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Interview: Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers on The End of the World

Co-editors Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers were kind enough to respond to a few questions I had about their latest anthology The End of the World, published by Skyhorse Publishing.

John Ottinger: Why did you decide to compile this anthology? What goes into the deliberation of an anthology’s theme, title, or central image?

Martin H. Greenberg: There are certain themes that seem to re-occur every so often in fiction, as shown by the recent zombie resurgence of the past few years, and the apocalyptic view of the future is certainly one of them. We simply felt that the time was right to take another look at this popular theme, and the different interpretations of it that have been published over the past 60 years.

As for the deliberation of an anthology’s theme, the main consideration is simply coming up with an idea that will sell in today’s market. In the case of reprint anthologies like The End of the World, including notable and bestselling authors can help create interest from publishers in a particular theme.

JO: What are the different themes or types of apocalyptic fiction? How do they differ, and why is each worth reading?

MHG: As we wanted to showcase in our anthology, there are several different types of apocalyptic fiction. There are “the beginning of the end” stories, where mankind causes or lives through the end of the world, as shown in the stories we chose by Rick Hautala, Neil Gaiman, and Norman Spinrad. There are the “last man on earth” stories, which are pretty self-explanatory, ably showcased by selections from Lester del Rey, William F. Nolan, and Roger Zelazny. Then there are the “life after the end” stories, showing how mankind struggles to adapt or survive after an apocalypse. This section features stories from Gregory Benford, Michael Swanwick, John Wyndham, Orson Scott Card, Edward Bryant, and Nancy Kress. There are also the “distant futures” stories, where authors show a world that is centuries or millenniums into the future that has been irrevocably changed by an apocalypse. Our anthology features stories of this kind by Robert Sheckley, Arthur C. Clarke, and George R.R. Martin. Finally, we included two time-traveling tales by Robert Silverberg and Poul Anderson about those who witnessed the end of the world in very different ways. Robert Silverberg’s story, “When We Went to See the End of the World” treats an apocalypse as a tourist attraction for a bored jaded humanity, while Poul Anderson’s story “Flight to Forever” shows a man trapped outside of time when he invents a time machine that can only go forward, and the consequences of that experiment.

JO: Why do you think humanity is so interested in its end as to write about it?

MHG: There has always been a fascination with our mortality, and writers have tackled this theme in hundreds of stories over the centuries. By applying it to humanity as a whole, it can be seen as less personal, since while the end of humanity is often seen through the protagonist’s eyes, the idea of wiping out all of humanity, considered as a single unit or organism, creates a certain distancing effect from the reader. On the other hand, approaching the destruction or extinction of mankind as a whole is also a very weighty theme, since we are talking about the end or near-total destruction of our way of life as we know it. I think this is why many of these stories have at least a glimmer of hope in them, ie. that mankind has survived the various apocalypses it has suffered through, and is still struggling onward, despite the new obstacles it faces.

JO: Your anthology contains two stories in common with a similar anthology Wastelands edited by John Joseph Adams. “Salvage” by Orson Scott Card and “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R. R. Martin appear in both anthologies. Were you aware of the other anthology? And if so, why did you decide to include the same stories?

MHG: We were certainly aware of John Joseph Adams’ impressive anthology when we began the story selection process for ours. However, since we were taking a very different approach to our collection, there was no real issue or whether or not to use stories that had appeared in his anthology. Both the Card and Martin stories wonderfully exemplify the sub-themes that we wanted to illustrate in this anthology, which was the primary rationale in deciding to include them in our volume.

JO: There has been a lot of talk in the science fiction and fantasy community about how many anthologies include only male authors. Do you ever worry about gender balance when you put together an anthology?

John Helfers: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a worry, although once again this anthology is heavily skewed toward one side of the balance, with only one female author. Again, it came down to selecting the best stories that explored the various sub-themes we were using in the book, and of course, the space we had available. I think it would be very interesting to see if an all-female-authored anthology of previously published apocalyptic stories could be created, as the viewpoints shown (as, for example, the one explored in Nancy Kress’s story) are likely to be very different than from a male author’s perspective.

JO: Are there any special challenges to creating a reprint anthology versus an anthology of original fiction?

JH: For a reprint anthology, typically the biggest challenge is winnowing down the large pool of eligible stories to the ones that we want to use, and then it’s a matter of ensuring that we are able to clear the rights the publisher requests. An original theme anthology can be a challenge due to the wide-ranging imaginations of the authors that participate, and an editor sometimes must be careful to ensure that the stories selected for inclusion don’t range too far outside the theme.

JO: What was your greatest surprise in compiling the anthology?

MHG: I think the greatest surprise, even knowing the various themes we wanted to use in this volume, was the still very wide range of approaches that the various authors used to explore the idea of the apocalypse and what comes before, during, and after it.

JO: Mr. Helfers, your own story “Afterward” is included in this anthology. What is the premise of your tale and what themes or ideas were you exploring?

JH: My story (chosen for inclusion by Marty) was originally written for an anthology called Millennium: 3001, which was about what life might be like in the next millennium. Wanting to hew to the theme yet approach it in a different way, I chose to write about what our planet might look like when humans are gone, yet the remains of our civilization still exist, before gradually succumbing to the advance of time and the eventual destruction of our planet billions of years in the future. Looking at it again several years later in the context of this anthology, it seems that I was making a statement about the ephemeral nature of humanity’s existence, and how, like all civilizations throughout history, our time in this universe will most likely come to an end as well, and then there will only be what we leave behind on this planet as any sign that we even existed in the first place, and that, eventually, that will be erased as well. It’s a sobering thought, and one that I wasn’t sure I could communicate effectively when I first began to write the story.

JO: Mr. Helfers, what is the appeal of writing short fiction for you? What sort of challenges do you face in writing short fiction?

JH: Simply put, some ideas don’t lend themselves very well to a novel-length treatment; there’s only so far you can take a particular variant on a theme or scenario without wearing it out. Short fiction is a great venue to explore these kinds of ideas without worrying about trying to fill a novel.

The primary challenge of short fiction is a follow-up to my last answer; the idea of tackling one of these great themes and applying it to our entire planet and seeing what the result is. And paradoxically, trying to explore and illustrate a concept like this in several thousand words instead of an entire novel is a completely different challenge all its own; to condense what can be, in this case, a civilization-ending idea into a short story, and still be able to communicate the idea behind the story clearly and effectively.

JO: Mr. Helfers, in addition to being an author and anthologist, you are a senior editor with Tekno Books, a book packager. What is a book packager, and how does that differ from a traditional publisher?

JH: A packager creates or helps to create fiction or nonfiction manuscripts that are sold to a publisher. A packager can work with publishers directly, or with authors, celebrities, and companies on created properties. We also create ideas that properties are based on, as well as provide research for these projects and complete editorial oversight from concept creation to the final manuscript. Often the contract for a property includes a confidentiality clause, which is why we typically don’t list the various projects we work on in detail.

JO: Where can readers find you online?

MHG: Unfortunately, due to confidentiality agreements, Tekno Books do not have a website, so the best place to find us is through the books we produce, which, of course, can be found at the major online booksellers, as well as bookstores throughout the country.

JO: Thank you very much for your time!

JH: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss The End of the World.

Martin H. Greenberg is the CEP of Tekno Books and its predecessor companies, now the largest book developer of commercial fiction and non-fiction in the world, with over 2,300 published books that have been translated into 33 languages. He is the recipient of an unprecedented four Lifetime Achievement Awards in the Science Fiction, Mystery, and Supernatural Horror genres—the Milford Award in Science Fiction, the Solstice Award in Science Fiction, the Bram Stoker Award in Horror, and the Ellery Queen Award in Mystery—the only person in publishing history to have received all four awards.

John Helfers is a full-time writer and the Hugo Award-nominated Senior Editor at Tekno Books. During his 14 years with the company, he has worked on dozens of anthologies and novels with many bestselling authors. He has written and edited both fiction and nonfiction, including Tom Clancy’s Net Force Explorers: Cloak and Dagger, The Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to the U.S. Navy, and the forthcoming anthology From the Jaws of Death. His most recent nonfiction project, The Vorkosigan Companion, co-edited with Lillian Stewart Carl, was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2009.

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