Interview with Tim Lieder, editor of King David and the Spiders from Mars
Posted March 7, 2014on:
I recently reviewed King David and the Spiders from Mars, and last year I got a kick out of She Nailed a Stake Through His Head, the first two anthologies in Tim Lieder’s series of Biblical horror story collections. It’s easy to say “The Bible is full of violence”, because yes, it is. But what about the violence we don’t see? What about the horrific reasonings behind why people did the oh so strange things that they did? Is that *really* the a Temple of Dagon over in the next valley? Why yes, yes it is. This is what makes historical fantasy so much fun – the authors have free range to take the tiny details that speak to them and go crazy with them. The result? Stories that speak to me.
In my interview with Tim Lieder, we discussed lessons learned in the publishing industry, the Bible as Literature (and seeking different translations), the importance of diversity in your TOCs, and more. So let’s get to it!
LRR: Tell us a little about yourself.
T.L.: I’m a writer. I live in New York. When I was in college I decided to convert to Judaism which was a surprise to everyone, including me, especially since the original inspiration was from an academic class on Biblical literature. I did convert but it took a long time. I have four cats. I started Dybbuk Press (Dybbuk Press facebook page) back in 2004 and I have published 9 books through it. I named it after the Ansky play The Dybbuk which takes liberties with the Jewish legends of the Dybbuk put is one of the spookiest plays ever written (the movie was put on by the 1939 Warsaw Yiddish Theater so that adds even more disturbing subtext). Currently, I make a living at writing but most of the writing is freelance for several clients and includes personal statements, editing jobs and term papers. Still, I manage to sell a few stories every year and I keep working on the fiction.
LRR: How did you get involved with editing and publishing? Any big lessons you’d like to pass on to anyone thinking of a career in editing?
T.L.: Ten years ago, I thought it’d be fun to edit a multi-author anthology and stick my story in it. I was unpublished and thought that it’d be my big break. I think I made every mistake that you could make when trying to edit an anthology. I didn’t offer much money. I tried to work with friends who were also amateurs. I agreed to work with a small press publisher whose only interest was self-publishing (something I learned when I realized that he had thought that his girlfriend’s terrible vampire story was going into the anthology). I didn’t even copy edit. About the only thing I did right was naming the book Teddy Bear Cannibal Massacre. I think that’s the only reason why it ever made a profit.
By the end of the process, I had lost about four friends and had to start my own publishing company (Dybbuk Press). Fortunately, I learned about POD and Lightning Source through an author/editor who was doing something similar at the time. That meant that I didn’t have to print or warehouse.
I published the second Dybbuk Press book because one of the writers from Teddy Bear Cannibal Massacre was co-editing it with a friend and they asked me if I was interested. By that time I knew enough to offer upfront payments and convinced two professional friends to contribute stories to that collection.
I don’t know if I can advise most editors, but editors who are seeking to start their own publishing companies and put out books, the best advice would be to offer enough money to make it worth the while to the better writers. Even if you can’t afford professional rates, you should at least offer as much as you can. I now offer at least $50 advance against royalties for stories in multi-author anthologies. Nothing is more depressing than reading a slush pile and realizing that you are looking for stories that are “good enough” and can be “improved with enough editing” as opposed to choosing between great stories. As a writer, I have been published in these $10-$20 payment anthologies and I’ve never felt the need to promote them – partially because I had gotten all I was going to get out of them, but mostly because I was never terribly impressed with the collections.
Beyond that, I would advise checking out the process of publishing books which includes obtaining blurbs, advance reviews, editing, copy editing, promotion, etc. If you are doing it as a small press publisher, you are responsible for every aspect of the publishing process. Large publishing houses have departments for all these aspects of the publishing process. Unless you have enough money to hire people, you are the ultimate arbiter of everything.
Finally, put out books that you would enthusiastically buy. There are thousands of small press books in the world that the publishers thought were “good enough” but no one is buying them.
LRR: King David and the Spiders of Mars is your second anthology of Biblical horror stories. There are plenty of Biblically inspired anthologies out there, and plenty of horror anthologies out there. What led you to combine “Biblical” and “horror”?
T.L.: There were a couple of failed attempts at launching Bible-themed horror collections before my book, but they never seemed to take off. I even sold a story to one but it never saw print. I had been interested in Bible-themed literary studies (particularly Robert Alter) since college and I loved horror movies and books from an early age. However, I think that the most direct inspiration for these anthologies is a graphic novel entitled Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament, which depicted the more violent and insane stories in a sarcastic manner. The Book of Judges was introduced by a Crypt Keeper character. Neil Gaiman adapted a story from Kings that involved prophets lying to each other and one getting eaten by a lion with the writer confused about the theme of the story. It was funny and vulgar and it was actually true to the original tales.
LRR: In the introduction to King David and the Spiders From Mars, you say “It should not feel revolutionary or blasphemous to approach the Bible as literature”, a statement I completely agree with. Could you speak a little further on this?
T.L.: When I discovered Robert Alter in college, I thought that the literary study of Biblical tropes was as common as the literary study of Homer or Shakespeare. When I was studying tropes like chiastic storytelling and the doubling tropes in Biblical poetry, I did not know that these were relatively new developments in Biblical criticism. In fact, Robert Alter was a pioneer in approaching the Bible from a literary criticism perspective. Apparently, academic Biblical criticism has been mostly concerned with determining who wrote the thing and when individual chapters were first contributed to the canon.
After taking one particular class on Bible, I was determined to read through the more accurate (but obviously less Shakespearean) Jewish Publication Society translation. I found it was a lot more interesting that I gave it credit for, but the major turning point came when I read 1 Samuel and got to chapter 5 where the Philistines are being cursed with hemorrhoids that I realized just how much I had been missing. I actually went to book stores looking for alternate translations only to find that most of them wimped out and said “tumors” or even “the plague” in order to pretend that there isn’t butt humor just left unappreciated. The King James Version says emerods so I can’t fault it for that.
Of course, when I wrote that in my one and (so far) only Cracked Article, there were a ton of comments pompously telling me that I was wrong and it was just tumors with the subtext of how dare I mock their sacred text. The problem with the Bible is that it’s sacred but it’s also literature and the best kind of literature that can be funny, disturbing and thought provoking at once. If you approach the Bible as only sacred writ, then you are less likely to get as much enjoyment out of it as you could.
LRR: How does it work when you put these anthologies together? Open submissions and then you dig through the slush? Did you solicit thematic pieces from authors you knew? A little bit of both?
T.L.: Usually I put out a call for stories on both Duotrope and my blog. Since the last two anthologies were theme anthologies, I put the starting date in the future so that writers could be inspired by the theme and write their stories instead of just giving me the stories in their folders that sort of fit the anthology. Since this is my company and I am not bound to pre-determined publication dates, I can take as much time as I need to gather enough stories without accepting stories that I don’t completely love.
This anthology proved difficult since I just couldn’t seem to find enough stories that I loved. There weren’t that many egregiously awful stories, but many of the stories reminded me of adult dating – particularly that feeling where you want to like the person sitting across from you at the restaurant more than you do – in that many of the stories were likeable stories but they didn’t make me feel like I needed to buy them. I had one story from a writer that I know and like. It seemed like a pretty good story but I didn’t want to buy it. I read it 4-5 times hoping that something would click and I would fall in love with it. By the time I rejected the story, I had a page of notes concerning what didn’t work.
By the time I finished my first reading period, I had increased the advance and begged many of my friends for stories. It took me almost a year to fill out the anthology, with most of the writers being people that I had had previous relationships.
I also should note that I don’t set out to publish horror anthologies with a majority of women writers, but I’m happy that I do. Recently, a study was conducted to determine how many female writers were being published by some of the better known horror markets (Bad Moon, ChiZine, Dark Regions, etc.) and the results were overall that only 9% of the writers were female. This bolsters the common perception that women don’t write horror that allows editors to come out with books that have 20 writers with only one woman in the TOC.
As far as I can tell, there are only two things that I do differently than the average horror editor. I say that I want to read stories with strong female characters in the submission guidelines and I outright reject the stories that solely use women characters as props to be tortured and/or killed. Simply by attracting women writers and rejecting the tired sexist tropes, I end up publishing anthologies with a 3/1 ratio of women to men.
LRR: For readers interested in learning more about characters mentioned in King David and The Spiders from Mars, such as Absalom, Zeruiah, Daniel, and Tamar, can you recommend any further reading (other than the obvious)?
T.L.: There are a lot of Biblical Archaeology debates over whether these people even existed. I think that the general consensus is that King David and the rest were actual people as opposed to myths like King Arthur, but the debate rages on. There are also several interesting fictional books. I recommended God Knows by Joseph Heller in She Nailed a Stake Through His Head. I don’t know if I would like that book now, but it was an irreverent and tragic depiction of King David that I enjoyed. For Bible translations, I would recommend Everett Fox or Robert Alter since they are both very intent on preserving the poetry completely with repetition of words and stylistic considerations, particularly the economy of the original Hebrew and Aramaic. The flowery language of the King James Version is beautiful but very inaccurate.
LRR: Who are some of your favorite writers? What types of fiction or nonfiction do you read for enjoyment?
T.L.: Besides the writers that I published, I have read a lot of great writers recently. I very much enjoyed Jeff Vandermeer’s latest book. His books are very visceral and creepy with a theme of a natural world that is always changing and transforming. Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi biography was the last great book that I read in that it was a history about the 19th century and disputed over a century of negative depictions of the Dowager Empress as either a petty tyrant or an ineffectual figurehead that allowed men to do everything (the latter invoked when her actions were too praiseworthy to vilify). Jung Chang depicts her as the only capable leader in 19th century, and even argues that Japan would have never won concessions against China if she had not been forced into retirement by her idiot nephew.
Other contemporary writers that I really enjoy include Scott Lynch, Holly Black and George R.R. Martin. I normally like reading Alison Weir’s British histories (hard to graduate with a bachelors in Theater and not be a little obsessed with British history between 1400 and 1616.) but her latest book on Elizabeth of York was tedious. I am also happy to know that I’m old enough to read the classics like War & Peace, Moby Dick and Middlemarch. I don’t think that I would have had the patience for any of these books when I was 15 or even 25. Moby Dick especially feels like being trapped in a stuck elevator with someone who has one subject and won’t shut up about that one subject no matter how much you might want him to stop.