Interview with ‘Alien Contact’ Editor Marty Halpern


AlienContact - FinalCoverI’ve known Marty Halpern for some years now, beginning when he and I crossed paths through our mutual work – him as an editor, me as a book publicist – on author Andrew Fox’s dystopian SF comedy The Good Humor Man: Or, Calorie 3501. I’ve met very few people as passionate about their work, or as dedicated to their authors. Halpern, Fox and I enjoyed a weekend at a con together several years ago, and since that time, we’ve remained in touch. When Halpern told me that he had finished a new anthology called Alien Contact, I thought now would be a good time for us to have a conversation about his career as an award-winning editor and what it takes to get a start in the business today.

How did you get started in editing?

It all started with a letter — an actual, physical, words-on-paper letter. The letter was to Gary Turner, publisher of Golden Gryphon Press. Jim Turner, Gary’s older brother, had worked as editor at Arkham House for twenty-five years before leaving to start GGP in 1997. In early 1999 Jim passed away, and a couple months later I wrote that letter to Gary, which led to some email dialog. And I ended up working for Gary and Golden Gryphon Press for the next 8 years.

What led you specifically to working with science fiction and other fantastic genres? Were you always a fan?

I wouldn’t say I was always a fan. When I was younger, I read a lot of sports stories (The Kid Who Batted 1000), war stories (The Big E, Merrill’s Marauders). But I watched a lot of genre movies on TV. Remember Creature Features and Elvira’s Movie Macabre? And though these movies often scared the bejesus out of me, I still continued to watch them. Eventually, the movies influenced my reading material.

What are some of the novels and anthologies that you’ve edited? Do you have a favorite project from your past?

Asking an editor to pick a favorite book is akin to asking a parent to choose a favorite child. I’ve had the honor (and I don’t use that word loosely) to edit Jeffrey’s Ford’s first two short story collections, M. Rickert’s first book (also a short story collection), Kage Baker’s first short story collection, and all three (so far) of Charles Stross’s Laundry Files books. And that’s only four of the exceptional authors with whom I have worked. Other authors include George Alec Effinger, Elizabeth Moon, Alastair Reynolds, Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop, and Liz Williams. In July 2010, DAW Books published my co-edited anthology Is Anybody Out There? (with Nick Gevers): original stories based on the Fermi paradox. This anthology had a direct influence on Alien Contact, my new anthology from Night Shade Books — some of the best “alien contact” stories from the past thirty or so years. Readers can view my entry in the SF Editors wiki for a complete list, by year, of all the books I have edited. I’ve proofed and copyedited hundreds more that are too numerous to list.

What’s the life of a professional editor like, anyway?

In one sense, an editor’s life probably isn’t much different from that of a writer’s. Lots of alone time on the computer; editing what writers have written. I spend a lot of time communicating with writers and publishers, I do research online, blog, use the social media tools throughout the day to stay informed, as well as to inform readers. And as a freelancer, if I’m not editing something at any given time, then I’m not making any income either. These are difficult times right now, economically (and politically) speaking, that is — for writers, editors, and publishers alike.

People have some misconceptions about editors, I know. Can you share a few of them?

Ah, the secret life of an editor. The glamour, the intrigue… Actually, if I knew then what I know now….

There are many aspects to being an editor: there are acquiring editors, anthology editors, manuscript editors, copy editors, proof readers, fact-checkers — and I’m probably forgetting one or two others. Most, if not all, of these skills/responsibilities can overlap on any given project.

I recently worked on a project for Tachyon Publications: a short novel by award-winning author Nancy Kress. After Nancy reviewed the marked up manuscript, she sent an email to the publisher with the following comment: “Whoever the copy-editor is, he or she is the best one I’ve ever had: thorough, sharp-eyed, and willing to be editor instead of a co-author. Please thank him/her for me.” Jill Roberts, managing editor at Tachyon, forwarded the email to me. Even though Nancy and I knew one another, she hadn’t known at the time that I was the one who worked on her book. (She knows now, however.) This was my second such compliment in as many weeks, and it makes it all worthwhile.

As a freelancer, you don’t always have the opportunity to pick and choose your projects, especially in this economy. If you want to work, if you want to have an income, you work on the projects that are available to you. And not every project is written by a Nancy Kress, or a Lucius Shepard.

Were I a young person considering a career in editing, how would I prepare?

There has always been a “catch 22” in the job market: you can’t get a job without experience, and yet you can’t gain experience without a job. So my suggestion to a young person interested in the publishing field is to consider an internship. A good time to begin is while you are in school because an internship typically doesn’t provide any income. And if you work the system correctly, you can often turn this internship into course credit via a practicum/field work. And if the student is very lucky, the company sponsoring the internship just might hire them after they graduate. Regardless, my advice would be to seek a full-time position; don’t even consider freelancing as an option, especially in this down economy (which will probably extend for at least a couple years). Trust me on this.

Tell me about your new project. How did it come together? Who is involved?

When I queried authors about contributing to the Fermi paradox anthology (the previously mentioned Is Anybody Out There?), a few responded with similar comments: they had already written what they felt was their best alien contact story, and they didn’t wish to write yet another. So this got me thinking about all the incredible alien contact stories that have been written in the past, say, thirty years — and wouldn’t it be great to have these all (or at least as many as possible) collected in one volume. And thus Alien Contact was born. After much perseverance, I sold the anthology to Night Shade Books. (Note: I actually have enough quality stories to easily fill another volume!)

What did you look for when you were picking stories for this collection?

Another editor working on this book would probably have put together a completely different set of stories. I looked for stories that were well written and told a great story. There were a couple stories that I really wanted to like, to include, because they were great ideas, but I couldn’t get past the structural flaws. (Keep in mind that these were previously published stories, too.) I selected stories that I believed to be a unique take on the alien contact theme. I like subtlety; I like sardonic wit. I wanted stories that were accessible by all readers. And, in my humble editorial opinion, I believe all the stories in Alien Contact to be intelligently written as well.

I understand you’ve been doing a bit of blogging about the book. Can you tell me about that?

I’m always reading somewhere about the death of the short story. People who say the short story market is dead certainly haven’t done their homework. Genre anthologies — reprint, original, and a combination of the two — on nearly every subject imaginable are being published, I would say, almost weekly. Once I had confirmed the contents for Alien Contact, I decided that to simply publish the contents list would be, well, boring. So I brainstormed some ideas and decided to blog about each story — one story each week for twenty-six weeks — in their order of appearance in the book. I began this blogging project in May so that all the stories would be revealed before the book’s November 1 publication date.

After I did the blog posts for the first three stories — and first three weeks — I realized what a commitment this project would really be. At least I knew what I would be doing blogwise for the next half year!

By the way, I kept all the contributing authors in the dark as well — so the authors themselves had to wait for my weekly blog posts to find out who their fellow contributors were to the anthology. I’ve received some cool feedback from some of the authors; one author in particular discovered that one of his favorite stories, a story that he had actually used as a teaching tool in a previous university course, was included in the book.

When will the book be available, and how can we get it?

Alien Contact is on schedule for a November 1 publication. I’ve already received my contributor copies of the book, and the authors themselves have been checking in with me as they receive their copies. The book is now available for ordering from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or whoever your favorite bookseller may be.

Anything that you’d like to add? Where can we find you online?

My blog is “More Red Ink” and readers can follow this link to my dedicated Alien Contact page to view the contents list along with other goodies, including the complete text of seven (so far) of the stories. You’ll also find me on Facebook and Twitter (@martyhalpern). Readers can also show their support for this anthology by making their way to my Alien Contact Anthology page on Facebook and clicking the “Like” button. We are also giving away copies of Alien Contact on Goodreads.

Edited by Marty Halpern
(Science Fiction | 978-1-59780-281-9 | $15.99 | 500 Pages)
a Night Shade Books trade paperback
November 2011

We are not alone! From War of the Worlds to Invasion of the Body Snatchers… From ET to Close Encounters… creators of science fiction have always eagerly speculated on just how the story of alien contact would play out.

Editor Marty Halpern has gathered together some of the best stories of the last 30 years, by today’s most exciting genre writers, weaving a tapestry that covers a broad range of scenarios: from the insidious, to the violent, to the transcendent.

Legendary author Stephen King’s “I am the Doorway”–the story of a crippled ex-astronaut whose body becomes the portal for an alien life-form–examines what lengths a man would go to close a doorway to a malevolent race. Multi award-winning author Neil Gaiman delves into the psyche of a teenage boy in “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” and Ursula Le Guin’s “The First Contact with the Gorgonids” is a humorous, yet edgy, tale of a married couple and their
extraterrestrial encounter in the Australian bush.

These twenty-six stories from extraordinary writers such as Harry Turtledove, Orson Scott Card, Molly Gloss, Michael Swanwick, Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Moon, Adam-Troy Castro, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Neil Gaiman will captivate and intrigue. Separately they are enthralling, combined together into one anthology they will take you to another world.