Laura Anne Gilman: Meet the Devil’s Left Hand

Laura Anne Gilman was born August 25, 1967 and grew up in New Jersey. She attended Skidmore, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, where she majored in English and history. She did internships at the Book of the Month Club and William Morrow while in college, and after graduation spent six months as an assistant at Putnam. She then made a lateral move to the Berkley Publishing Group and Ace Science Fiction, where she worked for almost seven years, rising to editor, before moving to NAL/Roc as executive editor. She ran things there for over six years before selling her first novel and becoming a freelance writer and editor, which she’s been ever since.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I’ve always been writing fiction. My mother was an award-winning literary short story writer – in 1977 she was listed by The Massachusetts Review as one of the short story writers to watch. My great uncle wrote for the Yiddish theater. My grandmother wrote letters that should be novels. It’s probably genetic, yeah. In kindergarten, they had us kids put together little books. My parents got called in. ‘She wrote this book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and they’re not capable of doing that at this age – someone helped her.’ My parents said, ‘No, she’s just going to be a writer.’ I know I was very fortunate in that I got encouragement from my parents to do this. I was very focused as a kid – I was writing even then. Terrible stuff, but writing.

“My college, Skidmore, had a program where instead of hiring professors to teach writing, they hired novelists. I was able to study with Meg Wolitzer and Steven Millhauser. Meg was an amazing influence and a… not great teacher, but I think Steven discovered that teaching was his secondary calling. He was excellent. I remember he said to me once, ‘I don’t know anything about fantasy, but if you think you can make a living at it, do it.’ It’s funny in retrospect, considering he won a World Fantasy Award. He was not there for the usual sneering at genre. He said, ‘Writing is a business. If you think you can make a living, more power to you.’

“I was writing, and I was learning, but there was something in me that said, ‘You’re not ready yet. You’re developing your style, you have the innate ability, but you have absolutely nothing worth saying yet.’ I was in my mid-twenties when I decided I did have something worth saying. I wrote a short story and sent it out, and by some sheer luck of stupid chance, I managed to choose the perfect editor, and sold my first story the first time I submitted it. It was called, ‘All the Comforts of Home’, which I read now and cringe. I still love it, and I still know exactly what I was trying to say, I just wasn’t there yet.

“I didn’t sell another thing for like a year and a half. So I got the egoboo, and then got brought right back down to Earth.

“I’ve always been writing, but I also wanted to be an editor, because my uncle was an editor in New York publishing, and I thought he had the coolest job ever. I had two internships before I graduated. The first I got through my uncle, who was editor-in-chief at Book of the Month Club.

“For the second internship, I did a full rotation at William Morrow. I worked every single department, and learned how very easy it is for people to be cranky and dispirited at their jobs even when they love them. So a couple of months before graduation, I started reading the ads, thinking, ‘This is what I want to do.’

“I got a job working for Neil Nyren, then editor-in-chief of GP Putnam’s Sons. He was Tom Clancy’s editor. I had no interest in technothrillers or most of the stuff Neil worked with, very high-end non-fiction and military spy fiction, but he was an amazing boss. Very old school, very supportive. Then gossip told me the assistant at Ace Science Fiction had just quit, and if I was interested, I should get my resume in. I asked Neil, ‘Would you mind?’ He said, ‘That’s what you love. Go do it. I’m not going to hold you back.’

“So, six months into the job working for Putnam I moved downstairs to Berkley, working for Susan Allison, Ginjer Buchanan, and, at the time, Beth Fleisher, as the departmental assistant. I stayed there for almost seven years and slowly clawed my way up to editor, but I knew I wasn’t going to stay there, because Susan and Ginjer weren’t going anywhere at the time. I thought, ‘I’m very happy here, but I’m not going anywhere. How long can I do that?’ I started looking for a position as a senior editor, and there was nothing. It was a small field, even then.

“Then I heard the executive editor position at NAL/Roc had come open. I was just an editor, and that was a major jump up, but I thought, ‘What the hell.’ I went in for four rounds of interviews, up the ranks. For some reason, known only to them and God, they gave me the job. I went from being the third person in a three-person department to heading up a two-person department.

“At the time the imprint was hemorrhaging money – it was so in the red. I got thrown in head first, and turned it around by working 60-hour weeks. Some of my proudest moments were bringing a lot of new writers in, and reshaping that list. Then six or seven months after I was hired there, the Pearson/Penguin merger happened. Fortunately I had burned no bridges, because my old bosses were now my new bosses, and Susan and Ginjer were now working on the other side of the hall, in a sister competing imprint!

“I stayed there for another six, almost seven years. Finally what everyone had been predicting happened: the powers-that-be looked around and realized they had a lot of people doing the same job. I was neither the most senior, nor the cheapest, so they said, ‘Here’s some money to go away.’ At the time I had just sold my first book contract, a 3-book deal with Harlequin’s fantasy imprint, Luna. I took the payout, took the book contract, went freelance, and never looked back.

“I’ve kept a hand in editing, though: sometimes working with writers who are major-house published who either felt they weren’t getting enough attention or knew they needed a little bit more. I work a lot with people who are self-publishing, too, who know it’s not enough to take the manuscript, type ‘The End’, and throw it into formatting. You need to take the next step. I do a lot of mentoring, walking people through the stuff they don’t know, whether they’re going to go New York pub, or selfpub. Rather than having to make the mistakes I made, I can talk them through it. I do it as an unofficial mentor – people can buy blocks of my time, and get whatever they need: feedback, a beta read, a professional take. I’m basically a paid trusted advisor. It’s fun because it’s a collaborative effort of crafting them into a professional, and hopefully avoiding some of the mistakes people make, and that’s satisfying to me.

“I’m also part of a collaborative called Book View Cafe, which was originally started by genre writers going, ‘Okay, I got the rights to my back-list back, now what do I do with it?’ We’ve got a whole bunch of skills there. We’ve got copy editors, proofreaders, a couple of people who do design, and everybody pools their skills. We put together this website that’s gone through several iterations and now we have a full store and a publicity machine. We do original fiction, we do anthologies, we’re starting to branch out from ebook-only to making print editions available. It’s a true co-op. A small percentage of what we earn goes back into the co-op to pay for the website and everything, and the rest goes directly to the writers. We encourage people to either serve on the board or do volunteer positions, but everybody contributes as they can. I haven’t published anything with them recently because I’ve been working with Patreon, which has been eating my brain, but I’ve got a couple of things coming up towards the end of the year.

“With Book View Cafe, I can say, ‘I need an editor four months down the road,’ and someone steps up. It’s been amazing. We do all genres. We do non-fiction. We have a very active blog, where people talk about things constantly.

“Knowing how easy it is to get lost in the self-publishing world, having Book View Cafe has really kept us focused. We can say, ‘I’ve made this mistake. Nobody else can make this mistake. I’ve made it for all of us. This is what happened. Don’t do this.’ That’s the greatest gift we’re giving each other.”

Interview design by Stephen H. Segal. Photo by Liza Groen Trombi.

This interview and more like it in the July 2018 issue of Locus.

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