2012 Snapshot Archive: Ben Payne

First published at David McDonald’s blog.

Ben Payne was born from an egg on a mountain top. During his time in the house, he has editored verious publicatons with varying decrees of succest. As a writer, he makes a great baker.

Since the last paragraph he has travelled to the outer climbs of North Angria with a pleasant garlic sausage, where he unearthed a mysterious pot composed entirely of lintels. Out of this pot he has written eleven masterpieces. But he will only allow them to be published preposterously.

You’ve been a perceptive and passionate commentator on the Aussie Spec Fic scene for a number of years now, and have never been afraid to present ideas and opinions that might not be popular. How effective do you think the Aussie Spec Fic community is at keeping itself accountable? Do we do open and frank discussion well?

Well, that’s a tough question. I’ve never courted controversy, but it’s in my nature to brush against the grain. I’ve always had a particular distrust of consensus, groupthink and conformity, I guess.
So in instances where I’ve felt differently to other people I often feel a kind of obligation to speak out. No doubt sometimes I miss the mark. That’s part of life. But I’ve always tried to speak honestly and to adhere to my own principles.

I think as a community it’s a tough balance to tread at times, between mutual support and encouragement on the one hand, and a vibrant and intelligent critical discussion on the other. The two aren’t always easy to reconcile. But I think that, on the whole, we do pretty well at creating a scene where both critical intelligence and community can exist side by side. There are times when we might err toward one or the other, but on the whole I think it all balances out.

I’ve always tried to maintain a balance between discernment and kindness in my own criticism and commentary. And I’ve probably failed on plenty of occasions. But that’s how it goes. The most important thing, I’ve always thought, is to keep the conversation alive. Silence is the biggest enemy of all writers.

 

As the inaugural editor of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, you must be delighted with its longevity and how it has become a pivotal part of the Aussie landscape. What do you think it is about ASIM that has allowed it to thrive for so long while so many other Aussie Spec Fic magazines have closed or had to radically change to survive?

I don’t think there would be a single member of the original ASIM collective who didn’t think, at heart, that it was a crazy idea with no hope in the world of succeeding. We didn’t admit it too often, out loud. But it really was a crazy shot in the dark kind of venture.

I haven’t been a member of ASIM for about five years, now, so I can perhaps see it with some objectivity. To my mind, its success is attributable to two factors. One; it coincided (not accidentally) with the small press boom of the early 2000s, and rode a wave of goodwill from new readers and new writers. I think that goodwill got us through the early years as we found our way. When I look back at Issue 1 now, I don’t think it was the greatest thing I’ve produced in terms of quality (I was much happier with the second issue I did). There were some good stories in it, but I look back on it more as an artefact, a time capsule or photograph of a particular time, a particular energy that was present in the scene at the time.

The second factor in its success is that most of the original crew buggered off before it became jaded. I think the rotating editorship, for all the problems it brings, has helped to keep the magazine fresh and to keep the enthusiasm from waning. So I like to think I helped save the magazine by jumping ship 🙂

You’ve been responsible for creating some fascinating and wonderfully named projects in the past. Do you have any ideas for new ventures, or anything in the pipeline?

Not at all, actually.

When I started editing and publishing, there were a lot of writers looking to break into the scene, and very few venues where they could be published. I think when Potato Monkey began, there was only Aurealis, Eidolon and Altair on the scene. And so it felt like I could really contribute by providing a venue where new writers could get a break.

Since then, a lot has changed. With online publishing, it has become a lot easier to read and to write for international publications. And the local scene has grown to such an extent that, I would argue, we now need good writers and stories more than we need one more publisher.

Looking back with a little distance, I think I’ve been a better editor than a publisher. I like to think I’ve had a good eye for stories, and how to improve them. But I have never had the drive or ambition to really dive into the business side of things, to create a publicity machine and to generate the buzz that you really need to create to compete with the best in the world. People like Alisa are doing that better than I ever could.

I actually said, just over a decade ago, that I would devote ten years to the scene, in terms of editing, publishing, criticism and behind-the-scenes work, and then concentrate on my own writing. And soon after I said it I thought well, that was a vague throw-away line that I’ll probably forget about and never stick to.

But here I am, oddly, a decade later, and I think it’s time for me to devote some time to my own writing, for better or worse.

What Australian works have you loved recently?

Twelfth Planet is producing some awesome stuff. I should disclose that I’m friends with Alisa, and so I might be biased. But I usually don’t find myself judging my friends’ work overly generously. If anything, I’m harder on them because I have higher expectations 🙂 So I mean it when I say that Alisa is publishing stuff that I read for genuine pleasure, not out of any kind of loyalty. The recent collections by Sue Isle, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Deb Biancotti, as well as Ben Peek’s novella, were all first rate stuff.

There was a lot of other great stuff published last year. Paul Haines’
collection deserves special mention. Brimstone did a great job and Haines is a unique talent. I like a lot of what Peter Ball does, too.
And there are plenty of other great writers working in the scene at the moment.

I am a bit out of touch at novel length, I’m afraid. I’ve been telling people for years that they should read Penni Russon, who I genuinely think is one of our most powerful and talented voices, but who is often overlooked because she writes YA. Her novel Only Ever Always is simply beautiful. I don’t think anybody else in this country is writing prose as gorgeous as Penni, and there is a warmth and heart to her work that I just love. I am predicting she will be the writer people remember in a hundred years.

Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian Spec Fic scene?

I wasn’t at Aussiecon 4, sadly, so I can’t specifically talk about that con. In terms of how the scene has developed over the last few years, I think we’ve seen an increasing professionalism. If the early part of the decade post-2000 could be defined by a vibrant, optimistic amateurism, I think the second half can be defined by a growing professional focus and higher quality works, both in terms of the writing and in terms of production values. People like Alisa, and Russell at Ticonderoga, and others, are producing genuinely good looking books.

We’re seeing more authors being collected. A whole bunch of authors who cut their teeth in the late nineties, who formed part of the nucleus of the small press boom of the early 2000s, are now reaching the stage where they’re producing world class collections and/or novels. I’m thinking of people like Trent Jamieson, Kaaron Warren, Deb Biancotti, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Kirstyn McDermott. You could probably count Margo Lanagan in that group too, although she was writing a little earlier. And we’re seeing the next generation of writers, people like Peter Ball, Ben Peek, Cat Sparks, Rjurik Davidson, Angela Slatter, making regular international sales, and those writers will probably be big names in five years too.

So we’re in a good place at the top end of the field. I am probably less well placed to see where the new voices of the generation after that are coming from. The scene at the newer end of the spectrum feels a lot more diffuse. But that’s exciting too.

If anything it feels like expansion is no longer a problem. We could keep growing and growing. The challenge in the next decade, I feel, will be in finding focus. It’s easier to publish than it used to be, and ebooks are gonna make it even easier. Increasingly, it’s not getting published that’s the hard part, it’s being *read*. That’s always been the case to some extent, but self-publishing and ebooks are going to make it more so. The challenge for publishers and authors in the period to come, I think, will be in finding a way for their voice to cut through the signal to noise ratio, to find an audience and connect.

It’s going to be interesting times, and if the last decade is anything to go by, unpredictable. I can’t wait!

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