An Interview with David Pringle
by David Mathew
[Editor's note: this interview took place in 1997; David Pringle subsequently moved on from editing Interzone in 2004.]
The editor of Britain's most successful and long-lasting magazine of science fiction, Interzone, lives in Brighton and works hard to maintain the magazine's credibility and appeal.
For fifteen years Interzone has been the magazine to aspire to for new British SF writers, but this does not mean that David Pringle has been able to rest on his laurels, as he explained while also describing the magazine's origins.
"I woke up eventually at about the age of thirty, realising that you have to do things to make your dreams come true, rather than just waiting for it to come and land in your lap. So, together with a bunch of friends in the SF world (I was active in going to SF conventions, contributing to fanzines and so on) we laid plans to start our own magazine. There were actually eight editors in the beginning, in 1982."
How did the magazine manage financially in the early days? "I helped run a science fiction convention in Leeds in 1982 which made a profit - it wasn't mean to, it was a non-profit exercise - but we budgeted in such a way that we ended up with about £1,300. It seemed more money in those days than it would today. And the committee voted to use this money for a science fiction magazine.
"That was all the capital we had to begin with. It was a struggle. But more importantly than money was that jointly between us we had credibility, and various contacts, one of whom was Malcolm Edwards, who is now top editor of HarperCollins; at that time he was already working as an editor at Gollancz, one of the big SF publishers. His expertise was very useful. I had been reviews editor of Foundation magazine and I became editor of Foundation as well for a while. Between us we had all this experience of one thing or another - mostly low-scale voluntary sort of things."
Interzone started to grow. "The circulation went from a few hundred to - eventually - a few thousand, but it took ten years to get there. It has never, in commercial terms, been a success. We applied for an Arts Council grant, and got it, which helps us survive. But in terms of having survived for fifteen years and having launched the careers of many writers we have been a resounding success. I'm boasting a bit, but we did get a Hugo Award..."
Having launched from ground zero the careers of many authors in the science fiction field, does David Pringle regard the same authors' later works with an extra interest or with pride? "It's not proper to feel too proprietorial! They've made their own success; everybody has to be published somewhere first!
"We started in the first place as a showcase for new, mainly British - but not exclusively British - writers to get published and start building up a bit of a reputation. And I'm delighted to be able to make the claim that we've done just that - for several dozen writers. Geoff Ryman and Scott Bradfield in the early days, to Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan and Nicola Griffith. But I can't claim that the novels these people are writing would not have been written without Interzone: that would be going too far."
With reference to possible writers of the future, what does Pringle hope to receive from a new unsolicited manuscript?
"The editor ideally wants everything. He wants it to be beautifully written, moving and profound, full of original ideas. But we settle for the fact that we can't get everything. We sometimes get things that approach the ideal, but not as often as we'd like. Any editor of any magazine wants people who can write; people who have some command of language. We want knowledge.
"Theodore Sturgeon defined science fiction as 'knowledge fiction', taking the root of the word 'science' which comes from the Latin. Which is not to say that everybody who writes science fiction has got to be a physicist or a biologist, although some are. It just helps to know something. History, for example, if you're not into the hard sciences.
"One of our writers, Eugene Byrne, is an historian, and that shows. It could be stamp collecting. Train spotting! It may be possible in some mainstream fiction to not know much about anything, but the sort of fiction that science fiction is does rather depend on the writer knowing something and using it imaginatively...
"The most frustrating are the bog-standard science fiction stories that people send in. People who have obviously read a fair amount of science fiction, but the more obvious types: Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke. And they don't show any particular knowledge thereafter. They're just repeating ideas, situations."
Has his criteria for choosing stories changed at all over the years? "Editors don't change. Or maybe I'm not experienced enough to know... Intellectually, my view of what science fiction is might have changed a bit; I used to be more snobbish about it. But that wouldn't affect what stories we picked for Interzone."
David Pringle is only one of a quorum of story-readers. He receives about fifty manuscripts a week ("amazingly steady since 1988") and although he makes the final decision, he depends on the opinions of his colleagues to make some choices on his behalf.
"We have some assistant editors who read the slush-piles and might say, 'This new writer has really got something.' Not very often, I'm afraid to say!"
Being a futuristic magazine, are submissions in a technically advanced format encouraged? "Not at all! E-mail submissions are not welcome, I'm afraid; it takes money to download them. And if we want to pass it around among ourselves, how do we do it? One of our assistant editors doesn't even possess a computer, never mind being online. So it's got to be on paper."
Does Pringle have an average working day? "The big advantage about being self-employed is you dictate your own practices. I have to do a lot because I'm running Interzone with help, but with nobody else working anything like full time or drawing a salary, or anything like that. So the onus is on me, right from opening the post in the morning to making phone calls in the evening. I work any and all times, really. I don't have a set routine; I'm sometimes at my word processor at one o'clock in the morning."
Does this create a lot of pressure? "Not in itself, but the fact that Interzone doesn't make much money, and therefore I'm doing freelance editing jobs on the side - that's where the pressures come from: trying to juggle these commitments, such as The St James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers with Interzone, which is a full-time job in itself..."
David Pringle talks a little bit about the St James book. "I did a previous book on the same lines, The St James Guide to Fantasy Writers, so I learned - about half of the contributors to that gave me trouble. I dropped a lot of them. This time I went to people who performed well on the first one."
It is clear that despite David Pringle's forays into other editorial sidelines, science fiction is his true love. "SF is very important. Most people think it's Doctor Who and Star Trek, though even Doctor Who and Star Trek have lots to be said for them. I'm not knocking them; it's just that some people think it's no more than that - that it's semi-kids' stuff. But in fact it can be George Orwell's 1984 or it can be the sort of writing that modern-day serious writers like Ursula Le Guin or J G Ballard produce. They're all writing about the future, but of course they can't get away from today, however much they may be pretending to be getting away from today. That said, I don't like stories which are obviously allegories - nobody does! Who's got a good word to say for allegory?"
Is it fair to say then that he approves of genres, whether or not they are a fact of publishing life? Many people, for example, believe that books should be published as books and not further sub-divided. Pringle is unsure.
"Writers tend to be more agin genres than critics, and I'm more of a critic than a writer. I've got mixed feelings. There's genre in the publishing sense, ie dictated by booksellers, publishers, reviewers, even the readers to a certain extent. But there's also genre in the literary sense - the idea that goes back to Aristotle at least. So I've got every respect for genre in the literary sense.
"In the marketplace, it's obviously a more crass and irritating thing, but some writers work well within those parameters. They work well as a thriller writer, or a science fiction writer... But writers should be able to stretch their wings. I do believe it's terribly unfair that some are kept down by the fact they're perceived as merely a science fiction writer, or merely anything else."
Favourite writers? "Steve Baxter and Greg Egan I've mentioned already; Paul McAuley, Kim Newman, J G Ballard is a favourite, but my tastes are fairly catholic, I hope. When I'm not reading for Interzone or for another project, I tend to read non-fiction. I'm not reading many modern novels. One day I hope to catch up... Sometimes you think it would be great to have a six-month holiday and not have to read a word of SF, but most of the time it doesn't feel like that. I'm getting paid for a hobby. When I get fed up and frustrated it's usually to do with the other things. Deadlines, et cetera."
Are there any writers that he would still love to publish that he has been unable to snag? "It's nice to find the new ones! I tend to rely on my assistant editors to help me towards that end. They often find new ones for me. As for established writers, it would be nice from a commercial point of view - or a prestige point of view - to get names like Doris Lessing or Martin Amis, or whoever else. But people like Amis are very conscious of: would it be right to be seen in this venue? Maybe not Doris Lessing, who has a lot less to lose at her age!"
The last great subdivision within science fiction - cyberpunk, as characterised by movies such as Blade Runner and the books of William Gibson, among many others - is still going strong. What might the editor guess to be the next big movement? "Well, you only get one these big waves through SF every fifteen or twenty years. Maybe slightly more often than that. There was the feminist wave in the 70s, and you had the New Wave in the 60s, with Michael Moorcock, and so on. Then cyberpunk (William Gibson, Bruce Sterling). Maybe we're due for another one, but I don't know what it will be. No one ever does.
"There always have been sub-genres. Alternative world stories are quite big at the moment, with people like Kim Newman, and indeed by outsiders - Robert Harris' Fatherland. That's a sort of science fiction that's been around since the nineteenth century. Setting your imaginative world in a place where history has gone differently is just as valid an exercise as doing it in the future, or on another planet. You could even make a scientific case if you believe in the existence of alternative universes..."
And what are his opinions of fantasy? "Their days are not over! Look at the groaning shelves of them! Sub-Tolkein stuff; people like Robert Jordan and Tad Williams sell hugely. Outsell most SF writers by a mile...
"Fantasy is good for your psyche. You can see the timeless appeal that was probably as valid ten thousand years ago as it is now. Possibly because we do live in a heavily urbanised world, it works as a pastoral almost. Everything about fantasy is ancient; it's a paradox. In terms of the mass-market paperback in the Western World, it's only since the 1960s that there has been a label called fantasy, following Tolkein's paperbacks.
"In that sense it's a young genre, but in a literary sense it's as old as the hills. Most genres tend toward fantasy romance, even SF. But what makes SF SF is something else: satire. A comment on society, as Northrop Frye has it in Anatomy of Criticism."
David Pringle's major venture into the world of commercial fiction appreciation (as opposed to fiction itself) was the now-defunct magazine, Million, which unfortunately folded after fourteen issues. With the benefit of hindsight, why might that have been?
"Million was my other pet hobby. I made mistakes; I was feeling a bit cocky. Interzone had been successful, and with Million I invested too much money too quickly. I shouldn't have started with a bi-monthly; I should have started with a quarterly. And the colour covers: I really should have started it as a fanzine. But the main reason it didn't succeed is we're talking about a very different kettle of fish. Interzone is primarily a fiction magazine, and Million was a magazine that commented on popular culture, popular fiction. And I suppose I discovered that the world didn't need such a magazine...
"Funnily enough, someone else started a magazine up during the period when Million was going - with a big glossy splash, lots of publicity. Bestseller: I don't know if anyone remembers that. Produced about three issues.
"Now they must have spent tens of thousands of pounds - and they failed, even with all that promotion behind them. And they were doing essentially the same thing. Personally, I think Million did it better! At least we achieved fourteen issues."
One day, might the magazine be revived? David Pringle laughs. "Only if I get rich - ie if I win the Lottery. Very unlikely."
For now we will all have to be content with the finest science
fiction magazine on the market.
Elsewhere in infinity
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© David Mathew 13 December 1997