Like a lot of people, the only thing my college friends and I ever do together is have a drink and reminisce. But grad school pals — and fellow writers — Eric M. Bosarge [Sky Is Over] and J.M. McDermott [The Fortress At The End Of Time] have decided to upstage all of us by starting their own publishing house, Vernacular Books. In the following email interview, Joe and Eric discuss Vernacular’s first release, the sci-fi short story collection The Way Of The Laser: Future Crime Stories (paperback, Kindle).
The Way Of The Laser contributor Wendy N. Wager
The subtitle makes it kind of obvious, but I’ll ask anyway: What is the theme to The Way Of The Laser?
Joe: This is a play on words about the way of the gun: crime, criminality, and that sort of stuff, except science fictional. It’s seeking to explore how new technology and future worlds and cultures can be turned into places where laws are broken, for good or ill. It’s an interstitial idea, really, merging the mystery / crime / thriller genres with a diverse range of sci-fi.
When it came to putting The Way Of The Laser together, did you reach out to specific writers you wanted to contribute or did you send out a general call for submissions?
Joe: We did both. There were definitely authors we had in mind when we had the idea, but slush piles are kind of amazing, also terrible things that led to some wonderful stories from authors we would have never considered even asking, initially. We didn’t have room for every great story we found, and I hope those all find a home soon.
How did you decide what writers you wanted to contribute to The Way Of The Laser?
Eric: We discussed what authors we both knew — there was some serious overlap from our time together at the Stonecoast MFA Program in Maine — and which ones were unique to us. We really wanted to put something together with work from authors that readers in the community would recognize instantly. I know buying a book isn’t a huge investment, but it is a certain investment of time and money, and we wanted to make sure that when people saw the table of contents they would be willing to take a chance on an anthology from a new publishing house.
We also both discussed the importance of being open to unsolicited manuscripts so we could create an opportunity for people we didn’t, for whatever reason, instantly know but have these amazing stories. We are really excited by the work we discovered in the unsolicited submissions, and feel they’re just as strong as the work from our Hugo-winning contributors, in their own way.
And then aside from having to fit the theme, what conditions did the stories have to fulfill?
Eric: We only accepted unpublished stories. Most of the stories were written exclusively for this anthology with the prompt in mind — at least to our knowledge. Our guidelines were actually quite broad for the authors we solicited as far as word count. We were most concerned with the quality of the story, and that meant letting things be the length where they really solidify and feel complete both as a standalone piece, and inside the larger context of the anthology. In a couple cases, we actually asked authors to expand their stories considerably.
The Way Of The Laser contributor Paul Jessup
How often did one of the writers come up with an idea that someone else has already suggested?
Joe: This didn’t actually happen, per se. I think some of the same themes appeared in completely different ways. Biomedical advances, for example, appear in multiple stories, but they’re handled very differently. A.I. also appears a few times, but each algorithm is very unique and considers the possibility of artificial intelligence as an avenue for criminal exploitation and advancement very differently. There are other commonalities, but I shall not ramble on. I think it speaks to the anxieties of our own time, really, and part of the joy of working inside the umbrella of science fiction is seeing how some of the same building blocks are used to create such wildly different palaces and log cabins and floating houseboat caravans.
And we’re there any ideas that you rejected outright, maybe even before you began? Like, “human-looking robot bounty hunters go after other human-looking robots” or something equally commonplace.
Eric: Fortunately, no one pitched us an idea that we had to reject. The authors took the idea and ran with it, all in quite surprisingly disparate directions. There’s a couple — Wendy N. Wagner, Patrice Sarath, Jamie Mason, and Julie Day’s stories come to mind — that went places that I really didn’t expect. Paul Jessup, too; but I sort of expected that from him. And Monica Joyce Evans submitted a story when we put out a call for work that really took the idea of an artificial intelligence and applied it to the gaming world in a way that I really didn’t expect. That’s just not like, a place I would expect crime to occur, but of course that kind of thing happens there.
Joe: I think the only thing I was really against, personally, actually came into the anthology in a very powerful, and exciting way: The Hard-Boiled Detective. I actually dislike the narrative trope, as a general rule, but then this story comes in from the slush pile from Holly Schofield [“A Handful Of Empty”] that stands out and innovates and really works just by itself, and then Mur Lafferty’s cozy British estate clone murder mystery [“A Classic English Christmas”] seems to contrast so well with Holly’s world of deprivation in the far colonies of humanity. So, my expectation of what I didn’t want was blown up fairly quickly.
So, Eric, when it came to working on The Way Of The Laser, how was the work divided?
Eric: You know, I think the idea was to sort of split the workload down the middle. Both of us read every story in the slush pile, and we sort of split which authors to work with on revisions, discussed initial reactions, worked individually with the authors, then ran the stories by each other for a final check. It hasn’t been until this stage of the process that there’s been a clear your work, my work kind of dynamic.
Joe: We’re really pushing hard to meet our obligation to our backers in March. I want people to know that we were not asking for their support and then letting them down. So, the stark division in this phase is mostly us being realistic about where our strengths lie and maximizing our time out of necessity to get where we need to go with veracity and grace.
Eric, what did Joe bring to the process that you did not?
Eric: The first thing that comes to mind is that Joe knows far more genre writers than I do, and when we had a couple authors drop out, he really dug into his rolodex and sort of saved the day.
Joe: The authors saved the day, not me. I just got very lucky. I’m very grateful to those three authors that quickly rose up to help us out. They’re awesome. I think you’ll really love their stories, in this anthology, as well. Natania, Jennifer Brozek, and Katie Cord are the ones who saved the day. We are blessed by their talent. If I had known only they had those stories earlier, I’d have asked them a lot earlier…
The Way Of The Laser contributor Mur Laffery (photo by J.R. Blackwell)
And Joe, same question to you about Eric?
Joe: So, I’ve never actually edited an anthology before. I’ve read slush before for websites and magazines, but I’ve never put together a final product wrangling authors and getting all the contracts organized and making sure all the Is and Ts are dotted and filing things correctly. I’m actually disorganized to the point where it’s sort of amazing I’ve been as successful as I have been, and these are all areas where Eric has succeeded far beyond me. He’s been the head editor of a literary journal before, and he knew a very good graphic designer extremely well, and he’s able to put together all the moving parts in the background that need to happen for the idea to become real. He also has the ability to make audio books, which I definitely do not. That and just having someone to bounce ideas off of, since we actually have a very similar aesthetic when it comes down to it, really helps clarify a lot. I think we both found things in the slush pile that merited a second look and entered the final. They’re all great stories, but we championed slightly different things in different ways, and we had to win the other over. That, I think, made the whole anthology a whole lot stronger than what either one of us could have done, alone.
Now, The Way Of The Laser is the first book from your new publishing house, Vernacular Books. Is it indicative of your plans going forward?
Joe: I don’t want to talk about plans publicly before we’re ready to be very specific about them to the whole world. We know what we’re doing next, and we’ll leave it at that, today. Right now, we need to make sure everyone knows about this awesome anthology, and that’s our laser focus, so to speak.
Sure, though I would like to ask if you’re planning to publish your own novels?
Joe: No. And we were very conflicted about including one of Eric’s stories in the anthology. It was something like Plan C or Plan D, when we realized our loose word count guidelines and slush pile decisions left us a little on the low side for final word count, and I know Eric is still conflicted about it, but ultimately that was my decision, not his. It’s not something we expect to do very often, at all. I hope we never need to do it again.
We aren’t starting a publishing house to publish our own work. (Frankly, I’m not having a lot of trouble publishing my own work. I was in Analog Science Fiction and Fact four times last year!) We’re doing this because we want to be a part of the real conversation that happens when we can select and feature and promote the work we love, which is very different from doing our own thing. It’s more like how we write reviews on our website, to promote the things we love or not and talk about them and find ways to talk about art that is important to us to say out loud. This is part of building something bigger than just our individual work. Many stories in this anthology would not exist had we not commissioned them, and they’re extremely good and interesting and important stories. It’s not the same to push our own stuff out there and pretend like that’s the same sort of thing.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Way Of The Laser, what sci-fi short story anthology would each of you recommend they read next?
Joe: I think of novels first, actually. I recommend Wendy N. Wagner’s Oath Of Dogs because it’s a compelling murder mystery on a distant world that explores colonialism of natural spaces in a way that would feel trite if it was a realist piece in the woods outside of Oregon. (Only the people who agree with the politics would bother to read it, whereas those same ideas on a factory planet in space remove the politics of the moment from the important message hidden in the fiction.)
I also recommend Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes, which is a fascinating locked room murder mystery that could only exist in an SF-nal space, because it’s about clones and the morality and ethics of cloning told through the vehicle of a locked room murder mystery. It was actually one of the books I was thinking about a lot when I initially proposed the idea for The Way Of The Laser to Eric.
For gritty crime stuff, if that’s your preferred poison, classic cyberpunk work will suffice, like Burning Chrome by William Gibson, which still feels cutting edge and fresh after all these years.
In modern work, Adam Troy-Castro has been writing a fascinating series of stories about a freelance government lawyer in space, in Analog Magazine, as well, and it seems to be an argument in favor of that old and oft-maligned profession being useful in times and places to come.
Eric: I’m also a novel first kind of guy, for the most part, but I just picked up Do Not Go Quietly, and am enjoying it immensely — and I was pleased to see it has a story by Marie Vibbert, who is also featured in The Way Of The Laser. As an English teacher, constantly teaching some traditional canonical texts, it’s nice to see how the same notes of critical patriotism that are hallmarks of many enduring texts can transfer into vastly different settings.
It’s unfortunate that scheduling didn’t quite work out so that Kameron Hurley could be included in this collection, because her collection Meet Me In The Future absolutely blew my mind. It sorts of mingles and juxtaposes some ideas about technology and biological fusion, quietly contemplating what that might mean for the soul, both for humans and machines, in a way I thought was truly beautiful.
I’m always a sucker for work that both fits cleanly in a genre but also stands apart because it is so different, and Paul Jessup’s Close Your Eyes definitely fits the bill. There’s a nightmarish quality to it that is undeniable, and it reminded me of the terror I initially felt while watching Event Horizon for the first time as a teenager, of being stranded in space and at the mercy of not only the horror of your imagination, but the horror that can be inflicted by an entity that is smarter, and more powerful, and far more malevolent than anything we’re prepared to face. I noted Paul’s story in our anthology, “Halo 13,” has a pretty strong allusion to nine-inch nails, which happens to be my favorite band, and realized that thread of fitting perfectly into a genre but also pushing at the boundaries and just, consistently doing something that is different enough to stand out, is really something he excels at.