In April 2004, Sheila Williams took over the reins of Asimov's Science Fiction from longtime editor Gardner Dozois. Although this is the first time she's been in the top spot, Ms. Williams has been with the magazine in various capacities since June 1982. In addition to her work with Asimov's, she has edited and co-edited over 20 anthologies, the most recent being A Woman's Liberation: A Choice of Futures By and About Women, co-edited with Connie Willis. She is also the co-founder of the Isaac Asimov Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. Ms. Williams received her bachelor's degree from Elmira College in Elmira, New York, and her master's from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. During her junior year she studied at the London School of Economics.
CD: Okay, let's start out with some biographical questions. Where and when were you born?
SW: Springfield, Massachusetts, 1956.
CD: How did you first become interested in SF? Growing up, who were you favorite writers, SF or otherwise?
SW: My dad introduced me to science fiction. When I was five he read me The Princess of Mars, followed up by The Gods of Mars and Warlords of Mars. I've been hooked ever since. As a kid, I loved everything by Burroughs. I read everything else (SF and non-SF) I could get my hands on, too. Favorite authors at that time included Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Alexander Dumas, A. E. van Vogt. As a teenager, I discovered Isaac Asimov, Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, James Tiptree, Jr., Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Kobo Abe, Joanna Russ, Clifford Simak, Cordwainer Smith, Larry Niven, Philip Jose Farmer, and Poul Anderson.
My father read me Arthur C. Clarke's "A Walk in the Dark" when I was about seven. I was so terrified that I refused to read anything else by him for about ten more years. Once I did, I discovered I loved his work, too.
Non-SF favorites from my teens included Jane Austen, Mary Stewart, Virginia Wolfe, Emily Bronte, Daphne Du Maurier, Joseph Conrad, Trevanian, Alistair MacLean, and others way too numerous to list.
CD: How did you originally end up working at Asimov's? Had you always planned to work in an editorial position or was it something you stumbled into?
SW: Certainly not by accident. I came to NYC in 1981 because that's where the publishing jobs, and specifically the science fiction publishing jobs, were. I pounded the pavements, dropping off my resume and getting to meet people. Shawna McCarthy thought that she might have a full-time position for me on Science Fiction Digest, but when that didn't materialize, she passed my resume along to Davis Magazines' subsidiary rights director. The job was interesting, but not exactly what I wanted. When the Asimov's editorial assistant left, Kathleen Moloney—then the editor of Asimov's—immediately hired me as editorial assistant.
CD: When you're not reading manuscripts, what do you like to do for fun?
SW: My husband and I spent our first date at the American Museum of Natural History, and now that we live only 10 or so blocks away from the museum, we continue to spend a lot of time attending programs at the museum. I love New York City (although I'm still a Red Sox fan), and I love taking advantage of everything it has to offer—music, theater, dance, the neighborhoods, the restaurants, walking. When Tom Disch reviewed theater for the Daily News, I used to love attending shows with him. Unfortunately, he mostly moved out of the city, and I had two kids, so those particular opportunities came to a halt.
I spend a lot of time with my girls—one is ten and the other is twenty-two months, so at the moment they don't have too many shared interests. (Of course, I'm reading Queen Bees and Wanna Bees.) I spent four and a half years on the PTA executive board at my daughter's elementary school. This year, I ran the pledge drive that funded the science program at the school (my daughter attends an excellent NYC public school, but in these times of budget crises, it takes a lot of work to make sure that everything gets funded.)
I also love to hike and bicycle.
CD: Do you have any time for outside reading, and if so, who and what do you read?
I love books on popular science by people like Timothy Ferris, Dava Sobel, and Brian Greene. I like books on the English language, history, philosophy, and religion, too. I love P. D. James, A. S. Byatt, and Umberto Eco. I read SF novels by many authors, including Jack McDevitt, Charles Sheffield, Connie Willis, James Patrick Kelly, Allen Steele, Nancy Kress, Bruce Sterling, and Jack Dann. Listing what I like to read is actually limiting, because I find new authors, mainstream, nonfiction, and SF, to read all of the time.
CD: Many editors in the field are also writers. Do you have, or have you ever had, any inclinations toward that direction?
SW: I always wanted to be a science fiction editor, not a fiction writer.
CD: You've been involved with the Isaac Asimov Award for Undergraduate Excellence since its inception. With your new editorial responsibilities, will you still be doing this?
CD: One of the big subjects in SF circles in the past few years has been the declining circulations of the magazines. As Gardner Dozois and many others have pointed out, this is mainly due to outside forces in the magazine industry, but as an insider, is there anything you think the SF magazines can do to reverse this trend and boost circulation? Do you have any plans in this regard for Asimov's?
SW: I'm always looking for ways to promote Asimov's. In the past, I've arranged for exchange ads in the Ace anthologies and Star Trek books. Last year, I worked on an arrangement with scifi.com, where they ran 3 million impressions for Asimov's on their site. I hope to continue these relationships and work out others like them. I also hope to speak before interested audiences. In the past, some authors have volunteered to hand out subscription information when they did lectures. I'd like to encourage authors to continue to do so. I'm constantly looking for new ideas and new ways to make Asimov's a known entity.
CD: Ever since Gardner announced his resignation, there have been all sorts of rumors regarding his "real" reason for stepping down. Speculation runs the gamut from "He actually stepped down for health reasons" to "He was let go because of declining circulation." How do you respond to these rumors?
SW: Gardner says that he wants to go out while he's still on top of his game, "before editing the magazine becomes a chore rather than a pleasure, and before I become burnt-out and cynical. I'd also like to be able to pursue other projects, including perhaps finding the time to get some of my own writing done." As far as I know, his health is fine.
CD: Do you feel intimidated at all by Gardner's legacy at the magazine?
SW: Not really. I feel that, partly because I worked with Gardner, I am extremely well-prepared to step into this job. I can't imagine any better training for it. That experience combined with my own intense love of SF and SF magazines, and my own experience editing stories and working with authors, makes me quite well-prepared for the job.
CD: You've been involved with Asimov's now for over 20 years. During that time, what have you been most proud of? Do you ever look back at a particular story or event and just shake your head and say, "Wow, I'm so glad to have been a part of that"?
SW: I've been thrilled to be a part of the whole process. I'm glad that I discovered authors (at least as far as Asimov's was concerned) like Ian McDowell, Ian McDonald, Alex Jablokov, and Kandis Elliot. I'm delighted with the anthologies that I've created. I'm pleased that I've been the editor for people like Connie Willis and Judy Moffett. I'm proud of the Asimov Award that I co-founded with Rick Wilber. I'm also very proud of being responsible for James Patrick Kelly's "On the Net" column.
CD: What are some of the funnier moments you've had during your time at the magazine? Any weird/disturbing editorial horror stories you'd like to share?
SW: Just because you asked, I can't remember any. Of course, I was at the infamous dinner in Brighton, England, in 1987 where our party caused the waiter to quit in the middle of the meal—without telling anyone. We, and the restaurant, only discovered he was gone when I went to cancel the order for the second bottle of wine because it was taking so long for it to come. I can't remember exactly who else was there, but I know that the party included Gardner and Susan Casper, and Ian and Judy Watson, and James Patrick Kelly.
In 1986, I stumbled around on a Georgia beach—after trespassing through private property—with Jack and Maureen McDevitt trying to spot Halley's Comet. I don't think we ever saw it, but it was neat to be out at 3 am with Jack and Maureen. I had a much better view of Hale-Bopp up on a Florida hotel rooftop with Joe Haldeman.
I have a photo that Arthur C. Clarke sent Isaac of himself and his little dog Pepsi; Pepsi is in the process of attacking an issue of Asimov's.
I'm sure if I spend some time thinking about this, I'll come up with dozens of stories, but I have to get this e-mail off to you eventually.
CD: How does your editorial philosophy differ from Gardner's, and in what ways are they the same? Can we expect a radical new direction for the magazine?
SW: At the moment, I don't see any radical difference between my tastes and Gardner's, but I'm sure that they will be evolving. We both like character-driven hard SF the best, but we both agree that one can't fill up the whole magazine with those stories. I plan to run a few short and entertaining nonfiction pieces about cutting-edge scientific developments and SF's influence on popular culture.
CD: Can you describe the manuscript selection process at Asimov's?
SW: Nonprofessional manuscripts will be read by Brian Bieniowski first. The minute he reads something promising he will pass it on to me. I will be reading all of the professional manuscripts, as well.
CD: During your tenure at the magazine, what trends have you noticed in short fiction? As a corollary, do you see any exciting new trends bubbling up today? Where do you think SF is heading?
SW: Obviously, there's always been the trend toward incorporating the latest advances in scientific and technological advancement into stories. That's particularly true in biology and computers. Lately, I've seen a number of male authors convincingly taking on feminine perspectives—both from the point of view of characters and societies. I hope Charles Stross starts a new trend of humor in high-tech fiction. The humor in his stories adds a lot to my own enjoyment. I hate to predict where SF is heading because I know that it will immediately take a right turn and go somewhere else.
CD: Why do you find yourself attracted primarily to short stories rather than novels?
SW: A good short story is like a perfectly-cut gem. All the facets of the tale sparkle and they're all there because they need to be. I'm so acclimated to reading short stories that many novels seem bloated with extra wasted material. I'm always thinking "Oh, get to the point already."
CD: Here's one for all the aspiring writers out there: In your opinion, what separates an average story from a great one?
SW: Of course, the usual, good writing and innovative ideas. A good story must have more than one idea.
CD: What are some of the most common mistakes that you see from aspiring writers?
SW: Many aspiring writers underpopulate their stories, and often their viewpoint character strikes me as being a little too close to home. When the main character isn't the author him- or herself, it is often someone unlikable. This kind of unsympathetic character is hard for a beginning author to pull off.
CD: And finally, aside from your work at Asimov's, do you have any more anthologies in the works that we can look forward to?
SW: Not at the moment, but I hope to have some soon.
CD: Okay, I believe that covers everything. Thanks again for your time—I know you're a busy gal, so it's much appreciated. Good luck with the magazine!