A Little Paranoia: A Conversation with Liza Groen Trombi
Liza Groen Trombi is Editor-in-Chief of Locus magazine, taking over from founder Charles N. Brown in 2009. Born in Oakland, California, she has a degree in literature from San Francisco State University and studied editing with Editcetera in Berkeley before joining the magazine. She runs the SF Awards Weekend in Seattle, serves on various awards juries, and has published several titles for the Locus Press imprint. Trombi also serves as Board President of the Locus Science Fiction Foundation. She has won four Hugo Awards for Best Semiprozine (2005-7, 2012) for her work at Locus and was a finalist the four interceding years.
She still lives in Oakland, with her two young daughters.
I first met Liza in San Antonio, Texas during the 71st WorldCon. We were on a panel called “What Makes a Review Great?”, in which I discovered how persuasive Liza can be, and after the panel we got to talking. The conversation continued at the Locus table in the dealer’s room, and then via email. A few months later I found myself taking over the Locus roundtable blog.
You’ve mentioned you’ve always been a hardcore science fiction reader. Where did that passion come from?
It’s a pretty familiar path, I’d say, where you’re in fourth or fifth grade and you start reading mythology. I remember reading a lot of non-fiction about poltergeists, hauntings, different mythologies. In sixth grade I was talking about books with one of my friends—it was actually Abi Sutherland, who now moderates Making Light—and she said to me, “Have you ever read Lloyd Alexander?” I hadn’t. I read it and said, “Okay, now what?” She pointed me to Anne McCaffrey, and there was no turning back.
A year or two later, my mother’s boyfriend, who had owned a bookstore, still had all of his stripped paperbacks, copies that hadn’t sold and which were supposed to be destroyed. Anyway, he asked if I wanted any of them, and he had a lot of them. And I said, “I want the whole science fiction and fantasy section!” So I got maybe ten or twelve boxes of stripped books that were all sf/f—a miraculous event in the life of a twelve year old who was kind of shy and was having trouble with her peers.
It was a great way to find things, because as a young adult you spend a lot of time asking people, “Who’s the next author I’m supposed to read through?” I did my stint with Larry Niven and with Isaac Asimov, tried Robert Forward, read Heinlein and others, and got stuck happily in the field. Though today I still read some fantasy, my heart belongs to science fiction. At least my twelve-year-old heart does! My forty-four-year-old heart is trying to have more breadth—while being careful not to suffer palpitations.
What was it like to become Editor-in-Chief of Locus in 2009? Had you and Charles N. Brown created a transition plan?
By 2006, I was in place to take over when he retired. In the past he had had several people lined up in this position previously, but in his heart of hearts he wanted to be the only one that could put out Locus. It was his baby. But by the time I got there he was ready to not be carrying such a workload. I wrote editorials with him, we went through books together, looked at reviews, and I would go to all of his meetings at conventions; I was also doing interviews.
The biggest and scariest part of the transition is that he had this incredible institutional knowledge from not only having a nearly photographic memory, specifically for text, but because he’d grown up in the Golden Age (he was born in 1934) and lived through that period where you could read everything that came out. By the 2000s he had said, “There’s no way anybody can read all of this,” and he was leaning on reviewers more and doing his best to keep up.
As far as whether or not there was actually a path toward me taking over . . . . I had done the bookkeeping for the business for a long time, so I understood the financial ins and outs. I was making decisions with him about things. We were together for five days a week for seven years. There was certainly a lot of education through exposure. And he would say, “Well you decide, you’re taking over the magazine.” Sometimes it was sort of a sideways version of teaching someone how to take over. It wasn’t like, “Here, now you will learn this thing and you will know it forever.” I was flexible. I was very happy. He and I got along really well. We agreed on a lot of stuff. We disagreed vehemently about other things but it didn’t get in the way.
When it actually happened, it was shocking. There was a phone call at eleven o’clock at night, and then there was going into work the next day having not slept at all, having spent all night having physical panic attacks. Trying to figure out all of these things, and coming up with a strategy for releasing the news in a way that felt respectful and appropriate to all the friends he had.
And then there was just doing it without him. Not having his giant brain around was challenging. Somebody’s name would pop up in the news, and he’d be like, “Oh yeah, that guy. He started five different publishing companies in the fifties.” We don’t have that incredible institutional knowledge on tap anymore. So the change was hard. But he had named me as Editor-in-Chief upon his passing, so there was no confusion about how things were meant to move forward. That helped.
Since taking over the Locus reins, what’s been the greatest challenge? And your most rewarding experience working on the magazine?
I think the greatest challenge is the same thing that would have happened if Charles Brown were still here, which is how to deal with electronic publishing—only that it was accelerated by the economics of the time. Pre the 2008-2010 downturn, publishers were advertising, sending print galleys, people were excited, there was a lot of support for authors. Then the economic downturn came and advertising budgets got shut down.
Digital publishing, which was poised to have a boom already, was really pushed into it with a sudden new excitement and growth. It seemed like it was essentially free in ways that print publishing hadn’t been. Why send out physical galleys when they could be sending out digital galleys, for example? Of course, you know, comes time enough you realize it’s not actually free—the work is all still there, the only part you’re not being charged for is paper and shipping.
Keeping track of everything is also challenging. I have one publisher that sends print galleys every week, just like they always did. That’s great: I can see every galley, send them out to reviewers. Then I get a hard copy, I can list it, put it on the recommended shelf for the end of the year. But other people are sending me PDFs, or solicitation emails asking whether I’d like a review copy. When we get eighty to a hundred emails an hour during business hours, we just can't answer them all, and we don’t read half of them if they’re just publicity releases.
Being in the magazine business right now is also hard. Charles would say, “When I die, you can sell all the books, and you guys can take the money and go do whatever.” I don’t think he thought Locus would keep going. He wanted it to, but I don’t know that he thought it could.
In terms of rewarding experiences, we all love working here. It’s kind of a fantastic job! We get to see the books, meet the authors, hang out with people, go to conventions. Everyone I work with is very smart and loves what we’re doing.
Congratulations on the 2012 Hugo for Best Semiprozine. How did that feel?
We hadn’t won for several years before that, and really for me it felt like our post-Charles recognition. That was really important to me. People had been saying, “Locus just wins because Locus wins.” I mean, we have a lot of rockets, so I can understand that. After that win, rules were changed to get us off the slate. Now I think officially we’re pretty much ineligible for any award [laughs]. Anyway, it’s a beautiful Hugo; it’s the glass-and-steel winged one.
Interviews published in Locus follow a unique format, omitting questions and giving us just the interviewee’s thoughts. How did that come about?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know why Charles shifted to that format. It’s been that way for years and years. It could have been laziness on Charles’ part, that he didn’t like to prep questions formally. What we do is sit down and have a conversation with people. We just talk. And at the end of the conversation our transcriptionist writes out the whole thing longhand, and we strip ourselves out and put it all together.
I always have two recorders going, by the way, because it’s very hard to reproduce an interview. And it’s completely disheartening if you realize you’re going to have to ask all those questions again! Though one time we were talking to Charlie Stross in San Francisco for forty-five minutes and decided to take a small break (we usually talk for a little over an hour). We were in a hotel lobby. I looked at the recorder and the light was on, as it should have been—but the pause switch had been turned on. When we got back I said, “I’m really sorry, but apparently we weren’t recording.” And he said it all again in about ten minutes, speaking really quickly. Only Charlie Stross could do that. It was amazing. I was very relieved. So I’ve learned that a little paranoia goes a long way.
That would be a great editor’s motto.
Right? I usually go in with a pretty good idea of some things I want to talk about. Obviously, if someone has a new book, we want to cover that. If they’re a new author we want to talk about their entry into the field. But the format gives a lot of flexibility and freedom to talk about whatever actually becomes interesting in a conversation. Sometimes the conversation is amazing and goes places you never thought it would have.
The hardest interview I ever did, I actually said to the author, “You’re going to have to give me longer answers.” Because I was getting these ten-word sentence answers from him. He was a really nice guy, a brilliant author, just uncomfortable in the interview. But then he hit this one thing, and he just kind of went—he was energized, started talking very quickly. After that he shut back down. When we were done Charles and I looked at each other and said, “Oh, that’s going to be a rough one.” But on paper, it’s actually one of the most interesting interviews we’ve done! Other conversations are fascinating and lovely in person, but then on paper they’re . . . light. You wish you could transmit the patter and the beats that happened, but we take the beats out, so you don’t get that.
What you also never have is “intruding interviewer-itis,” where the interviewer has more to say than the interviewee. Or the interviewer is trying to be clever and the author clearly gets irritated.
At the end of the day, I don’t think the reader cares what I ask. They want to hear from the author. If we can turn twenty pages of interview manuscript into three pages of interview, then that’s a win for the reader. Better that than ten questions with twenty-five to fifty word answers, and then a rote “Thank you, it was a pleasure” at the end.
Thank you, it was a pleasure.[Laughs]
Can you walk us through a day at Locus? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
There are different versions of days at Locus. Usually there’s somebody that’s scouring for news, and somebody else is going through emails. We also get buckets of mail from the post office, probably twenty to fifty physical books and ARCs a day. We get over two hundred titles that we list a month, and that doesn’t include galleys. We’re getting a lot of self-published stuff right now, but unless we have some prior knowledge about an author or there’s some other reason to pay attention to their self-published work, it really has to stand out or we don’t read it. Reading a self-published book turns us into slush readers, which we can’t be. There's just not enough time.
There’s also a lot of questions. I probably get asked a question every three to five minutes. And then, depending on when we are, we’re asking, “Do we have columns from this person?” or “Did we get these photos?” or news is going up on the website or people are laying out the magazine. It’s kind of wacky! We’re up in the hills in Oakland, in a no-shoes office. It’s casual, and people usually joke around in the morning. Closer to deadline we order lunch and all eat in together. It’s fairly collegial and happy—when not stressed.
Back in 2009 you mentioned plans to run Charles’ huge SF collection as a private library. What’s the current state on that?
We were hoping that when the economic problems of 2009 ended, advertisers would come back. But they didn’t. I mean, we still have some, and rely on that—it’s useful for them and great for us—but advertisers that use to advertise once a month now do it three times a year instead of twelve, and so on. So a lot of the efforts I’d hoped to put into creating a private library out of Charles’ collection for academics and researchers have ended up being redirected into keeping the magazine going. We’re doing a bit of restructuring this year, and we’ll be pushing for more donations.
We ran a Kickstarter in 2012 and got money for the preservation of archival material, forty thousand photos and letters and index cards typed by famous authors that you wish you had met. As part of the Kickstarter we had put in a stretch goal to catalog Charles’ collection, because I don’t have an accurate catalog of what we have on site. We have some thirty thousand volumes, but we don’t know exactly what we have. If you asked me, “Do you have this?”, I could hazard a guess but I wouldn’t be sure.
A proper catalog would be the first step towards a private library. I would love to do it. We had a plan to open it for research by appointment. I have other shelved ideas. Like a writer-in-residence program, because this is a house. People could come and live here for a month or two. Write while living at Locus. It would be cool!
Recently two auctions of items from the collection of Charles N. Brown were held to benefit Locus. How did they go? Are you considering more auctions in the future?
It was fine. Charles was an avid collector of stuff. He collected pottery and baskets and masks and statuettes. Everywhere he went he grabbed stuff, and he didn’t really care if it was a real antique or not. So we have all this stuff, which makes this a wonderful environment to work in, but it isn’t helping our mission. So we decided to call in an auction house to sell some of it off.
They came in and were very enthusiastic. We thought, “This is going to be great!” The next time they came they were a little less enthusiastic. In the end they didn’t actually take that much stuff. We made some money, which was nice, but Locus costs a lot a money to produce per month. I’d say that from the auctions we probably made a week and a half’s worth or running Locus. And I don’t have to worry about having 500 BCE ceremonial urns on the shelves anymore. At some point I think it’s going to be the right move to not be in this house anymore—as lovely as it is here—but to move to a proper commercial space.
The other auction was for his mystery novels. He also collected sea stories and historical fiction. We’ll probably sell those off too, because having that stuff is nice but doesn’t help us. The money would. But auctions aren’t a revenue stream. That’s what I’m more focused on right now, revenue streams.
Any plans for the magazine that you can share?
Right now we’re prospecting for new reviewers. I’m hoping that by next year we’ll have a dedicated young-adult column and potentially better coverage of epic fantasy.
There’s going to be some revamping on the website. Possibly a move to make a lot more content available. The plan isn’t fully fleshed out, but I’m excited by the idea of having the website match the actual magazine content more closely. The content might be behind a New York Times-style pay-wall, where you can read a number of articles and are then reminded that you’re not a subscriber. I think it would be a really good thing for us, because we have a ton of content, and too many people think that Locus is the website. It’s hard to explain to them that we’re not, unless they’re looking at the print magazine. So it would help to ameliorate that differential.
But, you know, there are always plans. In 2009 I was going to make a private library!
How do you spend your time when you’re not working on Locus?
Mostly I’m with my kids. I have two daughters, who are five and seven. When not with them, I like to swing dance. I started doing it a couple of years ago, and it’s good for me. It’s exercise and it’s social, and nobody knows who I am [laughs].