Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Interview with Underland Press Founder Victoria Blake
Victoria Blake recently launched Underland Press, a publishing house that specializes in dark fiction. Before founding Underland, Blake was editor for Dark Horse Comics, one of the largest independent publishers of comic books and fiction. She worked on series like Aliens, Predator, Lankhmar, and Playboy, as well as original fiction titles.
Blake left her editorial job at Dark Horse to start her own publishing house specifically for weird and dark fiction. Current debut authors for Underland Press include: Bram Stoker Award winner Kealan Patrick Burke, Edgar Award and International Horror Guild Award nominee Brian Evenson, two-time World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer, multiple award winner Will Elliott, and husband and wife writing team Berry Verhoef and Esther Verhoef (writing as “Escober”).
Blake and Underland Press are also poised to revolutionize the online publishing world with the “wovel,” a serialized novel whose chapters are posted week by week as the readers decide where the story will go. It’s the choose-your-own-adventure book for the digital age! Underland’s first online-only interactive “wovel” is Bram Stoker Award winner Kealan Patrick Burke’s The Living.
Victoria Blake was gracious enough to take a break from her busy schedule and chat with us a while about Underland Press and her love of dark fiction!
Fatally Yours: Victoria, it certainly is a pleasure! Can you tell us about the most significant book/comic/film that got you into dark fiction/horror in the first place?
Victoria Blake: Oh, that’s easy. Flowers in the Attic. It was a formative book in my childhood.
I was recently at a lecture in which the speaker said that men have a common language in comic books, but that women don’t have the same source texts. No way. Who among our generation hasn’t read V.C. Andrews?
Fatally Yours: How did you get your start in the business?
Victoria Blake: I knew two things when I graduated from college: that I wanted to write, and that I wanted to be able to pay my bills. Those two things led me to journalism, which led me to Portland, which led me to Dark Horse and to prose books.
Fatally Yours: Working for a comic book company like Dark Horse would be a dream for many of our readers! Can you tell us about your time there?
Victoria Blake: It was great fun. For instance, one of my jobs was to make sure that the Predator books were consistent with the rules of the Predator universe. There are big “bibles” of rules for each universe… Star Wars has one and Aliens, etc. Anyway, one of the books had a scene in which the Predator took off his visor and saw in infrared. So the question that occupied my day was: Is infrared vision a product of the visor, or do the Predators see in infrared naturally? I ended up asking Randy Stradley, one of the gurus. He set me straight.
But I don’t want to glamorize the job. I sat at a desk, in a cubicle without windows. I worked on great projects, but I didn’t choose which projects were mine. I was a production editor.
Fatally Yours: How did your time at Dark Horse help prepare you for launching your own publishing house, Underland Press? In what ways were you unprepared?
Victoria Blake: I worked under Rob Simpson at Dark Horse. He taught me everything. He was incredibly generous with his time and his knowledge. I learned by keeping my ears open, being in as many meetings as I could, and asking Rob as many questions as I needed to. I’m very grateful to Rob.
How was I unprepared? Well, I wish I had spent three years in the accounting department, and three years as a printer’s apprentice, and one as a binder’s apprentice, and three years in law school. I wish I had worked at a bookstore during my teenage years instead of at a restaurant. I wish I knew more agents in New York, and that I’d gone to at least twelve more conventions. But I don’t think you can ever be completely prepared. What you need more than anything else is the ability to learn along the way.
Fatally Yours: To you, what is the definition of the kind of dark fiction that Underland Press specializes in?
Victoria Blake: Underland publishes weird, strange, odd, and unsettling fiction. I chose those words to get at the quality that Underland is interested in, not necessarily the marketing niche. The gold standard for the kind of books I publish and want to publish is Brian Evenson’s Last Days. It’s almost flawless, both structurally and stylistically. Brian is a master.
Fatally Yours: With what criteria do you consider novels for publication with Underland Press?
Victoria Blake: First, the book needs to be well written. I can tell within a page or two if the author has control over language. If she doesn’t, I put the book down. Second, the book needs to keep me interested enough to read it after a day at my desk. I do most of my submission reading when I get home, between dinner and bed. Lastly, I need to know how I’d market the book. It does nobody any good if the book is brilliant but I don’t know how to get it into the hands of the readers.
Oh, there’s something else, and something unique to Underland. I also consider how willing the author is to do work online-web serials, ebooks, blogs, podcasts, reader-suggested graphics, etc. Underland aims to be an integrated in print, online publisher. In order to do that, we need authors who understand the power of the web, and want to work within the new rules of the 2.0 world.
Fatally Yours: What are some of your upcoming releases?
Victoria Blake: Brian Evenson’s Last Days! That’s coming out in February. It’s followed by Will Elliott’s The Pilo Family Circus, which is an absolutely crazy read involving a trio of psychotic clowns and an otherworldly circus. It’s fantastic, and I’m not just saying that because I’m the publisher. This is a book I’d be recommending to my friends if I stumbled across it in the bookstore.
We also have a great thriller by Escober called Chaos. This book is Escober’s introduction to the American readership-the book is a bestseller in Dutch, but not yet in English. It’s a fantastic read, very fast and fun.
I’m really looking forward to Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch, too. He’s working on finishing the novel now. I can’t wait to read it.
Fatally Yours: All of those sound great! Cannot wait to check them out myself! With Underland Press you’ve created the “wovel” or web-based novel. How did this idea come about and were you surprised to be the first publishing house to do it?
Victoria Blake: The central idea behind the wovel is to allow readers a stake in the plot. The author posts an installment every Monday. Each installment has a binary plot branch point and a vote button at the end. Readers vote on which direction they think the story should go. The author writes over the weekend, and the new installment is up in time for work on Monday. Response so far has been tremendous. The first installment of Kealan Patrick Burke’s The Living attracted 1,000 readers. We’ve built our standard mailing list to about 600 in just four months. And these are vocal readers, too! I get at least one email a week from somebody with a thought, or who just wants to check in. I love it. I love the community the wovel is building, and I love the twists and turns that the wovel itself has taken.
Am I surprised that Underland is the first to try this? No, not really. It seems to me that book publishing is where the music industry was in 1996-pre-Napster, ready for a change. I expect that publishers will be trying to figure out how to work with the web for a long, long time, and I expect that the innovations will come from my generation of publishers, and the publishers coming up after me. Technology natives. Is that what they call us? But you know about this, as a blogger…
One thing I have to mention here: We have a new wovel starting on November 4-Firstworld by Jemiah Jefferson.
Fatally Yours: In your opinion, what are some recent horror novels and/or authors that have been overlooked yet deserve to be discovered by dark fiction/horror fans?
Victoria Blake: I really like Stefan Petrucha and Paul Whitcover. They both wrote monster books for Dark Horse, and the books were both great. Elizabeth Hand is also fantastic, one of my favorites. She does things I see very few other writers doing.
Fatally Yours: What are you currently reading?
Victoria Blake: Currently reading Joe Landsdale, Yvonne Navarro, Weston Ochse, and Jemiah Jefferson.
Fatally Yours: Do you have a favorite subgenre in dark fiction?
Victoria Blake: I find vampires more interesting than zombies, and serial killers more compelling than aliens, but I think a good story could be made out of any of them. Plus, if I say “vampires,” aren’t I going to piss off the zombie folks?
Fatally Yours: What was the last great horror movie you saw?
Victoria Blake: I know which one I’m about to see…Teeth, the one about vagina dentalis. I don’t know how I missed it, and I don’t know why it took me so long to rent it.
Fatally Yours: Where do you see Underland Press in a few years? What are the goals you hope to accomplish?
Victoria Blake: My main goal is to do right by my authors, to treat everybody I work with well, to keep publishing books I believe in, and to make enough money to keep going. I hope to expand my title list by about two books a year. When I get to twenty titles a year, let’s talk again. I’ll be full of big plans then…
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