NK: You began your career in television. How did that come about?
Photo © 1998 |
Nancy Kilpatrick, Stephen Jones & Catilin R. Kierman
World Fantasy Convention, Monterey, California (1998)
SJ: I started back in the early 1970s. After being expelled from school
(for reasons not worth going into here), I spent the summer in London
working at various jobs. After attending a college for further
education—where I completed all my exam courses in just one year instead
of the usual two—I decided that I wanted to somehow work in the film
industry. I'd always loved the movies, but without any personal or
professional contacts it was pretty much a closed shop in Britain back then. However, although there
was no way I could get into films, I discovered that I didn't need any
experience to work in television.
So, in 1972, I joined a production company in London's Soho district called
Air-time Productions. I started out working in their small test studio,
learning to use the video cameras and recorders. In those days video was arelatively new technology.
Over the next four or five years, I worked my
way up through the company until they eventually gave me the opportunity to
produce television commercials and documentaries. I finally got my director's ticket when I was twenty-five years old, and I ended up
directing and producing literally hundreds of TV commercials—everything
from cans of baked beans to talking bottles of house plant fertilizer! I
also had the opportunity to work with some interesting people, such as John
Cleese, David Niven, and British comedian Charlie Drake. Then in the early
1980s, myself and two colleagues formed our own company, Advent Video, with
offices in London's upscale Mayfair. Along with the TV commercials, we
started specializing in medical documentaries and sales-aid films. I shot
everything from a vasectomy to an eight-hour spinal operation!
During this entire period, television was my primary career, and the
fantasy and horror stuff was more of a hobby. In my spare time I was
editing various small press magazines such as Dark
Horizons, and writing
reviews and articles for British Fantasy Society publications.
Photo © 1992 Bob Knight |
Graham Masterson, Stephen Jones & Peter James celebrate
Jim and Eileen Herbert's 25th Wedding Anniversary (Brighton, 1992)
NK: Were you also publishing material in North America?
SJ: Oh yes, I had news items and columns in Locusand Science Fiction
Chronicle, and some of my illustrations appeared in Chacal. I was also
writing for film magazines, such as Cinefantastique, Famous
Monsters, Starburst and Monsterland, and I was a contributor to a leading
softcore men's magazine in the UK.
NK: Was that journalistic work?
SJ: Yes, movie reviews and interviews—but always genre stuff. You'd be
surprised how many other genre people have worked for those types of
magazines at some time during their careers—usually because the money is
In fact, Jo Fletcher and I were in California doing an interview with
director John Carpenter for one of those magazines. We were at Twentieth
Century Fox studios, where he was just finishing up Big Trouble in Little
China- Dennis Etchison, who is an old friend of Carpenter's, had set it
up for us. After the interview was over, we all went over to the
commissary for lunch. During the meal, Carpenter leaned over and said to
me, "Steve, with your background in television, have you ever thought of
moving out to Hollywood to work?" Well, of course I had, but I pointed out
that I would rather be a medium-sized fish in a small pond, than a minnow
in a teeming ocean. And that's exactly what I would have been out there -
I'd have probably ended up waiting tables after six months! Carpenter thought about that for a moment, then he said, "You know, with your writing
and your production background you could be a unit publicist." As a
journalist, I'd worked with unit publicists before they're the people
responsible for creating the publicity while a movie is actually in
production. I'd never considered it before.
Photo © 1993 |
Neil Gaiman, Stephen Jones & Dennis Etchison
at the World Fantasy Convention (Bloomington, Minnesota, 1993)
When I returned to London, I phoned my friend Clive Barker and said,
"Clive, you're about to start shooting a little movie in London, aren't
you? Do you have a unit publicist yet?" He told me they couldn't afford
one because of the budget, so I said, "You can now. I'll do it for free."
Clive liked the idea, and set up a meeting between myself and the
film'sproducer, Christopher Figg. We met for lunch the following week, and
after an hour Chris offered me the job as well as a small fee. So I told my
office I was taking eight weeks off to work on this movie called Hellraiser! It was a wonderful learning experience for all of us, and by
the time it was over I discovered Advent Video had cash-flow problems and
was being forced into liquidation.
That made up my mind for me. I didn't need somebody else's mistakes
screwing up my life ever again. So in 1987 I went freelance, and I've
never worked for anybody else on a full-time basis since.
Photo © 1993 David Barraclough |
Ray Harryhausen & Stephen Jones
Signing at London's National Film Theatre (1993)
NK: You've been drawn toward fantasy and horror since then?
SJ: Absolutely. Although I actually began reading in the field back in the
late 1960s. Before then I'd collected comic books and monster movie
magazines. I started out with the usual stuff—Robert E. Howard's
Conan books, Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels and Lin Carter's Thongor,
before moving on to most of the classic SF authors.
Then in 1969, while browsing in a bookstore, I came across a paperback
volume featuring a black and white cover with pastel lettering. It was a
copy of H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, and I picked it
up simply on the basis of the distinctive cover design. After reading it,
I became a Lovecraft fanatic and set out to find all his other books and
also those by the Weird Talescircle, such as Clark Ashton Smith, August
Derleth, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber and others. When I got into fanzines
in the early '70s, I discovered many other writers I wanted to read, and I
gradually drifted more towards fantasy and horror. They had a resonance
that I just couldn't find anymore in most science fiction or heroic
NK: Most of the anthologies you've done have been in the horror and dark
SJ: Yes, I guess so. One of the great strengths of horror fiction is that
it can encompass so many areas of literature and film. You can have a
western with horror elements; you can have a science fiction story that
includes horror; you can have a crime thriller which involves horror.
However, it doesn't necessarily work the other way around. For me, horror
is the most imaginative field I can work in, because it allows the most
scope for creativity. As we said when we were making Hellraiser—'There
Are No Limits!', and I truly believe that the best horror fiction has no
creative or thematic barriers. One of my great delights
compiling the Best New Horror volumes every year is discovering a story
in which an author uses new and original ways of presenting the horror.
NK: How does the U.S. genre market compare to the British genre market?
SJ: The problem I see with a lot of American editors is they don't read
widely enough. I usually visit North America two or three times a year. We
get American books and movies in Britain. I read as much American fantasy
and horror as probably anybody in America does. However, I also read a lot
of British material, a lot of European material as well. Most American
editors do not. They often never see that material, and if they did they
wouldn't understand many of the references. When I put together the stories
for an anthology, I can draw on a wide group of writers. That's one of my
strengths as an editor. One of the great weaknesses of American editors is
that they often fail to draw on those same strengths. Basically, American
publishers, editors, even the readers, are just not interested in material
from other countries.
Photo © 1994 |
Basil Cooper, Mandy Slater & Stephen Jones
at World Horror Convention, Phoenix, Arizona (1994)
NK: Why do you think that is, because American books do sell in Britain?
SJ: The problem is that some things just do not translate between the
cultures. Mostly, it's the big names that move across. But it doesn't
always work the other way. There is a difference. But it's a cultural
difference. My sense is that the overall quality of fantasy and horror
published in Britain is higher. That's simply because the market is so much
bigger in America, the choice is wider, and consequently I think there is a
ratio of more bad material being published.
NK: You work with David Sutton on "Dark
Terrors", and you worked with
Ramsey Campbell on "Best New Horror". What's it like co-editing an
SJ: I enjoy working with co-editors. I've worked with Dave, Ramsey, Kim
Newman, Jo Fletcher, Neil Gaiman and Dave Carson, amongst others. One of
the reasons I collaborate is because I'm usually so busy. It helps to ease
the burden to have a co-editor. It's also useful to have someone to bounce ideas off, which was
learned working in television. When you are directing you always have to
worry about the actors, the lighting, the sets, the cameras, whatever. So
you need somebody who can stand behind you and say, that's great and wonderful, but don't you think that if
you moved that plant a foot to the left it wouldn't be growing out of that
actor's head? Now you may not have noticed that because you were worrying about the performance or the camera
angles. It's the same working with a co-editor. It gives you the
opportunity to discuss the stories with someone else, and for the authors
it is a useful safety-net.
Photo © 1995 Mandy Slater |
Kim Newman, Stephen Jones, Shawna McCarthy & Ellen Datlow at Ad Astra 15, Toronto, Canada (1995)
NK: You're an editor, so you're obviously jaded [mutual laughter]...
SJ: I hope I'm not jaded. However, I read so much substandard material, so
much tedious fiction during the year, that it is always a delight to find
something that I actually want to buy. It's even better when you discover a
new writer. These days I tend to work more closely with my contributors.
It's something I've grown into. I always send a story back for a rewrite,
if I think it needs it. I've also been very lucky that the writers have
accepted that, and have come back and thanked me for it afterwards. Most of
them understand that I'm only suggesting changes because I want to buy
their story. Being an editor is like being a director—you have a group of
talented people, camera men, lighting crew, set designers, costume people,
actors, and you have to bring them all together to create a project. An anthology is exactly the same. Instead of performers and technicians, you
work with writers and artists. My job is to 'direct' that book and end up
with a package I'm happy with.
NK: I don't really know of any anthologies that get bought by major houses
that don't have a 'name' on the cover, and you're indicating that doesn't
have to happen in the UK. Obviously there's some difference in the approach
SJ: Maybe the emphasis on publishing is slightly different. I suspect that
from the British publishing point of view, and even from a readership view,
we are more interested in the actual books themselves. At least I'd like to
think so. A good book will always be a good book, but a good book will not
always be a successful book, as we all know. There are many authors in our
field who have achieved stunning commercial success, but whose work I seriously doubt will survive the passage of time. So we are talking
about two different methods of publishing here, neither of which can be
considered right or wrong. And I think there's room for both.
I suspect that is no longer true in North America. Now you have to deliver
a guaranteed bestseller or a publisher is not interested. I think that's
very sad, but unfortunately I think that's the way publishing in Britain is headed as well... You have to
remember that in most cases an editor or an author puts their name on a
book because they are proud of it. I can think of nothing worse than saying
I did a book simply because of the money. I don't think any of us achieve
everything we want with our creative endeavors, but we should always try to
do the best we can. I've been very lucky with the books I've done to date.
I can defend every one—the reasons why I did it, the strengths and
weaknesses of that particular project.
Perhaps British publishers are still willing to take some risks, and as
long as a book makes some money, then everybody is going to be happy. Many
of the books I've done have earned out their advance—which means they
have made a profit for the publisher, they have made money for the
contributors, and I've also earned some money from them. It may not be huge
sums, but it's enough for publishers to come back and ask me to compile
another one. That's what publishing should be about. Not every book
necessarily has to be a bestseller, so long as it is a good book. So long
as it stays in print. I'm very lucky because of my working relationship
with Robinson Publishing and Carroll and Graf. With them, I'm usually
published on both sides of the Atlantic. And any projects those particular
publishers are not interested in doing, I take elsewhere. I'm also very
lucky in that I've become involved with various series. Working on the
Mammoth, Dark Terrors and Best New Horror books has been a dream,
because each of those series is different from the other.
Photo © 1994 John L. Coker III |
Stephen Jones and Les Daniels
at World Fantasy Convention, New Orleans, Louisiana (1994)
NK: You're making it clear that you love what you're doing, and you also
have a standard of quality you've set for yourself.
SJ: I'm doing now what I could only dream about twenty years ago, when I
first started out in this field. Despite the fact that I don't really have
any skills, I've somehow managed to keep getting away with it. I was lucky
enough to meet and befriend many established writers while I was still
relatively young. They were very helpful and supportive when I decided to
make my career in this genre, and I hope I'm now showing that same
generosity to the younger writers I'm working with. I also try to promote
British talent, which I think is often sadly neglected in America.
NK: So are there any drawbacks to editing anthologies?
SJ: One of the biggest drawbacks being an anthology editor is that you
spend your entire life reading stories and manuscripts, particularly if you
edit as many books as I do. Also, if you are based in Britain, you don't
make very much money doing it. In most cases you share whatever advance and
royalties you get for a book between you and your contributors. This is
something I always try to do. I know there are editors out there who do not
pay royalties, who buy the stories for a flat fee, and it's always up to
the writer if he wants to accept that kind of deal. However, in my opinion,
all anthology contracts should include some kind of royalty clause for the
author. It's only fair that if a book is successful for the publisher, if
it's successful for the editor, then the contributors who did so much of
the work should share in that success.
So basically I pay an advance, which is often not very much because
advances are usually significantly smaller in Britain than they are in
America, and then I will pay a pro-rata royalty to the various authors. On some titles that has worked out especially well
for the contributors. It's a way of saying thank you to those writers for
supporting you. But at the end of the day it doesn't leave the editor with
Photo © 1996|
Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes and Stephen Jones (Teddington, England, 1996)
NK: Do you read a story all the way through? Or are you like many editors,
who read only the first page?
SJ: Unless it's absolutely awful, I don't think you can just read the
opening paragraph or page of a story. You never know what a writer might
come up with, and you can always ask them to go back and revise the earlier
sections. I think those editors who say that they only read the first few
pages are doing a disservice to themselves and to the writer. I try to read
submissions all the way through, although it can sometimes be a depressing,
NK: How many stories do you read a year?
SJ: I would guess more than a thousand. And I've got to say that the
majority of the original submissions are absolutely terrible.
NK: Terrible in the sense of being badly written?
SJ: Yes—badly written, badly constructed, terrible concepts. Ploughing
through this stuff drains you creatively. Something that Ellen Datlow said
in an interview with you, and I agree with her totally, is that the standard of some of these submissions
that are sent out to editors is appalling. One of my most common complaints
is with writers who do not read through their manuscripts before they
submit them. They write their stories and they're in such a rush to put
them into the envelope, to get them off to the editor, that they don't
bother to sit down and read their hard copy. They don't check for spelling
errors, repetition, or plot inconsistencies, and it drives me insane. Once they've
written a story, if they would just sit on it for a few days and then go
back to it, many of these errors would be glaringly obvious, even to them.
If they only did that, their story would be a hundred times better. Another
thing that drives me crazy is writers who do not include return postage.
Particularly if they are submitting from overseas. Then there's always the
assumption by some writers that American postage stamps will be accepted in
any country in the world. Don't they know any better?
Photo © 1999 |
Ingrid Pitt and Stephen Jones
at James Herbert launch party (London 1999)
NK: How do writers find out about your anthologies?
SJ: Normally by word of mouth. I mention upcoming projects to writers that
have worked with me before or who I meet at conventions. I really don't
have the time to send out guidelines or post market reports. If someone
hears about a book I'm doing they can always send me a query letter and
I'll let them know the project's current status. I definitely don't want to
receive unsolicited submissions which 'might fit something' I'm doing sometime in the future!
NK: In a sense then, they're invitational?
SJ: No, you simply have to know about them. Best New Horror is a yearly
reprint volume that is always open to submissions, and you can always
corner me at a convention and ask me what I'm currently working on.
Normally, this information is passed around between writers anyway.
Copyright © 1997, 2000 by Nancy Kilpatrick and Stephen Jones. Originally
published in different form in Science Fiction Chronicle, Issue 194,
November 1997. All rights reserved.
NANCY KILPATRICK'S WEB SITE