Interview: Andrea Johnson, Reader Primus

I met Andrea Johnson at Legendary ConFusion and over the course of a couple of days at the convention we had some exceptional conversations mostly about things science fiction. It turns out she blogs about science fiction, and I mean all of science fiction, starting with the really old stuff ranging up to the latest releases being considered for awards right now. After our impromptu introduction in the convention bar I went and read a handful of her reviews and let me say, if there can be such a thing as an expert opinion in Science Fiction, here she is.

So, it has been a few weeks since Legendary ConFusion and I’ve had some lingering questions I’ve wanted to ask. As an author I came away from ConFusion invigorated and ready to write another big chunk of words and those conversations with Andrea, or Reader Primus, had a lot to do with that.

I really hope you enjoy this interview with Andrea and when you’re done with it head on over to her blog Little Red Reviewer and see if you get inspired to read something new. Andrea has a lot of insight into the genre and some very good ideas.

MT Your biography makes me believe that you are sometimes in awe of other people’s prodigy. Yet your book reviews, I’ve read a few, lead me to the conclusion that you have a special aptitude all your own. I’ve started using your reviews to help me find new books to read and rethink some books I’ve previously read. What inspired you to become a book reviewer?

AJ I am completely in awe of other people’s prodigy. Anyone can come up with an idea that sounds cool, but it takes a talented writer to take that idea and mold it into a story that works. Thanks for your kind words about my reviews, when I first started my reviews were not very good! Reviewing is like anything – practice makes better. I’ve always been a big reader, I always had a paperback in my bookbag, always had library cards. And I wanted to talk about the books I enjoyed. A lot of my friends and co-workers read more mainstream fiction, so where else to talk about all the weird science fiction and fantasy I enjoy but online? I was part of a few scifi/fantasy forums for a couple of years, but found the reviewing blogosphere seemed a better fit for me. I wanted to be able to coherently and successfully talk about the genre, what I liked and didn’t like. I’d never been a good English student in high school, so writing reviews started as a sort of enforced practicing of applied research and written communication. Only way to get good at something is to do it a lot, right? Wow, when I put it like that, it sounds really boring! But it’s been very fun. I’m happy you’ve been enjoying the reviews.

MT It is no secret I am a huge fan of science fiction. There is a short list of authors that have inspired me to write in this genre. Who are your top three favorite science fiction books ?

I can only choose three?

DUNE by Frank Herbert – I read this for the first time in high school, and have been a Herbert fan ever since. I’ve read the entire series once or twice, and plan to do a reread (with reviews!) in 2014.

SIDESHOW by Sheri S. Tepper – Such a strange and wonderful story! There are aliens and conjoined twins and prophecies and dragons, and gods. Tepper’s newer books haven’t done much for me, but her older stuff I just adore.

USE OF WEAPONS by Iain M. Banks – I only recently discovered Banks’ Culture novels. He took space opera to a whole new level, and this particular one packs one helluva punch.

MT Why are these books important to you?

Those three books in particular pushed the envelope of what I thought was possible in science fiction. DUNE was probably the first adult science fiction book I read, so on nearly every page I was like “I didn’t know you could do that in a book!”. In my 20s I read that Tepper title for the first time, and it was the same reaction “I didn’t know you could do that! that’s awesome!”, and same again, for reading the Banks in my 30s “You can *do* that? Wicked!”.

And that’s what science fiction is all about – pushing the boundaries. That’s why I love it!

MT What are you reading right now that you enjoy?

AJ I just picked up ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer. I’ve been looking forward to this one since I first heard about it. Vandermeer is one of my favorite authors, I’m about half way through the novel and loving it. No one writes New Weird like Vandermeer, no one. Seriously, if you see his name on a book, pick it up!

I’m also reading The Book of Apex Vol 4, which is all the original fiction published in Apex Magazine during their fourth year. I don’t seem to do so well with magazine subscriptions, so finding these yearly volumes is just wonderful (Clarkesworld does one too). Apex publishes deliciously weird stuff, like you bite in and you think it’s going to taste like chocolate, but it tastes like apples instead. Suffice to say, I’m really enjoying this collection. Short fiction is wonderful, I can read one or two stories when I have 15 or 20 minutes here and there, and not feel any pressure to rush to the end of a chapter or worry about a cliffhanger.

I also have Gene Wolfe’s newest novel, THE LAND ACROSS, sitting here, and I’m looking forward to cracking it open when I finish the Vandermeer.

MT I met Andrea at Legendary ConFusion in January of 2014 where I had a great time and learned a lot. I’m curious to know, was there anything special that you took away from the convention? A unique experience, a great book, some inspiring words?

AJ It was great to meet you at ConFusion, wasn’t the con just a ton of fun? It’s the great secret of the midwest! I love their literary programming tracks, there’s always about 50 panels I want to go to, and realistically I can only go to maybe ten.

This was my third ConFusion, and every year it just gets better. In the past, I was always the “fan” who shyly wanders up to the author’s autograph table and mumbles all in one breath “Hi I love your books will you sign this oh my gosh you’re so cool” and then wanders away with a dazed look because I just got a super hero’s autograph. We’ve all be starstruck, we’ve all been there. This year I was still pretty starstruck, but I’d finally grown past being a goofy-fan. I’d finally turned into that person who can have completely normal conversations with authors, because they are like, completely normal people, who are also fans and enjoy talking about books and movies they liked. Being allowed to be part of that social scene was pretty amazing for me. I feel like I’ve snuck into a private club without an invitation.

MT Are you planning on going to any other conventions this year?

The plan is pretty ambitious, we’ll have to see how far the bank account can stretch:

AnimeMidwest is in Chicago in early July, and then DetCon1 is a little later that month in Detroit. I had a marvelous time at ConText in Columbus OH last September, so am hoping to attend that one again. We’re hoping to attend either Origins or GenCon as well. I write the Convention Attention post over at SFSignal, so the more varied conventions I can learn about, the better.

MT It takes a lot of effort, a fair amount of time, and some cold hard cash to attend conventions. Why is convention culture important to you?

AJ I recommend not looking at your hotel bill or debit card statement after attending a convention. But seriously, there’s a reason I stick to conventions that are close to where I live, because this hobby ain’t cheap! I actually wrote an article on tips for budgeting for convention trips a while ago.

Convention Culture is important to me because it’s often the only way to get face to face interactions. Communicating on twitter or over e-mail is great, but nothing beats face to face. Conventions are very casual meeting places, panel discussions often go off on the most fascinating tangents and continue later, everyone is welcome, and everyone is there to have a good time and talk to people who enjoy the same genres. I feel like everyone is on equal footing there. You can just strike up a conversation with anyone about D&D, or Redshirts, or Doctor Who, or Game of Thrones, or costumes, or whatever. I’ve had the most amazing conversations perusing the “free stuff” table and giving and getting book recommendations. I can’t think of a better way to become active in the genre community than attending a local convention. Many of them offer workshops for writers as well.

MT At ConFusion I heard you say something similar to “I’m not a writer, I’m just a blogger.” Is there a distinction between the two, if so what separates these labels?

AJ There is a distinction, and I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In casual conversation at another convention I attended, it dawned on me that I was the only non-writer in the group. Everyone was talking about short stories they’d sold, novels they were working on, discussions with editors, etc. And then it came around to me, and I said “oh, I write stuff, but I’m not a writer.”

Writers are the creators, bloggers are the sometimes critics, the sometimes gatekeepers, we’re a feedback mechanism of sorts. You create the magic, we just observe it and often pass judgement on it. Your name is printed on a real book that people will see, my name is just electrons in WordPress’s server. Writers are the ones taking all the risks, they’re the ones sitting at the typewriter and bleeding. It’s important to me that I differentiate myself as a “non-writer”, because I’m not putting myself out there, I’m not making myself vulnerable. I got the easy gig.

MT As an independent author I routinely hear and read about all the “trash” that Indies are putting out there. Your review resume contains a sizable collection from both the Indie and traditional side of publishing world. Do you think that this judgement is a fair representation of this publishing dichotomy?

AJ It’s not a fair judgement, as traditional publishers put out plenty of garbage too. But I do need to correct you: the majority of my review list is traditional published works, with perhaps 10% or less being small press or self published.

Self publishing is still very new, and I love that it’s now going both ways: traditional publishers are signing authors who did very well as self published, and traditionally published authors are self publishing titles their publisher doesn’t want to buy. It’s very unfortunate that self published works got a bad reputation for a while for being badly edited and formatted, but I feel this has vastly improved in the last few years. A paradigm shift is always frightening for the old guard, so it’s understandable to me that plenty of people are nervous about indie authors. But I’m happy to see more and more book bloggers out there who specialize in reviewing indie books. there’s a great database of such bloggers here:

MT Do you have favorite cover artists? Any particular cover you love? If so, who are they and what about their cover work appeals to you?

AJ Recently I fell hard for Julie Dillon’s cover of SILENTLY AND VERY FAST by Catherynne Valente, Todd Lockwood’s cover for A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS by Marie Brennan, and while the books haven’t really done it for me, I’d love to have poster sized prints of Donato Giancola’s cover art for Elizabeth Bear’s ETERNAL SKY books. Couldn’t tell you specifically what drew me in to these pieces, but when I see them, I can’t help but touch them. The Dillon and the Giancola especially, I feel like I could fall right in.

MT Do you prefer paper books, audio books, or ebooks? What about this particular medium important to you?

AJ Paper all the way. I have a kindle and have read a few novels and anthologies on it (I mostly use it for slush reading), and I enjoy short story podcasts, but yeah, paper all the way. Reading is a fully sensory experience for me. Ingrained into my experience of the story is the weight of the book, the texture of the pages, if it’s an old fragile book that’s falling apart, or if it’s a brand new book where the ink comes up on my fingers and I’m using the purchase receipt as a bookmark. When I think about books I enjoy, I can’t help but also think about my physical interaction with the book in which the story was contained. With e-readers, I lose that sensory experience. However, have you *seen* THE WEIRD COMPENDIUM edited by the Vandermeers? That thing is ridiculously massive! no question about it, e-readers were made for things like that. How else am I gonna read it in the bathtub?

MT I’m curious to know when we can see some stories from you. Do you have anything in the works? Ideas contentedly bubbling on a back burner? Is there a story that you would like to read, but don’t want to write?

AJ Probably never. I’m not a writer, remember? 😉 I don’t see myself as disciplined enough to start that project and finish it. That said, there is a funny little idea that’s been swimming around in the back of my head for the last year or so. I’ve always had an affinity for trees, and I went through a difficult period in early 2013, when I lost two people in quick succession who were important to me. The  story is a strange mash up of trees, and mourning, and hopefulness, and ritual. In the culture of some planet somewhere, when you die, you are buried with a tree sapling in your mouth. The tree grows, and takes your cells with it as it grows tall. These aren’t magic trees or anything, there are no ghosts, no one has any illusions about what’s going on, but the planet is covered in these beautiful forests where people go to visit their dead relatives. The forest is the cemetery, but it’s so full of life – trees, birds, animals, a whole ecology that’s only possible because people die. When the tree eventually gets really big it’s cut down and furniture or small art objects are made from the wood, and given to the descendants so they can take a piece of great-great-great-Grandpa or whoever with them when they leave the planet. The residents of the planet always come home to die. Kind of melancholy but romantic – maybe a chess board is made from the wood of the trees of a couple who were married for a hundred years. Maybe the four legs of a table are all made from siblings. I don’t see it as morbid, I see it as one way a culture could honor their dead.

Is there a story I would like to read, but don’t want to write? That one. Because while I think it’s a pretty idea, all I have is a static idea. I have absolutely no idea what actually *happens* in the story.

14 thoughts on “Interview: Andrea Johnson, Reader Primus

    1. And thank you for providing such thoughtful answers (which is one of the things I really love about your book reviews, you pay attention to the detail). Just picked up Apex vol 4. It’s going to be a bit before I can sink my eyeballs into that, but I’m looking forward to the read.

  1. Thrilled to hear you picked up the Apex book! it really is an excellent collection, I’m interested in to hear your thoughts, when you are able to get to it. I also picked up Apex’s Glitter and Mayhem, and haven’t even been able to crack that baby open yet. So many books, so little time!

  2. Fun interview! Andrea is indeed one of SFF blogging’s treasures and it is always interesting to read what she has to say about a particular work, whether she enjoyed it or not.

    Had to laugh on the favorite books question, as I could have guessed that both Dune and one of Banks’ novels would be on there. I owe Andrea’s love of Dune for that final push to finally get me to read it. And it is a favorite of mine now as well.

  3. Dune and the original F. H. series is a favorite of mine too. Dune love fest?

    I’m really enjoying The Book of Apex too. The stories are so varied and eerie and enchanting. I think I am falling in love with the short story all over again.

    And i really, really like your idea of a forested cemetery planet. I have been to a few ash-spreading ceremonies, all out in nature, and that is the closest I have come to your idea. Giving back to nature, acknowledging that we are part of it instead of above it, is a beautiful thing. Plus, there is wood working which is just fun in itself. (thinking of that special order Locke had for the ‘ladder back’ chairs).

  4. Great interview.
    With regards to the forest cemetery it reminds me a bit of the memory holes that Susan Cooper mentions in her book Ghost Hawk. I’m not sure if they were actually part of the Native American culture she set her story in or something she came up with herself, but in one the handle of an ax (which is very important to one of the central characters) is left in a memory hole and eventually sprouts into a sapling. It was a lovely touch I thought.

  5. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but
    your blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back down the road.
    Many thanks

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