Saturday, October 9, 2010

[Reviewer Time] Charles Tan from Bibliophile Stalker

With this Sunday’s edition Reviewer Time will close down permanently. I had a lot of fun for the last two years with the occasional stops and starts and the over 30 interviews I conducted with some of the brightest and most intriguing bloggers, veterans and rookies alike. But I do think all things must come to an end, which is why Charles Tan, creator of The Bibliophile Stalker, will be my last guest at the Reviewer Time feature. I think it was a good run. Reasons to quit include: time deficiency and the feeling that I repeat the same questions over and over again. With above 30 interviews now completed I think that may be the case.

Anyway, enjoy!


Harry Makov: Welcome, Charles. I am very pleased to have you here on Reviewer Time. As per the ages old custom, let’s start with basic introductions. Who is Charles Tan and what does he do in off-line life?

Charles Tan: Offline, I'm an editorial assistant and sometimes managing editor for a local publishing company (that sometimes does events such as concerts). As for who I am, I previously defined myself by my hobbies, and I basically went through different fandoms over the years: video games, comics, collectible card games, RPGs, anime/manga, etc.

HM: As an editorial assistant, what do you assist in? From Twitter I have learned that you have helped to edit anthologies. Is that close to the truth?

CT: Actually, no. I work for a magazine company that occasionally does concerts. There are actually several publications that I work on (and one in which I'm the Managing Editor) and my role really varies. Sometimes, it's simply answering the phone and contacting the contributors. Sometimes, it's arranging full-scale photo shoots. Sometimes, it's editing texts, creating the pagination, coordinating with the printer, etc.

The editing the anthologies part is more of my non-day job. The Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler and Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction was my brainchild for example and funded by me. Recently I helped Lavie Tidhar with the upcoming Apex Book of World SF 2 but that's really about it.

I'm not the next John Joseph Adams for example. :)

HM: Even if you are not involved in assembling anthologies, you seem to pay attention to the latest releases. Therefore I deduct you enjoy reading them a lot. What do you find fascinating about anthologies? Do you pay attention to how the stories are aligned? What importance does the opening and closing stories carry? Basically I am looking for the hidden blueprints and the logic behind anthologies.

CT: For anthologies, it really depends on the anthology. Not all anthologies, for example, is simply about assembling a set of stories. What's the agenda of the editor? What does it try to elicit from the reader? Was the editor successful?

Yes, I pay attention to how the stories are aligned, the importance of the opening and closing stories, etc. The problem with blueprints is that it can't be universally applied. What works for one anthology might not work for another. For example, what impressed me with The New Weird by Jeff VanderMeer is the mix of fiction and non-fiction, the inclusion of stories that are pre-New Weird as well as New Weird itself.

Or The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, later Gavin Grant and Kelly Link). Arguably the best part of it are the lengthy summations of the year, as well as the long honorable mentions list.

Admittedly, some readers simply read the story they want and ignore the rest. That's perfectly possible and legitimate. But as a discerning reader, I know that any anthology isn't arbitrarily assembled. There's a method to the madness, so to speak. That's not to say every editor succeeds in what they attempt to do, but there's also a level where you want to read the text under the editor's own terms (i.e. reading the stories in chronological order).

HM: We all have one of those moments of epiphany, when we realize that we will be tied with fiction for a life time. When did your never-ending affair with books and literature begin?

CT: I was an early reader but honestly didn't become acquainted with genre until my early teens. As a child, I was interested in dinosaurs and mythology, but didn't really end up reading novels. Instead, I grew up reading gaming magazines. Later on, some of these magazines had pop culture references to authors like Tolkien and Lovecraft, and that certainly piqued my interest.

I think the trigger for me being the person you now know me is due to my decision to pursue becoming a writer (as opposed to simply being a reader). It was that shift that enabled me to be more critical of what I read, as well as to open up myself to possibilities, instead of simply reading what I was previously reading. It also helped that the Philippine bookstore scene was changing then as in the 80's and early 90's, readers here had to settle for whatever the bookstore monopoly imported.

HM: When did you start receiving books from outside the Philippines that weren’t imported? I am living in the same conditions. What’s widely available and celebrated in the UK & US, is largely unknown, unless we are talking household names. Like Gaiman.

CT: Depends. I'm friends with some authors, even before I started reviewing regularly, so they did send me some books. When I started doing my interview series, however, that's probably when I started getting books for reviews (due to my reputation by then, not because I was doing interviews per se). For aspiring reviewers, I think it's fair to say that when you start out, you shouldn't be expecting review copies and simply review books that are available to you (even if you have to buy them).

Another of my edges is the fact that I gladly accept PDF copies for review--because I understand the expenses of mailing books, and the delay one experiences (and in some cases, never receive due to the post office, customs, or some other complication).

HM: Speaking of Gaiman, you had the honor of meeting the man, who as Internet tells me [aka your blog] is an icon for you. Do tell how that meeting went.

CT: Gaiman's not really an icon for me. I respect the person, but there are other writers I'm a bigger fan of. Honestly, I'm probably the Philippine's "non-fan" fan of Gaiman.

The meeting was nothing special. It was a book signing so it was pretty procedural. There was one incident though when the couple (literally) behind me proposed via Neil Gaiman...

HM: Which probably means that I need to re-learn how to read properly. To retrace a bit, you mentioned that you strive towards a writing career. I have planned to ask that on my own accord, because it’s interesting to see how many reviewers are writers. I do believe that blogging is a fantastic way to meet new authors in person or through e-mail interviews. What’s your stance on the matter?

CT: It depends. Sometimes, it's in your best interest not to be reviewing books, because they're your peers. Some professional writers have been burned by this, but others have also established their contacts through this. It's all dependent on a lot of factors.

Here's the thing. What's your game plan?

If you want to be a writer, I think it's important to plan to be a writer.

If you want to be a reviewer, plan to be a reviewer.

I don't think it's necessary that in order to be a professional writer, you need to be a reviewer first. Or expect that there's a direct link between the two.

I reviewed books because I wanted to review books, not because I thought it would help my writing career (or lack thereof).

What's great about interviewing authors however is that I get to pick their brain.

HM: What genres do you enjoy writing in and what publications have you had, if any?

CT: I think most of my writing gravitates towards fantasy. As far as fiction is concerned, it's mostly local publications, with my first international sale going to the anthology The Dragon and The Stars edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, published by DAW.

HM: Let’s walk through the history of your blogging career and stop at 2006, when you decided to create your own blog. How did that decision form? What was the idea and intentions behind the Bibliophile Stalker?

CT: I was actually blogging as early as November 2001 but the problem with my blogging was that it was disparate and had no focus. Because I've had other hobbies over the years, the content of my posts fluctuated between disparate subjects.

As a writing discipline, I told myself that I would produce blog content on a regular basis, as opposed to simply being sporadic. And then I latched on to fiction because I was feeling passionate the most about it at the time (my other passion at the time was tabletop RPGs and was active in documenting the podcast scene).

At the end of the day, my blog became a blog that I sought for in other blogs. It had regular reviews, opinion pieces, and interviews with people in the industry that I felt were overlooked or aren't as popular as they're supposed to be. And I didn't want to limit it to authors but others who don't receive enough credit, such as editors, publicists, etc. It was also a continuous challenge for me on how to evolve and deliver additional content that was relevant to my readers.

HM: And yes, this is inevitable. What’s with the creepy name?

CT: I like to freak out people. :) In real life, I tend to be invisible, to the point that automatic doors don't open, or people enter the room and miss me even when I'm in the center of their vision, so I think "stalker" is an apt descriptor.

HM: You are based in the Philippines and can observe the native SFF scene, which I am pretty sure is not very well known to Westerners. What is the difference between Philippine SFF and what is currently sold in the West?

CT: For me, the biggest difference is volume and awareness. We don't end up publishing a lot of fiction (genre or otherwise) for various reasons, and even if you do get published, people aren't generally aware of it.

As for the writing itself, it's a mixed bag. There is some fiction that's obviously Western-inspired, but we also have stories that deal with our own mythology that's quite unique from others. We have a creature called the "tiyanak" for example which is like a carnivorous changeling (baby) that preys on unsuspecting humans.

HM: What are the tropes you encounter in Philippine fiction, which are foreign to Western tradition? What is done differently?

CT: There's the use of our folklore, which is unique. And then there's the inclusion of Americans in stories, which tends to be one of two extremes: either they're saviors or they're villains. Justified, considering our colonial experience.

HM: You are an incredibly busy man, contributing to sites such as the SF Signal, World SF News Blog and Nebula Awards Blog [just to name a few]. How do you manage the whole juggling act?

CT: Eventually, I don't. Some sites I've had to drop over the years, and content that would otherwise appear on my blog has migrated elsewhere. The key however is to actually dedicate time to these sites. You can say you'll dedicate the first 2 hours of your day to these websites and stick to that commitment.

HM: How do you deal with the burn out?

CT: I'm the persevering kind of guy so for me, I just keep at it. I have phases where I'm unproductive (whether it's due to work, an unforeseen medical problem, or simply something else has taken my fancy) but if I keep doing what I do, things eventually turn around. And genre is always exciting!

HM: All these sites are high profile and reputable, so I cannot help but attribute a certain level of divine inaccessibility. How does one become involved with the big players?

CT: Honestly, it's easy to "start" any endeavor, such as producing a blog. What's difficult is maintaining it and keeping it chugging along over the years. Some good book bloggers usually call it quits at the end of a year or two. I certainly wasn't an overnight sensation, and my seemingly-prevalent (I honestly don't think I'm prevalent) status is the result of years of obscurity.

The second factor is to simply volunteer your services. You can't expect other people to always find you. Sometimes, you have to take the first step. SFWA for example is always looking for volunteers. I volunteered (perhaps foolishly :p) for the Nebula Awards Blog. And for SF Signal, it's contacting them and asking them hey, how can I help out you guys?

My mentality, whether it's with my readers or other people, isn't how they can help me, but how can I help them? The rest will follow, but it also takes time.

HM: What about the ‘I am not good enough’ barrier, where the individual think that he/she is not good enough to even be considered, so they do not submit. Have you had such phases? I admit that I have had some initial moments, but I am overcoming them. My biggest issue at the moment is the time deficiency and over-commitment.

CT: I'm practical. I don't have the "I am not good enough barrier". The worst thing an editor/publisher/market can do is reject your story (not you). That's it. Don't make the decision for them. It's up to them to accept or reject your story. It's up to you to send it. If I have problems, it's finding the time and over-commitment to write.

There are obviously times when I think my writing is not good enough, and so revision might take more time than expected. I also do think some writers are better than me. That's reality. But I honestly can't spend the time thinking "I'm not good enough for this market". That's up to them to decide, not me. It's useless thinking that way and all you're doing is closing a potential market. The problem with this line of thinking is that it'll never get better. When have you thought "you know what, I'm now good enough for this market"? The better you get at writing fiction, the more you become aware of your weaknesses and limitations.

HM: Your link-up feature is beyond top notch. I use it as a second go-to after I manage to go through my Google Reader. What’s your system to maintaining such a demanding feature and always be well informed? Do you, by any chance, have an army of informants?

CT: Well, it starts out with simply having an extensive RSS Reader such as Google Reader. Livejournal also doubles as that. And then there are news/content sites which I regularly visit, such as,, and SF Signal.

People also do help out and email me. Paul di Filippo for example regularly sends me news tidbits which he also sends to other genre news sites, such as Locus. There are a lot of industry people (authors, editors, bloggers, etc.) there who have projects/interviews they want to plug so they also email me any relevant piece that they might have (publicists are your best friends). But most of my content comes from casual browsing of my RSS Feeds, Livejournal friends list, and Twitter (and that's the case because I'm deeply interested in genre, as opposed to simply being a casual fan with a few contacts).


Drax said...

Great interview. Keep on, Charles.

Harry Markov said...

Glad that you liked it. Charles is one heck of an interesting person.

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