Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Interview with Norm Sherman, Editor of EscapePod

Norm Sherman is the chief editor of the long-running science fiction podcast Escape Pod, as well as the host and editor of the 3-time Parsec Award winning audio fiction magazine, Drabblecast. He is a writer, humorist and musician based out of Baltimore Maryland.

Escape Pod is a SFWA-qualifying market which pays professional rates and considers both reprints and original fiction.

What attracts you to the science fiction genre?

There's so much to love about this genre. I think 10 different people would give you 10 different answers. I love the complexity of worlds built from the ground up, the elegance of creative and well-defined systems, the badassness of sweet new gizmos, the freakiness of aliens that lay their eggs by shoving a proboscis down your throat. I like robots that save us from certain doom by the hands of other robots and extraterrestrials that sadistically hunt us down and skin us alive while operating under some strict code of honor. I like my guns to go "pew pew" when you fire them.

And yet, I'll be the first one to confess to you that these are all things I mostly just like because of the adolescent still living inside me -- the one still reading comic books in the dark, dreaming silently of other worlds, and patiently gestating until it's time to violently burst forward from my chest cavity.

Science fiction may be the "literature of ideas," but it's not usually the ideas that I find myself being drawn to; at least not the speculative ones. What I'm drawn to is all the weird and wondrous ways that those ideas are often used to frame and examine common aspects of the shared human experience. Frankenstein, Blade Runner, Stranger in a Strange Land, I, Robot-- they all did the same things that Faulkner, Salinger, Dickens and Shakespeare did so well; they just had a little more Mars and Daryl Hannah thrown in the mix. You know Shakespeare would have been all over cloning and the Singularity if he'd known about that shit, right? Instead, he had "the woods"-- a place in the natural world where the rules of society changed and chaos and the supernatural change everything up. Great science fiction, in my opinion, leverages that setting of "the woods" to tell us something interesting about life, humanity, towels, and the nature of the universe.

Why do I love science fiction you ask? Because Dune could have just as easily been a story about ecology, religion and politics without the badass giant sandworms.

Are there things in a submission you look for specifically for a podcast that you might not look for in a print publication?

Absolutely. While Escape Pod is also a print publication (we buy and publish full electronic rights to stories, both text and audio), I won't pick up a story if it doesn't podcast well. There are several reasons a good print story might not go over well in audio, such as pacing issues or complications with a particular narrative structure or framing device. You can almost always tell if a story will work well in audio just by reading it aloud right there from your inbox. I tend to look for stories with good streamlined narrative, well-crafted dialogue and a natural, brisk flow.

How would you describe the submissions for Escape Pod? Are there trends that seem to be the major causes of rejection?

I asked our Assistant Editor, Nathan Lee, (who reads through much more of our slush pile than I do) to sum up in one word the majority of the stories we get submitted to us. He went with the word "boring." I imagine that this isn't too atypical for any market like Escape Pod, which accepts open submissions. Hell, writing a good story is damned hard! But I've got to say, the majority of what we get submitted aren't by any means unreadable abominations or even half-assed messes. We get a lot of very competent writing sent in; straightforward and technically sound. It just also happens to often be generic and uninteresting, with some random and seemingly out of place science fiction sprinkles dusted around the edges for good measure ("And then a rocketship flew by. The End.") Sometimes I wonder if these authors even realize who they are submitting to.

If one desires to use sprinkles, one should never do so sparingly, and one should never do so on meatloaf.

What do you like best about editing for Escape Pod?

I'm extraordinarily proud of all the work that we do; that we aren't just a reprint market and that we spend all the time that we do weeding through an unrelenting and ever-burgeoning slush pile. I'm proud of the fact that we're a paying market that offers creative professionals well-earned professional rates. I'm proud of the legacy behind Escape Pod -- if you look back through our past 400 episodes all the way to the when legendary Wundergeeken Steve Eley founded this whole shebang, you'll find a staggering amount of really progressive, mind-blowing content throughout the years. Stories that will change your life, narrations that will make you weep, mountains of behind-the-scenes work that went into making it all happen that none can ever imagine until they too one day draw the fateful black dot.

Do you have a wishlist for submissions you'd like to see more of? Or fresh ideas/themes you're drawn to?

This goes back to the first question a little. I'm not looking for fresh ideas and themes as much as I am looking for fresh approaches to ideas and themes. I actually wish more non-genre writers would sometimes try their hands at writing hard science fiction. I think a lot of us in this bubble get overly hung-up on the speculative elements of a story and forget that while science fiction does often require a certain type of imaginative setting or circumstance to drive the plot, ultimately this isn't the only litmus test that matters. If science fiction delved exclusively into uniquely alien concerns or the post-human, we'd never be able to engage with it. We'd never be able to wrap our heads around it-- I'm convinced there's not enough marijuana in the world to even try.

We connect and relate to things only through the paper-thin veil of human experience, which is still quite new when it comes down to it. There's not much new under the sun, as the saying goes

It's a good things we've got science fiction to take us beyond the stars.

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