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Interview with
Jerry Wright and Don Webb

by Lewayne L. White

Part 1 and part 3
appear in this issue.
part 2 of 3

Present

Lewayne: It’s four years later, and you have something that seems to have grown beyond its humble origins. You’ve published a story that got honorable mention in “The Year’s Best.” And “Dreams of Babylon,” winner in your recent fiction contest, reads like something out of Asimov’s.

You have international contributors, a brilliant translation of Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World, poetry, and an online art gallery. You’ve started adding audio files, some of which sound and feel eerily like classic radio shows. And, now with Adventure Books, you’ve produced a print anthology, and have a time travel anthology in the works. Did you see all that coming when you started in 2002?

Jerry: Not in our wildest dreams. As we’ve often said, we started out for the express purpose of publishing otherwise unpublishable material.

Don: By “unpublishable” we never meant that it necessarily should not be published, of course. Print magazines have their own particular — even peculiar — world views, and some good things just don’t fit in. Take only a few examples: are the long works of Jack Alcott, Ian Arbuckle, Tala Bar and Mike Lloyd “unpublishable”? Ridiculous! Print editors may have to agonize over unconventional works, but we welcome them. That’s the Internet at its best.

Speaking of our international scope, one of our proudest traditions is encouraging contributors writing in English as a second language. We’re all over the map. In Asia: Deep Bora, Joel Gn, Prakash Kona, and others. In South America: Roberto Sanhueza, Adriana Alarco de Zadra, and others. In Europe: Jörn Grote, Ásgrímur Hartmannsson, Slava Yatsko, and others.

We also played a key role in entering Bolaji Odefin’s “Apeteshi” in competition for the Caine Prize for African writing. And we can’t even begin to count our English-language contributors outside the U.S... Bewildering Stories is a literary United Nations.

Lewayne: What do you think of the continuing arguments about whether webzines count as “real” publishing, especially if they don’t have print counterparts?

Jerry: I’d have to say... It depends. Certainly many webzines are nothing more than the electronic version of a vanity press, with stories poorly written and edited badly if at all. But, for example, the late lamented SciFiction webzine and the new Baen’s Universe show that web-based magazines are being seen as REAL magazines.

Don: I don’t pay much attention to all the bustling and clucking, like chickens trying to determine a pecking order. When the Macintosh computer first appeared in 1985, I thought, “This is the beginning of desktop publishing.” And sure enough, software like PageMaker soon began to appear, as well as glossy, high-end computer magazines. I’m surprised that book publishing has taken so long to catch on; I gather the problem is marketing.

Some time ago I saw a story by one of our veteran contributors at another webzine. I think it was placed there as a gesture of courtesy and esteem. Jerry and I approve of that. However, I was curious. After reading the story I felt pretty good... about Bewildering Stories. With us, the story would have looked, read, and just plain been better. I don’t think I’m being vain: we invite comparisons; that’s how we learn.

Lewayne: Are webzines an overrated form of vanity press, or an underrated forefront of the future of publishing?

Don: I don’t know about other webzines, but Bewildering Stories is no “vanity press.” You have to write your way into Bewildering Stories; you can’t buy your way in.

Are webzines an “underrated forefront” in the future of publishing? No and yes. No, because they will not supplant paper and print; it’s a lot easier to read a book in hand rather than text on a computer screen. Yes, because I think webzines will carve their own niche by their sheer convenience.

The big problem is that the Internet is cosmic; it’s like a bookstore modeled after an expanding universe. The surfer is confronted with everything at once. “Warp factor two, Mr. Sulu. Anywhere.”

The problem of too few editors and too little published material has been turned upside down: the Internet has too much material and too few informed selections. We try to assist readers by issuing Editors’ Choices, which are now quarterly rather than semi-annual. That doesn’t solve the problems of the universe, but it helps keep our own solar system tidier than it might otherwise be.

Meanwhile, all of Bewildering Stories is available all the time. If anyone finds an overlooked gem from issue 1 to the present, they can bring it to everybody’s attention by writing up a review or essay for the Letters department or The Critics’ Corner.

Lewayne: Do you think you have different standards for material than a print press or because you publish weekly?

Jerry: Of course we have different standards. In some ways, our standards are lower. I remember in the early days rejecting a story because it was too good for us. I’d do it again if a story was that great. But it wouldn’t be a rejection per se. We would do whatever we could to help a writer who was that good get their story accepted by one of the big three.

Don and I try to nurture new writers (you should see some of the initial submissions), but we do have a magazine to put out and we don’t want to be too picky. Many of our stories would be of a higher quality if we spent more time with the author. But sometimes the author just “doesn’t get it,” and sometimes it’s best just to take the product only so far. Then as the writers improve, they submit a more finished work to, say, one of the big three.

Don: What Jerry said... Also, our Submissions page and Style Manual have all grown out of practical experience. They are quite unlike most others I’ve seen on the Net. I’m amused at other webzines’ stickling in great detail about the form of submissions. What’s the point? I bulldoze all the contributors’ formatting anyway.

On the other hand, we’re very careful to let contributors know what we expect in terms of content and what they can expect in terms of the finished product.

Lewayne: Do you look for a different “type” of story than, for example, Asimov’s or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction?

Jerry: As for “different types of stories,” we aren’t constrained to publish any specific type of story, which is why we can publish things as disparate as Thomas Lee Joseph Smith’s fantasy “White Kangaroo” and Kate Bachus’ almost unclassifiable “Twenty Views of Tanforan,” which certainly isn’t SF or fantasy; nor is it a mystery story, or an adventure. What it is, however, is good writing.

Don: Exactly. We’re not only a science fiction and fantasy magazine, we’re more, besides. We do our own thing; we don’t model ourselves after or against anybody else. If somebody sends us something we think is good, we take it.

Look at almost any issue: some science fiction, some fantasy, some mainstream — and then there are the poems, essays, reviews, and articles. We like to think we have something for everyone. And if we don’t, send it to us.

Lewayne: How would you respond to the news that contributor has just been published in, for example, Asimov’s, Analog, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction? Would your response be different if that story had first appeared in Bewildering Stories?

Jerry: We absolutely love it when that happens. Lou Antonelli has been published many times at BwS, and when he got his first story published in Asimov’s it was a real pleasure for me as well. One of our purposes here is to nourish and help beginning authors, and we love to see them make it in the “real world.” We also would be pleased if a story were to be reprinted in a “dead tree magazine” and even if we had to remove it from our archives, we’d do it. Whatever is best for our authors!

Don: I’ll second that. We’re delighted, and it doesn’t matter whether we published the story first or whether it’s another of our veteran contributors’ that’s been accepted.

Some of our contributors, such as Cleveland W. Gibson and Michael Hanson, have had to withdraw stories because their publishers didn’t want the on-line version competing with print editions. As we say, we congratulate the authors and bemoan our loss. But our authors come first.

Lewayne: Does the ability to receive submissions and respond or comment almost immediately make the editorial process easier or more difficult for you?

Jerry: As to ease and professionalism, email is the only way to fly. We generally respond within seven days, and sometimes much sooner, and our writers seem to feel more at ease with their submissions.

Don: A fast turnaround has been Bewildering Stories’ stock in trade and has given us a good name. I enjoy replying to contributors. However, it is very time-consuming, and many’s the day I’ve wished I had a secretary. More mail means more slip-ups, and the waiting time has tripled in the past year.

Lewayne: Does the more casual nature of e-mail communication affect the professionalism of the submissions, or does it just make you more approachable?

Don: Both. I don’t see how even print publications operate on paper mail. It’s not just quaint, it’s very inefficient compared to e-mail.

A drawback: writing on line tends to encourage sloppiness. I’m talking about content, where in some cases the writing ranges from clumsy to obscure. Writers don’t progress by setting themselves low standards. There’s a simple remedy, although it’s obviously no cure-all: before sending a submission anywhere, print out the last draft and settle down with it, pencil in hand.

Lewayne: What do you do when you aren’t working on BwS?

Jerry: Don is a semi-retired professor of French.

Don: I teach on-line courses now, which means I don’t have to search for a parking space on campus. However, since I started a course in May, my response times have slowed down a lot.

Jerry: And Jerry flies around the country teaching seminars on various aspects of electrical technology. Jerry has been an electrician and electrical contractor for around 30 years, but also works as a computer network consultant (in his “copious free timeTM”).

Don: Jerry and I are both teachers, we just have different subjects. In addition to all the other things it is, Bewildering Stories is also an on-line seminar. Actually, Bewildering Stories has adapted a lot from my on-line course: the Readers’ Guides, the welcome messages to new contributors, the Biographies & Bibliographies, the Submissions page and Style Manual, our almost obsessive interlinking, and above all, acknowledging submissions as promptly as possible and sending feedback we hope the contributors will find useful.

I never thought that majoring in French and German literature would ever be “practical.” Now I refer to it constantly. If I were allowed to give only one piece of advice to beginning writers, it would be to take all the literature courses they can. One learns to speak by listening; and to write, by reading. After that, of course it takes unremitting practice.

Lewayne: What keeps you going on Bewildering Stories? It can’t be the money. Is it just for the love... the fun... the stress?

Jerry: Part of it is that we are giving something back to a field that has given us so much over the years. And of course, there is some ‘ego-boo’ involved, although it was almost embarrassing at the beginning to say, “I’m the editor (or publisher) of Bewildering Stories. But we both love what we are doing, and aside from that, one of the most bewildering things is how much alike the two of us are in so many ways.

Don: I was just going to say that... And Jerry has said it all: it is a lot of fun, and at a deeper level we like to feel we’re helping the contributors as well as bringing readers new ideas and stories they may remember.


Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2006 by Lewayne L. White
Jerry Wright and Don Webb

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