An Interview with Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

If you're a fan of science fiction and fantasy and don't know who the Nielsen Haydens are, get on your game, people! Where the hell have you been? But as a crash course, Teresa is a consulting editor for Tor Books, where Patrick is Executive Editor. Click on the photo above to read their blog, Making Light. Patrick and Teresa were kind enough to take a break from being Guest Editors of Honor at MidSouthCon 34 to chat with me. I learned so much during this interview, and much had nothing to do with publishing.

 

*The following was transcribed from a recording and has been edited for brevity.

SG – So, I guess the first question is: What are some upcoming Tor books that you’re most excited about?

PNH – Usually the answer to that is whatever first novel is currently on my horizon. And right now, that’s a book that’s coming out in May. The author is a woman named Ada Palmer. It’s called TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING—it’s a Shakespeare quote. It’s the first book of a four-novel series called, TERRA IGNOTA, a science fiction set five hundred years in our future, and it’s pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever read in science fiction.

It uses a lot of the techniques of conventional SF, but it does other stuff, too. It’s a very interesting quasi-utopian future that, in some ways, is kind of designed to outrage our sensibilities.

TNH – This is how you can tell it’s another period, because there are things that outrage us. I think one of the problems with the original concept of the utopia is that you got the impression that it would be a single utopian state and that they’d be in it forever, this very static kind of conception.

PNH – Yeah, this is not a static world.

TNH – Of course it’s a much better world in a great many ways, but it is not static.

PNH – It’s fragile.

TNH – It’s fragile, and there’s strong sense of: how did we get here and where are things going?

PNH – And Ada is a professional historian. Currently she’s an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. Which is a great gig.

TNH – Renaissance History is kind of her stronghold. She’s also done things like the history of Atheism.

PNH – And Skepticism. Interesting person, interesting writer. And so I’m very high on this book.

SG – And it comes out May 10th. Where do you see Tor’s future?

TNH – Probably somewhere in midtown (laughs).

SG – Out of the Flatiron?

TNH – Well, we don’t know. But we’re going to keep making books. We love what we do. We’re good at what we do.

PNH – If you’re asking if there’ll be a Tor Books in twenty-five years, I’m pretty sure there will be. We’re a part of Macmillan, which is the smallest of the Big Five.

TNH – And they seem to genuinely prize Tor for what Tor is good at. It’s like they recognize that we are a name in science fiction and fantasy, and have a sense that we know what we’re doing.

SG – In thinking of what happened at Angry Robot and the changing of the guard, Lee Harris left and you acquired him.

PNH – Well, he left because we stole him (laughs). We were looking for an editor for the Tor.com novella line. We initially wanted someone who could work in New York, but Lee Harris made such an impressive pitch, and he was obviously quite well-connected to the kind of hot, young, smart, scrappy, up-and-coming writers who are still writing short fiction.

SG – The Alexander Hamiltons of the publishing world.

PNH – (laughs) Yeah, there you go. At Tor right now, you cannot get too far away from quoting Hamilton.

TNH – If you ask what’s the hottest thing in science fiction right now—

PNHHamilton. Yeah, absolutely.

SG – A personal question: How did you two meet?

PNH – In an APA.

SG – APA?

PNH – Amateur Press Association.

TNH – Before the Internet.

PNH – This is back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Fandom in the 1970s.

TNH – This week we will celebrate our 37th anniversary.

SG – Congratulations!

PNH – So, in the pre-Internet world there was science fiction fandom going back to like 1929. And a lot of it took place in fanzines. There weren’t that many conventions. So one of the mutant forms of all this, starting in the late 30s and really taking off in the 60s, was Amateur Press Associations, or APAs. A small group of people ranging from twenty to seventy, that’s the high end, but typically about thirty-five people. And they would all publish a small fanzine addressed entirely to the other people in the group. And the central mailer would send them out to all the other members. So this was like a very slow Internet, but it was incredibly fast-seeming at the time. And you’d write something, type it on stencils, send it out, and get answers and arguments and comments in like three or four weeks. Oh my God! From dozens of people!

TNH – All of the characteristic fan-ish inventions or, at least, technologies that they picked up and ran with are all pre-Internet.

PNH – Yeah, talking about the language, common Internet abbreviations like “LOL” came from APAs.

TNH – We took to the Internet like nobody’s business. But Patrick and I met each other in, what, AZAPA?

PNH – AZAPA, yeah.

TNH – He did the best colophons (laughs).

PNH – It was people in Arizona SF fandom or people who were their friends. And I started in the latter category because I grew up there, but my family moved to Toronto when I was seventeen, eighteen years old. But when we first became aware of each other’s existence, she was twenty, I was maybe seventeen.

TNH – He was still shorter than I was.

SG – (laughs)

PNH – But we didn’t actually get involved for another year and a half.

TNH – I had a terrible crush on Patrick for like two years before I got up the courage to say anything about him. One of the first things I noticed about Patrick was he did such great prose. He did naturally justified colophons.

PNH – Colophon, in the context of a fanzine, think “Masthead”.

TNH – So, when the web came along, you started seeing these astonished news stories about some couple that met online and actually wound up getting married, and Patrick and I are sitting back and laughing.

SG – What qualities in a manuscript spur you to acquire it?

PNH – I’m looking for the thing that I had no idea I was looking for, but you did it so refreshingly, so originally, so amazingly that I’m just blown away. Like, right now it seems extremely unlikely that I’m interested in a western. But if something like True Grit showed up in my inbox, something as unconventional, and genre-breaking and neat, I would totally buy that.

TNH – If we’re hanging out in the kitchen, fixing dinner, it’s the impulse to say, “Let me tell you about what’s happening in this story now. I know I told you three previous iterations, but oh my God, this is what’s happening now.

PNH – Let’s go to the opposite end of all that. I hate trend-spotting in general, because book publishing is just too slow for that to be effective. By the time you notice there’s a trend toward Yugoslavian vampire stories…you know, it takes a year to write a Yugoslavian vampire novel, another two years to sell, and another year or two to publish it. By that time, they’re way the hell back in the rearview mirror. It’s pointless. You may as well just write good stuff.

But, that said, there’s never enough sciencey science fiction. There’s always too much fantasy. And the reason is—

TNH – Sciencey science fiction is hard to write.

PNH – Well, that’s part of it. But another reason—this has to do with the psychology of aspiring writers, who want to break in, and might write one and might write the other—everybody knows, more or less, that fantasy outsells science fiction by about two to one. What this means is that nine out of ten aspiring writers are trying to write fantasy. If you are remotely numerate, you can see immediately that this leads to a serious shortage of science fiction. And that’s always the case. We never have enough really sciencey science fiction, as opposed to alternate history, or Steampunk, or whatever. And I don’t mean necessarily just super, Greg Benford, hard science fiction with rivets. But you know, just sciencey stuff. Like, I mean, Old Man’s War, which is not all that sciencey, but is still recognizably “science” science fiction. Of course, there are never enough books like Old Man’s War.