This interview was conducted by Jayme Lynn Blaschke and edited for this publication by Cat Eldridge.
Gardner Dozois began editing Asimov’s Science Fiction in May of 1985, and since then has established himself as one of the foremost editors in the field of science fiction and fantasy, winning an unprecedented nine Hugo Awards for best editor. For the past 14 years he has also edited the Year’s Best Science Fiction collections, and prior to that worked as a slushpile reader for such magazines as Galaxy, Worlds of If, Worlds of Tomorrow and Worlds of Fantasy as well as other freelance editorial work. Somewhere in there he found the time to continue his own writing career, and won Nebula Awards for his short stories “Morning Child” in 1985, and “Peacemaker” in 1984.
GMR: You’ve edited Asimov’s for 12 years now. That’s an eternity by industry standards. Did you ever expect it to last so long?
Well, no. Actually I didn’t. In fact, I was pretty certain when I took over that I wouldn’t last very long. I expected that they would fire me within a year or so. I didn’t seem like a corporate kind of guy to myself, and I got the impression that they were regarding me rather leerily, so I really didn’t expect that I would last long. Which in a way, I think was a good thing, because I took a lot of risks that I might not have otherwise have taken, because I really thought that I had little or nothing to lose. Therefore I wasn’t cautious and conservative in my editorial approach. That was probably an advantage in helping to establish a new identity for my magazine, or at least impress my own personality on it fairly quickly.
GMR: Any set plans on how long you expect to remain at Asimov’s?
G.D.: No, I haven’t set any timelines. I’ll stay there as long as they want to have me there. As long as there’s a magazine to work for, and as long as there’s indications the audience is responding well to what I do and is enjoying it, then I have no intention of moving along. Of course, any of those factors could change at any time. Like I say, you never know in this business where you’re going to be a year down the line, but I have no plans to leave Asimov’s. If it was up to me, I would die in harness the way John W. Campbell did. I believe he was found slumped over some slush manuscripts from Analog when he died. That’s not a bad way to go. That would be my druthers.
GMR: You’ve won nine Best Editor Hugos, a stunning number. It’s even rumored that they’ve inscribed your name on all the awards through the year 2000. What do those Hugos mean to you?
G.D.: That would be premature and shortsighted of them, I would think! It means quite a lot actually. It’s the recognition that my peers and fellow readers of science fiction are enjoying what I do with the magazine. I’m sure there are some people out there who don’t enjoy what I’m doing with the magazine, since recognition is never universal, but I take the Hugo and things like winning the Locus poll as best editor as an indication that at least a good proportion of the reading audience is enjoying the things I’m doing with Asimov’s, and that’s important to me emotionally.
People say “You’ve won so many Hugos, don’t you get bored with it?” And the answer is no, you don’t get bored with it, because it is an indication of respect from people from whom it’s most important to get that respect — fellow professionals and the audience you’re all writing for. So no, I don’t get bored with it.
I should probably correct the impression that I always win the Best Editor Hugo, because it isn’t true. Kris Rusch beat me at the Winnipeg Worldcon, and what’s often overlooked now, is that when I started out at the magazine, I lost two or three Hugos right there at the beginning to Terry Carr and to Judy-Lynn del Rey. So I haven’t always won.
GMR: What kind of an editor do you see yourself as? Describe your role as you see it.
G.D.: Well, I don’t see myself as a John W. Campbell sort of editor. He was famous for assigning ideas to writers and coming up with a lot of the idea content for the magazine, and indicating the direction in which he wanted the magazine to go, the themes he wanted explored. That’s not really my style. I’m not all that interested in my ideas. I know my ideas are puerile. It’s the writers’ ideas that I’m interested in seeing, so I see myself as a receptive or reactive editor, more along the lines of Anthony Boucher or Bob Mills or someone of that sort. Rather than telling my writers what to write about or giving them ideas, I prefer to stay as receptive as I can to the areas they’re interested in exploring.
One of the problems with being the kind of active John W. Campbell editor where you’re indicating what ideas you want explored, is it tends to “harden your arteries” towards being receptive to new directions that come along that are generated by the writer. I think it’s a mistake to create an aesthetic or didactic template of what you want and then reject everything that doesn’t fit into that. You’re sort of pre-rejecting stories because they don’t fit within your ideology, and I think that’s a good way to become fossilized. I think an editor like Campbell did become fossilized toward the end of his career, where a more eclectic editor like Boucher never really did.
You can sort of think of me as a conduit between the audience and the great mass of unpublished material out there. I see my job as spotting material I know the audience is going to like and funneling it along to them. So you can see me as a great sewer pipe of the arts, but hopefully I also filter out a lot of the really obnoxious solids that could otherwise get through to the audience.
GMR: What do you aim for when you’re putting together an issue? Beyond publishing the best stories possible, that is.
G.D.: What I strive for, beyond the fact that I want the best stories possible – which is self-evident – I tend to strive for balance in creating an issue, in that I want to see that there aren’t too many of any one particular type of story, so we don’t have too much hard science or too much fantasy or too much of any one sort of thing. And I try of an aesthetic balance as well, so we don’t have too many downbeat stories or too many satirical stories or too many that take place in the near future. So I strive for an aesthetic balance in the issues. As I said, I like a nice eclectic range of stories. I like there to be something in every issue where possible that there’s a fighting chance that the reader is going to be able to enjoy, no matter what his general inclination is as far as the types of fiction he reads.
I must say that this is probably lost on most readers, and probably is indeed a waste of time, since what every reader wants to read in the magazine, it seems, is only those kinds of stories that he himself likes, and doesn’t want to see in the magazine anything else other than that. I’m not sure the readers really appreciate the wide range of material in the magazine, but that’s the way I like to do it, and that’s the way I’ll continue to do it.
GMR: What kind of relationship do you have with your writers?
G.D.: This is a field where you have to maintain fairly close relationships with your writers. Writers tend to like it when their editors are people they can feel close to, that they can socialize with, or have a drink, or talk to about stuff other than just what their next story is going to be like. A good deal of the reason why we go to science fiction conventions is to maintain those kind of relationships, so that your writers almost become like family, as much as that is possible in the writer-editor relationship. I think that’s important. With some of your writers you even have to act sometime as a father-confessor, or a lay psychiatrist. When one of your regular writers calls you up at two o’clock in the morning deeply depressed, it’s part of your job to talk with them, whether you’d rather go to bed or be watching a boxing match on television instead. So, yeah, you have to maintain a close relationship with your writers, I think, if you want to really have a chance of getting the best material from them.
GMR: You’re almost as well-known for your annual Year’s Best collections. What do you try to achieve with each volume?
G.D.: It’s a little bit different from doing Asimov’s. You have a little more leeway with Asimov’s I never buy anything for the magazine that I don’t like, but if I like story “B” a trifle less than story “A,” I may still buy story “B” anyway, because it’s a certain kind of story — a space opera or a hard science story that I feel the inventory is low on, and could use an infusion of.
With the best of the year, I also try to maintain an aesthetic balance. I don’t want it to be all one kind of story, or one mood of story. But at the same time you’re constrained by the fact that it says “The best stories of the year” on the tile, so if the book really needs a hard science story for balance, but the only example you can find of a hard science story is one that is kind of mediocre – just acceptable but not exceptional – I’d be more leery of putting such a story in the book. You do have to live up to the title of the book as much as you’re able to.
Of course, the title “Best of the Year” is a misnomer in many ways, because it’s all a matter of subjective personal taste. The book really should say something like “Gardner Dozois Liked These Stories This Year,” or “Gardner Dozois Liked These Stories the Best on the Day He Was Putting the Collection Together.” They don’t allow you to get away with such waffling in the publishing industry, where the authoritative term “Best of the Year” has a certain cachet that will make the readers buy the book.
I have a very simple aesthetic for both Asimov’s and “Best of the Year.” I don’t have any real agenda or didactic scheme or philosophy I follow. I’m not grinding any particular political axe or using the book to showcase any particular aesthetic or didactic agenda. The only criterion I use is whether I liked the stories or not. Again, I think, perhaps naively, that if I like the stories, then probably a lot of my readers will, too. If I respond to the story as a reader honestly, then a lot of my audience is also going to respond emotionally.
Of course, I have a wider range aesthetically than many people do, so not everybody is going to respond as emotionally, as strongly as I do to everything that’s in an issue of Asimov’s or an issue of “Best of the Year.” But I think there’ll be enough of different kinds if things in either — because I do insist on a mix, a balance — there’s a good chance any given reader will get their money’s worth out of picking up either Asimov’s or one of the “Best of the Year” volumes. That’s pretty much what I try to do.
GMR: We’ve already talked about the Hugos you’ve won for your editing, but you also won the Nebula award for your short fiction, “The Peacemaker” and “Morning Child.” Are there any regrets that your path has taken you away from writing?
G.D.: Yes, I do sometimes. There’s an unbridled part of my ego that would really prefer being as well-known for my writing as I am for the editing. I would like to pop up on all those lists of the best science fiction writers over the last half of the 20th century and all of that. Be talked about for my writing in all the encyclopedias. But it didn’t happen that way, and I suspect won’t happen that way at this point. In fact, the better-known I get as an editor, it seems the fewer people there are that realize that I ever used to be a writer at all. It’s easy for me to blame the demands of the editing jobs — which really do take up a lot of time — for my lack of story production. But to be brutally honest, I wonder sometimes if that’s just an excuse, because I was never a tremendously prolific writer, anyway, and it’s quite possible even if I didn’t have any of these editorial jobs, I wouldn’t have turned out noticeably more stories than I did in the period, anyway. I do a couple of stories a year on a good year. Maybe a couple of stories every couple of years if things get particularly busy. That’s about all I really have time for. The question which I guess will never be answered is “Would I have done any more stories than that even if I had all the time devoted just to writing and didn’t have any editorial jobs?” But we’ll never know.