Interview with Ian Whates – author and editor

solaris rising 2

The Solaris Rising anthologies you’ve edited have received a lot of success, the second expanding on the first – what were the parameters you set finding authors for this latest volume?


Yes, I’m delighted at how well received the books have been.  There are some cracking stories in both volumes.  As always when considering who to approach, I’ve chosen authors whose work I admire and who I felt confident could contribute something different to the project.  In a sense this is akin to putting together a mosaic.  From outset I’m looking for as rich and varied a selection of stories as possible, and in my mind each invite represents another element in an ever-changing pattern. Some authors inevitably decline due to existing commitments, while others submit pieces that aren’t quite what I’m after, but slowly the book takes shape.  The hardest part is often deciding on which stories to leave out.



What is the process like working on this type of book – is there a lot of interaction with the editors at Solaris or do they give you full responsibility to bring the product to fruition?


Jon Oliver and the team at Solaris are excellent to work with, in this and just about every other regard.  They trust me enough to give me my head and wait to see what I deliver.  Once contracts are signed, they pretty much leave me alone to source the authors, commission stories, edit the stories, etc.  Then, at or even (dare I say it) before the prearranged deadline, I send them the manuscript.  I’ve no doubt that were they not to like what I submit I’d soon know about it, but so far…



It seems that you’ve brought in a number of new, lesser known authors alongside some ‘bigger’ names – how did you go about finding these writers and their stories?


Yes, that’s a policy I’ve pursued right from the start with my own NewCon Press anthologies and have carried through into Solaris Rising as well.  It’s a little more tricky with the latter, because I have other people to answer to – the Solaris team.  While I know they’re as enthusiastic about good science fiction as I am, I’m also conscious of the need to ensure the book sells well, and that means providing potential readers with new stories from authors they recognise and want to read.  At the same time, introducing readers to exciting new voices is one of my principle motivations in putting anthologies together in the first place, but you have to get the balance right.

How do I find these newer voices?  That’s easy.  I’ve been reading short stories in magazines and, in recent decades, online for as long as I can remember.  I meet writers at conventions and events.  I belong to writers’ groups and critique work… All of these things bring me into contact with aspiring authors.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve read something by a new, emerging, or lesser-known writer and thought, “Wow, I’d love to publish something by him/her!”  It’s then just a matter of waiting for the right opportunity.



What is the best part of putting together a collection of stories such as the ones found in Solaris Rising 2?


Actually receiving and reading the submissions; especially when a given piece arrives from a writer I’ve not worked with before, whether that be from a newer voice or an established author I’ve long admired.  The thrill of reading a really good submission and knowing you’re going to be privileged enough to present this the readership is… wonderful.



Is there a cross-over in terms of experience from your Newcon Press work and editing an anthology?


Very much so, in all sorts of ways.  I couldn’t have begun to take on a project such as Solaris Rising without the experience gained from editing NewCon Press anthologies over the past few years.  In addition, I wouldn’t have had the contacts to approach, nor the reputation (such as it is) to command the attention of established ‘big name’ authors.



How did Newcon Press come about? (I’ve read there is a story in this.)


I’ve been known to claim that NewCon Press was a venture that started by accident, and that isn’t so far removed from the truth.  When freshly arrived in the community, I became involved in organising a convention in Northampton: Newcon 3.  We had a fabulous venue, terrific guests: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Liz Williams, and Fangorn, and attracted a number of other authors besides: Ian Watson (the convention’s chair), Gwyneth Jones, Sarah Singleton, Mark Robson, Steve Cockayne… Unfortunately, too few people came along to enjoy the event, and we lost money.

I wasn’t carrying any of the resultant debt personally, but felt determined to do something about it, so I hit upon the idea of putting together an anthology of original stories as a fund raiser. What followed was an incredibly steep learning curve, as I’d never edited anything before, let alone sourced printers, commissioned cover art and stories, sorted out layout, etc etc… Ian Watson was a huge help on the editorial side, and Mark Robson, who had self-published very successfully before being picked up by Simon and Schuster, was invaluable when it came to the practicalities.  Eventually, Time Pieces emerged, and I can’t begin to describe the thrill of holding that first title in my hand.  Immediately, all the stresses and frustrations of recent months were forgotten, and I thought, “Hey, I could do this again…!”


You’ve also written a number of novels yourself – does this influence your choices and processes as an editor and vice versa?


Inevitably it all interlinks.  When I write, I try to produce the type of novel or story that I’d want to read, that I’d be happy to shell-out my hard earned money for.  When I compile and edit an anthology I take the same approach, accepting stories that appeal to me and which I’d be happy to pay for.  That’s one of the first lessons I learned as a writer: if an editor rejects something by you, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad story, simply that this particular piece doesn’t suit their requirements or taste.  I’ve recently seen two stories I rejected appear in fairly significant venues, which is great – best of luck to the authors.  I’m also aware that I’ve accepted pieces in the past that have been rejected elsewhere.  Again, so what?  This sort of thing is inevitable, and that venue’s loss is my gain.



You write across the genre boundaries from Space Opera to Urban Fantasy – do you think those borders are permeable and interactive, each helping you write in the other landscape as they appear quite opposite?


I wrote the Noise books (space opera) for Solaris and the City of 100 Rows trilogy (urban fantasy with steampunk elements and SF underpinning) for Angry Robot simultaneously, and it helped enormously that I had both series on-going.  As I finished one novel, I would take a break of a week or two and then swap to the next volume in the ‘other’ universe, so approaching the task with a fresh eye.  To me, the Noise books are very much SF, the City books a little more ambiguous.  Though the latter are structured as fantasies there are elements that straddle traditional genre boundaries.   I’ve always enjoyed authors and works that do that – blur the margins of definition and refuse to conform to expectation.  At the end of the day, labels such as ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ are not meant to enforce restrictions on the narrative structure but merely to give us, as readers, an idea of what to expect from a given book.  They’re guidelines for the reader, not imperatives for the author.  So yes, the genre borders are as permeable as an author chooses to make them for any given work.



Your Noise Within novel has been described by Stephen Baxter as ‘24 meets Starship Troopers’ – could you expand a little on that explanation for would-be readers?


Yes, it was very kind of Steve to say that.  The Noise books were my opportunity to have fun with space opera: a black ops agent armed with an intelligent gun, AI spaceships, virtual reality, downloaded personalities, a ‘hidden’ rebel colony awaiting civilisation’s hour of need, a playboy businessman with hidden depths, a flawed heroine who is more than she seems, first contact with an alien civilisation that may or may not have been stage managed… High octane action, political skulduggery, doomed romances, assassination, exotic locations, a hedonistic pleasureworld, piracy in space, and very alien extraterrestrials… What more can I say?



You are also published by Angry Robot, producing a number of novels set in the City of Thaiburley where you’ve created a complex and intriguing world – what was the inspiration behind these stories?


To be honest, this whole series evolved from a single scene that sprung vividly into my head while watching a local TV news item about Burghley House, a nearby stately home.  The report featured the mansion’s roof, which includes a dramatic array of elegant, slender chimneys and ornate crenellations.  There’s a walkway built around the inner circumference of the roof and the views are designed to be visually stunning from wherever you’re standing.

I was instantly captivated by this roof and imagined it expanded to cover a vast city.  As soon as the report finished, I dashed to the computer and started tapping away.  The drama unfolded as I typed:  there’s someone desperate to reach this roof, a place he’s never been to and not supposed to go.  He’s a teenager, a thief; he’s already overcome many obstacles to get this far and has nearly reached his goal, but is thwarted at the last by witnessing a murder.  The real murderer pins blame on the boy and the chase is on, with assassins and police hunting the fugitive through the underworld of an extraordinary metropolis…



These books seem to blend a number of elements and themes – is the ‘City’ books your space to let your imagination run wild?


Very much so.  I had great fun writing these and was able to play around with everything from sword wielding warriors to rogue bioengineers, from flying policemen to lurking monsters, from steampunk steamships to feisty streetwise urchins… What’s not to love?

I’m a fan of China’s Perdido Street Station and of Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, both of which feature unique cities that inhabit the books in the same way that Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar does in so many of his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.  I’d always promised myself that one day I’d create my own wondrous and fascinating city, a place both quirky and dangerous… and here was my chance!  As the series develops I take some of the central characters out of the city to find the source of the river Thair.  While expanding on the urban sleaze of Thaiburley, this also enables me to explore the world beyond and introduce a wide variety of cultures, races and characters.  I’d love to return to thaiburley at some point and don’t feel I’ve finished with the city, not by a long shot; my attention has merely turned elsewhere for now.



What can we expect from you next – more novels, more editing, more of everything?


Short answer… Yes!  My latest novel, Pelquin’s Comet, the first in a new space opera series, is currently being considered by publishers.  In some ways this is Sherlock Holmes-meets-Firefly, but in many others it isn’t at all.  Solaris have recently commissioned me to compile a third volume of the Solaris Rising anthology series; my latest short story collection Growing Pains has just been released via PS Publishing; I have four short stories due out over the next few months in various anthologies and magazines, a 21,000 word novella, The Smallest of Things, that takes place across alternative versions of London currently being serialised in the webzine Aethernet… And I have all sorts of projects progressing via NewCon Press, with four anthologies currently being compiled, short story collections from Steve Ransnic Tem, Stan Nicholls, and Adrian Tchaikovsky imminent, as well as a fabulous novel from Neil Williamson called The Moon King, another, The End, from Gary McMahon, and the first ever UK publication of (this year’s Clarke Award winning author) Chris Beckett’s Marcher, previously only released in the States.  This new version of the novel will be extensively revised, with a rewritten ending… So, enough irons in the fire to keep me busy for a while yet.


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