Interview by Ben Peek
Russell B. Farr is part of the editoral committee at TiconderogaOnline. He is also the owner of Ticonderoga Press, and boys and girls, it’s coming back.
1) In the late 90s Ticonderoga existed as a publisher who did single author collections. Authors like Sean Williams, Simon Brown and Stephen Dedman had really simply designed but beautiful collections come out. Then, from what I understand, there was a financial set back and the press shut down. You sort of disappeared for a while after that, and now you’ve come back in the publishing scene with the ezine version of Ticonderoga. Can we, one day, see a return to hardcopy books? What would be required for that to happen–what’s needed, these days, to make a viable small press in Australia?
Is that a question or an essay? It’s longer than my bio. Molly Meldrum would be proud of a question like that one.
Simply designed? That’s one way of looking at it. I used ms publisher 97 on a pentium 100 with 16 meg of RAM, which is pretty simple. But I’ll agree that they were beautiful, even now I’m damn proud of each and every one.
There wasn’t really a financial setback so much as a two fingers to little johnny and that lees woman over the introduction of GST. At the time no one really knew what was going to happen to the industry, how far down the toilet things would end up, and I took one look at the paperwork and headed for the hills. Ticonderoga was something I did in addition to my day job, so when it looked like the fun was over I shelved it. In 1999 I published 2 collections (Sean Williams and Stephen Dedman) in my own right, launched the Dedman at the WorldCon in Melbourne, and was part of the team that published Antique Futures: the best of Terry Dowling (not bad work for a 26 year old). I got to work with the people I looked up to: the late Peter MacNamara, Jonathan Strahan, Jeremy G. Byrne and Bill Congreve. There’s a photo taken of the 5 of us at WorldCon and it’s sat in a frame next to my computer since the day Peter Mac died. I figured at the time I’d done more than I’d set out to do and it was time for a new project, so I started up the webzine TiconderogaOnline. I guess a lot of people don’t realise that TiconderogaOnline has been in sporadic operation since about April 1999, making it one of the longest running online semi-prozines in Australia.
I don’t see it as having disappeared so much as having had to fight to stay relevant. I got into the whole sci-fi shebang because I wanted to write genre, found myself sidetracked into editing, and then tried to reinvent myself as a writer. I found myself back where I’d been in the early 90s, so the way I see it the publishing game has held back my writing career by about 8 years. So maybe in another 5 I’ll be the writer I should have been 3 years ago. Or something. But I guess living outside of a major metropolitan area for the last 3 years hasn’t helped me stay in the centre of the radar.
As to the last part of the question, I’ll deal with that first. What is needed to make a viable small press is a fairy godmother, a magic lantern or a straight up act of god. There is not enough money available to make this work in Australia.
As to getting back to tree-based publishing? You’ve got me there. You’ll see me back in the saddle in 2007. I got cornered at SwanCon this year and have been invited to be a professional guest at the 2007 convention, which would also mark 10 years since I published the Steven Utley collectionGhost Seas. To mark this auspicious occasion I’m putting together an anthology or original fiction of about 100,000 words in length, paying more that I ever paid before, and even looking at a full-colour cover. I’ll be opening it up to submissions later in the year. It won’t be your run of the mill anthology, as I’m starting work early so I can be actively involved in working with the submissions where necessary.
2) Ticonderoga has proclaimed that it will service the gonzo market of short fiction. Why that angle, and why not keep it general?
Why keep it general? For years I’ve been attracted to offbeat stories, the kind that only get called sf because people like Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow and Gordon van Gelder buy them. The kind of stories Texans like Neal Barrett Jr, Steven Utley and especially Howard Waldrop like. For the record, Ticonderoga is a Howard Waldrop in-joke suggested by Jonathan Strahan.
The first few years of TiconderogaOnline were pretty general, though I published some great stories. (I robbed Simon Brown of an Aurealis Award by publishing a story of his that didn’t get noticed until it was reprinted.) When Lee Battersby and I got talking about resurrecting the ‘zine, we looked for ways to ensure that we got good submissions, and as we both love gonzo so much we decided to give that a go.
Are we publishing gonzo? We must be, because we say we publish gonzo so therefore the stories we publish are gonzo. At the end of the day, though, we’re just after damn good stories. I’ve seen a tendency for webzines to get sent stories from the bottom of the pile, and we don’t want them. If we’re going to shell out 25 bucks for a story it had better be a good one. So gonzo is out filter.
I don’t think there’s a lot of what I’d call true gonzo being written by Australians. I think a lot of them don’t quite get it. But I’d love to see more.
3) What’s your opinion of the quality of the local scene? What do you think it needs?
I think that there are some positives to be taken out of the strength of the local scene, but I’m not entirely sure that it is developing and growing to its full potential. If anything, I think that the quality-rich days of the 1990s are over, and that every year Australian SF gets closer to achieving Sturgeon’s Law. We’ve got a good bunch of writers out there, but I think that there’s a definite danger they won’t get much better than they already are.
For several years I’ve been singing the tune that the local scene needs some good editors prepared to spend time working with authors. If you look at a lot of the best writers around who got their start in the 1990s, like Sean Williams, Martin Livings, Geoffrey Maloney, Chris Lawson (Simon Brown to a degree despite his apprenticeship in the 1980s) you can link them to Eidolon and the work that Jeremy G. Byrne did. Eidolon weren’t afraid to work with authors to strengthen their stories, and as a result not only published a lot of the best stuff around they also helped make some good writers better. Since Eidolon there has been a bit of a hole. At best a writer is likely to get a 2 line rejection (and I know I’m guilty of this too) that won’t really do much for their development. And pardon me if I don’t get up on the Clarion bandwagon in my underwear but I don’t think that workshop, for all the good that it does, is the complete solution.
What the local scene needs is good editors who know their craft, and who are prepared to devote time to offering constructive feedback to writers, and who are prepared to work on “almost there” stories to make them “really there” stories.
What the genre doesn’t need are editors prepared to published second-rate stories. I see too many cases of Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V “editing”, which is really just compiling at the end of the day.
The genre also needs some editors who have good design skills. I open too many publications nowadays and groan at the poor choice of font, and layout going from ordinary to ugly. It doesn’t have to be that bad. For homework give me a sentence on each of the following: gutters; widows; orphans; margins; and kerning. Then flick through an issue of Eidolon. Next week we explain hyphens and dashes.
4) You’re dead. Well, actually, you weren’t dead when they buried you, but you were soon enough. Still, you go to Heaven (assuming you believe) and you see God. You say?
I see I was wrong about you. Maybe I was wrong about the strength of the local scene too. Got any whisky? Nice view you got here.
5) Favourite swear word?
Fuck. I’m an angry young man who wears black and says fuck a lot from way back.