An Interview with Publishers Weekly's Rose Fox
Like many publications connected to book culture, Publishers Weekly has been changing in response to a changing landscape. A little over three years ago, they turned over the science fiction/fantasy.horror reviews editor job to Rose Fox, and launched PW's Genreville, where Fox regularly blogs about industry news along with her partner Josh Jasper. Fox's energy and progressive approach have given the SF/F/H section of the magazine a definite boost, and provided genre fiction with a new public forum.
Fox comes from a literary family--her parents, Charles Platt and Nancy Weber, are both writers and met at a party attended by, among others, Harlan Ellison.
Platt is a British writer associated with the New Wave science fiction writers of the 1960s who has since become a naturalized U.S. citizen. His cult novel The Gas (written for the infamous Paris publisher Olympia Press) deliberately pushed buttons and boundaries, and William Gibson endorsed his The Silicon Man as a "wholly new and very refreshing way" of exploring cyberspace.Platt has also been widely praised for his journalism, especially his work for Wired and Make magazines.
Weber, is best known for her memoir The Life Swap, in which she recounts her efforts to exchange lives with another woman in the 1970s. Her fiction credits include horror (The Playgroup), category romance (eight for Berkley Jove's To Have and to Hold and Second Chance at Love lines), mainstream fiction (Brokenhearted), and young adult (Double Solitaire) titles. A professional chef as well as an author, she currently focuses on essays, travel and culinary journalism, and other nonfiction.
I interviewed Fox via email recently--about her family and her work at Publishers Weekly.
Amazon.com: Would you describe your childhood as being "literary" in the sense of being surrounded by books, writers, the whole culture?
Rose Fox: Oh, absolutely. Both my parents are writers. My aunt and uncle are writers. My mother's father and grandfather ran a printing company. I have ink in my veins. I grew up surrounded by books and words (my mother is a word game fiend) and writers of all stripes.
Amazon.com: Do you remember if there was a time when it first dawned on you that your father and mother were published writers? Growing up, what did that mean to you?
Rose Fox: It's just something I always knew. I should mention here that my parents split up when I was quite young, and I lived with my mother and only visited my father once a week or so. While my mother was raising me on her own, she supported us with her writing, so a typical day would be her in one room with the typewriter and me in the other room with the babysitter. I didn't see my father at work as much, but I probably assumed he was a writer before I actually knew it, because writing is just what parents do!
(Rose Fox portrait by Omar Rayyan)
After my mother remarried, my stepfather brought in most of the family's money, and my mother worked from home in an open- sided "office" that allowed me and my brother to terrorize her and drag her away from her work pretty frequently, so while she spoke often of writing as art and fun, I never really got the sense from her of writing as a business. My father was the one who occasionally talked about making extra money by writing for men's magazines (under a pseudonym because he didn't want any of my male classmates finding the articles and teasing me about it, which I thought was extremely thoughtful of him) and about building a book the way you build a table. It took me a long time to appreciate his perspective, but now I think I agree with it more in some ways.
He also introduced me to fannish drama, of course; I think I helped him assemble membership packets for Victims of Ellison, and when a boyfriend invited me to Lunacon, my father mentioned being banned from there for life. I met Teresa Nielsen Hayden when I was 17, and she exclaimed "You look so much like your father!". No one had ever said that to me before! It really brought home that there was a whole world of people out there who all knew my father, many of whom didn't like him very much, and they were all involved in publishing the books I loved to read. I decided then that I would never ever use my parents' connections to get ahead in the publishing world (a ridiculously idealistic attitude that I later gave up entirely) and hoped that no one would hold my father's notoriety against me (and indeed, no one ever has).
Amazon.com: Did you read much of your father's work prior to publication?
Rose Fox: No, not that I recall. I only saw it in finished form. I don't remember it ever occurring to me to ask whether I could see his drafts, even though I was my mother's first-pass reader from the age of nine or so. It just didn't come up.
Amazon.com: Did you write as a child, and did your parents read it?
Rose Fox: I did indeed write as a child, very badly. When I was in third grade, each of us got a small notebook in which we were supposed to handwrite a novel. I got about 100 pages in (small notebook pages, mind you, but I still thought this was quite an accomplishment). It was about a ballerina and she got a bad headache and looked up headaches in some big reference book of symptoms and realized it meant she was deathly ill. I think I stopped because I got bored and didn't know how to end it. It was terrible. I really doubt my father read it. My mother probably laminated each page and framed them or something.
In my teens, I wrote a bunch of little fantasy stories and angsty poems. I don't remember whether I ever showed them to my father, though. At that point our relationship was mostly based on playing video games together and talking about books we'd read recently and people we knew from the local BBS; asking him to critique my writing would have invoked a level of intimacy that I suspect neither of us would have been very comfortable with.
I showed a couple of early pieces to my mother and she critiqued them, which was a little awkward for me as her daughter but also probably very good for me as a writer. I recently went through a bunch of old letters and found a card from her congratulating me on making successful revisions that she felt made a story flow much more smoothly. Which story and what I did to it, however, are lost to the mists of time.
Amazon.com: Did you always know you wanted to be involved with publishing/writing in some way?
Rose Fox: Yes and no. Here is half of the story: Everyone always assumed I was going to write fiction. I liked writing, but I liked math and computers a lot more; when I took the SAT, my math score was higher than my writing score. I majored in math and computer science in college, and then dropped out and worked in a computer store. Then I moved to California, took some community college classes in architecture, and then dropped out to work in customer service at a dotcom. I moved back to New York in 2005 and ended up being a receptionist at a nonprofit. After a year of that, I decided that I wanted to be a writer and editor, and then I made what looks like this crazy prodigal leap into an editorial assistant job at a medical journal and a freelance writing career that eventually landed me at PW.
Here is the other half of the story: Everyone always assumed I was going to write fiction. I started editing my mother's manuscripts when I was nine years old. I wrote and edited for my high school's fantasy and science fiction magazine and did an internship at Tor Books my senior year (or most of one, before they fired me for getting on the wrong side of a short- tempered editor). By my second semester in college I was a copyeditor on the student newspaper; by the third semester I was the copy chief.
I was also spending countless hours online, writing endlessly on BBS forums and Usenet. I dropped out of college and started writing endlessly on LiveJournal as well. I submitted a sample review to PW and they liked it; after my first jobs in California evaporated, I started reviewing three books a week. I began reading the LJs and other blogs of genre writers so I could write better reviews. When I started working for the dotcom, I quickly took charge of developing documentation and editing customer biographies, and typed so much that I developed tendinitis in both arms. I moved back to New York and began editing a section of a local e-zine from my reception desk at the nonprofit.
In other words, when I decided to pursue writing and editing for a living, it was with an air of resigned acceptance. I had spent most of my life technically doing other things, often trying to get away from the idea of being destined to follow in my parents' footsteps, and being convinced that being fired from Tor meant that I Would Never Work In That Town Again. (Had I successfully completed that internship, I think I would very likely have managed to survive four years of college and followed a much more conventional career path into book editing.) Nonetheless, the words had followed me. Wherever I was, I ended up writing and editing. So in 2006, I gave in. It still amazes me how brilliantly everything fell into place once I made that decision, but there's no question that I spent most of my life laying the groundwork for it, almost in spite of myself.
Amazon.com: How many books come in a day or a week at PW?
Rose Fox: We get hundreds of galleys a day, easily; not sure how many hundreds, but definitely hundreds. See the cart in this photo, in front of the shelves?
It's full of galleys. And the cart to the right of it is full of padded mailers. Every day there are enormous piles of packages on that counter. It takes hours just to open them, and when we moved offices recently, the first order of business was figuring out how to get enough recycling and trash bins for all the packaging material we couldn't reuse. (I have a burning hatred for Tyvek mailers now. The cardboard envelopes stuffed with paper flakes are also awful, because you can't reuse them and one false move with the box cutter means that everything's coated in grey dust, but at least those can be recycled.)
Keep in mind that we request two copies of each review book--one to send to the reviewer, the other to keep in-house for fact-checking--so that obviously increases the volume.
Amazon.com: How easy is it to decide what to review and what to discard?
Rose Fox: The only difficult ones are the ones from publishers I don't recognize. Otherwise it's a very straightforward process.
Amazon.com: Do you have any personal favorite blog posts, books reviewed, or PW features from the past year or so?
Rose Fox: I loved Naomi Novik's "Why I Write" piece in the April 2010 SF/F issue, and Mikki Kendall's profile of Nnedi Okorafor. JoSelle Vanderhooft also did a really nice write-up on Subterranean Press for our horror issue in July.
My favorite blog post will always be this one for the 182 comments, about 170 of which were from well-meaning fans of a certain author who happened to post the link to his Facebook fan page.
For my favorite books that we've reviewed, you'll have to wait for our 2010 best books feature!
Amazon.com: What's the most fulfilling thing about being a reviews editor at PW?
Rose Fox: My absolute favorite part of the job is publishing reviews that change the way people think about a book, and maybe even change their decision about whether to purchase that book. The best reviews for that are the thoughtful analyses that unpack what's going on between the covers and give you information that you just can't get from looking at a book's cover art or jacket blurbs, but there's also a lot to be said for the starred reviews of debut novels from complete unknowns, and the justified panning of much-anticipated books from big- name authors. When I get in a review like that and help it get out into the world, I know I'm really doing my work well--making my sections of the magazine worth the price of admission, giving our readers useful information they won't find anywhere else--and I love it.
Amazon.com: How often do you hear back from readers of PW, and what kinds of things do they say?
Rose Fox: I get very few emails from readers, and almost all are corrections. I did get a fan letter once, from a high school student who--I am almost too shy to admit this--wanted to know how she could be like me when she grew up. It was tremendously flattering! Of course I sent back a letter full of advice and encouragement. We exchanged a couple of emails after that, but I haven't heard from her in a while. I hope she's doing well.