Interview with Jeremy Szal (StarShipSofa)

It’s almost closing time at the pub and I’m still trading beers with Jeremy Szal, assistant editor of Hugo award-winning podcast StarShipSofa.

SCy-Fy: Jeremy, I guess we should finally start this interview before they throw us out. How do you prepare for a show?

JS: There’s a lot to it, actually. If I happen across a story I like, I contact the author to get permission for audio rights – if it’s a submission, this part is obviously skipped. If I get the green light, I find an appropriate narrator to match the story. I take it to them, and if they accept the job, I give them a timeframe. After nagging and following up, usually with not so thinly-veiled threats – bringing a dog into the equation works well – I get the episode file back. I listen to it to make sure the quality is up to scratch. If it isn’t, then I work with them until it is.

Then I pop the file on Dropbox for Tony Smith – the editor of StarShipSofa – to use in the appropriate week and fill out the episode details: the name of the story, the author, where it was published, their website, an excerpt, then the narrator’s bio and details, along with all the appropriate links.

SCy-Fy: There really is a lot to it!

JS: And this is just for one story for one episode. There’s also Diane Severson’s Poetry Planet segment, interviews, science news, Amy Sturgis’ genre history, videos, science facts, yadda yadda. Suffice to say there’s a LOT of preparation, a lot of filing and sorting and ordering. And this isn’t just some printed page at the office: this is the work of authors like Kim Stanley Robinson that we’re handling here. Great care needs to be taken with their work.

But still, I enjoy it. I enjoy it very much, although the weight can be a little crushing sometimes…

SCy-Fy: What are your future plans?

JS: To get more awesome stories, by both new voices and mammoth authors, to expand our fanbase and all round have a great time. I’m actually in the process of conducting various interviews with several editors, authors and publishers, so look out for those… .

SCy-Fy: I will. Do you think podcasts will continue to have a large audience?

JS: Podcasts have always had a dedicated audience, because unlike some people – including me – their listeners have the patience to sit down and listen to someone else tell them the story, as opposed to reading it themselves. In this rush-hour world, it’s hard to dedicate exclusive attention to consuming a story, so a lot of listeners pop the episodes on their phone on the way to work. If anything, I’d imagine we have more of a stable audience than those reading the stories by text… .

SCy-Fy: What advice would you give to anyone presenting a podcast?

JS: Be friendly. Be open. Be charismatic. Be welcoming. I’m none of those things, so I leave all that to Tony. But ultimately you’ve got to love what you’re doing, and you have to let it show. Let people feel they’re at home. If you can’t muster up that enthusiasm, then why should anyone else make the effort to come back week after week?

Oh, and you need to know how to deal with people. As I said, we’ve had humongous authors on the show, and they’re happily giving us their stories to podcast. They’re placing fragments of their heart and soul in our hands to adapt. Honesty, humility and friendliness goes a long way.

SCy-Fy: Just between us – your secret list of useful resources?

JS: My ultra-super-special secret list comes in the form of anthologies and select magazines. For anthologies, I sometimes get them for free to read, but otherwise I buy or borrow them and get the stories from there. Examples include Dangerous Women, Robot Uprisings, Armored, and of course, the Best of Years. So naturally, my tastes involve armor, robots and dangerous women (and not in that order, either).

For magazines, there are some I avoid, and others I know I can always trust to deliver ace fiction. Interzone. Asimov’s. Grimdark Magazine. Nature’s Future. Analog. Perihelion. Fantasy Scroll Magazine. F&SF. All fantastic magazines that I honestly don’t have enough time to read!

Otherwise, I actually go to authors I like, check out their stories, and then grovel and beg and plead them to let me use them. It’s not pretty, but I knew I wouldn’t be having much dignity in this job anyway.

SCy-Fy: Points to watch out for?

JS: Always read the files! A surprising number of authors sometimes send me earlier drafts of stories, or sometimes even ones that are covered in suggested edits from their own editors, spelling mistakes, warped formatting, the lot. And sometimes this stuff has been sent out to the narrators, so both of us are to blame. But usually these mishaps are quickly resolved.

SCy-Fy: Things that have kept you going in hard times?

JS: Reading books and playing video games. I’m always been a fan of both, and they’ve always been there to help me out, and there’s no better cure then shooting (virtual) people in the face. Or even spending an hour or two at the bookstore and splashing out on that glossy hardback can be a real mood-lifter. Books are always the answer. And beer, of course. I’m Australian, what can I say?

SCy-Fy: Have another – there you go! Any controversy so far?

JS: Unfortunately, no. Nothing like a bit of the ol’ controversy to get the ratings to skyrocket! I’m sure some people have taken a strong dislike to some of the stories we’ve podcasted, which is to be expected. There was KJ Kabza’s story “The Bomb Thing”, which raised the ire of a lot of people when it was published in print, and some of the authors hosted on the show such as Mark Lawrence and R. Scott Bakker have seen their fair share of controversy.

No doubt there are other situations, both with direct episodes of the show and with the authors themselves, but I’m not particularly concerned. Good fiction should stir up (good-natured) conversation. And since when wasn’t there controversy floating around on the internet?

SCy-Fy: What is the most popular show you’ve presented?

JS: Hmm. Tricky. Our first Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm story gained a colossal amount of downloads, as did her second story on the show, but this might be because it was part of an anthology George R. R. Martin edited. And being awesome stories in their own right certainly helped!

SCy-Fy: Do you have a personal favourite?

JS: Dammit, why is this so hard? I’m going to have to pick three. Derek Kunksen’s “Schools of Clay” made my jaw drop when he sent it to me. Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Discovering Life” is incredible stuff, and Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Ninety-Five Perfect Safe” will have you reaching for the tissue box. But really, my blathering can’t do the stories justice. Check them out for yourselves!

SCy-Fy: What have been the best books, films and TV shows you have read or seen recently?

JS: I just finished Joe Abercrombie’s incredible conclusion to the Shattered Seas trilogy, Half A War. As usual, he delivers on all fronts. I’m currently enjoying Season 5 of Game of Thrones, but Daredevil and Marco Polo were fantastic TV watches. As for films, It Follows was a chilling ride, and Mad Max: Fury Road was a total rip-roarer of a picture. A very accurate representation of contemporary Australia, too!

SCy-Fy: Which books, films and TV shows are you most looking forward to reading or watching?

JS: You didn’t ask about games, but The Witcher 3 has been a video game I’ve been waiting to get into my hands for about four years now. And like the entire world, I’m drooling for The Winds of Winter. I read Pierce Brown’s Red Rising a while back, so I’m itching to get started on the next two books. I’ve also got season 3 of Vikings to watch, as well as a mountainous pile of TV shows and films on Netflix. Gah, where do you find the time?

SCy-Fy: Anything to add as we leave?

JS:  Only that I love working on StarShipSofa and working with all the incredible and talented authors that we’ve had the privilege of podcasting each week. A big thank you to all our authors and narrators for joining our ever-growing family, and all our listeners, all our fans, for making StarShipSofa into what it is today as we showcase some of the best science fiction and fantasy around today.

Keep listening!

SCy-Fy: Thanks, Jeremy.

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