31 July 2005

A Conversation with John Benson

I sometimes fall prey to a silly and mistaken idea: that small-press 'zines are something new. And then I discover someone like John Benson, who has been publishing his 'zine Not One of Us for 19 years now, and has garnered quite a few accolades during that time. After Sonya Taaffe introduced us last year, I knew that I would want to interview John, but other obligations stole my attention, and I didn't get around to it until now. It was, I hope you'll agree, very much worth the wait.


When did Not One of Us begin? What made you want to create it?

To explain how Not One of Us began, I have to back up a couple of steps. When I first met my (now) wife Anke Kriske, I was a doctoral student in history and she was an aspiring author who was not a native English speaker and did not know how to get started. For three years, before and after we married, I edited her stories and tried to market them. Finally in 1984 a story of hers ("Transitus") was accepted by Ronny Kaye at a new horror zine called Doppelganger. Soon after that, Anke and I started writing a non-fiction column called "Morbid History and Practice" for the magazine. (We used to restore graveyards as a hobby.) Ronny then began to send me manuscripts to read, and when he joined the Peace Corps and left for Niger, he turned the editorship of Doppelganger over to me.

I had never intended to become a horror editor, hadn't actually read much horror in my youth. So I had a lot of catching up to do. Because Lovecraft was having one of his periodical revivals at the time and Ronny had been fond of Lovecraftian fiction, I plowed through as much HPL as I could. I also discovered that before he left, Ronny had accepted quite a backlog of stories, so I didn't have a lot of flexibility to change the mix of content. I tried to satisfy my editorial and creative needs by writing clever introductions to stories, but eventually I grew frustrated.

I was getting some good stories that I couldn't fit into Doppelganger, and I began to dream about a publication that was totally my own (well, my own with Anke). I didn't want to do another strictly horror zine; I wanted to get at a theme, the notion of "otherness," or in its purest form, "radical alienation."

So in early 1986 I let some fellow editors know that I intended to publish a story collection that might turn into a magazine. I already had a story ("Chiaroscuro") from William Relling, Jr., that I thought would make a good lead. Then Peggy Nadramia, the editor of Grue, sent Wayne Allen Sallee my way with the second half of what had been a 9000-word story. She published the first half as a stand-alone, and I published the sequel, "Take the 'A' Train", in our debut issue, which came out in September 1986. Both stories ended up being reprinted by Karl Edward Wagner in The Year's Best Horror, and Not One of Us had its first bit of critical acclaim.

How did you go about finding writers and readers for Not One of Us in the beginning?

Many of the early authors in Not One of Us were legacies from Doppelganger, so the genre mix was still skewed toward horror. I did manage, after the first issue, to purge archaic-language Lovecraftiana, and we gradually became more focused thematically. Scavenger's Newsletter, which Janet Fox had just started, helped us reach the pool of writers we needed in order to keep going. We also got a boost in submissions when Ellen Datlow honorably mentioned two stories and a poem from our 1988 issues in The Year's Best Fantasy. The next year, Gary Braunbeck's "Matters of Family" (Not One of Us #5) was reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. I'm not the world's best salesperson, so I think we stay afloat largely because of the number of stories and poems (now more than 80) from Not One of Us that get honorable mentions in Best ofs and nominations for various awards.

Are there writers you published early on who have since become well known? Or writers who did not and should have become well known?

Some of our early writers, in addition to Sallee, Relling, and Braunbeck, have become pretty well-known, I'd say: Tom Piccirilli, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Gerard Daniel Houarner, Jeff VanderMeer, D.F. Lewis, Elizabeth Massie, Lucy Taylor. But I can't take credit for making these folks' careers: most of them were being published in other magazines, too.

A few early writers became better known in other genres or roles: I've lost track of how many mysteries Dan Crawford has had published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine; Mark McLaughlin has been a fine editor (The Urbanite) as well as a talented writer. One writer I wish had become better known is Jack Pavey.

Among the people who began writing for us later, Sonya Taaffe is starting to get some attention. Patricia Russo has been published all over the place, but the world still sorely needs a Russo story collection.

Do you see Not One of Us as providing a space for fiction that is different from what the major SF magazines are interested in?

Not One of Us occupies an interesting niche. The editorial philosophy of the magazine reflects my own personal taste in genre fiction. To me the scariest and most deeply moving horror stories are not about monsters or about good vs. evil, but rather about the reader's own fears and discomforts. Similarly, for Not One of Us, fantasy isn't about pseudo-medieval worlds, science fiction isn't about space opera (or fantasy in disguise), Westerns are not about gunfights. In our zine, it's all about the characters.

We're radically character-oriented. All the wondrous settings and complex plots in the world will fail to convince me if at the center of the tale there isn't a protagonist with whom I can somehow empathize. I don't have to like that character: heaven knows we've had some pretty nasty protagonists. But I want to get some insight into the character, and vicariously into myself. Also, I like stories, and characters, with edge.

Music is also an integral part of Not One of Us. In the introduction to each issue, I try to use song lyrics to link the stories into an issue-theme that emerges naturally from the stories and poems we have accepted. I also enjoy stories and poems that contain musical allusions.

If somebody picked up one of the early issues of Not One of Us and compared it to one of the newest issues, what do you think they would notice?

When Sonya Taaffe and I decided to start a Not One of Us website last year to promote the hardcopy zine, we went back and read all of the issues from 1986 to the present. We were both surprised at the underlying consistency of theme. But Not One of Us has gone through two important changes within that framework.

After our two sons were born, Anke and I had trouble doing Not One of Us by ourselves. I have read every story and poem submitted to the magazine since its inception. Anke used to second-read a whole lot of the submissions (plus she was the typist, which we editors don't have to worry about much these days!). But first her writing (her novel A Haven in Winter was published in December 1991), then the discovery that our younger son has a learning disability made it hard for her to keep playing such a time-consuming role. (She still reads quite a few stories and generally has to put up with me.)

By pure coincidence, I found someone who could help. Tina Reigel was a work-study student at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, where I worked for a long time as a public opinion analyst. We discovered that we shared common interests and tastes in genre fiction, as well as music, which has always been a major background theme for Not One of Us. Just as I was leaving the Roper Center in 1992 to take my new (current) job in Boston, I asked her to review some submissions, and it became clear that we needed to be working together. I consider Not One of Us to be an expression of my soul, and I don't often allow people into its workings. This was an exception.

Tina's main role on Not One of Us was Theme Enforcer. She was so disciplined, so dedicated to keeping on theme that she'd say things like, "I don't think we want stories like this one in our magazine [emphasis added]," or more ominously, "[pause...] John, have you read this?" During her three years at Not One of Us, we tightened the theme, got rid of most of the humor (which we generally put in an annual, variously-titled series of story collections, apart from Not One of Us), and reached an intensity of creepy, uncomfortable insight into people's minds.

The second change began when Sonya Taaffe came along. I've never been fond of most fantasy, to be blunt. I find it difficult to identify with characters in fantasy settings, and I dislike distortions of history on the excuse of "alternative universes." I sometimes decried the invasion of fantasy into everything, especially science fiction, which seemed for some time to have disappeared as a genre.

But Sonya showed me that fantasy can be compatible with my vision for Not One of Us. Not only has she had a story in every issue of the magazine since #26 in 2001, but she has had an important impact on how I view fantasy. She pointed out that I had already been publishing stories that could be called fantasy, quite a few of them by her lights, including terrific tales by Patricia Russo and Jennifer Rachel Baumer. The trick is finding fantasy writers who concentrate on characterization, while taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by fantasy conventions to address the concept of "otherness."

What happens when you have a story or poem that you very much want to publish, but it doesn't fit a theme you have for an issue? Has this ever happened?

That's actually the reason we started publishing our annual, variously-titled non-Not One of Us collections (what we call our "one-offs"), of which we have now done seventeen. There are stories I just plain like. Most of the humorous stories go in our one-offs, because I don't want them to disrupt the mood of Not One of Us. I'm not without a sense of humor. One of my favorite such stories, "The Exceedingly Praeternatural & More Than a Little Disconcerting Life-Giving Properties of the Paelescu Ray" by Mark McLaughlin, went in a one-off called Split. Also, the more cheerful stories, especially those with fantasy elements, tend to go in these collections. And sometimes I just can't resist a good gross-out.

The titles of the one-offs are different each year, and the title theme of each one arises organically from the stories we have on hand. Some of the one-offs are pretty bawdy; others, like the recent Clarity, are a lot more elegant.

After nineteen years, one might think "otherness" as a central idea would get old. What has kept it new for you?

The reason the "otherness" theme doesn't get old for me is that there are so many ways to approach it. "Other" is a nearly universal concept. All groups use "other" to define themselves through exclusion of those who are not like them, so genre, social milieu, and culture do not limit the literary expression of the concept. Exclusion is a painful process most of us have experienced at some time: being left out of a clique, being told we're not good enough, that we're dumb or ugly or the wrong color or religion. So that's the starting point for people to understand even more extreme forms of "otherness."

Also, I don't think enough genre fiction deals with "otherness," so it has become almost a quest for me, an attempt to fill the void. We publish (even including the one-off collections, which are often not especially "otherness"-related) only 17-18 stories and 20 poems per year. I know of people who read that many romance novels annually, so I don't really feel like I'm choking myself or others on my obsession.

While the premise of our zine sounds depressing, I'm perfectly happy to see a character find positive ways to relate to other people and to lead a life. Stories about "otherness" do not have to be nihilistic, or even pessimistic, so the tone varies, too. And because I insist on feeling some personal connection with the protagonists of our stories, each tale should, if I'm doing my job right, be different from the others.

I don't like "larger" agendas, which I find limiting and distracting. I should also mention that I hate excuse-making and preachiness, including people whining about being "other." One-step program: deal with it, in whatever way you feel you must. Understanding motives is not the same as excusing behavior. It is clearly possible to be "other" without being an ax-murderer.

The other thing that keeps it new is that my own perspective evolves over time. I've already mentioned the shifts that have occurred under the influence of the strong personalities "on staff." But even on my own, my personal preferences change. I learn to appreciate new things that come to me, especially from new and younger writers who see life from a different perspective. In a sense, my reading and editing are part of the living process itself, and I think it shows in the freshness of the magazine over time.

Are there things you've seen in the slush pile over and over again that you would really like to never see again?

That's the other side of the coin. Does the "otherness" theme sometimes get old? Yes, but mainly because a lot of writers don't seem to perceive "otherness" except through a small number of themes that have been used many times before. Our guidelines list what we generally do and don't like:

"We crave characters (human or otherwise) who are different and who act the way they do out of plausible (if occasionally insane) motives. We need not like a character, but we want to [have some understanding of] her/him/it. Overused themes to avoid: vampires, alcoholic villains without any understanding of their motives, tales about writers, sword and sorcery, deals with the devil, and revenge stories that have no other point, especially if the punishment far exceeds the crime."

But more generally, it is stories that have no protagonist with whom I can share the experience of "otherness" that leave me flat.

What has changed in the SF field (broadly defined) since you first started editing and publishing?

When I started Not One of Us, Lovecraft was having one of his periodic moments of popularity in horror fiction, and Stephen King was, well, king. It was the start of the desktop publishing era, and dozens of horror magazines were popping up. Some of the best were The Horror Show, Grue, and Cemetery Dance, followed a few years later by Palace Corbie, The Urbanite, and The Third Alternative, perhaps the first major publication that self-consciously published slipstream. For a while, OMNI published some of the best science fiction I'd ever read, in a style quite different from what I'd consumed in my youth. Splatter-punk was all the rage in the late 1980s, but that went away. Then for a while in the late 1990s, horror hit a dry spell, at least financially. But new influences like anime, a perfect match for the Not One of Us theme, have regenerated all three genres.

Right now my favorite author is probably Caitlin R. Kiernan. Dancy Flammarion and Deacon Silvey are two of my favorite characters, perfect Not One of Us protagonists.

The other main change has been technological, including the boom in e-zines, which has eaten into the market for hardcopy zines. The Internet has made it so much easier for people to share their literary interests, even apart from the publishing world. Fanfic and LiveJournals are an important part of how writers, editors, and readers communicate. Fortunately it seems as though there are still a lot of folks who like to hold a hardcopy book or magazine in their hands.

Have your goals and aspirations for Not One of Us changed over the years?

When we first started Not One of Us, I both overestimated and underestimated where we would be today. I dreamed of making at least a modest amount of money off Not One of Us, piggybacking it with Anke's burgeoning writing career. I think I've nearly broken even on the magazine financially over the years: there are a lot more expensive vices.

I never imagined that Not One of Us would last 19 years, never thought I would have an experience so intensely personal over so many changes in my life. Not One of Us is me, pure and simple. The three people who have worked with me on the magazine are the rare ones who share that vision. I write medical and policy journal articles at work, I have had 100+ poems published, but if I were to die today, I would want people to judge my "literary" life by Not One of Us.

6 comments:

  1. Very cool interview, y'all.

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  2. Urgent: Can someone please ask John Benson to email Peter Orr at wolfgangflywheel@hotmail.com?
    I had to abandon my home in New Orleans on the spur of the moment and need to ask him if he has certain manuscripts of mine thathe liked.

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  3. All set, Peter -- I sent this to John. Don't hesitate to let me know if you need any other help.

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  4. Good interview. It's always nice to hear the thought processes that go into a magazine. And how things change but mostly remain the same. Alienation never gets old -- if anything, there's more to be alienated from now than ever before.

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  5. John Benson referred to writer Jack Pavey in the past tense. Can he or someone please let me know if Jack has died? Please let me know at thkirkland@yahoo.com; thank you.

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  6. Jack Pavey is alive and well, and still writing under several noms de guerre.

    In recent years, he also supplemented his his prose experiments with spoken word and Rock n' Roll.

    He plays drums and guitar for The Oblivion Rangers, and writes most of their original music.

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