2007 Snapshot Archive: Ben Payne

Interviewed by Kathryn Linge

First published at ASiF!

Ben Payne is writer, editor, lover, dreamer, and fighter. His editing credits include Potato Monkey and Aurealis Magazine, plus the new Twelfth Planet Press publications Shiny and 2012. His latest story ‘Inside’ can be read in Issue 11 of Ticonderoga Online and he blogs at: http://benpayne.livejournal.com/

He is not Ben Peek.

1. You’ve recently taken up a couple of editorial roles with Twelfth Planet Press, particularly with the young adult e-zine, Shiny, and the themed anthology 2012. What are the differences between these projects and the publications you have edited in the past?

When I started Potato Monkey and co-founded ASIM six or seven years ago, there weren’t a lot of publications out there, and there was a feeling that it was hard for new writers to get into print.

That’s not the case anymore, and when Alisa and I, and Tansy in the case of Shiny, were talking about how we’d like to work together we quickly realised that there was no point in putting one more venue out there that offered the same thing that everyone else did. So instead we started looking at what wasn’t really being offered by the current publications. The thing that immediately came to mind was YA. All three of us are fans of YA writing at novel length, and we thought there was room for a venue that published short stories in a similar vein.

Similarly, 2012 came out of a feeling that we’d like to see more good SF published. Alisa comes from a scientific background, and we both have similar politics. We realised that we both share a desire for more stories which engage intelligently with contemporary political and scientific trends. Hence the timeframe of the anthology; we wanted near future SF which speculated on the years immediately ahead of us, in order to explore the values and politics of our society right now.

2. You’re known for reading (or at least attempting to read) all the short Australian speculative fiction published each year. However this year, as part of lastshortstory, you’re trying to read all the short speculative fiction published in the world! Firstly, how many stories is that and how are you holding up? How does the quality of Australian fiction compare to the rest of the world?

So far I’ve read about 1350 stories. At the moment it looks like our eventual tally will be around 3000. I’m sure even then we’ll miss some stuff. It’s a very time-consuming project, and I think all of us are feeling the effects of it. At the same time it’s a very satisfying project in terms of learning about the international scene, and gaining perspective on where we stand in it.

Overall, I think local writing holds up well. In terms of our population size, I think the number of writers we have producing top rate material is very impressive. I don’t want to sound parochial; the majority of top notch material still comes from the US and UK, as you’d expect. But I do think that, in terms of percentages, we hold our own.

At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve discovered that the stories we don’t like by Australian authors are by no means the worst out there. Of course not being “The Worst” isn’t the greatest prize one could aim for. But it’s worth keeping things in perspective. I think often those people who do deride local publishing are comparing it with the material published in years’ bests or the big three (Asimovs, F&SF, Analog). I think if those people took a broader sampling of the international scene, they’d see that local publications stack up pretty well. So while there’s no call for arrogance, and we can’t afford to sit on our laurels, on the one hand, on the other there’s certainly no call to deride local publications or to reinforce the cultural cringe.

3. You’ve said that you decided in 2000 to devote ten years to helping invigorate the Scene by editing, volunteering for the Aurealis Awards, etcetera. Firstly, why did you pick such a bloody long timeframe??? Do you think it’s been worth it, particularly in light of (continued) controversy surrounding the Aurealis Awards and your stint at Aurealis Magazine? Finally, how are the next three years looking – are you just hanging out for 2010 so you can concentrate on writing?

The timeframe was fairly arbitrary. Ten years seemed like a reasonable amount of time. I didn’t want to be someone who takes from the support given by the local community without giving back. And I figured that if I committed ten years of my life to working on things like the AAs and promoting and nurturing local writing, I’d be putting out some good karma.

But it’s not a line set in stone, or an either/or proposition. I suspect I’ll still be editing after 2010. And I don’t intend to simply stop giving back to the community and become totally selfish. At the same time, I’m aware that my own writing career has suffered due to all the other stuff I’ve done. So some of the other stuff (judging for awards, etc) will be scaled back after that time. Because I don’t want to look back on my life and think I never really gave writing a proper shot.

In terms of the various controversies, well, I think you learn to have a thick skin. I learned during my PhD that often people like to assume the worst of one another, and any time the work you do is unseen, some people will assume you’re being lazy. Chapter not done? Must have been partying. It’s the same in publishing, where the majority of work is unseen. If an issue doesn’t emerge when it was supposed to, some people will assume you’ve been lazing around sipping port and watching reality tv.

Ultimately you have two choices. You can either let the judgements get to you, and stop trying. Or you learn to live by your own barometer. I will always listen to criticism and think about it and take it in, but ultimately I know inside me which things I’ve done to the best of my ability and which I need to work on. I think it helps, too, if you have good intentions. If you’ve worked on something as hard as you can, then you don’t need to beat yourself up about it. You learn from any mistakes you’ve made, and incorporate that into your future methodology. But in the end, all you can do each and every time is your best.

The criticisms still hurt sometimes of course, especially when they are unfair or inaccurate, or when they come from people close to me. But looked at in the right way, they are either an opportunity for learning and growth, or else they are inaccurate and therefore water off a duck’s back.

Also, in terms of the commitment to community outlined above, it helps to remember that it’s not about accolades. It’s not about winning awards or having people pat me on the back. It’s about giving back to the community. In those terms, what matters is that I feel I’ve done my best to strengthen and help the scene, to fight the good fight. Some days people will say “well done” and other times they’ll tell me my blog is evil and that I’m a lazy useless idiot. So it goes. If I’ve done my best then I’ll sleep at night.

4. Enough about the writing (and editing), what’s the best thing you’ve read this year?

I’m really enjoying Jeff Vandermeer’s Shriek. I haven’t read a lot of novels this year but this is one I keep returning to when I have a spare moment.

I can heartily recommend both The New Space Opera and The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction to lovers of good SF. In terms of magazines, I’m enjoying some of the more literary mags, like Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Electric Velocipede, Zahir, etc. And there’s a lot of good stuff published in the majors too. Anybody who hasn’t read Lucius Shepard’s novella in the July Fantasy and Science Fiction should do so immediately!

In terms of local stuff, I think Aurealis and Orb both had good issues. ASIM has had a better-than-average year, for my money. And I also really enjoyed the latest issue of New Ceres. Mostly though, I’ve found good individual stories across the board. I couldn’t say “read such-and-such” for the best local writing. To me the gems seem to have been evenly spread.

5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you’re given the opportunity to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most. Who’s it gonna be and why?

Finally, a serious question! I actually rarely feel attracted to fictional characters these days.

The history of my fantasy crushes reads like a who’s who of geek girls; Nyssa from Doctor Who, Melanie from Degrassi, Darlene from Roseanne, Linda from Press Gang, Daria from Daria, Janene Garofalo’s character Paula from The Larry Sanders Show, Willow from Buffy, Fred from Angel. Add to that the occasional non-geek; Laura from Doctor Katz, Faith from Buffy.

The problem is, I’m not really a herd animal. And one day I realised that most of these crushes were quite common, and having them suddenly made me feel stupid and boring. So now I often try to see the beauty in the characters in a show that nobody else is attracted to. Because without wanting to sound wanky, there is beauty in everyone and I think teaching ourselves to find it and learning to explore and challenge our own tastes is a healthy thing.

Ultimately though, I’m more of an empathic viewer/reader than one who objectifies. To me, being attracted to a character is among the least interesting reactions you can have to them. I’m not interested in desiring a character, I’m interested in being them. In seeing what makes them tick. That’s where it’s at, for me.

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