John Joseph Adams is the series editor of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and is the editor of more than forty anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead, and A People’s Future of the United States.
He is also editor of the Hugo Award-winning magazine Lightspeed and was editor of its sister magazine Nightmare for its first 100 issues. As the publisher of both magazines, from 2014-2016, he published the acclaimed Destroy series of special issues, which were 100% written and edited by women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC creators.
When not editing short fiction, he’s a producer for WIRED’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, and for five years he was the editor of an eponymous novel imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Lately, he’s been working as an editor (and occasionally game designer) on various roleplaying games projects for Kobold Press and Monte Cook Games.
What inspired the anthology Out There Screaming?
Jordan and the Monkeypaw team conceived of Out There Screaming on their own and sold it to Random House. Once it was sold, they wanted to bring on an experienced short fiction editor to co-edit with Jordan. I was very fortunate that my agent, Seth Fishman, got wind of this and was able to get me considered.
As for the inspiration, I suppose you’d really need to ask this of them—but it seems to me like this book was inevitable. Since the release of Get Out, Jordan has been a trailblazer of, the driving force behind, and become synonymous with Black horror. A book like this was the next logical step to further expand the awareness of Black horror and what its writers are capable of. I’m honored and thrilled to be a part of it.
What was your process for putting together this collection? Did you ask writers for stories that fit your theme, open up the submission process, or did you approach it in a different way?
We solicited stories from a select group of authors. Since I know the horror short story field inside and out, I created a long list of Black authors working in that space (or in adjacent spaces). Then, working with Jordan and the Monkeypaw team, we winnowed it down to our top choices and recruited those people to write stories for the book. Usually, when you do an anthology, you have a bunch of your top choices say no to participating, but in this case, almost no one declined—and those few that did, it pained them to do so. If only every anthology worked like that!
Do you have a favorite Horror short story by a Black writer you were unable to include?
Because of the way the book was assembled, this wasn’t really possible since the stories we were considering didn’t exist yet. But as noted, there are a few authors that I would have loved to include that we were unable to. One of them is Victor LaValle—who I co-edited an anthology with once (A People’s Future of the United States); I know he really wanted to, but the stars aligned against us, unfortunately. But I know that was partially at least due to the fact that he was working on The Changeling TV show, so I can’t fault him for that!
A favorite in another medium (novel, novella, television, motion picture, or some other media)?
It seems a little on the nose to cite Jordan’s films as my favorites in this context—and seems like an obvious choice regardless—but I’d have to put Get Out at the top of such a list. On the prose fiction side of things, I’d have to repeat myself by bringing up Victor LaValle again: His books The Ballad of Black Tom and The Devil in Silver are amazing. Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark. Anything by Tananarive Due. Octavia Butler is much more of a science fiction/fantasy (rather than horror) legend, but her book Fledgling is horror and fantastic. (My favorite book of hers is Wild Seed, which is actually overall pretty dark, but I doubt anyone would call it horror.)
The themes of your anthologies cover a lot of ground (from mad scientists to zombies to robot uprisings to the Wizard of Oz)! Is there a theme/idea for an anthology that you haven’t yet been able to work on that you would like to pursue or wish you had pursued in the past (and can talk about)?
Of course! Every anthology editor has some of those. I could technically talk about some of them, but I’m a bit of an "idea hoarder"—so even if something didn’t pan out, I tend to file it away to maybe try it again at another time. Really, that’s how I became an anthology editor at all. Before I conceived of Wastelands, I had been pitching an anthology of original (rather than reprint) post-apocalyptic fiction that got no traction from publishers. But I held onto that idea and later saw that doing it as a reprint anthology might be a more viable route… and, well, turns out I was right!
You’ve been an award-winning Editor for nearly two decades. Is there a common mis-perception about what you do as an Editor that you would like to explain/correct?
There definitely are people who have misperceptions about what an editor does, but I doubt anyone who reads the LAPL blog would be among them! But amongst people who don’t read fiction, they tend to think that the editor is just fixing typos and such. People who do read fiction but don’t read short fiction sometimes don’t realize an anthology editor’s full role: that we’re the curators of the anthology and the driving force behind it—that the book would not exist if we had not conceived of it, pitched it, sold it to a publisher, and pulled it all together. And after that, yes, we do edit the prose—and sometimes our contributions in that regard are very small, but sometimes they’re significant. But anthology editors typically become known not for their prowess at editing the actual prose, but their skill at curating anthologies and making them exist in the first place. All that said, an editor’s role is to shine the spotlight on the authors they work with, so if people like my books but don’t really understand what I do, that’s okay by me.
As an Editor, what do you wish writers, especially newer ones, knew or understood about the process of submitting a story for possible inclusion in an anthology on which you are working?
Most of my anthologies—well, all of them these days—are invitation-only. Meaning: There’s not a public call for submissions, and only the writers I specifically invite can submit stories. What I’d want newer writers to understand about this is the why of it. For one thing, when you do an open call for submissions for an anthology, you could get hundreds and hundreds—nearly a thousand or maybe more!—submissions for a book that can at most include twenty stories or so. So that adds a ton of work to the project. Depending on the project, it might be warranted or necessary, but for most, it tends to make sense to keep them invite-only.
But what I think a lot of people never consider is what happens to all of the stories you reject from an open call like that. Well, those writers submit them to other markets—usually magazines, which have a shorter production cycle than anthologies typically. Since most anthologies have a theme (and sometimes a very specific theme), by doing an open call, you can effectively flood the short fiction market with stories on your anthology’s theme, and, due to the aforementioned production cycle differential, the entire field might be inundated with (and possibly sick of!) stories on the theme your anthology… which is not ideal, to say the least!
What’s currently on your nightstand?
No reading material, which may seem strange for an editor, but I just don’t read in bed. If I did, though, what would be there would be a Kindle with a bunch of stories I loaded onto it that I need to read for Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Because BASFF involves reading so many stories, it’s really hard to work anything else into my reading schedule that isn’t also something I need to read for editorial purposes.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
How about editors instead?
Gordon Van Gelder. Gordon is the publisher (and was at the time the editor) of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He gave me my first editorial job and is basically my editorial mentor; he taught me a ton during the nine years I worked at the magazine. So obviously he’s the most influential for me.
Sheree Renée Thomas. The current editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and editor of the groundbreaking Black science fiction/fantasy anthologies Dark Matter and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (as well as the more recent Africa Risen).
Ellen Datlow. Her Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (of which she edited the horror half) and her current Best Horror of the Year series is essential reading for horror fans. She also has a slew of other horror anthologies, such as the recent When Things Get Dark and Screams From the Dark.
David G. Hartwell. Mostly a science fiction/fantasy editor, but his mammoth anthology The Dark Descent (1987) is an incredible compilation, though given the context of this interview I went back to see which Black authors it included, and, unfortunately, I believe there are none.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It—or rather the whole "increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy"—helped me get through a pretty tough time in my childhood. That was around ages 10 to 11. Going back to much younger stuff, I loved those Ralph S. Mouse books by Beverly Cleary. I came to horror much later.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
I don’t think I’ve ever faked reading a book (outside of stuff assigned for high school reading), but there are certainly books that I feel like I should have read—and in cases where they came up I did not volunteer that I hadn’t read them.
Is there a book that changed your life?
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester led me to becoming an editor (in a couple of different ways), so definitely that. When I read it, it blew my mind—I’d never read anything like it, and I was completely enamored with it. After reading it, it became my personal quest to find other fiction that had that same effect on me. Then, when I went in for the interview for my first editorial job at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the publisher, Gordon Van Gelder, asked me what my favorite novel was, and I cited Stars—which won me big points with him, but I didn’t even realize it at the time; Alfred Bester is one of those writers that people who are deep, deep into science fiction/fantasy know and appreciate, but more casual readers don’t know who he is, but I didn’t know any of that—I just knew I loved that book.
Also, I have to mention the game books for Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is what lit the spark of creativity in me and led me to eventually try writing myself—and my interest in writing is what led me to editing.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
The most recent thing, I think, is the song and video for "Hi Ren" by Ren. It was a viral sensation on YouTube that I came to very late, and I had basically no idea what it was all about or what I was in for. But it’s… stunning. Definitely artistry at the highest level. An incredible achievement. I think it might be better to go into it not knowing anything about it like I did, so I’ll just leave my praise here to urge y’all who haven’t seen/heard it to go check it out.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m busy reading for next year’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and catching up on submissions to my magazine Lightspeed. Otherwise, I’ve got a few things in the hopper I can’t talk about (not being able to talk about this project was so painful) and some pitches in the works.