said he'd happily buy a standing order for Angry Robot titles – pay for future books he knew nothing about – because he trusted our judgement, based on our titles so far.

You are known for your love of digital books through different interviews and your posts on SFX. Was it your idea to make all the ARCs electronic and now that the imprint is picking up speed does it seem like a good choice?

We do produce some physical ARCs, but not many. The decision to produce electronic ARCs was made before I joined HarperCollins, and it's a damn fine one. Physical ARCs are expensive to produce, and marketing budgets for an imprint of our size are always stretched. I see electronic ARCs playing a much bigger role across the industry in years to come.

In February we learned that ‘Slights´ by Kaaron Warren was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. I am pretty sure that Kaaron was and still is ecstatic, but as a man behind the curtain, how did you receive the news?

It was on the preliminary ballot, but technically it wasn't “nominated” as it didn't make the shortlist. I was thrilled for Kaaron, of course, as I was when she was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award and the Australian Horror Writers' Award. A damn shame she didn't make the Stoker final ballot, but that's more to do with distribution than the quality of the work – it hasn't yet been released outside the UK or Australia, so most Stoker voters won't have had the opportunity to read it.

What is the SFF award you most desire for a book from your imprint?

The best award is sales figures. A Hugo would be nice, or a Nebula, or a Stoker, or an Arthur C Clarke, or a Gemmell, but the most rewarding is to have the books read by huge numbers of people, so our authors can continue to write more novels.

What exactly does an assistant editor do? Describe a day from your life at Angry Robot HQ.

I work with authors to help them improve their already-excellent manuscripts (by, for instance, suggesting new scenes, recommending changes to structure, etc), I also manage our team of freelance copyeditors and proofreaders, I read the slush pile and work with agents to find great new books and great new authors, I maintain the website and various back-end databases, I talk to bloggers and genre site owners, and the media, and I attend various work-related events and conventions. Sometimes, on a busy day, I do more.

Finally, what can we expect from Angry Robot?

Watch this space...

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