jueves, 19 de junio de 2014

Interview with Alex Shvartsman

As a part of the series of posts that El Fantascopio and Cuentos para Algernon are devoting to humorous SF&F, Leticia Lara (from the wonderful Fantástica Ficción) and this humble blogger have the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alex Shvartsman, author, Magic: The Gathering player and editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects series of anthologies (you can also read the Spanish translation of this interview at Fantástica Ficción). So I tap nine lands and summon Alex and Leticia. Hope you enjoy it!

Leticia Lara & OdoWhen did you know you wanted to become a writer? Which authors have influenced you the most? Is there any current writer that you admire?

Alex Shvartsman: I knew that I wanted to write fiction by the tender age of ten. I began composing some very bad stories and would have very likely remained on this path, had my family not emigrated from the Ukraine a few years later. I gave up my literary aspirations because I never expected to become proficient enough in English to write fiction. It took two decades, but I was happy to eventually prove myself wrong.

I grew up on the steady diet of Clifford Simak, Mike Resnick, Bob Sheckley, Harry Harrison, Bob Silverberg, Edmund Hamilton, and Fredric Brown. Their short fiction especially very much influences my own.

Among newer/current writers, some of my favorites are Ken Liu, John Scalzi, and Simon R. Green. They couldn’t be more different from each other, but I enjoy their work and hope to be a little bit like them as a writer, if and when I manage to grow up.

LL&O: Do you think that living in a different country to the one you were born gives your writing something special? For example, not being English native-speaker may change the words you choose.

AS: Absolutely – I think that speaking another language, and having been immersed in another culture definitely informs one’s writing in all sorts of ways. 

There are certain challenges – my English still isn’t perfect (for example, I get consistently tripped up by the Past Perfect tense, and have to rely on the kindness of my beta readers and editors to fix up the manuscripts) and every once in a while I end up using a wonky turn-of-phrase where a straightforward one could have done better. However, there are also advantages. I get to draw on the rich culture of not one but two of the world’s great literary traditions, two sets of tropes and mythologies. Sometimes I can “borrow” an expression from Russian that will sound fresh and original in English, while all I’m really doing is translating an idiom.

LL&OHow long does it take you to write a story? Where do you draw inspiration from?

AS: A typical short story can take anywhere from an afternoon to a couple of weeks to write. Then there are revisions, feedback from beta readers, and clean-up, of course.

Every writer is asked about their ideas. The truth is, ideas are everywhere. They are in the popular science article you found linked on a friend’s Facebook profile, in a “what-if” concept or an idea discussed at dinner, or even in a dream you manage to recall upon waking up.

Every serious writer has more ideas than they know what to do with, and more plots and concepts planned out than they could write in a lifetime.

The real value isn’t in the idea itself, but in the skill and effort necessary to turn it into a page-turner.

LL&OWhat can you tell us about earning a living playing cards? 

AS: I spent a number of years playing Magic: The Gathering trading card game professionally. Over the course of approximately five years (1996 – 2001), I traveled to over thirty countries, won approximately $100,000, and had an enormous amount of fun playing the game.

At one point I was ranked as highly as third in the world, but my real claim to fame was as the champion of the Grand Prix circuit. I managed to place in the top 8 of 21 Grand Prix championships, more than anyone else in the world. My record was finally beaten by another excellent player (and I still remain 2nd), but it took him nearly ten years of continuous play to catch up.

I won four of these events, and was the first foreigner to win a Grand Prix in Japan. 

Gaining some notoriety on the gaming scene also allowed me to break into game design and consulting for game manufacturers, which I still occasionally do to this day.

LL&OWhat can you tell us about the origins of Unidentified Funny Objects (UFO), your series of anthologies of humorous genre short stories?

AS: When I discovered that it was often easier for me to write a funny story than a serious one, I also learned that there weren’t very many professional markets interested in such fare. I was already thinking about the possibility of editing an anthology, and then realized that there was no general humor anthology. There exist some very specific, theme-based humor anthologies (such as the “Chicks in Chainmail” series edited by Esther Friesner” and “Deals with the Devil” collection from a few years ago, but nothing that seeks to explore different styles and facets of humor.

I reached out to a number of top-tier pros and was grateful to see that they loved the idea. So did the fans – they helped fund our Kickstarter campaigns and continue to support the series in various ways. I haven’t made a dime on the UFO series (and, in fact, have invested a decent amount of my own money in addition to what was raised on Kickstarter), but being able to create something with the goal of making it become a mainstay of the SF/F community is tremendously gratifying.

LL&OYou translated a Sergei Lukyanenko story for UFO 1. How did you work with the translation? Did you talk with him while you were doing it so he can help you with the choices you had to make?

AS: Sergei was incredibly easy to work with. He pretty much let me have the creative freedom when it came to translating his story, and required no changes once I sent him the complete manuscript.

When I approached him, I already knew exactly which story I wanted to translate, and selected something that would work well for the English-speaking audience. The hardest part was negotiating with his foreign rights agents (who wanted to provide only very restricted rights in exchange for a wheelbarrow of money). In the end, I gave them the copyright to my translation as part of the deal, because it’s not like I could reprint it elsewhere myself, anyway. I hope they put it to good use, and get the story read by more people.

LL&OMany puns are strongly language-based. Do you think it is more difficult to translate humorous stories than non-humorous ones?

AS: It’s definitely more challenging, but usually the problem isn’t the puns. So much of the humor is culture based. If I’m writing a funny story in English and mention the Three Stooges, an average American or British reader will get the reference, but an average Russian reader has never heard of them. So, as a translator, I have a few choices. I can try to phrase it in the way that will let the reader infer who they are through context (the most common solution), I can explain the reference with a footnote, or I can replace the Stooges with another reference that would be meaningful to a reader who grew up in Russia/the Soviet Union. 

When it comes to puns, you are pretty much forced to do the latter, or the author’s intent in using a pun is completely lost. There are a few other cases where you have to undertake this extreme approach, but it has to be handled carefully to make certain that you’re sticking as closely as possible to what the author intended to relate to his or her readers.

LL&OWhy did you choose to use Kickstarter for UFO 2 and UFO 3?

AS: Putting together a quality anthology is expensive, if you intend to pay everyone (authors, editor, illustrator, etc.) a fair wage. Although the series is doing pretty well for something released by a micro-publisher, I wouldn’t be able to make the books quite as good without the additional funding. Kickstarter is a great platform as it allows people who like the project and want it to exist to put up some of the money up front. The backers aren’t just helping me out – they are also helping fellow readers, because everyone will get a better book in the end than they would have without the money.

LL&OAre social networks important for you relationships with other authors and with your readers?

AS: Social media is hugely important. It’s still possible to just write great books and stay off the social media, but such cases are an exception rather than the rule. A successful author these days should be able to interact with their fans and their colleagues online.

For me, Twitter and Facebook were invaluable. When I started writing fiction in 2010, I knew practically no one in fandom. I met many great writers on social media who have since became real-life friends.

LL&OWhat are you working on right now? Could you give us a sneak peek on your future projects? 

AS: As an editor, I’m almost done with UFO3. This volume will be our biggest yet (82,000+ words of fiction) and it includes original stories from Piers Anthony, Gini Koch, and Kevin J. Anderson in addition to the cast of the usual suspects you may have read in UFOs 1 and 2. The book will be out in October.

As a writer, I’ve been concentrating on my novel, titled “Eridani’s Crown,” which I like to describe as the politics and warfare of “Game of Thrones” meeting the character arc of “Breaking Bad.”

I’m also working on putting together my first short story collection, “Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma” (because, why not name the collection after your most popular/successful story?). I’m looking at late 2014/early 2015 for this one.

LL&OWhere can our readers learn more about you and your work?

AS: I blog (rather sporadically) at www.alexshvartsman.com – but there is also a link to my complete bibliography, and plenty of those stories are free to read online. You can also follow me on Twitter (@AShvartsman) and/or Facebook.

LL&OAny other thing you’d like to add? 

AS: While I’m working on the novel, I still love short stories, and especially flash fiction, even more. If you’re putting together an anthology and would like me to contribute a story, or if you’re interested in translating something of mine for publication in another language, I’d likely be very excited to hear from you.

(You can also read this interview in Spanish at Fantástica Ficción/También puedes leer esta entrevista en español en Fantástica Ficción)

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